J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, May 11, 2021

A Washington Peace Medal for Red Jacket

Yesterday I described the conference between leaders of the Five Nations (Haudenosaunee or Iroquois) and of the U.S. government in Philadelphia in March and April 1792.

President George Washington addressed the gathering at one point, though he left the details to commissioner Timothy Pickering. The Haudenosaunee delegates chose Sagoyewatha or Red Jacket, a man known for his oratory, to deliver their main response.

At some point afterwards, the federal government commissioned a large silver medal showing Red Jacket and Washington interacting, as shown above. It is about seven inches tall and five inches across, but the metal is very thin and thus light. It says at the bottom, “George Washington / President / 1792.”

There are symbols of peace all over this design, at least in one direction. The Native man has dropped his hatchet and is smoking a peace pipe—but “a European/American style, long stem clay pipe, not a carved soapstone Indian pipe,” Will at Stories in Time has observed. Behind the men a farmer is plowing the land with an ox team in American style. Yet Washington still wears his military uniform and sword, not his civilian suit.

The other side of the medal is engraved with a version of the U.S. seal: thirteen stars, the motto “E Pluribus Unum,” and an eagle clutching both an olive branch and arrows.

The U.S. government gave this medal to Red Jacket as a reminder of his encounter with Washington in 1792. Some have interpreted that date to mean the medal was presented to Red Jacket at that Philadelphia conference, but there wouldn’t have been enough time to commission the engraving. I think it was created in the following years as a way to thank Red Jacket and to remind him of the promises made in that meeting.

The U.S. government issued many medals like this, now called “Washington Peace Medals.” They came in three sizes, with Red Jacket’s being one of the largest. At the same time the young republic was also commissioning medals for European diplomats, as were other nations. While the medals for other countries’ ambassadors were always seen as tokens of gratitude, Washington’s administration appears to have expected Native leaders who accepted such gifts to pledge loyalty.

Spain accused the U.S. of using such medals to bribe Native leaders who owed their principal allegiance to the Spanish Empire. In June 1793 Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson addressed that accusation by writing:
4. Giving medals and marks of distinction to the Indian Chiefs. . . . This has been an antient Custom from time immemorial. The medals are considered as complimentary things, as marks of friendship to those who come to see us, or who do us good offices, conciliatory of their good will towards us, and not designed to produce a contrary disposition towards others. They confer no power, and seem to have taken their origin in the European practice of giving medals or other marks of friendship to the negotiators of treaties, and other diplomatic Characters, or visitors of distinction.
Jefferson was being disingenuous, as was often the case. Just the month before, President Washington had told leaders of the Wabash and Illinois Indians:
…as a further token of my regard for you, I present each with a Medal, which you must wear as a sign of your attachme⟨n⟩t to the United States.
Red Jacket did help conclude the Treaty of Canandaigua, which guaranteed his Seneca nation more land in the western part of New York state. Though he saw that property wheedled away in the following decades, he still supported the U.S. of A. in the War of 1812 and continued to wear this medal until his death in 1830.

TOMORROW: Preserving Red Jacket’s medal.

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