Jesse Cornplanter

Jesse J. Cornplanter (September 16, 1889 – March 18, 1957) was an actor, artist, author, craftsman, Seneca Faithkeeper and World War I decorated veteran.[1] The last male descendant of Cornplanter, an important 18th-century Haudenosaunee leader and war chief, his Seneca name was Hayonhwonhish. He illustrated several books about Seneca and Iroquois life. Jesse Cornplanter wrote and illustrated Legends of the Longhouse (1938), which records many Iroquois traditional stories.[2] Cornplanter was also the first Native American to play a lead in a feature film titled Hiawatha, which was released in 1913 and a year before the notable Western The Squaw Man.[3]

Jesse Cornplanter
Jesse Cornplanter making a ceremonial mask, Tonawanda Community House, Tonawanda, New York. Photographed in 1940.
(1889-09-16)September 16, 1889
Cattaraugus Reservation, NY United States
Genesee, NY
OccupationActor, Author, Artist, Craftsman, Keeper of Seneca Culture
SubjectSeneca life, culture, and religion
Literary movementIroquois Realism
Notable worksLegends of the Longhouse, Iroquois Indian Games and Dances, collection SC12845 at the New York State Library, illustrated The Code of Handsome Lake
RelativesFather Edward Cornplanter (Seneca name Sosondowah)


Jesse Cornplanter was born in 1889 to Seneca parents Nancy Jack and Edward Cornplanter on the Cattaraugus Reservation in New York. His mother was of the Snipe Clan of the Tonawanda and the matrilineal traditions of the tribe passed the Snipe Clan designation to the children. He had six sisters and three brothers, but because of childhood diseases, only two of his sisters survived, Carrie and Anna, until 1918 when Carrie perished.[4] He was the last male direct descendant of Cornplanter, a renowned Seneca war chief during and after the American Revolutionary War.[5]

Although his formal education never progressed past the third grade, his knowledge of Seneca customs, songs and rituals made him a popular resource on Seneca information, sought both from within and also outside the tribe.[1]

During World War I, Cornplanter enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917 and served in Europe until honorably discharged in 1919. He was wounded during the war and received the Purple Heart.[2] While he was serving in the war, his father died. This was followed by the deaths of most of his remaining family in the 1918 flu pandemic, including his mother Nancy, sister Carrie, and nieces and nephews. Only his sister Anna and two orphaned children of Carrie survived. Cornplanter helped support and rear the surviving children upon his return from Europe.[6]

After the war, Cornplanter held many respected positions within his tribe. These included the ceremonial chief of the Long House and the chief of New Town, a traditional village. He sang for the Great Feather Dancer and was head singer for many ceremonies.[5]

Cornplanter was married to Elsina Billy (Seneca name Yoweh'sonh.)[4]

Because Jesse Cornplanter left no heirs, his death in 1957 marked the official expiration of a treaty granting Cornplanter's heirs a perpetual Pennsylvania land grant, called the Cornplanter Tract, of about 1500 acres along the Allegheny River.[7] Much of this land was submerged by the Allegheny Reservoir after completion of the Kinzua Dam in 1965. The US Army Corps of Engineers acquired the land and built the dam for flood control, hydropower and recreation. This was in addition to 10,000 acres along the Allegheny River the COE took by right of eminent domain from the Seneca Nation.[8]


In 1906, Cornplanter accompanied his father Edward, acting and singing in the Hiawatha pageant for many months. His travels with the troop also took him to England and Europe where his performances were favorably noted.[1]

He also played the part of Hiawatha in Frank E. Moore's silent film Hiawatha, released in 1913. The feature film is stated to be the first to include Native Americans in the cast, and was looked upon favorably when compared to other contemporary Hollywood films portraying Native Americans. Moving Picture News called Cornplanter, "a real matinee idol."[3]


Though Cornplanter was only in his teens, he was already gaining recognition for his skillful portrayals of his tribe. He never received formal art training, but became successful as an artist.[5]

