A “Jake Ice” for the American Side of Akwesasne
(Originally published in The People’s Voice, May 13, 2005)
Written by Darren Bonaparte
Everyone in Akwesasne knows by now the story of Jake Ice, the Mohawk man who was shot dead by Canadian Dominion Police on May 1, 1899. Ice was a supporter of the life chief council and an opponent of Canada’s plans to introduce elections to the Canadian side of Akwesasne.
What most people don’t know is that in this same time period, the State of New York passed legislation doing away with hereditary chiefs on the “American” side of Akwesasne. There were also two other Mohawk shootings within months of Jake Ice’s death. Although unrelated to the American elections per se, the shootings added to an already oppressive environment throughout the territory.
The Massena Observer published the following article on June 23, 1898:
THE INDIANS IN TROUBLE
Over a Law Doing Away With The Law of Heredity of Chiefs
The St. Regis tribe of Indians of Franklin County claim that they were buncoed by the last legislature, and are so incensed that an outbreak at the reservation is feared. Joseph Wood, the head chief of the tribe, and William Reep, an interpreter, were in Albany last week to see Governor Black and Attorney General Hancock in relation to the matter. The cause of the trouble is the passage of chapter 642 of the laws of 1898, which does away with hereditary chiefs in the tribe and provides for their election every three years. The Indians are opposed to this because it is contrary to their traditions and from the fact that they were unaware of its passage by the legislature until a few days ago. Chief Wood said that the young bucks of the tribe were hot-headed over the matter, and that he has had a hard time keeping them from creating a demonstration on the reservation. He feared that there might be an outbreak at the election Monday. The attorney general’s department informed him that there was no way to test the constitutionality of the law until after the election was held. The chief claims that the treaty entered into between the tribe and the state is violated by the law.
Violence did break out within six months, but it came at the hands of a drunken police officer, not the hot-headed young bucks of the tribe. The Palladium of Malone reported the following story on December 22, 1898:
AN INDIAN FATALLY SHOT BY OFFICER
An Indian named Ransom, aged about 50 years, was shot and instantly killed by an officer in his home at St. Regis reservation near Hogansburgh, last Thursday afternoon about three o’clock. At the time it was announced as a murder, but a coroner’s jury agreed that the Indian came to his death by the accidental discharge of a revolver in the hands of the constable. District Attorney Paddock, Coroner Geo. H. Oliver and Under Sheriff Ketchum visited the scene on Friday morning in response to a telegram from the victim’s brother. They found the facts about as follows: — Samuel Labrake, a constable of Fort Covington, had a body execution for Celos Ransom, a half-breed Indian, and in company with a man named Bashaw, he proceeded to arrest the man. Instead of stopping at his house, they drove to Hogansburgh and became intoxicated and then returned to do their official duty. They entered the house as peddlers with a satchel, and tried to induce the Indian and his squaw to drink, and succeeded in creating considerable disturbance. Labrake finally announced his official errand and coaxed Ransom to accompany him. This he refused to do, and he ordered the two men from his house. After their exit, the door was closed, but the Indian immediately noticed their satchel on the floor and opened the door and threw it out. The fatal shot was then fired, and in just what manner opinions differ. At any rate, Ransom had only time to turn around when he dropped dead…
A coroner’s jury made up of “substantial Fort Covington men” determined that there was no wrong-doing on Labrake’s part. Ransom’s family and friends were angry at this decision and pressed the justice of the peace in Moira to issued a warrant for Labrake’s arrest on a murder charge.
Labrake got his day in court in June of 1899…less than two months after the killing in St. Regis village of Jake Ice, also at the hands of a non-native lawman. At his trial, Mr. Ransom’s wife, Delia, testified against Labrake, as did other natives who were nearby. They confirmed that Ransom was shot while tossing the satchel to Labrake. The defense countered by painting the deceased as prone to violence, citing his assault on an officer who had previously come to arrest him on the same charge. It was also claimed that Ransom picked up a piece of firewood and attempted to strike Labrake with it as he retreated from his doorway, causing the gun to go off. After deliberating for four and half hours, the jury rendered a verdict of not guilty. As the June 29, 1899 edition of The Palladium reported:
The courtroom was crowded with spectators, who, upon the announcement of not guilty, broke into loud applause, which could not be checked for several minutes.
The message that everyone got was that it was open season on Indians around Akwesasne. It wouldn’t be long before another incident occurred, as we can see a report carried in the Massena Observer’s September 14, 1899 edition:
MORE TROUBLE AT ST. REGIS
Another Indian Shot By A Saloon Keeper
Frank Terrance, a half breed, shot in back as he was leaving the place and left alone for hours
A Malone correspondent says that another shooting affair occurred at the St. Regis reservation in which Frank Terrance, a half breed, was shot in the back. He is in a precarious condition and there are grave doubts as to his recovery. It appears that he was on the streets of Fort Covington village Friday afternoon and in a partly intoxicated condition. Toward evening, in company with two Bashaw brothers he went to the old Riley line store kept by Frank Demarce, an Italian who sells a few cheap groceries and plenty of fire water. Soon after the three men arrived one of the Bashaw boys bought a half pint of high wines, and a little later Terrance called for White Whiskey, in which the health of all present was drunk. Terrance then refused to pay, and became involved in a dispute with Demarce, the proprietor.
The Bashaws finally left for home, leaving Terrance and Demarce to settle their difficulties as best they could. Terrance says that he soon left the saloon and started for the shed to get his horse. This was about nine o’clock. When only part way to the shed there was a report of a gun and he fell shot in the back, the ball entering the right shoulder blade. He lay where he fell about two hours when two young men, Arthur Miller and William Smith, heard him calling and found him wounded and bleeding. Demarce came to their assistance and the wounded man was conveyed to Fort Covington for surgical treatment. He was taken to the American House and Drs. McArtney and Blackett probed for the bullet without success. Terrance claims that Demarce said he shot him, and the fact that the man was shot in the back while some distance from the store indicated that it was deliberate on the part of Demarce, who practically admits the shooting by giving himself up.
After suffering three violent shootings within the span of a year, two of which were at the hands of non-native police officers, one might expect that all the fight might have gone out of the people who opposed the elections on both sides of the border, especially when you consider that reservation elections were always attended by outside police. But opposition did continue, as the newspaper accounts from later years attest, and today the elected and “hereditary” chiefs share an uneasy coexistence in Akwesasne. Neither form of government has completely won out over the other.
Next in series: Mohawks Know the Dark Side of Bridges
By Darren Bonaparte, historian and author of The Wampum Chronicles. Reprinted with permission.
Darren Bonaparte is a cultural historian from the Akwesasne First Nation. He is a frequent lecturer at schools, universities, museums, and historical sites in the United States and Canada. He has written four books, several articles, and the libretto for the McGill Chamber Orchestra’s Aboriginal Visions and Voices. Darren is a former chief of the Mohawk Council of Akwesasne. He is the creator of The Wampum Chronicles and historical advisor to film and television. He currently serves as the Director of the Tribal Historic Preservation Office of the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe.