The Original Pass to Return Home For the Native Americans Who Addressed Congress in 1776, Signed by President John Hancock

Seeking to foster good relations with the Native Americans sympathetic to the Revolution, Hancock and Congress allow safe passage home for the “Indian Sachems & warriors…who are in friendship with the people of the United States of America".

A pass allowing “Indian Sachems & warriors…who are in friendship with the people of the United States of America,” to return home unmolested, after their visit to Philadelphia

Once the American Revolution broke out in 1775, Congress recognized the importance of either building alliances with Native American tribes, or at least obtaining...

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The Original Pass to Return Home For the Native Americans Who Addressed Congress in 1776, Signed by President John Hancock

Seeking to foster good relations with the Native Americans sympathetic to the Revolution, Hancock and Congress allow safe passage home for the “Indian Sachems & warriors…who are in friendship with the people of the United States of America".

A pass allowing “Indian Sachems & warriors…who are in friendship with the people of the United States of America,” to return home unmolested, after their visit to Philadelphia

Once the American Revolution broke out in 1775, Congress recognized the importance of either building alliances with Native American tribes, or at least obtaining their neutrality. After all, the Indians had men, and arms, and were situated in key areas of conflict between the British and the rebellious colonists. As early as May 1775, Stockbridge Indians formed a company of Minutemen to support the colonists. Congress then created three different departments of Indian Affairs (North, Middle and South), made an appropriation of $17,000 for rum and gifts to entice them, and on July 17, 1775, issued a proclamation explaining the war, and Congress’s disposition “towards you our Indian brothers of the Six Nations and their allies”. It called on the Indians for peace and neutrality: “Brothers and friends!…This is a family quarrel between us and Old England. You Indians are not concerned in it…Brothers! we live upon the same ground with you. The same island is our common…We have said we wish you Indians may continue in peace with one another, and with us the white people. Let us both be cautious in our behavior towards each other at this critical state of affairs. This island now trembles, the wind whistles from almost every quarter- let us fortify our minds and shut our ears against false rumors-let us be cautious what we receive for truth, unless spoken by wise and good men. If any thing disagreeable should ever fall out between us, the twelve United (colonies, and you, the Six Nations, to wound our peace, let us immediately seek measures for healing the breach…Ordered, That a similar talk be prepared for the other Indian nations, preserving the tenor of the above, and altering it so as to suit the Indians in the several departments.”

In December of 1775, John Hancock welcomed a Delaware Chief to Congress, which he called “this council fire, kindled for all the United Colonies,” and members of Congress heard Captain White Eyes (a Delaware Indian) refer to the Continental Congress as “the Grand Council Fire” in his reply. As part of the campaign to court the Indians, John Adams had dinner with several Mohawk chiefs and their wives in Cambridge, Massachusetts; George Washington and his staff also were present. Washington introduced Adams to the Mohawk chiefs as one of the members “of the Grand Council Fire at Philadelphia”, and Adams noted in a letter to his wife that the Mohawks were impressed with Washington’s introduction. Numerous Indian delegations now came to Congress to size up matters for themselves. Twenty-one Iroquois came to meet with Congress in May of 1776. For over a month, they would observe the operations of the Continental Congress and its president, John Hancock, as they lodged on the second floor of the Pennsylvania State House (now called Independence Hall). On May 27, 1776, Richard Henry Lee reported that the American army had a parade of two to three thousand men to impress the Iroquois with the strength of the United States. Four tribes of the Six Nations viewed the parade, and Lee hoped “to secure the friendship of these people.” Newspaper accounts stated that Generals Washington, Horatio Gates and Thomas Mifflin, “the Members of Congress…and…the Indians…on business with the Congress” reviewed the troops. On June 11, 1776, while the question of independence was being debated, the visiting Iroquois chiefs were formally invited into the meeting hall of the Congress. There a speech was delivered, in which they were addressed as “Brothers” and told of the delegates’ wish that the “friendship” between them would “continue as long as the sun shall shine” and the “waters run.” The speech also expressed the hope that the new Americans and the Iroquois act “as one people, and have but one heart.” After this speech, an Onondaga chief requested permission to give Hancock an Indian name. The Congress graciously consented, and so the President was renamed “Karanduawn, or the Great Tree.”

Meanwhile, the British were similarly courting the Indians. In 1775, King George III demanded the use of Indians to distress the Americans. In July 1776, British Colonel Guy Johnson and Joseph Brant, the pro-British Mohawk, returned to New York from a visit to England. While in London, Brant had been warmly received and highly honored; George Romney even painted his portrait. Brant had become more than ever convinced that the Indians’ future lay with the British Crown and not with the American colonists. After distinguishing himself at the Battle of Long Island, Brant slipped through the patriot lines in order to return to Iroquoia and bring his countrymen into the fight against the Americans. In conjunction with Colonel Butler, the British commander at Fort Niagara, in time Brant succeeded in getting four of the six Iroquois nations to take up the hatchet against the Americans.

On September 19, 1776, Congress’s Committee for Indian Affairs brought in a report: “That the commanding officers of the several posts, on the frontiers of Virginia and Pennsylvania, be desired to give the earliest intelligence they can, of every important occurrence they may have notice of, respecting the Indians, to the commissioners, or, when they are not in the way, to the agent for Indian Affairs. That it be recommended to the inhabitants of the frontiers, and to the officers at all the posts there, to treat the Indians, who behave peaceably and inoffensively, with kindness and civility, and not to suffer them to be ill used or insulted…” This would prove to be easier said than done.

