On the Trail of the Haudenosaunee

Radcliffe fellow Alyssa Mt. Pleasant is uncovering the history of Buffalo Creek
Alyssa Mt. Pleasant. Photo by Diana LevineAlyssa Mt. Pleasant. Photo by Diana Levine
By Sarah Sweeney

GROWING UP IN SYRACUSE, New York, Alyssa Mt. Pleasant was always cognizant of her hometown’s location within the traditional homelands of the Onondaga Nation. Mt. Pleasant is Tuscarora on her father’s side, and that, coupled with a love of history, led her to Barnard College’s History Department, where she was in the right place at the right time.

An ethnic studies movement was taking place within the academy, and Mt. Pleasant recalled feeling like she could “be the change that I wanted to see,” which meant becoming a professor and “teaching, researching, and writing about American Indian history and offering the types of courses and books that I wished I had access to.”

As a Radcliffe Institute fellow, Mt. Pleasant has immersed herself in researching and writing her first book, a chronicle of the Buffalo Creek Reservation between 1780 and 1825. Widely glossed over in literature about indigenous Americans, Buffalo Creek was an important settlement within the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) confederacy and its political center during this time. It was a key place to conduct diplomatic negotiations, as well as internal confederacy business.

“My focus is the ways in which Haudenosaunee people worked to maintain this particular reservation as a distinct Haudenosaunee place in the tumultuous post-Revolutionary War years and the early American republic,” said Mt. Pleasant.

Today, there are eight Haudenosaunee reservation territories in New York State. And while the common trope about American Indians in popular culture and popular histories is declension, or decline, Mt. Pleasant seeks to showcase “the work that the Haudenosaunee undertook, the challenges they faced in this uncertain time, and the ways in which they managed to maintain their territory, and maintain their social, political, economic, and spiritual practices in the midst of growing pressures from this neighboring settler colonial nation.” One of those pressures included the presence of missionaries, which the Haudenosaunee allowed to live among them as teachers.

Mt. Pleasant’s two Radcliffe Research Partners—Soraya Shockley ’19 and Dara McDougall ’14—proved invaluable to her project. Shockley mined newspapers and uncovered articles on the first Christian wedding on the territory , while McDougall gained special access to the Peabody Museum’s collection of Haudenosaunee material culture.

“This Christian marriage is something that shows up in records that the missionaries created, but it was also widely publicized as an achievement, a milestone in the missionaries’ work in ‘civilizing’ these native peoples,” said Mt. Pleasant. “The so-called civilization project is a major concern of mine, so it was exciting to see Soraya uncover this additional level of documentation.”

While many history books can be dryly academic, Mt. Pleasant is writing an engaging book for a general, crossover audience.

“I’m pushing back against that declension narrative, which not only dominates general perception but also continues to influence historical scholarship,” she said. “I’ve often taught ‘Indians 101’ to my fellow fellows. And that has helped me think about the ways I need to tell this story for a smart, interested general audience.”

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