Early Struggles of Red Jacket

How long and toilsome the way, ere the ambitious aspirant passes from the low grounds of obscurity, to the dazzling heights of fame! How many hours of anxious toil, through wearisome days and nights, protracted through months and years, are passed, before the arena even is entered, where the race commences in earnest! How many struggling emotions between hope and fear, encouragement and doubt, promise and despair, mark the experience, and clothe it with the sublimity and interest that belong to action in its highest forms!

Did this child of nature cherishing the bright dream from early life, never suffer from these contending emotions, ere he awoke finally to the consciousness of the reality, where he could exclaim, I am an orator, yes, I AM AN ORATOR!

This idea Red Jacket began now to cherish. He had practiced in his native wilds, the forest depths had echoed back those strains of eloquence, that had struggled for utterance in his impassioned bosom, and their force being expended here, served but to awaken a still stronger desire to try his powers, where he could have the answering sympathy of human hearts. His fame and greatness were yet to be achieved. With the inward consciousness of strength that would secure for him the eminence he desired, he awaited eagerly the opportunity for its exercise. This opportunity came.

When the storm of war had rolled by, the hour came for deliberation, and council. England and America had concluded peace, and the jurisdiction of the country of the Iroquois had been surrendered to the United States. Still no provision had been made by the crown for those tribes that had freely fought in her defense. They were left to make their own peace, or prosecute the war on their own account. Their attitude was yet hostile. No expedition of importance was undertaken, but the border men were constantly annoyed by Indians, who drove away their horses and cattle, and committed other acts of depredation. And the inhabitants of the frontier had suffered so severely from the Indian tribes during the war, that these acts served to awaken still deeper feelings of hostility toward them, and led some openly to recommend that the Indians be driven from their lands, and that these be forfeited to the State.

These councils were strenuously resisted by the general government. The humane and considerate Washington thought it wiser to try and conciliate them, and if possible win their confidence and esteem, claiming that their lands, when needed, could be obtained at a cheaper rate by negotiation and purchase, than by war and conquest.

This course, the excellence of which experience has fully demonstrated, was finally adopted, and in pursuance of this design, a general council of the Iroquois was convened at Fort Stanwix, in the fall of 1784. It was attended by Oliver Wolcott, Richard Butler, and Arthur Lee, who were appointed commissioners on the part of the United States. The different tribes of the Iroquois were represented, and Red Jacket was present, and took an active part in its deliberations. He had now been elected to the office of Sachem; at what time precisely, is not known, but probably not far from the close of the war of the Revolution.

The manner in which he gained this office has been ascribed by some to artifice as well as the force of his eloquence. Col. Stone says, that “aspiring to the rank of chief, he not only wrought upon the minds of his people, by the exertion of that faculty which was ever with them a high standard of merit, but he succeeded in availing himself of the superstitious constitution of his race, to effect his purpose. His first essay was to dream that he was, or should be a chief, and that the Great Spirit was angry that his nation had not advanced him to that dignity. This dream, with the necessary variations, he repeated until, fortunately for him, the small pox broke out among the Seneca. He then proclaimed the loathsome infliction a judgment sent by the Great Spirit, to punish them for their ingratitude to him. The consequence ultimately was, that by administering flattery to some, working upon the superstitious fears of others, and by awakening the admiration of all by his eloquence, he reached the goal of his ambition 1 .”

However this may have been, it is certain this course was not necessary to establish Red Jacket’s position among his people. The circumstances of their history created a necessity for his transcendent abilities, and the light of his genius, though it may have been obscured for a time, must eventually have shone forth, in its original beauty and splendor.

Red Jacket was now called upon to assist in the deliberations of his people, and from this time to the day of his death, we find him connected with, and bearing an important part in all of their public transactions.

The council at Fort Stanwix was the first occasion in which he appeared before the public. It was a meeting of no small moment. With an anxious heart the Indian left his home and wended his way, through his native forests, to the place where he was to meet in council, the chiefs of the thirteen fires. His own tribes had been wasted, by a long and bloody war. The nation they had so long clung to, and by whose artifice they had been led to engage in the strife, stood confessedly vanquished. A new power had arisen in the land, what bearing would it have on their future fortunes?

