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The Covenant Chain

In welcoming the Dutch to the North American shores in the early 1600's the Iroquois League* proposed a covenant of friendship. The Dutch said that the Indian would be as their son. This was not acceptable to the Iroquois, who proposed they would be as brothers.

With great ceremony they presented the Dutch with a two-row wampum belt called the Gustwenta. It was made of purple and white shells, symbolizing purity, good minds, and peace. The speaker said:

"This symbolizes the agreement under which the Iroquois/Haudenosaunee
welcomed the white peoples to their lands.
'We will NOT be like father and son, but like brothers.
These TWO ROWS will symbolize vessels,
travelling down the same river together.
One will be for the Original People, their laws, their customs,
and the other for the European people and their laws and customs.
We will each travel the river together,
but each in our own boat.
And neither of us will try to steer the other's vessel."

the Covenant image
Covenant Chain Cartouche

The Dutch stated their agreement with this ideal and made a three-link chain their symbol of this covenant asking that nothing come between to break it. The covenant was foremost an arrangement for trade and a treaty of convenience to promote the interests of each party and ease communication.

It is said this original intent of freedom and tolerance inspired many of the settlers, and that these egalitarian ideals went into the formation of the U.S. Constitution and our nation. It is significant to note the importance of individual freedom and equality is still retained in any treaties made to this day.

Appearing on an 18th Centrury document of commission created by Sir Willliam Johnson is a engraving of a gathering of members of the Iroquois League and British officials. An ornate frame surrounding the scene of a gathering of Iroquois and British officials who meet to exchange gifts and greetings. A silver chain representing the bond between the League and the English colonies is suspended from a tree. A peace medal is presented to a chief while similar tokens are bestowed upon his companions.

The Intercolonial Wars (1689-1763), between France and England, placed considerable strain on the Chain and its members, the Iroquois League and the Colony of New York. For example, in 1689 the Iroquois attacked La Chine, near Montreal, killing settlers and taking hostages. In a counter blow, in 1690, French and Indian forces raided Schenectady, New York.

Conflicts escalated until the treaty of Ryswick in 1697 settled King William's War(1689-1697). In 1701 France signed a major treaty at Montreal with tribes from the Great Lakes. Thus ended a major bid for control of the Great Lakes fur trade by the Iroquois League against New France and their Indian allies.

At the outset of the French and Indian War (1755-1763), some members of the Iroquois League supported France and attempted to remain neutral. The Mohawks, on the other hand, largely influenced by Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs, were active participants in the war with their British allies against the French. Numerous council fires were held in an attempt to polish the Covenant Chain and woo the reluctant western Iroquois (Seneca, Cayuga and Onondaga) out of neutrality and into alliance with the British. The war ended in 1760 with the surrender of Montreal to British forces. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 gave England control of North America.

In the same year, the British government established the Proclamation Line, which attempted to prevent the settlement of land west of the Alleghany Mountains by English colonists. This land was supposedly set aside as an Indian reserve.

The Pontiac War (1763-1765), a concerted effort at independence by an alliance of western Indian tribes dissatisfied with the failed promises of their new British allies, again shook the Covenant Chain. In 1763 a party of disaffected Senecas, nominal allies of the British, ambushed a British army supply train near Fort Niagara, New York. The British guards were killed and the wagons were thrown into the gorge of the Niagara River.

For this act the Senecas were to pay a heavy price. Sir William Johnson forced them to cede a strip of land two miles wide on either side of the Niagara River running from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. In 1764 Johnson held a grand council at Fort Niagara with delegations of Indians extending from Nova Scotia to the Mississippi valley to renew the alliances.

The American Revolution had a debilitating effect on the Iroquois League and the Covenant Chain. The Mohawks sided with their traditional allies, the British. The Oneidas and Onondagas joined the rebel colonies in the hope of holding onto their tribal lands. The frontier country of northern and western New York was the scene of considerable guerilla warfare. Bands of Mohawks, Cayugas, Senecas, and their British allies raided the border settlements of New York and northern Pennsylvania. To counter these attacks General Washington planned a major operation against the Iroquois homeland in western New York.

In the summer of 1779, American forces led by Generals Sullivan and Clinton attacked the Iroquois villages. Food stocks, cultivated fields and cabins were all destroyed. Iroquois power in New York and the Covenant Chain as it existed was broken. But, has it?

The Iroquois believe that the Covenant Chain was never really broken, because it still exists in their hearts and minds. They will tell you they were not the ones who shattered it in the first place. Those who broke it will have to look into their hearts and find the truth.

* The Iroquois League was also know as the Haudenosaunee, or People of the Longhouse, and included the Seneca, Mohawk, Cayuga, Oneida, and Onondaga. In 1722, the Tuscarora joined.

** Source: Publication - "TURTLE" - Native American Center For The Living Arts Quarterly Edition Newspaper - Winter 1980 Edition Translated by: Huron Miller

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