The Trial of Red Jacket

Witchcraft–Case of Tom. Jemmy

In the spring of 1821, a man belonging to Red Jacket’s tribe, fell into a languishing condition, and after lingering for some time, unable to obtain relief, died. The “medicine men” were unable to divine the cause of his malady; the circumstances of his sickness and death, were thought to be very peculiar, and his friends could discover no better way of explaining the matter, than to suppose he had been bewitched.

The Indians believed in sorcery, and at different times in their history had been known to execute summary judgment, on those whom they supposed to be guilty of practicing the Satanic art. In the present instance suspicion rested on the woman, by whom he had been attended, during his sickness. In pursuance of the customs of their nation she was condemned to die. The sentence was executed by Soo-nong-gise, a chief, commonly called Tom Jemmy. It took place at their reservation near Buffalo. Coming to the knowledge of the whites in the vicinity, it excited feelings of horror, mingled with indignation. The case was taken in hand by their authorities, who without regard to Indian jurisdiction, arrested Tom-Jemmy and threw him into prison.

At his trial the plea was set up in his defense, that the Indians were a sovereign and independent nation, having their own laws, and their own mode of carrying them into execution; that the offense was within the acknowledged bounds of their own territory, that according to their laws, it was not a crime, inasmuch as the act of the prisoner was in the execution of a sentence, that had been passed upon the woman in question.

The trial was conducted with reference to this issue, and numerous witnesses were examined to substantiate the facts having a bearing on the case. Red Jacket, among others, was called upon the stand, and examined with reference to the laws, and usages of his people.

The counsel who conducted the prosecution, wishing to exclude his testimony, inquired whether he believed in the existence of a God? “More truly than one who could ask me such a question;” was his instant and indignant reply.

On cross examination the inquiry was made, as to the rank he held among his own people? “Look at the papers, which the white men keep the most carefully,” meaning the treaties ceding their lands, “and they will tell you.”

The orator’s testimony, as did also that of other witnesses, who testified in the case, went to show that this woman, according to the judgment of the Indians, was a witch. That she had been regularly tried, and condemned by their laws; and her death was in conformity with usages, that had been in existence among them, from time immemorial.

During the course of this examination, Red Jacket perceived that the belief of the Indians in witchcraft, was made a subject of ridicule among the bystanders, as well as legal gentlemen present, and he took occasion when an opportunity offered, to break forth in the following language:

“What! Do you denounce us as fools and bigots, because we still believe that which you yourselves believed two centuries ago? Your black coats thundered this doctrine from the pulpit, your judges pronounced it from the bench, and sanctioned it with the formalities of law; and you would now punish our unfortunate brother, for adhering to the faith of his fathers and of yours! Go to Salem! Look at the records of your own government, and you will find that hundreds have been executed for the very crime, which has called forth the sentence of condemnation against this woman, and drawn down upon her the arms of vengeance. What have our brothers done, more than the rulers of your own people have done? And what crime has this man committed, by executing in a summary way, the laws of his country, and the command of the Great Spirit? 1

It has been observed of Red Jacket’s appearance on this occasion: “there is not, perhaps in nature, a more expressive eye than that of Red Jacket; when fired by indignation or revenge, it is terrible; and when he chooses to display his unrivalled talent for irony, his keen sarcastic glance, is irresistible 2 .”

This trial resulted in finding the allegations in the prisoner’s plea to be true; yet the judgment being suspended, it was referred finally to the Supreme Court. A thorough examination of the laws, treaties and history relating to our correspondence with the Indian tribes, gave evidence of a sort of sovereignty among them, but as it was thought inexpedient to render a decision, that would recognize their independent jurisdiction, the prisoner was liberated, and the case dismissed.

