Among the aborigines of this country, few names have excited a deeper interest, or have been more widely and familiarly known than that of Red Jacket. The occasion of this notoriety was the rare fact that, though a rude and unlettered son of the forest, he was distinguished for the arts and accomplishments of the orator. His life marks an era in the history of his nation and his name like that of Demosthenes, is forever associated with eloquence.
Other circumstances however, impart interest to his history. His was the last great name of a nation, and he is entitled to remembrance, on the soil which was once the home of his fathers. And though linked with a melancholy association, as connected with the waning history of a people that once laid a claim to greatness, but are now fast passing into obscurity, it is not on this account the less attractive, but presents another reason for our regard.
Such was the name of SA-GO-YE-WAT-HA, or, as he has more commonly been called, Red Jacket. Having risen, by the force of his eloquence, from an obscure station to the highest rank among his people, he became conspicuous in all of those great transactions, in which they gradually relinquished a title to their old hunting grounds, and gave place to the intrusive white man. And he lived to see his nation pass from the pride of their ancient dominion, to so humble an inheritance, that his last days were embittered with the thought, that the “red men” were destined to become extinct. With him has ceased the glory of their council fire, and of their name.
His origin, as we have intimated, was obscure. He must be introduced, as he has come down to us, without rank or pedigree. His pedigree nature acknowledged, and gave him a right to become great among her sons. His birth is a matter of fact, its time and place, circumstances of conjecture. Some affirm that he was born at the Old Seneca Castle, near the foot of Seneca lake, not far from 1750 1 .
Another tradition awards the honor of his birth to a place at, or near Canoga, on the banks of the Cayuga lake 2 .
Who were his parents? and what, his early history? As the wave casts upon the shore some treasured fragment, and then recedes to mingle with its parent waters, so their names, and much of his early history have been lost in the oblivion of the past.
So likewise it is uncertain, as to the time when the wonderful powers of his genius began to be developed, or as to the steps by which he arrived at the high distinction of orator among his people.
Whether by dint of study he gained the requisite discipline of mind, and acquired that elegance of diction for which he was distinguished; whether by repeated trial and failure, accompanied by a proud ambition, and an unyielding purpose, he reached, like Demosthenes, the summit of his aspirations; or, assisted more by nature than by art, emerged, like Patrick Henry at once, into the grand arena of mind, and by a single effort attained distinction and fame, is to be gathered more from circumstances than from facts.
It is generally conceded, however, that the powers of his intellect were of the highest order. Captain Horatio Jones, the well known interpreter and agent among the Indians, and than whom no one was more intimately acquainted with this orator of the Seneca nation, was accustomed to speak of him as the greatest man that ever lived. “For,” said he, “the great men of our own and of other times, have become so by education; but Red Jacket was as nature made him. Had he enjoyed their advantages, he would have surpassed them, since it can hardly be supposed that they, without these, would have equalled him 3 .”
Some allowance should be made for this statement, perhaps, on the ground that Mr. Jones was a warm admirer of the orator’s genius; yet his admiration sprang from an intimate knowledge of him, seen under circumstances, that afforded the best opportunity of forming a just opinion of his talents; and these, he maintained, “were among the noblest that nature ever conferred upon man.”
But genius, while it may have smoothed the way, may not have spared him the pains, by which ordinary minds ascend to greatness. For since it is so universally the fact, that the path to eminence, is rugged and steep, and the gifts of fame seldom bestowed but in answer to repeated toil; curiosity would inquire by what means one, who was reputed a barbarian, gained the highest distinction ever awarded to civilized man. It is not enough to reply simply, “that nature made him so,” or to receive, without qualification, his own proud assertion, “I am an orator, I was born an orator.” The laws of mind are the same for peasants, and princes in intellect; great minds as well as small, must take measures to compass their object, or leave it unattained.
It does not appear that his genius was sudden, or precocious in its development. It is said that his mind, naturally active and brilliant, gradually opened, until it reached its meridian splendor. Nor did his powers grow without any means to mature and perfect them. As the young oak is strengthened by warring with the storm, so the faculties of his mind gained force by entering freely into conflicts of opinion. Accustomed to canvass in private the questions which agitated the councils of his nation, he began to ascertain the reality of his own power, and by measuring his own with other minds, he gained the confidence that flows from superior wisdom 4 .
