July 22, 2015

How Red Jacket Got His Name


The name Red Jacket, so familiar to the whites, was acquired during the war of the Revolution. He was distinguished at this time as well as afterward, for his fleetness on foot, his intelligence and activity. Having attracted the attention of a British officer by the vivacity of his manners, and the speedy execution of those errands with which he was entrusted, he received either in token of admiration, or for services rendered, or both, a beautifully ornamented jacket of a scarlet color.


This he took pride in wearing, and when worn out, he was presented with another, and continued to wear this peculiar dress until it became a mark of distinction, and gave him the name by which he was afterward best known. At a treaty held at Canandaigua in 1794, Captain Parrish, who was for many years agent of the United States for the Indians, presented him with another “red jacket” to perpetuate a name of which he was particularly fond.

His original name was Oti-ti-ani, “always ready”. Sa-go-ye-wat-ha, the title conferred upon him at his election to the dignity of Sachem, has been rendered, “The keeper awake, he keeps them awake, and the author, or cause of a wakeful spirit.”

The name is connected with a curious superstition among his people, and will best be understood, by an acquaintance with the circumstances under which it is used.

If during the still hours of night, an Indian’s mind is taken up with thoughts that cause sleep to pass from him, preventing every effort of Morpheus to lock him in fond embrace, he ascribes it to a spirit, which he calls Sa-go-ye-wat-ha.

The impressions made are regarded as ominous of some important event, joyful or otherwise, according to the feelings awakened. If his thoughts are of a pleasing nature, he is led to anticipate the occurrence of some joyful event. If they are of a melancholy turn, he regards it as foreboding evil.

He may be led to dwell with interest on some absent friend; that friend he will expect to see the next day, or soon after. Yet should his thoughts be troubled or anxious, he would expect to hear soon of that friend’s death, or that something evil had befallen him.

Such was the spirit they called Sa-go-ye-wat-ha. He could arrest the current of their thought, bring before them visions of delight, or send upon them melancholy reflections, and fill their minds with anxiety and gloom.

This title conferred on Red Jacket, while it indicated the cause of his elevation, presented the highest compliment that could be paid to his powers of oratory. By the magic spell of his words, he could control their minds, make their hearts beat quick with emotions of joy, or send over them at will the deep pulsations of grief.

The incident referred to as giving rise to the name, Red Jacket, introduces him in connection with the war of the Revolution. As his conduct during this period has been the subject of frequent remark, severely criticised by some, and not very favorably viewed by others, justice to the orator’s memory requires a brief statement of his reasons for the course he pursued.

While thoughts of this contest were pending, the colonists took measures to secure the favorable disposition of the Iroquois, and these efforts at the time were successful.

The general government advised them to remain neutral, during the anticipated conflict. This course met the approval of their most considerate sachems. For though inured to war, and apt to enter with avidity into the excitement of a conflict, their forces had been reduced by recent encounters with the Indians at the west, and south, and also with the French; and the few intervening years of peace served to convince them of its value, and caused them to receive with favor this proposition from our government.

At a council held with the Iroquois at German Flats, in June, 1776, by Gen. Schuyler, who had been appointed for this purpose, these assurances of neutrality were renewed.

Great Britain also was not indifferent about the course these Indian tribes would pursue. Wishing to prevent an alliance of the Indians with the colonists, willing to secure forces already on the ground, and with a view possibly, of striking terror into the minds of her rebellious subjects, her agents in this country spared no pains to enlist the sympathies of the Iroquois on her side.

In this they were but too successful. Through their agents, Britain had been in correspondence with these tribes for more than a hundred years, had supplied them with implements of war, articles of clothing, and with many of the comforts and conveniences of life. The Indians had learned to be dependent upon her, and they called her king their “great father over the water.” Her agents spent their lives among them. Through them their communications were made to the crown, and they regarded them as essential to their happiness. Hence they exerted a very great influence over them.

This was especially true of Sir William Johnson, who died at Johnson Hall in the month of June, 1774.

Mr. Johnson was a native of Ireland, of a good family and fitted by nature and education, to adorn the walks of civilized life. He came to this country not far from 1738, as land agent of his uncle, Sir Peter Warren, an admiral in the English navy, who had acquired a considerable tract of land upon the Mohawk, in the present county of Montgomery.

Possessing a romantic disposition, he readily adapted himself to the rude customs that prevailed in the wilds of America.

The “Gentleman’s Magazine” of London said of him in 1755,–“Besides his skill and experience as an officer, he is particularly happy in making himself beloved by all sorts of people, and can conform to all companies and to all conversations. He is very much of a gentleman in genteel company, but as the inhabitants next to him are mostly Dutch, he sits down with them and smokes his tobacco, drinks flip, and talks of improvements, bear and beaver skins. Being surrounded with Indians, he speaks several of their languages well, and has always some of them with him. He takes care of their wives, and old Indians, when they go out on parties; and even wears their dress. In short, by his honest dealings with them in trade, and his courage, which has often been successfully tried with them, he has so endeared himself to them, that they chose him as one of their chief sachems, or princes, and esteem him as their father.”

