Personal characteristics

A prominent characteristic of Red Jacket’s mind, was self esteem, which led him to be quite tenacious of his own opinion. He probably did not underrate his own ability. He felt conscious of possessing talents, which would enable him to act with dignity and propriety, in any emergency calling for their exercise. He never appeared to be intimidated or embarrassed at the thought of meeting with great men, but seemed always to be at home in their society, and to feel and act as though he regarded himself on an equality with them. This was evident in his interview with General Lafayette, in 1825.

On being presented to the general, the orator inquired if he recollected being present, at the treaty of peace with the Six Nations at Fort Stanwix, in 1784. Lafayette replied that he remembered that great council very well. “And what,” said he, “has become of the young chief, who resisted so strenuously and eloquently on that occasion, the idea of the Indians’ burying the hatchet?”

“He is before you,” was the instant reply. Upon which the general remarked, that time had wrought very great changes upon them both since that memorable period. “Ah!” said Red Jacket, “time has not been so severe on you, as it has on me. It has left you a fresh countenance, and hair to cover your head; while to me,–behold!”–And taking a handkerchief from his head, with an air of much feeling, he disclosed the fact that he was nearly bald. Several persons present could not refrain from smiling at the simplicity of the Indian, who appeared ignorant of the way the white man, was wont to repair the ravages of age in this respect. His simplicity was enlightened by the fact, that the general was indebted to a wig, for his generous supply of hair. Whereupon the orator playfully remarked, referring to the practice of his people in war, that it had not occurred to him before, that he might supply the deficiency by scalping some of his neighbors. M. Lavasseur, the secretary of General Lafayette, remarks of the orator’s appearance at that time. “This extraordinary man, although much worn down by time and intemperance, preserves yet in a surprising degree, the exercise of all his faculties. He obstinately refuses to speak any language, but that of his own people, and affects a great dislike to all others. Although it is easy to discern, that he perfectly understands the English. He refused nevertheless, to reply to the general before his interpreter had translated his questions into the Seneca language 1 .”

A few Indian words, which the general had picked up during his previous visit to this country, on being repeated by him to the orator, gratified him exceedingly, and appeared to increase very much his regard for Lafayette.

Red Jacket appeared always to be gratified by attentions received from distinguished characters. Yet even to enjoy their society, he would not compromise his own dignity. It is said that “about the year 1820, a young French nobleman, who was making the tour of the United States, visited the town of Buffalo. Hearing of the fame of Red Jacket, and learning that his residence was but seven miles distant, he sent him word, that he was desirous to see him, adding a request that the chief would visit him in Buffalo the next day. Red Jacket received the message with contempt, and replied: ‘Tell the young man that if he wishes to see the old chief, he may find him with his nation, where other strangers pay their respects to him; and Red Jacket will be glad to see him.’

“The count sent back his messenger to say he was fatigued with his journey, and could not go to the Seneca village; that he had come all the way from France, to see the great orator of the Seneca, and after having put himself to so much trouble, to see so distinguished a man, the latter could not refuse to meet him at Buffalo.

“‘Tell him,’ said the sarcastic chief, ‘It is very strange he should come so far to see me, and then stop within seven miles of my lodge.’ The retort was richly merited. The count visited him at his wigwam, and then Red Jacket accepted an invitation to dine with him, at his lodgings at Buffalo.

“The young nobleman was greatly pleased with him, declaring that he considered him a greater wonder than the falls of Niagara. This remark was the more striking as it was made within view of the great cataract. But it was just. He who made the world, and filled it with wonders, has declared man to be the crowning work of the whole Creation 2 .”

On one occasion at a treaty attended by Colonel Pickering, Red Jacket observed that the attention of the colonel, who was in the habit of taking down, as they were interpreted, the Indian speeches made, was withdrawn from himself, and his eye directed to the paper on which he was writing. Red Jacket paused. The colonel desired him to proceed. “No,” said the orator, “not when you hold down your head.” “Why can you not go on while I write?” “Because,” replied the chief, “if you look me in the eye, you will then perceive if I tell you the truth or not 3 .”

On another occasion, Colonel Pickering turned, while the orator was addressing him to speak to a person near. The chief thereupon rebuked him, saying with much emphasis, “When a Seneca speaks he ought to be listened to with attention, from one extremity of this great island to the other.”

