The Kinzua Dam, The Cold War, and US Treaties (2023)

In this lesson, students consider the arguments made by three individuals regarding the planned construction of the dam against the backdrop of the Cold War.

Subject: US History; Civics and US Government

Topic: Civil Rights; The Cold War; Civic Education and Engagement

Grade Level: 9 -12

Duration: 1 hour

Download the lesson plan, including handouts, in PDF form.


The Kinzua Dam in western Pennsylvania has a tumultuous history that highlights a treaty breached by the US government with the Seneca Nation. Built to prevent flooding of the Ohio River Valley and protect Pittsburgh, the dam would require the forced relocation of members of the Seneca Nation from their reservation lands.

(Video) "two sides to every dam story" The Kinzua Dam ( Warren, Pennsylvania)

In this lesson, students consider the arguments made by three individuals regarding the planned construction of the dam against the backdrop of the Cold War. Students do a close reading of the following documents: a February 22, 1961 letter from the president of the Seneca Nation, Basil Williams, to President Kennedy, an August 9, 1961 letter from President Kennedy to Basil Williams, and an August 24, 1961 letter from a private citizen, Ruth Thompson, to the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, Helen Peterson.

Essential Question: Are American Indian Nations treated as fully sovereign entities?


Students will

  • do a close reading of three primary sources.
  • analyze the arguments made by the writers either for or against the building of the Kinzua Dam.
  • consider the extent to which American Indian Nations have been treated as sovereign entities by the US government.


Materials(All handouts available in the downloadable PDF)

  • February 22, 1961 letter from the president of the Seneca Nation, Basil Williams, to President Kennedy (page 1) (page 2)
  • April 9, 1961 letter from President Kennedy to Basil Williams
  • August 24, 1961 letter from Ruth Thompson to Helen Peterson,theOglala Sioux executive director of the National Congress of American Indians
  • Reading: “Construction and Destruction: The Kinzua Dam, the Cold War, and US Treaties”
  • Handout: “Document Analysis: The Kinzua Dam”

Prior Knowledge: Students should have an understanding of early US government interactions with American Indians and the Cold War.

Historical Background
The Kinzua Dam on the Allegheny River in western Pennsylvania has a tumultuous history that highlights a treaty breached by the US government with the Seneca Nation. In constructing the dam in the early 1960s, the federal government broke the 1794 Canandaigua Treaty between the US government and the Six Nations--American Indians who occupied the border between the US and British Canada. This treaty, signed by President George Washington, established in writing the area in Western New York that would be American Indian territory and noted"the United States will never claim the same, nor disturb them or either of the Six Nations, nor their Indian friends residing thereon and united with them, in the free use and enjoyment thereof: but the said reservations shall remain theirs, until they choose to sell the same to the people of the United States who have right to purchase."(The full treaty is available here.)

Plans for construction of the Kinzua Dam began after a devastating flood in 1936 inundated Pittsburgh and other towns in western Pennsylvania. The flooding led Congress to pass the Flood Control Acts of 1936 and 1938, which authorized construction of the dam under the authority of the Army Corps of Engineers.

(Video) Remembering the Removal [Kinzua Dam & Forced Seneca Relocation]

The Seneca Nation fought against the building of the dam in the courts and in Congress because by constructing the dam in the planned location, inhabited land upstream in New York would be inundated, forcing hundreds of Seneca Indians off their tribal lands. However, opponents of the dam were unable to convince Congress in hearings held in 1957 to prevent appropriating funds for the project, and on April 14, 1958, the US Army Corps of Engineers in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania received approval in a US District Court to begin construction. The Eisenhower administration fully supported the project.

Controversy over the loss of Seneca Nation lands and the forced relocation of members of the Seneca Nation was significant, and the continued fight to delay construction of the dam made national news. After losing battles in the courts and with Congress, the Seneca Nation in 1961 appealed to the newly inaugurated President Kennedy.

On February 22, 1961, the president of the Seneca Nation, Basil Williams, wrote a letter to Kennedy asking him to honor the Canandaigua Treaty and referring to an alternative flood prevention plan that that would not require the removal of the Senecas from their tribal lands. At Kennedy’s request, the note was answered by Elmer Staats, the Deputy Director of the Bureau of the Budget. In the response, Staats noted that approval for the dam had been through years of planning and had successfully made its way through federal courts and Congress after much testimony and discussion. The money was in place, and the Seneca Nation's land would be acquired “in an equitable manner and in such a way as to minimize inconvenience on the Seneca tribe.”

Three months later, on May 23, 1961, Basil Williams sent another letter to President Kennedy. The Cold War had been heating up during the spring and summer of 1961 after the difficult meeting between President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and the tensions over US access to Berlin. The Berlin Crisis, as it was known, was of predominant concern to Kennedy and he made his views known in a July 25, 1961 speech to the American people in which he said the US had legal rights to be in West Berlin based on international agreements that could not be unilaterally disregarded by the Soviets. The US was prepared to go to war over Berlin, if necessary.

