Indigenous Dispossession and the Founding of Cornell: Part 1 with Jon Parmenter

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Jon Parmenter, associate professor of history at Cornell University
Paul Fleming, Taylor Family Director of the Society for the Humanities and the L. Sanford and Jo Mills Reis Professor of Humanities


Paul (00:03):

Hello, and welcome to the Humanities Pod. I'm Paul Fleming and today we're talking about Indigenous dispossession, land grant universities, and Cornell University. It's a tough, uncomfortable, and emerging topic, but we have with us today the scholar who can walk us through it, Jon Parmenter. Jon is an associate professor of History at Cornell University and an affiliated faculty member of Cornell's American Indian and Indigenous Studies Program.

Jon (00:34):

This really becomes a question that if we understand the Indigenous nations whose lands built Cornell as original stakeholders in the university, what might that change?

Paul (00:49):

We're talking to him today about his recent blog post: “Flipped Scrip: Flipping the Script, the Morrill Act of 1862, Cornell University and the Legacy of 19th Century Indigenous Dispossession,” which is part of American Indian and Indigenous Studies program's ongoing Indigenous dispossession project here at Cornell.

Jon (01:09):

Hi Paul, thank you for having me

Paul (01:10):

It's great having you here. And this is really fascinating and difficult, uncomfortable material. So, let's get right into it. Your blog post is, as you yourself state, "sobering and arresting." And I would add that it's sobering and arresting both because of the history of Indigenous dispossession that lies at the heart of the land grant university, but also your meticulous, careful archival research in telling this history. And yet, as you say, and this is the part I find so shocking or surprising, it's a history hiding in plain sight. I mean, it's all there to be had, so tell us what is hiding in plain sight and what you're after with this project.

Jon (01:48):

Okay, well, what's really sort of at stake here is: New York State received one tenth of the public land granted by the Morrill Act of 1862-- the proceeds from which were intended to provide endowments for one college, at least, in each state, providing instruction in agricultural and the mechanic arts. The interesting part of the story is that the management of this resource from the federal government by Ezra Cornell and subsequent university officials yielded nearly a third of all Morrill Act land grant revenues generated across the United States to Cornell University. Cornell's story in the history of the Morrill Act is exceptional, in terms of the scale the profits and the innovative measures that were adopted to maximize the returns. I would say in many ways, Cornell is the story of Morrill Act dispossessions, and being a person who is employed by Cornell and who spent a number of years here, it was indeed quite sobering and arresting to come to terms with this realization.

Paul (02:52):

Partly, there's the recent article in High Country News about the so-called “Land-Grab Universities” by Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone. How did this jump start your research? How are you fitting into that research and why is this finally coming to light?

Jon (03:05):

Yeah, that's a great question. I think what's new here is really the consideration of this history, which has been well-known, but what Lee and Ahtone’s article did was situate it in its roots in prior Indigenous dispossessions. The public land that the federal government distributed with the Morrill Act came from violence backed dispossessions of Indigenous nations, usually by treaties, land surrender treaties, though, occasionally from direct appropriations, without compensation of any kind. The lands that Cornell specifically acquired and developed for profit, predominantly in Wisconsin, but also in Minnesota and Kansas, derived from nine distinct treaty surrenders signed between 1825 and 1851 with six different Indigenous nations. Today, our current count is there are at least 46 descendant communities that we've traced back to these surrenders in both the United States and Canada. So that's, what's new here. The High Country News article really jump-started this, and it is quite a fascinating piece of work. I would say it's probably one of the most significant pieces of investigative journalism related to native American history in the last decade. The authors conducted several years of research on the history of every land grant institution in the U S and connected the dots between the lands each land grant college received and prior Indigenous dispossession.

Jon (04:36):

What Lee and Ahtone’s piece does is sort of map out in the aggregate, the particular lands that benefited particular land grant universities. It's, it's sort of odd for people to say, well, wouldn't those be in New York? Well, no. I mean, what happened in 1862 was that the Morrill Act basically gave Eastern States that didn't have any public land, a resource that's known as scrip, which were effectivelycoupons, if you will, to go out into public land States, mostly Western States at that point of time and potentially select and ‘enter’ (which is basically the technical term for ‘take possession of’) a 160 acre chunk and use it, manage it for profit, or sell it, and use the money for a particular endowment.

