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Seneca Land Claim records

Identifier: Law Spec. Coll. 07

Scope and Contents

Collection includes official court filings and decisions, expert reports and maps, and background research materials prepared during the New York Attorney General's defense of the Grand Island an Oil Springs Reservation land claims. Included in Series III is a microfilm copy of the Paul G. Reilly Collection held at Butler Library, State University of New York College at Buffalo. This collection does not represent a complete record. Mr. Sullivan sent more complete records to the New York State Archives as listed in Series V.


  • 1994-2005


Terms of Access

The bulk of the Seneca Nation Land Claims Papers are open for research. Materials can be examined by qualified researchers in the Law Library during hours of operation during which Law Reference Librarians are present. In order to insure access, researchers are advised to contact the Law Library in advance of visits.


Court materials are in the public domain. Copyright of background research materials lies with the respective authors or authors' heirs and publishers. Researchers must obtain the written permission of the holder(s) of copyright. Most papers may be copied in accordance with the library's usual procedures unless otherwise specified.

Historical Note

In the late 20th Century the Seneca Indians commenced two actions against the State of New York regarding land rights in New York, one challenging the State's claim of ownership to approximately 50 acres under and adjoining Cuba Lake and another which claimed tribal ownership of all islands in the Niagara River within United States waters, including Grand Island, the largest, and separately contested the State and New York Thruway Authority's 1954 right-of-way over the Cattaraugus Reservation. [Previously in 1955, the Nation filed, Seneca Nation of Indians v. Ek in the United States District Court in Buffalo, contesting the Cuba Lake properties, but allowed the case to lapse. A copy of the complaint in that action is ex. D to the April 18, 2001, declaration of Peter B. Sullivan filed in the 1985 Cuba Lake action (see Series IV). The Seneca Nation and the Tonawanda Band also filed claims with the Indian Claims Commission.

In 1985 the Seneca Nation of Indians (SNI) filed a land claim against the State of New York for lands comprising the Oil Springs Reservation located around Cuba Lake in Cattaraugus and Allegany Counties'. Summary judgment on liability was granted in favor of the plaintiffs finding that the State violated the Nonintercourse Act when it purported to extinguish Indian title to the Oil Spring Reservation lands in 1858 through its power of eminent domain as part of a project to construct a reservoir which would provide water for the Genesee and Erie Canals. Seneca Nation of Indians v. New York, 26 F. Supp.2d 555 (W.D.N.Y. 1998)(NO. 85-CV-411C), aff'd 178 F.3d 95 (2d Cir. 1999), cert denied New York v. Seneca Nation of Indians, 528 United States 1073 (2000). Mediated settlement on remedies was approved by Judge Curtin on June 27, 2005.

In 1993 the SNI filed a land claim against the State of New York for Grand Island, an island in the Niagara River near Buffalo, New York. Later, the Tonawanda Band of Senecas (Tonawanda Senecas) and the United States joined as plaintiffs. Motion for summary judgment was granted for the defendant State of New York. Seneca Nation of Indians v. New York, 206 F. Supp 2d 448 (W.D.N.Y. 2002) (NO. 93-CV-688A), aff'd 383 F3d 245 (2nd Cir. 2004), cert denied 126 S.Ct. 2351, 165 L.Ed.2d 278.

Procedural chronology of the Seneca Nation Land Claims provided by Peter B. Sullivan on February 23, 2007:

Cuba Lake

The Cuba Lake case was commenced in 1985 by the SNI against the State. The complaint was amended in 1993 to add as defendants individuals who leased from the State cottages along the Lake in the claim area. In 1997 the United States intervened as a plaintiff, to overcome the likely jurisdictional bar of the Eleventh Amendment, and in 1998 the District Court granted summary judgment to plaintiffs on the liability issue. Seneca Nation of Indians v. New York, 26 F. Supp.2d 555 (W.D.N.Y. 1998) (NO. 85-CV-411C), aff'd 178 F.3d 95 (2d Cir. 1999), cert. denied New York v. Seneca Nation of Indians, 528 United States 1073 (2000). The parties then briefed the issue of remedies, but before ruling on that issue the Court encouraged the parties to engage a private mediator to oversee settlement discussions. As a result of these discussions the parties entered into a settlement agreement which was approved by the Court on June 23, 2005.

Grand Island/Thruway

This action was filed in 1993, with the SNI the sole plaintiff and the State, the Thruway Authority, and six individuals and businesses sued as representatives of a class of property owners as defendants. The original complaint pleaded for its first cause of action the Grand Island claim against all defendants, and the Thruway easement claim against the State and the Authority. Soon thereafter the Tonawanda Band of Seneca Indians, which diverged from the SNI in the 1840s, intervened as a plaintiff in the Islands claim only. In 1997, following the decision in Idaho v. Coeur D'alene Tribe of Idaho, 521 United States 261 (1997), both plaintiffs filed amended complaints (the second such amended by the SNI, the first by the Tonawandas). In 1998 the United States intervened as a plaintiff. In 1999 the Magistrate Judge recommended granting the defense motion to dismiss the claim relating to the Thruway easement and the District Judge issued an order to this effect. In 2002 the District Court granted defendants' summary judgment motion and dismissed the entire action. Plaintiffs then appealed to the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, on both the Grand Island and the Thruway claim, and that Court affirmed in 2005. The tribal plaintiffs (but not plaintiff United States) petitioned the United States Supreme Court to hear the case, but the certiorari application was denied, finally terminating the action.


7 Linear Feet (17 manuscript boxes)

Language of Materials



Materials from litigation of Seneca Nation of Indians and Tonawanda Senecas' land claims for Grand Island, New York and the Oil Springs Reservation in Cuba, New York.


The collection is arranged in five series:

I. Grand Island - Motion for Summary Judgment

I.A. Pleadings

I.B. Motion Papers: Briefs

I.C. Motion Papers: Documentary Evidence

I.D. Oral Argument

I.E. United States District Court decision

II. Grand Island- Appeals

II.A. United States Court of Appeals, 2nd Circuit

II.B. United States Supreme Court

>III. Grand Island- Discovery and Background research materials

III.A. Defense Expert Reports

III.B. Plaintiff Expert Reports

III.C. Miscellaneous background research

III.D. Paul G. Reilly Collection

IV. Oil Springs Reservation

V. Additional Material

Acquisition Information

Collection was donated by Peter B. Sullivan, Deputy Assistant Attorney General-in-Charge, New York Attorney General's Office, Buffalo, New York in January 2007.

Accruals and Additions

No further accruals are expected to this collection.

Related Resources

Marilyn L. Haas Collection
This Law Special Collection includes books on the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois Indians or Six Nations) with special emphasis on the Senecas and Tuscaroras.
Howard R. Berman Collection
This Law Special Collection includes books on the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois Indians or Six Nations) as well as the papers of Mr. Berman who was an early leader in the development of law on the rights of indigenous peoples.
Onondaga Land Claims Records
This Law Special Collection contains materials from litigation of Onondaga Nation land claims in central New York State, Onondaga Nation v. New York, et al, United States District Court, Northern District of New York, Docket 05-CV-0314

Processing Information

Processed by Karen L. Spencer in 2007.

Finding Aid for the Seneca Land Claims records, 1994-2005
Finding aid prepared by Karen L. Spencer.
Description rules
Finding Aid Prepared Using Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Code for undetermined script
Language of description note

Repository Details

Part of the Charles B. Sears Law Library Repository

O'Brian Hall
Buffalo New York 14260 United States