In trying to keep articles at least relatively timely, this October marks 252 years since the holding of what for those times was the huge conference or ‘Congress’ of 1768, resulting in the Treaty of Fort Stanwix.
This was Sir William Johnson at his best, reaching deep inside to call up and utilize his thirty years’ worth of accumulated knowledge of indigenous Indian populations, using it to accomplish what seemed impossible: To convince them to relinquish large tracts of their ancient lands in return for the promise from a government far away in London that the new land boundary defined by the treaty would guarantee a line beyond which white settlers wouldn’t cross.
Johnson, already in declining health, nevertheless summoned enough mental and physical fortitude to both organize this wilderness event and triumph over all the incredible mire of land issues, personality conflicts and multi-tribal demands, to win the territorial concessions necessary to create this new boundary line.
Today, his success seems almost impossible to comprehend. Donald Trump could have learned much from Sir William about the so-called art of the deal.
Of course, Johnson didn’t do it alone. He was aided by sons-in-laws, Guy Johnson and Daniel Claus, plus Deputy Indian Agents George Croghan, John Butler and Andrew Montour acting as facilitators and translators.
If you wonder who fed everyone from the first Indian’s arrival until the last’s leaving, Johnson’s favorite victualers, Baynton, Warren & Morgan of Philadelphia, were contracted to provide the foodstuffs, and since it’s believed that around 3,000 people attended and remained for more than a month, that’s a lot of food. But without ample provisions, a final agreement couldn’t have been reached.
Before it was over, Johnson found himself reaching out to every other victualer he knew as well.
While much has been written about the Stanwix Treaty and what good it did or didn’t do in the long run, California State University Professor William J. Campbell’s titled, “Speculators in Empire, Iroquoia and the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix” is the most thoroughly-researched and documented study of the Treaty yet produced. It shows how Johnson drew on his thirty years of accumulated knowledge of Indian culture, thought and attitudes, combined with his oratorical power of persuasion, to gain the land concessions that made the treaty possible.
Johnson selected Fort Stanwix, now rebuilt as an impressive historic site at Rome, as the location for this gathering because it was in the Iroquois back yard and also because it made travel shorter for the diplomatic delegations sent from western tribes.
Nevertheless, Stanwix wasn’t exactly a Comfort Inn. During the French War, Fort Stanwix was supposed to contain around 400 soldiers. The war concluded, it became little more than a poorly-tended show-piece of British authority in the wilderness. As recently as 1767, it was unrepaired and garrisoned only by an elderly half-pay officer, a corporal, and about 50 soldiers, but returned to prominence as the location of this great conference.
With Sir William who arrived on Sept. 19 came five boatloads with provisions. Another 20 contained “presents for the Indians consisting of diverse goods, ammunition, cash, etc.”
Nothing happened fast; some important Indian delegates from Ohio tribes sent word they’d arrive late — the death of a Seneca Chief necessitated performance of the condolence ritual, holding them up.
While Johnson impatiently waited, Indians already present happily ate their weight in British government provisions. Johnson had anticipated it would take “50 barrels of pork and a proportion of flower” per week to feed one thousand Indians, but that was before 3,000 plus showed up.
Johnson later wrote Lord Hillsborough in London, “Any one of them consumes daily more than two ordinary men among us.”
Almost a month passed. More and more Indians arrived and kept eating. On Oct. 16, with still nothing accomplished, an exasperated Sir William wrote John Glen at Schenectady anxiously requesting even more pork and flour. If more provisions couldn’t be obtained, he knew it would ruin “the design of the Congress, as it cannot be supposed that hungry Indians can be kept here, nor in any temper without a bellyful.”
Finally, on Oct. 23, the last necessary delegate, Gaustarax, arrived. Gaustarax sounds like the name of a modern cough medicine, but he was an aged, very influential Seneca chief. Negotiations began the following day. The burden on Sir William Johnson’s shoulders to make a success of something had probably never been greater.
On Oct. 26 Johnson addressed the delegates on the boundary issue and requested they return to their own camp to discuss his message and proposals, and then be “fully prepared to give an agreeable answer.” On Oct. 28, the Six Nations delegates returned to address Johnson.
The treaty concluded Friday, Nov. 4, beginning with Sir William’s address, in which he assured his Indian listeners the negotiated boundary line would be “duly observed by the English.” One wonders how seriously he believed this: How could a London government far away somehow prohibit future white settlement beyond the Stanwix line?
Johnson didn’t apologize for trying, proudly stating to Lord Hillsborough in an August 1769 letter, “I was the first that in the most critical period took upon me to check them in their sallies of that nature.” He spoke the truth, though he couldn’t foresee what little good would come from his efforts.