Not far from the time we are now considering, a remarkable conversation took place between Red Jacket and a young candidate for the clerical office, who afterward became an eminent divine 3 . It serves very much to illustrate the orator’s character and views, and as we have permission, we give it entire, as follows:

“The first-opportunity I ever enjoyed of seeing that deservedly celebrated Indian chief, Red Jacket, was in the year 1821, at the residence of General Peter B. Porter, Black Rock, New York. Being on a visit to the general and his family, it seemed a peculiarly fit occasion to become acquainted with the great Seneca orator, whose tribe resided within a few miles of Black Rock. General Porter embraced in his command, the Indian warriors who fought with us on that line, during the late war, with Great Britain. From this cause; from his high character; his intimate acquaintance with the chiefs; and his known attachment to these interesting people, he had great influence over them; and his lamented lady, who it is not indelicate for me to say, was my sister, had by her kindness won the rugged hearts of all their leading men. So that their united influence, and my near relationship to them, secured to me at once access to the chiefs, and their entire confidence.

“I had not only a great desire to see Red Jacket, but also to use this important opportunity to correct some of his false impressions, in regard to Christianity, and the missionaries established in his tribe. To this end it was agreed to invite Red Jacket and the other chiefs of the Senecas, to visit Co-na-shus-ta 4 , and meet his brother at his house. The invitation was accordingly given, and very promptly and respectfully accepted.

“On the appointed day they made their appearance in due form headed by Red Jacket, to the number of perhaps eight or ten, besides himself. Red Jacket was dressed with much taste, in the Indian costume throughout. He wore a blue dress, the upper garment cut after the fashion of a hunting shirt, with blue leggings, very neat moccasins, a red jacket, and a girdle of red about his waist. I have seldom seen a more dignified or noble looking body of men than the entire group. It seems, though no such impression was designed to be made by the terms of the invitation, that some indefinite expectation had been excited in their minds, of meeting an official agent on important business. And they have been so unworthily tampered with, and so badly treated by us, as a people, and many of their most important treaties have been so much the result of private and corrupting appeals, that they very naturally look for some evil design in every approach to them, however open and simple it may be. So it was on this occasion. As soon as the ceremonies of introduction had passed, with the civilities growing out of it, the old orator seated himself in the midst of the circle of chiefs, and after a word with them, followed by a general assent, he proceeded in a very serious and commanding manner, always speaking in his own nervous tongue, through an interpreter, to address me as follows:

“‘We have had a call from our good friends,’ (pointing to the general and his lady), ‘to come down to Black Rock to meet their brother. We are glad to break bread and to drink the cup of friendship with them. They are great friends to our people, and we love them much. Co-na-shus-ta is a great man. His woman has none like her. We often come to their house. We thank them for telling us to come to-day. But as all the chiefs were asked we expected some important talk. Now, here we are: what is your business?’

“This, as may be readily supposed, was an embarrassing position to a young man just out of college. I paused. Every countenance was fixed upon me, while Red Jacket in particular seemed to search me with his arrowy eye, and to feel that the private and informal nature of the meeting, and the extreme youth of the man, were hardly in keeping with the character and number of the guests invited; and his whole manner implied, that ‘but for the sake of the general and his good viands, I should have waited for you to come to us.’ With these impressions of his feelings, I proceeded to say in reply:

“That I should have thought it very presumptuous in me to send for him alone, and still more for all the chiefs of his tribe, to come so far to see me; and that my intention had been to visit him, and the other chiefs at his town; but the general and his lady, could not go with me to introduce me. Nor were we at all certain that we should find him and the other chiefs at home; and at any rate the general’s house was more convenient. He intended, when he asked them, to keep them as long as they could stay, and to invite them to break his bread, and drink his cup, and smoke his pipe; that his woman, and he as well as I, desired to see them at their house; that as to myself, I was a young man, and had no business with them, except that I had heard a great deal of Red Jacket, and wished to see him and hear him talk; and also that I had some things to say to him, when we were better acquainted, which though not business, were important to his people; and I thought it would be interesting to him, as I knew he loved his people much; and finally that I would return his visit, and show him that it was not out of disrespect, but out of regard for him, and great desire to see him, that we had sent for him, this being the way that white men honor one another.

“Mrs. Porter immediately confirmed what I had said, and gave special point to the hospitality of the house, and the great desire I had to see Red Jacket. Her appeal, added to the reply, relaxed the rigor of his manner and that of the other chiefs, while it relieved our interview of all painful feelings.

