George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Knox, 7 August 1790

From Henry Knox

[New York] August [7]1 1790


Having received your directions2 to endevor to negociate a treaty of peace and friendship with the chiefs of the creek nation of Indians ⟨illegible⟩ comferably as far as possible to the general principles agreed to by the Senate in Augt 17893 I have the honor to inform you that in consequence thereof and by virtue of your Commission for that purpose4 I have this day signed a treaty with the said Creeks with certain secret articles,5 annexed thereto, the public treaty having been signed by Alexander McGillivry, and all the Kings chiefs and warriors whose health would permit them to attend, and the secret Articles of said treaty be[in]g signed by Alexr McGillivray on behalf of himself and the Creek nation, which treaty I have now the Honor to submit to you and by your order to lay before the Senate.6

It may not be improper to state, that as late negotiations7 at the Rock Landg on the Oconee river failed to produce, a treaty of peace and the implied truce established between the parties at Jekel Island be[in]g nearly expiri’g, the United States were placed in a peculiarly embarressed situation.8 the creeks, provided they ⟨comenced⟩ depredations.

After the issue of the negociations at the Rock Landg it was presumd the United States could not9 consistently with a due regard to their own dignity send any more commissiners to experience, probably a repetition of the same conduct what the Other commissioners had received.

The General Government had properly taken up the business, and there was an obligation on it to proceed & establish a solid peace, or to take eventual measures, not only for the effectual defence of the frontiers of Georgia, but to punish with just severity the Creeks if they should commit any further depredations.

The expence of blood & treasure of a war from which neither honor or proffit could be derived, was to be avoided if possible—an expedient therefore was devised to place informally before the Creeks the extreme danger of their situation—that any hostilities on their part must inevitably bring down on their nation, the vengance of the United States—that such hostilities war appeared to be inevitable.10

That therefore they could possess no security but in an intimate connection and Alliance with the United States, but that the said States could make no further offers for this purpose—They had already done all that could be required of their national justice or humanity. That all further advances must be made by the Creeks. That if they were desirous of averting the evils impendg over them, and to embrace the advantages of an alliance with the Union, they must come forward for that purpose to the residence of the General Government where they should have justice administered to them.

These assurnces ably enforced by Colonel Willet11 who was the informal messenger on this occasion had the desired effect, and the Chiefs now in this city, came with that confidence in the justice of the General Government which its fame has justly instanced, and which it will be its glory to preserve unsullied.

In adjusting the terms of a treaty between the United States and the Creeks the greatest difficultes have been raised on the artic[l]es of Boundary lines and Commerce.

The wide differenc[e] in judgement of the boundary between the State of Georgia and the Creeks has been the cause of several years War between the said parties, the creeks ⟨refusing⟩ to acknowledg the claims of Georgia These claims arise out of three certain treaties made by the Commissioners of the said State with the Creeks to wit at Augusta 12 Novr 1783—Galphinton, 12 Novr 1785, and Shoulder Bone the 3d of Novr 1786. The state of Georgia, assert the validity of the said treaties, and the cessions of land therein contained which is denied on the part of the Creeks.

On the one hand recourse has been had to the evidence of the documents in the public possession produced by the state of Georgia in support of the validity of the said treaties.12

And on the other hand,13 to the evidence produced by the Creeks against the validity of the said treaties.14

And also to the reports and evidence contained therein of the various commissioners and superintendents as far as his sense would serve to elucidate the said treaties, together with the examination of the Tallisee King15 who was an agent in formg the said treaties.

In estimating the validity of the said treaties as far as the Government of the United States may be concerned, due reference has been also had to the Articles in the late Confederation respectg the powers of the U. States in Indian affairs, and also the Opinion of Congress on that subject 26th Octr 1787.16

The subscriber, without definitively statig his judgement on a point of so much delicacy, as to right of Georgia ⟨the⟩ making the said treat[i]es under the late ⟨illegible⟩ or the circumstances under which the said treaties were formed, begs leave to observe that it is of high importance to the state of Georgia to possess the Oconee lands so called, as the said state has ⟨divided⟩ the same among certain description of its citizens—These lands the Creeks have with great difficulty & persuasion been induced to relinquish for sake of accommodation, and the other considerations stated in the fourth article of the treaty.17

Every argument of a political & pecuniary nature has been repeatedly urged in vain to obtain a confirmation of the land to the eastward of a temporary line, mentioned in the treaty of Galphinton in Novr 1785 in a south west direction, from the forks of the Oconee & Oakmulgie rivers and between the same, and the old line from the Altamaha to the St Marys River—This confirmation of the said lands they refused as being the best winter hunting grounds of the lower Creeks—and after all—I was told, that their refusal to accede to that line was an ultimatum upon their part from which no apprehensn of consequences would induce them to depart.