Toward the close of his life he was present by invitation, at the launching of a schooner at Black Rock, bearing his name. He made a short address on the occasion which indicates the estimation in which he regarded his own merit. In the course of his speech, addressing himself directly to the vessel, he said: “You have a great name given you, strive to deserve it. Be brave and daring. Go boldly into the great lakes, and fear neither the swift winds, nor the strong waves. Be not frightened nor overcome by them, for it is by resisting storms and tempests, that I, whose name you bear, obtained my renown. Let my great example inspire you to courage, and lead you to glory 3 .”

Also late in life, when at one of the hotels in Auburn, N. Y., observing a person whom he thought did not treat him with proper deference, he came and stood before him and stamping his foot on the floor, exclaimed with much emphasis, “I am Red Jacket! 4

He did not relish being trifled with even in playfulness.

“At one time when visiting the house of Captain Jones, on taking his seat at the breakfast table with the family, Mrs. Jones, knowing his extreme fondness for sugar, mischievously prepared his coffee without the addition of that luxury. On discovering the cheat, the chief looked at the captain with an offended expression, and thus rebuked him: ‘My son,’ stirring his cup with energy, ‘Do you allow your squaw thus to trifle with your father?’ Perceiving at the same time, by the giggling of the children, that they had entered into the joke, he continued, ‘And do you allow your children to make sport of their chief?’ Jones and his wife thereupon apologized, and the latter made the “amende honorable”, by handing him the sugar-bowl, which he took, and with half angry sarcasm filled the cup to the brim, with sugar. The liquid not holding so large a quantity in solution, he ate the whole with his spoon 3 .”

Still he enjoyed a laugh when he was making the sport. He was very entertaining in conversation, and would sometimes in the presence of his associates, relax his dignity, and for a time, when he felt in the mood, keep them in a roar of laughter, by his anecdotes, or by taking off something ludicrous, he had observed among the whites. When he had carried it sufficiently far, he would draw himself up, and resume his dignity, when by common consent, the sport would cease 5 .

He very often entertained his people also, by recounting his interviews with distinguished persons, or by describing what he had seen in great places.

One conversant with him thus speaks of the manner in which he represented to his people, what he had seen during his visit at the seat of government. “I remember having seen him on one of those occasions, when, after having seated the Indians around him in a semi-circle, taking the cocked hat that had been presented to him by General Knox, then Secretary of War, in his hand, he went round bowing to the Indians, as though they were the company at the president’s house, and himself the president. He would then repeat to one and another all the compliments which he chose to suppose the president had bestowed upon him, and which his auditors and admiring people, supposed had been thus bestowed 6 .”

Red Jacket had a very “tenacious memory”. The Indians were noted for the care they bestowed on this faculty of the mind. In the absence of written records, they formed a device, which was quite ingenious, and indicated a high degree of intelligence, by which they perpetuated the knowledge of important events, in their history. They used belts, and strings of wampum.

For instance, they are assembled to form some important treaty. This treaty would be represented by the belt. Each string in that belt would represent a distinct article, or provision in that treaty. As they fixed their eye upon the belt, they knew it as well as though it had been labeled. As they took hold of each string, they could as it were, read each article of the treaty. For the preservation of these belts they had what were termed their council-houses, where they were hung up in order, and preserved with great care. At times they were reviewed. The father would go over them, and tell the meaning of each belt and of each string in the belt to the son, and thus the knowledge of all their important events, was transmitted from one generation to another.

Red Jacket, without any doubt excelled all of his race, in the perfection to which he had brought this faculty of his mind. Nothing escaped the tenacious grasp of his memory.

The following is an instance in point. At a council held with the Indians by Gov. Tompkins of New York, a contest arose between him and Red Jacket in regard to a fact connected with a treaty of many years’ standing. Mr. Tompkins stated one thing, and the Indian chief corrected him, insisting that the reverse of his assertion was true. “But” it was rejoined: “you have forgotten.” We have it written down on paper. “The paper then tells a lie,” was the confident answer; “I have it written down here;” he added, placing his hand with great dignity on his brow. “You Yankees are born with a feather between your fingers, but your paper does not speak the truth. The Indian keeps his knowledge here. This is the book the Great Spirit gave them; it does not lie.” A reference was immediately made to the treaty in question, when to the astonishment of all present, and the triumph of the unlettered statesman, the document confirmed every word he had uttered 7 .

