George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Timothy Pickering, 4 September 1790

To Timothy Pickering

Philadelphia September 4th 1790.


In the public letter1 which accompanies this you will receive such instructions for your conduct in your mission to the Seneca Tribe of Indians, as may without impropriety be communicated to them—Some others shall here be added more peculiarly proper for your own ear.

It is particularly desireable that they be made to understand that all business between them and any part of the United States is hereafter to be transacted by the general Government; and that the person who will attend you on the part of the Executive of the State of Pennsylvania be induced to corroborate this explicitly by his declarations to them.

The Indians have demanded that the property of the deceased Indians, taken by the murderers, be restored: I am informed that this has been secured by the Executive of Pennsylvania, to whom therefore you will apply for the same, and take proper measures for restoring it. They have further demanded that the property of the murderers be given up to them. I am informed that they had no property but lands—you will explain this to them, and of course that there is nothing to render under this demand. The Executive of Pennsylvania had proposed to purchase goods suitable to the Indians to the amount of 266⅔rds dollars to be given to the friends of the deceased as a satisfaction for the wrong done them—You will take on behalf of the United States so much of this purchase as has been made, for which they shall be repaid, and you will complete the same to the amount before mentioned if it be not completed; and you will take measures for having the goods conveyed to the place of meeting, where you will cause them to be so distributed among the friends of the deceased as shall be most likely to give complete satisfaction. It is desireable that they be induced to content themselves with this peace offering; but should they consider it as absolutely inadequate, you will, in your discretion, give them such assurances of further gifts as the necessity of the case shall require.

So also, should any presents to the Chiefs of the Nation appear to you necessary you will do therein what in your discretion you shall perceive to be indispensable.

You are to receive for your time and trouble eight dollars a day from the date hereof until your return in addition to your reasonable expences as well personal as for the general objects of your mission.

It is expected that you will be at the place of meeting by the [ ] instant, and have there at the same time if possible the presents provided, or otherwise that you take measures for their being conveyed thither by as early a day as possible.

In all your proceedings you are desired to adhere to as strict economy as the objects of your mission will reasonably admit.21 am Sir, Your most obedient Servant

Go: Washington

LS, MHi: Timothy Pickering Papers.

On 27 June 1790 Samuel Doyle and Benjamin, Henry, and Joseph Walker killed two important members of the Turtle tribe of the Seneca nation who had come into the settlement at Pine Creek in Northumberland County, Pa., to trade. Doyle and the Walkers immediately fled into the backcountry, and as soon as the state president Thomas Mifflin received news of the crime, he and the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania issued a proclamation on 9 July 1790 offering an $800 reward for the apprehension of the fugitives. News of their flight soon traveled as far as Cumberland County, Mass., in the District of Maine, where four or five suspicious characters were reported lurking about some of the back towns in the first week of August 1790. When the murderers later gave themselves up, they stated “their Reasons for killing the two Indians, which is as follows: one of the two Indians they kill’d, Va[u]nted of his taking twenty-three scalps, one of the scalp’d persons yet alive, is willing to give in on oath that he scalp’d her at the same time [1782] their father, John Walker was killed & scalp’d” (Seneca chiefs to the Governor and Council of Pennsylvania, 12 Aug. 1790, MHi: Timothy Pickering Papers; Pennsylvania Archives, description begins Samuel Hazard et al., eds. Pennsylvania Archives. 9 ser., 138 vols. Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852–1949. description ends 1st ser., 11:714–15, 719–20, 721, 745, Colonial ser., 16:396–97, 422; see also Sipe, Indian Wars of Pennsylvania, description begins C. Hale Sipe. The Indian Wars of Pennsylvania: An Account of the Indian Events, in Pennsylvania, of The French and Indian War, Pontiac’s War, Lord Dunmore’s War, The Revolutionary War and the Indian Uprising from 1789 to 1795 . . .. 1929. Reprint. New York, 1971. description ends 692–93).

The arrest of the Pine Creek murderers, as Mifflin proclaimed, was “of the utmost importance to the lives of the good people of this State” because of the instability of Pennsylvania’s western frontier. Even as preparations were being made for a punitive expedition against the northwestern tribes who had attacked settlers on the Ohio River, reports were sent to Philadelphia of Indian raids along the Allegheny River. Panic in Northumberland County was acute. On 12 July 1790 the county lieutenant wrote that “the Inhabitants of Pine Creek for Seventeen miles from its mouth, have Deserted their Habitations dreading danger from the Indian Hunters now on the Head waters” and requested thirty or forty soldiers to help them secure their crops and prevent the total abandonment of the settlement (Pennsylvania Archives, description begins Samuel Hazard et al., eds. Pennsylvania Archives. 9 ser., 138 vols. Philadelphia and Harrisburg, 1852–1949. description ends Colonial ser., 16:397, 1st ser., 11:709–10, 715–18).

