Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier
In Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier, an elegantly written contribution to the Penguin Library of American Indian History, Timothy J. Shannon explains why Dutch, French, British, and American diplomats had such difficulties in negotiating treaties with the Iroquois. Europeans were accustomed to dealing with monarchs who could sign binding agreements. This was an inappropriate approach to tribes, which had no equivalents of kings, no hereditary succession, and, most important, no expectation that every individual would agree to promises made by their leaders. Indians believed that if any individual disliked a decision, he could move away or just ignore it. The idea that if one Sachem made a trade agreement that tribal members did not like, they could switch allegiance to a new Sachem essentially invalidated whatever agreements the first chief had made. Indians addressing a governor as “father” considered this only a recognition of his giving gifts to his children, not a symbol of subjection. Europeans, unwilling to believe that such anarchy was possible, persisted in trying to impose their schema on the Native Americans.
The Iroquois were a confederation of five tribes (later six), which developed customs that minimized conflicts among themselves and maximized their military potential. At a time when disease was running rampant through all of America, but especially among the Indians, the Iroquois were able to use firearms obtained by trade in furs to drive their weakened competition out of the Ohio country, intrude into the pays d’en haut (Great Lakes), and take captives to replenish their diminishing numbers. They made themselves into a third force that could balance the French against the British and keep war at a distance. Although they may not have been as powerful as they thought, the colonial powers were reluctant to challenge their claims.
The Iroquois saw diplomacy as a continuing process that emphasized renewal and condolence ceremonies, not as a business transaction. Europeans misinterpreted Iroquois expectations of gifts as thoroughly businesslikethe exchange of gifts was so one-sided that Europeans assumed they were buying the Indians’ alliance much as they rented mercenaries from minor German princes. The symbol of Iroquois practice was the Covenant Chain, a recitation of past discussions as recorded on wampum belts, the exchange of gifts, and the linking of arms. The long speeches around the council fire would be concluded with a drinking bout of considerable length and enthusiasm.
After the foundation of Montreal in 1642, the French extended their fur trade into Huron country, undermining the Iroquois monopoly of trade with the interior. The Iroquois attacked, successfully, until the arrival of French troops in 1666. Peace was reestablished, but a renewal of war in the 1680’s ended with half the Iroquois warriors dead and the survivors divided, most looking to the British for trade and aid, a significant minority looking to the French.
By 1700, the balance of power had shifted to the Europeans, but the Europeans were such intense rivals that the relatively small number of Iroquois exercised enormous power, as long as war did not come to their homes and destroy them. Iroquois delegations visited Albany and Montreal frequently, trading furs for European products (knives, clothing, guns, and powder), taking home valuable gifts, and usually complaining that they were insufficient. The French won more friends because their governors were allotted more funds than were their British counterparts, and because their governors were both better informed by fur traders and missionaries and because they did not have the distractions of dealing with a growing and independent-minded populace. However, the British paid higher prices.
By 1720, Iroquois power had extended south as well as west. This was first apparent in Pennsylvania, where the Delaware were being tricked out of their lands by William Penn’s descendants (the famous Walking Purchase), then coerced into acquiescence by the Iroquois. Some of the Pennsylvania tribes sank into poverty, and others turned to the Iroquois for...
(The entire section is 1710 words.)