The Covenant Chain

In the 1670s the English colonies exploded into warfare as Algonquian peoples in New England and in the Chesapeake (King Philip’s War and Bacon’s Rebellion) fought with colonists who encroached upon their land. This warfare was brought to a close through an alliance between the Five Nations and the governor of the colony of New York, Sir Edmund Andros.

At Albany shortly after the war began, Andros met with Iroquois ambassadors. He promised that he would protect the Five Nations from the French and from their native enemies to the north and east. In exchange, he asked the Mohawks to attack Philip’s followers who had settled for the winter at Hoosick, a spot about fifty miles to the east of Albany. He provided them with arms and ammunition.

The resulting Iroquois raids made possible the defeat of King Philip. The Mohawks attacked and defeated Philip’s warriors. Some of Philip’s followers fled to the east. Others returned to southern New England where they ran into colonial militias that had learned how to fight Indian style and how best to employ native allies. Philip’s uprising came to a close where it began. After the Mohawks’ crushing blow, Andros invited the defeated Algonquians to leave southern New England where they faced the vicious prospect of postwar Puritan justice, and settle under the protection of the Crown in New York. Many accepted his offer. The resettled Algonquian bands provided Andros with a buffer against a possible French invasion, and secured for traders at Albany more influence over the English colonists’ Indian trade. He also acquired control over the conduct of much of the region’s Indian policy. Many New England Algonquians had become Mohawks, and the Five Nations asserted that any meetings with the Puritans would take place in Albany with the governor of New York present. Andros, a dutiful servant to his king Charles II, shared his monarch’s contempt for the small-minded Puritans, religious bigots who, among other offenses, had provoked a needless war that threatened the entire Anglo-American empire.

In June of 1676, even before Nathaniel Bacon began his rebellion, Andros informed the Susquehannocks “that if they are afraid and not well where they are,” they could resettle under the protection of the Mohawks, allowing the Mohawks to adopt even more refugees, and compensate for the losses that came from disease, warfare, and the migration to Catholic mission communities in the St. Lawrence.Andros envisioned the Mohawks and their dependents as his primary defense against a potential French invasion of Anglo-America, and a means for bringing the hated Puritan colonies to heel.

The Senecas had other plans. They had fought against the Susquehannocks for a generation.Seneca warriors, sallying forth from the Genesee and places farther east, and accompanied by Cayugas and Onondagas, attacked the Susquehannocks late in 1676. They did so with great effect. The Susquehannocks, according to a colonial official in Maryland, “submitted themselves” to the Senecas and settled under their protection. They provided the western Iroquois with additional population and the allegiance of a powerful trading people with ties to the south. The Senecas, too, needed allies and the surge of population the Susquehannocks could bring. This was not part of Andros’s original plan, but he had little choice but to try to work with what the Senecas gave him. It is never wise to underestimate the autonomous power maintained by Indigenosu people in “Colonial America.”

Andros hoped to establish a measure of English control over the Anglo-American frontier. From the beginning of English settlement in North America, colonial promoters sought profitable trading relationships with the Indians they encountered, and to plant productive farms and plantations on American shores.They wanted to establish an English empire in North America, and to convert the Indians to English Christianity.These colonial promoters believed that the continent’s native peoples would willingly accept the gift of Christianity and civility. They believed in the capacity of the Indians for reason, and they assumed that when offered a better way that the Indians would make the only reasonable choice. The English promoters believed that Indians would cast off their cultural and religious practices, and the beliefs upon which these rested, when offered the English example. They saw Indians as potential, if subordinate, members of an Anglo-American, Christian, New World empire.

All of these plans depended, however, on two important factors. The first was the ability of colonial governors to control the frontier and its inhabitants, Native American and European.Only friendly Indians would trade with colonists; hostile Indians might set English farms and plantations on fire, as they had done in New England and Virginia. Hostile Indians might align themselves with England’s imperial rivals, and thus threaten the existence of the American empire. Philip’s forces in New England obtained much of their weaponry from the French in Canada. And colonial missionaries could not hope to convert the same Indians colonial soldiers were trying to kill. Indeed, many praying Indians, alienated by the brutal treatment they had received in New England, joined the Algonquian uprising. The other was the desire and willingness of Indigenous peoples to fashion and maintain alliances with the newcomers. Native peoples possessed great power in the seventeenth century.

Andros believed that the Anglo-Iroquois alliance might resolve this conflict on the frontier by removing the principal source of contention between European settlers and native peoples.The Algonquian losers of King Philip’s War—those not enslaved or dispossessed or marginalized– settled in New York under the protection of the colony’s Mohawk allies. For Andros, this placed Indians out of the reach of aggressive English settlers in New England and the Chesapeake. Virginians and Marylanders received the same message from him as had the Puritans—the Indians who had fought against their colonists were now, for all intents and purposes, Iroquois, and any discussions with the Five Nations would take place in the governor’s presence in Albany. Through his alliance with the Five Nations, Andros secured significant oversight of the conduct of Indian diplomacy in the colonies, but he also abandoned the belief, however elusive the ideal upon which it rested, that English colonists and native peoples might live together in peace.

Andros and New York benefited, but the Covenant Chain served Iroquois interests as well. Secure flanks set the stage for wars in the west, and Iroquois warriors and hunters looked there for new sources of captives and furs. The settlement of New England Algonquians and Susquehannocks expanded the geographic range of the Iroquois, as they moved into and through their subject people’s lands. When the alliance no longer served Seneca interests, they ignored it. The Senecas always mediated between the French and the English.For them, the Covenant Chain was an alliance without allegiance. They would hold fast the chain so long as the English fulfilled their responsibilities as allies. The Senecas would not cease pursuing their own interests because the governor of New York asserted his primacy in the English conduct of Anglo-Iroquois diplomacy.

Further Reading:

Jennings, Francis. The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire: the Covenant Chain Confederation of Indian Tribes with the English Colonies, (New York: Norton, 1984.

________. “The Constitutional Evolution of the Covenant Chain,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 115 (April 1971), 88-96.

Oberg, Michael Leroy. Dominion and Civility: English Imperialism and Native America, 1585-1685, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999).

Parmenter, Jon. The Edge of the Woods: Iroquoia, 1534-1701, (Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2010).

Richter, Daniel K. The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The Peoples of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).

Richter, Daniel K. and James H. Merrell, eds. Beyond the Covenant Chain: The Iroquois and Their Neighbors in Indian North America, 1600-1800, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987)

________. “War and Culture: The Iroquois Experience,” William and Mary Quarterly, 40 (October 1983), 528-559,

Trelease, Allen W. Indian Affairs in Colonial New York: The Seventeenth Century, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1960).Webb, Stephen Saunders. 1676: The End of American Independence, (New York: 1984).