Cornplanter Speaks to the Thirteen Fires

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Winter had broken into spring so that the trail through the wilds of Pennsylvania leading east from Fort Pitt was at least passable. The Com­missioners of Indian Affairs who had spent the winter at the fort set out with the first break in the weather anxious to return home and report their Indian treaty negotiations to the Continental Congress. They had been gone only a few days when, on the 17th of March 1786, six Indians entered the compound of the fort and inquired where they might find the commissioners. The bearing and conduct of the leader suggested he was a chief of distinct importance so he was presented at once to Maj. John P. Wyllys, com­mandant of Fort McIntosh, but at the moment, ranking officer present at Fort Pitt.

It was fitting that the chief should be accorded the honor of a reception by a ranking white chief, for the Indian leader was himself a ranking chief of the Seneca Tribe, Gyantwachia, The Cornplanter. On being informed that the commissioners had departed, Cornplanter ad­dressed himself to Maj. Wyllys:

Brother, It is with happiness I meet you here. I for­merly was afraid to come to this place, but I am now glad to find that I can visit it with safety. Brother, Something weighty oppresses me. I wish to see the Great People that I may inform them what it is. For this purpose that I wish to go to the Great Council, and request that you will give me a passport.

Cornplanter, also known by his christian name Captain John O’Bail, had come to Fort Pitt with five of his young warriors from their village on the upper reaches of the Alle­gheny River in northwest Pennsylvania. Most likely, they had contested with the spring floods on the river in canoes on their way to the fort. Now they would have to travel overland contending with the weather that could turn the trail to knee deep mud challenging the strength and endurance of the fittest. Cornplanter’s request presented Maj. Wyllys with a problem as the treaties had not fully quieted the Indians on the frontier, and the terrors of the Indian incursions in the Wyoming and Minisink valleys were still fresh in frontier memories. An Indian party could not only cause alarms to sound in the settlements on or near the trail, but might lead to a confrontation by those whose families were victims of the Indian tomahawk. However, since Cornplanter’s tribe was not involved in those mas­sacres, it was possible he would be more amicably received.

Maj. Wyllys no doubt realized a refusal of Corn planter’s request might be regarded as an insult, and the frontier situation needed to secure the goodwill of every influential chief that could be courted. Cornplanter’s request for a passport suggests he realized some form of safe conduct would be necessary for his protection, and he wished to assure anyone who confronted him of his peaceful inten­tions. Apparently then by mutual agreement, Maj. Wyllys assigned Maj. Montgomery to accompany Cornplanter’s party to Carlisle where the commissioners were most likely to be found.

Despite some severe weather and flooded streams, the party arrived at Carlisle on the evening of the 29th of March. Word of the arrival of so noted a chief spread through the community and the town officials hurriedly arranged for a reception to be held at the courthouse the following morning. With as many of the curious town officials as could be crowded into the building, the chief and his party were welcomed by Gen. Richard Butler, one of the Commissioners of Indian Affairs. Cornplanter re­sponded to the welcome expressing his pleasure at receiving such a friendly reception, but further addressing Gen. Butler:

Brother, Something of a very weighty and serious nature oppresses my heart. The tears flow from my eyes when I think of it. Inquietudes seem to threaten our island. Let us unite our endeavours and invoke the assistance of the Great Spirit to save it from harm, for should anything happen to us, our women and children must suffer. My desire is to go on to the Great Council who watch the thirteen fires and keep them bright. I hope, Brother, you will assist me on.

Gen. Butler had noted that Cornplanter did not tell Maj. Wyllys at Fort Pitt exactly what the “weighty” thing was that oppressed him, and that Wyllys, who was aware of the subtleties of the Indian mind, had not pressed Corn­planter for an explanation. Now too, it was evident that Cornplanter was not inclined to reveal what be wished to say to the thirteen rues, but Gen. Butler knew Congress would not grant an audience without some advance information about the matters Cornplanter had on his mind. Deciding on a direct approach, Butler said to Cornplanter:

Brother, As Congress has committed the charge of Indian affairs wholly to their Commissioners, I desire that you will communicate to me the cause of your trouble, so that it may be regularly communicated to the Great Council. I think your desire of going to Congress a laudable one, and shall take measures for rendering your journey thither. agreeable and con­venient.

