The Iroquois’ extension of liberty and political participation to women surprised some eighteenth-century Euro-American observers. An unsigned contemporary manuscript in the New York State Library reported that when Iroquois men returned from hunting, they turned everything they had caught over to the women. “Indeed, every possession of the man except his horse & his rifle belong to the woman after marriage; she takes care of their Money and Gives it to her husband as she thinks his necessities require it,” the unnamed observer wrote. The writer sought to refute assumptions that Iroquois women were “slaves of their husbands.” “The truth is that Women are treated in a much more respectful manner than in England & that they possess a very superior power; this is to be attributed in a very great measure to their system of Education.” The women, in addition to their political power and control of allocation from the communal stores, acted as communicators of culture between generations. It was they who educated the young.Another matter that surprised many contemporary observers was the Iroquois’ sophisticated use of oratory. Their excellence with the spoken word, among other attributes, often caused Colden and others to compare the Iroquois to the Romans and Greeks.
“Our Indians Have Outdone the Romans”
The Five Nations have such absolute Notions of Liberty that they allow no kind of Superiority of one over another, and banish all Servitude from their Territories.— Cadwallader Colden, 1727
By the mid-eighteenth century, when alliance with the Six Nations became an article of policy with the British Crown, English colonists had been living in North America for little more than a century. The colonies comprised a thin ribbon of settlement from a few miles north of Boston to a few miles south of Charleston. Barely a million people all told, the British colonists looked westward across mountains that seemed uncompromisingly rugged to English eyes, into the maw of a continent that they already knew was many times the size of their ancestral homeland. How much larger, no one at that time really knew. No one knew exactly how wide the forests might be, how far the rivers might reach, or what lay beyond them. There was a widespread belief that the Pacific Ocean lay out there, somewhere. The map makers settled for blank spaces and guesses.
Across the mountains were the homelands of Indian confederacies — the Iroquois to the northwest, the Cherokees to the Southwest, and others — which outnumbered the colonists and whose warriors had proved themselves tactically, if not technologically, equal to the British army on American ground. And there were the French, sliding southward along the spine of the mountains, establishing forts as close as Pittsburgh, their soldiers and trappers building the bases of empire along the rivers that laced the inland forests.
The British decision to seek the Iroquois’ favor set in motion historical events that were to make North America a predominantly English-speaking continent. These events also, paradoxically, provided an opportunity for learning, observation, and reflection which in its turn gave the nation-to-be a character distinct from England and the rest of Europe, and which thus helped make the American Revolution possible.
The diplomatic approach to the Iroquois came at a time when the transplanted Europeans were first beginning to sense that they were something other than Europeans, or British subjects. Several generations had been born in the new land. The English were becoming, by stages, “Americans” — a word that had been reserved for Indians. From the days when the Puritans came to build their city on a hill there had been some feeling of distinction, but for a century most of the colonists had been escapees from Europe, or temporary residents hoping to extract a fortune from the new land and return, rich gentlemen all, to the homeland. After a century of settlement, however, that was changing.
From the days of Squanto’s welcome and the first turkey dinner, the Indians had been contributing to what was becoming a new amalgam of cultures. In ways so subtle that they were often ignored, the Indians left their imprint on the colonists’ eating habits, the paths they followed, the way they clothed themselves, and the way they thought. The Indians knew how to live in America, and the colonists, from the first settlers onward, had to learn.
When the British decided to send some of the colonies’ most influential citizens to seek alliance with the Iroquois, the treaty councils that resulted provided more than an opportunity for diplomacy. They enabled the leading citizens of both cultures to meet and mingle on common and congenial ground, and thus to learn from each other. The pervasiveness and influence of these contacts has largely been lost in a history that, much like journalism, telescopes time into a series of conflicts — conquistadorial signposts on the way west.
Lost in this telescoping of history has been the intense fascination that the unfolding panorama of novelty that was America held for the new Americans — a fascination that was shipped eastward across the Atlantic to Spain, France, Britain, and Germany in hundreds of travel narratives, treaty accounts, and scientific treatises, in a stream that began with Columbus’s accounts of the new world’s wonders and persisted well into the nineteenth century.
