Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Family Matters

· April 4th, 2023 · No Comments

By Michael Borsk

Michael Borsk is the author of “Conveyance to Kin: Property, Preemption, and Indigenous Nations in North America, 1763–1822” in the January 2023 issue of the William and Mary Quarterly. He is a PhD candidate in History at Queen’s University, Canada.

It seems that every town in North America has at least one founding father. Nearly a century ago, local historians of Rochester, New York begrudgingly claimed theirs: Ebenezer Allan. Few wanted the man they called “Indian” Allan, that “degenerate, polygamous ruffian,” who married Kyendanent and lived amongst her Seneca kin with his many wives and his many children over a hundred years prior.  

Little more needed to be known about the man, Lockwood R. Doty assured us “modern historians” in his 1925 History of the Genesee Country. “The matrimonial experiences of Allan,” he contended, “are a worthy record and a true index to the moral character of Rochester’s first settler.”[1]

Little in my article, “Conveyance to Kin: Property, Preemption, and Indigenous Nations in North America, 1763-1822,” (January 2023) covers the historical memory of Allan – though someone should! Yet it does focus squarely on what so unsettled Doty: Allan’s marital and familial relations. My introduction to the Allan family, including the children of Ebenezer and Kyendanent, Mary and Chloe, whose Seneca kin called them Cohowana and Soobuhtaha, happened by chance during a visit to the Queen’s University Archives in 2018. Eavesdropping on a class tour, I heard archivist Heather Home discussing a rather peculiar document in their collection that named the family: a 1796 deed for land.

Discovered at a local heritage site in 1973, supposedly languishing in a dark desk drawer, the deed to the Allans from the Anishinabek of the Deshkan Ziibi, or the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation (COTTFN), arrived at Queen’s the following year. There, it gained a name: “Treaty with the Chippewa, 1796.” Except that is not what it was. Back in 2015, Heather connected with members of the COTTFN’s Treaties, Lands, and Environment Department. Their preliminary investigations concluded that this rather impressive 27″ by 32″ velum sheet was not, in fact, a treaty. The next step, Heather explained, was to figure out what this deed was, now that we knew what it was not. Looking back, I can’t recall if it was me or she who transitioned us to ‘we’ in that short conversation. But I left convinced that Allan family tied everything together.

Over the next few years, my research focused almost entirely on the Allans. The work took on something of a genealogical quality; I still regret that the family trees linking ancestry and property, so helpfully suggested by one reader, never came to fruition. Every extant detail about Ebenezer, Kyendanent, Mary, and Chloe seemed crucial, dutifully recorded on my increasingly crowded timelines. Generous colleagues helped me to fill in the many gaps. During my first meeting with the Director of the COTTFN’s Treaties, Lands, and Environment Department, Kelly Riley, and his colleagues, Victoria Deleary and Brandon Graham, I learned that an 1821 survey map existed with Chloe’s name on it, which ended up in my eventual article. We later found a similar map with Mary’s name on it. Collaboration made even the smallest revelations about the Allans feel exciting.

Plan of the Township of Caradoc, County of Middlesex, 1821. Chloe Cooper’s name appears near the river in the image.

Details like these, I knew, could make or break an argument. But as I learned, they could rarely substitute for one. Early drafts of my article used conveyances to the Allan family from their Seneca kin in the Genesee Valley and their Anishinaabe kin along the Deshkan Ziibi to weigh in on questions of property, preemption, and power in early North America, without giving the adequate context or answers. At a (pre-COVID) conference dinner, a senior scholar kindly asked me, “do you think there are many more?”  How I wished he was talking about the food in front of us, not about other families who made claims to property in Indigenous lands through claims to kinship with Indigenous nations. I didn’t know. But I felt that my article, such as it then was, required me to have an answer.

Stepping back from the Allans allowed me to look past their family tree and see the wider forest. Further research showed that the conveyances to the Allan family from their Indigenous kin formed part of a longer, legal debate about whether Indigenous nations were the objects of the restrictions imposed by preemption: the exclusive ability of the sovereign to acquire Indigenous land through treaties. By beginning my article with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, rather than the American Revolution, I could trace how crown, and later federal, interpretations of preemption differed and ultimately diverged in response to conveyances between kin. By linking the conveyances to kin made by Seneca and Anishinaabe leaders in the 1790s to ones made nearly three decades earlier by Cherokee and Mohawk leaders, I could appreciate – and explain – why the Allans were worth distinguishing from similar cases.

Adding more families to my article was easy. Expanding my conception of the ‘family’ proved a little harder. Though I read deeply in the secondary literature on kinship as an organizing principle in Indigenous societies, I struggled to draw on its insights to consider the motivations of those Indigenous leaders who made conveyances to their kin, particularly where their actions, often without explanations, were what I had to analyze. Thankfully, WMQ editor Josh Piker and my anonymous readers saw more ways than one to do just that. A lack of certainty, Josh reminded me, shouldn’t stop us from weighing the possibilities. Ironically, that push led me to see something in those old timelines that I had missed before: the written version of the conveyances I discussed almost always occurred after the original oral agreement was either rejected or transgressed. These deeds, I came to realize, bound land and the individuals they named to Indigenous laws and governance. If chronology matters, then it seems worth considering what might otherwise seem counterintuitive: Indigenous leaders deliberately and strategically conveyed property to their kin to restrain men like Allan and resist dispossession.

With my article published, I found myself a bit relieved that the Allan family appears only briefly in my dissertation on land, law, and surveying in the Great Lakes region. I’ve spent enough time thinking about them. Longer, I suspect, than Doty would have liked. Yet finishing this article has convinced me that it is worth whittling those dense social relations we call property and family down to a single, unifying question: to whom do you belong?

I can think of a lot more to say about that.

[1] History of the Genesee Country (Western New York), ed. Lockwood R. Doty, Volume II, (Chicago: The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925), 669.

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