Ohio History Journal









Not much is known pertaining to the direct biog-

raphy of Seneca John. The most that we have is inci-

dental to and related in the story of his execution. He

belonged however to a prominent family of his tribe

and was one of four brothers, or rather of three full

brothers named Comstock, Steel and Coonstick and him-

self a half brother of the three named.

Comstock was a principal chief of his tribe. Seneca

John succeeded Comstock as chief and Coonstick suc-

ceeded Seneca John, or became a chief after Seneca

John's death. Thus it appears that the family furnished

three chiefs of the tribe.

From the story mentioned, we find that Seneca John

was a tall noble looking man, and resembled Henry

Clay of Kentucky; and like Clay was very eloquent as

a speaker - the most eloquent of his tribe. If ill feel-

ing arose in the councils he could by his eloquence and

persuasive powers of speech restore harmony. He was

very amiable and agreeable in his manners and cheerful

in disposition. These traits combined made him popu-

lar with his tribe, and upon the death of Comstock he

was made a chief.  His credit at the Trading Post at

Lower Sandusky was of the highest, and he often be-


Seneca John, Indian Chief 129

Seneca John, Indian Chief          129

Vol. XXXI-9.

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130     Ohio Arch. and Hist. Society Publications

came security for the more improvident members of his

tribe. He was peace loving, but by reason of his high

qualities and popularity he was the victim of jealousy

and envy on the part of his brothers, which finally

resulted in his tragic death, near the spot where the

monument erected to his memory stands.

During an expedition by his half brothers Steel and

Coonstick, in the West hunting, trapping and looking

for a new home for the tribe, lasting about three years,

Chief Comstock died.  On their return in 1828, they

found Seneca John chief in charge of the tribe as the

successor of Comstock. This so aroused their jealousy

and excited their envy that they determined to make

away with him, and accordingly preferred the false

charge against him of causing the death of Comstock by

witchcraft. According to the belief of the Senecas, the

superstition of witchcraft was to them a verity, a

magical or supernatural power, by agreement, with evil

spirits, the possessor of which could bring calamity upon

or even death of the victim. The penalty for its practice

was death. Seneca John, being innocent of any wrong

in the death of Comstock, denied the charge, in a strain

of pathos and eloquence rarely equalled, in expressions

of love for Comstock and grief over his death, but with-

out avail He was condemned to die, and was killed by

his brothers accordingly, in the month of August, 1828,

under the semblance of the execution of a judicial sen-

tence, and was buried with Indian ceremonies not more

than twenty feet from where he fell.

Sardis Birchard, cited in Knapp's History, remem-

bered the death of Seneca John.  He said:

Seneca John, Indian Chief 131

Seneca John, Indian Chief           131


"The whole tribe seemed to be in town the evening before

his execution. John stood by me on the porch of my store, as

the other Indians rode away. He looked at them with so much

sadness in his face, that it attracted my attention and I wondered

at John's letting them go away without him.  He inquired of

me the amount of his indebtedness at my store.  The amount

was given. He bade me good-bye, and went away without relat-

ing any of the trouble.

"Chiefs Hard Hickory and Tall Chief came into town the

day of the killing of John, or the next day, and told me about

it. Tall Chief always settled the debts of Indians who died-

believing they could not enter the good hunting ground of the

spirit land until their debts were paid.  He settled the bill of

Seneca John, after his death."*


The particulars of the tragedy as related by an In-

dian chief, named Hard Hickory by whose cabin it was

enacted, and who was present are substantially as fol-


His brothers pronounced him guilty and declared

their determination to become his executioners.   John

replied that he was willing to die, and only wished to

live until next morning to see the sun rise once more.

This request being granted, John told them that he

would sleep that night on Hard Hickory's porch, which

fronted the East, where they would find him at sunrise.

He chose that place, because he did not wish to be killed

in the presence of his wife, and desired that the Chief

Hard Hickory witness that he died like a man.

