Views at the Close of Life

With the views entertained by Red Jacket, the objects that met him on every side, as he drew near the close of life, were far from pleasant. Yonder hillside, exposed to the gaze of the world, its huge rocks laid bare; those fields, stretching further than eye could reach, bounded not by woodland, lake, or river, but by the white man’s fence; ten thousand dwellings, smiling with the abundance and thrift of the husbandman, city and village, bustling with tumult, and the noise of busy hammers, and rattling wheels, and roaring engines; all of these however gratifying to the white man, as marks of improvement, afforded him no pleasure. He saw in them the sepulcher of his people’s pride and glory.

The hillside opened to the sunlight, for the innocent lamb to sport upon, or to make the stable ox a home, he would have loved better, as when sheltered once by the sturdy oak or stately pine, its rocks jutting out from behind the ivy, and its bosom threaded by the path of the deer. The fields might have appeared inviting and green, but the white man’s barrier would have warned him away, the road he would have looked upon as a poisoned path, and he would have taken to the woods, as a place more congenial to his spirit.

It is said of him “that in the days of his youth he was wont to join the hunters in the beautiful valley of the Genesee, with great enthusiasm. Game was then plenty, and they were the finest hunting grounds, he could traverse. Toward the close of his life he went thither to indulge once more, in the pleasures of the chase, where a forest apparently of considerable extent, yet remained. He entered it, recognizing some of his ancient friends among the more venerable of the trees, and hoping yet to find abundant game. But he had not proceeded far before he approached an opening; and his course was presently impeded by a fence, within the enclosure of which, one of the pale faces was guiding the plow. With a heavy heart he turned in another direction, the forest seeming yet to be deep, and where he hoped to find a deer, as in the days when he was young. But he had not traveled long, before another opening broke upon his view, another fence impeded his course, and another cultivated field appeared within. He sat down and wept 1 .”

It has been well observed: “The whole life of the Seneca chief was spent in vain endeavors to preserve the independence of his tribe, and in active opposition as well to the plans of civilization proposed by the benevolent, as to the attempts at encroachment on the part of the mercenary…. He yielded nothing to persuasion, to bribery, or to menace, and never to his last hour remitted his exertions, in what he regarded the noblest purpose of his life 2 .”

But at the close of life, Red Jacket began to realize more than ever the power of those forces bearing down upon him, to resist which he had summoned all the energies he could command. His people, notwithstanding his efforts, were constantly brought by the encroachments of the whites, into a narrower compass, and the religion and customs of the whites continued to gain ground, and threatened to supersede the time honored usages of his fathers.

Intoxicating drinks also, the bane of the Indian race, wrought sad havoc among his people, and had well nigh ruined himself. His influence was thus effectually crippled, and his opposition to Christianity, and the efforts of the whites to obtain their land, carried much less weight, than at an earlier period of his life. He saw and felt this, and in view of it, was much cast down.

His opposition to Christianity, is said to have been much encouraged by wicked and designing men among the whites, who feared that the presence of missionaries among the Indians, would interfere with their unworthy and base designs.

But his decision when formed, as already intimated, was consistently and perseveringly maintained. He narrowly watched every proceeding, gathered around him such as would be controlled by his influence, or example, and inculcated in them those sentiments of steadfastness, in the religion of their fathers, so strikingly manifested in his own conduct.

After various discouragements and reverses, the missionary was at length established among his people, and the adherents of Red Jacket, which at first were the most numerous, by degrees diminished, until finally those friendly to Christianity, outnumbered the others. Red Jacket’s people one by one, became interested in the religion the missionary had come to teach. The schools established began to be well attended, several chiefs embraced the new religion; some of them were men of influence and carried with them many others. Finally in 1826, Red Jacket’s wife became interested on the subject of religion, attended the meetings of the Christians, was led to abandon the pagan worship, she formerly attended, altogether, and giving evidences of piety, proposed to unite with the mission church, under the care of the Rev. Mr. Harris.

Before uniting, she laid the subject before Red Jacket and desired his consent. This he utterly refused, and threatened in case she did so, to leave her and never visit her again. Her trial in view of this refusal, she referred to Mr. Harris, who kindly endeavored to show her what the law of Christianity demanded, that it required her to obey God, rather than man; that though her course might subject her to trial, she had the promise of the grace of Christ to help her, and that in the end it might promote her good. Still he committed the matter wholly to her own conscience, advising her to pursue the course that might thus be indicated, and leave the event in the hands of God.