While international affairs were foremost in Kennedy’s mind, domestic issues still needed addressing. In a 1960 campaign letter to Oliver La Farge, the president of the Association of American Indian Affairs, Kennedy said that, if elected, his administration would make "no change in treaty or contractual relationships without the consent of the tribes concerned."As president, Kennedy had other priorities. He supported continuing with the plans already in place for the construction of the dam. On August 9, 1961, Kennedy wrote to Basil Williams, explaining that although construction would continue on the dam, the US government was prepared to offer assistance in relocating tribal members to ameliorate the impact of the move. This letter was released to the public as a press release on August 11, 1963

On August 24, 1961, Ruth Thompson, a benefactor of American Indian causes, wrote to Helen Peterson, the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, with her own idea of how the Senecas could dissuade the federal government from taking their land. Thompson was one of many critics of the dam who looked to the Cold War context of the dam’s construction to highlight a rationale for stopping the project.

None of the many efforts to stop the dam’s construction succeeded. After years of construction, the dam began its operation in 1966, inundating more than 9,000 acres of Seneca tribal land and forcing the relocation of nearly 700 Senecas into new housing.


  1. For homework, have students read the handout: “Construction and Destruction: The Kinzua Dam, the Cold War, and US Treaties” and answer the Question to Consider.
  2. In class, discuss the homework.
  3. Provide students with the handout: “Document Analysis: The Kinzua Dam” and the three primary sources.
  4. Have students fill in the grid to help them determine the arguments made by the writers either for or against the construction of the dam.
  5. Return together as a group and share responses, discussing the particular implications for the US of treaty-breaking at a time when the US was engaged in a territorial dispute with the Soviet Union over West Berlin.


For a final assignment, have students do additional research to answer these questions:

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  • According to the US Department of the Interior “The relationship between federally recognized tribes and the United States is one between sovereigns, i.e., between a government and a government.” In what ways have American Indian Nations been treated as fully sovereign nations and in what ways have they not been treated as fully sovereign? What significant court rulings have found in favor or against complete sovereignty of American Indian Nations through the course of US history?

You may want to provide them with a few of the following weblinks to help them with their research:

Native American Rights: Federal Power over Native American Rights

Smithsonian Magazine – Nation to Nation: Treaties between the US and American Indian Nations

National Conference of State Legislatures: An Issue of Sovereignty

Sovereignty: A Brief History in the Context of U.S. “Indian Law”

Supreme Court Ruling Has Big Implications for Native American Sovereignty

Department of the Interior: Indian Affairs, Frequently Asked Questions

(Video) 2019 Petroleum Program: Kinzua Dam from Construction to Function


  1. Have students read the lyrics and listen to the songs recorded by Johnny Cash “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” (written by Peter La Farge specifically about the Kinzua Dam) and the Buffy Sainte-Marie song “Now that the Buffalo’s Gone,” recorded in 1968.
    • Have students consider which lines from the song or songs might they remember most and why.
    • Have students consider an issue they feel important to them and write their own song lyric to promote their cause.
  2. Assign students a research project about the Seneca Nation as it exists today. Students may want to investigate the Seneca Nation Constitution, the Seneca language, or another topic that interests them. These weblinks may be useful:
  3. Review with students the post-WW II agreements to divide Germany into occupation zones controlled by the US, Great Britain, France and the USSR, and have them research how the US handled its territorial conflicts over Berlin with the USSR before, during, and after the Berlin Crisis.
  4. Assign students a research project that investigates the history of the Kinzua Dam from the time it was implemented until today. What has been the impact of the dam in addition to the loss of Seneca land?

Connections to Curriculum (Standards)

National History Standards -US History, Era 9: Postwar United States (1945 to early 1970s)

  • Standard 3:Domestic policies after World War II
  • Standard 4:The struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties

Common Core State Standards

  • ELA College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language
  • ELA – Reading Informational Texts, Writing, Speaking and Listening, Language, and Literacy in History/Social Studies for grades 9-10 and 11-12

C3 Framework for Social Studies State Standards

  • Discipline 1 - Developing questions and planning inquiries
  • Discipline 2 - Applying disciplinary concepts and tools (History and Civics)
  • Discipline 3 - Evaluating sources and using evidence
  • Discipline 4 - Communicating conclusions and taking informed action

National Council of Teachers of English: Standards 1, 3, 5, 6

Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework

  • USII.T4: Defending democracy: the Cold War and civil rights at home
  • GOV.T1: Foundations of government in the United States

Massachusetts English Language Arts Framework

  • Reading, Writing, Speaking and Listening, and Language


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