“After this general letting down of the scene, Red Jacket turned to me familiarly and asked; ‘What are you? You say you are not a government agent, are you a gambler{ 5 ? or a black coat? or what are you?’ I answered: ‘I am yet too young a man to engage in any profession: but I hope some of these days to be a black coat.’ He lifted up his hands accompanied by his eyes, in a most expressive way, and though not a word was uttered, every one fully understood that he very distinctly expressed the sentiment, what a fool!

“I had too often been called to bear from those reputed great and wise among white men, the shame of the cross, to be surprised by his manner; and I was too anxious to conciliate his good feelings to attempt any retort, so that I commanded my countenance, and seeming not to have observed him, I proceeded to tell him something about our colleges, etc., etc. That gradually led his mind away from the ideas with which it was filled and excited when he arrived.

“A good deal of general conversation ensued, addressed to one and another of the chiefs, and we were just arriving at the hour of dinner, when our conference was suddenly broken up by the arrival of a breathless messenger, saying that an old chief, whose name I forget, had just died, and the other chiefs were immediately needed to attend his burial. One of the chiefs shed tears at the news; all seemed serious; but the others suppressed their feelings, and spent a few moments in very earnest conversation, the result of which Red Jacket announced to us. They had determined to return at once to their village; but consented to leave Red Jacket and his interpreter. In vain were they urged to wait until after dinner, or to refresh themselves with something eaten by the way. With hurried farewell and quick steps they left the house, and by the nearest footpath returned home.

“This occurrence relieved me of one difficulty. It enabled me to see Red Jacket at leisure and alone. It seemed also to soften his feelings, and make him more affable and kind.

“Soon after the departure of the chiefs, we were ushered to dinner. Red Jacket behaved with great propriety, in all respects; his interpreter, Major Berry, though half a white man and perhaps a chief, eat like a true savage. After a few awkward attempts at the knife and fork, he found himself falling behind, and repeating the old adage which is often quoted to cover the same style among our white urchins of picking a chicken-bone, ‘that fingers were made before knives and forks,’ he proceeded with real gusto, and much good humor, to make up his lost time upon all parts of the dinner. It being over, I invited Red Jacket into the general’s office, where we had, for four hours a most interesting conversation on a variety of topics, but chiefly connected with Christianity; the government of the United States; the missionaries; and his loved lands.

“So great a length of time has passed since that interview, that there must be supposed a failure in the attempt perfectly to report what was said. I am well assured I cannot do justice to his language, even as diluted by the ignorant interpreter; and his manner cannot be described. But it was so impressive a conversation, and I have so often been called on to repeat it, that the substance of his remarks has been faithfully retained by my memory. It is only attempted here to recite a small part of what was then said, and that with particular reference to the illustration of his character, mind and opinions.

“It has already been mentioned and is largely known, that Red Jacket cherished the most violent antipathy toward the American missionaries, who had been located among his people. This led to very strenuous resistance of their influence, and to hatred of their religion, but of the true character of which, he was totally ignorant. His deep attachment to his people, and his great principle that their national glory and even existence, depended upon keeping themselves distinct from white men, lay at the foundation of his aversion to Christianity. Though a pagan, yet his opposition was political, and he cared very little for any religion except so far as it seemed to advance, or endanger the glory and safety of the tribe.

“He had unfortunately been led by designing and corrupt white men, who were interested in the result, falsely to associate the labors of the missionaries, with designs against his nation; and those who wished the Seneca removed from their lands that they might profit by the purchase, and who saw in the success of the mission the chief danger to _their_ plans, artfully enlisted the pagan party, of which Red Jacket was the leader, to oppose the missionaries, and thus effectually led to the final frustration of Red Jacket’s policy; in and by the defeat of the missionary enterprise. But as this question is discussed in the sequel, I will not anticipate. Thus much it was necessary to premise, in order to explain the nature and ends of my interview with Red Jacket.

