From Conquest to Purchase: Indian Policy under the Articles of Confederation     Fort Stanwix

The American commissioner made it clear that he would brook no obstruction in negotiating peace to end the Revolutionary War. “You are mistaken”, he told his adversaries, “in thinking that you may make what terms you please. It is not so. You are a subdued people; you have been overcome in a war which you entered into with us, not only without provocation, but in violation of most sacred obligations. . . . We shall now, therefore declare to you the condition, on which alone you may be received into the peace and protection of the United States.”

These remarks were not uttered at the conference table in Paris in 1783.  John Adams at his huffiest would not have addressed the British in such a manner.  Rather, the remarks were addressed to America’s other adversaries, the American Indians—in this case, to a council of the Six Nations (also known as the Iroquois Confederacy) at Fort Stanwix (left) in upstate New York in October 1784.  The Iroquois had fought the Americans for six years, sometimes under British command, sometimes independently.  Now the British had made peace, and the eastern United States was quiet.  There would be no peace on the frontier, however, until the Iroquois and their native allies also made peace.

The American commissioners, seeking to dictate that peace to the Iroquois, were Oliver Wolcott, Richard Butler, and Arthur Lee.  They had been appointed by Congress.  Congress had two relevant powers under the Articles of Confederation—the power of war and peace, and the power to manage relations with Indians “not members of any of the states.”  The actions of the commissioners, Congress, and the Indian nations would set the pattern for Indian relations for the next century.  Matters would never be quite as one-sided as the commissioners believed in 1784.

From the moment the United States organized a federal government via the Second Continental Congress (1775), that government had been involved in Indian affairs.  On June 10, 1775, Congress appointed a committee “to report what steps . . . are necessary to be taken for securing and preserving the friendship of the Indian Nations”.  There were at the time about 200,000 Indians living east of the Mississippi River and south of Canada (see map below for approximate locations of nations).  They were outnumbered by 2.5 million white and black people along the seaboard.  But, they still controlled a huge arc of territory from upstate New York to the Mississippi valley to Florida, and their allegiance would be a major accession to either side in the white man’s war.

Indian landsThe thirteen states, however, were not willing to cede all power over Indian relations to their new federal government.  Voters in the states wanted Indian land—for themselves, for their children, and as an investment—and they wanted to be free to grab it by conquest, by private purchase, by squatting, or however their state might determine.  During the colonial period, the British Crown had often frustrated such attempts, reserving to itself the right to manage Indian land cessions and trade.  The states were not willing to risk seeing the federal government assume that role.

The authors of the Articles of Confederation (1777) thus struck a compromise, granting Congress power of war and peace (which presumably would apply to Indian as well as European nations), and power of “regulating the trade and managing all (Indian) affairs”, but only with “the Indians not members of any of the states”.  This satisfied by way of ambiguity.  What did it mean for an Indian to be a member of a state?  Did living on land claimed by a state suffice?  States at that time claimed every acre of the United States.  Or did an Indian need to settle permanently in a town near white settlement to be a member of a state?  This remained to be determined.

As it turned out, neither the federal government nor the states had much success in "securing and preserving the friendship" of Indians during the Revolutionary War.  Some individuals and some factions within some tribes did fight on the American side.  But the British had a longer history of Indian relationships, more money, better trade goods, and less lust for native land.  The majority of almost every native American nation sided with the British during the war.

The Americans, of course, won anyway.  Indian opposition had been an inconvenience during the war, but from the American point of view, it simplified matters, and eased consciences, in dealing with Indian nations after the peace.  The British, after all, had lost the war and had been forced (by treaty) to evacuate the United States.  Did not their Indian allies deserve the same treatment?  From the Congressional point of view, in fact, policy toward the Indians would be more benign than toward the British.  The Indians would not be forced to leave the United States entirely.  They would, however, be required to cede most of their land without compensation, and be confined to small parcels they would retain on sufferance.