The observations and reports that flooded booksellers of the time were often entirely speculative. Travel was very difficult, and what explorers could not reach, they often imagined. “A traveler'” wrote Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard for 1737, “should have a hog’s nose, a deer’s legs and an ass’s back” — testimony to the rugged nature and agonizingly slow pace of overland travel by stage or horse at a time when roads were virtually nonexistent outside of thickly settled areas, and when motorized transport was unknown. If crossing the ocean was an exercise in hardship, crossing the boundless continent was even more difficult. For the few people who did it (or tried) and who could read and write, there was a market: the boundaries of popular curiosity were as limitless as the continent seemed to be. That curiosity was matched by an equal array of ornate speculations on what lay beyond the next bend in this river or that, or beyond the crest of such and such a mountain. What new peoples were to be found? What new and exotic plants and animals? Were there cities of gold? Mountains two miles high? Giants and Lilliputians? The speculations assumed a degree of vividness not unlike twentieth-century musings over the character of possible life on the planets.
The first systematic English-language account of the Iroquois’ social and political system was published in 1727, and augmented in 1747, by Cadwallader Colden, who, in the words of Robert Waite, was regarded as “the best-informed man in the New World on the affairs of the British-American colonies.” A son of Reverend Alexander Colden, a Scottish minister, Colden was born February 17, 1688, in Ireland. He arrived in America at age twenty-two, five years after he was graduated from the University of Edinburgh. Shortly after his arrival in America, Colden began more than a half century of service in various offices of New York Colonial government. His official career culminated in 1761 with an appointment as lieutenant governor of the colony. In addition to political duties, Colden carried on extensive research in natural science. He also became close to the Iroquois, and was adopted by the Mohawks.
In a preface to his History of the Five Indian Nations Depending on the Province of New York in America, Colden wrote that his account was the first of its kind in English:
Though every one that is in the least acquainted with the affairs of North-America, knows of what consequence the Indians, commonly known to the people of New-York by the name of the Five Nations, are both in Peace and War, I know of no accounts of them published in English, but what are meer [sic] Translations of French authors.
Colden found the Iroquois to be “barbarians” because of their reputed tortures of captives, but he also saw a “bright and noble genius” in these Indians’ “love of their country,” which he compared to that of “the greatest Roman Hero’s.” “When Life and Liberty came in competition, indeed, I think our Indians have outdone the Romans in this particular. . . . The Five Nations consisted of men whose Courage and Resolution could not be shaken.” Colden was skeptical that contact with Euro-Americans could improve the Iroquois: “Alas! we have reason to be ashamed that these Infidels, by our Conversation and Neighborhood, have become worse than they were before they knew us. Instead of Vertues, we have only taught them Vices, that they were entirely free of before that time. The narrow Views of private interest have occasioned this.”
Despite his condemnation of their reputed cruelty toward some of their captives, Colden wrote that Euro-Americans were imitating some of the Iroquois’ battle tactics, which he described as the art of “managing small parties.” The eastern part of the continent, the only portion of North America that the colonists of the time knew, was, in Colden’s words, “one continued Forrest,” which lent advantage to Iroquoian warfare methods. Such methods would later be put to work against British soldiers in the American Revolution.
Colden also justified his study within the context of natural science: “We are fond of searching into remote Antiquity to know the manners of our earliest progenitors; if I be not mistaken, the Indians are living images of them.” The belief that American Indian cultures provided a living window on the prehistory of Europe was not Colden’s alone. This assumption fueled curiosity about American Indian peoples on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean throughout the eighteenth century. Colden’s was one of the first widely circulated observations of this sort, which compared Indians, especially the Iroquois, to the Romans and the Greeks, as well as other peoples such as the Celts and the Druids. Looking through this window on the past, it was believed that observation of Indian cultures could teach Europeans and Euro-Americans about the original form of their ancestors’ societies — those close to a state of nature that so intrigued the thought of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Colden, elaborating, wrote:
The present state of the Indian Nations exactly shows the most Ancient and Original Condition of almost every Nation; so, I believe that here we may with more certainty see the original form of all government, than in the most curious Speculations of the Learned; and that the Patriarchal and other Schemes in Politicks are no better than Hypotheses in Philosophy, and as prejudicial to real Knowledge.
