“We are a powerful Confederacy; and, by your observing the same Methods our wise Forefathers have taken, you will acquire fresh Strength and Power; therefore, whatever befals you, never fall out with one another.”
This speech, made by an Onondaga leader named Canassatego during negotiations for the Treaty of Lancaster between the Haudenosaunee (“People of the Longhouse,” also known as the Iroquois) Confederacy and the colonies of Maryland and Virginia, is important for multiple reasons. It presents a Haudenosaunee perspective and narrative of the onset of European colonization, and a fairly balanced appraisal of its relative merits and drawbacks. Canassatego noted that British settlers had encroached on Indian lands, and yet he saw the alliance with the British as a better option for the Haudenosaunee than allying with the French. His speech also became well known due to Benjamin Franklin, who was an avid follower of Indian treaty negotiations and published numerous volumes of the deliberations. He wrote of the Haudenosaunee League, and it has been argued that it formed the model for his Albany Plan of Union, and later, the United States Constitution.
Canassatego’s speech at the negotiations for the Treaty of Lancaster in 1744 was made with the entire history of British colonization in North America as its backdrop. The Haudenosaunee, as the most powerful and cohesive group of American Indian tribes in what would become the Northeastern United States, were still a force to be reckoned with every time the British colonists wished to expand their territory or go to war against their most important rival, France. Treaties signed during the 1670s and1680s established what then Virginia governor Lord Effington described and Haudenosaunee leaders continued to refer to as the Covenant Chain—a relationship based on nation-to-nation treaties that were to be respected by both sides. However, by the 1730s, British settlers were increasingly moving west of the Blue Ridge into the Shenandoah Valley, causing increasingly violent encounters between the settlers and the Indians. As the Haudenosaunee were about to declare war on the settlers in 1743, the governor of Virginia colony paid them one hundred pounds to cease the violence. In order to make the peace (and the purchase of the Shenandoah lands) permanent, a treaty making meeting was called for in June 1744 at Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
It was at this meeting that Canassatego delivered his speech, in which he both recounted and reaffirmed the history of the Covenant Chain, and gave the British a bit of political advice as well. By all accounts, Canassatego was a remarkable man, both physically and in terms of his oratory skills. Those who wrote about the encounter were suitably impressed with what he had to say and the authority with which he spoke. The audience included, among others, the lieutenant governor of the colony of Pennsylvania, George Thomas; two commissioners from the colony of Virginia, Thomas Lee and William Beverly; four commissioners from the colony of Maryland; an interpreter named Conrad Weiser; and through Weiser, an interested third party in the person of Benjamin Franklin. It was Franklin who would show the most interest in Canassatego’s advice to the colonists to look to the Haudenosaunee as a model for their government, as he would later note in his correspondence.
Canassatego, of the Onondaga Nation, was a speaker and diplomat of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, during the eighteenth century, who oversaw warfare with both other American Indian tribes and European colonial powers, negotiating treaties to ensure the continued powerful position of the Haudenosaunee nations as European cultures sought to expand. Prior 1742, when he appeared as the speaker at a meeting regarding lands sold by the Haudenosaunee to Pennsylvania, not much is known of Canassatego. Various scholars have debated whether he held an official title as the speaker (tadadaho) of the Haudenosaunees, or whether he was an Onondaga sachem who was outside of the internally focused Haudenosaunee Grand Council structure.
