George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Knox, 17 August 1791

From Henry Knox

War Department [Philadelphia,] 17th August 1791.

The Secretary of War having examined the Report of Colonel Timothy Pickering, Commissioner at a late Council or treaty of the five Nations of Indians, so called, at Tioga Point—humbly Reports to the President of the United States:

That the main object of the said Council was to conciliate the said Indians, to prevent their listening to the invitations of the western hostile Indians, by withdrawing them to a greater distance from the theatre of the war, and to fix their minds, particularly of their idle young men, upon some important object, which by employing them for a critical period, would render them less liable to the temptations of committing depredations.

That from the proceedings it appears, that the Commissioner has with great ability and judgment, carried into effect the objects of his appointment, by cementing the friendships between the United States and the said Indians; and it is to be expected the good effects flowing from this Council, will be hereafter manifestly conspicuous.1

But it is to be exceedingly regretted that his desire to accord to the wishes of the Indians, led him to confirm a lease of certain lands belonging to the Cayuga Nation of Indians, to John Richardson. This measure was entirely unauthorized by his instructions, is contrary to the constitution and laws of New York, and to the constitution and laws of the United States.

That the State of New York possesses the undoubted right of pre-emption to the lands of the Cayugas, and that this right embraces every possible modification of said lands, with the concurrence of the United States, whether by sale, lease or otherwise.

That it is also to be regretted, that the Commissioner did not obtain and keep a copy of the instrument of the lease of the Cayuga lands, and his ratification thereof; neither of which are among his papers, or in his possession as he has informed the subscriber.

That the effect of the confirmation to Allan’s children is the same as that of the Cayuga lands, although it is presumed the right of pre-emption has been conveyed by the State of Massachusetts to an individual.2

The subscriber humbly conceives that it would be proper, in order to avert any evil consequences which might arise upon this subject, to transmit an extract of his proceedings relative thereto, to the Governor of the State of New York, and to disavow explicitly the said transaction as being founded in error; unless it should be judgment of the said State, to avail itself of any benefit that may arise therefrom.

That if this should be the case, which however must be entirely optional with the said State, it would have the effect to keep the said Indians tranquil, by preventing that confusion which must arise in their minds from the disavowal of a transaction formally concluded at a public treaty.

That the letter which accompanies this report is submitted, as proper to be transmitted to the Governor of New York, on the occasion.3

H. Knox

secy of war


1Timothy Pickering met with the Iroquois in early July near Newtown (Elmira), N.Y., not far from Tioga, Pa., after waiting three weeks for the Indians to assemble. He estimated that nearly one thousand were present when the council officially opened on 2 July. Quickly concluding that reports that the Six Nations were preparing for war had been greatly exaggerated, Pickering spent much of the council assuring the assembled chiefs of the peaceful intentions of the U.S. government and urging them to encourage their people to adopt a sedentary agricultural life. Pickering’s efforts to persuade the Indians to abandon their traditional culture were met with resistance from the Seneca chief Red Jacket that threatened to undermine the treaty conference. Pickering’s journal of the affair is in MHi: Pickering Papers. The papers he sent to GW arrived shortly after the conclusion of the council on 17 July, and Tobias Lear forwarded them on 25 July to clerk John Vanderbrock at the War Department with GW’s wish to see Henry Knox about them as soon as Knox returned from New York (DLC:GW).

2At the final session of the treaty council, some Seneca chiefs asked Pickering to confirm officially the legitimacy of two land cessions they wished to make to John Richardson and to the two daughters of Ebenezer Allen, who had married a Seneca. Pickering had opened the council with the assurance that under federal law the Indians could dispose of their lands as they wished. As he wrote Knox on 16 Aug. that refusal to accede to them in these cases “would lead them to think that the solemn assurances of the President were made but to amuse & deceive them” (MHi: Pickering Papers), Pickering certified the Richardson grant but objected to the original size of the Allen grant. Under pressure from the chiefs, Pickering reluctantly accepted a smaller grant of some four square miles.

3Knox’s enclosed letter of this day to Gov. George Clinton of New York covered an extract of Pickering’s report to GW and noted: “It appears that the Commissioner’s desire to accomplish the objects of his commission in the greatest degree, has led him incautiously, at the earnest request of the Cayugas present to ratify and confirm a certain lease of lands belonging to the Cayuga nation of indians, to John Richardson, and to certify that a certain assignment of the Seneka indians to the daughters of Ebenezer Allan was done at a public treaty, held under the authority of the United States. No copies however of either instruments have been retained or produced by the said Commissioner. The right of the State of New York to the pre emption of the Cayuga lands is unquestioned, and also that the said right embraces all possible alienations of said lands by the Indians with the concurrence of the United States according to the Constitution and Laws. Therefore I do by the command of the President of the United States, hereby transmit to your Excellency an explicit disavowal of the conduct of the said Commissioner, relative to the said lease of the Cayuga lands to John Richardson; and also of the Certificate relative to the Senekas assignment of lands to the children of Ebenezer Allan—and I am further ordered to inform your Excellency, that the said acts of the said Commissioner were unauthorized by his instructions, and will be considered as entirely null and void by the United States. But if however the State of New York should judge that it would derive any benefit from the due execution of said lease, the executive authority of the United States will do every thing which may be proper upon the occasion. Colonel Pickering who is going to New York, will personally wait upon your Excellency to give you any further explanation which you may request” (DLC:GW). Lear informed Knox this day that the letter met GW’s approbation and that GW requested it be forwarded without delay to Clinton (DLC:GW), who received it before his meeting with Pickering in New York. See Pickering to GW, 27 Aug. 1791.

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