The maintenance of friendly relations between the people of Pennsylvania and the warriors of the Seneca towns loomed imperative, and the state executive acted immediately, assuring the Indians “that the government of Pennsylvania has the warmest friendship for, and the utmost sincere attachment to your people, and that we will do every thing in our power to have the murderers brought to punishment.” Depositions respecting the murder were taken and transmitted to the state attorney general, descriptions of the fugitives were sent out, the governor’s proclamation was forwarded to the Seneca with an invitation to their leaders and those of the other Iroquois tribes of the Six Nations to meet with state authorities in Philadelphia, and the president and council requested a conference with a committee of the general assembly to consider measures that “should be immediately taken for quieting the minds of the Indians.” The conference committee unanimously agreed on 1 Sept. 1790 to have council member William Wilson and Col. Simon Spalding of Luzerne County deliver one hundred pounds worth of presents to the families of the murder victims, to add fifty pounds to the amount of the reward to anyone apprehending and securing the murderers in Lancaster jail, and to instruct President Mifflin “to take such steps as he shall think proper for carrying the intentions of Council into execution” (ibid., Colonial ser., 16:397, 398–99, 417–18, 422, 437–38, 439, 440, 442).

Matters thus stood when GW arrived in Philadelphia and dined with state leaders. The president realized how important Seneca friendliness was to the administration’s policy of punishing and pacifying the hostile nations of the Northwest. He was also aware that Cornplanter (Garganwahgah, John O’Bail; c.1732–1836), an important metis leader of the Seneca, as well as other leaders of the crumbling Iroquois confederacy, was under increasing pressure from the British at Niagara and emissaries of the Delaware, Shawnee, and Wyandot to support the northwestern tribes in their fight against the Americans in the Ohio Valley. GW therefore assumed control of appeasing the wronged Seneca and appointed Timothy Pickering as a federal agent to work with the men appointed by state authorities.

After writing the above letter with its enclosed instructions to Pickering, GW wrote to Governor Mifflin the same day, 4 Sept. 1790: “In consequence of the papers which you yesterday communicated to me, I have taken what appear to be the necessary measures for preventing the retaliation threatened by the Seneca Indians.

“Colonel Timothy Pickering is instructed to meet them immediately; to express the fullest displeasure at the murders complained of; to give the strongest assurances of the friendship of the United States towards that Tribe; and to make pecuniary satisfaction—As they have been in the habit of negotiation with your State, and therefore may expect some reply to their talk from you, it might facilitate the object in view, if, by an act of your body, they should be referred to the Executive of the United States, as possessing the only authority of regulating an intercourse with them, and redressing their grievances—The effect of such an act might be greater, if it were carried by some messenger from the Supreme Executive of Pennsylvania.

“But I conceive that nothing would give those discontented Indians higher satisfaction than the bringing of the murderers to justice. The continuance therefore of your proclamation appears to be not only useful, but necessary. The Attorney General of the United States will see that the most effectual measures within the judiciary power of the federal government shall be adopted for the punishment of the Offenders; and I doubt not if he should apply to you for the co-operation of the Officers of Pennsylvania it will be afforded.”

“If the money voted by the Legislature of Pennsylvania on this occasion has been applied to any purchase it will be repaid by the United States upon delivery of the articles bought to the order of Colonel Pickering” (ibid., 1st ser., 12:8–9).

1GW’s enclosed letter of instruction to Pickering of the same day reads: “You are hereby authorized and required forthwith to proceed to the Painted Post or to pick other place or places as may seem proper, there to meet, in behalf of the United States, the Sachems, Chiefs, and Warriors of the Seneca Nation of Indians, or any person or persons deputed by them: To assure them that the murders committed at Pine-Creek on some of their Tribe are causes of great displeasure to the United States: To explain to them what measures have been taken, and are still proposed to be taken to apprehend, and bring the offenders to justice: To communicate to them in a plain and fair manner the late act of Congress respecting the trade and intercourse with the Indian Tribes: To declare to them the friendly disposition of the federal-government towards them, and its readiness to extend protection and support to them on all needful occasions; and in general to do such matters and things as may be necessary for the more complete execution of the foregoing powers” (LS, MHi: Timothy Pickering Papers).

2Pickering handed GW an estimate of the expenses of his mission before the president left Philadelphia (see Phillips, “Pickering at His Best,” description begins Edward Hake Phillips. “Timothy Pickering at His Best: Indian Commissioner, 1790–1794.” Essex Institute Historical Collections 102 (1966): 163–202. description ends 168). He also wrote to his wife that he readily accepted the commission, as “The allowance for my services in this matter will be liberal.” Pickering later claimed $467 in salary for 58 days and travel expenses (Pickering to Rebecca Pickering, 6 Sept. 1790, and Pickering’s account with the United States, c. December 1790, both in MHi: Timothy Pickering Papers).

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