He held in utter contempt “pretensions” without “merit”. “On one occasion not many years before his death, a gentleman from Albany, on a visit at Buffalo, being desirous of seeing the chief, sent a message to that effect. The gentleman was affluent in money and in words, the latter flowing forth with great rapidity, and in an inverse ratio to his ideas. He had also a habit of approaching very near to any person with whom he was conversing, and chattering with almost unapproachable volubility. On receiving the message, Red Jacket dressed himself with the utmost care, designing, as he ever did when sober, to make the most imposing impression, and came over to the village.

“Being introduced to the stranger, he soon measured his intellectual capacity, and made no effort to suppress his disappointment, which was indeed sufficiently disclosed in his features. After listening, for a few moments to the chatter of the gentleman, Red Jacket with a look of mingled chagrin and contempt, approached close to him and exclaimed, ‘cha, cha, cha,’ as rapidly as utterance would allow. Then drawing himself to his full height, he turned proudly upon his heel, and walked away in the direction of his own domicile, “as straight as an Indian”, nor deigned to look behind while in sight of the tavern. The gentleman with more money than brains, was for once lost in astonishment, and longer motionless and silent than he had ever been before 3 .”

He held the mere sensualist in equal contempt. “Many years ago, before the Indian towns were broken up along the valley of the Genesee, a clan of the Senecas resided at Canawangus, in the vicinity of the present town of Avon. The chief of the clan was a good, easy man, named Hot Bread. He was a hereditary sachem, not having risen by merit, was weak and inefficient, and of gluttonous habits. On a certain occasion, when Mr. George Hosmer was accompanying Red Jacket to an Indian council, in the course of general conversation he inquired the chief’s opinion of Hot Bread. ‘Waugh!’ exclaimed Red Jacket: ‘He has a little place at Canawangus, big enough for him. “Big man here”,’ laying his left hand on his abdomen, ‘But very small here,’ bringing the palm of his right hand with significant emphasis to his forehead 8 .”

He loved to hold communion with the sublime and grand in nature. He never wearied when viewing the falls of Niagara, and their roar, the baritone of nature’s anthem, stirred within, depths that other harmonies failed to reach. When Mr. Catlin, the celebrated Indian portrait painter, desired to obtain the orator’s picture, his consent was given, but he must be represented as standing on Table Rock, “for,” said he, “when I pass to the other world, my spirit will come back, and that is the place around which it will linger 9 .”

The artist gratified the orator, and represents him as standing there in the attitude of deep thought, dressed with much care in complete Indian costume, a very interesting memorial, presenting evident marks of being one of nature’s noblemen.

Since then Red Jacket has gone to his grave, and this rock where he often stood and feasted his soul on sublimities unrivalled in nature, has likewise fallen, while the world, like the impetuous flood, rolls on unconscious of both.

Of the various paintings of Red Jacket, Col. Stone remarks, “The picture by Mr. Robert W. Weir, taken in 1828, at the request of Doctor John W. Francis of New York, is of far the highest order of merit, and has become the standard likeness of the last of the Seneca orators.” To this is subjoined the following description from the pen of Doctor Francis, of the orator’s appearance on the occasion,

“For this purpose he dressed himself in the costume which he deemed most appropriate to his character, decorated with his brilliant overcovering and belt, his tomahawk, and Washington medal.

“For the whole period of nearly two hours, on four or five successive days, he was as punctual to the arrangements of the artist, as any individual could be. He chose a large arm chair for his convenience, while his interpreter, as well as himself, was occupied for the most part in surveying the various objects, which decorated the artist’s room. He had a party of several Seneca with him, who, adopting the horizontal position, in different parts of the room, regaled themselves with the fumes of tobacco, to their utmost gratification. Red Jacket occasionally united in this relaxation; but was so deeply absorbed in attention to the work of the painter, as to think, perhaps, of no other subject. At times he manifested extreme pleasure, as the outlines of the picture were filled up. The drawing of his costume, which he seemed to prize, as peculiarly appropriate, and the falls of Niagara, scenery at no great distance from his residence at the reservation, forced him to an indistinct utterance of satisfaction. When his medal appeared complete in the picture, he addressed his interpreter, accompanied by striking gestures; and when his noble front was finished, he sprang upon his feet with great alacrity, and seizing the artist by the hand, exclaimed with great energy, ‘Good! Good!’ The painting being finished, he parted with Mr. Weir with a satisfaction apparently equal to that which he doubtless, on some occasions had felt, on effecting an Indian treaty. Red Jacket must have been beyond his seventieth year when the painting was made. He exhibited in his countenance, somewhat of the traces of time and trial, on his constitution. Nevertheless he was of a tall, erect form, and walked with a firm gait. His characteristics are preserved by the artist to admiration; and his majestic front exhibits an attitude surpassing every other, that I have ever seen of the human skull. As a specimen for the craniologist, Red Jacket need not yield his pretensions to those of the most astute philosopher. He will long live by the painting of Weir, the poetry of Halleck, and the fame of his own deeds.”

