White Eyes

A Rare Voice for Peace and Racial Harmony

Of all the Indian leaders in the American Revolution, few possessed a more glorious vision of the future than White Eyes. As the chief sachem of the Lenni Lenape, or Delaware Indians, White Eyes maintained his tribe’s neutrality during the early years of the Revolutionary war. He envisioned, however, a time when the American Congress would recognize Lenni Lenape land claims, and hoped that one day, a Lenni Lenape state might even become part of the United States. In White Eyes’s dream, the “young men” of the Lenni Lenape and the United States “may be acquainted with one another & that there may be no distinction between them.” In an age of war and racial distinctions, White Eyes became a rare voice for peace and racial harmony.

"The Treaty of Penn with the Indians" by Benjamin West, 1771-1772.

“The Treaty of Penn with the Indians” by Benjamin West, 1771-1772.

Born about 1730 in western Pennsylvania, White Eyes was a member of the turtle clan of the Lenni Lenape nation. Both his mother and father were Lenni Lenape, who belonged to a tribe living in the Ohio River Valley. Traditionally, the Lenni Lenape had lived in the Delaware River Valley. Since the early 1680s, however, the tribe had been gradually forced west by white settlement. The Lenni Lenape had also become a tributary tribe of the Iroquois Confederacy of New York’s Mohawk River Valley, and thus found themselves caught between two powerful political forces during the eighteenth century. After the Treaty of Lancaster in 1744 between the Iroquois and the English, the Lenni Lenape were relocated west of the Susquehana River. White Eyes thus grew up at a time when his people needed allies, and under the Lenni Lenape leader, Netawatwees, they began to befriend their white neighbors.

Upon the death of Netawatwees, White Eyes became chief counselor, and in 1776, rose to become the principle chief for the Lenni Lenape nation. Around that time, White Eyes married Rachel Doddridge, a young colonist who was taken captive as a child during an earlier Indian raid. She had been adopted into the Lenape people and had become fully assimilated. They had at least one son, named George Morgan White Eyes. White Eyes was not a Christian, yet he allowed Moravian missionaries to educate and convert Indians to Christianity. He believed that such efforts would provide a basis for a strong friendship between the Lenni Lenape and their white neighbors. When Governor Lord Dunmore of Virginia attacked the Shawnees in western Virginia in 1774, White Eyes maintained Lenni Lenape neutrality. This caused significant enmity between the Shawnee and the Lenni Lenape, but White Eyes was convinced that neutrality best served the interests of his tribe. He served as a peace emissary between the two sides, and helped negotiate a treaty to end the war. The policy seemed to work; Lord Dunmore promised to secure a “grant from the King for the lands claimed by the Delawares” north of the Ohio River. Unfortunately, the Revolutionary crisis ruined this chance for a Lenni Lenape state.

As relations between Great Britain and the American colonies deteriorated in 1775, White Eyes tried to maintain friendly relations with both sides. At first, neutrality appeared possible. In August 1775, American Major General Philip Schuyler met with Little Abraham of the Mohawks, an eastern Iroquois tribe. The Iroquois Confederacy determined at this meeting “not to take any part” in the coming war. By autumn of 1775, however, the western Iroquois tribes, led by the Seneca, began actively supporting the British.

White Eyes travelled to Fort Pitt [Pittsburgh] in October 1775 to negotiate with the commissioners from the American Continental Congress. Other Indian nations, including the Ottawa, Shawnee, and members of the Iroquois Confederacy, were also present. Many Iroquois leaders now felt that their interests were best served by an alliance with the British. The Seneca delegates further claimed that their ancestors had “shortened [the Lenni Lenape’s] legs, and put petticoats on [them],” and thus made the Lenni Lenape a conquered nation. The Seneca delegates demanded that White Eyes bow to the demands of the Iroquois Confederacy, and declare war against the Americans. White Eyes rejected the Seneca demands, and instead, issued his own declaration of independence. He defiantly announced that the Lenni Lenape were no longer to be subservient to the Iroquois, and would remain neutral in the coming conflict.