With the importance of this gathering none were more deeply impressed than Red Jacket.–Yonder he stands, alone;–his knit brow, and searching glance indicate a process of thought, which stirs deeply the emotions of the inner man.–Tread lightly, lest you disturb the silent evolutions of that airy battalion, that is wheeling into rank and file, thoughts that discharged in words, reach the mark and do execution.–Now he wears a look of indignation, which presently turns to one of proud defiance, as he contemplates the encroaching disposition of the white race.–Now you may detect an air of scorn, and his eye flashes fire, as he regards them at first a feeble colony, which might easily have been crushed by the strong arm of the Iroquois.–A feeling of deep concern directly overspreads his features, as he thinks of their advancing power, and of the prospect of their surpassing even the glory of his own ancestry.–A still deeper shade steals over him as he thinks of the waning fortunes of his people.– Presently his countenance is lighted up;–his feelings are all aglow,–a bright thought, has entered his mind.–He conceives the idea of the union of the entire race of red men, to resist the encroachments of the whites. –Are they not yet strong? And united, would they not yet be, a formidable power?

With anxious and matured thoughts, Red Jacket comes to this council gathering. Its bearing on his nation and race, he deeply scans, and treasures up those burning thoughts, with which he is to electrify, and set on fire the bosoms of his countrymen.

Of the proceedings of this council, little is known aside from the bare treaty itself. By this treaty perpetual peace and amity were agreed upon between the United States, and the Iroquois, and the latter ceded to the United States, all their lands lying west of a line commencing at the mouth of a creek four miles east of Niagara, at a place on Lake Ontario called Johnson’s Landing; thence south, in a direction always four miles east of the portage, or carrying-path, between Lakes Erie and Ontario, to the mouth of Buffalo creek, on Lake Erie; thence due south to the north boundary of the state of Pennsylvania; thence west to the end of said boundary; thence south along the west boundary of the state of Pennsylvania to the Ohio river.

In consideration of this surrender to the United States of their claim to western lands, the Iroquois were to be secure in the peaceful possession of the lands they inhabited in the state of New York.

This treaty Red Jacket strenuously resisted. He regarded the proposed cession of lands as exorbitant and unjust, and summoned all the resources of his eloquence to defend his position. The course of his argument and the various means he took to enforce it, we have no means of adequately presenting. A few hints respecting it, and the testimony of those present as to the effect produced, is all we have to guide us in forming any estimate of its merits.

After giving a vivid representation of the encroachments already made upon them by the whites, and of the advances they were making in numbers and power, as well as extent of territory, he reminded his hearers of the ancient glory of the Iroquois, and contrasted it with their present wasted and feeble condition. They had been passing through a mighty convulsion, the hurricane had swept over their dwellings, their homes were laid waste, their country made desolate.

He directed them to the extensive dominion they had exercised. Their empire was wide, on the north, and east, and south, and west, there were none to stay their hand, or limit their power. A broad continent was open to them on every side, and their seats were large. But now they were met by a people to whom they had surrendered a large portion of their lands, and “they are driving us on toward the setting sun. They would shut us in, they would close up the path to our brethren at the west. We demand an open way.”

They had no right, he affirmed, to part with their western lands. Their laws, their ancient usages forbade it. They ought never to decide a question so momentous as this, without giving all the parties a hearing, who have any interest in its decision. They should be present and join in their deliberations. Their brethren at the west had a right to be consulted in this matter.–It would be unworthy of the name, and exalted fame of the Iroquois, to decide the question without reference to them.–It was a question that affected deeply the interests of the entire race of red men on this continent. He declared finally that rather than yield to the exorbitant demands of the treaty, they should take up their arms, and prosecute the war on their own account.