With some evident reluctance. Cornplanter agreed to in form Butler of the cause of his distress, but as he wished to re­flect further on the matters asked to have the meeting adjourned until the next morning.

Accordingly, at noon the next day, the town officials and Gen. Butler met at the courthouse with Cornplanter and his party. Addressing the assemblage, Cornplanter said:

Brothers, The representative of the thirteen fires, and all present – I desire you to listen! Yesterday you heard my words. I told you my mind upon some sub­jects, but I promised to unbosom myself fully to you today. This island was once mine. The ground’ upon which we now stand formerly belonged to my people. Hearken to my words. Brother, for I am about to divulge to you the cause of my distress – the cause of the uneasiness which I told you hung heavy upon my mind. I have heard from the British that you have concluded a treaty with the nations westward. Al­though I was so informed yet my mind could not be quieted. Therefore I came among other things to satisfy myself of what hath been done between you and those nations. Brothers listen – Although I joined the arms of the Great King and assisted him in his war against you, I have now relinquished all connec­tions with him, and am not afraid of what he can do to me. If you remember in the old Councils, the Great King told us that the French had relinquished to him au their claims to this country. Perhaps the writings by which they did that still remain in your possession. Those papers I am desirous of seeing.

He went on to ex to! the virtues of peace between the Indians and the Americans, but it was now evident one pur­pose of his trip was to see the visible evidence of the claims he heard made by both the British and the Americans. His admission he had sided with the British in the Revolution accounts for his fear of coming to Fort Pitt as he had stated to Maj. Wyllys.

Apparently the originals of the treaties signed with the Wiandots, Delawares, Ottawas and Chippawas at Fort Mc­Intosh, and the Shawnees at the Miami were still at Carlisle as they were shown to Cornplanter to verify that the chiefs of those tribes had indeed signed treaties. What must have been a copy of the treaty concluded with King George III to end the Revolution was also shown to Cornplanter, and the boundaries of the land relinquished by the British were explained by Gen. Butler. Further, Butler reviewed the means by which the United States became the sole white claimant to the lands, first by the cession of the French to the British at the end of the French and Indian War, and then by the treaty with King George III which Cornplanter had just seen. By concluding treaties with the western tribes. the United States desired to show the Indians it was their wish to live in peace and that the United States in­tended to restrict their people from settling on any of the Indian territory as described in the treaties.

Cornplanter was much impressed by Gen. Butler’s sincerity and responding to the history explained to him said:

Brother, I yesterday told you of the trouble which oppressed me. I feel myself as just awakened from a dream for I begin now to consider the future lot of my little ones and to reflect with anger on the deception practiced on us by the Great King over the water. I assisted him – I fought his battles. while he sat quietly in his forts; nor did I ever suspect that so great a person and one too, who wore a red coat, sufficient of itself to tempt one, could be guilty of such flagrant injustice – of such glaring falsehood …. He hath al­ready begun to settle his people upon the lands opposite to Niagara. I will go peaceably to him, and will desire him to move off. This request I will repeat calmly to him three times. If he will not then de­camp, I am resolved to strike him and hence will flow the inquietudes which I mentioned. Brother, When we shall have settled all matters fully, my desire is that Congress appoint seven of you. whom I will take by the hand and lead to our council fire at the Genes­see. There they will discover the truth of what I say to you and that I am sent with authority by my people.

In this speech, Cornplanter revealed the true cause of his distress. His lands were just south of the settlements the British were making at Niagara, and in the event of a re­sumption of American-British hostilities over the failure of the British to withdraw to Canada, the peace of his villages was certain to be disrupted. Perhaps Gen. Butler was somewhat taken aback by Cornplanter’s avowal to declare war on the British as he hastily reminded Cornplanter that the commissioners could not sanction any such hostility, and only the Congress had the power to declare war.