Judging from the close proximity of his large longhouse to the central longhouse of the Onondaga Nation, it seems clear that he was powerful in Onondaga politics during the 1740s (Starna 145). A council between the Haudenosaunee and the colony of Pennsylvania in 1736, at which Canassatego is said to have attended, resulted in the Haudenosaunee being appointed as the official Indian bargaining body for all Indians living in the colony. This, conveniently for the both parties, gave the Haudenosaunee authority over all other tribes living in the colony and title to their lands, a position that the Pennsylvanians would use to bargain for more land and that the Haudenosaunees would use to claim compensation for lands occupied by settlers from the colonies of Virginia and Maryland (Starna 148). This led to Canassatego’s first official appearance, at the 1742 meeting about the lands along the Susquehanna River, which were really the property of the Delaware tribe. Although the Pennsylvanians had honored the amount to be paid to the Haudenosaunees for the 1736 treaty, Canassatego used the Haudenosaunee position of authority over the Delawares to extract more compensation. Delivering a blistering address to the Delawares in front of the Pennsylvanians, Canassatego cemented both his reputation for oratory as well as the Haudenosaunee position in alliance with and subservience to the British. Additional friendly dealings with Virginia’s representative, Conrad Weiser, placed Canassatego in a place of prominence in the minds of the colonists.
When a treaty council was deemed necessary by the colonies of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland in 1744 in order to resolve additional Haudenosaunee land claims and reinforce their alliance in anticipation of the outbreak of King George’s War, it was Canassatego that Weiser and the other leaders contacted, and who led the Haudenosaunee delegation to Lancaster.
By the time Canassatego and his entourage arrived to meet with the colonial officials at Lancaster on June 22, 1744, the position of the Haudenosaunee had deteriorated, although shrewd leaders like Canassatego had been able to use rhetoric and diplomatic leveraging to maintain themselves as the dominant Indian force to the east of the original colonial settlements. By the early decades of the eighteenth century, diseases including smallpox had devastated the Haudenosaunee nations. Epidemics in 1716–17 and 1731–32 had ravaged the people (Starna 146). Although united by the Haudenosaunee Grand Council, each of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy’s now six member nations (the Tuscaroras had joined the original Five Nations in 1722) was free to pursue its own policies and relationships with the colonies. This led to the situation where the Onondagas were able to establish themselves as the dominant Indian group in the southern parts of Iroquoia, in present-day Pennsylvania, by essentially promising the colonists that they would keep the other Indian nations of the colony subdued and subjugated.
In 1742, at the behest of their Pennsylvanian friend and translator, Conrad Weiser, the Haudenosaunee cemented this relationship with the colony of Pennsylvania; however, settlers were encroaching on the lands that of the Delawares around the Shenandoah Valley, in the colonies of Virginia and Maryland. In the years after the treaty of 1742, the Haudenosaunee were engaged in conflict with other Indians and with the settlers they saw as encroaching on what had been reinforced by the British to be their territory. Conflict with the Catawbas, which had predated the 1742 meeting, continued unabated, in Virginia. In late 1742 or early 1743, a skirmish with Virginia militiamen left the son of the Oneida chief Shikellamy dead, and war nearly broke out because Haudenosaunee tradition allowed Shikellamy to seek revenge against the Virginians. However, Weiser, hearing of the conflict, was able to convince Shikellamy to forego war against the Virginians and instead hold a new treaty conference with the representatives of the colonies of Virginia and Maryland, with Weiser (as a representative of the colony of Pennsylvania) serving as mediator and translator (Fenton 416).
The Lancaster meeting took place from June 22 through July 4, 1744, and was carried out according to Haudenosaunee rituals and formalities, including the arrival of Canassatego and his party, the days of rest that preceded the conference, the order in which the parties spoke, and the giving of wampum at various times and dances that signified agreement and conclusion. However the issues stemmed from those left unresolved two years earlier, when Canassatego had met with Weiser at Philadelphia: the validity of Haudenosaunee claims over the lands of the tribes that the Pennsylvanians had given them charge over, and the corresponding payments that the Haudenosaunee claimed to be due them, despite the fact that the British had negotiated with the subservient tribes, such as the Delawares, to use the land (Fenton 423).