Such is the scanty outline of a speech that made a wonderful impression on the minds of all his people who were present. During the progress of his speech, their emotions were wrought up to a pitch, that seemed to betoken a rising storm, and at times it seemed as though it needed but a spark to set on fire a flame that was ready to burst out with consuming force.

Those present, who did not understand the language of the orator, were deeply interested in his voice, his manner of elocution, and his perfect and inimitable action. They caught fire from his eye, and felt the inspiration, which was kindled in the minds of all who listened to him understandingly. When he sat down his work was accomplished. There was but one heart among his people. From this time on, he was the peerless orator of his nation.

A very interesting sketch of Red Jacket as an orator, refers, for the existence of the facts which form the basis of its statements, to a treaty held at Canandaigua in 1794. It has been copied by Drake, and published in almost every sketch of the orator’s life. Mr. Stone questions its truthfulness on the ground that there is no notice of it in any notes of this council taken at the time, and because also there was evidently an absence of the peculiar circumstances, which the speech referred to, seems to demand. Still he introduces it under the supposition that if delivered there at all, it might have been during the excitement produced among the Indians, by the rejection from the council, by Col. Pickering, of one Johnson, a messenger from Brant, who had been invited to be present at that council. Yet this is by no means probable, as Red Jacket would have been far from rising into eloquence on an occasion, which from his known relations to the proud Mohawk, he would naturally view with satisfaction, instead of resentment. The more probable supposition is, that the writer caught up this as a traditionary statement, which, owing to the lapse of time and the uncertainty of memory, had been changed in one or two of its items, and receiving it as correct, penned it in good faith, as having transpired at that treaty. It is a correct presentation of some of the points in the orator’s speech on this occasion, and is as follows 2 :

“… The witnesses of the scene will never forget the powers of native oratory. Two days had passed away in negotiation with the Indians for a cession of their lands. The contract was supposed to be nearly completed, when Red Jacket arose. With the grace and dignity of a Roman Senator, he drew his blanket around him, and with a piercing eye surveyed the multitude. All was hushed. Nothing interposed to break the silence, but the rustling of the leaves. After a long and solemn, but not unmeaning pause, he commenced in a low voice, and sententious style. Rising gradually with the subject, he depicted the primitive simplicity and happiness of his nation, and the wrongs they had sustained from the usurpations of white men, with such a bold and faithful pencil, that every auditor was soon roused to vengeance, or melted to tears. The effect was inexpressible. But ere the emotions of admiration and sympathy had subsided, the white men became alarmed. They were in the heart of an Indian country, surrounded by ten times their number, who were inflamed by a remembrance of their injuries, and excited to indignation by the eloquence of a favorite chief. Appalled and terrified, the white men cast a cheerless gaze on the hordes around them. A nod from the chiefs might be the onset of destruction. At this portentious moment, Farmer’s Brother interposed. He replied not to his brother chief, but with a sagacity truly aboriginal, he caused the cessation of the council, introduced good cheer, commended the eloquence of Red Jacket, and before the meeting had reassembled, with the aid of other prudent chiefs, he had moderated the fury of his nation to a more salutary view of the question before them.”

The commissioners replied, but without making much headway on account of the agitation and excitement, produced by the orator’s speech; that by the common usages of war they might lay claim to a much larger extent of territory; that their demand was characterized by great moderation, and insisted on their yielding to the terms proposed.

There was little disposition among them to yield the point, yet the treaty was finally brought to a successful issue, by the influence of Cornplanter.

Cornplanter was a noble specimen of the Indian race. He had all the sagacity for which his people were distinguished, and was equally active, eloquent and brave. He was well qualified by his talents to engage in the legislative councils of his nation, and was unsurpassed by any, for prowess and daring in the bloody field of strife. No chief, Thayendanegea not excepted, had gained higher laurels for personal valor, and none commanded more fully the confidence and esteem of his nation. His people looked up to him as a tower of strength, and when he spake, his words fell upon them with the weight of great authority. Better acquainted than his junior associate with the details of war, and understanding likewise the wasted and feeble condition of his people, and having learned in the late conflict something of the power of the enemy they would have to encounter, he regarded the idea of their resistance as wholly impracticable, and advised a compliance with the terms of the treaty. Though he regretted the loss of any more territory, he wisely concluded it was better to lose a part, than to be deprived of all. And by throwing his influence decidedly in favor, he succeeded finally in quieting the minds of his people, and in persuading them to accede to the proposals made.