The land so refused to be confirmed, is stated to be generally barren, sunken, and incapable of Cultivation, expecting on the margins of some of the rivers on which by improvement rice might be cultivated—But it is stated by some to be aboundg in Lumber.18

As I have been informed that the said land has not be[en] appropriated to individuals, but only pledged for the emission of a certain paper curricy therefore it may be presumed that the said state will not suffer any real Inconvenien[ce]s from not having it included in the present treaty.

The other general objects of the19

The present moment is probably too full of events relatively to our south western frontiers, and the opportunity of firmly attaching the Creeks to our interests too precious, to suffer a strip of ⟨land⟩, circumstanced in all respects as the one in question is, to be the means, of placing that powerful nation of indians in an opposite scale instead of makg of them our friends forever.20

I flatter myself that the boundry fixed in the treaty will be found on examination entirely consistent, with the principles of National Justice policy and hum[an]ity.21

ADf, docketed by Knox, “Sketch of part of a report on the treaty with the Creeks to be finished,” and later endorsed, “Rough Sketch—To Genl Washington in the day he concluded the treaty with the Creeks”, NNGL: Knox Papers.

Sometime in late July or early August, Henry Knox listed for GW “General objects of the other treaties,” which was later endorsed: “General Objects of the Treaty with the Creeks—Augt 1790” (DLC:GW). Knox jotted down as subjects for consideration the restoration of white prisoners and captured slaves, an acknowledgment of the sovereignty and protection of the United States, intrusions on Indian lands, robberies, retaliation, warnings of the hostile designs of other Indians, and trade. The resolution of the violent and longstanding dispute over land ownership, however, was the main goal of both Creek and American negotiators in the summer of 1790, and McGillivray, who had been disappointed with the president’s first treaty commissioners appointed in 1789, expected better results from a personal trip to the federal capital. For the background to the conflict between the Creeks and the Georgians and the disputed treaties of Augusta, Galphinton, and Shoulderbone, of 1783, 1785, and 1786, respectively, see GW to the Commissioners to the Southern Indians, 29 Aug. 1789, David Humphreys to GW, 21, 26, 27 Sept., 13, 28 Oct. 1789, Alexander Hamilton to GW, 20 Oct. 1789, Knox to GW, 18 Oct., 21, 27 Nov. 1789; DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972—. description ends 2:210–41; Randolph C. Downes, “Creek-American Relations, 1782–1790,” Georgia Historical Quarterly, 21 (1937), 142–79.

Knox had been able to complete a fuller and fairer investigation of the Creek complaints than the 1789 commissioners, who had fallen under the sway of the Georgians. He had reference to relevant documents and could interview officials involved in the controversy, both Indian and American. He was also in continual contact with the president, who consequently had greater control over the 1790 Creek negotiations than those of 1789.

1The “7” was written in later. GW presented Knox’s treaty with the Creeks to the Senate on 7 Aug. 1790 (see GW to the U.S. Senate, 7 Aug. 1790 [second letter]).

2No receiver’s copy of GW’s official instructions to Knox has been found, but an undated letter drafted by Tobias Lear and endorsed, “Proposed Instructions but not given to the Sec’y of war,” reads: “Having by and with the advice and consent of the Senate constituted you with full powers, to negociate and conclude a treaty of peace and friendship, between the United States of America and the Creek nation of Indians by the chiefs of the said Nation now in this city, you are to proceed & finish that business as soon as consistently with propriety and due form.

“You will take a comprehensive view of the causes of the hostilities which have subsisted between the State of Georgia and the Creeks as stated in the documents possessed by the public—the nature and circumstances of the treaties stated to have been made between the State of Georgia and the Creeks—the evidence of the dissatisfaction of the creeks against the said treaties—the evidence produced by and on behalf of the state of Georgia in support of said treaties—and the reports on the said treaties of the commissioners appointed by the united states at several periods.