After deliberating for a time she united with the church, and Red Jacket, true to his threat, left her and went to another reservation. She bore his displeasure with a meek and Christian spirit, remained at home with her family, and conducted discreetly, pursuing as before the duties of her household.

Red Jacket after a few months’ absence returned, desiring to be welcomed again by his wife, who received him on condition of his not interfering with her, in her religious views, or attendance on the meetings of the mission. To this he gave his assent, and was ever afterward faithful in observing his pledge; not opposing, but aiding her in performing, according to her desire, her religious obligations.

A division was now apparent among the Seneca, in regard to religion. There was a Christian, and a Pagan party. The former led by Young King, Captain Pollard, and others; the latter recognized Red Jacket as its ruling spirit.

The opposition he had so long exerted, began to be regarded with impatience. As the Christian party advanced and became more numerous, they were unwilling to submit to the dictation of the orator. They began to feel that in his opposition to the education and improvement of his people, he was acting the part of an enemy, and not a friend.

His habits of intemperance also, having greatly lessened their esteem, they became unwilling he should longer hold the commanding position he had enjoyed, and so well adorned, in the earlier part of his life. At a council held in September, 1827, a paper was drawn up, containing charges against the orator, which were assigned as a reason for the extraordinary course they pursued, closing with the declaration, that they renounced him as their chief, and forbade him to act as one, affirming that he should thereafter be regarded as a private man.

This proceeding stung the orator to the quick, and aroused him to action, He could not endure the thought of the humiliation thus brought upon him, at the close of life. The thought too, that it had been effected by those who differed from him, in their religious sentiments, and would be regarded as a triumph over him, touching the views he had long entertained, as to what would best promote the welfare of his people, affected him in a point so near his heart, as to forbid his resting under it.

“It shall not be said,” thought he, “that Sa-go-ye-wat-ha, lived in insignificance, and died in disgrace. Am I not yet strong? Have I not yet power to withstand my enemies?”

He set out for Washington, to spread his grief before his great Father. On arriving there he visited Colonel McKenney, who had charge of Indian affairs. That officer had been informed, through the Indian agent, of all that had transpired among the Seneca, and of the cause of their displeasing Red Jacket.

When the customary salutations were over, Red Jacket remarked through his interpreter, “I have a talk for my Father.” “Tell him,” said Colonel McKenney, “I have one for him. I will make it, and will then listen to him.” The colonel then proceeded to give a minute history of all that had recently transpired, and dwelt upon the various causes that had operated in producing the rupture, that had taken place. He pointed out to him the course he ought to have pursued, that he should have manifested a spirit of forbearance, and allowed the Christian party the same liberty in the exercise of their sentiments, which he demanded for himself; and that this course would have saved him the mortification he now experienced, in being expelled from office and power.

During this conversation Red Jacket never took his keen and searching eye from the speaker, but at its close turned to the interpreter, and pointing in the direction of his home and people, said, “Our Father has got a long eye.”

He then proceeded to vindicate himself and his cause, not forgetting to pour upon the Black coats plentiful effusions of wrath. The colonel advised him to return to his people, convene a council and come to a better understanding with them, by allowing those among them who desired to do so, to become Christians, while himself and those who thought like him, might claim the privilege of following unmolested, the faith of their fathers 3 .

About one month had passed since Red Jacket’s deposition. In the mean time Red Jacket had been very active in going from one reservation to another, and sparing no pains, in gathering a Great Council, from those belonging to the Six Nations.

Another council was convened, much larger than the former, composed of members from other reservations, belonging to the Iroquois confederacy. It assembled at the upper council-house of the Seneca village near Buffalo.

At the opening of the council, the paper declaring the orator’s deposition was read. Half Town, a Seneca chief of the Cattaraugus reservation then arose, and said there was but one voice in his nation, and that was of general indignation at the contumely cast on so great a man as Red Jacket. The council was then addressed by several other chiefs very much to the same effect. After which the condemned orator arose slowly, as if grieved and humiliated, but yet with his ancient air of command.

“My Brothers:” said he, after a solemn pause, “You have this day been correctly informed of an attempt to make me sit down, and throw off the authority of a chief, by twenty-six misguided chiefs of my nation. You have heard the statements of my associates in council, and their explanations of the foolish charges brought against me. I have taken the legal and proper way to meet these charges. It is the only way in which I could notice them. Charges which I despise, and which nothing would induce me to notice, but the concern which many respected chiefs of my nation, feel in the character of their aged comrade. Were it otherwise I should not be before you. I would fold my arms, and sit quietly under these ridiculous slanders.

