The Spirit Of ’54

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Improbable it may seem, but an industrious, aquatic, fur-bearing rodent deserves a share of the credit for the first real effort at unifying Britain’s American colonies. Just as we tend to forget that the Americas were discovered as a byproduct of the search for pepper, the reason the beaver’s contribution has gone unsung all these years is, in the words of the journalist Henry Hobhouse, “Men have always liked to believe in their own influence.”

Almost from the beginning, the colonials engaged in the fur trade, which was centered in Albany, New York, and managed by Dutch traders, who relied for their supply of pelts on the Mohawk, Seneca, Cayuga, Oneida, Onondaga, and, later, Tuscarora Indians: the League, or Six Nations, of the Iroquois. Those Native Americans occupied an enormous area south and east of Lake Ontario, but the insatiable demand for furs so reduced the population of fur-bearing animals that a Canadian governor wrote as early as 1671 that “they experience the greatest difficulty in finding a single beaver there.” Responding to this challenge, the Iroquois expanded their hunting grounds into lands across Lake Ontario and began to function as middlemen for the transfer of furs from Western tribes to Albany.

At the same time, hundreds of Pennsylvania and Virginia traders and land speculators were pushing deeper into the Great Lakes region and the Ohio Valley. Naturally, that alarmed the French in Canada, whose ties to the Western Indians were as strong as those of the English with the Iroquois. They reacted by building forts on the Niagara River and on Lake Champlain and by sending some 200 troops into the Ohio Valley to warn potential trespassers that the land on both sides of the river and all streams flowing into it belonged to France. To further thwart British actions, the French began cutting a trail to the headwaters of the Ohio and constructed Forts Presque Isle, Le Boeuf, and Venango to cover the approaches to the Allegheny River.

Now it was the Iroquois’ turn to worry, and in the spring of 1753 the Mohawk sachem Theyanoguin, or Tiyanoga—known to the Dutch as Hendrick—led a tribal delegation to Manhattan to voice their concerns. Hendrick was a commanding figure, revered for his wisdom and courage in battle, from which he bore a hideous tomahawk scar running from his mouth to near his left ear. He informed the Governor’s Council that had the British not reneged on their commitments in the last war the Mohawks would have “torn the Frenchman’s heart out.” Now that the English were doing nothing to halt the theft of his nation’s lands, the colonials had left the Indians defenseless against French attack, and his patience and respect for them were exhausted.

“So, brother,” he said, “you are not to expect to hear of me any more, and, brother, we desire to hear no more of you!” With that he stalked out, followed by his angry braves, effectively dissolving the century-old covenant between the English and the Iroquois League.

HUTCHINSON OF MASSACHUSETTS said immodestly that the assembly “WAS THE MOST DESERVING OF RESPECT OF ANY WHICH HAD EVER BEEN CONVENED IN AMERICA. …”

When that shocking news reached London weeks later, the Board of Trade and Plantations, the effective governing body of the colonies, wrote the governor of New York, directing him to summon representatives of the other colonies to a meeting. They were to negotiate a treaty with the Indians, improve the handling of Indian affairs, and see to it that all lands purchased thenceforth from the Indians be bought in the King’s name.

Lt. Gov. James De Lancey, acting governor when the letter arrived, soon dispatched invitations to Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, requesting that they send delegates to discuss the crisis in Indian affairs and, above all, repair the vital Iroquois alliance.

The Board of Trade and Plantations, in London, despite its distance from the scene, its customary focus on the bottom line, and the fact that they had neither spoken with nor laid eyes on the Native Americans, proved to have a remarkably accurate and sensitive perception of how the Iroquois alliance had gone wrong. In their letter to the governor, the Lords laid the blame squarely on officials of the province of New York for being “so inattentive to the general interest of his Majesty’s subjects in America, as well as to their own particular security” in ignoring complaints made by the Indians. Then, referring to the angry departure of Chief Hendrick and the Mohawks from their meeting with the governor, they condemned “the dissatisfactory answers given to the Indians” and the inexcusable failure to redress their grievances.

The instructions from the Lords of Trade made it clear to De Lancey that it was up to him to restore the alliance with the Six Nations, which was crucial to “all his Majesty’s Colonies and Plantations in America in general, as well as to New York in particular.” He was told to select delegates well acquainted with the Indians and their customs and interpreters who were men of ability and integrity, versed in the Indian language. Since it was customary to give the Indians “presents” at these affairs, he was to be generous, affording them every reason for “burying the hatchet and renewing the covenant chain.”