Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Colonial Pennsylvania Frontier

Into the American Woods: Negotiators on the Colonial Pennsylvania Frontier

by James H. Merrell


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780393319767
Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 01/28/2000
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 1,048,583
Product dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

James H. Merrell is professor of history at Northwestern University and the author of (Norton), winner of the Bancroft Prize.

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Chapter One

"Fitt & Proper Persons to Goe Between":
Paths to the Woods

    The lead actors in the Armstrong affair—Shickellamy, Conrad Weiser, and Andrew Montour—make an unlikely ensemble of allies. Shickellamy, an aged Oneida sent to the Forks of the Susquehanna by the Six Nations to keep an eye on Iroquoia's southern frontier, had been Pennsylvania's friend ever since he showed up in Philadelphia sixteen years before. Weiser, close to fifty that spring of 1744, was born in Germany and brought over to New York as a boy before hard times there pushed him south, in the late 1720s, to the rich soil along Tulpehocken Creek. Montour, much the youngest of the three, came to Shamokin by still another route. Raised at Ostonwakin ("French Town") on the Susquehanna's West Branch, he was the son of an Oneida named Currundawanah and "the celebrated" Madame Montour, a woman-well versed in French, English, and Iroquois ways. One of these men spoke Oneida and a little English; another had German as his first language, with Mohawk his second and English his third; the last, greeted in French, might reply in English, Delaware, Shawnee, or one of the Iroquois tongues.

    The different paths bringing the Iroquois leader, the stolid German farmer, and the colorful fellow from French Town to council houses at Shamokin and Philadelphia in 1744 only begin to suggest the range of people who managed contact on the Pennsylvania frontier. Just a year earlier, Thomas McKee, one of the fur traders in the Armstrong search party, had accompanied Weiser toShamokin in order to negotiate with Indians there; in times to come McKee, like many in the peltry business, would be deeply involved in the negotiator's round of travels, translations, and treaties. And a year after it debated Mushemeelin's fate, Shamokin greeted people who would become go-betweens of still another stripe: Christian missionaries like the Moravian David Zeisberger, along with the Presbyterian Delaware Tunda (Moses) Tatamy and other native converts.

    The difficulty in sketching a group portrait of such a passel of humanity is compounded by the fact that go-betweens tended to be as obscure as they were diverse. Many who only joined the formal conversation between peoples once or twice left little trace in the records. But even more famous mediators remain shadowy figures. None of the prominent men who crossed paths with them—no proprietor or his governors and agents, no provincial councilor or assemblyman—paused to jot down their stories. Those few colonists curious enough to ask a question or two were stymied by go-betweens' tendency to remake themselves. None was more adept at this than Madame Montour. "[I]n mode of life a complete Indian," announced one colonist who met her; no, another insisted, she is "a handsome woman, genteel and of polite address." Her son Andrew inherited this cultural agility. A missionary detected "signs of grace" in him, but another colonist found the man "[i]ll natured." Montour is, concluded one who saw a lot of him over the years, "really an unintelligible person."

    Nor did the Montours and other mediators write much for themselves. Most were at best semi-literate; lacking the skill, they also lacked the inclination or spare time to pen memoirs. The handful who did, like Weiser, could be maddeningly cryptic. The German gave a fascinating account of his early years, but after bringing the tale up to his arrival in Pennsylvania—and the start of his work as an interpreter there—he confined himself to listing the births (and, sometimes, deaths) of his children.

    Despite being highly visible public figures, then, go-betweens are an elusive lot. Shickellamy's life before 1728 is a blank, save for a remark he made, near the end of his days, about a long-ago Catholic baptism. Weiser's reasons for leaving his Tulpehocken farm for weeks on end to join the Oneida in managing relations between Pennsylvania and Iroquoia are no more clear. Yet these two are an open book compared to the enigmatic Montour, as "unintelligible" now as he was then.

    But to say that go-betweens are obscure is not to say they are invisible. To say that they are hard to read is not to say they are inscrutable. And to say that they came from many walks of life is not to say they were chosen at random. In fact, the negotiators who wound up on a path into the woods were themselves a product of negotiations between colonists and Indians over who constituted "fitt & proper Persons to goe between." The way Weiser and the others simply came forward to handle the nasty business in 1744 masks the difficulties of casting people in this role. Getting to the point where everyone agreed that a Shickellamy, a Conrad Weiser, or an Andrew Montour was right for the part required peoples to overcome, or overlook, fundamental differences in their notions of a proper envoy.

