Indiana, PA - Indiana County

Betts recounts life of lesser-known Native American leader

by RANDY WELLS on January 06, 2011 3:00 AM

If asked to name a few historically significant Native Americans, many people probably would answer with Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, maybe Pocahontas or Sacagawea.

One name that might not be mentioned much is Cornplanter. And that's unfair, according to William Betts Jr.

"Cornplanter is probably the most important of Native Americans, with the possible exception of Joseph Brant," Betts said. Betts is a retired Indiana University of Pennsylvania English professor and author, and his new 400-plus-page biography, "The Hatchet and the Plow, The Life and Times of Chief Cornplanter," is now on sale.

Betts holds Cornplanter -- who was born in about 1750 in New York state and was the son of a Seneca woman and a Dutch trader father -- in high esteem for several reasons.

"First of all, he lived a long life," to age 84, Betts said. "Second, he was into everything. After the (American) Revolution, he was involved in treaty discussions with the Pennsylvania and national governments and with private people."

Joseph Brant, incidentally, who is also highly regarded by Betts as one of the most prominent Native Americans, was a Mohawk military and political leader and a contemporary of Cornplanter.

Cornplanter was a Seneca war chief who initially tried to remain neutral during the American Revolution. He eventually sided with the British.

He later became a negotiator in dealings between the colonists and the indigenous tribes, and he even met with Presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. Betts argues that Cornplanter was the most prominent and influential diplomat among the early Native Americans.

In gratitude for his assistance to the state, Cornplanter in 1796 was given 1,500 acres of land along the western bank of the Allegheny River, a few miles downstream from the southern boundary of New York state. In 1965, the new Kinzua Dam near Warren flooded the Cornplanter tract and created Allegheny Reservoir. Cornplanter's grave was moved to higher ground, and the state erected a marble marker in his honor the following year.

When Betts started research for his book on Cornplanter in about 1995, there wasn't another biography on the chief. Americans, generally, are more familiar with Native Americans of the western plains, partly due to their portrayals on television and in movies.

Western Indians, such as Sitting Bull, "had a lot of drama in their lives, and Hollywood made a lot of that," Betts said. "But Cornplanter was a key figure during the 18th century and into the 19th century. … He was much more important than you would think."

"The Hatchet and the Plow, The Life and Times of Chief Cornplanter" is being published by iUniverse in both paperbound and hardback versions. It will soon be available at The Book Nook in downtown Indiana. It is available from the publisher and and at selected Barnes & Noble outlets, and will also be a Barnes & Noble e-book.

Betts, who retired from IUP in 1991, is also the author of "Lincoln and the Poets," "The Evergreen Farm," "Slips That Pass in the Night" and "Bombardier John Harris and the Rivers of the Revolution."

Betts' biography on American Revolution soldier Gen. John Armstrong, of Carlisle, will also be available soon.

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