Indian Treaties, Colonial

views updated


INDIAN TREATIES, COLONIAL. One of the most striking features of the American colonial period was the treaty system created by Indians and Europeans. The system was the outcome of efforts by all parties to achieve separate goals and at the same time to manage relations with each other. These relations were not characterized by constant hostility, as is sometimes supposed. Instead, they were adjustments to each other's presence, and they often involved cooperation in the pursuit of mutual goals such as trade or an alliance against a common enemy. The result was a complex set of relationships outstanding for its flexibility and for its blending of elements from different cultural and diplomatic traditions.

The several European powers, while at odds with each other, were at one in their views of diplomacy. Whether British, French, Spanish, Swedish, or Dutch, they assumed centralized authority and a top-down, closeted approach to negotiations. In colonial America, they encountered Indians whose assumptions of equality and openness did not fit this pattern. Since the Indians who held these views showed no sign of changing them, new approaches to diplomatic negotiations had to be worked out.

It was a case of necessity being the mother of adjustment. For the Europeans, it was the necessity of Indian help for survival in a strange land and for Indian allies in their ongoing struggles with each other. For the Indians, it was the necessity of a reliable supply of weapons and trade goods and for European allies in their ongoing struggles with each other.

Thus, each party adjusted to the other, and a rich multilateral, multicultural treaty system took shape. The system continued as a potent force for control and cooperation until the American Revolution ended the competition of European powers that had given the Indians room to maneuver and freedom to seek the best diplomatic bargains they could. In that competitive environment even the Spanish felt compelled to make treaties with the southeastern Indians, unlike their practice in areas where they had no such competition.

The most prominent component of the colonial treaty system was the covenant chain of northeastern America. The six nations of the Iroquois and various groups of British colonists had created this set of relationships, but the imagery and style were strictly Iroquois. The ritual smoothing of the road to peace, the symbolic casting away of weapons, and the exchange of wampum belts to validate each item of an agreement reflected the Iroquois, not the European, worldview. Nor was this a case of style without substance. Agreements were made the Iroquois way or they were not made at all, a state of affairs that no one wanted. Both the British and the Indians hoped to use the covenant chain to extend their influence—the Iroquois over the Shawnees and Delawares to the south and west, the British over the French and the Hurons to the north. Meanwhile, through conferences and formal and informal agreements, the partners managed their relations with each other.

The covenant chain is only one example of the different sets of treaty relationships that developed in colonial America. There the Indian inhabitants and the European newcomers created a new kind of diplomacy that provided a means for exchanges of mutual benefit in a multicultural setting.


Jennings, Francis. The Ambiguous Iroquois Empire: The Covenant Chain Confederation of Indian Tribes with English Colonies. New York: Norton, 1984. The pioneering work.

Jones, Dorothy V. License for Empire: Colonialism by Treaty in Early America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982. Changes in the treaty system from accommodation to U.S. domination.

———. "British Colonial Indian Treaties." In Handbook of North American Indians. Edited by William C. Sturtevant et al. Volume 4: History of Indian–White Relations, edited by Wilcomb E. Washburn. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1988. Comprehensive coverage.

Williams, Robert A., Jr. Linking Arms Together: American Indian Treaty Visions of Law and Peace, 1600–1800. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. A fresh approach.

Dorothy V.Jones

See alsoIndian Policy, Colonial ; Indian Treaties ; Iroquois .

About this article

Indian Treaties, Colonial

Updated About content Print Article


Indian Treaties, Colonial