The original form of government, Colden believed, was similar to the Iroquois’ system, which he described in some detail. This federal union, which Colden said “has continued so long that the Christians know nothing of the original of it,” used public opinion extensively:
Each nation is an absolute Republick by itself, govern’d in all Publick affairs of War and Peace by the Sachems of Old Men, whose Authority and Power is gained by and consists wholly in the opinions of the rest of the Nation in their Wisdom and Integrity. They never execute their Resolutions by Compulsion or Force Upon any of their People. Honour and Esteem are their principal Rewards, as Shame and being Despised are their Punishments.
The Iroquois’ military leaders, like the civilian sachems, “obtain their authority . . . by the General Opinion of their Courage and Conduct, and lose it by a Failure in those Vertues,” Colden wrote. He also observed that Iroquois leaders were generally regarded as servants of their people, unlike European kings, queens, and other members of a distinct hierarchy. It was customary, Colden observed, for Iroquois sachems to abstain from material things while serving their people, in so far as was possible:
Their Great Men, both Sachems [civil chiefs] and captains [war chiefs] are generally poorer than the common people, for they affect to give away and distribute all the Presents or Plunder they get in their Treaties or War, so as to leave nothing for themselves. If they should be once suspected of selfishness, they would grow mean in the opinion of their Country-men, and would consequently lose their authority.
Colden used the words of Monsieur de la Poterie, a French historian, to summarize his sentiments about the Iroquois’ system of society and government:
When one talks of the Five Nations in France, they are thought, by a common mistake, to be meer Barbarians, always thirsting after human blood; but their True Character is very different. They are as Politick and Judicious as well can be conceiv’d. This appears from their management of the Affairs which they transact, not only with the French and the English, but likewise with almost all the Indian Nations of this vast continent.
Like Colden, French writers sometimes compared the Iroquois to the Romans. Three years before Colden published his History of the Five Indian Nations Depending on the Province of New York in America in its 1727 edition, a line drawing from a book by the Frenchman Joseph Francois Lafitau purported to illustrate an Iroquois council meeting. As was rather apparent from the drawing, the artist had never seen a meeting. In the drawing, a chief was shown standing, holding a wampum belt. He and other Iroquois sitting around him in a semicircle wore white, toga-like garments and sandals. Their hair was relatively short and curly, in the Roman fashion. The chiefs were shown sitting against a background that did not look at all like the American woodland, but more like the rolling, almost treeless Roman countryside. Accounts of Indian (especially Iroquoian) life and society, especially those by Colden, enjoyed a lively sale on both sides of the Atlantic.
Other eighteenth-century writers compared the Iroquois to counterparts of Old Testament life; James Adair’s History of the American Indians (1775) “prefers simple Hebraic-savage honesty to complex British civilized corruption.” Indians, wrote Adair, were governed by the “plain and honest law of nature . . . “:
Their whole constitution breathes nothing but liberty; and when there is equality of condition, manners and privileges, and a constant familiarity in society, as prevails in every Indian nation, and through all our British colonies, there glows such a cheerfulness and warmth of courage in each of their breasts, as cannot be described.
Iroquoian notions of personal liberty also drew exclamations from Colden, who wrote:
The Five Nations have such absolute Notions of Liberty that they allow of no Kind of Superiority of one over another, and banish all Servitude from their Territories. They never make any prisoner a slave, but it is customary among them to make a Compliment of Naturalization into the Five Nations; and, considering how highly they value themselves above all others, this must be no small compliment . . .
The Iroquois’ extension of liberty and political participation to women surprised some eighteenth-century Euro-American observers. An unsigned contemporary manuscript in the New York State Library reported that when Iroquois men returned from hunting, they turned everything they had caught over to the women. “Indeed, every possession of the man except his horse & his rifle belong to the woman after marriage; she takes care of their Money and Gives it to her husband as she thinks his necessities require it,” the unnamed observer wrote. The writer sought to refute assumptions that Iroquois women were “slaves of their husbands.” “The truth is that Women are treated in a much more respectful manner than in England & that they possess a very superior power; this is to be attributed in a very great measure to their system of Education.” The women, in addition to their political power and control of allocation from the communal stores, acted as communicators of culture between generations. It was they who educated the young.