Coonstick and Steel retired for the night to an old

cabin nearby. In the morning in company with Shane,

another Indian, they proceeded to the house of Hard

Hickory - who was informant - who stated that a

little after sunrise, he heard their footsteps on the porch,


*This quotation is a paraphrase, in part, of the reminiscences of

Sardis Birchard recorded in Knapp's History of the Maumee Valley.


Seneca John, Indian Chief 133

Seneca John, Indian Chief     133

and he opened the door just wide enough to peep out.

He saw John asleep on his blanket and them standing

near him. At length one of them woke him and he

immediately rose, took off a large handkerchief which

was around his head, letting his unusually long hair fall

upon his shoulders. This being done, he looked around

upon the landscape and upon the rising sun, to take a

farewell look of a scene he was never again to behold;

and then announced to his brothers that he was ready

to die. Shane and Coonstick each took him by the arm

and Steel walked behind him. In this way they led him

about ten steps from the porch when his brother Steel

struck him with a tomahawk on the back of his head,

and he fell to the ground bleeding freely.  Supposing

the blow sufficient to kill him, they dragged him under a

peach tree nearby. In a short time he revived however,

the blow having been broken by his great mass of hair.

Knowing that it was Steel that struck him, John as he

lay, turned his head toward Coonstick and said "Now,

brother, take your revenge." This so operated on Coon

stick that he interposed to save him; but the proposition

enraged Steel to such an extent that he drew his knife

and cut John's throat from ear to ear; and the next day

he was buried with the usual Indian ceremonies near

the spot where he fell as before stated, and his grave

was surrounded by a small picket fence, which three

years later was removed by Coonstick and Steel.



The monument erected by the Sandusky County

Pioneer and Historical Association, was unveiled with

interesting ceremonies July 4, 1921.  It is placed by

134 Ohio Arch

134     Ohio Arch. and Hist. Society Publications

the east side of the public road, west of and near the

spot where Seneca John was executed and where he was

buried, being the site of Chief Hard Hickory's cabin

and of the present residence of Edwin Young, about one

and a half miles north from the village of Greenspring.

It consists of a boulder of unique shape, being flat in

front and rear surfaces, unlike most of its sort, which

are rounded in form.  It is thirty-six inches in height,

thirty inches in width, and twenty-four inches thick at

the base, gradually becoming thinner toward the top.

It is granite in formation, with one edge or side a pebble

conglomerate the entire height of the stone.  It stands

firmly set on a concrete base.  The inscription is as





















- 1921 -

Seneca John, Indian Chief 135

Seneca John, Indian Chief       135



The Seneca Indians, occupying what was known as

the Seneca Reservation described below, of whom

Seneca John was a prominent Chief, as noted above,

were offshoots of the old Seneca Nation, one of those

comprising the once noted Iroquois Confederacy in the

State of New York, east of the Niagara River, called the

Five Nations.  They were often spoken of as the

"Senecas of Sandusky," located as they were along the

Sandusky River and vicinity. Mingled with them were

wandering remnants of other tribes.  All these had

occupied this region for very many years prior to the

date of the reservation, probably ever since the extermi-

nation of the former occupants, the Erie Nation, by the

Five Nations about the middle of the seventeenth cen-

tury. It is quite probable that in the wars against the

Eries, portions of the Senecas, and perhaps of other

tribes, of the Five Nations, finding this a "goodly land"

in which to dwell, remained permanently, thus becoming

the progenitors of the Senecas of the reservation. It

was an ideal land and home for them. The beautiful

Sandusky River was then navigable for canoes all the

year round.  The river teemed with fish, the marshes

were alive with wild fowl, and the forests abounded with

large game. It was, indeed, suggestive and emblematic

of their hoped for happy hunting ground in the land of

the hereafter, in which they believed and expected to

gain.  In their intercourse with the whites they were

friendly, but drunken quarrels and fatal jealousies not

infrequently disturbed the peace among themselves. It

was unlawful to furnish them with intoxicating liquors,

but the law was violated by the whites, as indicated by

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136     Ohio Arch. and Hist. Society Publications

