Little Abraham (Tigoransera)

Mohawk Chief who tried to keep his people out of war

During the first half of the eighteenth century, a delicate balance of power existed in upper New York state and lower Canada. In New York, the Iroquois tribes (Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora) and the British used each other as allies to contain the influence of their Canadian enemies: the Montaignais, Huron, and Ottawa tribes, as well as the French. Occasional warfare erupted between the opposing sides, though without any real advantage in the struggle for control of the continent before 1750. The balance of power changed drastically during the French and Indian War of 1754-1763 (sometimes called the Seven Years’ War). The British-Iroquois victory ensured British dominance in eastern North America and held the promise for continued Iroquois independence in the Mohawk River valley. The Iroquois hoped that the British victory would secure their lands from encroaching colonial American settlements.

Sir William Johnson

Sir William Johnson, British superintendent of Indian Affairs

The American Revolution shattered that promise, leaving the Iroquois in a difficult position. By continuing to support their traditional British allies, the Iroquois risked alienating the Americans, and no matter which side proved victorious the Iroquois would need to interact with both sides after the war. These concerns weighed heavily on the Six Nations’ leading sachem, a member of the Mohawk tribe and wolf clan known to the British as Little Abraham. Also called Tigoransera, Little Abraham enters European records in 1755, when he replaced Chief Hendrick, who died at the Battle of Lake George during the French and Indian War. As Little Abraham was at least twenty-five years old at this point, it is highly probable that he was born in the 1720s. He attended the 1756 meeting at Fort Johnson between the Iroquois and Sir William Johnson, the superintendent of Indian affairs. He led at least one war party against the French during the war and was with General Amherst at the fall of Montreal in 1760.

After the French and Indian War, Little Abraham fought effectively for the independence of the Iroquois native lands. During 1760s the Iroquois tribes lived peaceably, but this peace would prove impossible to maintain in the Revolution. Little Abraham and the other Iroquois chiefs welcomed the opportunity to speak with the American Indian commissioners appointed by the Continental Congress in August 1775. Representing the twelve United Colonies (Georgia had not yet joined) were Major General Philip Schuyler, Oliver Wolcott, Turbutt Francis, and Volkert Douw, with Samuel Kirkland and James Dean interpreting. A fifth commissioner, Major Hawley, was not able to attend, and on the second day Schuyler was called away to participate in the invasion of Canada. The remaining commissioners carried on, however, and related the nature of the dispute between Britain and America to the Iroquois representatives.

The Indians giving a talk to Colonel Bouquet

“The Indians giving a talk to Colonel Bouquet in a conference at a council fire, near his camp on the banks of Muskingum in North America in Oct. 1764,” by Chalres Grignion, ca. 1766.

The American commissioners requested that the Iroquois remain neutral in the coming war with Great Britain and deny assistance to the British if asked to provide it. The Iroquois took two days to deliberate on the American proposal, and on August 31, 1775, Little Abraham delivered the response. Much to the American delegation’s satisfaction, the Iroquois decided “not to take any part, but as it is a family affair, to sit still and see you fight it out.” Little Abraham asked that the Americans consider this determination “as infallible, it being our full resolution; for we bear as much affection for the King of England’s subjects on the other side of the water, as we do for you, born upon this island.” Despite the initial agreement between the Americans and the Iroquois, a lasting neutrality depended on reconciliation of two land disputes. The first, known as the “Wyoming controversy,” involved two treaties, one ceding Indian land in the northern Susquehana River valley to Pennsylvania, and the other ceding the same land to Connecticut. Thus both Pennsylvania and Connecticut lawfully claimed the ceded territory. Second, the Albany Corporation had not made payment to the Iroquois for a land grant on which American settlements had already progressed. These issues frustrated the Iroquois, because the American delegates claimed they had no authority on land issues. Unwilling to negotiate a settlement on the Iroquois concerns, the commissioners dropped the matter and departed from the meeting.