Along with Tekanontie, Canassatego spoke for the Haudenosaunee. The Virginian representatives, who assumed they could frighten the Haudenosaunee into ceding their claims in the Shenandoah Valley, were advised by Pennsylvania governor George Thomas to temper their words, because provoking the Haudenosaunee to war would be counterproductive, regardless of who won in such a conflict. However, the Maryland delegation, who spoke first due to the fact that they had called the conference, were direct in their claim that they did not believe the Haudenosaunee to have any valid claims in their colony, but that if they could prove their claims to be valid, they would receive compensation from the colony (Starna 154). The first day of the conference, Friday, June 22, consisted only of a welcome from Governor Thomas of Pennsylvania. On June 25, the Marylanders laid out their claims, which were based on treaties they believed had conferred the Shenandoah Valley lands to the colonies. They expressed surprise and incredulity that the Haudenosaunee were, to them, not living up to the provisions of earlier treaties by making land claims in the Shenandoah.
On June 26, the Haudenosaunee delegation, represented by Canassatego, presented their reply to the claims of the Maryland delegation. Canassatego’s response consisted of a history lesson from a distinctly Iroquoian perspective, focusing on the onset of European colonization and the right of the Haudenosaunee to the claims under debate. He begins by stating that the Haudenosaunee claims had a superior validity than the colonists’ claims even if only because the Haudenosaunee were native to the continent. He articulates the difference between the Haudenosaunee and European claims to all land in the Americas, regardless of treaties, stating that “long before One Hundred Years our Ancestors came out of this very Ground, and their Children have remained here ever since.” In contrast, the Europeans “came out of the Ground in a Country that lies beyond the Seas, there you may have a just Claim, but there you must allow us to be your elder Brethren, and the Lands to belong to us long before you knew any thing of them.” Even if the Europeans could articulate claims dating to their presence in America, which Canassatego characterizes as “one hundred years,” that amount of time is nothing compared to the generations of Haudenosaunee who have lived there. Following this, Canassatego discusses the arrival of Europeans, starting with the Dutch arrival in New Netherland, and the English arrival after defeating the Dutch, renaming the colony New York. The point of the discussion was the acknowledgment of the establishment of what became known as the Covenant Chain—the historic alliance based on a series of treaties that began with the Dutch and continued under the English.
After praising the English for taking up and maintaining the tradition of the Covenant Chain after they took over New Netherland, renaming it New York, Canassatego changes his emphasis to a more critical account of colonial activities. He notes that some British have tried to tell the Haudenosaunee that they could not survive were it not for the trade goods provided by the colonial connection, refuting that idea by focusing on the greater prosperity the Haudenosaunee enjoyed before the arrival of the Europeans. The Haudenosaunee, Canassatego argues, had enough deer for food, tools made of stone, and everything else they needed for a prosperous life. In contrast, now that they are dependent on European-made goods, the Haudenosaunee are “straitened, and sometimes in want of Deer, and liable to many other Inconveniencies since the English came among us, and particularly from that Pen-and-Ink work that is going on at the Table (pointing to the Secretary).” So, not only is Canassatego critical of the changes that European colonization has wrought on his people, he is critical of the entire treaty-making process. Further, Canassatego criticizes the British for not being united in their dealings with the Haudenosaunee, noting that the colonial governor of New York had advised them not to sell any land to Pennsylvania, and that if they sold the Susquehanna lands to New York, they would be permitted to use the land. But once the sale had been made, New York had consequently sold the land to Pennsylvania, who proceeded to pay the Haudenosaunee for the lands again to keep peace with them.
The Haudenosaunee position, being between the British colonies to the east and the French colonies to the north and west, put them in an advantageous position on the one hand, and yet a position that forced them to choose sides on the other. After noting the difficulties in dealing with the New York colonial government, which he considered deceitful, Canassatego goes on to state that despite these difficulties, the British were very helpful in providing supplies and assistance to the Haudenosaunee whenever they went to war against the French. Being the strongest Indian group between two colonial powers struggling for dominance of the continent, could be advantageous for the Haudenosaunee, as they could be assured that their alliance was worth quite a bit to both of the colonial powers. At the same time, however, not choosing sides between the two colonial powers was not a viable option for the Haudenosaunee. The French and the British were bitter rivals, and in the inevitable war that was to take place, not allying with one or the other would mean that both sides would be fighting over Haudenosaunee land.