Portrait of General Phillip Schuyler circa 1792, artist unknown.

Portrait of General Phillip Schuyler circa 1792, artist unknown.

White Eyes’s rejection of the Senecas’ demands turned the war into a Lenni Lenape struggle for independence against the Iroquois, and his action temporarily united the Lenni Lenape behind him. Most of the Iroquois tribes, as well as every other Indian nation in the Ohio River Valley, eventually sided with the British. Colonel George Morgan, the American Indian Agent, assured White Eyes that Congress appreciated White Eyes’s support, and promised supplies and assistance to the Lenni Lenape. Unfortunately, Congress found it difficult to adequately supply its own Continental Army, and no supplies reached the Lenape. American unreliability caused dissension within the Lenni Lenape nation. In early 1776, a pro-British faction emerged led by Hopocan, a sachem of the wolf clan and war chief for the Lenni Lenape nation. Hopocan’s opposition made it increasingly difficult for White Eyes to maintain tribal unity.

White Eyes continued to argue for Indian neutrality through 1776, sending messengers to neighboring tribes. His messengers were scorned, however, and by October 1776, the threat of a combined British-Indian army trampling through Lenni Lenape villages caused a worried White Eyes to appeal directly to the Americans for help. The deteriorating situation worsened when General Schuyler marched 700 Continental soldiers into Mohawk territory in pursuit of the Loyalist Sir John Johnson. The action drove the Mohawks into open conflict against the Americans, placing additional pressure on the Lenni Lenape to react. Yet, in a letter to Congress of September 22, 1777, White Eyes assured the Americans that despite “the dark clouds arising over my head,” he would “still hold fast to the chain of friendship, and now more than ever.” In a follow-up letter of September 23, he assured Colonel Morgan that while “the other [Indian] Nations have served me so ill,” this would “not discourage [me] or make me faint.” White Eyes continued to hope that his neutralist diplomacy would provide the Lenni Lenape with a lasting, stable place within the United States.

In March 1778, Loyalists told Hopocan that the Americans planned to attack the Lenni Lenape, and that their only hope was to commence hostilities first. White Eyes labored to counter the pro-war sentiment, and won a postponement of the attack. In July 1778, it appeared likely that the Wiandot Indians would attack the Lenni Lenape, and White Eyes wrote a desperate letter to Colonel Morgan, pleading for help. Ultimately the rumors proved false, and the Coshocton Lenni Lenape continued to maintain their neutrality.

Finally, in September 1778, at a meeting at Fort Pitt, White Eyes won recognition of Lenni Lenape lands from the United States. For a brief moment, it appeared that the prophet of peace had secured a way in which Indians and Americans could live in harmony. The American commissioners agreed to recognize all Lenni Lenape land claims north of the Ohio River, and that the Indians of the Ohio River Valley would “form a state whereof the Delaware Nation shall be the head, and have a representation in Congress: Provided, nothing in this article to be considered as conclusive until it meets with the approbation of Congress.” Whether or not the American commissioners negotiated such a treaty in good faith, or if there existed any chance of Congressional acceptance are matters for speculation. For the moment, White Eyes’s vision of a Lenni Lenape state was no longer just a dream, but an actual possibility.

Tragically, the grand vision of a Lenni Lenape state never came about. In November 1778, American militiamen allegedly mistook White Eyes for a militant Indian, and murdered him. Fearing the effect on the neutralist Indians, the Americans at first claimed that White Eyes died of smallpox. Colonel George Morgan later related the truth. White Eyes’s death removed the last chance for peace between the United States and the Indians of the Ohio River Valley. American relations with the Coshocton Lenni Lenapes soured in 1779, and the last neutral Indians joined the pro-British factions. Although the American war with Britain formally concluded in 1783, fighting between the United States and the Indians of the Ohio River Valley continued sporadically. If White Eyes had not died, history might have been very different, and thirty years of bloodshed might have been avoided.