So, what my interest in reading the Lee and Ahtone piece was, was to sort of understand that a little bit better, but when I started reading Cornell's internal documentation on this – there's been several very thorough audits of this particular process – it didn't add up. Because the difference here is that what Lee and Ahtone are basically tracing is every single piece of New York scrip, whether or not Cornell eventually selected and located it or not. So, what I've been most interested in is trying to find out and say, which are the tracts that Cornell went and acquired, and what particular dispossessions did they come from? And there's several resources that are available to us as scholars of American Indian history. I mean, every single treaty was basically logged by the federal government, maps were drawn and everything was sort of sorted out. So, you can very clearly say, that particular surrender is tied to this particular, what's called a Royce session. And then the Royce session will indicate which nations signed the treaty. And then the next trick is to say, given the nations that signed the treaty, where are those people now?

And a lot of times they're nowhere near where they were when they signed the treaty. In the case of several communities in Minnesota, a number of the people were essentially forced to flee to Canada after the Dakota war of 1862. So, I mean, these people are all over the place. So yeah, the interest I have in my own research is sort of looking at the specific areas of land in the United States that Ezra Cornell, and later Cornell University developed in a very extensive way for great profit to benefit the university.

Paul (07:29):

Yeah. And what's fascinating about the map is that when you look at it, you have New York state and Cornell would be in one center, you have the Midwest in another, but then where the action after the dispossession where the tribes, the nations landed is throughout the entire United States and up into Canada. This is, this is a North American story that we're telling by the focal point of Cornell. And when you mentioned Cornell you mean Ezra Cornell. What you're focusing on are not the scrips that he sold and had others then partition and deal with. These are the ones that he personally surveyed or had his people survey and individually pick out. So, it's just that part of the story we're telling, and that already is an expansive story.

Jon (08:06):

No, that's correct. And that's exactly the distinction that I think is very important to make. And that's what makes Cornell's story very unique in this process, because most of the Eastern schools that got the scrip didn't really know what to do with it, and didn't really want the hassle, and decided to just dump it on the market for a discount, and take the money. And, at the time it was free money from the government, [they] didn't really have the vision for it that that Mr. Cornell did. He did his homework, he wrote letters to people. He asked what could be done with this. And came to realize very quickly that there was a real opportunity here, for what you might call a long-term hold of the scrip located in timberland, predominantly in Wisconsin, that was kind of the last easy, relatively-speaking, profit frontier that existed at this point in time.

And he, he ran with it. I mean, he made personal trips out there. I think he went at least three times and, went on a surveying party with some of his agents. I'm quite convinced after the work I've done that this consumed the last eight years of his life, this was his primary focus. He devoted all of his energy to this, and he didn't live to see the returns that came in from this. But he certainly laid the groundwork for what became an absolutely incredible rate of return on land that was purchased for 60 cents an acre. He ended up, [where] the average yield was almost $10 an acre, and occasionally there were pieces that were sold for $80 an acre. So, I mean, these are quite incredible returns.

Paul (09:57):

And so, his gambit was actually: where the other states, in order to kind of quickly make the free money, they just dumped their scrips on the market, even though the market was saturated and, therefore, [they] were willing to accept the lower prices, whereas Ezra Cornell, his idea was to actually buy them himself. Correct? And hold onto them and manage them over time and wait for the saturation of the market to abate so that you could then wait for the right moment to find the right property, and then find the right time to sell it in order to maximize the profit.

Jon (10:28):

That's exactly right. I mean it's quite amazing to sit there and watch what went on here.

Paul (10:41):

Yeah, so the big contribution: What's new here is not the Morrill Act or ‘the great capitalism of Ezra Cornell,’ these types of things, the returns, his mechanism for turning such a profit, but the prehistory. In other words, the big question: where did that land come from in the first place? You know, what I find fascinating is that these treaties all seem to be 20 years, 10 years before the Morrill Act and Cornell and others were starting the land grant. In other words, this was recent history. This was not distant history at the time. And so, I'm wondering if you found while you're doing this incredible archival research, is there within the land grant universities [or] Ezra Cornell an acknowledgement of this relationship to the Indigenous dispossession of the land that is now being the basis for the land grant university?