The only remaining question, on the American side, was to whom the Indians would cede their land—the federal government, or the states?  The states asserted that any Indian living on any land claimed by a state was a “member of a state”, and took Indian affairs into their own hands.  Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, New York, and Pennsylvania all forced Indian land cessions during or shortly after the Revolutionary War, in defiance of Article VI of the Articles of Confederation which forbade states from entering into treaties with any “king, prince, or state”.  (Or were these mere “real estate transactions”?)  South of the Ohio River, where the states aggressively asserted land claims, Congress could do little more than confirm settlements the states had already reached, which it did via three Treaties of Hopewell signed with the Cherokee, Choctaws, and Chickasaws, in 1785-86.

Matters were different north of the Ohio.  Virginia and New York had ceded their claim to this region by March 1784 (see Creating the Public Domain).  Congress asserted exclusive federal control over the Northwest.  The Indians living in the Northwest would clearly and unambiguously be “not members of any of the states”, and subject to Congressional jurisdiction.  Congress dispatched commissioners Wolcott, Butler, and Lee to the northern Indians in October 1784, to secure their surrender.

NW TreatiesThe commissioners dictated three treaties to the Iroquois (Fort Stanwix, 1784), Delaware (Fort McIntosh, 1785) and Shawnee (Fort Finney, 1786).  The Iroquois abandoned all claims in the Ohio country (to the left of the red line in the map at left).  The Delawares and Shawnees were allowed to retain, for the time being, the areas shown in the map.  They signed away everything else.  The Indians received nothing in return for what they gave up except peace, and hospitality and minor gifts for those individuals who attended the conferences and signed the treaties.

Congress never debated or ratified these treaties, apparently not considering it necessary to do so.

The treaties failed of their purpose.  The Shawnees and their allies in the west (Miami, Kickapoo, Wabash, and others) did not feel themselves a defeated nation, and regarded their kinsmen who had signed the worthless American treaties as craven sellouts.  Shawnee war parties began attacking any white settlers they found on the north bank of the Ohio River, and raided south into Kentucky as well.  The United States had only a small, newly formed army of about 700 men under Lieutenant Colonel Josiah Harmar (see The Reanimation of the United States Army) with which to respond.  Harmar judged his force insufficient, and called on the Virginia state militia for assistance.  Kentucky militiamen (Kentucky being part of Virginia) crossed the Ohio (1786) and counter-attacked and destroyed Indian towns, killing many.  Then the militia returned home, having achieved little other than to escalate the bitterness on both sides.

A confederation of western Indians ranging from Cherokee to Iroquois met under British protection in Detroit (see foreign policy problems) and petitioned Congress, demanding to bargain with Congress as a unit: “All treaties carried on with the United States, on our parts, should be with the general voice of the whole confederacy; and carried out in the most open manner, without any restraint on either side.”  The “partial treaties” dictated to individual tribes in 1784-85 were “void and of no effect”.

The protest was not without result.  Secretary of War Henry Knox bowed to the inevitable.  The Indians, he reported to Congress on October 27, 1787, had expressed the “highest disgust” at the principle of conquest.  “(T)he practice of the British government, and most of the Northern colonies previously to the late war, of purchasing the right of the soil of the Indians, and receiving a deed of sale and conveyance of the same, is the only mode of alienating their lands, to which they will peaceably accede.”  The United States must buy land instead of just taking it.  Knox asked for an appropriation of $40,000.  Congress appropriated $14,000.  At the same time, Congress was selling a small fraction of the formerly Indian land for one million dollars (see Creating the Public Domain).

Arthur St. Clair, the newly appointed Governor of the Northwest Territory, went through the motions of summoning another council of Indians (December, 1788) at Fort Harmar near Marietta, Ohio.  Nearby, white settlers were already pouring in and establishing farms.  Once again, Indian attendance was sparse and unrepresentative.  St. Clair proposed separate treaties with the Iroquois and western Indians, noting “the jealousy that subsisted between them, which I was not willing to lessen by appearing to consider them as one people”.  St. Clair didn’t even offer the entire appropriation of $14,000.  He offered the Iroquois $3,000 and the western Indians $6,000.  Once again, those Indians who were present favored peace at any price and signed.