“My object was to explain the true state of the case to him, and after this to recommend the doctrine of Christ to his understanding and heart. My first step, therefore, was to ask him why he so strongly opposed the settlement and labors of the missionaries? He replied, because they are the enemies of the Indians, and under the cloak of doing them good are trying to cheat them out of their lands. I asked him what proof he had of this. He said he had been told so by some of his wise and good friends, among the white men, and he observed that the missionaries were constantly wanting more land, and that by little and little, for themselves, or those who hired them to do it, they would take away all their lands, and drive them off.

“I asked him if he knew there was a body of white men, who had already bought the exclusive right to buy their lands, from the government of New York, and that therefore the missionaries could not hold the lands given or sold them by the Indians, a moment after the latter left their lands and went away. He seemed to be startled by the statement, but said nothing. I proceeded to tell him that the true effect of the missionary influence on the tribe was to secure to them the possession of their lands, by civilizing them, and making them quit the chase, for the cultivation of the soil, building good houses, educating their children, and making them permanent citizens and good men. This was what the speculators did not wish. Therefore they hated the missionaries. He acknowledged that the Christian party among the Indians did as I said; but that was not the way for an Indian to do. Hunting, war and manly pursuits, were best fitted to them. But, said I, your reservation of land is too little for that purpose. It is surrounded by the white people, like a small island by the sea; the deer, the buffalo and bear, have all gone. This won’t do. If you intend to live so much longer, you will have to go to the great western wilderness, where there is plenty of game, and no white men to trouble you. But he said, we wish to keep our lands and to be buried by our fathers. I know it, and therefore I say that the missionaries are your best friends; for if you follow the ways they teach, you can still hold your lands, though you cannot have hunting grounds, and therefore you must either do like white men, or remove from your lands, very soon. Your plan of keeping the Indians distinct from the white people is begun too late. If you would do it and have large grounds, and would let the missionaries teach you Christianity, far from the bad habits and big farms of the white people, it would then be well: it would keep your people from being corrupted, and swallowed up by our people who grow so fast around you, and many of whom are very bad. But it is too late to do it here, and you must choose between keeping the missionaries, and being like white men, and going to a far country: as it is, I continued, Red Jacket is doing more than any body else to break up and drive away his people.

“This conversation had much effect upon him. He grasped my hand and said if that were the case it was new to him. He also said he would lay it up in his mind (putting his hand to his noble forehead), and talk of it to the chiefs, and the people.

“It is a very striking fact that the disgraceful scenes now passing before the public eye over the grave of Red Jacket, so early and so sadly fulfill these predictions; and I cannot here forbear to add that the thanks of the nation are due to our present chief-magistrate 6 , for the firmness with which he has resisted the recent efforts to force a fraudulent treaty on the remnant of this injured people, and drive them against their will, and against law and treaties sacredly made, away from their lands, to satisfy the rapacity of unprincipled men.

“It may be proper here to say likewise, that I do by no means intend to justify, all that possibly may have been done by the missionaries to the Seneca. It is probable the earliest efforts were badly conducted; and men of more ability ought to have been sent to that peculiar and difficult station. But it is not for a moment to be admitted, nor is it credible that the authors of the charge believe it, that the worthy men who at every sacrifice went to the mission among the Seneca, had any other than the purest purposes. I visited the station, and intimately knew the chief missionary. I marked carefully their plan and progress, and do not doubt their usefulness any more than their uprightness; and beyond all doubt it was owing chiefly to malignant influence exerted by white men, that they finally failed in their benevolent designs. But my business is to narrate, not to discuss.

“My next object was to talk with Red Jacket about Christianity itself. He was prompt in his replies, and exercised and encouraged frankness, with a spirit becoming a great man.

“He admitted both its truth and excellence, as adapted to white men. He said some keenly sarcastic things about the treatment that so good a man as Jesus, had received from white men. The white men, he said, ought all to be sent to hell for killing him; but as the Indians had no hand in that transaction, they were in that matter innocent. Jesus Christ was not sent to them; the atonement was not made for them; nor the Bible given to them; and therefore the Christian religion, was not meant for them. If the Great Spirit had intended that the Indians should be Christians, he would have made his revelation to them, as well as to the white men. Not having done so, it was clearly his will that they should continue in the faith of their fathers. He said that the red man was of a totally different race, and needed an entirely different religion, and that it was idle as well as unkind, to try to alter their religion, and give them ours.

