February 23, 2018
Deep into a summer of research, senior Josh Irvin found the proverbial needle in a haystack — the one document, a letter written in 1805 by Revolutionary War general Jeremiah Slade, that detailed the deal that enabled the Tuscarora Indian nation to sell their reservation lands in North Carolina.
Word of Irvin’s archival discovery spread, prompting an invitation to present his work as the only undergrad at a conference on site of that reservation — Indian Woods — noting the 300th anniversary of its founding. Historians had known the Tuscaroras sold off their Indian Woods reservation in parcels in the early 1800s, but until Irvin’s discovery of the more than 200-year-old letter nestled in University of Maryland archives, no one could figure out how they had maneuvered and benefited from the sale.
Irvin’s historical find was the missing link in how they returned to New York and bought the land where they now live about 10 miles from Niagara Falls. The letter details a plan that worked within the treaty signed in 1748 stating that the Tuscaroras could lease and later sell land if the Tuscaroras living on the reservation agreed to the lease. If all the Tuscaroras left the reservation then North Carolina would assume ownership of the land.
The solution of the chiefs was to allow one family — actually one man and his son — to remain on the land while they sold off the rest to give them time to collect rents as a rent-to-own proposition.
His research odyssey began with a paper he wrote for his Native American Seminar with professor Stephen Feeley. Irvin had researched the dispossession of the Oneidas, who are part of the Iroquois nation and therefore seen as symbolic brothers of the Tuscaroras within the Iroquois Confederacy.
After reading Irvin’s paper, Feeley asked if Irvin was interested in researching the land deal that enabled the Tuscaroras to return to New York. The project basically continued Feeley’s dissertation research on the nation’s time in North Carolina and how it came to migrate there, research that ended with the Revolutionary War in 1770s.
“I thought it would be a two-week investigation into how they got to their 4,300-acre property in New York,” says Irvin, who received a Mellon Grant for a research internship. “Several hundred hours later, I realized it really wasn’t so simple.”
Wheeling and dealing behind the scenes between the early American government and Indian nations usually resulted in the tribe losing their lands for a mere pittance, Irvin says. But, unlike most tribes, the Tuscaroras held the deed to their lands. They received the respectable sum of $21,000 for their land in North Carolina and paid $14,000 for the land in Niagara.
But how? Irvin dug into the National Archives, historical papers at University of Maryland and Gettysburg College and private collections, drawing a trail from one treaty to another. He visited the Tuscarora people in New York and talked with elders and clan mothers alike.
He knew so much but couldn’t figure out how they managed the land deal. Then, he found the letter from Gen. Slade, who was basically acting as the nation’s agent, and everything fell into place. It would be the first comprehensive account of the Tuscaroras dispossession of their North Carolina reservation lands.
The final plot was sold in 1831. The earnings would finance the land the tribe was buying in New York.
“The loopholes and dozens of treaties and the letter from Gen. Slade — it all makes Oceans 11 look like child’s play,” says Irvin, a History major from Littlestown, Pa. “When you think of the Trail of Tears and Native Americans losing their reservation lands, the Tuscaroras were brilliant in the way they made the most of the situation and actually acted as their own agents. Indian nations had way more agency — ability to act in their own interest — than we realized.”
When Irvin went to visit the Tuscaroras in New York, he encountered a giant family feud over the land deal that he likens to “who sold the family house and who had the right to do it?” Still debated too is whether there were more Tuscaroras on the Indian Woods reservation when it was sold. The current chief of the Turtle Clan in N.Y. told Irvin, “This land means everything to us.”
Tensions were palpable as well at the North Carolina conference, Irvin says, bringing home to him as a historian that for these descendants, the past is very much a part of today’s reality. With the Tuscaroras arguing among themselves, Irvin realized that what historians say and do has real consequences for people.
“It put everything in perspective. The most that we can do as historians is to find the original documents to bring out the truth of what happened,” he says, explaining that the project pulled him away from his Civil War and World War II focus to a new era and topic. “This feels like home. I can research for 12 or even 18 hours straight without getting tired.
“I figure that I really need to pursue anything that energizes me that much.”
Irvin’s fascination with history is nothing new. As a child, he convinced his parents time and time again to plan family vacations around one historical site or another. His dad went with Irvin and Feeley to the conference where Irvin presented his research.
And chances are good that his historical discovery is more of a beginning than an ending. He’s already received a fully funded offer from a prestigious university to pursue his Ph.D. in Native American history studies while teaching.
“I’ve learned that you can never stop researching, never call something good enough,” says Irvin, who plans to become a professor, researching and perhaps consulting on the current consequences of these centuries’ old treaties. “I love sharing, and presenting my research gives me an excuse to tell people about something I find really exciting.”