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How Quakers Misjudged the Indians

THE POLITICAL SUCCESS, even the very survival of an American colony, often depended on a realistic estimate of the Indian. But the Quakers’ view of the Indian was of a piece with their attitude toward war: it was unrealistic, inflexible, and based on false premises about human nature. The problem was never better summarized than in the speech by Teedyuscung, Chief of the Delawares, at a conference with Pennsylvania leaders in July 1756. In his hand he held a belt of wampum, which had lately been given him by the Iroquois: a large square represented the land of the Indians; on one side stood an Englishman and on the other a Frenchman—both ready to seize the land. Chief Teedyuscung pleaded that the Pennsylvanians show their friendship by guaranteeing that no more land would be taken from the Indians. While the Chief’s description was an oversimplification he had surely stated the heart of the matter. The increasing, westward-flowing population of the Province was passing like a tidal wave over Indian lands. The troubles of the Indians could no longer be reduced to niceties of protocol, to maxims of fair play, or to clichés of self-reproach. Here was one of those great conflicts in history when a mighty force was meeting a long-unmoved body; either the force had to be stopped or the body had to move.

But the Quakers chose not to see it that way. Their policy in this crisis of the affairs of Pennsylvania showed a spectacular, if not altogether surprising, failure of practical vision. They seemed as blind to the long-term problems and interests of the Indians as to the character of these unfamiliar people with whom they were dealing. In 1748, for example, the Quaker Assembly had refused to vote money for the defense of Philadelphia, but appropriated £500 for the Indians, accompanying it by the pious wish that the money be used to “supply them with necessaries towards acquiring a livelihood and cultivate the friendship between us and not to encourage their entering into a war.” How could Quaker men of the world have failed to guess that Indian lead and powder would not be used solely to shoot bear and deer? For that failure of practical judgment Irish and German settlers on the western border would have to pay dearly. Some years later, in the fall of 1756, when the Quaker Assembly in Philadelphia heard of the bloodbath in the west, they at once began to investigate the source of Indian grievances. Instead of providing for military defense, the Assembly produced a bill for the better regulation of trade with the Indians, authorizing commissioners who would see that the Indians were fairly treated and enacting such guarantees as maximum prices on goods sold to them. Such admirable measures were small comfort to backwoodsmen who saw their homes in flames, their crops ruined, their wives and children scalped or captured.

The political conflict between the non-Quaker Deputy-Governor Robert Hunter Morris and the Quaker Assembly came to the fore. The Deputy-Governor, in defense of the Proprietors, declared that Indian grievances against the Proprietors had nothing to do with the massacres and that the real trouble lay in Quaker pacifism which had left the province defenseless. On the other side, the Quakers traced all ills to the wicked policies of the Proprietors. In the middle stood Franklin, who now had a considerable following among the less orthodox Quakers; he did not oppose a more just Indian policy, but he demanded immediate measures for military defense. Still the minority of die-hard Quakers which controlled the Assembly would not budge from its traditional pacifism, though the whole border might burn for it.

The massacres continued; panic gripped western Pennsylvania. Murder was rampant; whole townships were broken up, their populations driven from their homes. George Stevenson wrote from York, on November 5, 1755, that the real question there was “whether we shall stand or run? Most are willing to stand, but have no Arms nor Ammunition.” The government gave no answer to appeals. “People from Cumberland are going thro this Town hourly in Droves and the Neighbouring Inhabits are flocking into this Town Defenseless as it is.” While settlers on the border suffered the murderous blows of the tomahawk, those further east had the burden of supporting growing numbers of refugees.

It is hardly surprising that the patience of the people of Pennsylvania had worn thin. Toward the end of November 1755, about three hundred desperate Germans from the west arrived in Philadelphia to demand action of the Assembly. They succeeded in frightening the Assembly into a show of compliance and, through the Provincial Agent, petitioned the English Privy Council to remedy their defenseless condition. These months saw a growing and unprecedented division of sentiment within the Quaker community itself. The Philadelphia Yearly Meeting in September still evaded the issue by refusing to take a position on the large military appropriation needed for defense. Many would have agreed with Israel Pemberton that the events of the summer and fall of 1755 had “produc’d a greater & more fatal change both with respect to the state of our affairs in general & among us as a Society than seventy preceding years.”

By July 1756, the French commandant at Fort Duquesne reported with satisfaction that he had “succeeded in ruining the three adjacent provinces, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, driving off the inhabitants, and totally destroying the settlements over a tract of country thirty leagues wide reckoning from the line of Fort Cumberland…. The Indian villages are full of prisoners of every age and sex. The enemy has lost far more since the battle than on the day of his defeat.”