“I asked him to point out the difference of the races, contending that they were one, and needed but one religion, and that Christianity was that religion, which Christ intended for, and ordered to be preached, to all men. He had no distinct views of the nature of Christianity as a method of salvation, and denied the need of it. As to the unity of the races, I asked if he ever knew two distinct races, even of the lower animals to propagate their seed from generation to generation. But do not Indians and white men do so? He allowed it; but denied that it proved the matter in hand. I pressed the points of resemblance in every thing but color, and that in the case of the Christian Indians there was a common mind on religion. He finally waived this part of the debate, by saying that one thing was certain, whatever else was not, that white men had a great love for Indian women, and left their traces behind them wherever they could!

“On the point of needing pardon, from being wicked, he said the Indians were good till the white man corrupted them. But did not the Indians have some wickedness before that? ‘Not so much.’ And how was that regarded by the Great Spirit? Would he forgive it? He hoped so, ‘did not know.’ Jesus, I rejoined, came to tell us He would, and to get that pardon for us.

“As to suffering and death among the Indians, did not they prove that the Great Spirit was angry with them, as well as with white men? Would he thus treat men that were good? He said they were not wicked before white men came to their country, and taught them to be so. But they died before that? And why did they die, if the Great Spirit was not angry, and they wicked? He could not say, and in reply to my explanation of the gospel doctrine of the entrance of death by sin, he again turned the subject by saying he was a ‘great doctor,’ and could cure any thing but death.

“The interpreter had incidentally mentioned that the reason the chiefs had to go home so soon, was that they always sacrificed a white dog on the death of a great man. I turned this fact to the account of the argument, and endeavored to connect it with, and explain by it the doctrine of atonement, by the blood of Christ, and also pressed him on the questions, how can this please the Great Spirit on your plan? Why do you offer such a sacrifice, for so it is considered? And where they got such a rite from? He attempted no definite reply. Many other topics were talked over. But these specimens suffice to illustrate his views, and mode of thinking.

“At the close of the conversation he proposed giving me a name, that henceforth I might be numbered among his friends, and admitted to the intercourse and regards of the nation. Supposing this not amiss, I consented. But before he proceeded he called for some whiskey. He was at this time an intemperate man, and though perfectly sober on that occasion, evidently displayed toward the close of the interview, the need of stimulus, which it is hardly necessary to say, we carefully kept from him. But he insisted now, and after some time a small portion was sent to him in the bottom of a decanter. He looked at it, shook it, and with a sneer said, ‘why here is not whiskey enough for a name to float in.’ But no movement being made to get more, he drank it off, and proceeded with a sort of pagan orgies, to give me a name. It seemed a semi-civil, semi- religious ceremony. He walked around me again and again, muttering sounds which the interpreter did not venture to explain; and laying his hand on me pronounced me ‘Con-go-gu-wah,’ and instantly, with great apparent delight, took me by the hand as a brother. I felt badly during the scene, but it was beyond recall, and supposing it might be useful in a future day, submitted to the initiation.

“Red Jacket was in appearance nearly sixty years old at this time. He had a weather-beaten look; age had done something to produce this, probably intemperance more. But still his general appearance was striking, and his face noble. His lofty and capacious forehead, his piercing black eye, his gently curved lips, and slightly aquiline nose, all marked a great man, and as sustained and expressed by his dignified air, made a deep impression on every one that saw him. All these features became doubly expressive when his mind and body were set in motion by the effort of speaking, if effort that may be called which flowed like a free, full stream from his lips. I saw him in the wane of life, and I heard him only in private, and through a stupid, careless interpreter. Yet notwithstanding these disadvantages, he was one of the greatest men and most eloquent orators I ever knew. His cadence was measured and yet very musical. In ordinary utterance it amounted to a sort of musical monotony. But when excited he would spring to his feet, elevate his head, expand his arms and utter with indescribable effect of manner and tone, some of his noblest thoughts.