Primary Source Documents: White Eyes

From White Eyes’s speech at treaty negotiations taking place at Fort Pitt in October 1775 between the delegates from the American Continental Congress and the Ottawa Shawnee western Seneca, and Lenni Lenape, or Delaware, Indians. (Taken from Reuben Gold Thwaites and Louise Phelps Kellogg, The Revolution on the Upper Ohio, 1775-1777, Draper Series, Volume 2, Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society 1908), 99-100 108-110.)

Brothers. I now inform you that we are Extreemely rejoiced at what we heard the day before Yesterday from you and all the White People [who] Account themselves as one Body and that Virginia is not alone for the future. when we look we shall Esteem you all one People. . .
I now Brother Assure you I am very Much rejoiced you offer me your hand to take hold of. I Gladly Accept it and shall not let it fall to the Ground . . . we now desire you Brothers to be strong and finish the Business we are come about . . and when we have Finished this good Work there will never be any Occasion of Difference between our Children and your Children but that they will have reason to remember it and call it the Blessed Council of Peace . .

Capt. John Killbuck and Capt. White Eyes in private Council at Pittsburgh October 24, 1776, concerning the possibility of a combined British-Iroquois attack against the Lenni Lenape. (Taken from the George Morgan Letterbook, Carnegie Library, Pittsburgh, PA.)

Capt. White Eyes spoke as follows,
Brother, We have come to talk to you about the Clouds which seem to threaten you & our peace–Yesterday two Messengers arriv’d with Wampum to Capt. Pipe who keeps secret from us all the News he heard–We cannot learn what these Messengers have come about–they are to return tomorrow–We therefore recommend to you to send for them & Capt. Pipe & enquire their Business; for we fear they are no’ doing what is good–We have been told that a stroke is intended against you here from the English at Detroit while we are talking of Peace & that Guy Johnson [British Superintendent of Indian Affairs for New York] is to come by way of Prisque Isle & the Western Nations are to cross the Ohio with the English army–This may be all Lies but there seems to be some thing bad abroad . .

From the letterbook of George Morgan reporting on negotiations with Indians including the Iroquois November 5 1776 where the Mohickan Indians ignore the counsel of the Lenni Lenape and declare war against the Americans. (Taken from Iroquois Indians: A Documentary History of the Six Nations and Their League, Microfilm edition, (Woodbridge, CT: Research Publications, 1984). reel 32)

Capt. White Eyes spoke as follows,
Brothers,
Yesterday I inform’d you that I would speak to our Brethren the Mohickons who are my own Flesh & Blood, as they are situated where you and the English are fighting, we desire you to clear the Road to the place where our Women & Children are, the reason of my requesting this is that I feel myself strangely affected, & my Eyes flash with Anger; as your Brethren the Mohickons have taken up the Tomahawk to assist you [the Americans] we do not blame them, nor desire them to lay it down, . . . I feel my Heart strangely moved: I am a Warrior, I have fought with the Six Nations[.] [Y]esterday you heard me tell them [the Iroquois] that they had reported that they have cut off our Legs, [and] that we did not own a single foot of Land . . . I now tell them they are Liars . . .
Brothers, I acquaint you now that I am no Woman, neither are my Legs cut off: but . . . I now acquaint you that I will not strike any person without provocation, but if any person strikes me I will return the Blow . . . The Six Nations told our Grandfathers they had made Women of them, & appointed them as Head Counsellors in all Treaties, they have not mentioned this: this is the reason of our being strong, & holding fast the Chain of Friendship with our Brethren and all other Nations.

Captain White Eyes’s Message to Congress September 22, 1777, reporting the continued Lenni Lenape neutrality despite imminent attack by the Wiandot and Mingo Indians. Taken from Reuben Gold Thwaites and Louise Phelps Kellog, Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778, Draper Series, Volume 3, Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 19121, 95-97.)

