The Akwesasne Wolf Belt and the Great Peace of 1760
(Originally published in Indian Time, August 26, 2010)
By Darren Bonaparte
The Akwesasne Wolf Belt, which was repatriated to our community in recent years, will be formally installed at the Akwesasne Cultural Center on Saturday, September 4th, 2010. What is the story behind the belt, and what significance does it have for modern Akwesasronon? An oral tradition about the belt was recorded for posterity in the years before it left the community under questionable circumstances. This legend, recited by a woman who had the belt in her possession, links it to a crucial moment in our history that took place 250 years ago this summer.
In the late 19th century, General Henry B. Carrington, a veteran of the American Civil War, visited Akwesasne and other Iroquois communities in New York to gather information for 11th United States Census. Of particular interest to him was wampum and the oral traditions associated with it. The information he gathered was used by Thomas Donaldson to compile an extra census bulletin on the Six Nations of New York, which was published in 1892.
“The St. Regis Indians, living on both sides of the Saint Lawrence river, have a small collection of wampums, fewer than the Onondagas at Onondaga Castle, near Syracuse,” Donaldson wrote.1 Of this small collection, only one wampum belt was mentioned in the bulletin:
One wampum, now owned by Margaret Cook, the aged aunt of Running Deer, represents the treaty of George I with the Seven Nations. The king and the head chief are represented with joined hands, while on each side is a dog, watchful of danger, and the emblem is supposed to be the pledge: “We will live together or die together. We promise this as long as water runs, skies do shine, and night brings rest”. 2
There is little doubt that this was the wampum known as the Akwesasne Wolf Belt, which was repatriated to Akwesasne in recent years by the New York State Museum in Albany, New York. The museum purchased the belt from anthropologist Harriet Converse, who acquired the belt within years of Carrington’s visit. In his 1901 monograph, Wampum and Shell Articles Used by the New York State Indians, Rev. William Beauchamp documented the acquisition:
Fig. 229 is a fine emblematic belt, with a wolf and black horizontal bars at each end, and two men clasping hands in the center. It is 14 rows deep, and mostly of white beads. It has been called a Mohawk totem belt, and was bought at St. Regis, July 24, 1898, by Mrs Converse. She writes: “Date unknown. Purchased from a St. Regis Indian, and known as the Wolf belt. Supposed to be a treaty between the French and the Mohawks. The center figures—two men—represent the king and an Indian clasping hands in friendship. The seven purple lines signify seven nations, white the peace paths guarded at each end, east and west, by sachems of the Wolf clan, symbolized by the purple animal figures. The hereditary keeper of the Long House was a Wolf, the Do-ga-e-o-ga of the Mohawks according to John Buck. The Do-ne-ho-ga-weh of the western door was also a Wolf.” The Mohawk chief mentioned was a Turtle, but the Seneca chief is correct. The Mohawks treated with the French, but were never in their alliance, and the emblems are those of the middle of the 18th century. At that time the western Iroquois were balancing between the English and the French.3
Converse may have acquired the belt from someone other than Margaret Cook, as the story slightly changed since Carrington spoke to her. The Seven Nations and Great Britain became the Mohawks and the French, and the dogs at the end of the belt changed to wolves. Converse was more personally associated with the Six Nations than the Seven Nations, which by then had begun to fade away as a political forum, and she may have included information about the wolf clan being door keepers of the longhouse to bolster its value to a potential buyer.
