This article was originally published in Issue 9 of Malus. Copyright 2020 Melissa Madden. For a print version, please subscribe!
A Brief (and potentially erroneous) History of the Finger Lakes National Forest Apple Commons
by Melissa Madden
Last fall I wrote an ode to the abandoned orchards of the Finger Lakes National Forest (FLNF) and to its uncultivated food bearing plants. I seek to explain why this place is full of apples gone feral.
The Finger Lakes National Forest lies on the backbone between Seneca and Cayuga, the two largest of the Finger Lakes. Both lakes eventually open to the St. Lawrence Seaway via Lake Ontario. The 1954 construction and control of this immense hydrology connected the Great Lakes to the Atlantic Ocean, fulfilling a colonial dream of linking the interior of Canada and the United States with western Europe. On our ridge overlooking Cayuga and Seneca we can see far north and south, the sides of each lake graced by myriad gorges cascading home into these deep, long waters.
Cayuga Lake marks a distinct feature of our area, mirroring the spread of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy across the Finger Lakes and the Great Lakes region. We sit atop two of the Continental Divides, the St. Lawrence and the Eastern, and feed two watersheds. Rainfall on the north side of the watershed boundary enters the St. Lawrence Divide. Rainfall on the south flows into the massive Susquehanna River and down to the Chesapeake Bay through the Eastern Divide. Our waters run north and east and are home to powerful cultures who continue to inform our landscape.
The Finger Lakes National Forest itself is essentially a commons held in public trust by our federal government. I have heard many mistakenly call it State (New York) land, which has its own transition histories. I am specifically looking at the FLNF through a brief dive into currently federally controlled lands.
Before and concurrent with French, English, and Dutch colonialism, the Finger Lakes indigenous nations were woven together into the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy. These are the Six Nations: Onondowahgah (Seneca), GAYOGO̱HÓ:NǪʼ or Guyohkohnyoh (Cayuga), Onundagaono (Onondaga), Onayotekaono (Oneida), Kanien’kehaka (Mohawk) and Skaruhreh (Tuscarora). Please forgive and correct any misspelling or mistranslation.
The Confederacy’s 700-800 year old Great Law is “the first participatory and representative form of government in North America" (Mt. Pleasant, 2011). Iroquois agriculture “provided the foundation for the powerful Confederacy” built upon the polyculture of the Three Sisters (corn, beans, and squash) and such an abundance of fruit trees that the Seneca headquarters were “Apple-Town,” according to Elkahan Watson in 1791, just after the destruction by the new Americans. (Kerrigan, 2008). Many of the references cited in Jane Mt. Pleasant’s lovely video series “First Peoples, First Crops” discusses observations from 1535 along the St. Lawrence River from Jacques Cartier (the French explorer who “claimed” Canada for France). Cartier saw “village after village...surrounded by large fields of corn” with extensive grain storage facilities. One hundred years later, Mt. Pleasant cites this same observation by a Dutch explorer.
I reference all this for context. I do not claim to be a historian nor am I exhaustive. In my farmerly way, I commit to understanding the story of this landscape. I hope you will join me in retelling these most basic stories. And please, visit the important work being done by native teachers in our region to further your own education on the Confederacy. I share a few of my favorite regional resources at the end of this article.
Over the centuries, European intrusion into the area was continually rebuffed. In order to take ownership of the Finger Lakes landscape, European military leaders repeatedly attacked the production and storage resources of Haudenosaunee agriculture. During the 1760s French and Indian War (Seven Years War) the Six Nations sided with French Colonial interests against the British. During the American War of Independence The Six Nations (Iroquois Confederacy) was split, with most Nations siding with the English Crown. A few, mostly Oneida, sided with the American separatists. As punishment and to acquire land for settlement by a newly victorious nation, the Americans razed the Haudenosaunee territory. A significant death blow to Haudenosaunee land sovereignty was the 1779 Clinton and Sullivan Campaign, still memorialized by our own National Park Service and by the land grants that became homesteads for those who then planted apples–my apples, your apples, feral apples. My own former farm in Interlaken hosted an 1820s graveyard associated with that land ownership transition and every hedgerow teems with abandoned or seedling pomme.
Unable to defeat the Haudenosaunee in battle, Generals John Sullivan and James Clinton executed General George Washington’s decision to “destroy the Six Nation’s ability to wage war on the Americans”4between August and September of 1779 by systematically moving north from the New York-Pennsylvania border. Along the way, the Americans destroyed homes, villages, food stores and agriculture amounting to “160,000 bushels of corn and an untold number of other vegetables and fruit.” (See reference 4 below) In his article “Apples on the Border: Orchards and the Contest for the Great Lakes,” William Kerrigan writes that in 1791 [Elkanah] Watson found those Iroquois still in New York “eking out a living on bounded treaty lands–reservations that would continue to shrink in size during the next several decades as white settlers’ demand for these lands increased”. Watson himself was a land speculator with expectations of wealth based on indigenous loss. Regardless, I found Kerrigan’s presentation of his travels insightful into native food ways as they adapted to the “Colombian exchange” and beyond.