“You have delivered to you the instructions of the late commissioners appointed to treat with the creeks and also the general principles agreed to by the Senate in august 1789 which were the foundation of the instructions to the said commissioners, and you are to conform the treaty to be made with the Creeks to the said instructions & general principles as far as circumstances will admit.

“The great object of the United States, is to establish a solid and permanent peace with the Creeks founded on the broad basis of Justice policy and humanity.

“You will observe that there must be a provision inserted in the treaty which you may make—that the same is not to be obligatory on the part of the United States untill ratified by the President of the United States with the advice & consent of the Senate” (NNGL: Knox Papers).

3See GW to the U.S. Senate, 22 Aug. 1789; DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972—. description ends 2:21–36.

5For the secret articles to the Creek treaty, see GW to the U.S. Senate, 4 Aug. 1790 and notes and enclosure, and Proclamation, 14 Aug. 1790, n.5.

6A clerk’s copy of the public portion of the final treaty is filed with Knox’s draft of his letter to GW of 7 Aug. 1790; its preamble is only slightly different from that in the ratified treaty (NNGL: Knox Papers; see also GW to the U.S. Senate, 7 Aug. 1790 [second letter], and Proclamation, 14 Aug. 1790, n.5).

7For the negotiations of the previous autumn between the Creeks and the federal commissioners, see David Humphreys to GW, 26 Sept. 1789, n.3, and 27 Sept. 1789, and Knox to GW, 27 Oct. 1789 and note 2; DHFC, description begins Linda Grant De Pauw et al., eds. Documentary History of the First Federal Congress of the United States of America, March 4, 1789-March 3, 1791. 20 vols. to date. Baltimore, 1972—. description ends 2:210–41.

8The following six-line deletion appears at the bottom of the page after this point in the draft: “The General Goverment had ⟨illegible⟩ taken up the business & it was incumbent on it to proceed & effect a solid peace, or take eventual arrangements for the most effective protection of the frontiers, and to pacify.” Knox apparently forgot to delete the remaining two lines of the paragraph at the top of the next page.

9“With despatch make any farther advances to the Creeks by commissi⟨o⟩ners to the Creeks—and ⟨illegible⟩” is deleted from after this point in the draft.

10Knox made several deletions from this sentence, some of them illegible.

11For Marinus Willett and his mission to the Creeks, see Henry Knox to GW, 15 Feb. 1790 and note 5, Philemon Waters to GW, 3 July 1790, n.4; Diaries description begins Donald Jackson and Dorothy Twohig, eds. The Diaries of George Washington. 6 vols. Charlottesville, Va., 1976–79. description ends , 6:41–42.

12This deletion follows: “To wit—No 1. a report of a committee to the Legislature of Georgia 23 Octr 1787 and agreed to by ⟨illegible⟩.” At the top of the next page is deleted “No 2.” Across the left margin of that same page appears: “The evidence upon this subject is contained in the statements on the case of the Creeks which I had the honor to submit to you on the 6th of July 1789, The report of the late Commissioners dated the 17th Novr 1789—and certain affidavits—The examination of the Tallisees King—the ⟨illegible⟩ information of Mr Hawkins, and the information of Colo. Willet.”

13Knox deleted “to the ⟨documents⟩ in the public possession containg ⟨the⟩ evidence of Alexer McGillivrays” after this point in the draft.

14This deletion follows in the draft: “And also to the Reports of James White the Superintendants Benjn Hawkins the letters.” On 6 Aug. 1790 Thomas Jefferson informed GW that “in a conversation with mr Hawkins yesterday evening, it came out that he had seen Mcgillivray’s letter to Govr Houston, & Houston’s answer: he thinks they were dated the latter end of 1784. but is sure they were some time in the year preceeding the treaty of Galphinton to which he was sent, he recites the substance & purport of Mcgillivray’s letter, but does not recollect that of Houston’s. previous to the treaty of Galphinton, some of the Indians disavowed to him that of Auguste, & declared the lands ceded were of those which belonged to the whole nation, & not to the lower creeks in particular. I am not certain whether he did not say this conversation was in 1784. but I am sure he repeated it as precedent to the treaty of Galphinton” (DNA: RG 59, Miscellaneous Letters).

