Red Jacket

views updated May 14 2018

Red Jacket

Red Jacket (1758-1830) was a Seneca Tribal Commander who lent support to the British during the Revolutionary War. He also fought to prevent conversions to Christianity among the Iroquios.

Red Jacket (1758-1830) supported the British during the American Revolution (1777-83) and later became a spokesman for his people in negotiations with the U.S. government. Red Jacket was also a staunch opponent of Christianity and worked to prevent Iroquois conversions to Christianity.

Although Red Jacket eventually allied himself with other Indian nations in support of the British during the American Revolution, he was originally hesitant about the affiliation. This ambivalence perhaps explains why he did little fighting during the conflict. According to a number of accounts, Red Jacket's reluctance to fight was perceived as cowardice by some Iroquois war leaders such as Corn-planter and Joseph Brant.

After the war, Red Jacket became a principal spokesman for the Seneca people. He was present at treaty negotiations in 1794 and 1797 in which major portions of Seneca land in upstate New York were ceded or partitioned into smaller reservations. During this era, Red Jacket also became an outspoken opponent of Christianity and an advocate for preserving traditional Iroquois beliefs. His efforts to protect traditional beliefs culminated in the temporary expulsion of all Christian missionaries from Seneca territory in 1824. Red Jacket and the so-called Pagan Party were undermined in the ensuing years, however, by accusations of witchcraft and Red Jacket's own problems with alcohol. In 1827, Red Jacket was deposed as a Seneca chief. He died three years later, after his own family had converted to Christianity.

Red Jacket is immortalized in a now-famous painting by Charles Bird King. In this historical painting, Red Jacket is depicted with a large, silver medal that was given to him in 1792 by President George Washington during a diplomatic visit to the then U.S. capital at New York City.


Red Jacket was an influential leader of the Seneca Indian Tribe and of the Iroquois confederation of tribes from the 1770s until the 1820s. He was primarily a political rather than a military figure. In fact, he was often accused of cowardice during the American Revolution. He was a very talented orator, in the opinion of both Indians and whites who heard him. Many of his speeches have been preserved in translations written down by whites. Partly because of problems of translation, the speeches, though undoubtedly impressive, often conceal as much as they reveal of the real thought of the man. He acquired a reputation among both whites and Indians for deviousness and double-dealing. Contemporaries and later writers have differed greatly both on the basic character and personality of the man and on the interpretations to be placed on most of the major events of his life.

Various years from 1750 to 1758 have been given as that of Red Jacket's birth, but 1756 is the one most commonly cited. He was born somewhere in the territory occupied by the Seneca tribe, probably near either Seneca Lake or Cayuga Lake in the northwestern part of what is now the state of New York. He was a member of the Wolf clan of the Seneca tribe or "nation," which was the largest of the six closely related tribes that made up the confederation of the Iroquois. He was given the Seneca name Otetiani in his youth and that of Sagoyewatha when he later became a chief of the tribe. His English nickname "Red Jacket," by which he is usually known, was given to him after British army men had given him a red jacket during the American Revolution; he wore it or later replacements of it through most of his life. Nothing is known of his early life.

Urges Neutrality During American Revolution

Red Jacket first came to some prominence during the American Revolution. He participated in a council with British representatives at Oswego in the early summer of 1777, during which the Senecas and three other tribes of the Iroquois confederacy decided to abandon neutrality and enter the war on the British side. Red Jacket urged continued neutrality and was therefore pronounced a coward by the militant Mohawk war chief Joseph Brant. In fact Red Jacket seems to have been reluctant to participate in combat, and he was reported to have fled from the battle of Oriskany on August 6, 1777, after hearing the first sound of gunfire. He was also supposed to have refused to participate in the attack on the American settlement at Cherry Valley, New York, in 1778. When a large American army was assembled in 1779 to lay waste the villages and agricultural lands of the Iroquois confederacy, Red Jacket first urged that the Indians surrender and then once again fled the scene during a battle at Newtown. He had been correct in his belief that the Indians would suffer disaster during this campaign, but his actions did not enhance his reputation among the Iroquois leadership.

Red Jacket came into his own as a leader of the Seneca tribe in the years following the American Revolution, when he first displayed his talent as an orator. At some time during this period he became one of the principal civil chiefs of the Seneca and hence an influential figure in the Iroquois confederation. One of the most controversial questions about the role of Red Jacket in the 1780s and 1790s is in regard to his stand on the sale of Seneca and Iroquois lands in the state of New York to white Americans. In tribal councils and in negotiations with the whites, Red Jacket always argued strongly against such sales. However, after his fellow leaders agreed to the sales, he usually placed his mark on the written agreements. One biographer, Arthur C. Parker, believes that he did so merely in order to preserve the customary formal unanimity of the tribal chiefs. Other scholars, however, have maintained that he signed the agreements in order to curry favor with the whites.

