Most town histories of Geneseo begin with a paragraph or two about the fact that the Senecas inhabited this land prior to European colonization, and these histories then simply discuss the arrival of the Wadsworth brothers around 1790. However there is clearly a longer, more complex story between the Senecas living here, and the Wadsworth brothers arriving.
Every town that took over native land has a generally accepted myth, which describes how the land was transferred from natives to settlers. In many of these myths, the natives just disappear at a certain point. In Geneseo that point was after the 1797 signing of The Treaty of Big Tree.
Legend has it that in 1779, during the Revolutionary war, George Washington sent Generals Sullivan and Clinton on an “expedition…against the hostile Indian tribes of the north” (Norton, V), who were allied with the British against the colonies. Generals Sullivan and Clinton used a “scorched-earth policy,” meaning they entered native villages and burned all the homes and fields to the ground, which would force the natives to move off of the land that the colonists wanted to claim. Doty writes, “As a measure of future security to the settlements it fully accomplished its object; this attained, red men and white alike briefly quit the region; the former, save as a broken remnant, never to return” (Doty, 22) Many of the natives retreated and took refuge at a fort in the north.
The history of the Geneseo region is quiet for a few years, until Col. Jeremiah Wadsworth bought the land and sent his two younger relatives, James and William Wadsworth, to cultivate the land in 1790. They are considered the first settlers of the Geneseo area, and many buildings and streets around the town were given the Wadsworth name.
In 1797 the Wadsworths acted as representatives for the federal government at the Treaty of Big Tree. This treaty was paramount to the European settlement of this area, because the treaty effectively robbed the Senecas of the rest of their land in New York State, except for their reservations.
“…One other piece or parcel at Big Tree, of two square miles, to be laid out in such a manner as to include the village, extending in breadth along the river one mile…”
-Treaty of Big Tree
The myth of Geneseo then is that after 1797 and the Treaty of Big Tree, natives in the area just disappeared. Effectively, the story says that during the Revolutionary War Generals Sullivan and Clinton burned down all the native villages, the natives fled to Canada or Buffalo or Wisconsin, and any that remained were robbed of their land in the following decades through treaties with the state and federal governments, and European encroachments. …
Doty, Lockwood R. History of Livingston County, New York. W. J. Van Deusen, Publisher. 1905
NORTON, A TIFFANY. HISTORY OF SULLIVAN’S CAMPAIGN AGAINST THE IROQUOIS: Being a Full Account of That Epoch … (Classic Reprint). FORGOTTEN BOOKS, 2015.
Wadsworth, H. A. Two Hundred and Fifty Years of the Wadsworth Family in America Containing an Account of the Family Reunion, at Duxbury, Mass., September 13, 1882, and a Genealogical Register, Prepared Expressly for This Work. 1883.
So, how did SUNY Geneseo get established here, and what is it like to live there now?