George Washington Papers

From George Washington to the United States Senate, 4 August 1790

To the United States Senate

United States [New York]
August 4th 1790

Gentlemen of the Senate,

In consequence of the general principles agreed to by the Senate in August 1789,1 the adjustment of the terms of a treaty is far advanced between the United States and the Chiefs of the Creek2 Indians now in this city, in behalf of themselves and the whole Creek Nation.

In preparing the Articles of this Treaty, the present arrangements of the trade with the Creeks have caused much embarrassment. It seems to be well ascertained that the said trade is almost exclusively in the hands of a Company of British Merchants, who, by agreement, make their importations of Goods from England into the Spanish ports.

As the trade of the Indians is a main mean of their political management, it is therefore obvious, that the United States cannot possess any security for the performance of treaties with the Creeks, while their trade is liable to be interrupted or withheld, at the caprice of two foreign powers.

Hence it becomes an object of real importance to form new channels for the commerce of the Creeks through the United States—But this operation will require time, as the present arrangements cannot be suddenly broken without the greatest violation of faith and morals.

It therefore appears to be important to form a secret article of a treaty similar to the one which accompanies this message.3

If the Senate should require any further explanation, the Secretary of War4 will attend them for that purpose.

Go: Washington

LS, DNA: RG 46, First Congress, 1789–91, Records of Executive Proceedings, President’s Messages—Indian Relations; LB, DLC:GW; Df, in the hand of Henry Knox, NNGL: Knox Papers.

After the failure of the 1789 federal commission that traveled to Georgia the previous fall to negotiate an end to Creek retaliations against the encroachments of white settlers on the Georgia frontier, GW appointed Col. Marinus Willett as his personal emissary to invite Tallapoosa chief Alexander McGillivray and other Creek headmen to resume negotiations at the federal capital. Willett persuaded McGillivray and 26 chiefs to come to New York, and the party started north in the late spring of 1790. After seven weeks on the road, during which the Indians were feted at Guilford Courthouse, N.C., Richmond and Fredericksburg, Va., and Philadelphia, the company was greeted in New York by that city’s greatest crowd since GW’s presidential inauguration (see David Humphreys to GW, 26 Sept. 1789, n.3, and 27 Sept. 1789, Henry Knox to GW, 27 Oct. 1789 and note 2, and 15 Feb. 1790 and notes, Tobias Lear to Richard Varick, 19 July 1790, n.2; Caughey, McGillivray of the Creeks, description begins John Walton Caughey. McGillivray of the Creeks. Norman, Okla., 1938. description ends 43).

Ceremonial and social occasions filled the Creeks’ first week and a half in New York. Upon their arrival on 21 July, they were introduced to municipal, state, and federal officials and enjoyed a festive dinner at the City Tavern that evening (see St. Tammany’s Society to GW, 24 Aug. 1790 [letter-not-found entry], source note). On 22 July Secretary of War Henry Knox, whose department was responsible for Indian affairs, called upon foreign dignitaries with his celebrity houseguest and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. On 27 July the Creek chiefs, who camped together outside of the city, accompanied GW, Knox, and Gov. George Clinton to a review of the city troops, and several of the Indians dined with Knox’s family that evening. Two days later the rising power of the American empire was represented to them during an entertainment, attended by GW, his department heads, and McGillivray, aboard the America, lately arrived from Canton. On 2 Aug. 1790 the St. Tammany’s Society held another banquet for the Creeks. This initial round of social events undoubtedly contributed to the ill health of the road-wearied McGillivray, whose constitution had been much debilitated by past intemperance and overindulgence (see William Knox to Henry Knox, 14 July 1790, and Franco Petrus Van Berckel to Henry Knox, 23 Aug. 1790, both in NNGL: Knox Papers; Daily Advertiser [New York], 22 July 1790; New-York Journal, and Patriotic Register, 23 and 30 July 1790; Gazette of the United States [New York], 28 and 31 July 1790; Mitchell, New Letters of Abigail Adams, description begins Stewart Mitchell, ed. New Letters of Abigail Adams, 1788–1801. Boston, 1947. description ends 57; Caughey, McGillivray of the Creeks, description begins John Walton Caughey. McGillivray of the Creeks. Norman, Okla., 1938. description ends 273–78).

GW, who had long concerned himself with conditions on the southern frontier and desired peace with the Creeks for various military, political, fiscal, and humanitarian reasons, met with McGillivray and the Creek headmen only on a ceremonial basis and put the day-to-day business of negotiations into the hands of the secretary of war, who desired a Creek peace treaty in order to eliminate a potential ally of the northwestern Indians against whom Brig. Gen. Josiah Harmar was moving on the Miami. Over the course of Knox’s negotiations, however, the president also consulted with each of his department heads over the means to and the ends of the Creek treaty.

1On 24 Aug. 1789 the Senate responded to the questions the president personally had put to it two days earlier about negotiations to be carried on with the Creeks (see 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 2:31–36).

2The letter-book copy has “Nation of” following this word and has “here” instead of “now.”

3See enclosure below.

4Knox’s undated preliminary draft of GW’s message reads: “In consequence of the principles Agreed upon by the senate in [ ] 1789 a treaty is far advanced between the Cheifs of the Creek nation and which will soon be laid before the senate for their consideration.

“In preparing this treaty, the present arrangements of trade to the creek nation has been the cause of much embarrasment—It seems to be well ascertained that the said trad⟨e⟩ is almost exclusively in the hands of a british Company of Merchants who by agreement import their articles from England into the Spanish ports[.] as the commerce of the indians is a main mean of their political management; It is therefore obvious that the United States can have no security for any treaty which may be formed with the Creeks⟨;⟩ while the articles necs⟨a⟩ry to thei⟨r⟩ Comfort, are liable to be withheld by the caprice of two foreign powers.

“Hence it becomes an object of real importance to ⟨illegible form⟩ Channels for the commerce the Creeks through the United States—this ⟨illegible will⟩ require time as the present arrangemts cannot be suddenly broken, without the greatest violiation of faith and morals.

“It therefore appears to be important to form a secret article of treaty, similar to the one which accompanies this message. If the senate should request any further explanations, the secretary of War will attend them for that purpose” (NNGL: Knox Papers).

Index Entries