Little Abraham had a difficult time keeping warriors from his own tribe from attacking the Americans. The Mohawks were the closest geographically to the New York settlements, and many young Mohawk warriors like Joseph Brant resented American encroachments on their land and saw in King George III a way to check the advance of American settlement westward. The Americans did not make it any easier on Little Abraham to maintain the peace. In 1776, General Schuyler violated the Albany Treaty when he marched seven hundred Continental soldiers into Mohawk territory in pursuit of the Loyalist Sir John Johnson. Little Abraham, now in his forties, scolded both Johnson and the Americans for their treaty violations.

The Continental Congress’s inability to adequately furnish the Iroquois with goods and supplies finally drove the Mohawks into open conflict against the Americans. The British on the other hand, promised both land concessions and a guaranteed flow of goods to the tribes. When General John Burgoyne hatched his plan for a three flank attack against Albany in 1777, the Iroquois formally entered the war against the United States. Burgoyne’s plan called for a force under his command to march south from Quebec, part of General William Howe’s army to march north from New York, and General Barry St. Leger to bring a smaller force in from Lake Ontario in the west. In this way Burgoyne hoped to split the colonies and force their capitulation. In the summer of 1777, St. Leger’s force laid siege to Fort Stanwix, New York. Although he was able to defeat one American relief force under Nicholas Herkimer at the battle of Oriskany, another relief force under Benedict Arnold forced the British to withdraw after being abandoned by their Indian allies.

In 1778, Joseph Brant led the Mohawks into the Pennsylvania frontier, where they killed hundreds of militiamen. General Washington responded by sending four thousand Continental soldiers under the command of General John Sullivan to “destroy” the Iroquois country. In August and September 1779, the Americans devastated more than forty Iroquois villages, mostly of the Seneca and Cayuga tribes. Little Abraham’s fear that without neutrality there could be only retribution from one side or another had come to pass. Through this fateful year, Little Abraham stayed in his Mohawk village and tried to mediate between Loyalists and Patriots, Iroquois and Americans to stop the bloodshed. Unfortunately, this made him a traitor in the eyes of Guy Johnson, the new British superintendent for Indian affairs.

fort-niagara-from-the-lake

Fort Niagara from the lake, showing “The French Castle,” Photographed in 2007 by Omegatron under Creative Commons licensure.

In 1780, General Schuyler allowed Little Abraham and White Hans, both Mohawks, along with Good Peter and Skenandon, both Oneidas, to travel to Fort Niagara to conduct a prisoner exchange. Little Abraham used the opportunity to plead for peace and to argue for return of all Iroquois warriors to their villages. Little Abraham had spent most of his life fighting on behalf of Iroquois interests, to safeguard their lands and keep their villages safe. At Fort Niagara, in the heart of British power and before a hostile audience, Little Abraham remained true to his cause. Unfortunately, Guy Johnson did not respect either Little Abraham’s words, or his safe passage as a diplomat negotiating for the exchange of prisoners. When pro-British warriors denounced Little Abraham as a traitor, Guy Johnson arrested him along with the other three Iroquois delegates and placed them in prison. Little Abraham died in prison later that year. The other three remained in prison until they consented to fight for the British.

Little Abraham’s death represented a tragic loss for the Iroquois, erasing the last chance for a peaceful resolution with the Americans after the war. The Iroquois warriors continued their futile raids on American positions in 1780-1782, and the Iroquois lost the one voice that might have prevented the final loss of their lands in the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784.

Source Documents: Little Abraham

The following passages are taken from Edmund B. O’Callaghan, Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York 15 volumes. (Albany: Weed, Parsons, & Co., 1853-1887), volume 8, and Maryly Penrose, ed., Indian Affairs Papers: American Revolution (Franklin Park, NJ: Liberty Bell Associates, 1981).