Another matter that surprised many contemporary observers was the Iroquois’ sophisticated use of oratory. Their excellence with the spoken word, among other attributes, often caused Colden and others to compare the Iroquois to the Romans and Greeks. The French use of the term Iroquois to describe the confederacy was itself related to this oral tradition; it came from the practice of ending their orations with the two words hiro and kone. The first meant “I say” or “I have said” and the second was an exclamation of joy or sorrow according to the circumstances of the speech. The two words, joined and made subject to French pronunciation, became Iroquois. The English were often exposed to the Iroquois’ oratorical skills at eighteenth-century treaty councils.
Wynn R. Reynolds in 1957 examined 258 speeches by Iroquois at treaty councils between 1678 and 1776 and found that the speakers resembled the ancient Greeks in their primary emphasis on ethical proof. Reynolds suggested that the rich oratorical tradition may have been further strengthened by the exposure of children at an early age to a life in which oratory was prized and often heard.
More than curiosity about an exotic culture that was believed to be a window on a lost European past, drew Euro-Americans to the Iroquois. There were more immediate and practical concerns, such as the Iroquois’ commanding military strength, their role in the fur trade, their diplomatic influence among other Indians and the Six Nations’ geographical position astride the only relatively level pass between the mountains that otherwise separated British and French settlement in North America. During the eighteenth century, English Colonial settlement was moving inland, along the river valleys. Only a few hundred miles west of what was then the frontier outpost of Albany, the French were building forts north and west of the Great Lakes. The French, constantly at war with England during this period, were also penetrating the Mississippi Valley. Between the English and the French stood the Iroquois and their allies, on land that stretched, northeast to southwest, along nearly the entire frontier of the British colonies. Before 1763, when the French were expelled from North America by the British and their Iroquois allies, the Six Nations enjoyed considerable diplomatic leverage, which was exploited with skill. The Iroquois’ geographical position was important at a time when communication was limited to the speed of transportation, and the speed of transportation on land was limited to that of a man or woman on horseback. The Iroquois controlled the most logical transportation route between the coast and the interior, a route through which the Erie Canal was built in the early nineteenth century. Although the pass controlled by the Iroquois was relatively level compared to the land around it, the area was still thickly wooded. It was part of a wilderness that seemed so vast to the Euro-Americans that many of them assumed that Indians would always have a place in which to hunt, no matter how much of Europe’s excess population crossed the Atlantic.
The rivalry between the British and French was on Colden’s mind as he wrote the introduction to the 1747 edition of his History of the Five Indian Nations:
The former part of this history was written at New-York in the year 1727, on Occasion of a Dispute which then happened, between the government of New-York and some Merchants. The French of Canada had the whole Fur Trade with the Western Indians in their Hands, and were supplied with their Woollen Goods from New-York. Mr. Burnet, who took more Pains to be Informed of the Interest of the People he was set over, and of making them useful to their Mother Country than Plantation Governors usually do, took the Trouble of Perusing all the Registers of the Indian Affairs on this occasion. He from thence conceived of what Consequences the Fur Trade with the Western Indians was of to Great Britain . . . the Manufactures depending on it.
The Iroquois had not only the best route for trade and other transport, but also plenty of beaver. Colden recognized that to whom went the beaver might go the victory in any future war between France and Britain in North America. The mid-eighteenth century was a time when two nations could not join in battle unless they occupied neighboring real estate. The Iroquois’ position indicated to Colden that their friendship, as well as business relations, must be procured if the English were to gain an advantage over the French:
He [Burnet] considered what influence this trade had on the numerous nations of Indians living on this vast continent of North America, and who surround the British Colonies; and what advantage it might be if they were influenced by the English in case of a war with France, and how prejudicial, on the other hand, if they were directed by the French Counsels.
The New York legislature soon recognized this reasoning, and acted to channel trade from the French to the English, Colden wrote. Such steps were not uncommon in the economic cold war between England and France during the middle of the century. The drawing up of sides that Colden advised was but another small step along the road to the final conflict in North America between these two European Colonial powers. As with the building of empires before and since the eighteenth century, trade and the flag often traveled in tandem, and economic conflict preceded overt military warfare. Robert Newbold (The Albany Congress and Plan of Union, 1955) assigned the competition for diminishing stocks of beaver a central role in the conflict between the British and French empires in North America during this period.
