A Peculiar Status: A History of Oneida Indian Treaties and Claims: Jurisdictional Conflict Within the American Government, 1775-1920

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Ralph L. Ketcham


Traditional land, Iroquois tribes, Compensation

Subject Categories

American Studies | History


This study examines the evolution of the tripartite jursidictional conflict between the United States government, New York State and the Oneida Indians. This special aspect of American Indian policy focuses on the treaties and claims for Oneida land.

After the Revolution, New York took the initiative in Indian affairs by concluding treaties with the Oneidas and other Iroquois tribes, increasingly dispossessing them of their traditional lands. While the United States insisted on having the exclusive right of treatymaking with the Indians, it refrained from interference in New York. The Oneidas, finding that no support was forthcoming from the fledgling American government which they aided in the Revolutionary War, resorted to selling parcels of their land through treaties to New York State for cash compensation. By selling land to save themselves, the Oneidas discovered that the land cessions, instead of providing relief, further diminished their chances of recreating their pre-Revolutionary existence.

Treaties led to extreme disruption, instability and factionalism among the Oneidas, and yet there always remained a sense of tribal identity, collectively-held land, and self-determination. There were those Oneidas who expressed dissatisfaction, sometimes with the terms of the treaties, at other times with the white failure to live up to terms of the treaties, or with the legitimacy of the treaties themselves. These expressions of Oneida dissatisfaction characterize the various claims which arose in the mid-nineteenth century and continued into the twentieth century. These claims over land suggest that the Oneida frontier of western New York never fully receded. Instead, the frontier condition persisted in an inter-ethnic sense, with the Indians representing a counter-cultural force to the Anglo-American mainstream.

Roots of the conflict lie in the colonial period when the Indians tried to maintain their powerful status while the English government sought to centralize its administration over the colonists and the Indians. It introduced a boundary line in 1768 which the Oneidas expected to be respected by the new American nation following the Revolution. The federal government, however, did not assume full control over Indian affairs, allowing New York State to conclude land transfers with the Oneidas. Though the federal and state governments appeared at odds in principle over Indian jurisdiction throughout the confederation and early national periods, federal inactivity and state initiative combined to weaken the Oneidas by diminishing their landholdings.

Federal and state policies converged in the early nineteenth century. The emergence of a removal policy in New York found federal, state, speculative and missionary interests all working in concert. At mid-century the Oneidas had become a decimated group, and, ironically, found the treaties their best vehicle for making claims for recognition, additional compensation, and land.

This study concludes: the United States has had the authority to assume exclusive leadership in Indian affairs but, for various reasons, has been unwilling or unable to assert that authority; New York has consistently assumed the lead in Indian affairs despite questions about its authority to do so; the Oneida tribe has been plagued by factionalism from the colonial period to the present and yet its members all share the potentially unifying force of claims based on questionable state treaties and on federal treaties whose terms have not always been fully met by the United States. Finally, the Oneida situation represents a microcosm of tripartite jurisdictional conflict present throughout the eastern United States.


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