Jon (11:26):

So far not explicitly, it's not something that seems to have registered with people. There are some comments here and there about native people still in the area, particularly in Wisconsin, but I've yet to sort of come across any kind of contemporary reflection on that particular question. It seems like most people who lived through the middle decades of the 19th century did not really understand the acquisition of public land as problematic in any way.

Paul (12:02):

You quote Margaret Nash and what she calls “Genesis amnesia” to describe this original forgetting or oblivion of the native lands. Can you elaborate a bit on this?

Jon (12:10):

It's a great phrase because what she talks about is how people forget about the basis and the foundation on which many of these institutions, not just universities, but others too, on which they rest. And that's really something that I think our university as a whole is going to have to begin to struggle with, I think pretty soon.

Paul (12:33):

Yes, exactly. So, I'm wondering if you can kind of get to this core piece then of Indigenous dispossession, and as you said, the big question of where the land came from. And, since you’re researching Cornell in particular, there's this the central tie to Wisconsin and the treaties with the Ojibwa nation. I wonder if you can tell us what was unique about these particular treaties vis-a-vis other treaties made with Indigenous nations?

Jon (13:00):

Yes. there are three main treaties signed with the Ojibwe, in what's now the upper peninsula of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. These are all signed during a period of treaty making in the United States that’s generally understood to be ‘removal treaties,’ where native people essentially surrendered much, if not all of their home territory and were relocated out beyond the Mississippi or out in areas where people thought the United States was never going to go. These treaties – there's three of them, 1837, 1842 and 1847, that are signed what the Ojibwe – are actually quite different because what they were trying to get was not the land that the Ojibwe were resided on for agricultural settlement, they were simply trying to get access to specific natural resources. So, the first treaty that happens in 1837 is known as the White Pine Treaty. The United States negotiated this simply to gain access to stands of pine timber on Ojibwe homelands.

Subsequent treaties also dealt with timber and minerals around the shores of Lake Superior, and in these treaties the Ojibwe were able to insist on rights of continued access to ceded lands for purposes of hunting, fishing, and gathering food. So, they're not really removal treaties in the case of the Ojibwe as they are with some of the other treaties that yielded lands that Cornell later developed. The United States did make one attempt to remove the Ojibwe from Wisconsin in 1850, when they scheduled the delivery of treaty promise annuity payments very late in the season at a distant location in Minnesota. And what happened is something that's known as the Sandy Lake tragedy, where an estimated 400 Ojibwe people, mostly adult men, were essentially trapped distant from home, in the onset of winter and a large number, an estimated 400 of them, passed away of starvation, exposure, and disease on the way home. And once that happened, there was no longer any will to try and remove the Ojibwe they remained in place. They eventually signed treaties that created reservations, but they've recently fought to restore their off-reservation hunting and fishing rights in a series of court cases that occurred during the 1970s and 80s. And so that's been an interesting story in relation to this too: many of those treaties have been used by the Ojibwe of what to acquire and reacquire and reassert rights in the present.

Paul (15:40):

I want to circle back to treaties later [in our discussion], because you have a very interesting take on them, but [I want to] highlight that point about the Ojibwe in Wisconsin. And first of all, I mean, for Cornell it's important: what you point out is that we're talking about 500,000 acres of land which is just a huge amount of land. And as you outline, it's not about the removal for agriculture and settlers, it's actually for resources, and this is an ongoing issue. And I wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about that?

Jon (16:06):

Well, in this case, it is sort of exceptional, and these were kind of innovative treaties at the time. They were experimental, you don't really see them happen in other places. And they were effectively, for the most part, I would say replaced by what are better known as ‘reservation treaties,’ where native people surrender a substantial portion of their home territory, retaining a small parcel of it, but aren't relocated anywhere. And that's really what ends up happening afterwards here. So, this was an experiment by the United States to acquire access to those resources at what was perceived at the time to be a very low cost. And as to what happened to the native people, I think most people living in the 19th century in the United States assumed that native people would either adapt to the civilization around them or disappear.

Paul (16:56):

Wow. And disappear meaning…

Jon (16:58):

Meaning just go extinct. You can look at the demographics statistics for what happens to native populations in the US in the 19th century. And people can be forgiven for understanding that to be a possibility: Native populations are diminishing steadily throughout the 19th century. It's really not until the first decade or so of the 20th century that you begin to see an uptick. They really, really suffer.