15See “Questions to the Tallisee King respecting the Treaty of Galphinton this 6th day of Augt 1790 H. Knox” in NNGL: Knox Papers.

16The 9th article of the Articles of Confederation granted Congress control over trade with and affairs of sovereign Indian nations as long as it did not in the exercise of those rights and powers infringe upon the legislative rights of any state. The 26 Oct. 1787 resolution of the Confederation Congress authorized North and South Carolina and Georgia each to appoint a commissioner to negotiate in conjunction with the superintendent of Indian affairs for the southern department a treaty of peace with the southern Indians, specified what the terms of that treaty should be, and also instructed the governor of the Northwest Territory to negotiate a treaty with the northern Indians (see JCC, description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends 33:708–12).

17For the fourth article of the final treaty, see Proclamation, 14 Aug. 1790, n.5.

18The following paragraph was deleted by Knox: “Impressed as I was that the land in question was not at this time ⟨of such⟩ a value or ⟨illegible⟩ Everything as was required the United States, to ⟨illegible⟩ making a peace with the Creeks at the present favorable moment & therefore risquing all the consequences of ⟨illegible⟩ I acquiesced in the relinquishment of the said land.” Along the left margin of the page on which it concludes appears: “As the other general objects had been satisfactorily arranged I could not conceive it consistent with the interests of the U.S. to ⟨illegible⟩ off the treaty in ⟨illegible⟩,” which is followed by the deletion: “justice, policy or humanity, to risque on a ⟨illegible⟩ as an ultimatum.”

19This deletion follows this point in the draft: “treaty having been agreed to, I did not conceive that the ⟨illegible would be consistent⟩ the principl⟨es⟩ of justice, policy or humanity, to omit the present favo⟨rable⟩ occasion to of forming a ⟨permanent⟩ treaty with the Creeks.”

20Following this paragraph, Knox deleted the paragraph: “I am persuaded that the ⟨illegible⟩ fixed in the treaty exam[in]ed ⟨in⟩ the light principles of Justice policy or humanity, will be found entirely consistent, with those great leadg national maxims.”

21Upon completion of the negotiations on 7 Aug. 1790, Knox prepared a copy of the final treaty in English and had Joseph Cornell, the Creeks’ interpreter, swear an oath before New York state chief justice Richard Morris that he would truly interpret it and all related matters to the assembled chiefs (oath of Joseph Cornell, NNGL: Knox Papers). He also gave a speech to them before they signed, a draft of which reads: “Kings, chiefs & warriors of the Creek nation attend!

“It having pleased the great master of breath to put into your hearts to repair to the President of the United States, in order to conclude a perpetual treaty of peace and friendship with the United States—I rejoice that we have come to a final agreement on that subject.

“Both parties on the frontiers will now rejoice in all the blessings of life, and none shall make them afraid.

“The boundary between the white people and your nation will be fixed in such manner, that it cannot be mistaken or misunderstood.

“For the land you have relinquished you will receive an adequate compensation for the comfort of yourselves & children.

“The United States will be your steady and firm friends, and will be ever ready to promote your happiness—impress upon your brethren and whole nation love and attachment to the citizens of the United States.

“If any event should turn up which should look as if the United States had forgotten these sentiments, regard it not—they United States are just and true, and will never depart from their promisses—whenever you think yourselves agrieved ask an explanantion and it shall be given you.

“At the same time guard the conduct your rash young men and prevent their injuring any of the white people on the frontiers, as we are all members of one great family, and their caust must be the cause of the United States—we will guard the conduct of ours, and punish all who shall deserve it.

“We will now proceed to read, sign, and seal the instrument of our future peace and friendship; and may the supreme principle of the universe render it perpetual” (NNGL: Knox Papers). Abigail Adams recorded that in the evening the Creeks “had a great Bondfire dancing round it like so many spirits hooping, singing, yelling, and expressing their pleasure and satisfaction in the true savage stile” (Mitchell, New Letters of Abigail Adams, description begins Stewart Mitchell, ed. New Letters of Abigail Adams, 1788–1801. Boston, 1947. description ends 56).

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