Little Abraham’s Speech to the American Indian Commissioners at Albany, August 31, 1775:
Brothers, great men deputed by the Twelve United Colonies, attend.
We are this day called to meet you in council, in order to reply to what you have said to us. We hope we need not recapitulate the whole of your discourse. We shall only touch upon each head. At our last conference in this house, we promised to return you our answer the day but one following. We did not do it, and we mean to make you an apology. We hope you have taken no offence. We were not prepared by that time . . . Brothers, you informed us that there was a great Council of sixty-five members convened at Philadelphia, and. that you were appointed by them to deliver a talk to the Six Nations. It seems you, our Brothers, having a desire to rekindle a council-fire, took to your assistance the descendants of Quedar [Peter Schuyler], and have kindled up a council-fire that shall never be extinguished. To which the Six Nations reply: This you have done by order of the great Council at Philadelphia. We are glad to hear the news. . .
Brothers, . . . You observed, when these commotions began, a council of sixty-five members convened at Philadelphia, and you put us in mind of what Canassateego formerly said at Lancaster respecting the necessity of a union among you . . . You said that as the tree of peace was formerly planted in this place, you desired that the Six Nations might come down and sit under it, and water its roots, till the branches should flourish and reach heaven. This the Six Nations say shall be done.
Brothers, we need only remind you of the few things you said to us, as you have them all written down. You informed us that by ancient covenant with the King of England, you were to enjoy the same privileges with the people on the other side of the great water; that for a long you did enjoy the same privileges, by which means you and your brethren over the water both became a great people; that lately, by advice of evil counsellors, you are much oppressed, and had heavier packs put upon you than you could bear; that you frequently applied to be eased of your burthen, but could obtain no redress; that finding this the case, you had thrown off your packs. The Six Nations thank you for acquainting then with your grievances and methods to obtain redress. You likewise informed them of what resolutions you had formed in consequence of these matters.
Brothers, After stating your grievances, and telling us you had not been able to obtain redress, you desired us to take no part, but to bury the hatchet. You told us it was a family quarrel; therefore said, “You Indians, sit still, and mind nothing but peace.” Our great man, Col. Johnson, did the same thing at Oswego; he desired us to sit still likewise. You likewise desired us that if application should be made to us by any of the King’s officers, we would not join them. Now therefore attend, and apply your ears closely. We have considered the matter. The resolutions of the Six Nations are not to be broken or altered. When they resolve, the matter is fixed. This then is the determination of the Six Nations, not to take any part, but as it is a family affair, to sit still and see you fight it out. We beg you will receive this as infallible, it being our full resolution; for we bear as much affection for the King of England’s subjects on the other side of the water, as we do for you, born upon this island. One more thing we request, which is, that you represent this in a true light to the delegates of the Colonies, and not vary, and that you observe the same regard for truth when you write to the King about those matters; for we have ears, and shall hear, if you represent any thing in a wrong point of light. We likewise desire you would inform our brothers at Boston of our determination.

Little Abraham’s Speech to the American Indian Commissioners at the House of Samuel Thomson in Albany, May 2, 1776:
Brothers, You know that we with our Brothers have brought again the Council fire to this place. We have again reestablished our ancient friendship upon the former footing and in doing this we have had a Regard to all our Brethren who live about us. The Commissioners last summer for the twelve colonies have requested us the Six Nations to acquaint all the others with the Covenant which was then made, we then promised you that we would acquaint all the Six Nations with what was transacted between us, which we have done. We have also acquainted the seven nations who live on the River St. Lawrence with the particulars of what was then concluded.
Brothers, There are now thirteen Colonies. Let the Road remain open and clean between Trouble is found on it. If you have any difference, make it out towards the sea shore, but dont let it come here . . .
Brothers, The thirteen colonies have last summer made a Covenant with us. That everything should be as it always was Customary. That the hope of merchandize and powder & Lead should be as usual. How come it Brothers that the shops are every where empty – we cant get any Cloathe or necessaries which we want. We must however live as well as you, we would be glad to buy those things and pay for it as heretofore. We hope the 13 Colonies will not suffer us to go naked, and hope you will perform your promise you made Last year and we desire you brothers that you will take notice of it . . .

For Further Reading:
Colin Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country (1995).
Max Muntz, Seeds of Empire: The American Revolutionary Conquest of the Iroquois (1999).