History: Was Benjamin Ferris One of the Good Guys?

Seneca Indians thought Benjamin Ferris was there to help, but he had an agenda.

The difference between a good guy and a bad guy? Sometimes, not knowing too much. Benjamin Ferris (1780-1867) of Wilmington was likely thought a good guy by the Seneca tribe. In the 1840s, Ferris and other Quakers helped overturn a fraudulent treaty that would have forced the tribe to move west of the Mississippi. As a result, the Seneca regained 53,000 acres.

What the Seneca didn’t know was that the Quakers had secretly collaborated with New York officials. Rather than reducing the size of the Senecas’ five separate reservations—the natives’ least-worst preference—the whites decided independently that the largest would be liquidated and sold to white settlers. As a result, the Seneca were to be concentrated in a smaller area, making it easier for white missionaries to reach them—something the Quakers desired.

“(Quakers Ferris and others) saw the Indians as a vanishing race who had to be led by the hand to civilization for their own good,” wrote historian Laurence M. Hauptman, author of Conspiracy of Interests. “Importantly, they did not see the loss of Tonawanda (Reservation) as a great tragedy, but a Friends opportunity to lead their charges to the ‘Inner Light.’”

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Born at Third and Shipley streets in Wilmington, Ferris was the sixth of Ziba and Edith Ferris’ seven children. At age 14, he was apprenticed to a Philadelphia watch and clock maker, a profession he pursued until 1813. Then, at the age of 33, he gave it up and moved back to Wilmington. Appointed city surveyor, he prepared real estate documents. Those professions seem to have left Ferris time for church activities, reading and writing.

“He became much interested in collecting and preserving such facts as he could obtain of the early settlement and history of Wilmington and its neighborhood,” wrote Delaware historian John T. Scharf in 1888. Ferris even learned Swedish in order to read the records of Holy Trinity (Old Swedes) Church. From all this came Ferris’ History of the Original Settlements on the Delaware, published in 1846. According to historian John P. Reid, Ferris was also an early preservationist, objecting to the demolition of old buildings and even the cutting of trees. He complained when a tree dating to the Dutch period was cut and the wood used for rifle stocks.

As a Quaker, Ferris was moderately strict. Described in one account as “somewhat liberal,” he tolerated music and other entertainments that appealed to young people. Yet, he never voted in a presidential election because the president is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

Ferris seemed to have absorbed Quakers’ concern for Native Americans, a trait of the sect since at least the time of William Penn. Because of that history, Indians generally trusted Quakers and often turned to them for advice. And so it happened that, in the early 1840s, Ferris was part of a Quaker committee that responded to a plea for help from the Senecas of New York.

In 1838, some real estate developers doing business as the Ogden Land Company had persuaded some chiefs of the Six Nations of the Iroquois, which included the Seneca, to sign what was termed the Treaty of Buffalo Creek. Some evidence suggests that the chiefs had been liquored up and bribed before they were persuaded to sign. In any case, part of the agreement was that the Seneca residents of the Buffalo Creek, Tonawanda, Oil Springs, Cattaraugus and Allegany reservations—all in the vicinity of Buffalo, N.Y.—would move to Kansas and Oklahoma. Of the five reservations, Tonawanda was largest, at about 65,000 acres. Buffalo Creek was second, about 53,000. The rest were much smaller.

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It was part of Democrat Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal program that had expelled the Cherokee from Georgia and ignited the Seminole wars in Florida. The Second Seminole War, which killed 1,500 U.S. troops and cost $60 million, was bitterly criticized by the Whig Party during the 1840 election campaign, and Indian removal had since become a discredited approach. Whig John Tyler came into office promising a different approach. Enter, the Quakers.

The problem with the treaty, as Ferris and his Friends soon discovered, was that the Tonawanda Seneca had never signed. Chiefs at other reservations had signed, so those reservations were lost. But the Tonawanda had not signed, so they had a case. A sharing sort of people, the Seneca preferred that all five reservations be reduced so that everyone could remain in their homes. “They fear, if all are concentrated on two reservations, there will be difficulties and jealousies among themselves,” said Cattaraugus Chief Samuel Gordon.

Whites, however, especially coveted Tonawanda. It was closest to Buffalo, to which the Erie Canal had brought commerce and many white settlers. No doubt Ferris and the Quakers packaged it all very well. Good news: Of their 120,000 acres, the Seneca could keep 53,000 after all. But, well, Tonawanda isn’t really the best place anymore, and you’ll be much happier over here at Buffalo Creek. Ba dah bum.

Ferris’ spin on this for Quakers back in Philadelphia was positive, if patriarchal: “The Indians will be more concentrated and consequently more favorably situated for mental and moral improvement, as well as for the support of schools and other institutions for the advancement of science, and the formation of habits essential to a state of civilization, than they have heretofore been,” he wrote.

But the Tonawanda Seneca didn’t buy it. They refused to leave, and Washington was no longer in a mood to use force. Finally, in 1857, the Tonawanda signed a treaty recognizing their right to stay on the land. They now run several casinos there. No doubt, they thanked Ferris for his efforts before he left.   

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