To Colden, trade with the Six Nations also presented an opportunity to mix and mingle with the Indians, and to convert them to the British Colonial interest:
I shall only add that Mr. Burnet’s scheme had the desired effect: The English have gained the Trade which the French, before that, had with the Indians to the Westward of New York; and whereas, before that time, a very inconsiderable number of men were employed in the Indian Trade Abroad. Now above three hundred men are employed at the Trading House at Oswego alone, and the Indian trade has since that time yearly increased so far, that several Indian nations come now every summer to trade there, whose Names were not so much as known by the English before.
As Colden had noted in his essay, the British were assembling a wide-ranging program of trade and diplomatic activity to insure that in any future war the Iroquois’ powerful confederacy would side with them. Although, when the continent and its history are taken as a whole, the French were better at mixing with Indians and securing their alliance, at this particular time and in this place the English had the upper hand. This was accomplished through a series of adroit diplomatic moves, many of which were performed with the help of a group of men who, although English in background, were at home with the Iroquois as well.
The importance of the British alliance with the Iroquois was enhanced not only by the Six Nations’ strategic position and military strength, but also by the Iroquois’ diplomatic influence with many of the Indian nations of eastern North America. English and American writers remarked at the Iroquois’ diplomatic and military power as early as 1687, when Governor Dongan of New York wrote that the Iroquois “go as far as the South Sea, the North West Passage and Florida to warr.” The Iroquois did more than wage war; they were renowned in peacetime as traders, and as orators who traveled the paths that linked Indian nations together across most of eastern North America. When the English colonists had business with Indians in Ohio, and other parts of the Mississippi Valley, they often consulted the Iroquois. Clark Wissler classified many of the Indian nations situated around the Six Nations, including the Cherokees to the south, as members of the “Iroquois Family.” The Iroquois’ language was the language of diplomacy among Indians along much of the English Colonial frontier. These nations often contributed to, and borrowed from, practices of others. There is evidence that the Iroquoian form of government was imitated by other Indian nations.
One way that the English acted to maintain their alliance with the Iroquois, noted previously, was trade. The giving of gifts, an Indian custom, was soon turned by the English to their own ends. Gift giving was used by the English to introduce to Indians, and to invite their dependence on, the produce of England’s embryonic industrial revolution. The English found it rather easy to outdo the French, whose industries were more rudimentary at the time, in gift giving. The Iroquois — premier military, political, and diplomatic figures on the frontier — were showered with gifts.
By 1744, the English effort was bearing fruit. At a treaty council during that year, Canassatego, the Iroquois chief, told Colonial commissioners from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia:
The Six Nations have a great Authority and Influence over the sundry tribes of Indians in alliance with the French, and Particularly the Praying Indians, formerly a part with ourselves, who stand in the very gates of the French, and to shew our further Care, we have engaged these very Indians, and other Indian allies of the French for you. They will not join the French against you. They have agreed with us before we set out. We have put the spirit of Antipathy against the French in those People. Our Interest is very Considerable with them, and many other [Indian] Nations, and as far as it ever extends, we shall use it for your service.
During the 1744 treaty conference, the British commissioners traded with the Iroquois goods they held to be worth 220 pounds sterling and 15 shillings, including 200 shirts, four duffle blankets, forty-seven guns, one pound of vermillion, 1000 flints, four dozen Jews Harps, 202 bars of lead, two quarters shot, and two half-barrels of gun powder. The preponderance of military items indicated the strength of the alliance, and the expectation of hostilities with the French, against whom Canassatego had pledged the Iroquois’ aid.
Although some of the older chiefs complained that the Indians ought to make do with their traditional clothes, foods, and weapons, the British gifts and trade items apparently were eagerly accepted. The accommodating English even established a separate gift-presentation ceremony for the chiefs, who were forbidden by the Great Law to take their share from the officially presented gifts until other tribal members had picked them over.
The English were not giving because they were altruistic; by showering the Iroquois with gifts, the English not only helped secure their alliance, but also made the Indians dependent on some of England’s manufactures, thus creating new markets for the Crown. If, for example, the Iroquois took up European arms and laid down their traditional weapons, they also became dependent on a continuing supply of powder and lead. According to Jacobs, the British skillfully interwove the political and military objectives of imperialism with the economic objectives of mercantilism.