"… [colonizer legends] which insist that the first orchards planted in an area where the work of the legendary apple-tree-planter Johnny Appleseed (John Chapman). But the trees tell a different story. An awareness of Indian orchards invites us to reexamine the old narratives of European conquest of the New World. The presence of cultivated orchards of Old World fruit on the lands of many of the Indian peoples of the Great Lakes is evidence of one of the many ways in which Native Peoples of the region responded to the biological, military and political intrusions into their territory. The fact that these orchards have been largely ignored or forgotten tells us much about the powerful myths embedded in the popular story of white conquest and Indian dispossession in the Great Lakes region” (Kerrigan, p. 27).
With their homes, agriculture, and towns destroyed, the Haudenosaunee suddenly became refugees in their own land. What had been distinct Northeastern agriculture based on Traditional Ecological Knowledge was damaged by the displacement and disenfranchisement that was so clearly marked by the Clinton Sullivan Campaign. The 1780s and 1790s were full of treaties–the Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1784), the Treaty of Fort Harmar (1789), and the Treaty of Canandaigua (1794)–intended to provide for peace and “no further loss of land.” (See reference 4 below) Yet by the 1830s and the federal Indian Removal Act, “the United States ultimately used the military to relocate many Native Americans living east of the Mississippi to Indian Territory in Oklahoma.” (See reference 3 below)
Step Back, Think
It is at these moments of historical accounting that I pause to assimilate and visualize.
Imagine YOUR farm suddenly burned to the ground.
Imagine YOUR orchard chopped to pieces.
Imagine your homestead is irreparable.
And imagine then that you and your family are marched across the country to Oklahoma, with others of your people forced up north to Canada. Behind you are generations of tending destroyed in your parting.
Now imagine you have fought against these indigenous people. Imagine you are victorious against them and have also driven the English from your shores. You have a new nation to make and all officers are reaping the rewards. You are granted 600 acres in upstate New York on which to begin this next phase of your life, a free citizen of the sovereign nation of the United States of America. It seems right that you and your family will take this piece of land and make it your own home now. You begin to farm it as you know how, with your own ancestral customs in mind.
But all this does not sustain. Over time the scene changes again. Many of the small homesteads around you fall into disrepair, their owners gone to a nearby city. You are but a gravestone marking history. You leave your apples in remembrance.
Creating the Commons
Over the course of the late 1890s and early 1900s the United States revised its approach to land management and speculation through a series of acts that ended in creating the Bureau of Forestry and the nascent National Forest. The 1891 General Revision Act withdrew 50 million acres from the private domain into public trust, ostensibly to reform speculation and private enterprise. While “conservationist,” these Acts continued to view and approach the landscape through the lens of saleable commodities. Surface resources–timber, water for power and irrigation, grazing–and subsurface mineral rights were considered protected for future domestic use.
Then came the 1930s. Northeastern farming suffered, people fled. So many of these parcels fell into decline so near to one another that the federal government stepped in. Many farms were abandoned. The poorly drained soil of the Finger Lakes National Forest reverted to grass and tangled bushes. The orchards crowded together, with a few seedling trees extending their reach by feet at a time. Pastures became tangled masses of thorns and brush. And the federal government, looking to secure mineral rights, bought what had been gained through warfare and its associated military rewards.
By the 1950s, this backbone above the deep lakes was reconstituted into a sort of Commons–a whole from which they came. But they are invariably changed. There is the foundation of an old home, slowly rotting away in a clump of honeysuckle. The old wells dried up, surrounded by scattered stones once well dry stacked. Still, apple trees persist.
Now the federal government leases the FLNF land to a grazing association. The Hector Grazing Association mows once in late summer. No new seedlings successfully compete with the nibbling of the cows and the rough blade of the mower. The orchards no longer move out into the pastures, and the brush is slowly beaten back. May through November, cattle tromp through old homestead foundations. There is no trace of the kitchen garden and the gravestones sink into the clay and break into constituent shale.
The land is now public but feels managed for private enterprise. Among the grazing cows, a new breed of farmer appears seeking the mystery of abandoned apple groves. Most of the trees here are seedlings or root sprouts descended from old orchards but some are recognizable heirloom varieties. These foragers tend to be white, upper middle class, highly educated. I am one. We seek the art that is in the fruit that somehow is available to us.
I also try to answer these questions. Do I belong here? Why do I have a right to these apples?
My thinking is this. The apples exist in the national Commons, but I am aware that the existence of this Commons is fraught. I desire to make it right, and also, I love this fruit. I love the unexpected tannins, the tiny acid bombs, the delightful rose tinted streaking in our own ‘Pink Zebra’. I love wildly naming these trees through the joy of shared (re)discovery. I love that I could go to this place when I lost my own home. I love its solace during this time of Covid. I love the bounty of this landscape, despite its generations of troubled transition.