the return of indictments against several parties at the

first term of the Common Pleas Court (1820) for selling

intoxicating liquor to Indians.  They lived in the vil-

lages throughout the reservation, but their head-

quarters, or seat of government was in Sandusky

County about two miles northwest from the site of

Greenspring village. Their council house in which all

matters concerning the administration of their govern-

ment by the chiefs and head men were held, was located

not far from the place where the monument just erected

stands. Trials for offenses committed were here held,

and punishments meted out to the guilty. For murder

and witchcraft the penalty was death. Execution of the

death sentence was carried into effect by the nearest of

kin, to the person against whom the crime had been com-

mitted. The similar provision in the Hebrew criminal

code is believed by some authorities a suggestion of

the Semitic racial origin of the Senecas as probably

descended from one of the lost tribes of Israel. Their

principal burying ground was in what is now Ballville

Township in Sandusky County.

While the U. S. Government claimed and exercised

ultimate sovereignty over all reservations, it conceded

and allowed complete personal independence to the indi-

vidual occupants, and complete municipal or civil juris-

diction to the tribes in all matters pertaining to their

own manners, customs and laws, including punishment

for crimes and offenses against them.  They were in

respect to these matters an independent sovereignty, or

power. This was clearly recognized by the Judges of

the Supreme Court held in Sandusky County in 1828 at

Lower Sandusky, as is learned from a statement related

Seneca John, Indian Chief 137

Seneca John, Indian Chief      137

by Judge David Higgins in Knapp's History of the

Maumee Valley. He was Judge of the Common Pleas

Court from 1831 to 1837 and familiar with the facts

related. He says he was informed that Seneca John

was tried by a council of head men, and that upon full

investigation was condemned to die, and Coonstick was

required to execute his brother.  During a session of

the Supreme Court (1828) someone in Lower Sandusky

caused the arrest of Coonstick for murder, on com-

plaints before a Justice of the Peace. The facts in the

in the case being presented to the Judges of Supreme

Court, they decided that the execution of Seneca John

was an act completely within the jurisdiction of the

Seneca Council; and that Coonstick was justified in the

execution of a judicial sentence which he was the

proper person to carry into effect.

The case was dismissed and Coonstick discharged.

No record, however, of the case is found, but there is

no doubt as to the fact stated.  Thus, Seneca John,

though he was killed on a false charge prompted by

jealousy, yet as the form of the law of the tribe had been

followed in his trial and condemnation, his execution

was not regarded as murder in the legal sense. It was,

however, cold blooded murder morally.    Here as

formerly, in a bigoted portion of so-called civilized

people, of our own country, cold blooded murders were

committed in the name of punishment for this so-called

crime of witchcraft.


In 1817, by treaty the Indians ceded to the United

States all their claim to lands in Ohio, except cer-

tain reservations. Among these was that known as the

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138     Ohio Arch. and Hist. Society Publications