Much of the gift giving took place at treaty councils. Historically these meetings were some of the most important encounters of the century. By cementing an alliance with the Iroquois, the British were determining the course of the last in a series of Colonial wars with France in North America. The councils were conducted with solemnity befitting the occasion, a style that shows through their proceedings, which were published and widely read in the colonies and in Europe.
In the mid-eighteenth century, the only way to carry on serious diplomatic business was face to face. There were, of course, no telephones, no telegraph, and no shuttle diplomacy. Where it existed at all, mail service was slow, expensive, and often unreliable. It often took a letter as long to get from Boston to Charleston as from either city to London — at least a month, more likely six weeks, depending on the weather and other unpredictable circumstances.
On the English Colonial side of the table (or the council fire) sat such notables as Benjamin Franklin, his son William, William Johnson, Conrad Weiser, and Colden. The Iroquois’ most eloquent sachems often spoke for the Six Nations, men such as Canassatego, Hendrick, and Shickallemy. These, and other lesser-known chiefs, were impressive speakers and adroit negotiators.
Canassatego was praised for his dignity and forcefulness of speech and his uncanny understanding of the whites. At the 1744 treaty council, Canassatego reportedly carried off “all honors in oratory, logical argument, and adroit negotiation,” according to Witham Marshe, who observed the treaty council. Marshe wrote afterward that “Ye Indians seem superior to ye commissioners in point of sense and argument.” His words were meant for Canassatego. An unusually tall man in the days when the average height was only slightly over five feet, Canassatego was well muscled, especially in the legs and chest, and athletic well past his fiftieth year. His size and booming voice, aided by a commanding presence gave him what later writers would call charisma — conversation stopped when he walked into a room. Outgoing to the point of radiance, Canassatego, by his own admission, drank too much of the white man’s rum, and when inebriated was known for being unflatteringly direct in front of people he disliked. Because of his oratory, which was noted for both dignity and power, Canassatego was the elected speaker of the Grand Council at Onondaga during these crucial years.
Shickallemy was known among his own people as Swatane. As the Onondaga council’s main liaison with the Shawnees, Conestogas, and Delawares, he was frequently in contact with the governments of Pennsylvania and New York, whose agents learned early that if they had business with these allied nations, they had business with Shickallemy, who handled their “European Affairs.” Unlike many of the Iroquois chiefs, he was not a great orator. He was known for being a gentleman and a statesman — sensitive enough to deal with the Iroquois Indian allies, but also firm enough to deal with the whites beyond the frontier. In 1731, Governor Gordon of Pennsylvania gave to Shickallemy one of the first British Colonial messages ‘ seeking alliance against the French. In the swath of wooded hills that lay between the colonies and the governing seat of the Iroquois league, it was Shickallemy’s sign — that of the turtle, his clan — that guaranteed safe passage to all travelers, British and Indian. In the Iroquoian language his name meant “the enlightener,” and when he died in 1749, one year before Canassatego’s death, word went out all through the country, on both sides of the frontier, that a lamp had gone out.
Shickallemy’s life illustrated just how permeable the frontier could be during the eighteenth century. Born a Frenchman, he was taken prisoner at an early age by the Iroquois. He was later adopted by them and eventually elevated to membership in the Grand Council of the Confederacy as a pine-tree chief. Shickallemy, as an Iroquois chief, cultivated the friendship of the British colonists, and tried to pass this affection to his children, the youngest son of whom was Logan, who turned against the Euro-Americans only after most of his family was murdered by land squatters in 1774. Logan’s speech after the murders was published by Jefferson in Notes on the State of Virginia and passed on, from there, to millions of nineteenth-century school children through McGuffy’s Readers.
Hendrick’s Iroquois name was Tiyanoga. Like Canassatego, he was described as one who could combine traditional Iroquoian dignity with forcefulness and brutal frankness when occasion called. The principal chief of the Mohawks, his warriors guarded the “eastern door” of the Iroquois longhouse, through which most diplomats and traders passed. Hendrick, like Canassatego, was described as an eloquent speaker. “No one equalled his force and eloquence,” wrote Milton W. Hamilton. Hendrick, like some of the other chiefs, was fluent in English, but rarely spoke the language at treaty councils or in other contact with Euro-Americans. He apparently enjoyed eavesdropping on colonists’ comments about the ignorant Indians who surely, they thought, couldn’t understand what they were saying. Hendrick was a close friend of Sir William Johnson; it was this relationship, more than any other individual bond, which kept the Iroquois allied with the English until the French were expelled from the continent in 1763.