Red Jacket had a quick and acute perception, he was very adroit. He at one time exposed the false pretenses of Jemima Wilkinson by arranging it with a few Indians to converse in her presence, in a manner that excited her curiosity. The ruse was successful, she anxiously inquired what they were talking about? Turning upon her a searching glance, he exclaimed, “What! Are you Jesus Christ? and not know Indian?”

Though unacquainted with the usages of society, in the refined circles where he often appeared, he readily adapted himself to the new position, and conducted with propriety and ease, careful to conceal his ignorance at the time. Mr. Thomas Morris in a letter to Colonel Stone, observes: “He once on his return from Philadelphia, told me that when there he perceived many things, the meaning of which he did not understand, but he would not make inquiry concerning them there, because they would be imputed to his ignorance. He therefore determined on his return to ask me.

“He said when he dined at General Washington’s, a man stood all the time behind his chair, and would, every now and then run off with his plate, and knife and fork, which he would immediately replace by others. ‘Now,’ said Red Jacket, ‘what was this for?’ I replied that he must have observed on the president’s table a variety of dishes, that each dish was cooked in a different manner, and that the plates and knives and forks of the guests, were changed as often as they were helped from a different dish. ‘Ah!’ said he, ‘is that it?’ I replied in the affirmative. ‘You must then suppose,’ he continued, ‘that the plates, and knives, and forks, retain the taste of the cookery?’ Yes, I replied. ‘Have you then,’ he added, ‘any method by which you can change your palates every time you change your plates? For I should suppose that the taste would remain on the palate longer than on the plate?’ I replied that we were in the habit of washing that away by drinking wine. ‘Ah!’ said he, ‘now I understand it. I was persuaded that so general a custom among you was founded in reason, and I only regret that when I was in Philadelphia I did not understand it; when dining with General Washington and your father. The moment the man went off with my plate I would have drunk wine until he brought me another; for although I am fond of eating, I am more so of drinking 10 .'”

It has been well observed of him, “He had an innate refinement and grace of manner, that stamped him the true gentleman, because with him these virtues were inborn, and not simulated or acquired 11 .”

On one occasion when Mr. George Hosmer of Avon, and several others of his tribe, were on their way to attend a certain treaty, the Indians one evening after the fatigues of the day, were unusually mirthful. Red Jacket conceiving the idea that Mr. Hosmer, who was unacquainted with their language might suppose he was the subject of their mirth, caused them to be silent, and through his interpreter, Captain Parrish, thus addressed him.

“We have been made uncomfortable by the storm; we are now warm and comfortable, it has caused us to feel cheerful and merry. But I hope our friend who is traveling with us will not feel hurt at this merriment, or suppose that we are taking advantage of his ignorance of our language, to make him in any manner the subject of our mirth.”

To which Mr. Hosmer replied, that knowing himself to be in the company of brave and honorable men, he could not allow himself to entertain such an impression. After which they resumed their merriment, and Red Jacket his gravity 3 .

The first efforts to construct a bridge at Niagara Falls was unsuccessful. It was supposed the force of the water where it flowed smoothly, would not be as great as where it dashed against the rocks and appeared more boisterous. This was a mistake. Every endeavor to fix a bent where the water was smooth, proved utterly abortive. At length an architect conceived the idea of placing the bridge, down where the water began to be broken in its descent, and of obtaining a foot-hold for his bent, behind some rock against which the water dashed. This resulted in the successful completion of a bridge, leading to Goat Island. After its completion, Red Jacket, in company with General Porter, was passing over it one day, when the chief, whose curiosity was excited, examined minutely every part of its construction, evidently regarding it, as a great wonder. At length discovering the secret, he exclaimed, “Ugh! still water!” and immediately added, “d–n Yankee 12 .”

Red Jacket was not a stranger to tender and refined sensibilities.

William Savary in his Journal, while attending the Indian treaty held at Canandaigua in 1794, speaks of the children of Red Jacket in terms of high commendation. Most of them died of consumption, “in the dew of their youth.”

