Dissolution of a Confederacy
This Fourth of July, we celebrate the 241st Independence Day of the United States of America. However, despite the traditional association of this date with the birth of our nation, the battle for independence had begun more than a year before in April 1775 with the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Soon after, fearing an invasion from the north, the Continental Congress authorized the invasion of Quebec. This campaign, which culminated in the Battle of Quebec on December 31st, 1775, was a disastrous failure and resulted in the death of American General Richard Montgomery and the wounding of Benedict Arnold. After many months of a protracted siege of the city, the Americans retreated in disarray in May 1776 amidst a smallpox outbreak within their ranks.
One of the major concerns of the Continental Congress which prompted the ill-advised invasion of Canada was the question of whether the Native American tribes in the region would choose to side with Great Britain or with the colonists. The Iroquois Confederacy, or the Six Nations as they were known then, was a particularly powerful regional alliance of the Mohawk, Onondega, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora tribes. The Iroquois weren't in a position to stay neutral for long, although they initially endeavored to do so; their lands were too close to the theaters of war and they were wary of further encroachment by either the British or their colonists should they stand by and do nothing.
Aware of the importance of sustaining the Six Nations' neutrality for as long as possible, George Washington wrote a letter to them in February 1776, during the Continental Army's siege of Quebec. The letter is addressed to Joseph Johnson, a "missioner to the Six Nations," and asks him to communicate to the Iroquois that "we can withstand all the force, which those who want to rob us of our lands and our houses, can send against us." Washington further emphasizes that they can look upon him, "whom the Whole United Colonies have chosen to be their Chief Warrior," as their brother. He asks the Iroquois to stay neutral so that "the chain of friendship...should always remain bright between" them. However, despite Washington's hope, the Six Nations ultimately dissolved their confederacy, with some tribes siding with the colonists and the others taking up arms for the British.
To see this letter, and other letters by George Washington, come to Rauner and ask for the George Washington Collection (MS-1033), Box 1.