The Story of the Erie Triangle
How Pennsylvania's early expansion was fraught with tension and threats of war
It wasn't long after the American Revolution ended that the newly unified states began squabbling — no surprise, considering the state of colonial relationships preceding the revolution. One of those early disputes included five states who each claimed that their colonial charters granted them the rights to an area along the southern shore of Lake Erie known as "the Erie Triangle."
The abbreviated version: the nearly 300-square-mile triangle (now comprising the northern section of Erie County, roughly from North Springfield to Wattsburg, including the City of Erie) was instead ceded to the newly formed federal government, which eventually sold the land to Pennsylvania in 1792, giving the state its iconic chimney along with much-desired access to Lake Erie's freshwaters.
The story between these bookends is far from simple though. For one, there had long been resistance from indigenous peoples to colonial encroachment in the Triangle. The French had learned this first – and then the British – after their rebuilding of Fort Presque Isle, which was surrounded and burned during Pontiac's War of 1763, with most of its occupants killed.
After the revolution, but before Pennsylvania's acquisition of the Triangle, native resistance to the annexation of their land continued. While an earlier 1784 treaty had created a legal paper trail for Pennsylvania's "Last Purchase," which ceded the northwestern territory of the state (not including the Erie Triangle) to the United States, it was viewed as illegitimate by many within the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy, as well as the more loosely affiliated Western Confederacy.
"[W]e must observe to you, that we are sent in order to make peace, and that we are not authorized to stipulate any particular cession of lands," Mohawk leader Thayendanegea (better known as Joseph Brant) had warned when negotiations for the "Last Purchase" commenced. He, as well as many other Six Nation leaders, were not present for the signing of the treaty and while well-known Seneca diplomat Cornplanter had signed it, other tribal leaders argued that diplomats such as he did not possess the power to cede territory, rendering the treaty invalid.
Pennsylvania soon expressed renewed interest in expanding its borders to include the Erie Triangle. Seneca and other Iroquoian-speaking people to the east and Western Confederacy tribes to the west voiced their own claims, expressing that they would resist any American invasion of their lands. War between the Americans and the Western Confederacy had already erupted in the Northwest Territory, so the Six Nations anticipated that fears of such a war coming to Pennsylvania gave them leverage.
In his 1984 essay for The Journal of Erie Studies titled "Elimination of Indian Claims to the Erie Triangle," Carl B. Lechner described the growing suspicions that the Six Nations had concerning Pennsylvania's intentions. According to Lechner, many leaders "resent[ed] their having been cheated in former land transactions" and did not consider Americans to be men of their word. Earlier payments to the Six Nations from previous treaties were still unfulfilled.
When a 1789 treaty then authorized the American annexation of the Triangle, the Six Nations argued against the treaty's legitimacy. Joseph Brant told Cornplanter that he was "alarmed to hear the people of the United States being in possession of Presque Isle on Lake Erie." He actively encouraged people of the Six Nations to resist this annexation.
Then in 1790, when Cornplanter and other Seneca leaders were set to travel to Philadelphia to work out grievances, two Six Nations members were murdered in north-central Pennsylvania. Tensions immediately escalated.
"[The treaty] left them with a sense of outrage and indignation," explained Lechner. "The Six Nations' discontent over the murders … threatened to undo all that had been accomplished."
Regardless of these increased tensions, the transfer of the Erie Triangle from the federal government to Pennsylvania was completed in 1792. The Six Nations were paid $2,800 from Pennsylvania and $1,200 from the federal government. An 1896 digest of Erie laws and ordinances described Cornplanter's "excellent statesmanship" which earned him "a fine reservation near Warren … [as] recompense for his services to the State." This would become known as the Cornplanter Tract and he and hundreds of other Seneca would live out the rest of their lives there.
The following year, Pennsylvania passed an act directing an official survey to lay out a town at Presque Isle. Governor Thomas Mifflin appointed Andrew Ellicott for the task, which was also to include plans for surveying and laying towns including Franklin, Warren, and Waterford.
Ellicott, who was born in Pennsylvania in 1754, had been a major during the revolution, afterwards teaching mathematics and holding office in the Maryland state legislature. His assistance on the extension of the Mason-Dixon line, which determined the western boundary of Pennsylvania (aka "Ellicott's Line"), demonstrated his surveying skills and precision. Under the direction of George Washington, he surveyed the boundaries of Washington, D.C., famously clashing with the esteemed Pierre Charles L'Enfant.
Despite Pennsylvania's claim, President Washington was still weary of surveying the Erie Triangle. He feared retaliation from the Six Nations — who were, in fact, considering declaring war on the Americans. Cornplanter likewise had warned officials that surveying under such heightened tensions was not advisable.
Ellicott met with Six Nations delegates at Fort LeBoeuf hoping to ease these tensions. It did not go well. The meeting included, as described by Ellicott, "threatening language" and demands for all Americans to vacate the Triangle.