    A tour of the likeliest recruiting grounds—a look at Indian villages, French Town, Pennsylvania fur trade settlements, mission posts, and, near the end of the colonial period, at the ranks of Indian captives—reveals that no group, and no individual, was perfect for the part. People like Andrew Montour were scarce and, with their French connections, suspect. Traders like Thomas McKee were often rogues. Native leaders like Shickellamy tended to be as ignorant of colonial ways as they were arrogant, while Christian Indians like Tatamy, humble folk well acquainted with provincial culture, knew too little about the finer points of native American diplomatic protocol. Redeemed captives might know that protocol, but colonists never quite trusted their loyalties. Missionaries prayed too much, and almost everyone drank too much.

    By the time Shickellamy, Weiser, and Montour gathered at Shamokin that spring, however, Pennsylvania and its Indian neighbors had reached a consensus on the criteria for go-betweens, and these specialists were, at midcentury, both numerous and adept. Shickellamy and Weiser, Montour and George Croghan were on hand, soon to be joined by missionaries and their converts, and later still by some former prisoners of war.

    But even then, even at this high-water mark of cultural communication—even with universal agreement that the best negotiator was "a true good Man ... [who] spoke their Words & our Words, and not his own," someone "hearty & sincere"—problems plagued frontier concourse. However skilled he was, chicanery was also part of the go-between's repertoire. Moreover, for all the talk about these figures standing squarely between native and newcomer, mediators themselves saw, and set, limits to their acquaintance with another world. A good ear and a glib tongue could achieve a meeting of minds, as Shickellamy and his partners did in 1744; a meeting of hearts proved another matter.

* * *

"He Is as a Dumb Man to Us"
Philosophical Differences

    On January 25, 1723, a Cayuga named Satcheecho, "the Indian Messenger," walked into Pennsylvania's provincial council chamber, in his hand a letter that a colonist had penned for some Susquehanna Indian leaders. Governor William Keith and his councilors were puzzled and, truth to tell, a little annoyed. Why did you send only this fellow? Keith asked the Indians in the letter he wrote back. The Cayuga could not "have further informed us of the Matter [mentioned in the letter] by Speech [,] for altho' Sacheechoe be a very honest good Man yet, as he can Speak nothing but Mingoe [Iroquois] and there is no person here who understands that Language he is as a dumb man to us."

    Back on the Susquehanna River, headmen of the Conestogas, Shawnees, and Conoys, listening as a colonist read Keith's answer, must have been equally perplexed. To their mind, linguistic skill was not essential to a go-between. True, some native envoys—the Conestoga Shawydoohungh (Indian Harry) in the early eighteenth century, the Delaware Pisquetomen later on—could speak English; but most, like Satcheecho, could not. As late as the 1750s, colonists in Philadelphia still fumed that Scarouyady and other Indian negotiators were "coming to Town without an Interpreter," then sitting around while frantic officials came up with one.

    Keith standing before a silent Cayuga, like councilors glumly going out to fetch a translator for Scarouyady, serves as an instructive counterpoint to the smooth diplomacy in the Armstrong business. Indians and colonists, operating under different assumptions, often worked at cross purposes, squabbling over what a go-between should be able to do—indeed, over who a go-between should be.

    The men scurrying about in search of a translator might not have known it, but they were losers in a diplomatic contest where one side asserted its superiority by making the other use a foreign language. The war of words was common among Indians. Six Nanticokes from Maryland's Eastern Shore once brought a message to Onondaga, even though "none [of the envoys] could speak a word of the Language of the united [Iroquois] Nations." Those Iroquois knew the game: in 1756 they sent two parties of messengers to Delaware towns, not caring that no one in either delegation knew Delaware. Though many Indians speak English, one colonist grumbled, they still "always expect to be treated with an Interpreter."

    Nowhere were the different priorities more evident than at Conestoga during the summer of 1721, when the Penn family's agent, James Logan, chatted with an Iroquois named Ghesaont. On learning that the Indian and his party planned to push on to Virginia, Logan at once "asked how they would get an Interpreter in Virginia where the [local] Indians knew nothing of their [Iroquois] Language." Not to worry, Ghesaont replied, declining the offer of a translator (and spy) from Pennsylvania. "[T]here would be no occasion for any Care of that kind, for they very well knew the Governor of Virginia had an Interpreter for their Language always with him." Not true, in fact, but that was not Ghesaont's problem.