Arthur C. Parker (Seneca), later Director of the Rochester Museum, commissioned Cornplanter as a youth to sketch scenes of contemporary Seneca life. This launched an eight-year collaboration between the two starting in 1901.[9] Forty-six of Cornplanter's drawings are in collection SC12845 at the New York State Library.[2]

Frederick Starr commissioned Cornplanter to illustrate Iroquois Indian Games and Dances (c. 1903), a book depicting rituals, dances and games of Iroquois life. The young artist was credited as illustrator on the book's cover as "Jesse Cornplanter, Seneca Indian Boy".[9] In selecting the 12 year old Cornplanter for the commission, Starr recognized the talent of the artist in showing, "firmness of line, boldness, and good skill in grouping" in his drawings.[10] The proceeds from sales of Jesse's illustrations were used to produce and award the Cornplanter Medal every two years to a person best contributing to the research and knowledge of the Iroquois.[11]

He illustrated The Code of Handsome Lake, a manuscript collaborated between his father, Edward Cornplanter (Seneca name Sosondowah), and Arthur C. Parker.[12]

Cornplanter also wrote and illustrated his own book, Legends of the Longhouse, published in 1938.[9]

His paintings are considered to be in the Iroquois Realist Style. This tradition dates to the 1820s work by brothers, David and Dennis Cusick (Tuscarora).

Although best known for his illustrations, Cornplanter was also a traditional wood carver. He greatly influenced successive generations of Haudenosaunee artists.[9]


  • Cornplanter, Jesse J. (Of The Senecas), Told To Sah-Nee-Weh, Legends of the Longhouse. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1938.

See also


  1. Bartlett, Charles E. (10 July 1957). "Jesse J. Cornplanter" (PDF). New York State Archeological Association. The Bulletin. 10: 1–3. Retrieved July 18, 2019.
  2. Aul, Billie (August 1996). New York State Library "Cornplanter, Jesse: Drawings SC12845" Check |url= value (help). New York State Library. Retrieved 2008-07-19.
  3. Aleiss, Angela (March 24, 2015). "What Was the First Feature Film With an All-Native Cast?". Indian Country Today Media Network. Retrieved July 18, 2019.
  4. Liberty, Margot, ed. (July 15, 2002). American Indian Intellectuals of the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries (Red River books ed.). University of Oklahoma Press. pp. 199–222. ISBN 978-0806133720.
  5. Lester, Patrick D. (September 1995). The Biographical Directory of Native American Painters (First ed.). University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0806199368.
  6. Bulletin of the New York State Museum, 1920. Section: "Death of Chief Edward Cornplanter," pages 104 and 105.
  7. "Chief Cornplanter". Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Retrieved 2018-05-31.
  8. Alvin, Josephy Jr. (December 1968). "Cornplanter, Can You Swim?". American Heritage Publishing. Retrieved 2018-05-31.
  9. Painting. Archived 2009-09-15 at the Wayback Machine The Iroquois Museum. (12 Feb 2009).
  10. Fenton, William N. (1980). "Frederick Starr, Jesse Cornplanter and the Cornplanter Medal for Iroquois Research". New York History. 61 (2): 186–199. JSTOR 23169465.
  11. Starr, Frederick (March 1905). "The Open Court XIX". The Open Court. Chicago: Open Court Publishing Company. pp. 186–188. Retrieved 2019-08-01.
  12. Parker, Arthur C. (Nov 1, 1912). "The Code of Handsome Lake, the Seneca Prophet". [NYS] Education Department Bulletin (163). Plates 10-19,22,23. Retrieved 2019-08-01.

[1] [2]

  1. Matthew, Dennis (2012). Early American Studies: Sencea Possessed: Indians, Witchcraft, and Power in the Early American Republic. University of Pennsylvania Press.
  2. Davis, Mary (1996). Native American in the twentieth Century.
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