The New Nation faced significant challenges, and considerable disaffection remained in Iroquoia, especially amongst the Senecas. Timothy Pickering, sent by President Washington to meet with the Senecas in 1790, found that the gathered Iroquois did not trust him, and that “white man is, among many of them, but another name for Liar.” Pickering knew that the Senecas did not trust Washington, either. They considered me, he wrote to the President, “as your representative, and my promises as the promises of Town Destroyer.” Pickering nonetheless followed Washington’s instructions and informed the gathered Indians “that all business between them and any part of the United States is hereafter to be transacted by the general government” and not the states.
Shortly thereafter, the President met at Philadelphia with Cornplanter and informed him that “the General Government only, has the power to treat with the Indian nations, and any treaty formed, and held, without its authority will not be binding.” Washington hoped that the hostilities of the Revolutionary War could be forgotten, and that in the future, “the United States and the Six Nations should be truly brothers, promoting each other’s prosperity by acts of mutual friendship and justice.” President Washington knew that the Senecas were unhappy about the terms dictated to them immediately after the war at Fort Stanwix and he understood that it was mostly lands used by the Senecas that had been relinquished. Washington understood the proximity of the British at Niagara to the Senecas. He knew as well of the anger of the Six Nations about the terms of agreements some of their members had entered into with New York to cede lands within the state. He explained, however, that “these evils arose before the present Government of the United States was established, when the separate States, and individuals under their authority, undertook to treat with the Indian tribes respecting the sale of their lands.” Now, however, the situation was “entirely altered; the General Government, only, has the power to treat with the Indian nations, and any treaty formed, and held without its authority will not be binding.” Washington wanted the Senecas to understand the significance of the replacement of the weak Confederation with a strong central government under the Constitution. “Here,” he said, “is the security for the remainder of your lands. No State, nor person, can purchase your lands unless at some public treaty, held under the authority of the United States. The General Government will never consent to your being defrauded, but it will protect you in all your just rights.” Should anyone defraud the Indians of their lands, Washington told the Senecas, “and you can make satisfactory proof thereof, the federal courts will be open to you for redress, as to all other persons.”
In 1791 Pickering again met with Iroquois delegates, mostly Senecas. Pickering once again tried to conciliate the Six Nations, who he feared might join with the powerful Indigenous western confederacies, who remained thoroughly capable of defending their homelands from invasion. It was the effectiveness of these native forces that made the Senecas’ disaffection so critical. Should the Senecas join with those committed to resisting the Americans in the west, the frontier from New York to Georgia stood open to assault.
Congress was aware of the problem. While the delegates to the Constitutional Convention debated the provisions of the new constitution in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, Congress enacted the Northwest Ordinance in which it declared that “the utmost good faith shall always be observed toward the Indians, their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and in their property, rights and liberty, they never shall be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress.” But squatters encroached upon their lands, invaded their property, rights and liberties, and drove them to negotiate unjust treaties. Early in 1789, the governor of the Northwest Territory, Arthur St. Clair, negotiated a treaty with the Potawatomis, Sacs, Chippewas, Delawares, Ottawas, and Wyandots in which they reaffirmed the earlier cessions and agreed to further restrictions on their freedom. St. Clair believed that he had broken the opposition by the terms of the treaty. He was wrong. By the summer, native peoples were raiding frontier settlements north of the Ohio.
With native peoples unwilling to give away their homelands through negotiation, St. Clair decided on a military solution. The Indians would fight for their lands and their way of life. In September of 1790, General Josiah Harmar led a force of 1450 regular soldiers and Kentucky militiamen out against the native towns along the Wabash and Maumee rivers in what today is the state of Indiana. Native peoples from many nations ambushed Harmar’s force along the Maumee and killed 180 of his men. The defeated American force returned home by the end of October.
The defeat of Harmar’s invasion emboldened those native peoples willing to resist American forces, and swelled their ranks. By the spring, land speculators in the Ohio country complained that they found it difficult to recruit prospective settlers. “The Indians kill people so frequently,” they wrote, “that none dare stir into the woods to view the country.”
Native peoples had their own fears, of course. When Kentucky militiamen attacked a cluster of villages in northern Indiana where Potawatomis and many other native peoples lived, they threatened them with extermination. If native peoples refused to make peace, Brigadier General Charles Scott said, “your warriors will be slaughtered, your towns and villages ransacked and destroyed, your wives and children carried into captivity. Many of those who lived in the Ohio country saw in the United States, whatever its claims to desire peace, an existential threat to their existence. All they needed to do was remember events like the massacre at Gnadenhutten in 1782, when soldiers from Pennsylvania held a vote on whether or not to kill the hundred Christian Indians they had taken captive. This was, for native peoples, American democracy at work. As the Christians sang the last hymns they would sing, savage militiamen began to murder them, thirty men, three dozen women, and thirty-two children in all.
Meanwhile, Congress had already laid plans for another military invasion to take place in 1791. St. Clair led American forces into the Miami River Valley in September. Most of his soldiers were militiamen, poorly trained and poorly supplied. Before dawn on November 4, an Indigenous force attacked St. Clair’s much larger force. The soldiers panicked and ran. Over 640 soldiers were killed or captured or unaccounted for. Another 250 were wounded. Fewer than five hundred men made it to safety unharmed. They killed only a small number of Indians in the largest defeat ever suffered by American military forces at the hands of native warriors. Twenty percent of the American military had been wiped out in one day.
Banner, Stuart. How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2005).
Campisi, Jack and William A. Starna, “On the Road to Canandaigua: The Treaty of 1794,” American Indian Quarterly, 19 (Autumn 1995), 467-490.
Countryman, Edward M. “Indians, the Colonial Order, and the Social Significance of the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, 53 (April 1996), 342-362.
Densmore, Christopher. Red Jacket: Iroquois Diplomat and Orator, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999).
Harris, George H. “The Life of Horatio Jones,” Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society,6 (1903), 381-526.
Oberg, Michael Leroy. Peacemakers: The Iroquois, the United States, and the Treaty of Canadaigua,1794. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).
Starna, William M. “ ‘The United States will protect you’: The Iroquois, New York, and the 1790Nonintercourse Act,” New York History, 83 (Winter 2002), 4-33.
Wallace, Anthony F. C. The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, (New York,1970).