Cornplanter's tomahawk, gifted to him by President George Washington, was stolen decades ago
ALBANY — An engraved pipe tomahawk, gifted in 1792 from President George Washington to a Seneca chief with ties to Canandaigua, is back at the New York State Museum in Albany.
The treasure, given to Seneca Chief Cornplanter — who two years later signed the Treaty of Canandaigua with Washington and others — was stolen from the museum nearly 70 years ago, said Gwen Saul, curator of ethnography.
She said she suspects the gift was made in Philadelphia, the nation's capital at the time.
“In the 1790s, there was something like seven meetings between George Washington and this group of Six Nation leaders that included Red Jacket and Farmer's Brother,” said Saul, noting she is doing more research. “The American Revolution threw chaos into the various indigenous peoples of New York. Part of the reason to have meetings with Washington in the 1790s was to assert sovereignty and try to protect the sovereign land and make sure there was an agreement with the Americans.”
The talks led to the signing of the Treaty of Canandaigua in 1794 in Canandaigua, establishing peace between the sovereign nations of the U.S. and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy.
Also among the signers was Red Jacket, another Seneca chief for whom many buildings in western New York are named, including schools in the Machester-Shortsville Central School District.
Around 1810, Cornplanter had a dream in which it was later revealed he needed to get rid of his possessions, Saul said Ely Parker told the Board of Regents in 1850 when he gave the tomahawk to the New York State Museum, founded in 1836.
She said Cornplanter had gifts from various leaders, including Washington and John Adams, that he was advised to get rid of to restore his peace of mind.
Parker relayed Cornplanter gave the pipe tomahawk to his friend Small Berry, his successor. Parker had purchased the tomahawk in 1836 from Small Berry's widow, who was dispersing her husband's possessions within the community.
She described to Parker how the original handle had been beautiful with silver inlays, so he replaced the plain wooden haft on the tomahawk he bought that included Cornplanter's name — Gy-ant-waka — on one side of the blade and “John Andrus” — possibly the manufacturer — on the other.
Parker had a new handle made of curly maple and silver inlays to reflect what the original tomahawk may have looked like and added a brass plate with his name on the bore end.
Pipe tomahawks were significant objects of intercultural exchange in the 18th century and could be used as smoking pipes, according to a release from the New York State Education Department, which runs the museum program through its Office of Cultural Education.
Smoking was a common ceremonial practice between parties after reaching an agreement.
The tomahawk will go on exhibit Tuesday through Dec. 30.
“We're pleased to put this historic artifact on public display so children and families can learn about Cornplanter and his role as a diplomat helping to establish peace between sovereign nations, an important part of New York history,” Board of Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa states in a release.
“The tomahawk is a key artifact in our Native American ethnography collection and we're pleased it has been returned to the State Museum,” stated NYSED Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. “I encourage teachers to bring their students to the museum to explore the history of the native peoples of New York and learn about the fascinating history of Cornplanter's tomahawk.”
Mark Schaming, deputy commissioner of Cultural Education and director of the State Museum, called the tomahawk “an incredibly important artifact” the museum is honored to exhibit.
“The State Museum has a large Native American ethnography collection that includes thousands of objects of art and material culture from tribes across North America,” he said. “We're grateful to the anonymous donor for returning this iconic artifact to the museum where the public can once again view it and learn from it for generations to come.”
Saul said the tomahawk was stolen from the museum sometime between 1947 and 1950. She said there was no report of it being stolen at the time, but a note indicated a lock needed to be replaced on some display cases because some items were missing.
She said some researcher had come to look at the tomahawk and take pictures, but it is known he did not take the artifact.
“The first appearance of it after it was stolen was at an auction in 1980,” Saul said. “It appears in an auction flyer without the engravings on the blade that would really have identified it.”
She said it had been in the possession of Oglivie Davis, an avocational archeologist known to be very unscrupulous with an attitude of “finders keepers” who had taken things from other collections.
“He passed away and the estate house put it up for auction with many other of his collections in 1980,” Saul said. “Since 1980, until June, it's passed through more than seven different people and we don't have records of who all of these individuals were.”
Saul received a letter from a Northwestern law firm in April, notifying the museum it had an anonymous client who might know the whereabouts of a pipe tomahawk the museum may have once owned.
“I was very surprised,” she said. “I knew exactly what object they were talking about. I was also very skeptical this would work out.”
Much to her surprise, the piece arrived on June 21, exactly two months and two days later.
“They donated it,” she said. “I'm really grateful that it came back. It's really amazing that this has been returned to us, especially when you look at objects of this historical significance that go up for auction. It's almost unattainable to get it back. We've notified our Seneca friends. They're aware it's back.”
Saul said she looks forward to working with the Seneca Nation of Indians and possibly loaning Cornplanter's tomahawk out to the new Seneca-Iroquois National Museum Culture Center, opening in August in the Cattaraugus County city of Salamanca, most of which lies within the Seneca's Allegany Indian Reservation.
“I personally would like to see it travel back to Seneca territory,” Saul said.
She has been with the State Museum for two years and based a lot of her research on that of a former staff member, George Hamell, whom she said wrote a thorough account of the tomahawk and was trying to trace its whereabouts.
Hamell retired from the State Museum in October 2007 to become the curator of the Rock Foundation Collection at the Rochester Museum and Science Center.
Cornplanter died in 1836 and was buried on what was known as the Cornplanter Tract in western Pennsylvania, given to him and his heirs "forever" by the federal government, but his remains and those of several others were relocated to higher ground in Corydon, Pennsylvania in the mid-1960s to make way for the Kinzua Dam that left the tract flooded. Many of their descendants were moved to the Allegany Reservation.