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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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Preserving Red Jacket’s Peace Medal

This portrait shows the Seneca leader Red Jacket wearing the silver medal engraved with a symbolic picture of him meeting President George Washington in 1792.

In the early 1800s, Red Jacket faced pressures from both inside and outside his community. White settlers bought and encroached on the land in western New York that he had helped to negotiate for the Senecas. Many of his fellow Haudenosaunee were pushed west to Wisconsin, though he remained.

Red Jacket also adhered to his traditional religion, resisting the revivalist faith preached by Handsome Lake and the Christianity that his second wife and her children espoused. At his death, his family had him buried in a Christian cemetery.

When Red Jacket died in 1830, he left the medal to a nephew named James Johnson, another Seneca leader. According to an article in the 29 Oct 1865 New York Times:
In 1851, however, unknown to the Indians generally, some parties prevailed upon Johnson to part with it for a small consideration, to the New-York State Museum at Albany. In its transit it was intercepted by Col. Parker, then living at Rochester, New-York, who paid the consideration that Johnson expected for it.
Ely S. Parker (1828-1895) was also a Seneca, more distantly related to Red Jacket. He had studied the law but was prevented from taking the bar exam because he wasn’t white, so he then trained as an engineer.

According to the Times article about the medal:
Col. Parker retained it until 1852, when the principal sachemship of the the Senecas and the Six Nations having become vacant by the death of John Blacksmith, he was installed into the office and formally invested with the medal as an official badge.

Col. Parker has since retained the medal as an official medal, although it is not probable that it will be continued after his death, as the Indians are gradually abolishing the system of government by chiefs and adopting republican forms of government.
Parker himself wrote about the medal in 1891:
…at my installation as leading Sachem of the Iroquois Confederacy in 1851, I was formally invested with it by the master of ceremonies placing it about my neck, the speaker remarking the fact that it was given by the great Washington to my tribal relative, Red Jacket, and that it was to be retained and worn as evidence of the bond of perpetual peace and friendship established and entered into between the people of the United States and the Six Nations of Indians at the time of its presentation.
In late 1865, when that New York Times article appeared, Parker had arranged for the medal to be displayed at a jewelry store in New York. By then he was well known as Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s adjutant, the man who wrote out the terms of the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. When Grant became President, he made Parker the U.S. Commissioner of Indian Affairs.

Parker left the federal government after two years and started investing in the stock market. But his early returns were wiped out by the Panic of 1873. By then married with a daughter, Parker had to seek state and local government jobs that let him support his family. He died in poor straits in Connecticut in 1895.

Members of the Seneca nation prevailed on widow Minnie Parker to send her husband’s body to Buffalo for burial on what once was tribal land. At the same time, the Buffalo Historical Society convinced her to sell it the Washington Peace Medal—an ironic turn of events, given Parker’s action more than forty years earlier to keep the object out of the state museum.

The society has treated the artifact as a treasure in its Buffalo History Museum, and in 1919 it published a biography of Parker. However, as a symbol of peace between the U.S. government and the Seneca nation, passed along as an emblem of office, the engraved medal qualified as cultural patrimony of the tribe, not the property of any individual.

Last fall the Seneca Nation asked for the medal to be returned under the provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. This month the Buffalo History Museum delivered Red Jacket’s Peace Medal to the Senecas. It is now being held at the Onohsagwë:dé Cultural Center in Salamanca, New York.


Mike said...

In 2015, the Senecas also petitioned the city of Buffalo to rename an island in the Niagara River that had been known as Squaw Island since the early 19th century. "Squaw" is considered to be a crude reference to women based on an Iroquois word for female genitalia - similar to the "c-word". In July of that year, the name was officially changed to Unity Island.

J. L. Bell said...

Roger Williams documented the word “squaw” as an Algonkian and Narragansett word for “woman” in 1643. It became English settlers’ term for all Native women, and of course the encroaching European population didn’t treat Native women (or men) well. The sound overlaps with that Iroquois word, which makes its use sound particularly offensive to some ears. But it’s unlikely that the people who applied the word “squaw” to places were thinking about the Iroquois term.

Bruce Venter said...

I think Joseph Brant did not have a favorable opinion of Red Jacket.

J. L. Bell said...

Yes, Red Jacket gained his position within the Haudenosaunee as an orator, not a warrior like Brant. Though he participated in battles during the Revolutionary War and War of 1812, he didn’t distinguish himself. He and Brant were on opposite sides of the debate over how to handle the competing English-speaking empires after American independence. Brant moved to Upper Canada while Red Jacket tried to deal with the U.S government from western New York.

Red Jacket was also a rival of another major Seneca political figure of the time, Cornplanter, a half-brother of Handsome Lake. In that case, the two men agreed on the need to make deals with the Americans, but they disagreed about religion.

HemlockBob said...

I've been reading this blog for years and living in the Finger Lakes region of NY, it's always nice to see your words on local events from time to time as related to the era. But this one is especially exciting since it's practically in my backyard, so thank you. I was thrilled to read the news on Red Jacket's medal being returned and I'm looking forward to being able to (hopefully) attend the annual Canandaigua Treaty ceremony that was closed last fall due to the pandemic.