Not far from the year 1755, while the French and English were at war, he was made general of the colonial militia, and by virtue of a leadership that had been created by the Iroquois, he was head warrior of all the Indian tribes, who favored the English.

The gifts of his sovereign, and the opportunity he had of purchasing Indian lands, were the means of his securing great wealth. The ease with which he secured land of the Indians is illustrated by an amusing occurrence between him and a noted chief, Hendrick. Soon after entering upon his duties as Superintendent of Indian Affairs in this country, he received from England some richly embroidered suits of clothes.

Hendrick, a Mohawk chief, was present, when the package containing them was opened, and could not refrain from expressing his admiration of them. He went away very thoughtful, but soon after returned and said to Sir William, that he had dreamed a dream.

“Ah! And what did you dream?” said Sir William.

“I dreamed,” said Hendrick, “that you gave me one of those new suits of uniform.”

Sir William could not refuse it, and one of the elegant suits was presented to Hendrick, who went away to show his gift to his countrymen and left Sir William to tell the joke to his friends. A while after the general met Hendrick and said–“Hendrick, I have dreamed a dream.”

Whether the Sachem mistrusted he was now to be taken in his own net or not, is not certain, but he also inquired,–“And what did you dream?”

The general said he dreamed that Hendrick presented him with a certain piece of land which he described. It consisted of about five hundred acres, of the most valuable land in the Mohawk valley.

Hendrick replied,–“It is yours;” but, shaking his head, said, “Sir William I will never dream with you again.”

Sir William’s large estate, the partiality of his countrymen, together with his military honors, and his great influence with the Indians, rendered him “as near a prince as anything the back-woods of America has witnessed.”

He built two spacious and convenient residences on the Mohawk river, known as Johnson Castle and Johnson Hall. The Hall was his summer residence. Here he lived something like a sovereign, kept an excellent table for strangers and officers, whom the course of duty led into these wilds, and by confiding entirely in the Indians, and treating them with truth and justice, never yielding to solicitations once refused, they were taught to repose in him the utmost confidence.

His personal popularity with the Indians, gave him an influence over them greater it is supposed, than any one of our own race has ever possessed. He was the first Englishman that contended successfully with French Indian diplomacy, as exercised by their governors, missionaries and traders.

Had he lived until the war of the Revolution, it is supposed by some he might have remained neutral, and have kept the Indians from engaging in the conflict, though this is altogether uncertain. He lived to see the gathering of the storm that swept away most of his great possessions.

On the death of Sir William, his son John Johnson succeeded to his titles and estate. The office of General Superintendent of the Indians, fell into the hands of Col. Guy Johnson, a son-in-law, who appointed Col. Claus, another son-in-law, as his deputy.

Into their hands fell the property, and a large share of the influence over the Indians, possessed by Sir William Johnson. This influence was exerted in favor of Great Britain.

When the Indians heard of the uprising in Boston, and of the battle of Lexington, they were told, that these out-breaks were the acts of disobedient children, against the great king, who had been kind to them, as he had to the Six Nations. That their “great father over the water,” was rich in money and men; that the colonists were poor, and their numbers small, and that they could easily be brought into subjection.

At a council of the Iroquois convened at Oswego, by Sir John Johnson and other officers and friends of the crown, they were informed that the king desired them to assist him in subduing the rebels, who had taken up arms against him, and were about to rob him of a part of his great possessions.

But the chiefs one by one assured the British agents that they had the year before, in a council with General Schuyler, pledged themselves to neutrality, and could not without violating their promise, take up the hatchet.

But they were assured that the rebels justly merited all the punishment that white men and Indians could inflict;–that they would be richly rewarded for their services, and “that the king’s rum was as plenty as the waters of Lake Ontario”.

This appeal to their appetites, already vitiated, together with the promise of large rewards, at length prevailed; and a treaty was concluded, in which the Indians pledged themselves to take up arms against the rebels, and continue in service during the war. They were then presented each with a suit of clothes, a brass kettle, a gun, a tomahawk, a scalping knife, a quantity of powder and lead, and a piece of gold.

The Seneca were among those who consented to join the royal standard. Of this action Red Jacket did not approve. He declared plainly and unhesitatingly to those who had determined to engage in the war,–“This quarrel does not belong to us,–and it is test for us to take no part in it; we need not waste our blood to have it settled. If they fight us, we will fight them, but if they let us alone, we had better keep still.”