Brother, When I was at Pittsburgh last I acquainted Mr. Morgan of all that passed in the Indian Country, that the Wiandots, Mingoes and others were coming to strike our Brethren the Virginians, & that it was no more in my Power to stop them, that they would march by Cuchachunk, as they also did, and we could not hinder it because they were too strong . . .
Brother, As I see the dark Clouds arising over my head, I still hold fast to the chain of friendship, and now more than ever. But since the Battle at Weelunk it seems by account we had, as if you would drop the friendship, because you hear that these Warriors had said, they came from Cuchachunk, ‘tho I told you before hand that their Chief Design was to bring the White People upon us to strike us.
Brother . . . Let us therefore not drop our friendship for the sake of a bad Word of some foolish People. It is a work of great Importance which the Honble. Congress of the thirteen United States had undertaken and continued until now. I should be very sorry that our Communication with one another should be stopped entirely.
Brother. We made out with one another, that if an Army should march in the Indian Country it should take its march above & below our Towns that our Women & Children might remain quiet & not be too much frightened, which I hope you will remember and order it to be done according to our agreement.
This is all Brother, I have to say at present, pray let us hear an answer from you as soon as possible.

Captain White Eyes’s Message to Colonel Morgan, September 23, 1777, thanking the Americans for assurances that there would be no reprisals against Lenni Lenape in response to attacks by the Wiandots and Mingoes. (Taken from Reuben Gold Thwaites and Louise Phelps Kellogg, Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778, Draper Series, Volume 3, Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 100-101.)

Brother, I was exceeding glad to see your Messengers coming to me & so much more rejoiced to see them because I was already [at] a Loss what to do, to get some Intelligence from you, and I was just ready to send a Messenger to the fort when Mr. Elliott and his Company arrived to my great Joy & to the Joy of all my Men Women & Children. For 210 Warriors, Wiandots, Mingo’s & other Nations who had joined & taken up the Tomahawk & struck our Brothers the Virginians had also agreed as we heard that when they should have struck the Virginians they would come here & leave the Tomahawk sticking in our heads, because they said we were Virginians. It is but a few Days ago since these Warriors went through our Town saying with great Joy, it would not be long that this Town would be no more . . .
Brother, Therefore I am glad to hear you, that you encourage me to be strong and so I will do. That the other Nations have served me so ill shall not discourage nor make me faint, the faster I shall take hold to our Chain of friendship . .

Captain White Eyes to Colonel George Morgan, July 19, 1778, reporting that White Eyes no longer possesses any diplomatic influence over the Wiandots. (Taken from Reuben Gold Thwaites and Louise Phelps Kellogg, Frontier Advance on the Upper Ohio, 1778-1779, Draper Series, Volume 4, Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1916), 117-118.)

Brother Taimenend [George Morgan]:
According to your desire I spoke once more to the Wiandots but am sorry that I must inform you that they will not listen to me any more which they now have told very plain.
Brother: At a Treaty at Detroit the Nations have agreed to fall upon the Delaware, & the Wiandots are to make the beginning. It is always said that we shall not listen to the singing Birds, but now I have listen’d to them, because I believe it to be true. The reason why I believe it is, because two young Delaware men have been there at the Treaty & saw the Tomahawk handed to all Nations & it was also given to them to carry it to me . . . It was told at the same time that whosoever would not take the Tomahawk he should be whipped. . .
Brother: I have always told you that I shall hold fast to our friendship so long as the Sun shine & the Rivers run, & so my heart is yet. I still hold fast to our friendship, but you know that I am weak & am in need of your assistance. If you do not assist me now as soon as possible then I shall be ruin’d & destroy’d. . .


For Further Reading:

Colin Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country (1995).
Gregory Dowd, A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity (1992).
Douglas Hurt, The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1720–1830 (1996).
C. A. Weslager, The Delaware Indians (1972).
Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region,
1650–1815 (1991).