The initial interviews now concluded, Gen. Butler pro­ceeded to arrange for Cornplanter’s visit to Congress. It seems reasonable that Gen. Butler would have immediately dispatched a special messenger to New York where Con­gress was then assembled, to advise them of the intended visit. If he did, there was no record kept of his message, and it was not until April 25, almost four weeks after Corn­planter had appeared at Carlisle, that Gen. Butler trans­mitted to the President of Congress a full report of the speeches and requests made by Cornplanter. That transmittal was not sent until Gen. Butler had arrived in New York with Cornplanter and his party. In his report, Butler stated that after the conferences in Carlisle, the Indian party ap­peared to be much fatigued, and since the weather was still severe and the roads in bad condition, he thought it best to delay their departure a few days so the party could see more of the town. Something of the showman appeared to surface in Cornplanter. for as Gen. Butler reported, “The principal inhabitants of the town and country showed them many marks of attention, which gave them great satisfac­tion.”

The next stage of the journey took the Indian party to Philadelphia under the escort of Maj. Montgomery. where they were joined by Gen. Butler who had been delayed in departing from Carlisle. The propaganda value of the impression a vast city could make on a small village Indian was not wasted on Cornplanter and his party. Gen. Butler noted:

The beauty of the country they had passed through, the magnitude of the city, the numbers of the people. shipping and curiosities to them quite new, induced the chief to request their being indulged with a few days stay, with which I complied, judging it proper that they should have just impressions of the strength, opulence and consequence of so much of the United States as they might have an opportunity of seeing­ – with which they seem highly pleased, and agreeably surprised and delighted, having been treated the whole way and particularly at Philadelphia with great attention by all ranks of the citizens.

Apparently the showman did not miss a bow.

On Friday, April 21, the party Left Philadelphia bound for New York by stagecoach. The roads were still in very poor condition and in attempting to negotiate a particularly bad stretch, the stage overturned throwing some of the party out the door onto the ground where the coach fell on top of them. Apparently, Gen. Butler and Cornplanter were injured more than the others, but their wounds were not sufficiently severe that they could not proceed. The party arrived in New York on Sunday, April 23. and the services of a surgeon immediately engaged to care for the injured men. No doubt, it was due to the discomfiture of his injuries that delayed Gen. Butler in sending notice of Cornplanter’s arrival to the President of Congress until Tuesday, the 25th.

Protocol of the time required that a visiting Indian dele­gation should receive gifts from their hosts and some of the Indian tribes worked the gift business to the hilt. Some chiefs would visit the headquarters of one side of a con­troversy, then go to visit the adversary who was expected to provide presents of more quantity and value than had been given by the first side. Cornplanter had said: “You will conceive that it is not through lucrative views that I have come” but Gen. Butler knew Cornplanter would evalu­ate the worth of his friendship to Congress on the basis of the gifts he received in comparison with those given the chiefs at the recent treaty councils. No mirrors, combs or bead strings would impress a chief of Cornplanter’s stature, so Gen. Buller was asked to recommend a list of suitable gifts. For Cornplanter, he listed a silver medal, six dozen broaches. a laced coat and vest of fine blue cloth. a laced hat, a scarlet stroud (a blanket of coarse wool cloth), two ruffled shirts, other minor dress items and two pounds of vermilion. As a red faced chief, Cornplanter was going to be the dapper dandy of his tribe.

It would not do for the presents given to the chief’s companions to equal those of the chief, so the young men each received a silver medal, clothing of lesser quality with­out lace, one blue stroud, a few of the same minor items. but only one pound of vermilion. The scarlet stroud for Cornplanter signified his authority as chief and distinguished him above the common warriors in their blue strouds. For this magnificent array, Congress approved a budget of $400 which was to include the cost of the trip for the party from and back to the frontier. In the same resolve, Tuesday, May 2nd, was set for the date Congress would receive Cornplanter and his party.

On the appointed day, Gen. Butler escorted the Cornplanter party to the assembly hall and introduced his charge to Congress. Cornplanter then addressed the members: “Brothers of the thirteen fires, – It gives me pleasure to see you met in council about public affairs. May the Great Spirit above direct you to such measures as are good. I wish to put the chunks together and to make the thirteen fires burn brighter.” He stated he was aware that Gen. Butler had already informed Congress of what was on his mind about the treaties. He did wish to request that Gen. Butler and Gen. Morris be appointed to live among his tribe as representatives of the Congress. This first meeting was very short as it was customary for Congress to consider a petition after a formal audience and decide what to reply at a further audience.