    Colonists entering on formal talks with Indians thought first of the language barrier; Indians thought of it last (or not at all). Their battle stretched well beyond questions of English or Iroquois, Delaware or Nanticoke to a wider culture war, a conflict that Indians also won by insisting that their diplomatic customs hold sway. The famous negotiator William Johnson of New York, who followed the same native protocol prevailing in Pennsylvania, made a virtue of necessity. "I would deal with all people in their own way ...," he grandly told the Iroquois, observing that "your Ancestors have from the earliest time directed and recommended the observation of a Sett of Rules which they laid down for you to follow." The Indians replied that "We consider them as the cement of our Union." At the Woods' Edge Ceremonies and wampum belts, gift exchanges and talk of paths cleared or fires kindled—native etiquette set the tone of frontier foreign relations.

    This victory meant that instead of interpreters or people otherwise expert in the strange world of Anglo-America, natives recruiting go-betweens could look, as they customarily did, to people of stature. Younger men "of great endurance" being taught conciliar ways might be chosen, "to give them an opportunity to exercise themselves in public speaking." But usually those youths, still learning statecraft, would accompany more experienced hands, "old men whose talents and abilities are known." Young or old, a negotiator "must," to the Indian way of thinking, "be a sensible and reliable man," a man from "a great Family"—"a Man," as one Shawnee said of Scarouyady, "of Authority ..., and of great Experience and Eloquence." Selection at once reflected and conferred status. In the Indian countries "Any one employed as a messenger," a Pennsylvanian remarked, "is held in high regard."

    A council dispatching such a man to Philadelphia neither expected nor encouraged him, once there, to go native. As the insistence on speaking to colonists in Delaware, Shawnee, or Iroquois suggests, Indian messengers did not try to fit in. If the Conestoga envoy Tagotolessa (Civility) earned his English name from polished colonial manners—and, since he spoke no English, that seems unlikely—he would have been almost alone in aping Pennsylvania ways. Most native negotiators were akin to a party of Iroquois, who "acc[oun]t themselves great men and are stiff," or a Delaware said to be "haughty, and very desireous of Respect and Command."

    That stiffness required colonists to meet native go-betweens more than halfway, to have on hand or dispatch on missions people who knew their way around Indians. Where a Delaware or Iroquois council looked for kin and standing, then, a colonial council sought someone "much versed in the Arts of Manageing" Indians. Conestogas sent the "dumb" Satcheecho, colonists people with "Skill in the Indian Languages and Methods of Business." At the core of "Indian Talents" was such intimate acquaintance with "the Disposition of Indians" that one knew how things sounded "in an Indian Ear" or looked "in the Indian Light," knew even how to get an Indian joke.

    The only way to learn all this, Conrad Weiser advised, was "to converse with the Indians, and study their Genius." Easier said than done, cautioned other experienced colonists. "To treat Indians with propriety and address is perhaps of all Tasks, the most difficult," George Croghan remarked, "and allowances must be made to those who are strangers to their customs and manners, should they not succeed in acquiring their good opinion."

    Croghan's superior in the British Indian service after 1755, the Crown's superintendent of Indian affairs, William Johnson, was less charitable about armchair experts. Everyone claims to know Indians, Johnson once complained; but no one gains expertise by sitting in some provincial capital or frontier garrison. "It is only to be acquired by a long residence amongst them, a daily intercourse with them, and a desire of information in these matters Superseding all other considerations." Substitute colonist for Indian in these remarks—imagine an Iroquois or Delaware speaking of the need for "colonial Talents" and "a colonial Ear," or urge "long residence" in Philadelphia and "daily intercourse" with Pennsylvanians—and the gulf between native and colonial prescriptions becomes apparent.

    Like Weiser, Croghan, and Johnson, then, a colonist had to go native, to let himself, as Croghan once put it, be "led a little into the mystery and Policy of the People of this Country." Part of "the mystery" involved simply figuring out who "the People of this Country" were, no easy task when Indians might be called, say, Seneca or Oneida (their particular nation) one day, Iroquois (their larger affiliation) the next. And sorting through the nomenclature was only the beginning. On a journey up the Susquehanna in 1760, one Pennsylvania messenger, John Hays, boasted that he and his colonial companion, the missionary Christian Frederick Post, "L[i]ved A Indien Life." The casual aside obscures what could, for some, be severe culture shock. To a colonial visitor, Indian country looked different, from its bark houses and unkempt fields to its denizens' dress and tattoos (Figure 5). It sounded different, from its jangling beads and soft, guttural voices to its wailing mourners and warriors' whoops. It smelled different, the air thick with the scent of curing deerskins and tobacco smoke. It even tasted different, with its dishes of dog and bear, its array of corn soups and stews.

