March 1992

Home Index Museums Blog Authors Site Map About


Red Jacket

Seneca Orator


Robert G. Koch

Red Jacket, the great Seneca orator, wore a red coat given him by the British before the American Revolution and a huge silver medal given him by George Washington after it. He returned from the battlefield at Oriskany nicknamed "Cowkiller." But most Senecas honored him for his oratory that was critical in negotiations with the land-hungry former colonists.

Among the Senecas he was Sa-Go-Ye-Wat-Ha (Keeper Awake), for the power of his eloquence. In The Genesee, Henry Clune describes his talent. "He was theatrical. His mobile face, with its pendulous lower lip, which drooped deeper when he became scornful or sarcastic, was the face of the expert mime. Words flowed from him with little effort. They were heavy, guttural words…; but Red Jacket used them with such grace and skill that his periods had a poetic rhythm." His long speeches were filled with facts, cogent argument, and inventive imagery.

The new American nation was negotiating with Indian nations all along its western boundaries. In 1784 at Fort Stanwix the young Red Jacket emerged as a dedicated rearguard fighter for Seneca rights. Half a century later, during his farewell tour, Lafayette, who had been at the parley, met the old chief and asked what had become of "the young Seneca, who on that occasion so eloquently opposed the burying of the tomahawk?"

"He is here before you," replied Red Jacket.

In 1795 Robert Morris, the Philadelphia financier, desperately needed clear title to Seneca lands in western New York, to meet the demands of Dutch creditors to whom he had already conveyed his rights. The following year Red Jacket asked Congress to block the corpulent banker. "We are much disturbed in our dreams about the great Eater with a big Belly endeavouring to devour our lands. We are afraid of him, believe him to be a conjurer, and that he will be too cunning and hard for us…"

But in 1797 the Senecas and Morris's son Thomas met at Big Tree on the Genesee. Red Jacket stated eloquently the Seneca refusal. When Morris raised the ante to $100,000 that would harvest $6,000 annually, Red Jacket let Morris try to explain how money grows. Then, after feint and counterfeint, Red Jacket leaped up shouting, "You told us when we first met that we were free either to sell or retain our lands. I repeat, we will not part with them." And he covered the Council fire, extinguishing further discussion. Ultimately however a massive sell-off of Seneca land emerged through bribery and lack of unity among the Senecas.

Four years later, when Red Jacket—possibly speaking for the Seneca council—favored selling a small but cherished strip of land on the Niagara frontier, he was damned by the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake, who relied on visions to buttress his messages. Handsome Lake, said he saw Red Jacket laboriously carrying dirt in a wheelbarrow as punishment for favoring the land sale. The prophet concluded: "So now you have seen the doom of those who repent not. Their eternity will be one of punishment."

Out of favor at another point, Red Jacket used a similar vision, in which The Great Spirit had made known to him in a dream, that their Nation would never prosper, until they made him a Sachem.

Red Jacket functioned in the highest councils in which his people and the new Federal government negotiated. In The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, Anthony Wallace writes: "[Red Jacket] regarded Colonel Pickering…whom Washington…chose to be superintendent of Indian affairs, who had organized the Treaty at Canandaigua in 1794, and who became Postmaster General and eventually Secretary of War as his opposite number among the whites and delighted in vexing him with superior rhetoric. When he learned that Pickering had become the Secretary of War, Red Jacket remarked sadly, 'Ah, we began our public career about the same time; he knew how to read and write, I did not, and he had got ahead of me; [or else] I would have been ahead of him.'"

In 1805, when Christian missionaries were pressing the Senecas, Red Jacket questioned their claim that there was but one true religion. "…[Y]ou want to force your religion upon us…[I]f there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it?"

"Brother," he continued, "the Great Spirit has made us all; but he has made a great difference between his white and red children;…the Great Spirit…knows what is best…Brother, we do not wish to destroy your religion, or take it from you; we only want to enjoy our own."

Red Jacket had a weakness—drink. He often needed to rouse himself to engage in linguistic and logical combat. In this regard, he was not alone among the Seneca leadership and the lapses could be embarrassing, or worse, to their cause. For example, during the Big Tree treaty conference, according to one report, "…one whole day [was] lost…when Red Jacket & many of the Indians…from intoxication fell to fighting in groups, pulling Hair biting like dogs…" The provocations and stakes aside, drinking could damage.

But Red Jacket's advocacy was such that Ely Parker—prinicpal informant for Lewis Henry Morgan's book, The League of the Iroquois, and later General Grant's military secretary, was proud to receive Red Jacket's great silver Washington medal, when he became a Seneca sachem.

In 1884 Red Jacket was reburied in Buffalo's Forest Lawn Cemetery, with Seneca approval, after his bones had been hidden for many years in the home of his step-daughter. Parker made an appropriate speech and that evening in the Buffalo Musical Hall he regaled an audience of 3000 with a historical review of the depredations on the Senecas that the silver tongue of Red Jacket had sought to prevent.

© 1992, Robert G. Koch
The Red Jacket Medal by A. H. Guernsey
Index to articles by Robert G. Koch
CLR Blog | Site Map | Contact CLR