“The Christian party have not even proceeded legally to put me down.” He then made some artful observations on the origin of the attack made upon him. He laid open its history step by step. He dwelt upon the various circumstances connected with the introduction of Christianity among them. He alluded to the course taken by the Christians as ruinous and disgraceful, especially in their abandonment of the religion of their fathers, and their sacrifices, and of the lands given them by the Great Spirit, for paltry considerations. As for the “Black coats”, Mr. Calhoun had told him at Washington four years before, that the Indians must treat with them as they thought proper; the government would not interfere. “I will not consent,” said he, sagaciously identifying his disgrace with his opposition to the Christians, “I will not consent silently to be trampled under foot. As long as I can raise my voice, I will oppose such measures. As long as I can stand in my moccasins, I will do all I can for my nation. Ah! it grieves my heart, when I look around me and see the situation of my people, in old times united and powerful, now divided and feeble. I feel sorry for my nation. Many years have I guided my people. When I am gone to the other world, when the Great Spirit calls me away, who among them can take my place 4 ?”

No adequate account of this speech has been preserved. It is said he spoke three hours in his own defense; that it was a masterly effort, and equal to the speeches he used to make in his palmiest days 5 .

Though greatly dilapidated in his powers by intemperance, he was thoroughly aroused on this occasion, and the eloquence, pathos, and fire of a former day, shed around him the luster of a superior mind, and his people for the time, forgot and forgave his delinquencies, and by unanimous consent, reinstated him in office and power.

Thus by means of one more great exertion of this wonderful faculty, by which he controlled the minds of his people, they were led to reverse the decision that had been made against him, and though he stood among them but the blasted trunk of that tree, which, in its full and luxuriant prime, cast a deep and mellowing shade over their closing history, and invested it still with the appearance of strength; they resolved he should yet wear the title, that better befitted him in other days, though it served but slightly to hide the deformity, wrought in his noble nature, by the demon of intemperance.

With this speech the public career of Red Jacket is closed. The effort he made on this occasion, added to his exertions previous to the gathering of the council, was too great for his aged and enfeebled condition. After this he declined very rapidly, and seemed to realize that his end was drawing near. He often adverted to this event, but always in language of philosophic calmness.

In view of it he visited successively all of his most intimate friends, at their cabins, and talked with them in the most impressive and affecting manner. He told them that he was passing away, and his counsels would soon be heard no more. He ran over the history of his people, from the most remote period to which his knowledge extended, and pointed out as few could, the wrongs, the privations, and the loss of character, which almost of themselves constituted that history. “I am about to leave you,” said he, “and when I am gone, and my warnings shall be no longer heard, or regarded, the craft and avarice of the white man will prevail. Many winters have I breasted the storm, but I am an aged tree, I can stand no longer. My leaves are fallen, my branches are withered, and I am shaken by every breeze. Soon my aged trunk will be prostrate, and the foot of the exulting foe of the Indian, may be placed upon it in safety; for I leave none who will be able to avenge such an indignity. Think not I mourn for myself. I go to join the spirits of my fathers, where age cannot come; but my heart fails, when I think of my people, who are soon to be scattered and forgotten.”

Many noticed that his feelings at this time were greatly modified and mellowed, with respect to the stand he had taken against Christianity. His wife’s example, who was a woman of humble, consistent piety, exerted a salutary, and happy influence upon him. It led him to regard Christianity more favorably, and to recede very much from the hostile position he had previously maintained. He talked of peace, and sought to bring about a reconciliation between the two parties. He convened a council with this in view. He made special preparations to attend it, dressing himself with more than ordinary care, with all his gay apparel and ornaments. He went with the intention of making what would have been his farewell speech, and giving them his last counsel.

He was taken suddenly ill at the Council-house, of cholera morbus and returned home, saying to his wife, “I am sick; I could not stay at the council, I shall never recover.”

He then took off his rich costume, and laid it carefully away, reclined upon his couch, and did not rise again till morning. His wife prepared him medicine, which he took, but said, “it will do no good. I shall die.”

The next day he called his wife and the little girl he loved so much, requested them to sit beside him and listen to his parting words. Addressing his wife, he said: “I am going to die, I shall never again leave this house alive. I wish to thank you for your kindness to me. You have loved me. You have always prepared my food, and taken care of my clothes, and been patient with me. I am sorry I ever treated you unkindly. I am sorry I left you, because of your new religion. I am convinced it is a good religion, and has made you a better woman, and wish you to persevere in it. I should like to live longer for your sake. I meant to build you a new house, and make you more comfortable, but it is now too late.”

