Tomahawk Was Given to Seneca Leader “Cornplanter” by George Washington
Albany, N.Y. – The New York State Museum has announced that an 18th-century Native American tomahawk gifted to Cornplanter, the respected Seneca leader, by President George Washington in 1792 has been returned to the Museum’s collections and will go on exhibit in the State Museum’s main lobby July 17 through December 30.
Pipe tomahawks were significant objects of intercultural exchange in the 18th century and could be used as smoking pipes; smoking was a common ceremonial practice between parties after reaching an agreement. The meetings between Washington and Cornplanter, also known as Gy-ant-waka, in the 1790s eventually led to the Treaty of Canandaigua (1794), which established peace between the sovereign nations of the U.S. and the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy. For nearly 70 years this tomahawk was in the hands of private collectors, after being stolen from the Museum between 1947 and 1950. Thanks to the generosity of an anonymous collector, the pipe tomahawk was returned to the State Museum’s collections in June 2018.
“We’re pleased to put this historic artifact on public display so children and families can learn about Cornplanter and his role as a diplomat helping to establish peace between sovereign nations, an important part of New York history,” said Board of Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa.
“The tomahawk is a key artifact in our Native American ethnography collection, and we’re pleased it has been returned to the State Museum,” said State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia. “I encourage teachers to bring their students to the Museum to explore the history of the Native Peoples of New York and learn about the fascinating story of Cornplanter’s tomahawk.”
“We’re honored to exhibit Cornplanter’s tomahawk—an incredibly important artifact that speaks of Native American, New York, and American history and culture,” said Mark Schaming, Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Education and Director of the State Museum. “The State Museum has a large Native American ethnography collection that includes thousands of objects of art and material culture from tribes across North America. We’re grateful to the anonymous donor for returning this iconic artifact to the museum, where the public can once again view it and learn from it for generations to come.”
The pipe tomahawk entered the State Museum’s collection in 1850 courtesy of Seneca diplomat Ely Parker, who purchased it from the widow of a Seneca named Small Berry. On one side of the blade is Cornplanter’s name, Gy-ant-waka, and on the other side of the blade is the name “John Andrus,” possibly the manufacturer. Parker replaced the haft with one made of curly maple wood and silver inlay to reflect what the original haft may have looked like, based on descriptions from Small Berry’s widow, as the original haft had long since been replaced. Parker also added a brass plate engraved with his name on the bore end of the tomahawk.
On Tuesday, July 17 at noon at the Museum’s Huxley Theater, Dr. Gwendolyn Saul, curator of ethnography, will host a talk about the return of Cornplanter’s pipe tomahawk, the remarkable history of Cornplanter and the beginnings of the Museum’s ethnology collections. The talk is free and open to the public.
The State Museum is a program of the New York State Education Department’s Office of Cultural Education. Located at 222 Madison Avenue in Albany, the Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. It is closed on the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's Day. Admission is free. Further information about programs and events can be obtained by calling (518) 474-5877 or visiting the Museum website at www.nysm.nysed.gov.