After the meeting, Ellicott and their team of surveyors and soldiers garrisoned at Fort LeBoeuf in the August heat of 1794, awaiting further instructions from Philadelphia. At one point, he almost abandoned the mission altogether due to the miserable conditions and lack of communication.
"We live here like a parcel of monks or hermits," Ellicott wrote his wife. "[O]ur linen is dirty, our faces and hands brown, and … our beards are generally long."
Although they were able to lay out plans for Waterford, Erie wouldn't be surveyed that summer. Tensions endured over the following year. War was a distinct possibility, but as Western Confederacy forces were defeated in the Northwest Territory by the United States Army (led by General "Mad" Anthony Wayne), the Six Nations leaders reconsidered.
By the spring of 1795, the Pennsylvania General Assembly again passed an act directing a town to be laid out at Presque Isle.
One surveyor, a young man named George Burges, kept a journal of his journey to Erie with the returning Ellicott (who himself only once mentioned Burges in his journals, noting that he tasked Burges with tracking down lost baggage). They departed Philadelphia in late May.
By June, they had reached Franklin. It was there that they heard news of two Americans being killed by members of the Six Nations in the Triangle.
"[W]e met a company who inform'd us that the Indians had lately killed two men and in the evening we were overtaken by a company who inform'd us that there had lately been five war Indians near where we were at this time," Burges wrote.
The killed were a father and son (some have claimed this was near present-day State and 15th streets, while others say it was nearer to Parade Street), with the elder man dead upon their discovery and the son scalped, but alive, only to succumb to his wounds later at Fort LeBoeuf.
Ellicott's surveyors continued onward. The trek was slow and difficult. The gnats and mosquitoes were excruciating, described as being as thick as fog and as painful as hot ashes.
"The road we travelled this day was exceedingly bad, having several times to lift our pack-horses out of the mire, the soil being loose and black," Burges described. "[It is] very heavily timber'd with hemlock and pine in places, and in other places an intermixture of almost every kind of wood so thick that the sun cannot shine upon the ground."
To add to such obstacles, many of the soldiers accompanying the surveying team were prone to drunkenness and general unruliness. Burges recounted how one soldier was punished for misbehaving. He had his beard shaved off with no soap or water and a dull razor before being tied up and washed down with cold water.
On another occasion, a soldier was lost and wandered aimlessly for nine days before being found, starving and disoriented.
"[T]he lost soldier, who was truly an object of compassion, having wandered in the wilderness nine days with nothing to eat but a quarter pound of bread, except the berries and herbs which he could find in the woods," wrote Burges.
By mid-July, they arrived at what would be Erie, Pennsylvania. The forests were thick with walnuts, hickories, and oaks. When Burges finally spotted Lake Erie, he described it as "very beautiful, as far as the eye can reach, nothing to be seen but water which is very clear and a fine sandy bottom" and from the high winds there were "very large [waves], dashing against the shore with great violence."
The team began their calculations, running their lines to layout Erie's grid almost immediately. They laid out streets east and west from East Avenue to Cranberry Street and north and south from the bayfront to 26th Street.
Colonel Seth Reed, along with his wife Hannah and their two sons, arrived during this time and began building their log cabin on Mill Creek, becoming the first permanent American settlers in Erie. The renowned U.S. Army Chief of Engineers, Stephen Rochefontaine, also arrived to construct a new fort. During the ensuing weeks, Ellicott's surveyors worked tirelessly through injuries and mosquitoes, through pouring rainfall and mud.
"We are now completing work at this place," Ellicott wrote his wife. "The Indians continue peaceable and well disposed; the military establishment here will have a powerful effect in keeping them quiet."
On September 21, 1795, they finally set four stones at the corners of Erie, Pennsylvania. Their work was complete. The next day, they left and Burges "bade adieu to Lake Erie."
By this time, Judah Colt was already organizing the warrants for Erie's land. By the next year, Daniel Dobbins would arrive and began shipping goods with his schooner, while Bo Bladen, once enslaved but moving to Erie having purchased his freedom, bought 400 acres for his family to build a new homestead and life. Within a few years, even more of the well-known historical characters of Erie's past would populate the town while surrounding towns throughout Pennsylvania's chimney — Fairview, Harborcreek, Waterford, Union Township, and more — would all begin to grow.
Meanwhile, as the American population expanded within the area, the Six Nations continued to lose territory. Even into the 20th century, one-third of the Allegany Reservation, including Cornplanter's Tract, were controversially condemned by the U.S. government to be flooded by Kinzua Dam, displacing 600 Seneca. Even as recently as September 2019, the Seneca Nation was in the news for a dispute with New York State over repairs to a stretch of Interstate 90 that ran through its Cattaraugus Reservation.
While the narrative of the Erie Triangle is often narrowed to simplify the story and fit on a historical marker, in many ways, the more complete story demonstrates the broader complexity of the early years of the United States as a whole. Our history is as messy as it is intricate — and recognizing such nuances helps one better understand their own place within the larger story.
Jonathan Burdick runs the historical blog Rust & Dirt. Follow them on Twitter @RustDirt, and on Instagram @RustandDirt.