George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Knox, 31 August 1792

From Henry Knox

War department August 31st 1792


I have the honor to submit herein enclosed a letter to the Governor of Georgia and one to Mr Seagrove—the former drafted by the Attorney General and both approved by the s⟨am⟩e and the Secretary of the Treasury.

The principles you were pleased to suggest have been the basis of these papers—The manner of treating the Spaniards and McGillivray was unanimously considered as the most proper to be adopted in the present conjuncture.1

One of the Spanish commissioners is at present in Virginia and the other in the Country, but will return either to day or to morrow. I shall see him and conformably to the advice of the Gentlemen mention the affair verbally and informally—the result of which I will have the honor to transmit to you.2

Letters have just been received from Major General Wayne—all quiet—He has transmitted his ideas of the further progress of the war, in case the negociations should fail, which shall be transmitted by the next post.3

I have directed that the express be furnished with one hundred dollars out of which he will return the money you were pleased to advance him. I have the honor to be with the highest respect Sir Your most obed. servant

H. Knox secy of war


1Earlier in the month, Knox had met at least twice with Edmund Randolph and Alexander Hamilton to discuss U.S. relations with the southern Indians and with the Spanish (see Knox to GW, 28 Aug. 1792). As instructed by GW in his letter of 19 Aug., Knox wrote Edward Telfair on 31 Aug. urging the Georgia governor to control frontier settlers who opposed any attempt to survey the boundary line between Georgia and the Creeks that was established in the 1790 Treaty of New York and whose actions against the Indians could provoke a war. Knox said that it was Telfair’s responsibility as “a public officer” to cooperate in halting these unlawful activities. He emphasized that an Indian war would be “so adverse to strict economy” and “would tend to protract the extinguishment of the public debt.” As a new nation, the United States had not “acquired a solid and profitable confidence with the Indians,” as had other countries with whom the United States had to compete for the affections of the Indians, and thus it could not “afford cause of complaint by acting unjustly. These sentiments call for the attention of no State more forcibly than of Georgia; upon which the foreign power in her vicinity might, by gaining an ascendency over the Southern tribes, let them loose with all the horrors of their warfare.” Knox reminded Telfair that the Treaty of New York was negotiated in good faith and its articles must be observed by the United States. “Under these circumstances, your Excellency will easily discover what is the duty of the federal and your own Government. The constitution has been freely adopted; the regulation of our Indian connexion is submitted to Congress; and the treaties are parts of the supreme law of the land. It would be a criminal negligence in the federal administration to pass over the gross infraction of public tranquility, and the insult to the public honor, which are said to be in contemplation. I am authorized to declare to you, sir, in order to testify the determination to uphold you in the most vigorous exertions under the laws of your State, that those of the United States will be strictly enforced and executed upon the offenders, without distinction.” Knox insisted Telfair “suppress those violent and unwarrantable proceedings, of which you have been apprised” (ASP, Indian Affairs, description begins Walter Lowrie et al., eds. American State Papers. Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States. 38 vols. Washington, D.C., Gales and Seaton, 1832–61. description ends 1:258–59).

Knox’s letter to James Seagrove of 31 Aug., in answer to Seagrove’s letters to GW of 5 and 27 July, and to Knox of the same dates and 4 Aug., incorporated the “principles” suggested by GW in his letter to Knox of 19 August. Knox instructed Seagrove to “watch closely the further movements and designs of the said Captain Olivar, and to have them attested by undeniable evidence, on oath. . . . But, in the pursuit of this business . . . you will observe an entire delicacy as it shall relate to the Spanish Government, rather holding up the idea that Captain Olivar may be acting without due authority from the said Government.” Knox also cautioned Seagrove not to underestimate the power and influence of Alexander McGillivray. Until “he shall throw off the mask entirely, we ought apparently to treat him as our firm friend; but at the same time, to keep an eagle’s eye upon all his conduct.”

Knox stressed the importance of U.S. agents residing “within the most populous parts” of the Creek nation in order to gather reliable information and to establish a firmer friendship with the Indians. “From the abilities you have exhibited upon the subject of Indian affairs, and the favorable opinion entertained and expressed thereof, by the President of the United States, I am authorized to say, that he considers you as the suitable character to direct the affairs of the Creeks, having under you one or two subordinate agents; but at the same time, to say, that he considers an actual residence within the heart of the nation, as indispensably necessary for the affairs of the United States; and, as it is necessary to be explicit on this head, I request your immediate information, whether such residence would be agreeable to you, and where you would fix your residence. . . . If you know suitable characters, who would willingly reside among the Creeks. . . you will please to recommend them to the President.”

Knox informed Seagrove that the meeting “which you propose on the first of November next, with the Lower Creeks, has been approved by the President . . . on the expectation that it will, as far as possible, be restricted to the chiefs only, agreeably to your proposal; as you have conditionally agreed to this meeting, it might have ill effects, were it not complied with. The Indians will but imperfectly conceive the distinction between a conditional and an actual promise, and therefore it must take place. But, in future . . . there [will] be no great assembling of the Creeks, but in consequence of a previous statement of the causes thereof, and the express approbation of the President of the United States is obtained.”

“Goods, corn, and money,” Knox wrote, will be sent for distribution to the Lower Creeks, and Seagrove should assess the loss of Indian corn and estimate the amount “which would be an effectual relief to the parts oppressed. If the real necessities of the Lower Creeks require a larger quantity than the five thousand bushels intended to be transported to St. Mary’s, you may intimate to them that the President of the United States, actuated by his humanity and regard for them, will order a further quantity, provided they exhibit, on their parts, similar dispositions of kindness and attachment to the United States.”

Knox concluded his letter by reminding Seagrove that the administration’s policies restricted issuing passports and trading licenses and establishing trading houses within Indian territory. Knox’s letter to Seagrove is printed in full in ASP, Indian Affairs, description begins Walter Lowrie et al., eds. American State Papers. Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States. 38 vols. Washington, D.C., Gales and Seaton, 1832–61. description ends 1:259–60, where it is erroneously dated 31 Oct. 1792.

2For GW’s suggestion that Knox meet informally with José de Jaudenes and José Ignacio de Viar, the Spanish ministers to the United States, and for Knox’s Minutes of a Conversation with Viar and Jaudenes, on 6 Sept. 1792, see GW to Knox, 19 Aug., and note 2.

3Copies of the two letters that Wayne wrote to Knox on 24 Aug. were enclosed in Knox to GW, 1 Sept. 1792.

Index Entries