Once again, the treaties solved nothing.  The Articles of Confederation gave way to the Constitution of the United States (COTUS).  The Indian problem became George Washington’s problem.  Washington sent Harmar to clear the Indians out of the Ohio country by force.  The Shawnee and Miami annihilated Harmar’s small army.  Finally Congress—backed now by federal tax money—raised a larger, more permanent, and more professional force under General Anthony Wayne, and Wayne in turn annihilated the Indian confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers (1794).  Ohio was thereafter secure for white settlement.

The Confederation government had set the template for Indian relations for the next century.  The principle of ownership by conquest was dead.  The federal government would acknowledge Indian title to land, and would gain it by purchase.  But, the purchase would invariably be one-sided.  The government would offer a laughably inadequate amount of money on a “take it or leave it” basis.  Factions and individuals within a tribe would be induced to accept the money by threats and gifts.  The resulting treaty would be held up as binding on the entire tribe, and when opposing factions inevitably resisted, they would be crushed with overwhelming force.

Fort Stanwix (NY) Oct. 22, 1784 Iroquois confederacy
Fort McIntosh (PA) Jan. 21, 1785 Delaware, Wyandot, Chippewa. Ottawa
Hopewell (SC) Nov. 28, 1785 Cherokee
Hopewell (SC) Jan. 3, 1786 Choctaw
Hopewell (SC) Jan. 10, 1786 Chickasaw
Fort Finney (OH) Jan. 31, 1786 Shawnee
Fort Harmar (OH) Jan. 9, 1789 Delaware,Wyandot,Chippewa,Ottawa,Potawatomi,Sac
Fort Harmar (OH) Jan. 9, 1789 Iroquois confederacy

Sources: Nevill Craig, editor, The Olden Times: A Monthly Publication Devoted to the Preservation of Documents and Other Authentic Information in Relation to the Early Explorations and the Settlement and Improvement of the Country Around the Head of the Ohio, Volume II, 1848; William Hogeland, Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion that Opened the West, 2017; James H. O’Donnell, Southern Indians in the American Revolution, 1973; Wiley Sword, President Washington’s Indian War, 1985; Journals of the Continental Congress, Volumes 27, 32, 33, and 34




Why did American Indians sign the one-sided treaties offered by the United States under the Articles of Confederation?  The career of a representative Seneca signatory provides clues.  His name was roughly transliterated as Kayenthoghke, and even more roughly translated into English as Cornplanter.

Cornplanter was born of a Seneca mother and a Dutch-American trader in what is now western New York in around 1752.  He grew up as a Seneca, and seldom saw his father.

In 1777 the Seneca agreed to join the British in war against the American colonists, and Cornplanter entered the fight.  The Seneca fought successfully in one set-piece battle, the Battle of Oriskany, in which they crushed an American force trying to relieve a British siege of Fort Stanwix, New York.  For the most part, however, the Seneca raided the frontier in western New York and Pennsylvania—skirmishing with (and usually defeating) small militia units, seizing livestock, and burning abandoned homes and crops.  On one raid, Cornplanter’s band inadvertently captured Cornplanter’s father.  (They released him.)

The Americans retaliated by counter-raiding the Iroquois heartland in 1779.  Now the pattern was reversed—the Iroquois fled their villages in terror, retreating first to the woods and eventually to the nearest British fort at Niagara.  The British outpost had but limited resources, and many Iroquois suffered and died during the following winters.

In 1782, the British abandoned the war, leaving the Iroquois to their own devices.  The Americans offered the draconian Treaty of Fort Stanwix (see left).  As a result of his leadership during the war, his colleagues had named Cornplanter as a Chief Warrior, or spokesmen for the soldiers of the tribe in tribal council.  In this capacity Cornplanter attended the 1784 parley with the Americans at Fort Stanwix.