Addressing his daughter, he said; “I hope my daughter will remember what I have so often told her, not to go in the streets with strangers, or associate with improper persons. She must stay with her mother, and grow up a respectable woman.”

He said again: “When I am dead, it will be noised abroad through all the world, they will hear of it across the great waters, and say, Red Jacket the great orator is dead. And white men will come and ask you for my body. They will wish to bury me. But do not let them take me. Clothe me in my simplest dress, put on my leggings and my moccasins, and hang the cross I have worn so long, around my neck, and let it lie upon my bosom. Then bury me among my people. Neither do I wish to be buried with Pagan rites. I wish the ceremonies to be as you like, according to the customs of your new religion, if you choose. Your minister says the dead will rise. Perhaps they will. If they do, I wish to rise with my old comrades. I do not wish to rise among pale faces. I wish to be surrounded by red men. Do not make a feast according to the customs of the Indians. Whenever my friends chose, they could come and feast with me, when I was well, and I do not wish those who have never eaten with me in my cabin, to surfeit at my funeral feast.”

When he had finished he laid down on his couch and did not rise again. He lived several days but was most of the time in a stupor, or else delirious. He often asked for Mr. Harris, the missionary, and would afterward unconsciously mutter: “I do not hate him. He thinks I hate him, but I do not, I would not hurt him.” The missionary was sent for repeatedly, but was from home at the time, and did not return till after the chief’s death.

When the messenger told him Mr. Harris had not come, he replied: “Very well, the Great Spirit will order it as he sees best, whether I shall speak with him or not 6 .” Again he would murmur: “He accused me of being a snake, and trying to bite somebody. This was true, and I wish to make satisfaction.”

The cross he wore was a very rich one of stones set in gold, and large; by whom it was given, his friends never knew. This is all the ornament he requested to have buried with him.

It was customary among the Indians to make funeral feasts. No family was so poor as not thus to honor the dead. If all they possessed was a cow, it was slaughtered for the occasion. Red Jacket desired nothing of this kind. A pagan funeral for a distinguished person is a pompous affair, and lasts for ten days. Every night a fire is kindled at the grave, and around it the mourners gather, and utter piteous wails.

The wife and daughter were the only ones to whom he spoke parting words, or gave a parting blessing. As his last hour drew nigh, his family all gathered around him, but the children were not his own, they were step- children, his own were all sleeping in the churchyard, where he was soon to be laid.

His step-children he always loved and cherished, their mother had taught them to love and honor him. The wife sat by his pillow and rested her hand on his head. At his feet stood the two sons, now aged and Christian men, and by his side the little girl, whose hand rested on his withered and trembling palm. His last words were still, “Where is the missionary?” He then clasped the child to his bosom, while she was sobbing in anguish, her ears caught his hurried breathing, his arms relaxed their hold, she looked up, he was gone.

There was mourning in the household, there was great mourning among the people. The orator, the man of matchless gifts, of surpassing eloquence was no more; and there were none to fill his place.

Red Jacket desired after his death, a vial of cold water might be placed in his hand. His reason for this his friends did not understand. Red Jacket felt that intemperance had been the bane of his life. Possibly from this conviction he may have desired to be accompanied in his journey to the spirit-land, by the beverage of which his better judgment most approved.

The arrangements of his funeral Red Jacket committed to his wife’s son-in-law Wm. Jones. His friends, who belonged mostly to the Christian party, chose to have at his funeral the simple and appropriate services of that religion. It was largely attended by his own race, and by the whites living in that vicinity. He was buried in the mission burying ground, where were reposing many of his race, the aged and young, warrior, sachem, child.

His death was at his residence near the church and mission-house at Seneca village on the 20th of January, 1830.Citations:

  1. Circumstances related to Col. Stone by a Seneca chief.[]
  2. McKenney’s Biography.[]
  3. Col. McKenney’s Indian Biography.[]
  4. Thatcher’s Indian Biography.[]
  5. Conversation of the author with Wm. Jones, Seneca chief.[]
  6. Conversation of the author with Wm. Jones, Seneca chief, and sketch of Red Jacket in “The Iroquois.” The account of the orator’s closing hours given in this work, is more full, but in perfect accord with the statements made to the author by Mr. 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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