Friday, May 5th, Gen. Butler and Cornplanter again attended Congress, this time accompanied by Capt. Thomas Hutchins, Geographer to the United States, as requested by Congress. David Ramsay, Chairman of the Congress, ad­dressed Cornplanter assuring him that it was the desire of the while people to live at peace with the Indians and re­spect the boundaries of the lands assigned exclusively to the Indians. The United States did not possess the writings of the French king relinquishing claims in the west to the English king as the United States did not then exist, and was not a party to the treaty. Ramsay did however have the original of the treaty between the United States and King George III which he displayed to Cornplanter, pointing out the king’s signature in his own hand. This treaty, Ramsay stated, together with the Indian treaties already shown to Cornplanter, should convince the Indians that all matters of claims by European kings and western tribes had been settled.

As for other requests made by Cornplanter, Congress did not consider it necessary to send a party to Cornplanter’s council fire, as the Congress did not doubt the authority of Cornplanter to speak for the Senecas. It was the wish of Congress that Cornplanter refrain from any attack on the British despite their refusal to vacate the lands they had ceded to the United States, as the Congress was determined to settle the matter by peaceful means. Cornplanter was to know that Capt. Thomas Hutchins was appointed to survey the lands purchased from the Indians by the late treaties and that he would be present in the western lands to make his surveys. Ramsay concluded: “Congress hopes to enjoy the friendship of the Indian nations, and to live with them like brothers as Jong as the sun and moon shall last – we wish you a good journey home, and pray that the Great Spirit above may direct you and take you under his special care.” In a final few words, Cornplanter thanked the Congress for its consideration of his desires and his visit to the council of the thirteen fires was ended.

One thing Congress had not answered, however, was Cornplanter’s request for the appointment of Gen. Butler and Gen. Morris as the representatives of Congress to whom the Indians could bring their problems or complaints. No information appears in the records to account for this re­quest remaining unanswered. but apparently Congress had in mind some other means of setting up a line of communication that did not include the appointment of a further Commission for Indian Affairs. On May 24th, nineteen days after Cornplanter’s second audience, Congress directed Gen. Butler to advise Cornplanter they would let him know at Fort Pitt what arrangements would be made.

The tone of the instruction to Gen. Butler suggests Con­gress was impatient with Cornplanter’s delay in departing, and that he was unnecessarily lingering in New York at Congress’s expense. However, it appears the delay was not due to Cornplanter’s wish to milk the expense account, but to a series of sittings necessary for F. Bartoli, an artist recently from London, to paint Cornplanter’s portrait. The portrait, now in the collections of the New-York Historical Society, shows Cornplanter wearing some of the presents he had received from Congress. The silver medal hangs by a chain around his neck; he wears the silver ann bands and the scarlet stroud is draped around his shoulders. Most likely, Bartoli painted the portrait to advertise his own ability rather than as an intended gift for Cornplanter. On June 2nd, Cornplanter was ready to return home and taking his leave of Gen. Butler, he said he hoped he would see Butler at Fort Pitt after he had reported his visit to the thirteen fires at the tribal council fires.

Near the bank of the Allegheny River, opposite the town of Corydon in Warren County, Pennsylvania, the first public monument erected in the United States to the memory of an Indian was dedicated in 1866 by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The inscription reads:

GY-ANT-WA-CHIA, The Cornplanter, … Died at Cornplanter’s town, Feb. 18, 1838, … Distinguished for talent, courage, eloquence, sobriety, and love for tribe … during a long and eventful life.

The laces have turned to dust and the silver medal long since lost, but the words he spoke at the Council of the Thirteen Fires are preserved in the writings treasured by the fifty fires that burn brightly on the banks of the River Potomac.


The material for this article was obtained from original documents located in the National Archives, Record Group 360, Papers of the Continental Congress, Item 56, Papers Relating to Indian Affairs, file pages 341 through 403. The documents consist of letters, a report to Congress of Cornplanter’s speeches and instructions to Gen. Butler, but are not indexed or otherwise identified within the file.


Albert G. Overton has written extensively on history and, in June 1978, prepared an article entitled “The Flight of the Brigantine Eagle” for Pennsylvania Heritage. Plunders From Across the Sea, his latest book, is a series of twelve articles relating to raids on Long island from Connecticut during the Revolution which involved the smuggling of illicit goods and the capturing of ships by privateers.