Speech of Wa-o-wa-wa-na-onk, an Indian Chief [Peter Wilson]




Of Wa-o-wa-wa-na-onk, an educated

Indian Chief, addressed to the Com-

mittee of Baltimore Yearly Meeting of Friends

on Indian Concerns, 10 mo. 29, 1848.


My Friends:


            It is by the kind Providence and paternal care of the Great Spirit, that we have been enabled to meet here this evening.  Some of us have come a long distance, and during our journey have been safely conducted through dangers both seen and unseen, yet the hand of the spoiler has not fallen upon us.  For these blessings we are indebted to the master of life, and it behooves us to render our gratitude to him.  Before I proceed further I must ask your indulgence for the imperfect and perhaps slow manner I may be able to express myself.  I am not in the habit of public speaking, except to my own people and in my native tongue.  My ideas come to me in that language, and I shall be obliged to translate them into yours, before I can communicate them to you.


            I feel thankful that I am permitted to be with you at this time, and to have had an opportunity of hearing the minutes and proceedings of this Committee for the past year read, by which I am enabled to become more fully acquainted with your devoted and untiring labors for the welfare of the Seneca nation.


            In making the few remarks I am now about to offer for your consideration, I will ask leave briefly to refer to the history of the relations between my nation and the Society of Friends,[1] since the commencement of your care towards us.


            In the first instance the attention of the Society was drawn to the case of the New York Indians, by our celebrated chief Red Jackett,[2] who was at that time the principal sachem of the tribe, had great influence, and had always manifested a deep interest the for the welfare and prosperity of his nation.  Finding his life drawing to a close, and contemplating the many perils to which his people were about to be exposed, and when, to borrow his own words, "his voice and counsel would no longer be heard:" this great man, under the conviction that all things were passing away, and  sensible that he too would soon become numbered with the things that were, feeling (as I before stated) a deep interest for the welfare of his tribe, looked around to see if there were none that could be found who would extend a paternal care over his poor oppressed people.  His experience of the past, and his knowledge of the character of the Society of Friends, led him to make an appeal to this Society.  At first, he received no encouragement, as you then had the charge of another tribe,[3] but unwilling to leave his nation without guardians who would protect their interests, he continued to press his suit, until he received an assurance from the Society that they would comply with his request.  It was then that the aged chief felt satisfied that his people would be cared for, and that he might peacefully leave this world and go to the Spirit land, whither his fathers had preceded him.  Thus was the pillow upon the death-bed of this great man softened, and with resignation and joy he departed from this world, and was gathered to his fathers.


            When you came to our relief you found us comparatively in a barbarous state, with little or no light of civilization, and living in a wilderness country.  You there commenced your operations by diffusing light and knowledge among our people, and by furnishing us with the means of improvement in agriculture as well as in literature; thus, the foundation of our civilization was commenced, and from that time we have been advancing in improvement.  That our people have not improved more rapidly, has not been on account of their disinclination to adopt the habits of civilization, but it is principally owing to the influences brought to bear upon us by our heartless enemies, the land speculators.  They commenced their operations years before they were enabled to consummate the fraudulent treaty of 1838.  Their motives are obvious:  for they naturally reasoned why should the people improve and cultivate their lands while they found themselves continually threatened to be driven from them, back into the wilderness by their enemies, and those in service of their oppressors; yet, in spite of all opposition, under your indefatigable exertions, the nation still steadily continued, their progress in improvements.


            There may be some disposed to say that our advancement was too tardy.  I would challenge the history of any nation to produce a parallel of so rapid improvement among any people from so degraded a condition, and under such unfavorable circumstances.


            The treaty of 1838 brought with it the great events that succeeded in our political history; by the arts of our enemies they had succeeded in depriving us of the means to oppose their wicked schemes, while, by their wealth, they had secured the services of those whom we once considered as our disinterested friends:  thus, while virtually stripping us of everything we possessed, they had rendered us powerless, and unable to offer any resistance to them.  Without friends in our immediate vicinity to intercede for us, or to sympathize in our afflictions----there were those at a distance who professed to be our friends, to whom we applied, and who, after a few struggles, reported to our delegates that our "lands and houses were inevitably lost:  that they had done all in their power to obtain the consent of the President of the United States to recommend a reconsideration of the treaty of 1838," and added, "we regret to say that the President is determined to carry out the treaty, and we would therefore advise you to make the best bargain you can, and remove to the west."[4]


            At this announcement despair and gloom spread over the whole nation; the stoutest hearts among our men were bowed down, under a hopeless dejection, and our women every where were seen in tears!  We felt that all was lost, and that our children were now doomed to destruction.  In this most deplorable condition, without friends to advise, or hope to support and console us, an appeal was made to your Committee,[5] and through you to the society you represented; we implored that you would extend pity and sympathy towards us, and aid us in an attempt to wrest from the hands of our enemies our birthright, which they had feloniously taken from us and our children.