Paul (17:25):

Is that decimation – this is a little bit off-topic – but is that decimation tied to diseases, is it tied to being forced onto land that is actually not livable land?

Jon (17:34):

All of the above. It's a compendium of factors. Disease mortality continues to be very high. Native people lose access to subsistence parts of their economy. I mean, the Ojibwe essentially saw their entire ecology change as a result of what happened with the timber harvesting in Wisconsin. No one in 1837 imagined what was going to happen in the 1870s and 80s when the logging industry came in and stripped the place bare. The population increases in the 20th century. You'd begin to see the demographic recovery happened then; the 19th century is almost a steady line down when you look at the census figures, to the extent those can be trusted. I mean, there are under-counts, but you still see the trend as something that's indicative,

Paul (18:25):

Why don't we circle back to the treaties? I really encourage all the listeners to read this blog post. Again, it's complicated, it's worth several reads, but there's a lot there. At the end of your blog post, you talk about treaties, on the one hand, being terribly unjust and exploitative. I mean, they're essentially colonial documents at the end of the day. But you also point out their importance even today, perhaps, especially today for restoring respectful relations. And you just mentioned instances where the Indigenous nations can return to these treaties to assert rights today. Could give us a little bit of your take on treaties, particularly looking at this particular history, which is now right in front of us.

Jon (19:01):

Yes. I think what people often forget is that treaties with Indigenous nations are on an equal footing with all other treaties in the US legal system per article two, section two of the US constitution. The first treaties that were sent to the Senate for ratification under the new constitution were Indian treaties. Treaties were, and are, contracts that incurred formal obligations on the signing parties. And while they were exploited by federal authorities during the 19th century as a vehicle for acquiring land from Indigenous nations with relatively little thought given to the promises and commitments made to the nations who signed them, I think it's really a mistake to think of those treaties as broken or dead letters. I'm of the belief that the treaties actually provide a really useful model for restoring respectful relations. We need to go in and ask what aspects of the original treaties have not been fulfilled, what terms have been violated, and then think about how we can use a renewed process of negotiation to build new, mutually beneficial relationships that aren't focused so much on the rights each party retains, but more on the duties each party has toward the other to ensure a viable shared future.

That's really the spirit of what's going on here. So, in a sense, you look at treaties and say, ‘treaties got us into this situation.’ I think it's also the case that a treaty-like process can perhaps get us out of it and get us forward and moving in a direction where there's some kind of reparation of the relationships that have been violated here.

Paul (20:48):

One question that I raised earlier is: why is this coming to the surface now, this thing that's been lying in plain sight? And at the end of your blog post, you quoted a friend saying basically “Jon, what's the point of you digging all this up?” And [I add] this is really good, sober scholarship. You're not out to get anybody. This is scholarship with some real world, present implications. And I'm wondering, again, thinking both of you as a historian, and you and I working at Cornell, what does this means for us, both as scholars and as human beings?

Jon (21:18):

Yeah. Well, that's a great question. And I left that question in the blog essay because it was such a ‘cut to the heart’ kind-of question. And we alluded to this at the beginning, but, I continue to just sort of come back to it: One of the most interesting aspects of researching and teaching Native American history is that some of its most significant lessons are hiding in plain sight. Very little of what I've written to date is actually new. But my contribution, I think, has been to arrange this knowledge in a way that brings to light a greater sense of awareness of where the land that built Cornell University actually came from, and to encourage all of us here at Cornell to think more carefully about the implications of that fact. We've known for a long time that the income from the so-called Western lands fueled the operation of the university throughout most of the 19th century. Without it, it's very hard to see Cornell University surviving the turbulent financial decades, the last three decades of the 19th century. This basically got the university through that. We also know that the histories of the nations whose lands were taken to provide that income has been less rosy. When I began researching this, and looking into the general history of land grant universities, there was, I would say, a very high premium placed on land grant universities’ special role, as the ‘conscience of American higher education,’ about applying knowledge to solving real world problems, and making a positive difference in today's world.

And I think this goes right to that particular issue. Lee and Ahtone got the ball rolling, but I think this really becomes a question that if we understand Indigenous nations whose lands built Cornell as original stakeholders in the university, what might that change? And that's a conversation that's just beginning. It's something that we're trying to figure out how to approach. We've had some initial sort of contacts with the administration on this. And it's something that's moving forward. It's uncharted territory. I've never done this before, but I do think that what I've been able to turn up and present is fairly shocking stuff. Well, I had no idea that things went this deep and that not only that you'd be able to kind of connect the dots and as clear away as I think I've tried to accomplish.