Cornplanter urged the Americans to “proceed tenderly” in the negotiations.  “I regard future generations, and I attend to them in making peace with you . . . (W)e warriors must have a large country to roam in, as our subsistence must depend on having much hunting ground.”  The Americans ignored him.  They offered a treaty requiring the Iroquois to cede all land to the west of Buffalo, New York and the state of Pennsylvania (the red line at left).  This provision primarily affected the Seneca, the westernmost of the six Iroquois nations.  Cornplanter (and many others) signed.  Then Pennsylvania took over and demanded the Seneca cede their claims in Pennsylvania for a token payment of $5,000.  Again, Cornplanter signed.

The white man’s politics now intervened, before New York could press the Seneca for the liquidation of their remaining claims (the blue and yellow regions in the map at left).  New York and Massachusetts both claimed western New York, and had to resolve their dispute before they could deal with the Iroquois.  New York eventually ceded the “right of pre-emption” (that is, the right to buy land from the Iroquois) over western New York to Massachusetts, in return for Massachusetts recognition of New York sovereignty (see State Boundary Disputes).  Massachusetts sold its pre-emption rights to a partnership including Nathaniel Gorham, the outgoing (1786) President of Congress.  Gorham bought the yellow region from the Seneca in 1788 for $5,000 plus an annuity of $500 per year.  Again, Cornplanter signed.

In 1789, the federal government offered token payments to the Iroquois via the Treaty of Fort Harmar (see left).  Again, Cornplanter signed.

Why did Cornplanter keep agreeing to these unequal treaties?  Cornplanter neither spoke nor wrote English, so we have no reliable account of his thinking.  Colleagues transcribed an address that he and two other Seneca submitted to George Washington in 1790, in which they complained of fraud and intimidation on the part of purchasers.  “Our chiefs had felt your power (in 1784) & were unable to contend against you and they therefore gave up” at Fort Stanwix.  New York had “deceived us” and the Gorham partnership had “threatened us with immediate war if we did not comply” by selling cheaply.  Cornplanter had seen how devastating war could be for the Iroquois in 1779; they had no defense against scorched-earth attacks and nowhere to flee. 

The repeated land “sales” generated opposition within the Seneca.  An Iroquois council repudiated the Treaty of Fort Stanwix (to no effect) in 1785.  Cornplanter averred, perhaps melodramatically, that “the great God, and not man, has preserved the Cornplanter from (opponents within) his own nation: for they ask continually, where is the Land that our children and their children after them are to lie down on?”

Finally, in the 1790’s, Cornplanter’s strategy of appeasement and renegotiation bore fruit.  The Washington administration agreed to the Treaty of Canandaigua, which restored western New York (the green region) to the Seneca.  (This was one of the very few times when the federal government restored native land.)  The Gorham partnership encountered financial difficulties, and sold its preemption rights to Robert Morris.  When Morris went bankrupt (see the Bank of North America), he passed the rights to his son Thomas.  Thomas Morris finally made a reasonable offer for the remaining Seneca land (as augmented by Canandaigua), offering $100,000 which was invested in Bank of the United States stock to provide an $8,000 annuity.  Morris also allowed the Seneca to keep ten fairly substantial reservations.

Cornplanter and other chiefs received personal gifts and payment for negotiating the sale, which might be characterized as bribes.  Cornplanter also received a land grant from the state of Pennsylvania, on which his descendants lived for the next 150 years.  But, mixing personal and public business was standard practice among Indians at the time, and was far from unknown among white people.

The Seneca avoided the Indian wars which ravaged Ohio in the 1790’s.  They were numerous enough and established enough to successfully resist Indian removal in the 1830’s.  Approximately 8,000 enrolled members of the Seneca nation live in New York today.

Cornplanter died at his home in upstate Pennsylvania in 1836.  His judgment in signing the unequal treaties may be questioned, but as one historian has written, “The feasible options open to Cornplanter and his fellow leaders of the Seneca Nation were few.”  He did what he thought was best for his people under very difficult circumstances.

Sources: Thomas S. Abler, Cornplanter: Chief Warrior of the Allegany Seneca, 2007; “To George Washington from the Seneca Chiefs, 1 December 1790,” Founders Online, National Archives


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