            You, who had made a solemn promise to the dying chief, when he was about to leave us, that you would be the guardians of his people, immediately began to redeem your pledge, by devoting all your means and talents to the cause of the oppressed Senecas, and after years of unremitting toil and labor, in which you spared neither time nor expense; your indefatigable labors were at last crowned with success; a portion of our lands, which had been taken from us, were receded, and our homes restored to us, and the nation saved from destruction![6]  All of these results were new precedents in our history, for hitherto, when lands had once been taken from any Indian tribe, it was irrevocably lost, and the people were driven from their home into the wilderness---never before was an acre of land ever restored to an Indian!!


            There were a portion of our people who had become deluded by the promises made through some corrupt agents of the Government, and during their delerium were persuaded to emigrate to the west;[7] these, within a year from the time of their removal, suffered greatly by the loss of health and the death of many of their companions:  at length the cry of distress came from the survivors of the emigrant party on the western prairies; you heard the result of their injudicious and fatal experiment---their painful history---that they were fast drooping into their last resting place, leaving widows and destitute orphans, who were rapidly following their companions.


            When the wretched survivors implored your aid, although they had emigrated contrary to your advice and counsel, your hearts were moved to sympathy on their behalf, and you again imparted charity for their relief, by which a portion was snatched from untimely graves:  thus you have faithfully redeemed your pledge to our departed sachem, and disinterestedly extended a paternal care over our people.  In addition to all this, you have protected our rights, and secured to us many valuable legislative enactments, calculated to promote our interest and improvement.  You have, at great expense, collected and published authenticated proofs of the injustice and wrongs inflicted upon us.  By these publications[8] you have shewn that the treaty of 1838, by which we were to be deprived of the lands descended to us from our forefathers, was fraudulently obtained---these books were extensively read, and especially in the western parts of the State of New York.  The consequence was, at general feeling of pity was felt for us.  The Legislature of that State, upon becoming informed through these publications, of our real condition and circumstances, lost no time in affording us all the protection in its power, and moreover extended to us the full benefits of its general school system, and made liberal appropriations for the erection of school houses and maintaining schools upon our Reservations.


            I am now returning from a mission on which I have been sent to the Government of the United States, and am gratified to be able to inform you, that on this occasion I have received satisfactory evidence of the continued friendly feelings of the Indian bureau towards my people.  The Government have manifested a kind disposition to comply with our request,[9] and I have every reason to believe they will do so.  It will be unnecessary for me to relate to you the incidents that occurred during my interview with the officers of the department, as these have been fully explained to you by the Clerk of your Committee, who was present on that occasion.[10]


            It is with deep concern I am obliged to acknowledge that the Senecas under the care of this Committee, are now, and have from some months past, been, in a state of great excitement and dissention in regard to their political concerns.


            The Indians at Cattaraugus and Alleghany are no longer the ignorant listless people they formerly were, but they have become a reflecting and intelligent community, capable of enquiring into their situation, and of perceiving the grievances and oppression they have suffered from the bad administration of their affairs by the chiefs, who hold their power without responsibility or limitation, and have frequently betrayed their trust, even so far as to squander the public funds without regard to the general good, and through corrupt influences have sold and alienated the land of the nation by fraudulent treaties, by which the people who had built houses and cleared land to live on, have had their homes taken from them without their consent.  And this injustice would again have been inflicted upon them, under the fraudulent treaty of 1838, had the nation not been saved by the interposition of the Society of Friends.  The people, goaded by these abuses, have at length aroused from their lethargy, and are determined to divest the chiefs of their power, which they have so much abused, and to establish a just and equitable government, by annually electing their own rulers, and holding them to a strict responsibility.  It is this state of things that has produced the present excitement in the Seneca nation.  The chiefs, like all other arbitrary men in authority, are not disposed to relinquish their power without a struggle, and the people are determined they shall be reduced to a level with the other citizens.[11]


            We hope you will perceive in this movement that the Senecas have indeed profited by the care and instruction you have given them.  In a word, we hope you will see that they have become sufficiently intelligent to understand their rights, and that they have the firmness to maintain them.  For this they should not be censured.  They are only following the example of the American people, who did the same thing when they were under the oppression of British tyranny.  Your fathers declared that they would be free, and solemnly pledged their lives, their fortunes, and sacred honor, to sustain their firm resolves. 


            This age is a progressive age!  The old established monarchies of the eastern world are daily tumbling into ruins,[12] and the people, long subjected to despotism, are metamorphosed into republicans and citizens; kings and emperors are deserting the palaces of their fathers, and these are converted into public halls, where the principles of liberty and freedom may be discussed; or into asylums for charitable purposes.


