And then there were none

Conspiracy of Interests: Iroquois Dispossession and the Rise of New York State
Laurence M. Hauptmann

If you went to grade school in NY in the 1970s you may remember that the 7th grade social studies curriculum focused on New York history. Sure, the Empire State’s past stands up to the full year treatment but it was probably about state chauvinism as well. I admit the memories are a little dim but there was all this triumphal stuff about the Erie Canal and opening up the Midwest and railroads and other wonderful things.

Back then we still played Cowboys and Indians. Most kids wanted to be cowboys. I always thought Indians had cooler weapons and clothes and so was happy to take the (perpetually) losing side. And so, in my typical, undirected fashion I turn to a volume acquired at random that captured my interest merely by being about two things I have long, pleasant associations with: New York State and Indians.

I think Laurence M. Hauptmann, a Professor of History at SUNY New Paltz, would probably have chosen to be an Indian, too.¬† In Conspiracy of Interests Professor Hauptmann sets about looking at the period in New York State history that resulted in its move from being a “third-rate colony” to the Empire State and the dispossession of the indigenous population that accompanied it.

If you did well in that social studies class I mentioned, that last sentence should bring you up short. New York third-rate? No way, we were always on the way to the top. With a bullet. What’s all this third-rate stuff? I’m not sure that’s ever answered, and it’s probably not terribly important either. Hauptmann’s focus is on the land developers–among them Phillip Schuyler–who were intent on transforming New York state and how they did not allow pesky details like local inhabitants, federal law or square dealing get in the way of their goals. The Indians, from the accompanying illustrations still garbed in the cooler clothes, were no match for the white man’s weapons of choice–legal documents and courtrooms.

The successes we celebrated in 7th grade were catastrophic for the Iroquois nations. Hauptmann makes a fairly strong case that once the decisions were made to develop the Buffalo-Albany corridor the Iroquois had no chance. He focuses on two of the Six Nations–the Oneida and the Seneca–to illustrate just how that occurred.

In previous posts I’ve noted the difference between microhistory and monograph. This is monograph in its purest form. The notes and bibliography section is almost as long as the text itself and most every sentence has a footnote. Hauptmann is an engaging enough writer that those superscripts blur in to the tale although when you question something there’s plenty to back it up. But it’s not the story of, for instance, salt. It’s a detailed look at an 80-year long pattern of actions that destroyed a people.

Yes, there are problems. (Aren’t there always?) Is conspiracy the right word to describe what happened? Maybe. Or maybe the the villains of this tale¬† shared a world view that resulted in complementary actions when pursuing their own interests. Does Hauptmann have a point of view? Absolutely, and that’s not a no-no given that he demonstrates his points with documentation. I don’t think, though, that I’ve ever seen the word nefarious used more often by any writer. And I think that if this was a conspiracy then so is contemporary finance.

In short, this was an enjoyable and educational read that might make you feel a little less certain about the way things are and the way they came to happen.

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