Paul (23:52):

One last point to emphasize: normally, or at least to me as a non-expert, when I think of dispossession, I think of the lands that Cornell sits on. So I think of the Cayuga nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and that dispossession. I think what you're adding to the story – it's kind of what Marx would call the violence of primitive accumulation – is the public domain that ‘suddenly emerged’ and was there to be sold and never thought about where that came from. Where that original capital came from, in order to establish [Cornell University]. There's not just the land that we stand today upon, but actually the land that enabled the founding of the university and then the tentacles that stretched to the Midwest, to the West coast, up into Canada, up to today. This is an ongoing history, and I think opening up that much larger story is your fascinating contribution. As I said, it's tough, it's uncomfortable. And it's something we all need to grapple with.

Jon (24:45):

I agree. Again, this is not my home research base. I'm mainly historian of the Haudenosaunee people in the 17th and 18th century. But, because I've been unable to do a lot of that research during the pandemic, and this is opened up as an opportunity, I've had to sort of dive into some areas of scholarship that I wasn't really all that familiar with. And I think the one that really proved to be the most revelatory was the public land scholarship in the United States. A lot of this basically just talks about how vast chunks of territory came into the possession of the United States via treaties with foreign powers, like Great Britain, Spain and Mexico. So, you see things about the Treaty of Paris 1783, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the Louisiana Purchase, and things like that. What that misses entirely is that federal law required native title to be extinguished, that's the term, via purchase or military conquests prior to being open for legal settlement. So, the founding fathers were very careful to secure this power to the national government, as a means of ensuring a peaceful and orderly conversion of Indigenous people's homelands into the US national domain. They didn't want it being handled by individual states. They wanted it to be a centrally managed process. And they set in place a series of steps. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 really provides the blueprint for the way in which states are added to the union through a standardized set of procedures. So, this goes on throughout the 19th century. The particular treaties and surrenders that are mentioned in my blog piece that relate to Cornell are part of the story.

The story goes on into the 20th and 21st century, as people are now coming to terms with this in a new way, and thinking about it in a different sort of manner. And it's very interesting and exciting to be part of it because people have really, for a long time, just shut their eyes to it. It was a ‘fait accompli’ It was, ‘it happened so long ago,’ I mean, ‘what could we possibly do about it now,’ you hear all these things. And, and those are not satisfactory in many ways, because they often become just excuses for inaction or perpetrating the status quo. And I think that in this particular case, when you see the extent of territory that was taken [and] developed, and the profits that were derived from it, you really have to stop and look at it and say, ‘well, okay, something needs to be done here.’ Precisely what that is, I think is going to require a conversation with parties affected. I mean, it's, it's not our job to sit here and decide what should be done. I think that needs to be done through consultation, through conversations, through outreach, through circulation of knowledge. I mean, I think people need to know this stuff and, and I think that's something that's hopefully moving forward.

Paul (27:40):

Well, thank you very much for the conversation, Jon, this has been really illuminating and fascinating. I'm delighted to have had you on the pod.

Jon (27:46):

Well, thank you very much, Paul. I enjoyed it.

Paul (27:48):

And for the listeners, as Jon was just saying about talking to the parties affected: next week, we're going to be doing a second conversation with Michael Witgen, a member of the Red Cliff Band of the Lake Superior Ojibwe. He's a past director of the program for native American studies and a professor in the department of American culture and history at the University of Michigan. We've been talking today with Jon Parmenter associate professor of history at Cornell

The Humanities Pod is a production of the Society for the Humanities, introducing you to some of the new work, the current conversations, and the latest ideas of the humanists at and around Cornell. The Pod is produced by Tyler Lurie-Spicer. Our music is from the Continuing Story of Counterpoint by David Borden, performed and recorded by Mother Mallard’s Portable Masterpiece Company. Our thanks go to Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences, and the Cayuga Nation.

Cornell is located on the traditional homelands of the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ', i.e., the Cayuga Nation. We acknowledge the painful history of Gayogo̱hó:nǫ' dispossession and honor the ongoing connection of Gayogo̱hó:nǫ' people past and present to these lands and waters.