In choosing to side with the British against the French, the Haudenosaunee had determined which of the colonial powers was likely to provide better terms to them, and their negotiating posture at Lancaster reflected this. Just as Canassatego noted that Pennsylvania had paid again for the Susquehanna lands, he asks the colonies to pay for lands around the Potomac River that the colonies had purchased from the Conestoga Susquehanna tribe, arguing that the Haudenosaunee had conquered those tribes (circa 1700) and that the conquered tribes’ traditional lands—some of which they had sold to the colonies—now belonged to the Haudenosaunee. Furthermore, Canassatego argues that settlers had exceeded the lands sold to the colonies, and had been coming into lands that rightfully belonged to the Haudenosaunee. This ownership, however, was the focus of the dispute, as Maryland claimed that the lands around the Potomac belonged to them (Fenton 428).
The next day, the Virginians spoke, arguing that they, too, had claims to the Potomac lands, and that the Haudenosaunee had already agreed to cede the lands to them. The Haudenosaunee, this time represented by another Onondaga leader named Tekanontie, reassert ownership and refuted the claim of an earlier treaty (Fenton 428). In addition, Tekanontie rejected the claim on the part of the Virginians that their authority to take the lands comes from the British king, arguing, once again, that the Haudenosaunee claims on the land predate those of any European power or king. However, the Virginians had brought a chest full of goods to give in exchange for the lands, which the Haudenosaunee took under consideration. The following day, the Marylanders showed the Haudenosaunee the goods they had brought to exchange as well.
Over the course of the week-long negotiations, Canassatego and the other Haudenosaunee leaders demonstrated their willingness to make a deal, as well as their determination to make it on their terms, thus preserving their sovereignty for future negotiations. However, the terms of the transfer of land in the actual treaty were fairly easily negotiated. In the end, Governor Thomas, along with the Marylanders and Virginians, made some more general requests of the Haudenosaunee. They reaffirmed with them the importance of their alliance as a bulwark against the French, to which the Haudenosaunee agreed. The Virginians requested that the ongoing conflict between the Haudenosaunee and the Catawba tribe be negotiated and settled, to which the Haudenosaunee also agreed. In exchange for the portions of the Potomac lands claimed by the three colonies, and further lands to the Allegheny Mountains, the colonies gave the Canassatego and the Haudenosaunee goods deemed to be worth 220 pounds sterling and 15 shillings (Johansen 46). When the British informed Canassatego of their naval victories against the French, Canassatego seized the opportunity to request that the British share the rum they surely confiscated from the French with them, so that they might celebrate the British victory together, to which the British agreed (Fenton 431).
Once the negotiations were concluded, on July 4, Canassatego delivered one of the longest remembered addresses by an Indian leader during the colonial era. This final address is another assertion of Haudenosaunee sovereignty and superiority, which Canassatego used to deliver some advice to his colonial neighbors. That advice impressed one notable indirect observer of the goings on at Lancaster: Benjamin Franklin. Canassatego’s advice, delivered via Franklin’s printing press and personal writings, formed the core of Franklin’s ideas on the topic of a united government among the colonies, and further—according to some historians—the core ideas of the fundamental documents of the nascent United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution.
In the address, Canassatego makes specific acknowledgments to the officials from the colonial governments of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland, recapitulating the negotiations that took place between them. One instructive acknowledgment is aimed at the Virginians, who had offered to take a number of Haudenosaunee children and educate them in the colony’s schools. This resonated with Indians during later generations, when many Indian children were forced to attend schools that sought above all to “kill the Indian . . . and save the man” (Pratt 46). In an assertion of Haudenosaunee sovereignty, Canassatego responds that “we love our Children too well to send them so great a way, and the Indians are not inclined to give their children Learning. . . . our customs differing from yours, you will be so good as to excuse us.”