In October 1776, the Pennsylvania and Ohio Indian chiefs turned out en masse to meet with James Wilson, Congress’s Commissioner to the Indians Jasper Yeates, and others at Fort Pitt. This major pow-wow was to hear what the Americans had to say, and see what advantage each side could gain from the other. Among the chiefs present were Jenon-ton-way-taw-shaw and Caynshuta of the Six Nations, Nimwa and Corn Stalk of the Shawnee, and Captain Pipe, Captain Whiteyes and Captain Killbuck of the Delaware. No written agreement was signed, but the atmosphere was one of congeniality and the whites received Indian names.  The next month some of these chiefs, with some others, journeyed to Philadelphia to observe and meet with Congress.

Benjamin Rush related that they were all introduced to Congress. They took each member by the hand, and afterwards sat down. One of them (after a pause of 10 minutes) rose up and addressed the Congress in the following words. “Brothers, we received your commissioners at the little counsel fire at Fort Pitt. We wiped the sweat from your bodies. We cleansed the dirt from their ankles. We pulled the thorns from [their] feet. We took their staffs from their hands, and leaned them [against] the tree of peace, we took their belts from their waists, and conducted them to the seats of peace.” Rush also related, “During my attendance in Congress in Philadelphia, I had the pleasure of being present at an interview between some chiefs of the Six Nations and Congress in the hall in the State House. After a pause of about ten minutes one of the chiefs rose from his seat, and pointing to the Sun said, “The business of this day will end well. Yonder Sun rose clear this morning. The great spirit is propitious to us.” However, the words, though of friendship, were not ones of alliance nor did they constitute a guarantee not to support the British. According to a December 9 entry of the Journals of the Continental Congress, the speeches were not memorable. “The Indians, being introduced and spoke to Congress but having said nothing relative to matters between them and the United States no notice was taken of it and they withdrew.”

The following pass was issued to this Indian delegation so that they could return from Philadelphia to western Pennsylvania and Ohio. Manuscript document signed by Hancock, as President of the Continental Congress, Philadelphia, December 9, 1776, addressed to “All whom it may concern.” “Permit the following Indian Sachems & warriors…to return to Pittsburgh with the Commissioners for Indian Affairs in the Middle Department, without hindrance or molestation, and all Committees and other persons of the said States are hereby required to be aiding and assisting of them during this said journey to Pittsburgh.” It is signed “By order of Congress, John Hancock, Presidt.” He names “Cayeshuta, Jenontow, Waytaw, Shaw and Tegawshaingoyn of the Six Nations, Captain Pipe, Captain Whiteyes & Captain Killbuck of the Delaware nation and Nimwa & Kokitha of the Shawnee Nation, who are in friendship with the people of the United States of America, and have visited Congress in pursuance of their resolve…” Considering the ill will felt by many whites on the frontier to the Indians, this pass might well prove necessary.

And the Indians that met with the Americans at Fort Pitt, and those that came for this hopeful meeting in Philadelphia? Whiteyes was a war chief and Speaker of the Delaware Indians Head Council. He would negotiate the first Indian treaty with the fledgling United States in 1778, and always worked toward his ultimate of goal of establishing a secure Indian territory with the United States. He was murdered by an American militia officer in 1778, which turned many Delawares against the American cause. The real name of Captain Pipe of the Delawares was Hopocan. As chief he tried to stay neutral during the Revolution, but after many of his family and people were killed in American raids, he allied with the British. Gelelemend, known as Captain Killbuck, supported the Americans to the end. He was the grandson of great chief Netawatwees, and succeeded him. Many Shawnees leaned towards siding with the British, but some saw no gain in getting involved in the white man’s war and preferred good relations with the Americans. Chief Cornstalk who attended the Fort Pitt pow-wow was one of these. He was killed by American militia in 1777, driving the neutral Shawnee into an alliance with the British. Cornstalk’s brother was Tecumseh, who would not forget what he considered the treacherous murder of his brother, who was promised friendship by one set of Americans and then killed a year later by another. He would come back to oppose the Americans in future conflicts. The 4 of the 6 Iroquois tribes Joseph Brant brought to support the British were the Mohawks, Cayugas, Onondagas, and Senecas. The decision to take up arms to aid Britain in the war was made at a great congress at Irondequoit in July 1777, by which time the Indians had reason to doubt whether the American leaders in Philadelphia could deliver on the words of peace their spoke and promises they made. At that great congress, the Indians were overwhelmed by massive gifts of rum, provisions and useful goods from the British. Warriors from the other two tribes, the Oneidas and Tuscaroras, sided mainly with the Americans, giving valuable service as scouts and guides, and even supplying men to the Continental Army for a short time. So though both the British and the Americans were using Indian fighters, the British gained the upper hand, particularly in collaboration with the Iroquois in upstate and western New York.

Thus, the national effort that this document epitomized to enlist Native American support for the Revolution was doomed by white opposition on the frontier and the tenacity of British efforts to preempt that field.

Any manuscript relating to Congress’s efforts to enlist Native American support at the highest levels in the 1775-77 time frame must be considered very rare. A search of public sale records going back forty years turns up just a few, and none with remotely this importance.

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