"So thoroughly aroused were the Iroquois, to such a fervent pitch was their patriotism wrought, that more than a score of their women donned uniforms, shouldered muskets and fought like the patriots they were. Most of them were Oneidas and went to war with their husbands. The Oneidas had long been a tribe faithful to the American cause. They wore sometime the rough garments of men, they fought like men, they bled and died like heroes."
Several tribes of Native Americans fought as allies of the United States in our "second war for independence," and we should remember their contribution and sacrifice.
Taken from, Parker, Aurthur C. “The Life of General Ely S. Parker, Last Grand Sachem of The Iroquois and General Grant's Military Secretary." Buffalo, New York : The Buffalo Historical Society, 1919. Edited by Gary M. Bohannon.
THE FIRST DECADE of the Nineteenth century was one of readjustment for the Senecas. The victory of the American colonists had proved the power of the "Thirteen Fires'' and the weakness of the British as allies and as a continental power. The years that followed the destructive raid of Major General John Sullivan, in which he burned nearly every town of the Iroquois, west of the Oneidas, gave the Senecas time for much serious thinking. White men could be as savage as they, they well knew, but that this fury would turn to fire and blast their dominion as it did, they never dreamed. The Senecas abandoned their old homeland and fled to the protection of the British at Fort Niagara. They settled at Buffalo or wandered off into Ohio with their broken vassals, the Eries and Neuters, who in small numbers camped there. Those who remained dwelt in bitterness of spirit and stalked about like dead men, dreaming, meditating, but only half seeing or hearing.
Then came the secret word from Ohio. It roused the restless young men to life. It spread like the wind and fanned to a flame the patriotism of the young Senecas who had been but babes when the boom of Sullivan's cannon spoke the doom of Seneca power. The word which came was whispered into the ears of the young men lest the old become hostile. It told of a great leader who had arisen, who had proclaimed that if all the red men of the continent would unite and fight, the invading white man could be driven out. The great "earth-island" again should belong to the red man alone as their supreme possession. The name of Tecumseh became a watchword to the young men who regarded him as the hero of the race. His plan for a mighty league of the tribes who should unite to resist further encroachment of the invading whites appealed to their natural love of country. It made them aspire for great things and served to revive their hopes as a people.
True, the Iroquois of New York lived in tracts of country entirely surrounded by white settlers and had been at peace since the Revolutionary War. The chiefs were friendly with their white neighbors, but notwithstanding all this the young men had not yet seen that their salvation lay in learning all the good things the settlers had to teach and eschewing the evils they brought. They felt a consciousness that their race had been wronged and thought it patriotism to revenge it and seek to make the land the red man's undisputed own. Many of the younger men hurried west to join the forces of Tecumseh and the prophet or ally themselves with Little Turtle, the Miami.
This bold idea was opposed with vigor both by Red Jacket and Handsome Lake. The latter used his influence to dissuade his converts from having anything to do with the affairs of the western tribes against the Americans. Handsome Lake was a "peace prophet" and urged his people to obey the precepts that he claimed to have received from the "four messengers" from the land above the sky. In this respect he was directly opposed to Elskawata, the "war prophet" of the Shawnees who was fostering, by convenient revelations, the plans of his brother Tecumseh.
Red Jacket, that vigilant guard of the Senecas, went to the various councils in the West which were held in the interests of Tecumseh's confederacy, and was particularly conspicuous at the council of Detroit. The largest inter-tribal council held for generations had met there. With Red Jacket were many of the finest examples of Seneca manhood to be found in the nation. The Senecas, haughty in their demeanor, manifested a keen consciousness of their glory. Upon the first day a spirited debate arose as to the right of precedence in debate. This was a delicate point of honor. The Wyandots claimed it but Red Jacket, ignoring their able chiefs, arose and with such a brilliant oration argued for the Senecas that no one afterward disputed him. He argued for peace and afterward consistently worked to prevent the members of the Iroquois League from entering into conflict with the whites under the leadership of Tecumseh.