Red Jacket at this time was not far from twenty-six years old. His forensic abilities had not been called forth, and his influence weighed but little in comparison with that of older men. But it may be observed that his conduct ever after this, will be found consistent with the sentiments he entertained, and was free to express. Though young, his perceptions were keen, he had a deep and penetrating mind and saw at a glance that in this contest his people were doomed to suffer, to be ground between the upper and nether mill stone.

When, in the summer of 1777, his people received an invitation to join the forces that were preparing to march under the command of Col. St. Leger upon Fort Stanwix, being assured that they would not be required to endure the fatigues and dangers of the battle, but might “sit down quietly and smoke their pipes, and see the sport;” Red Jacket endeavored, but in vain, to prevent his people from going. He said to them, “it’s a cheat; the design is to deceive you, and if you go you will find that you have been deluded.”

They threw back the taunt,–“You are a coward, you have the mind of a woman, and are not fit to go to war.”

Red Jacket though not at this time a chief, was a young man of acknowledged talent and influence, and having a right to express his opinion, did not hesitate to give it in favor of peace. His opinion was well known among his people. Little Beard has frequently been seen to bury his face in his blanket, and give vent to his tears, in view of the havoc made among the Senecas by the war, at the same time declaring,–“Red Jacket was opposed to the war, HE WAS ALWAYS IN FAVOR OF PEACE, and how much better it had been, had we listened to his advice.”

Red Jacket’s prediction was too nearly verified. The Seneca suffered most severely in that campaign. They fell under the command of Thay-en-dan-e- gea or Brant, who went with a company of Tories, led by Col. Butler, to intercept General Herkimer, who was reported as coming to the relief of the garrison. At a certain point on the way, where they expected the general would pass, they formed an ambuscade, and though they selected their ground with wisdom, and acquitted themselves with great bravery, they were unable to stand before the invincible courage of the heroes of Oriskany.

The Senecas claim to have lost in that engagement thirty-three of their chiefs, and their feelings in view of it are said to have been sad in the extreme.

The charge of cowardice applied by the young warriors to Red Jacket, upon their first starting out on this campaign, was one frequently made during the war. His views were at different times expressed in opposition to it, and his arguments as often repelled by the young braves, who could not endure his invectives. The reply was easily made, and hence in more frequent demand, than if it had imposed a greater tax upon their intellects. The epithet has often been applied to him since, and though his tastes did not lead him to seek the fame of a warrior, still it is believed he was not so devoid of courage, as has sometimes been represented.

His views of the war, were not those of a partisan, hence his conduct was often censured by those who had entered heartily into the contest.

Brant has charged him with being the occasion of trouble to him, in his efforts to arrest the march of Sullivan, and his army, into the Indian country. Particularly at Newtown, where considerable preparations had been made for defense. Says Col. Stone,–“Sa-go-ye-wat-ha was then twenty-nine years old, and though it does not appear that he had yet been created a chief, he nevertheless seems to have been already a man of influence. He was in the practice of holding private consultations with the young warriors, and some of the younger and less resolute chiefs, for the purpose of fomenting discontents, and persuading them to sue for what Brant considered, ignominious terms of peace.

“On one occasion as Brant has alleged, Red Jacket had so far succeeded in his treachery, as to induce some of the disaffected chiefs to send a runner into Sullivan’s camp, to make known dissensions he himself had awakened, and invite a flag of truce, with propositions of peace to the Indians.”

Though charged with acting criminally, it is here expressly asserted, that it was to obtain peace. Peace he most earnestly desired for his people, who were doomed to be wasted in a contest not their own.

Nor, in view of his feelings respecting the war, is it surprising he should have incurred the displeasure of Cornplanter, while endeavoring to bring his countrymen to make a stand against a portion of the invading army, on the beach of Canandaigua lake, where was an Indian village of some size. Not finding in Red Jacket an ardor for the undertaking which corresponded in any degree with his own, he turned to the young wife of the orator and exclaimed,–“Leave that man, he is a coward; your children will disgrace you, they will all be cowards.”

The epithet thus applied occasioned uneasiness to none less than to the orator himself. Whenever he chose to notice it, he would make a good return for what he had received.–In a war of words, he was on his own chosen ground. He was a match for their greatest champion, and in cross- firing, it could easily be seen that his missiles were directed by one who was perfect master of the art. He could handle at will the most cutting sarcasm, and while maintaining a good natured, playful mood, deal his blows with such power and effect, as to make the victim of his irony resort to some other means of defense, than the tongue. It is said that frequently by his cool, good natured railery, he has caused the victim of his sport to turn upon and strike him. He would answer it by a hearty laugh, unless the blow was of such a nature as to demand of him a different reception. He seemed to be armed at every point, as with a coat of mail, against the arrows of his assailants. Their most powerful weapons would be turned aside by his presence of mind, and matchless skill, and leave him apparently unharmed.