    All this, and much more besides, a colonist found on reaching a native settlement. But a provincial negotiator had to be still more deeply immersed in Indian life, more closely in tune with its melodies and rhythms. On special occasions he might fire his gun with townsfolk to greet a visitor's arrival or help carry the corpse at a funeral; he might sit in on a council or drop by "a very extraordinary Kind of a Festival" that dissolved marriages and let a woman—singing I am not afraid of my Husband, I will choose what Man I please—grab her new mate and lead him into the dark. On a more ordinary day the colonist might climb out of the bed he shared with one of those native women and prepare to join a band of warriors or hunters, or stay in town to help torture a captive or drink with friends and kin deep into the night, "Singing and dancing with the indians after their manner."

    Indian country was a hard school, so hard that few colonists graduated. Weiser himself recalled how, during his first stay among the Mohawks, he "had to suffer much" from cold and hunger, and when the town got drunk he "often had to hide" from "very cruel" natives. Weiser recovered; others did not. One apprentice in the Indian trade farther north spent "the whole Winter ... at the fire side with his Elbow on his knee and Chin on his hand picking his nose," never "speaking a Word" or changing his lice-infested clothes. How many Pennsylvanians resembled the poor fellow is unknown, but alienation and anomie were facts of life for every novitiate.

    Colonists enrolled in this native school usually turned out to be men of modest standing in their own world, though this was not the initial plan. At first, Pennsylvanians agreed with natives that the go-between should be chosen from society's leaders. To prove the point, Penn himself tried out for the part. "I have made it my business to understand" the local Delawares' language, he wrote in August 1683, ten months after arriving in his province, "that I might not want an Interpreter on any occasion." Apparently the proprietor was a quick study, for the following spring he was said to "speak their language fairly fluently," and his lively interest in Indians prompted frequent visits to their settlements. But Penn had many distractions, and in August 1684 one of those, a boundary dispute with Maryland's proprietor, Lord Baltimore, compelled his return to England.

    Some of Penn's successors—Lars Pärsson (Lasse) Cocke before 1700, Edward Farmer and John French just after the turn of the century—were men of enough substance to have "Esquire," "Gent," or "Colonel" attached to their names. But these three, themselves exceptional, had no successors, no men of their stature who got into the Indian business. Indeed, so unusual were they that soon after the Founder's second—and last—stay in his province from 1699 to 1701, colonial officials started to worry about the widening gap between the preference for men of quality and the reality that those actually entering the woods were no gentlemen. The proprietor's dream of converting and civilizing Indians "was a great motive" in founding this colony, the provincial assembly reminded everyone in 1706; therefore, the legislators went on, we expect that "the persons concerned from time to time in ye ... negotiations ..., may be such as Demonstrate their Christianity by a sober and virtuous Conversation." On Pennsylvania's frontier a half century later George Washington, facing the French foe and keen to end his reliance on lowly "Traders & Common Interpreters," yearned for "a Person of Distinction acquainted with their [Indians'] language." Find one, Washington pleaded, and pay him anything he asks; failing that, at least recruit "a Man of Sense and Character."

    Unfortunately for the assembly and for young Washington, few such people answered the call. James Logan, merchant, provincial secretary, Clerk of the Council, the Penn family's man in the province for much of the first half of the eighteenth century, was deeply involved in Indian affairs—shipping London goods to his stable of fur traders, sending messages to native headmen, running treaty councils (Figure 6). But he never added Iroquois, Shawnee, or Delaware to his Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. And though Logan sometimes visited Indian towns to talk to headmen or look after his business interests, come nightfall he retreated to a nearby trader's house. Where his master, William Penn, left rich descriptions of Delaware life, Logan's prodigious curiosity and voluminous correspondence betray little interest in Indians beyond trade and diplomacy.