On one occasion, when visiting an aged lady of his acquaintance near Avon, who from early life had been more or less familiar with his history, she inquired of him, if any of his children were still living? Fixing his eyes upon her, with a sorrowful expression, he replied:

“Red Jacket was once a great man, and in favor with the Great Spirit. He was a lofty pine among the smaller trees of the forest. But after years of glory he degraded himself, by drinking the firewater of the white man. The Great Spirit has looked upon him in anger, and his lightning has stripped the pine of its branches 13 .”

Some four or five years before his death, three brothers, named Thayer, were executed at Buffalo for the crime of murder. The occasion was unusual, and multitudes of both sexes, from the surrounding region, flocked to witness the unhappy spectacle.

On the day of the execution, Red Jacket was met by Judge Walden, of Buffalo, wending his way from the town to his home. The judge inquired where he was going? At the same time expressing his surprise that he did not go with the multitudes, flocking to witness the spectacle. His answer was brief; “Fools enough there already. Battle, is the place to see men die.”

The reply was a merited rebuke to the desire so prevalent, to witness these awful sights 14 .

Red Jacket ever cherished a watchful regard over the interests of his people, and was always ready to speak in their behalf.

At the trial of an Indian for burglary, himself and other chiefs were present to render any aid in their power, to their brother in bonds. The prisoner was found guilty of having broken into a house and stolen a few silver spoons. The crime of petit larceny, was thus merged in the greater one of burglary.

At a fitting opportunity Red Jacket arose and spoke eloquently in his brother’s defense; urging the independence of his nation, the existence among them of laws for the punishment of theft, and boldly demanding the surrender of the prisoner, assuring the court that the prisoner should be tried by these laws, and suffer the penalty they demanded. His effort though regarded as able and brilliant, did not avail to rescue the prisoner from the white man, whose sentence in the case being for burglary instead of theft, Red Jacket regarded as unnecessarily severe.

When the proceedings were over, Red Jacket, who happened to be standing with a group of lawyers, took the following method of expressing his dissatisfaction.

Beholding on the sign of a printing office near by, an emblematic representation in large figures and characters, of Liberty and Justice; he asked in broken English, pointing to one of them, “What-him-call?” It was answered, Liberty. “Ugh!” was his significant and truly aboriginal response. Pointing then to the other figure, he inquired, “What-HIM-call?” It was answered, JUSTICE. Whereupon his eye kindling with animation, he asked with evident emotion, “WHERE-HIM-LIVE- NOW 15 ?”

If the sincerity of Red Jacket’s regard for the welfare of his people was ever questioned, it was by those who knew not his inner self. In guarding the interests of his people, he was in the habit of closely watching strangers, not only, but even his own friends.

Owing to slanderous reports that had been circulated, he at one time began to suspect that his friend Captain Jones, was actuated by motives of self-interest, and did not property regard the interest of the Indians.

Jones soon after met Red Jacket with his usual cordiality of manner, but was received with evident marks of coldness and distrust. “After the lapse of a few minutes, during which time the questions of Jones were answered in monosyllables, the captain asked an explanation of the orator’s conduct. Fixing his searching glance upon him, as if reading the secrets of his soul, Red Jacket told him of the rumor circulated, in reference to his fidelity to the Indians, and concluded by saying with a saddened expression, ‘And have you at last deserted us?’ The look, the tone, the attitude of the orator, were so touching, so despairing, that Jones, though made of stern materials, wept like a child; at the same time refuting the calumny in the most energetic terms. Convinced that Jones was still true, the chief, forgetful of the stoicism of his race, mingled his tears with those of Jones, and embracing him with the cordiality of old, the reconciled parties renewed old friendship over a social glass 16 .”Citations:

  1. See Drake, Col. Stone and others.[]
  2. McKenney’s Indian Biography[]
  3. Col. Stone.[][][][][]
  4. Incident given to the author by J. C. Ivison, Esq., of Auburn.[]
  5. Wm. Jones, to the author.[]
  6. Thomas Morris to Col. Stone.[]
  7. McKenney’s Indian Biography.[]
  8. Ib.[]
  9. Catlin’s North American Indians.[]
  10. Col. Stone’s Life of Red Jacket.[]
  11. W. C. Bryant’s Memorial Address.[]
  12. Given to the author by T. M. Howell, Esq., of Canandaigua, N. Y.[]
  13. Related to Col. Stone by Mrs. George Hosmer of Avon.[]
  14. Mrs. George Hosmer to Col. Stone.[]
  15. Geo. Hosmer, Esq., to Col. Stone[]
  16. 127. W. H. C. Hosmer to Col. Stone.[]

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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