If it is surprising to find on the Indian side of the table sachems bearing names usually associated with European nobles, it may be just as surprising to find on the English side men who had absorbed so much of Indian life that they were at home on both sides of the frontier. During the period when the English and Iroquois were allied, these men — English and Iroquois — mixed and mingled freely, sitting in each other’s councils, and living each other’s lives. Probably the most important Englishman on the frontier was Sir William Johnson, Baronet. Johnson may have been one of the men Franklin had in mind when he wrote that English Colonial society had trouble maintaining its hold on many men once they had tasted Indian life. An unidentified friend of Johnson’s wrote of him:
Something in his natural temper responds to Indian ways. The man holding up a spear he has just thrown, upon which a fish is now impaled; the man who runs, with his toes turned safely inward, through a forest where a greenhorn could not walk, the man sitting silent, gun on knee, in a towering black glade, watching by candle flame for the movement of antlers toward a tree whose bark has already been streaked by the tongues of deer; the man who can read a bent twig like an historical volume — this man is William Johnson, and he has learned all these skills from the Mohawks.
If Franklin was the most influential single individual at the Albany congress, Johnson was not far behind. It was Johnson who persuaded the reluctant Iroquois to attend the congress, and who helped maintain an alliance that was often strained severely by conflicts over land, as well as the colonists’ refusal to unite in face of the French threat. Johnson was characterized by the Mohawks at the Albany congress as “our lips and our tongue and our mouth.” Johnson often dressed as an Iroquois, led war parties, sat on the Great Council of the league at times, and pursued Mohawk women relentlessly. His freelance sexual exploits were legend on both sides of the Atlantic; Johnson was said to have fathered a hundred Mohawk children. Such accounts have been disputed, but it is relatively certain that he fathered at least eight children among the Mohawks. The Mohawks did not seem to mind his fecundity; they did not worry about dilution of their gene pool because racial ethnocentricity was not widely practiced in Iroquoian culture. In fact, the Mohawks at the time appreciated Johnson’s contributions because their population had been depleted by war, and since theirs was a matrilineal society, every child he bore became a Mohawk. The shade of one’s skin meant less to the Mohawks than whether one accepted the laws of the Great Peace, which contained no racial bars to membership in the Six Nations.
Johnson’s sexual exploits sometimes met with wry reproval from some of his white friends. Peter Wraxall, a former aide to Johnson, wrote to him after hearing that he was suffering from syphilis: “I thank God the pain in your breast is removed. I hope your cough will soon follow. As to the rest, you deserve the scourge and I won’t say I pity you.”
Johnson dealt extensively and maintained a close friendship with Colden. He also was a close friend of Hendrick, with whom he could speak fluent Iroquois. If the two men wished, they could also communicate in English, since Hendrick spoke it well, although he rarely spoke the language at treaty councils. The experiences of Johnson, who was at least as comfortable among the Iroquois as he was among the English (his knowledge of England came from Iroquois chiefs who had been there) illustrates how permeable the Anglo-Iroquois frontier was at this crucial juncture in Colonial history.
Perhaps the most important Pennsylvania colonial at the treaty councils was Conrad Weiser, a Mohawk by adoption who supplied many of the treaty accounts which Franklin published. A close friend of Franklin’s, Weiser ranked with Johnson in the esteem given him by the Iroquois. Canassatego and Weiser were particularly close, and when the Iroquois adopted him, the sachem said that “we divided him into two parts. One we kept for ourselves, and one we left to you.” He was addressing “Brother Onas,” the Iroquoian name for the Pennsylvania Colonial governor. During the 1744 Lancaster treaty, Canassatego saluted Weiser:
We hope that Tarachawagon [Weiser’s Iroquois name] will be preserved by the good Spirit to a good old Age; when he is gone under Ground, it will be then time enough to look out for another, and no doubt that amongst so many Thousands as there are in the World, one such man may be found, who will serve both parties with the same Fidelity as Tarachawagon does; while he lives here there is no room to complain.
