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Forward: Why Are These Letters Important?

Erastus Letter from 1816

This collection of 20-odd letters and documents having once belonged to Erastus Granger-Indian Agent, Collector of the Port and Genesee County Judge-represents several things. At the very least it represents a genuine, collection of nearly 200 year-old letters. Who owns or has access to such things? The sheer weight of their accumulated age alone makes them valuable. We live in an age where this year's latest fad is old by next year; its perceived value obliterated by time, and a small computer chip's ability to get the job done, faster and more efficiently than last year's model. The software grows obsolete, gets quickly thrown out or forgotten.

These letters challenge such notions. They reflect another place, another time, a different milieu that grows more distant as each sheath on the Calendar is torn away while our modern, compartmentalized and computerized Universe speeds off into an increasingly-data-driven future. These letters mirror a dimension of time and experience in which there wasn't even the existence of heat and light as we now know them. Homes were heated only by fire and the sun. Electric lightbulbs were still only a 'filament' in someone's creative mind, thus candles and whale-oil lamps briefly dimmed the grasp of night and darkness. There were virtually, NO ROADS (as we presently think of what 'roads' are) then extant. New York State, beyond the growing city of New York, was really not much more than one great, big forest that grew even more dense as one moved further westward. Wolves and other wild animals still roamed huge areas of western New York, making night travel downright dangerous. Automobiles were almost a century away from changing the social fabric of western society which meant the horse was still an icon of day-to-day life. In other words, Granger's documents were written within a paradigm of existence that we can now only guess at.

People were born into, and lived amidst conditions swarming with disease, pestilence and an early death. The average life-span was less than 50 years and the lack of modern medical care and knowledge filled the graveyards with the bodies of the infirm, the sickly, and especially those of children. [Editor's Note: Granger managed to live to 61 years of age] Childbirth was still often a gruesome spectacle. There was no culture of "sports" and its attendant hero-worship. There were no 50 United States. There was no gut feeling that somehow the United States was the most powerful country in the world. Instead, in the years leading up to the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the U.S., this country was a loosely-connected, series of mostly coastal states, ranging up and down the Atlantic Coast, looking more to England as a source of light and culture rather than to itself.

Consequently, the gnawing sense of 'manifest destiny'- soon to be articulated by President James Monroe in the 1820s - allowed for Americans to see the Indians as either impediments to an vaguely - felt "destiny", or as friends/companions to be nurtured, contemplated or even "converted" (as many tried to do). Some chose the former, some chose the latter, with a large majority going along with whomever happened to have the power to decide in Washington.

It's hard to say when common decency ran out and when the urge to deal honestly and straightforwardly with the American Indian ran out with it. Suffice to say, that certain individuals, whatever their previous opinions and motivations, succumbed to the simple task of just doing their job well; of soldiering on despite whatever the political currents may have been. In the case of Erastus Granger, there is not a world of information at hand to decide what he really thought of the Indians. Or politics. Or religion. Or whatever.

On the other hand, he was the PostMaster, a Judge and an Indian Agent in the tiny little collection of huts and barns that was "Buffalo Creek" from 1804 until 1818. From all available written records - there were no such things as tape recorders, radios, dvds or even mono record-players - Erastus Granger was just one of those people that did his job. He seems to have made no enemies of a group of people who would later lose just about everything. He seems to have not made any enemies anywhere. We found no reports (as of this writing) that libel/label him as either cruel, dishonest or even unfair in his dealings with the Sencas. (although one may construe the February 24, 1817 letter from the Seneca to the Secretary of War as disproving that hypothesis) What can be found are several documents; mostly letters to various individuals, and letters from various individuals. They reveal an individual who tried to get more money and supplies for poverty-stricken, diseased people (the Senecas) who'd begun to lose their means of livelihood long before the start of the War of 1812; they reveal somebody who stayed to do his job for ten years in a small-if growing-backwater would come to be known as Buffalo, NY.

Perhaps its safe to say, that Granger-like many of his time-had little illusions about the kind of tenacity and perseverance needed to survive in those days. The concept of death and dying at an early age was commonly accepted in those times which pre-dated the introduction of things like anasthesia, pennicyllin and simple aspirin. One gained purpose by swallowing the fear and indecision by simply doing what needed to be done. And, on the other hand, the Senecas, left devastated by a lack of immunity to the white man's diseases, atempted to do the same.

Granger was appointed by Congress to act as a representative/agent for the Seneca Nation, and that's what he'd do, and what he wound up doing. Accordingly, he wrote letters, received letters, and he saved those letters. Handwriting-especially in English-was an essential skill and few people then knew how to do it. Certainly not the great majority of the Indians of the Six Nations. Schools as we now know them simply did not exist for most children, except in the questionable form of isolated, one-room schoolhouses, that offered an "education" only as good as the often-questionable 'teachers' who ran them. Only the offspring of the rich and well-to-do received real, formalized training in the subjects such as 'rhetoric' and arithmetic. [This digital library does not currently have any information on the childhood/schooling of Erastus Granger] Granger was an official arm of the United States government and he probably felt a duty to keep some kind of a record for posterity. Stationed as he was, out in the western, New York wilderness, perhaps the creation and maintenance of letters and diaries was a person's attempt at fending off the pangs of lonliness and isolation [Granger was a widower, although it's presently unclear if he remarried after coming to Buffalo Creek]. Was he aware of the significance of his position? Of the fact that he was participating in this nation's historic attempt to deal sanely with its nativist people? Maybe, maybe not. Or, has the unavoidable, inexorable passage of time and place, rendered any real understanding of Granger's 'paradigm' unsolvable?

What matters is that sometime, nearly two centuries beyond the here and now, a human-now long gone-picked up his pen and left us modern-world dwellers with a stack of letters written on strong-but deteriorating-paper detailing real-life events. Accordingly, the following "digital collection" [Still being constucted] can show them to us and allow us the luxury of reading them, reflecting upon their content and perhaps leaving us to wonder, 'What WAS life really like back then?. Who knows? Perhaps in another hundred years, someone else may look at these typed-out words and ponder, "What WAS life like to live, back then?".

Furthermore this Forward is being written in honor of an exceedingly determined, late-19 century lawyer, one Orasmus Marshall ("The Rise of Buffalo Statesmen"), who through creative diligence managed to piece together the original 200-or-so-letter collection that subsequently passed into the hands of a Granger relative, and thence into the Special Collections room at the Penfield Library on the campus of the State University of New York at Oswego where they remain to this day.

Finally, this Forward is being written in honor and memory of the Six Nations: the Mohawks, Onondagas, Oneidas, Senecas, Cayugas and Tuscaroras; whose descendants live on to this present day, time-and paradigm.

December 7, 2003
Anthony Burton
Colin Kiernan
Gerald B. Van Guild


In Memory of William B.Chazanof: Author, Professor Emeritus, SUNY at Fredonia