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The treaty of New York

Can America learn from its past?


There have been approximately 368 treaties drawn up between the U.S. Government and the Native Americans between 1777 and 1868. It is no secret that at least 300 of these were altered or nullified by the United States shortly after being ratified, but what is not widely discussed is how the very first treaty set the tone and precedent for all that followed. The plan for the Treaty of New York was set in motion by the first U.S. Secretary of War, Henry Knox, who wrote an urgent letter to President Washington in February of 1790 asking him to personally intervene in the turbulent situation between the people of Georgia and the Creek nation in order to avert an all out war. Knox specifically names Alexander McGillivray as the “influential Creek Chief” of the region and says that McGillivray seems to be “opposed to a War with the United States, and that he would at this time gladly embrace any rational mean that could be offered to avoid that event”.

Like most chiefs of the period, McGillivray had only limited control over his people and, despite his rhetoric, had no authority to sign any treaties for the Seminoles or other tribal leaders; though he probably wasn’t exaggerating when he boasted of having more than five-thousand warriors at his disposal. But, in addition to his family background, what made McGillivray truly unique was his wealth, education, and his ability to seamlessly straddle the Indian and European cultures.

Born in present day Alabama to a prominent Muscogee mother and a wealthy slave owning Scottish father, McGillivray grew up learning both Latin and Greek and had more contact with the white world than the natives. This all changed after the Revolutionary War when his father, who had sided with the English crown, returned to Scotland and had his land confiscated. Despite his physical weakness and lack of battle experience, McGillivray was able to form a bridge between the two disparate cultures and became the self-appointed leader of the Creeks, acting as their spokesperson in all affairs with the Europeans. By skillfully playing the nascent United States and imperial Spain against each other in their quest for control of the southern territories McGillivray was able to gain the best possible deal for his people, and himself.

With the revolution over and many political matters to contend with, Washington and Knox wanted to avoid war at all costs and viewed a meeting with this Indian headman who spoke their language as an opportunity to not only block Spanish influence in Georgia and Florida but also to assert the authority of the Federal government over the States legislatures. Washington wanted to make it clear from the outset that it was the Federal branch, not the States, which had the power to draw up and sign treaties with foreign nations. They invited McGillivray and twenty-nine other chiefs to New York City (then the capital of the U.S.) where they were treated like royalty and given treaty terms that would ensure their claims to most of their sovereign territories. It clearly stated that no Americans could settle on Creek land without their approval. The treaty also had several secret provisions that weren’t uncovered until the mid-1800’s. One such provision named McGillivray as a brigadier general of the U.S. with a salary of $1,200 per year. This was an obvious bribe to pacify the chief and gain his influence over the younger, restless braves in an effort to keep them in line.

Another of the secret articles was far more telling, and prescient. It stated that the United States would set aside money to clothe and educate a certain number of Creek children each year. As generous as this may sound, this concept of acculturation was at the heart of all subsequent dealings with Native Americans and still plays a major role in the American psyche today. While it was clear to even the most nationalistic Americans of the late eighteenth-century that they had no claim to any lands west of Massachusetts, Georgia and Virginia, the idea of spreading democracy, civilization and the gospel to the “savages” was very enticing. Westward expansion was much easier to rationalize when you were saving souls and educating heathens than when you were stealing someone else’s property. In fact, once the Indian wars were over one of the first things the government did was to force native children to cut their hair and attend Bible school.

So when the Treaty of New York was signed in 1790 (with McGillivray acting as the lone Indian representative because he was the only one who could sign his name) it laid the groundwork that all future dealings with the natives were built upon. All of McGillivray’s requests were granted and there was a celebration in New York City that rivaled the festivities after the treaty with England was signed seven years earlier. But as America’s economy expanded so did its thirst for more territory. A relentless flow of settlers moved into Georgia and the Federal government had to choose between going to war with its own people or with the natives. This culminated in the Creek War (aka the Red Sticks war) of 1813, which was really a land grab that happened during the War of 1812 between the U.S. and England. It was General Andrew Jackson who forced the Creek leaders to submit on August 9, 1814. The Creek Nation ceded 21,086,793 acres of land—approximately half of present-day Alabama and part of southern Georgia—to the United States government despite the fact that many of the Indians had actually fought alongside Jackson during the conflict.

Thereafter, whenever a new territory was seized it was simply a matter of furnishing presents to the more conciliatory chiefs, drawing up a document outlining the new borders, and making promises that would never be kept. Eighty-five years later President U.S. Grant faced the same dilemma as then President Washington when gold was discovered in the Black Hills of the Dakota Territory. The 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie had ceded the Black Hills to the Sioux for all time but it quickly became apparent that nothing was going to stop speculators from digging up the land in search of gold. After much negotiation and deliberation Grant decided to forcibly relocate the natives rather than try to set up multiple forts along the borders in an attempt to stop the rapid influx of miners and settlers.


We might imagine that as Americans we would learn from our mistakes. We might hope that the Federal government would want to uphold its promises. But jumping to 2017, President Trump signed an Executive action to advance the Keystone XL, Dakota Access pipelines running through Sioux territory in order to bring oil from Alberta, Canada to Nebraska. With the arrest of over one hundred peaceful protesters and more recently, a Federal judge blocking construction of the project, the debate rages on, but one thing is certain: if we don’t learn from our past we are forced to repeat it


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