Meets George Washington

An impressive example of the importance and influence which Red Jacket had obtained in the Seneca tribe and the Iroquois confederation was his inclusion among some fifty tribal chiefs who visited Philadelphia in March and April, 1792 to confer with President George Washington and other officials of the United States government. Speaking through interpreters, Red Jacket was one of the principal spokesmen for the Indian leaders during this meeting. Among other things, he expressed the desire of the chiefs for a closer friendship between their tribes and the United States. He also professed interest in and agreement with Washington's strong desire to have the Indians educated in the ways of white civilization. Washington was so impressed with Red Jacket's conduct during the conference that he presented the Indian leader with a large silver medal bearing an image of the American President extending his hand to an Indian. Red Jacket wore the medal proudly for the rest of his life.

In 1797, Red Jacket was heavily involved in the most controversial of all the sales of Seneca tribal land rights. The white American financier Robert Morris had acquired title to most of the land occupied by the Seneca tribe west of the Genesee River in western New York. He needed to eliminate all Seneca claims to a total of some four million acres so that he could complete a sale of the land to a land company. Morris sent his son Thomas Morris to negotiate with the Senecas in August, 1797. The younger Morris proposed to buy the tribe's rights for $100,000. At first, Red Jacket and other Seneca political leaders refused to consider the offer, and Red Jacket at one point declared the meeting to be over. However, Morris and other white negotiators then persuaded the women of the tribe, who had the ultimate authority, to take the negotiations out of the hands of the political leaders and place them in the hands of the war leaders. The new negotiators agreed to Morris's terms. Red Jacket was reportedly in a stupor, perhaps induced by alcohol, at the end of the talks. At any rate, he once again signed the final agreement. The Seneca tribe was left with only a few small reservations within their former lands, including one where Red Jacket lived for the remainder of his life, located near the present Buffalo, New York.

After about 1800 Red Jacket became a strong traditionalist who wished to preserve as much as possible of the old Seneca way of life. He began to oppose the efforts of white Americans to educate the Indians in the ways of white civilization. He was particularly opposed to Christianity and to the attempts of white missionaries to spread the Gospel among the Seneca. His position was greatly complicated by the rise of a new Indian religion established by the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake. Red Jacket found himself caught in the middle between the new Indian zealot on the one hand and white and Indian Christians on the other. His opposition to the religious teachings of Handsome Lake led the prophet to charge him with witchcraft in about 1801. Handsome Lake also accused him of being primarily responsible for the sale of Indian lands to the whites. Red Jacket successfully defended himself against the charges, which could have resulted in his condemnation to death, in a Seneca tribal council.

Opposes Christianity and Cultural Assimilation

Despite the attacks of Handsome Lake and his followers, Red Jacket was probably at the height of his influence with his tribe at the time of the War of 1812. Though he was now strongly opposed to the introduction of American ways among the Indians, he consistently followed a policy of friendship toward the United States government. He opposed the efforts of the Shawnee tribal leader Tecumseh to create a new Indian confederation to halt the westward expansion of the United States. When war broke out between Great Britain and the United States in 1812, he urged the Seneca and the other tribes of the Iroquois confederacy to remain neutral. Later the Seneca Indians did go to war on the side of the United States. Red Jacket, though now approaching 60 years of age, fought bravely in several battles during this conflict.

By the 1820s, Christianity was gaining many adherents among the Seneca tribesmen, including many of its political leaders. Red Jacket's strong opposition to Christianity, as well as his increasing tendency to alcoholic excess, led the so-called "Christian party" to initiate a council in September of 1827 to remove his chieftainship. Twenty-five chiefs set their marks to the document that deposed him. Red Jacket then went to Washington, where he told his story to the Secretary of War and the head of the Indian Bureau. They advised him to return home and show a more conciliatory attitude toward the Christian party. He did so and a second meeting of the tribal council restored him to his leadership post.

Red Jacket's final years were not happy. His second wife and her children had become Christians. This so distressed Red Jacket that he left her for a time, though they were ultimately reconciled. He was once again commonly believed to be drinking heavily. He died on January 20, 1830, at his tribal village near Buffalo. His wife had him buried in a Christian cemetery following a Christian religious service, neither of which he would have approved. In 1884, his remains, along with those of other Seneca tribal leaders, were reinterred in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, where a memorial now stands.

Further Reading

Dockstader, Frederick J., Great North American Indians: Profiles in Life and Leadership, New York, Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1977; 234-235.

Handbook of American Indians, edited by Frederick Webb Hodge, 2 volumes, Washington, D.C., U.S. Government Printing Office, 1907-1910; vol. 2, 360-363.

Parker, Arthur C., Red Jacket: Last of the Seneca, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1952.

Stone, William L., Life and Times of Red-Jacket, or Sa-go-ye-watha, New York and London, Wiley and Putnam, 1841.

Wallace, Anthony F. C., The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, New York, Knopf, 1969. □

Red Jacket

views updated May 14 2018

Red Jacket (1758–1830) ( Otetiani) Native American chief of the Seneca. He was called Red Jacket from his association with the British colonial army during the American Revolution. He astutely exploited the differences between rival groups, and in the War of 1812 supported the USA against the British. During his chieftainship, he was a powerful advocate of the preservation of Iroquois traditions.