A circumstance illustrating this point, once occurred between him and Little Billy, a chief of some note among the Seneca, who was frequently in the orator’s company. This chief, with Red Jacket and one or two others, were once passing from their settlement on Canandaigua lake, to the old Seneca Castle, near the foot of Seneca lake. On their way they encountered a large grizzly bear. Little Billy and the others in the company, were frightened and began to run. Red Jacket who was distinguished as a hunter, and an excellent marksman, drew up his rifle, and brought the monster to the ground.

It so happened, on one occasion sometime afterward, that Little Billy was very pertinacious in calling Red Jacket a coward. The orator did not appear to notice him at first; but finding that he persisted in the charge, he turned to him and coolly and sarcastically said, “Well, if I am coward I never run unless it’s for something bigger than a bear.”

It is hardly necessary to add, that nothing more was heard from Little Billy concerning his cowardice on that day.

This charge of cowardice was owing in a great degree to the orator’s position. He was not on the popular side. The majority of his people were against him. Had he acted in accordance with their wishes, it is a question whether anything would ever have been said about his deficiency in courage. And this supposition is strengthened by the fact, that at a subsequent period in his history, a little display of courage, when acting in accordance with the wishes of his people, gained for him a marked degree of approbation, and gave rise to the affirmation, “the stain fixed upon his character, was thus wiped away by his good conduct in the field.”

In opposing the wishes of his people, when bent on a war of which he did not approve, he gained the epithet of “coward”. With less intelligence, and less moral courage, he might have seconded the views of his nation, and been ranked a brave.

Hence, though we do not claim for Red Jacket the possession of qualities, adapted to make him conspicuous as a military chieftain, we are disposed to attribute to him the higher courage of acting in accordance with his own convictions of propriety and duty. “He was born an orator, and while morally brave, lacked the stolid insensibility to suffering and slaughter, which characterized the war-captains of his nation.”

We readily concede that Red Jacket was fitted by nature to excel in councils of peace, rather than in enterprises of war; to gain victories in a conflict of mind with mind rather than in physical strife, on the field of battle.

And it may be questioned whether the qualities adapted to the highest achievements of oratory, would be congenial to the rough encounters of war. Especially when the mind is already preoccupied with inward thirstings after the glory of the rostrum; it will not be apt to sigh for the camp, or the noise and tinsel of mere military fame.

It is related of him that when a boy, he was present at a great council held on the Shenandoah. Many nations were there represented by their wise men and orators. The greatest among them was Logan, who had removed from the territory of his tribe to Shamokin. He was the son of Shikellemus, a celebrated chief of the Cayuga nation, who, before the Revolution was a warm friend of the whites.

On the occasion referred to, Red Jacket was so charmed with Logan’s style, and manner of delivery, that he resolved to attain if possible the same high standard of eloquence; though he almost despaired of equaling his distinguished model.

On his return to Cunadesaga, near the Seneca lake, which was at that time his home, he sometimes incurred the displeasure and reproof of his mother, by long absence from her cabin, without any ostensible cause. When hard pressed for an answer, he informed his mother, that “he had been playing Logan.”

“Thus in his mighty soul the fire of a generous emulation had been kindled, not to go out until his oratorical fame threw a refulgent glory on the declining fortunes of the once formidable Iroquois. In the deep and silent forest he practiced elocution, or to use his own expressive language, played Logan, until he caught the manner and tone of his great master. Unconsciously the forest orator, was an imitator of the eloquent Greek, who tuned his voice on the wild sea beach, to the thunders of the surge, and caught from nature’s altar his loftiest inspiration.

“Not without previous preparation, and the severest discipline, did Red Jacket acquire his power of moving and melting his hearers. His graceful attitudes, significant gestures, perfect intonation, and impressive pauses, when the lifted finger, and flashing eye told more than utterance, were the result of sleepless toil; while his high acquirement was the product of stern habitual thought, study of man, and keen observation.”

“He did not trust to the occasion alone for his finest periods, and noblest metaphors. In the armory of his capacious intellect the weapons of forensic warfare had been previously polished and stored away. Ever ready for the unfaltering tongue was the cutting rebuke, or apt illustration. By labor, persevering labor, he achieved his renown. By exercising his faculties in playing Logan when a boy, one of the highest standards of mortal eloquence, either in ancient or modern times, he has left a lesson to all ambitious aspirants, that there is no royal road to greatness; that the desired goal is only to be gained by scaling rugged cliffs, and treading painful paths.”

The habit thus acquired in the orator’s youth, became characteristic of him, at a later period of his life. Previous to his making any great forensic effort, he could be seen walking in the woods alone, apparently in deep study.

Famous Seneca
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