Source Collection: Analyzing Treaties between the Iroquois Confederacy and the English Colonies in the 18th Century
During the 18th century, interactions between native peoples and Europeans were a regular occurrence not just along the colonial frontiers, but in French, English, and Spanish cities across the continent. One of the most powerful Native American nations in the north was the Iroquois Confederacy, or Six Nations. The Iroquois Confederacy’s ancestral homelands spanned across much of modern-day New York State, but by the early 1700s their influence had spread as far as what is now Ohio, West Virginia, and Montreal in Canada. As a significant force in northeastern North America, European colonists and representatives of European royals treated the Iroquois Confederacy with respect as equals. Because of this power, the Iroquois Confederacy could—and did—force Europeans to negotiate on Native American terms and using Native American traditions.
By the 18th century, Europeans had barely touched the edges of a vast Native American world in North America. Interactions with native peoples was a regular occurrence not just along the colonial frontiers, but in French, English, and Spanish cities across the continent. One of the most powerful Native American nations in the north was the Iroquois Confederacy, or Six Nations. The Iroquois Confederacy’s ancestral homelands spanned across much of modern-day New York State, but by the early 1700s their influence had spread as far as what is now Ohio, West Virginia, and Montreal in Canada. As a significant force in northeastern North America, European colonists and representatives of European royals treated the Iroquois Confederacy with respect as equals. Because of this power, the Iroquois Confederacy could—and did—force Europeans to negotiate on Native American terms and using Native American traditions.
The Iroquois Confederacy made many treaties with both the French and the English for a variety of reasons. The main topic of many of these treaties, though, was land. As French and English powers worked to establish pieces of empires in North America, the Iroquois worked equally hard to maintain their territorial claims. These battles for land predominantly happened on paper in the form of treaty councils, and it was in these spaces that the Iroquois were able to flex their diplomatic muscles. The Iroquois used a wide array of tactics in these treaty councils, many of which involved playing the English and French off of each other in order to divert attention away from key indigenous homelands and keep European colonists east of the Appalachian Mountains.
Tensions between France and England eventually reached a boiling point, resulting in the Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War in North America). Though this was a military conflict between European powers, many battles happened on indigenous lands along colonial frontiers. As such, Native Americans were an integral piece in these conflicts. Though they had maintained a tenuous neutrality between the two for decades, the Iroquois Confederacy eventually sided with the English over the French. English victory at the end of the war spelled the end of the French empire in North America as well as complications for Iroquois bargaining power. Without the French there to distract English attention away from Iroquois lands, the Confederacy had to find new and increasingly creative ways to defend themselves from colonial encroachment. These new tactics often involved bartering with lands that belonged to other Native American nations and sacrificing autonomy in order to preserve their own ancestral home. Despite these new complications and increasing offenses, the Iroquois Confederacy still succeeded in maintaining their sovereignty in the eyes of the English.
Examining the treaties made during this period can show not only the often obscured power that Native peoples had over their European counterparts, but also the significant hand Native Americans had in shaping European actions in North America and the rest of the world. Students can gain a new understanding of the place of indigenous peoples in the history of European colonies and their connections to and influences on other powers across the globe. Many treaties still have a lingering impact and there are some that are still honored today. These remain standing legal documents that Native American Nations utilize to argue for their rights in the modern world.
Excerpts from the Treaty of Albany (1722)
By the mid-18th century, the Iroquois Confederacy was a significant sovereign power and the main physical buffer between the English colonies in the northeast (New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and New England) and French settlements around the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River. As tensions rose in the first half of the century between England and France, both sought to please the Iroquois so that the Confederacy would maintain its neutrality. However, Iroquois peace with Europeans did not guarantee Iroquois peace with other Indian nations. Iroquois war parties also travelled up and down the Susquehanna valley through Pennsylvania and Virginia to attack their long-time enemies, the Catawbas, in South Carolina. The external threat of the French paired with colonists getting caught in Iroquois-Catawba crossfire pushed Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia to reach out to his counterparts in Pennsylvania and New York with hopes of bringing the Iroquois to heel. The Treaty of Albany (1722), signed by the five nations of the Iroquois Confederacy and the English colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia, worked to create a boundary line between the Iroquois and the English that would minimize frontier violence and keep peace between European and Indian nations. Governor Alexander Spotswood of Virginia, in particular, primarily looked for ways to maintain peace with the Iroquois. However, the governor was also keen to find legal means of moving more settlers onto Indian lands to further expand the growing British Empire, and the wording of treaty documents was a perfect space to do that. This source is a part of the Treaties between the Iroquois Confederacy and English Colonies in the 18th Century teaching module.
Excerpts from the Treaty of Lancaster (1744)
With the threat of war with France looming on the horizon, the English colonies treated with the Iroquois Confederacy to determine a clearer boundary line between Indian lands and the western edges of the English colonies in pursuit of peace. The Treaty of Lancaster (1744) established the line at the eastern foot of the Shenandoah Mountains. In exchange, the Iroquois at the treaty thought they sold off a few parcels of land in eastern Pennsylvania and Maryland. However, the wording in the Treaty paired with the original charter for Virginia (1609) legally allowed English colonists to flow westwards into the Ohio Country. Within the year, Virginia had granted 300,000 acres of western lands to various colonists with the intention of sending settlers into the Ohio country. This wave of westward colonization not only infringed on Indian land rights, but brought more English into contact with the French and served as one of the many catalysts that brought on the Seven Years’ War. This source is a part of the Treaties between the Iroquois Confederacy and English Colonies in the 18th Century teaching module.
Excerpts from the Treaty of Logg's Town (1752)
Excerpts from the Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1768)
Map of the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, 1768
Categories of Analysis
Indigenous Sovereignty: Many aspects of how treaty councils were conducted are indigenous in origin. The notes about “belts” or “strings” in treaty councils refer to wampum. These belts and strings were made from white and purple beads and embodied not just the statements said in councils, but their legitimacy. The Iroquois would not treat with Europeans without wampum, thus enforcing their status as equal partners that could make demands on their European counterparts.
Settler Colonialism: As a key part of settler colonialism is moving colonists onto lands, boundary lines were a prominent subject in many treaties made with indigenous peoples. Europeans constantly pushed Native Americans to sell or trade lands further and further west of the Atlantic Ocean, and often reaffirmed these “sales” in treaty minutes. Sometimes boundary lines established by treaties were outright ignored by colonists who moved west and squatted on indigenous lands.
Perceptions of Space: Many treaties reflect the differing attitudes toward use of space between Europeans and the Iroquois. The hunting grounds of Native Americans were often characterized as empty, wasted space by Europeans, and consequently seen as free for the taking. However, for Native Americans whose villages partly depended on wild game for subsistence, this “empty” space was important for daily life and warranted defense at treaty councils.
Calloway, Colin G.. Pen & Ink Witchcraft: Treaties and Treaty Making in American Indian History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Fenton, William N.. The Great Law and the Longhouse: A Political History of the Iroquois Confederacy. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998. Jennings, Francis. The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire: The Covenant Chain Confederation of Indian Tribes with English Colonies from its beginnings to the Lancaster Treaty of 1744. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1984. Merrell, James H.. The Lancaster Treaty of 1744 with Related Documents. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2008. Richter, Daniel. The Ordeal of the Longhouse: The People of the Iroquois League in the Era of European Colonization. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1992. Shannon, Timothy J.. Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontiers. New York: Penguin Books, 2008.
Created by Hayley Madl