The tastes and regulations of his own people favored very much, the promptings of his genius. They were lovers of eloquence, and their form of government fostered its cultivation. This though differing but little from the simplicity found in rude states of society, presented a feature peculiar among a people not far advanced in civilization, which served greatly to promote elevation of mind, and advance them far above a condition of barbarism. They were in the habit of meeting in public assemblies, to discuss those questions that pertained to the interests, or destiny of their nation. Around their council fires their chiefs and warriors gathered, and entered freely, so far as their dignity, consideration, or power of debate admitted, into a deliberation on public affairs. And here were manifested an ability and decorum which civilized nations even, have viewed with admiration and surprise. For though we might suppose their eloquence must have partaken of rant and rhapsody, presenting a mass of incoherent ideas, depending for their interest on the animation of gesture and voice, with which they were uttered, yet we would do injustice to their memory, if we did not give their orators the credit of speaking as much to the purpose, and of exhibiting as great a force of intellect, as many who would claim a higher place than they in the scale of intelligence and refinement.
Many of their orators were distinguished for strength of mind, and in native power of genius, might compare favorably, with the men of any age or clime. The names of Garangula, Adario, Hendrick, Skenandoah, Logan and others, might be mentioned with pride by any people.
GARANGULA, has been styled the very Nestor of his nation, whose powers of mind would not suffer in comparison with a Roman, or more modern Senator 5 .
ADARIO is said to have been a man of “great mind, the bravest of the brave,” and possessing altogether the best qualities of any Indian known to the French in Canada 6 .
It has been remarked of Hendrick, that for capacity, bravery, vigor of mind, and immovable integrity united, he excelled all the aboriginal inhabitants of the United States, of whom any knowledge has come down to the present time 7 .
SKENANDOAH in his youth was a brave and intrepid warrior, and in his riper years one of the best of counsellors among the North American tribes. He possessed a most vigorous mind, and was alike active, sagacious, and persevering. He will long be remembered for a saying of his to one who visited him toward the close of life; “I am,” said he, “an aged hemlock, the winds of an hundred winters have whistled through my branches. I am dead at the top. The generation to which I belonged has run away and left me.” He was a sincere believer in the Christian religion, and added to the above “why I live the Great and Good Spirit only knows. Pray to my Jesus, that I may have patience to wait for my appointed time to die 8 .”
And Mr. Jefferson regarded the appeal of LOGAN to the white men, after the extirpation of his family, as without a parallel in the history of eloquence.
These were men who have been revered by the civilized world, as worthy of a place with the distinguished and great among mankind.
“Oratory was not alone a natural gift, but an art among the Iroquois. It enjoined painful study, unremitting practice, and sedulous observation of the style, and methods of the best masters. Red Jacket did not rely upon his native powers alone, but cultivated the art with the same assiduity that characterized the great Athenian orator. The Iroquois, as their earliest English historian observed, cultivated an Attic or classic elegance of speech, which entranced every ear, among their red auditory 9 .”
Those public games, entertainments, religious ceremonies and dances, common among the Indian tribes, added interest to their council gatherings, and made them a scene of attraction for the entire nation. Thither the young and old of both sexes were accustomed to resort, and, assembled at their national forum, listened with profound attention and silence to each word spoken by their orators. “The unvarying courtesy, sobriety and dignity of their convocations led one of their learned Jesuit historians to liken them to the Roman Senate 10 .”
“Their language was flexible and sonorous, the sense largely depending upon inflection, copious in vowel sounds, abounding in metaphor; affording constant opportunity for the ingenious combination and construction of words to image delicate, and varying shades of thought, and to express vehement manifestations of passion; admitting of greater and more sudden variations in pitch, than is permissible in English oratory, and encouraging pantomimic gesture, for greater force and effect. In other words it was not a cold, artificial, mechanical medium for the expression of thought or emotion, or the concealment of either, but was constructed, as we may fancy, much as was the tuneful tongue spoken by our first parents, who stood in even closer relations to nature 11 .”
Hence, though the Iroquois were a warlike people, and delighted in deeds of bravery, there was an inviting field opened to one, who could chain their attention by his eloquence, and sway their emotions at will.
Such advantages being presented for the exercise of the powers of oratory, it can hardly be supposed that a mind endowed as richly, as was Red Jacket’s, by the gifts of nature, would fail to perceive the path in which lay the true road to eminence among his people. And his subsequent career indicates but too clearly, the choice he made of the field in which to exercise his noble powers.
- Hist. of North American tribes by Thos. L. McKenney.
- Schoolcraft’s Report.
- Conversation of the author with Col. Wm. Jones, of Geneseo, Livingston Co., N. Y., son of Capt. Horatio Jones.
- Conversation with Col. Wm. Jones.
- Dr. Dwight.
- Annals of Tryon County.
- Mr. Bryant’s speech.
- W. C. Bryant’s speech before the Buffalo Historical Society on the occasion of the re- interment of Red Jacket’s remains.