But still the Quakers had not been shocked into discovering the weaknesses of their idealized Indians. They seemed indifferent to the fact that the Indian leaders with whom they dealt were sometimes half-demented with drink. For example, the wildly contradictory demands of their good friend Teedyuscung, while the Quakers were purporting to represent him in late July 1756, were made while he was under the influence of liquor. But somehow, whether from optimism, pity, or blindness, the Quakers were not prepared to take this fact into account.

The needs of the London Government and the policies of Virginia and Maryland identified Pennsylvanians in the eyes of the Indians with British expansion, and with land-grabbing enterprises like the Ohio Company, however much the people of Pennsylvania might deplore it. Indian politics were no simple matter: a gesture of friendship to one tribe might be taken as a declaration of war by that tribe’s enemies. By choosing an alliance in 1742 with the Iroquois, for example, Pennsylvania had willy-nilly become involved in the troubles between the Iroquois and the Delawares and thus sowed seeds of trouble to be reaped thirteen years later. When, in 1756, the Quakers were present at negotiations with Teedyuscung, Chief of the Delawares, they pressed their non-Quaker Governor to conclude a peace treaty, but Governor Morris had the good sense to see that such a separate peace would probably incense the powerful Iroquois. This was all an intricate and delicate business not to be settled by moral slogans or abstract principles.

Some initiative by the Quakers was urgent if they were not to lose all popular support at a time when the colony was panicked by Indian violence. They chose to take this initiative entirely outside the government, even in competition with it, when, in July of 1756, they formed the “Friendly Association for Regaining and Preserving Peace with the Indians by Pacific Measures.” Through this non-governmental association the Quakers intended to deal with the Indians and to pacify them without sacrifice of principles. Despite their noble intentions, the Quakers’ activities among the Indians in those desperate times can hardly be called anything but meddling. The Governors of Pennsylvania, however tactless or ineffective, did at least see quite accurately the character of the Indian problem. The Friendly Association succeeded only in further confusing matters, in leading the Indians to distrust those rulers of Pennsylvania with whom they would finally have to deal, and in postponing any arrangement satisfactory to the new settlers of Pennsylvania.

On one occasion during the slippery negotiations of 1756, the Quakers persuaded the Delaware Indians to designate Israel Pemberton, a Quaker leader, as the representative with whom the Governor of Pennsylvania would have to deal in all Indian affairs. This ambiguous confidence pleased the Quakers, but they had only the vaguest notion of whom or what they were representing. Actually they were in no position to serve either the Indians or the people of Pennsylvania. They simply complicated the Governor’s problem and led him to threaten that he would treat them as enemies of the King if they did not cease their tampering.

The Quaker preoccupation with their principles blinded them to the most obvious facts. In April 1751, for example, the Quaker Assembly, refusing the offer of the Proprietors of the Province to help build a fort, showed their usual complacency. “As we have always found that sincere, upright Dealing with the Indians, a friendly Treatment of them on all Occasions, and particularly in relieving their Necessities at proper Times by suitable Presents, have been the best Means of securing their Friendship, we could wish our Proprietaries had rather thought fit to join with us in the Expence of those presents, the Effects of which have at all Times so manifestly advanced their Interests with the Security of our Frontier Settlements.” Even after the storm broke on the frontier and after the western inhabitants of Pennsylvania had begun to reap the fiery harvest of a half-century of Quaker generosity and non-resistance to the Indians, many Quakers remained blind to the practical moral of it all. One of the most fantastic examples of this blindness is found in the journal of Daniel Stanton, one of the numerous itinerant Quaker zealots who carried the messages of the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting to remote parts of America. To him the relatively small number of Quakers massacred by the Indians during the frontier attacks of 1755-56 was a testimony of God’s approval of the Quaker policy. He could not deny that the Indians had been “an heavy rod of chastisement on this land; yet remarkable it was, that through the protection of Almighty, which was as the shadow of a mighty rock in a wearied land, few called by our name were ill used during all this calamity.” A more valid explanation of Quaker luck, though less flattering to their self-righteousness, was that almost all the Quakers were then living in the eastern portion of the province, separated by two hundred miles of mountainous and river-traced terrain from the “barbarous and cruel enemy.”

Franklin was not impressed by the fact that the Quakers on the eastern seaboard had, by good luck or God’s grace or whatever other means, still escaped the fury of the Indians. He was more concerned, in August 1756, to see “our frontier people continually butchered,” and he lamented the delays in fighting back. “In short,” Franklin concluded with characteristic directness, “I do not believe we shall ever have a firm peace with the Indians, till we have well drubbed them.”

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