But what would be remembered the longest were Canassatego’s final words. Perhaps harkening back to his remarks eight days earlier, in which he noted the difficulties that the various independent colonial governments had caused in negotiating earlier treaties, Canassatego delivers a strong message to the colonial officials in favor of union. Canassatego states, “We heartily recommend Union and a good Agreement between you and our Brethren. Never disagree, but preserve a strict Friendship for one another, and thereby you, as well as we, will become the stronger.” This is delivered not as a general sentiment, but with the thought of the Onandagas’ union with the other nations in the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, as an example to be emulated by the colonies. He points this out when he states, “Our wise Forefathers established Union and Amity between the Five Nations; this has made us formidable; this has given us great Weight and Authority with our neighboring Nations.”
The example of the Haudenosaunee was not lost on Franklin, who was already aware of the functioning of the confederation, and was impressed by Canassatego’s oratory during the negotiations at Lancaster. Franklin had already been an advocate for the union of the colonies to avoid such problems that had plagued the various colonies’ negotiations with the tribes. In 1750, he wrote in a letter “It would be a very strange Thing, if six Nations of ignorant Savages should be capable of forming a Scheme for such an Union. . . . and yet that a like Union should be impracticable for ten or a Dozen English Colonies” (Payne 609).
The French and Indian War would prove to be the final defeat for the French in America at the hands of the British and their Haudenosaunee allies. At the war’s outbreak in 1754, Franklin would take many of the ideas exemplified by the Haudenosaunee and present them as his Albany Plan of Union. Although it was never adopted, and scholars still dispute whether and to what extent the Haudenosaunee example influenced the governmental structures of the colonies (and later, the states), it is clear that the first functioning representative government in the Americas, albeit very limited in its scope, was that of the Haudenosaunee.
That Canassatego articulated an assertive vision of Haudenosaunee sovereignty in the face of growing colonial power is beyond argument. Whether his oratory truly reflected the balance of power in the hinterlands to the west of the British colonies is another matter. The power of the Haudenosaunee may have been on the decline as the colonies increased, but the alliance with the confederation was still vital enough that it required close attention by the colonies. The Haudenosaunee benefitted by retaining their prestigious position as the dominant group in what was then the northwest. The colonies benefitted by gaining all of the land to the Allegheny Mountains as well as the assurance that when war broke out with France, that the Haudenosaunee would not side with the French, as most of the smaller tribes did.
In late 1749, after the bulk of Haudenosaunee lands had been acquired by the colonies, and the immediate incident of warfare with the French, known as King George’s War, had passed, Canassatego appeared at his old friend Conrad Weiser’s farm near Philadelphia, leading a group of 279 Indians (Starna 158). Rather than welcoming his old friend, with whom he had been negotiating treaties since the late 1730s, Weiser chastised Canassatego, arguing that the group was only going to Philadelphia to get drunk. A surprised Canassatego responded that the Haudenosaunee had always been welcome by the Pennsylvanians when they were in need, but perhaps this relationship had now changed since the British had acquired all of the Haudenosaunee lands that they had wanted. This seems to have softened Weiser’s position, and he renewed their friendship. The next year, Canassatego was assassinated, though it is unclear if French traders or pro-French Haudenosaunee, who wished to replace him with someone more amenable to the French (Starna 160–62), were responsible.
Canassatego’s longest lasting influence was on Benjamin Franklin. Franklin, who had been intrigued by the Haudenosaunee, wanted the colonies to form a union and saw a potential model in the Haudenosaunee Confederation. Although his Albany Plan of Union was rejected, various scholars from that time forward, including Julian P. Boyd and Paul A. Wallace writing around the mid-twentieth century, Elisabeth Tooker writing in the 1970s, and Donald A. Grinde and Bruce E. Johansen, writing near the end of the century, drew what they saw as connections between the Haudenosaunee and the foundational documents of the United States: the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution. Many other scholars, including the authors of a special 1996 issue of The William and Mary Quarterly devoted to the debate, disagreed. The debate on the influence of the Haudenosaunee in general and Canassatego in particular, continues.
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