It is a matter of regret that so few traces are left, of Red Jacket’s speech on this occasion. Yet had his speech been reported, we might have been as much at a loss as at present, to derive from it a just estimation of his talents. His speeches as reported are tame when compared with the effect produced.

The Indian was an unwritten language. The most distinguished orators of the Iroquois confederacy, matured their thoughts in solitude without the aid of the pen, and when uttered in the hearing of the people, they passed forever into oblivion, only as a striking passage may hare been retained in memory. And with them the want of a written language was thus in a measure compensated. They made an increased effort to treasure up their thoughts. Yet how much must necessarily have been lost! and how liable to waste away, that which remained.

Trusting to them how imperfect must have been a reported speech! And relying on those who transferred their speeches to a different language, we have little assurance of any thing better than mutilated transcripts of the original. Need we be surprised then, to find in Red Jacket’s published speeches, a tameness unworthy of his fame? Red Jacket was esteemed by the men of his time as an orator, surpassingly eloquent.

In his speeches as reported, this does not appear. Hence, his reported speeches fail to do him justice, or the men of his time very much overrated his talents.

Taking the latter horn of the dilemma we impeach the judgment and good sense of those who have gone before us. Assuming the former, we present an admitted and proclaimed fact. His contemporaries, while they conceded to him the highest attributes and accomplishments of eloquence, unite in affirming that his reported speeches come far short of the original.

“Captain Horatio Jones”, a favorite interpreter, has frequently declared,–“it is impossible to do Red Jacket justice.” The peculiar shade given to the idea, its beauty in its own native idiom, was often entirely lost in the transfer. In much the same way, Captain Jasper Parrish, of Canandaigua, has frequently been heard to speak, when referring to the forensic efforts of the orator.

And besides, those passages that were most deeply fraught with eloquence, were often lost entirely, from the fact that the way having been prepared by a recital of those details that are reported, the reporter himself has been carried away by the very flood that surrounded, uplifted, and carried away the mass of those who heard him speak. So that the only note that would be made, of a passage of considerable length, is given in one or two short sentences 3 .

By the generality of the Iroquois, the terms of the treaty at Fort Stanwix were regarded as severe; and though the services of the renowned Cornplanter were engaged by the commissioners, in an effort to persuade the disaffected into a reconciliation with it, the attempt was but partially successful, and was made at the expense of his own high standing among his people. They were not easily reconciled, and were so much displeased with his conduct on this, and one or two subsequent occasions, that they even threatened his life. A circumstance he touchingly refers to in a speech addressed to General Washington.

“Father,” said he, “we will not conceal from you that the great God and not man, has preserved Cornplanter, from the hands of his own nation. For they ask continually–where is the land which our children, and their children after them are to lie down upon? When the Sun goes down he opens his heart before God, and earlier than the sun appears upon the hills, he gives thanks for his protection during the night; for he feels that among men become desperate by their danger, it is God only that can preserve him.”Citations:

  1. Col. Stone’s Life and Times of Thayendanegea and Life and Times of Red Jacket. This statement has been denied by some, who affirm that his eloquence was the sole cause of his elevation. If this representation came from Brant, it may be recollected that between Red Jacket and Brant there did not exist a very strong attachment, and statements made by one concerning the other, would not be likely to bear the coloring of a very warm friendship.[]
  2. Mr. Stone justly supposes this speech might have been made at the treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784.[]
  3. Conversation of the author with Col. Wm. Jones.[]

Hubbard, John Niles. n Account of Sa-Go-Ye-Wat-Ha, or Red Jacket, and His People, 1750-1830. Self Published. 1885.

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