The Iroquois were grateful to George Washington. It was he who had shown them mercy and preserved for them at least a portion of their ancient domain in New York, when the entire country clamored for their removal into the West. The treaty at Fort Stanwix in 1784 gave the Six Nations a guarantee of their lands, diminished though they were. Many of the people were not satisfied, but Corn-planter, in 1790, expressed the general thought of the nation to Washington: ". . . When you gave us peace, we called you Father because you promised to secure us in the possession of our lands. Do this and so long as the lands remain, that beloved name will live in the heart of every Seneca.''
Six or seven months after the mid-winter war council of the Senecas called to discuss the impending war with Great Britain, a general meeting of the Onondagas and Senecas was held at the residence of Hon. Erastus Granger, then superintendent of the Senecas. Judge Granger pleaded with the Senecas to remain neutral and reminded them of Washington's advice,''That you take no part in the quarrels with the white people." Even Red Jacket deplored that the Canadian Mohawks of Brant's party were bound to fight as British allies, even as they had done before. This embittered the two divisions of the Iroquois and caused a breach that even yet has not entirely healed.
The rumblings of the war disturbed many of the inhabitants of the village of Buffalo. The British were opposite and the Indians swarmed all around them. Many left the village and sought refuge beyond the frontier. Fears were entertained that the New York Indians were in reality under the influence of the British, through the Canadian Mohawks who were constantly visiting them. It was under this apprehension that Judge Granger called the council to explain the reasons of the war. Red Jacket afterward alluded to the fear of the residents of Buffalo and said as he unrolled the great George Washington treaty belt that the whites should never regard an Indian Council as serious, nor regard it as a dangerous thing unless the national wampums were brought forth and displayed.
On June 6, 1812, the British were reported to have taken forcible possession of Grand Island, the property of the Seneca Nation. The Senecas would now no longer promise neutrality. Red Jacket, who but a few days before had argued for peace and who had displayed the famous Washington treaty wampum, now argued for war. The British had seized the lands under the dominion of the Senecas! War should be declared! As allies of the United States the Six Nations of New York would punish the invaders. The declaration of war read as follows:
"We the chiefs and councilors of the Six Nations of Indians residing in the State of New York, do hereby proclaim to all the war chiefs and warriors of the Six Nations, that war is declared on our part against the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada. Therefore we hereby command and advise all the war chiefs of the Six Nations to call forth immediately the warriors under them, and put them in motion to protect their rights and liberties, which our brethren the Americans are now defending."
When the council at Buffalo on August 4th was called. Red Jacket mentioned the rumor of the British occupation of Grand Island. In addressing Judge Granger, he said:
"Brother! Our property is taken possession of by the British and their Indian friends. It is necessary for us now to take up the business and defend our property and drive the enemy from it. If we sit still upon our seats and take no measure of redress, the British according to the customs of you white people, will hold it by conquest, and should you conquer Canada, you will claim it upon the same principles, as conquered from the British. We therefore request permission to go with our warriors and drive off these bad people and take possession of our lands."
Among the Senecas were many whose ancestors of a century and a half before had been captured and adopted in the war with the Neuter Nation. Although the laws of the League commanded its adopted members to "forever forget their own tribal origin and to know themselves henceforth and forever as Iroquois," yet in actual fact the people so adopted seldom forgot, and the knowledge of their tribal origin was passed down to their children. Thus it was that there were many Senecas who felt an interest in defending Grand Island, besides that of protecting their nation's dominion. To the descendants of the Neutral Nation's captives, it meant the defense of the graves of their forefathers.
The call to arms gave rise to great industry among the Iroquois. They had arms and equipment to get and many of them spent hours carving out war clubs and hammering out iron spearheads. They were not used, for the Iroquois agreed to fight under "civilized rules" and to "take no scalps and murder no captives." This pledge they sacredly kept.