    His successor as proprietary agent, Richard Peters, was cut from the same cloth (Figure 7). Yet even though he never tried to sound out an Iroquois or Delaware sentence and never entered, much less stayed in, an Indian town, this Anglican clergyman fancied himself something of an expert. "[A]t no small Expense and with an unwearied assiduity [I have] endeavour'd to gain the Esteem of the Indians," he boasted in 1748. The hard work paid off: "I am told by Mr. Weiser that I have succeeded so far as to be consider'd as a Young Logan that does not want affection for the Indians, & in time may understand to do their business honestly for them." Weiser's flattery here is as transparent as his hint that Peters was no go-between. Indeed, the minister himself had learned enough to appreciate how little he truly knew. In the next breath he pleaded with William Penn's sons Thomas and John, the current proprietaries, for money to train Weiser's successor. Conrad had been sick, Peters explained, so sick he almost died; "if he had[,] what must have become of Indian Affairs"? Scarcely able to conceal panic, Peters begged the Penns to "think ... of the dreadful Situation this Province will be in for want of an Indian Interpreter in case of his Death."

    The frontier war of the late 1750s only increased the elite's tendency to keep natives at a distance. Now a new breed of distinguished men—British officers on the western front—dropped even the pretense to the expertise of a Penn, a Logan, or a Peters. Indeed, calling the job of dealing with Indians "the greatest curse which Our Lord could pronounce against the greatest sinners," they bragged about their ignorance of native ways. "I am not Sufficiently acquainted with the Manner of Managing them," wrote one, so find somebody else "who can take that Care Upon himself." The curriculum Weiser and other old hands advocated, requiring deep engagement with Indian people, went against a gentleman's grain. "[Y]ou will soon be relieved from those Regions where you can experience no real Felicity," wrote one officer to another, "deprived of all agreeable Society & exposed to the Clamour of the Delaware, the Perfidy of the Shawnesse—the Noise of the Tawaw, and the Treachery of the Mingo, and in short—the Damnation that is attendant on the whole Race of Barbarions—a Plague & Pain that beggars all Imagination to those whom Experience has not given some faint Idea."

    Such outbursts were extreme, the product of war and the famous arrogance of the British officer. But they grew out of an older notion, long pervasive in the upper reaches of colonial society, that no gentleman got too close to Indians. As a result, native go-betweens sent by Indian peoples had a strikingly different profile from people recruited by provincial rulers: an Indian envoy might be as ignorant of foreigners (and as arrogant) as any British captain, but he had a position of high status and the respect of his tribe; a colonial emissary, fluent in foreign words and ways, had a menial job and his own people's contempt. It seemed an unlikely starting point for conversation across the frontier; yet from these opposites, peoples would find ways to meet and talk.


Table of Contents

INTRODUCTION "I Have a Large Intriestt in ye Woods"19
PROLOGUE The Killing of Jack Armstrong, 174442
CHAPTER I "Fitt & Proper Persons to Goe Between": Paths to
the Woods54
CHAPTER II Finding Friends: Woodslore, 1699-1723106
CHAPTER III "That Road between Us and You": Passages through
the Woods128
CHAPTER IV The Lessons of Brinksmanship: Woodslore, 1728-1743157
CHAPTER V "A Good Correspondance": Conversations179
CHAPTER VI In the Woods: Woodslore, 1755-1758225
CHAPTER VII "A Sort of Confusion": Treaties253
EPILOGUE The Killing of Young Seneca George, 1769302
List of Figures
Figure 1. William Penn, by Francis Place, c. 169823
Figure 2. Peace Medal, 175729
Figure 3 William Penn's Treaty withthe Indians, by Benjamin
West, 177129
Figure 4. The Peaceable Kingdom, by Edward Hicks31
Figure 5 Tishcohan, Delaware Leader, by Gustavus Hesselius,
Figure 6. James Logan, by Gustavus Hesselius, c. 171663
Figure 7. Richard Peters, attributed to John Wollaston, c
Figure 8. Delaware Indian Signatures89
Figure 9 Sketch of the Town of Oswego and an Iroquois
Longhouse, by John Bartram, 1743178
Figure 10. Wampum Strings190
Figure 11. The Penn or Great Treaty Wampum Belt190
Figure 12. "Path" Wampum Belt190
Figure 13. Warmarks by a Delaware196
Figure 14. Marks of Conodahto and Meealloua, 1700198
Figure 15 Marks of Sassoonan, Shickellamy, and Pisquetomen,
Figure 16. Mark of Wiggoneekeenah, 1725199
Figure 17. Conference at Johnson Hall, by E. L. Henry, c. 1900255
Figure 18. Philadelphia Courthouse and Quaker Meeting House260

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