We know that our colonial heritage includes the destruction of another people’s place. We know we inherited this earth by decimating the Haudenosaunee’s ability to feed their families in their home places. As per the National Park Service:
"Perhaps the major victory obtained by the Americans was destroying yet another aspect of the Six Nations Indians’ ability to be independent and take care of themselves. For the remainder of the war, the Indians would be almost wholly dependent upon the British for food, clothing, and equipment. This also strained British resources, and in the end, the British would abandon their Indian allies. The British made no provisions for the Indians in their Peace treaty with the Americans in 1783. This left the Six Nations still defiant but ill-prepared to deal with the new United States." (See reference 4 below)
When I seek the wild apples, I try to keep all this in mind. I consider my own role in the flow of history, the use of this site and the displacement or disenfranchisement that exists even more strongly now for the indigenous people who call this home. We know the waves of destruction continued to rock each generation over the 20thcentury as treaties that offered “no more loss of land” were repeatedly violated or misconstrued, through continued land theft, misplaced taxation, routine displacement of entire families, and destruction of culture especially played out through “re-education,” sending native children into foster care or boarding schools.
Largely, this is a curious love story to accessible, healthy land. This is a song of gratitude for access to resources which allowed me to save and fortify myself. And yes, this is about apples and cider and trees and anything Malus. This is also a questioning of why I have such access and what it means when others are deprived. It is a questioning of the wild foraging paradigm in our cider culture, of our reverence for the wild trees and our own uses of their abundance.
The Onondaga Nation has a number of documents available online which recount the 1790s treaty process. The Nation lays out clearly their own current status within and without the federal court system to achieve land and ecological justice. I continue to seek the local letters of resistance, pleading, and negotiation throughout the 20th century and into the 21st where native peoples demand that the original treaties be honored. By finding these and understanding their requests, I begin see our opportunity as foragers and lovers of this land.
It is my dear hope to work within the paradigm of Open Spaces Cider towards reparations and reconciliation. At this writing, the Cayuga Nation fights for its own sovereignty, with a leadership crisis resulting in internal violence, supported by the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, as recently as February 2020 (please see more about this at the Finger Lakes Times, fltimes.com). I am unqualified to speak for any of my indigenous friends, as most of us stand by mutely, aware that years of failed land claims in the 1990s and 2000s (as late as 2013) have led to the recent violence, one portion of the Nation, led by federally recognized representative Clint Hafltown, against the traditional leadership structure filled by the sachem chiefs and clan mothers.
The Cayuga, more accurately the Gayogohono, are one of the Nations to whom this land is indigenously home. And yet, I have lived here for 20 years and know so little of their needs. Through recent work, I am reconnected and able to witness what I see as an internal conflict boiling over from years under the white colonial paradigm. I believe it is significant that the United States government finds itself on one side, likely allied against the very leadership structures that helped to inform Benjamin Franklin’s proposed ‘Grand Council’ in his Albany Plan of Unity (1754), the North American colonies’ first attempt to create a unified American government that was only eventually realized by the 1776 War for Independance.
So while I poke among the wreckage and gather the bounty of our national lands, I have work to do. I had an important conversation with my father recently about how the concept of reparations affects us. Yes, reparations are getting a sliver of their due at the national level around the enslavement of African Americans. This is igniting, creating conflagrations of fear fires. In a subsequent issue, I will dive into what I have learned so far for approaching and addressing our real need to share the love of healthy, accessible land.
1.Mt.Pleasant, Jane, Cornell University video series “First Peoples, First Crops” (2011), https://www.cornell.edu/video/playlist/first-peoples-first-crops-iroquois-agriculture-past-and-present
2. Kerrigan, William, “Apples on the Border: Orchards and theContest for the Great Lakes”, Michigan Historical Review, vol. 34, no. 1 (2008):25–41, www.jstor.org/stable/20174256
3. “Record of Rights, Rights of Native Americans”, http://recordsofrights.org/themes/4/rights-of-native-americans#indian-removal-act
4. National Park Service story of the Clinton Sullivan Campaign: https://www.nps.gov/fost/learn/historyculture/the-western-expedition-against-the-six-nations-1779.htm
5. Map the Native Land you are on: https://native-land.ca/
6. Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, https://www.esf.edu/nativepeoples/people.htm, featuring especially Robin Wall Kimmerer (‘Braiding Sweetgrass’) and Neil Patterso
7. Seneca Art & Culture Center at Ganondagan-Ganondagan State Historic Site, https://ganondagan.org/
8. Onondaga Nation: https://www.onondaganation.org/government/treaties/
9. White, Monica, Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement (The University of North Carolina Press, 2018).
10. Cayuga Lake Watershed Network: https://www.cayugalake.org/the-watershed/the-finger-lakes-great-lakes-basins/
This is the second in an ongoing series of articles exploring topics such as land rights and access, food sovereignty, cultivated vs feral crops, and systems ecology and interconnectedness through the lens of the GAYOGOH´O:NO´ lands in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State.
Melissa Madden lives in the Finger Lakes Region of New York State on Seneca and Cayuga Nation land. She has owned, farmed and run the Good Life Farm/Kite & String Cider/Finger Lakes Cider House for the past 12 years. She is now a roving small farm consultant, wild-forraged cider maker, and advocate of regenerative agriculture. Find her on Instagram @openspacescider or write to email@example.com.