The call to arms brought all the war chiefs together. They mustered their troops in companies, each under its own captain and several companies were placed under the leadership of a colonel. Among these Indian military leaders not one outranks Colonel Farmer's Brother. Though a man of eighty years, he gathered together his captains and warriors and led them on to battle. He was a true nobleman, morally clean, physically perfect and intellectually the peer of Red Jacket. Unlike Red Jacket, however, he was never addicted to the use of rum.
Crossing over into Canada, the Iroquois troops fought at Chippewa and at Lundy's Lane under General Scott. So splendidly did these Indians fight that General Boyd, who noticed their action in particular, said: "The bravery and humanity of the Indians were equally conspicuous.''
And here, truth again appears stranger than fiction. So thoroughly aroused were the Iroquois, to such a fervent pitch was their patriotism wrought, that more than a score of their women donned uniforms, shouldered muskets and fought like the patriots they were. Most of them were Oneidas and went to war with their husbands. The Oneidas had long been a tribe faithful to the American cause. They wore sometime the rough garments of men, they fought like men, they bled and died like heroes. What more patriotic heroes indeed does our history record than these?
There are many stories of gallant service, of courage, of daring. Ga-uch-so-wa of the Beaver clan clung close to the front at the redoubt at Black Rock. It was he who bayoneted the first redcoat to appear. There were men like Sho-a-go-wa, of the Turtle clan. It was he who volunteered to run in front of the enemy's line, in order to get them to discharge their guns. Then immediately our troops poured upon them. Yet brave Sho-a-go-wa was not even scratched. Like his patron totem, "he lived long and died hard." Other men were eager and fearless, like Do-sa-ga-ni-yak, of the Bear clan. In his eagerness to get at the enemy he crossed the Niagara on a raft, and in the rapids just above the Falls. John Street (Ho-wa-yok-se) did not even have a raft. He tied his gun to his long hair, let it rest upon his back and then swam the river, making directly for the redcoats when he landed.
Native strategy was shown by Captain Isaac who was shot in the neck and taken to the British camp. Regaining consciousness, he slowly opened his eyes, kept quiet and when he had located himself as in the enemy's lines, he waited his chance and escaped to the American encampment. Jo-ho-a-hoh was captured in the Buffalo fight, but mixed with the crowd calmly and when he was ready he simply "disappeared," and entered his own ranks again. Some of the older men having greater faith in the arms of their ancestors used their ancient weapons, the tomahawk and bow. Peter Halfwhite (De-gai-i-da-goh, of the Deer clan), was one of these and carried his bow, arrows, and quiver all through the war.
Even the captives of the Iroquois fought with them, the Delawares, Squawkies, Cherokees, Shawnees and Chippewas. The record shows them to have been as daring as the Iroquois themselves. Thus it was that the Six Nations of Indians became the allies of the United States of America. Indian Americans, they were, and defending with the pale-faced Americans, "their land, their wives and their children," they had a common cause. All through the war they fought, at Buffalo, Black Rock, Youngstown, Fort George, Lundy's Lane, Chippewa and Fort Niagara.
The British were anxious to discover just how conditions were in the American camp, and sent over a Chippewa Indian to mingle with the Senecas who were in the village of Buffalo, and get all the information he could. He claimed to have deserted the British, to have swum Chippewa river and crossed the Niagara in order to join the American army. This was a little more than the Indians could swallow, and it being an exceedingly hot summer's day, they proceeded to imbibe a little freely of the army rum. As their spirit was awakened they commenced to boast of their exploits; how many redcoats they had killed and bow they had defied and outwitted the enemy. The Chippewa spy then forgot his character and began to boast of the Yankees and Senecas he had killed, and scalped. Twenty Senecas sat around him and heard his confession. A dispute arose and the Chippewa was told just what the Senecas thought of him.