Seneca Reservation. This consisted as finally concluded

of 40,000 acres on the east side of the Sandusky

River in the counties of Sandusky and Seneca. About

one-fourth of the area was in Sandusky County. The

boundaries of the reservation may be described as fol-


Commencing on the east bank of the Sandusky

River in Ballville Township, Sandusky County opposite

the mouth of Wolf Creek, running thence east through

the north parts of sections 29, 28, 26, and 25 in said

township, and section 30, 29, 28 and into the northwest

quarter of section 27 in Green Creek Township, thence

through the west parts of said section 27, and section

34 in Green Creek Township south to the boundary lines

between Sandusky and Seneca Counties, thence continu-

ing south centrally, through the townships of Adams

and Scipio in Seneca County to a point in the latter

township on the line between sections 9 and 10 from

which point a line running straight west strikes a point

80 rods south of the south line of section 8 in Clinton

Township on the east bank of the Sandusky River, and

thence northerly along the meandering of the river in

said counties of Seneca and Sandusky to the place of


Owing to the increasing white settlements about the

reservation, with the consequent encroachments of civili-

zation on the savage life of the occupants and disap-

pearance of game, the reservation was becoming unsuit-

able as an abode for them, and accordingly they decided

to abandon it for a home in the West beyond the then

pale of civilization, and under the treaty of Washington

made on the 28th day of February, 1831, they ceded the

Seneca John, Indian Chief 139

Seneca John, Indian Chief           139

entire reservation to the United States.    The treaty

provided that the United States should sell all the land,

deduct from the proceeds certain expenses and $6,000.00

advanced to the tribe and to hold the balance of the pur-

chase money until the same should be demanded, by the

chiefs, and in the meantime pay them 5% interest on

same.    On the part of the Senecas the treaty was

signed by Coonstick, Hard Hickory, Good Hunter, and

Small Cloud Spicer.    In 1831 the tribe in a body, a

sorrowful procession it may well be imagined, departed

from the land of their birth, their beloved hunting

grounds, and the graves of their kindred dead, for their

new home beyond the Mississippi. In 1832 by proclama-

tion of President Andrew Jackson, the lands of the

reservation were surveyed and placed on sale by the

United States Government.



Judge David Higgins, to whom reference is made

in the preceding article, gives a very different story in

regard to the character, trial and execution of Seneca

John. This is recorded in Knapp's History of the Mau-

mee Valley, pages 282-283:


"During the session of the Supreme Court at Fremont, in

the the year 1822, (I may be mistaken in the year), some person

in Fremont (then Lower Sandusky) instituted a complaint be-

fore a Justice of Peace against the head chief of the Senecas for

murder, and he was arrested and brought before the Justice, ac-

companied by a number of the principal men of his tribe. The

incidents upon which this proceeding was founded are very in-

teresting as illustrating the Indian life and character. With this

head chief (who among the Americans passed by the appelation

of Coonstick) I was somewhat acquainted. He was a noble

speciman of a man, a fine form, dignified in manner, and evincing

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140      Ohio Arch. and Hist. Society Publications


much good sense in conversation and conduct. Some two years

before this time, in prospect of his tribe removing to the west

of the Mississippi, Coonstick had traveled to the West, and had

been absent a year and a half in making his explorations. The

chief had a brother who was a very bad Indian, and during the

absence of the chief, had made much disturbance among the

tribe; and among other crimes, he was charged with intriguing

with a medicine woman and inducing her to administer drugs to

an Indian to whom he was inimical, which caused his death.

When the chief returned home, he held a council of his head

men, to try his bad brother; and, upon full investigation, he was

condemned to be executed. The performance of that sad act

devolved upon the head chief-and Coonstick was required to

execute his brother. The time fixed for the execution was the

next morning. Accordingly, on the next morning, Coonstick,

accompanied by several of his head men, went to the shanty

where the criminal lived. He was sitting on a bench before his

shanty. The party hailed him, and he approached them, and

wrapping his blanket over his head, dropped on his knees before

the executing party. Immediately Coonstick, raising his toma-

hawk, buried it in the brains of the criminal, who instantly ex-

pired. These facts being presented to the Supreme Court, they

decided that the execution of the criminal was an act completely

within the jurisdiction of the chief, and that Coonstick was

justified in the execution of a judicial sentence, of which he was

the proper person to carry into effect. The case was dismissed

and Coonstick discharged."

Sardis Birchard in his reminiscences recorded in the

work above quoted bears favorable testimony to the

character of Seneca John and states that on the infor-

mation furnished by Hard Hickory and on the approval

of Tall Chief, Steel and Coonstick were arrested. At

the trial, however, Tall Chief contrary to expectation

did everything in his power to defend Steel and Coon-


The story as related by Mr. Meek is based largely

upon the report of Henry C. Brish, Indian sub-agent at

Upper Sandusky, and supported by the reminiscences of

Sardis Birchard.    In other words, the foregoing con-

Seneca John, Indian Chief 141

Seneca John, Indian Chief      141

tribution is supported by the testimony of two men who

personally knew Seneca John, while Judge Higgins does

not seem to have known him but had met and was favor-

ably impressed with the appearance of Chief Coonstick.

The Judge might have felt also that it was his duty to

defend the action of the Supreme Court in this case.