New York’s canal building boom and the urban explosion that it triggered dramatically accelerated the dispossession and disruption of traditional life ways of the region’s Native Americans. This process had been initiated already by the introduction of European trade, diseases, colonial wars, the American Revolution, and encroaching settlement by non-natives.
Early years of the canal era coincided with a period of state and federal policies that promoted “Indian removal” from developing portions of New York and other eastern states. Native peoples were sent to reservations in comparatively isolated portions of those states and outlying territories in the American Midwest.
By the peak of New York’s canal boom in the 1840s and ‘50s, the Erie and Champlain Canals ran through portions of the Mohawk ancestral homeland. Oneida territory was crossed by the Erie running east-to-west across the Oneida (Great) Carry and by the Black River Canal running north, the Chenango running south, and a number of shorter waterways such as the Oneida Lake Canal. The Erie and Oswego Canals ran through Onondaga territory. The Erie and Cayuga-Seneca Canals ran through country once controlled by the Cayugas. The Erie and Genesee Valley Canals ran through the very heart of the Seneca Nation. The state condemned portions of the Seneca’s Oil Spring Reservation between 1858 and 1871 to build Cuba Lake, a storage reservoir for the Genesee Valley Canal.
The first boat to transit the full length of the Erie Canal, carrying Governor DeWitt Clinton and a party of dignitaries from Buffalo to New York Harbor for the “Wedding of the Waters” ceremony in the fall 1825, was called the Seneca Chief. The name of the vessel was only one of the ironies in the procession. Clinton considered himself an authority on Iroquois; in an 1811 speech before the New York Historical Society, when Clinton was mayor of New York City and a newly appointed canal commissioner, he predicted that “before the passing away of the present generation, not a single Iroquois will be seen in this state.” In this case, Clinton was not prophetic. The land speculators, politicians, and government officials who worked to remove the Iroquois from New York never fully succeeded.
There are more members of the Six Nations in the state today than at the end of the Revolution, although those who reside on reservations are often far from their ancestral homelands. While New York’s canal corridors are lined with sites of ancient and historic Iroquois villages, many of the descendents of those communities now live in distant portions of New York, the Midwest, and Canada.