Weiser was the Iroquois’ unofficial host at the 1744 Lancaster treaty. He bought them tobacco in hundred-pound sacks, found hats for many of the chiefs, and cracked jokes with Canassatego. Weiser also warned the colonists not to mock the Iroquois if they found the Indians’ manners strange. He told the colonists that many of the Iroquois understood English, although they often pleaded ignorance of the language so that they could gather the colonists’ honest appraisals of Indians and Indian society. When the Iroquois asked that rum-selling traders be driven from their lands, Weiser made a show by smashing some of the traders’ kegs. When elderly Shickallemy became ill in 1747, Weiser dropped his official duties to care for the ailing sachem, and to make sure that blankets and food were delivered to his family during the winter.
The importance accorded treaty councils usually meant that the meetings would last at least two weeks, and sometimes longer. Most of the councils were held in the warmer season of the year, with June and July being the most favored months. It was during those months that oppressive heat and humidity enveloped the coastal cities and insects carried into them diseases such as malaria. It was a good time to retreat to the mountains — to Lancaster or Albany, or Easton, all frequent sites for treaty councils.
At treaty councils, leaders of both Indian and Euro-American cultures mingled not only at official meetings, but at convivial, off-the-record sessions as well. The atmosphere was that of a meeting of statesmen from co-equal nations, by most accounts an excellent atmosphere for the exchange of ideas of all kinds. This was especially true during the quarter-century before 1763, when the Crown’s need for Iroquois alliance enforced a respect for cultural practices that some of the more ethnocentric Colonial commissioners found distasteful. The treaty councils were the primary means not only for maintaining the Anglo-Iroquois alliance against the French, but for addressing matters, such as illegal land squatting, which often strained the alliance. Appeals by the Indians for Colonial commissioners to control the activities of their own citizens were standard fare at the opening of most treaty councils. Once such problems had been addressed, the parties got down to diplomacy. “Shining the covenant chain” was the metaphor most often used at the time for such activity.
The tone of the treaty councils was that of a peer relationship; the leaders of sovereign nations met to address mutual problems. The dominant assumptions of the Enlightenment, near its height during the mid-eighteenth century, cast Indians as equals in intellectual abilities and moral sense to the progressive Euro-American minds of the time. It was not until the nineteenth century that expansionism brought into its service the full flower of systematic racism that defined Indians as children, or wards, in the eyes of Euro-American law, as well as popular discourse.
Interest in treaty accounts was high enough by 1736 for a Philadelphia printer, Benjamin Franklin, to begin publication and distribution of them. During that year, Franklin published his first treaty account, recording the proceedings of a meeting in his home city during September and October of that year. During the next twenty-six years, Franklin’s press produced thirteen treaty accounts. During those years, Franklin became involved to a greater degree in the Indian affairs of Pennsylvania. By the early 1750s, Franklin was not only printing treaties, but representing Pennsylvania as an Indian commissioner as well. It was his first diplomatic assignment. Franklin’s attention to Indian affairs grew in tandem with his advocacy of a federal union of the colonies, an idea that was advanced by Canassatego and other Iroquois chiefs in treaty accounts published by Franklin’s press as early as 1744. Franklin’s writings indicate that as he became more deeply involved with the Iroquois and other Indian peoples, he picked up ideas from them concerning not only federalism, but concepts of natural rights, the nature of society and man’s place in it, the role of property in society, and other intellectual constructs that would be called into service by Franklin as he and other American revolutionaries shaped an official ideology for the new United States. Franklin’s intellectual interaction with Indian peoples began, however, while he was a Philadelphia printer who was helping to produce what has since been recognized as one of the few indigenous forms of American literature to be published during the Colonial period. In the century before the American Revolution, some fifty treaty accounts were published, covering forty-five treaty councils. Franklin’s press produced more than a quarter of the total. These documents were one indication that a group of colonies occupied by transplanted Europeans were beginning to develop a new sense of themselves; a sense that they were not solely European, but American as well.
Benjamin Franklin was one of a remarkable group who helped transform the mind of a group of colonies that were becoming a nation. It would be a nation that combined the heritages of two continents — that of Europe, their ancestral home, and America, the new home in which their experiment would be given form and expression.