“After this interesting conference had closed, the old chief with his interpreter, bade us a very civil and kind farewell, and set forth on foot for his own wigwam.

“It was four years after this before I had the pleasure of again seeing my old friend. I was then on a flying visit to Black Rock. At an early day I repaired to his village, but he was not at home. Ten days after, as we were just leaving the shore in the steamboat to go up the lake, he suddenly presented himself. It was unhappily too late to return. He hailed me by name, and pointed with much animation to such parts of his person as were decorated with some red cloth which I at parting had presented to him, and which, though not worn as a jacket, was with much taste distributed over his person. These he exhibited as proofs of his friendly recollection.

“The last time I ever saw him was at the close of Mr. Adams’ administration. He, with a new interpreter (Major Berry having been removed by death), had been on a visit to his old friend, Co-na-shus-tah, then Secretary of War. After spending some time at the capital, where I often met him, and had the horror to see his dignity often laid in the dust, by excessive drunkenness, he paid me by invitation a final visit at Baltimore, on his way home. He took only time enough to dine. He looked dejected and forlorn. He and his interpreter had each a suit of common infantry uniform, and a sword as common, which he said had been presented to him at the war department. He was evidently ashamed of them. I confess I was too. But I forbear. He was then sober and serious. He drank hard cider, which was the strongest drink I could conscientiously offer him, so I told him. He said it was enough. I said but little to him of religion, urged him to prepare to meet the Great Spirit, and recommended him to go to Jesus for all he needed. He took it kindly, said he should see me no more, and was going to his people to die. So it was, not long after this, he was called to his last account.”

Col. Stone represents the testimony of Dr. Breckenridge as corresponding with hundreds of others, who confess their inability to do the orator justice. He laments “his inability to make even an approach to justice, as to the language, and figures in which Red Jacket clothed his thoughts, and by which he illustrated and enforced them.”

At another time the benefits of Christianity and the advantages of civilization, being urged by a benevolent gentleman on Red Jacket’s attention, he made use of the following language: “As to civilization among the white people, I believe it is a good thing, and that it was so ordered they should get their living in that manner. I believe in a God, and that it was ordered by Him that we, the red people, should get our living in a different way, namely: from the wild game of the woods, and the fishes of the waters. I believe in the Great Spirit who created the heavens and the earth. He peopled the forests, and the air and the waters. He then created man and placed him as the superior animal of this creation, and designed him as governor over all other created beings on earth. He created man differing from all other animals. He created the red man, the white, the black and the yellow. All these he created for wise but inscrutable purposes.”

Reasoning from analogy and from the different varieties of the same species, and the different species under one genus, among all other animals, he pointed out their different modes of living, and the different designs of the Creator, that appeared to be evinced with respect to them. He then proceeded:

“This being so, what proof have we that he did not make a similar arrangement with the human species, when we find so vast, so various, and so irreconcilable a variety among them, causing them to live differently, and to pursue different occupations.

“As to religion, we all ought to have it. We should adore and worship our Creator, for his great favor in placing us over all his works. If we cannot with the same fluency of speech, and in the same flowing language, worship as you do, we have our mode of adoring, which we do with a sincere heart; then can you say that our prayers and thanksgivings, proceeding from grateful hearts, and sincere minds are less acceptable to the Great God of the heavens and the earth, though manifested either by speaking, dancing, or feasting, than yours, uttered in your own manner and style 7 ?”Citations:

  1. Col. Stone, and also Drake’s Book of the Indians.[]
  2. Drake.[]
  3. Rev. John Breckenridge, D. D.[]
  4. Name given by Red Jacket to General Porter.[]
  5. The name given by Red Jacket to a land speculator.[]
  6. The President alluded to is Mr. Van Buren. W. L. S.[]
  7. As quoted by Col. Stone from MS collections of Joseph W. Moulton.[]


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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