            Is there here one whose bosom does not heave, or whose heart does not beat in unison and sympathy for the oppressed that are thus struggling to become emancipated?  Is there one here whose philanthropic and patriotic spirit is not aroused, when the thrilling tidings come over the great salt waters, that millions of human beings are becoming free:  that the spirit of freedom has crossed from America over the great ocean into the old world, and there planted the standard of liberty?  I am aware my friends you do not approve of war, but I know that you are advocates of liberty.  Shall the Indian then be censured because he too has become infected with the epidemic that pervades the political atmosphere in this free America?  No, I trust not!  The political agitation among our people is but the onward and upward progress in the scale of civilization, and it is hoped that ere long the people will arrive to the elevated position of your people, where the friends of the Indians have long desired to welcome them.


            The reports you have received from your friends who have visited the Reservation will have made you acquainted with the vast improvement that, by your assistance, has taken place in the comforts of our families.  We have been raised from the state of wretchedness and despair in which you found us after the treaty of 1838, into a condition of comparative security and comfort.  Feeling ourselves secure in the possession of our homes, our people have gone to work, have opened farms, built comfortable houses, and surrounded themselves with all the conveniences necessary for our families, while many of our children are receiving school education.  The female manual labor school which you have established among us, is producing most important benefits, by affording the requisite instruction to enable our young women to become good housekeepers, and our Reservation now produces an ample supply of the requisite food for our population, and even a considerable surplus, for which we find a market among the neighboring white population.  Under these circumstances may I not venture to hope the Society of Friends will find encouragement to continue their labors and care towards us.  With you to advise and support us we will be strong, and have nothing to fear; without you we shall be weak and helpless, our old enemies---the land speculators, are hovering about us, ready to pounce upon us at any moment when they see an opening to rob and destroy us.  If you desert us they will have new confidence, and redouble their exertions to circumvent and plunder us.


            Permit me therefore to conclude by expressing my earnest hope that this Committee, and the Society they represent, will continue their labors and care towards us until we shall become able to walk alone, and when we shall have arrived at a maturity that will enable us to sustain ourselves, and come to enjoy all the relations and privileges of American citizens.


Versailles,[13] Nov. 14th 1848.


To the Committee of Friends on Indian Concerns, Baltimore.


            Esteemed Friends,---I have just this moment finished writing out my "talk" at Baltimore, and which I now forward as requested by several members of your Committees.  You will pardon me for not sending it before.  It is not as full as I could have desired, but I think as far as it goes, you will find it a correct report of what I said on that occasion.

                                    Your Friend,

                                                PETER WILSON.

[1] Quakers


[2] Seneca Chief  (1756-1830)


[3] Friends (Quakers) witnessed treaty sessions between the U. S. and the Six Nations for the first time in

   1794.  Prior to that time they worked with tribes in Ohio and with the Delawares. Through

   the early 1800's they worked with numerous tribes throughout the northeast.   Friends

   Committee on National Legislation, Issues:  Native American.  http://.fcnl.org/issues/item.


[4] Reference is to Government Indian Agents.


[5] Indian Affairs Committee - Baltimore Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends. 


[6] The Seneca reacquired two reservations:  Cattaraugus Reservation (21,680 acres) and Allegany

   Reservation (30,469 acres), plus monetary compensation for the Buffalo Creek (49,920 acres)

   and Tonnawanda (21,680 acres) reservations.  Indian Affairs:  Laws and Treaties.  Vol. 2, Treaties.

   Government Printing Office, 1904.


[7] Wilson is referring to Native Americans affected under the Indian Removal Act of 1830, which

   was a government policy to displace Indians from their tribal lands to West of the Mississippi River. 

   U. S. Department of State, Indian Treaties and the Removal Act of 1830.


   After signing the 1838 Treaty selling the remaining four reservations, provisions were made for

   the Seneca to remove to Kansas.  Most did not move and after signing the new 1842 treaty all,

   except two, returned.  Buffalo Historical Society Publications and Index. (1837-1838) Reprinted by

   Cornell University.  http://www.buffaloah.com .


[8] Publicity campaigns and government petitions.  Chronology of Major Events in the History of Friends

   and Native Americans.    http://fcnl.org.


[9]  Seneca Nation became a democracy and adopted a Constitution in 1848.  Seneca Nation



[10] A possible reference to John Jackson (1809-1855)  who served as Clerk for the Committee beginning  

    about 1844. John Jackson Papers, 1827-1849, Swarthmore Library.


[11] Referring to the Seneca democracy.  Constitution adopted in 1848.


[12] Referring to wide-spread revolutionary activity in Western Europe around 1848.


[13] Town in New York.