Farmer's Brother, heard the commotion and came out to ascertain the cause. He listened a moment and then stepping up to the spy gave him a blow upon the head with his war club. The Chippewa staggered and then fell, and lay stunned. Then, suddenly leaping up he burst through the circle and took mad flight.
The Senecas then jeered at him, calling him a coward and a man afraid to die. The taunts struck home. Not even in this moment of crisis would he allow any man to call him a coward. Though he was a spy he was not that. He turned and walked back into the circle. Drawing his blanket over his head he stood facing his foes. Then conscious of his crime he lay down on a log from one of the burned buildings near Main and Swan streets and covered his face. He knew that his punishment was but a question of a few moments. Farmer's Brother lifted up his rifle,, pressed it against the culprit's head and shot him dead. This was the Indian way, and it left every man's honor clean.
With the success of the American cause, the home country was preserved. The mouth of the Tonawanda creek opened out safely to an American Niagara. The mysterious island was saved, but only later to be relinquished. The passing of years make newer generations forget. And so from the minds of the Senecas, with the passing of the old sages, passed the knowledge of the graves of the forgotten Neuter villagers.
The War of 1812 estranged the two branches of the Iroquois. The Canadian branch, uniting all their tribes in a general council, continued to govern themselves in the ancient way. They claimed to be the true confederacy and to have shown the right spirit in clinging to their British allies. The Iroquois that remained, they pointed out, were broken, scattered bands without coherence or spirit. On the other hand the New York Iroquois claimed that the Canadian branch had seceded, thereby violating the constitution of the Confederacy and automatically cutting themselves off from its forms and rights. They accused them of abandoning their ancestral domain, of allowing their "heads to roll away." There had been no actual break until the War of 1812, but when arrayed against one another they fought on opposite sides, then bitterness was gall, indeed!
For the sake of historical accuracy it will be interesting to record a description of the uniforms and clothing worn by the Iroquois allies. Many of them took the regular uniforms of the army, but others clung to the Indian attire of the day. Some wore buckskin leggings and fringed leather hunting shirt. Others used broadcloth leggings neatly beaded in designs of various patterns. The shirt was always worn outside like a coat, and was never "tucked in." Sashes of native weaves were worn by the chiefs or captains. These were strung across the shoulder and over the chest diagonally to the left hip, where the long-fringed ends were tied. Most of them were woven of red worsted but a few were of buckskin with moose hair, or quilled in porcupine. The Seneca moccasin was made of one piece of leather with a seam in the heel and over the top of the foot.
The Iroquois did not wear the plumed feather bonnet of the Sioux, but wore round caps that covered the head. From the middle of the crown was suspended a cluster of downy feathers five or six inches long and from a spindle in the center arose an eagle plume that whirled as the wearer moved. A decorated band or a silver crown encircled the cap which was of leather, fur or cloth. Some- times the entire breast was bare and only leggings, breech clout and moccasins worn. Some of the older men, con- forming to the ancient custom, shaved their heads by burning off all the hair except the scalp lock at the crown. Many too had slit the rims of their ears and wound silver foil around them. In the small socket in the top was placed a fluffy plume or a woodpecker's feather. Between the Indian costume and the military uniforms were all gradations, but in most cases every Indian carried or wore a "match-coat" or blanket. Sometimes these blankets were only cotton sheets. The leaders often wore military coats and carried sabers, but one can readily imagine that their feet were moccasin-shod. It is a belief that the moccasin on the feet of the dead helps find the way to the Indian heaven.
Nearly all of the Senecas who fought in the war took the oath of allegiance to the United States. This circumstance, coupled with the fact that they felt that they were actually resisting an invasion of their own territory, did much to estrange the Senecas from the English and to render void the overtures of the British agents that had been made continually since the close of the Revolution. More than anything else, the War of 1812 cemented the Iroquois to the United States and left them a loyal people, confident in the integrity and justice of the nation. Their hopes were high and they believed that a new era of good fellowship had dawned. Alas, how falsely they were deceived! In fifteen years' time this hope snapped like a bubble.