Assuming that the earlier tradition may be more historically reliable, is there any event in history that would correspond with the legend? The leading contender for this would be the Great Peace of 1760 that brought an end to the French and Indian War. The summer of 2010 marks the 250th anniversary of the time when a combined force of British troops under General Jeffrey Amherst and several hundred Iroquois warriors—including Joseph Brant, Cornplanter and Handsome Lake—made their way down the St. Lawrence to conquer what was left of New France. The native allies of the French realized they had chosen the losing side and sent runners to meet the British forces in the hopes of making some kind of deal. Fortunately, their peaceful overtures were accepted by Sir William Johnson, the Superintendent-General of Indian Affairs and an honorary chief among the Mohawks. On September 1st , while the main British force was camped out at what is now Cornwall, Ontario,
Sir William Johnson and his Myrmidons went to Hasquesashnagh, a small Indian village of the five nations, to smoke the pipe of peace, and to assure them of our protection, upon their future good behavior.4
After this brief parley, ten Akwesasne men climbed into the bateaux and canoes of the British and Iroquois and helped guide them through the treacherous rapids further downstream near modern Valleyfield. With New France’s Indian allies defecting en masse, the French surrendered Montreal without firing a shot in its defense, thus ending the conflict between the two colonial superpowers.
On September 15th and 16th, a week after the signing of the Articles of Capitulation, Sir William Johnson called for a peace council to be held at Kahnawake, the “great council fire” of the Seven Nations alliance. The Seven Nations were formally taken back into the Covenant Chain of Peace and Friendship with the British at this time. A partial transcript of this treaty council has been preserved, and it is from this transcript that we find the following words by a speaker for the Seven Nations to Sir William Johnson:
…We heard and took to
heart the good Words you spoke to us yesterday; We thank you most
heartily for renewing and strengthning the old Covenant Chain which
before this War subsisted between us, and we in the Name of every
Nation here present assure you that we will hold fast the Same, for
…We are greatly oblidged to you for opening the Road from this to your Country, we on our parts assure you to keep it clear of any Obstacle & use it in a friendly Manner…
…You desired us to deliver up your People who are still among us - As you have now settled all matters with us & we are become firm Friends. We who are present here as Representatives of 8 Nations do assure you that what you desired shall be fully agreed to as soon as possible…
…We also agreeable to your Desire yesterday will burry the french hatchet we have made Use of, in the bottomless Pit, never to be Seen more by us or our Posterity…5
The Seven Nations referred to themselves as the Eight Nations in this speech because a new community—Akwesasne—had been created at the onset of the war in 1754. We were considered a satellite village of Kahnawake at first, but we soon took on an increase in population. Abenaki from Odanak (St. Francis) took refuge here when Roger’s Rangers attacked their village in 1759. In 1806, when the Onondaga village of Oswegatchie broke up, many of its people merged with Akwesasne, bringing the number of communities in the alliance back to seven.
Although there is only minimal description of the wampum belts handed back and forth at this peace council, there are at least three whose documented stories seem to suggest a connection to this event. The Akwesasne Wolf Belt is one; the other two are a white belt with seven crosses retained by the Six Nations and a purple belt with a “buried hatchet” held by the Seven Nations. The first belt has been repatriated to the Haudenosaunee Confederacy while the second is in the McCord Museum in Montreal. They are evidence that the greatest peace made in 1760 was not the one we made with the British but the one between the warriors of the Iroquois Confederacy and their Seven Nations kin after five years of bloody conflict.
So if the Wolf Belt is a Covenant Chain belt, why is it important to modern Akwesasronon? One of the promises made by Sir William Johnson to the Seven Nations was that if we agreed to be neutral and not fire upon the British troops as they passed through our territories, we could continue to trade as formerly. This was no little thing, as the Mohawks of the Seven Nations were enjoying a prosperous advantage in trade that was considered illicit by colonial officials. Since there were Mohawks near Montreal and Albany, we were able to trade at both places, whereas everyone else could only trade at one or the other.
Johnson’s promise enshrined this as a treaty right. We know this because when British troops later interfered with our people as they made their way up and down the Lake Champlain corridor, Johnson reminded his superiors of the solemn promise made at the treaty of Kahnawake. General Amherst ordered Johnson to reassure our people that,
…whatever promises have been made, they shall be strictly adhered to, and so long as they behave well, they shall have full liberty for a free and open trade.6
It can reasonably be argued that the modern equivalent of the Lake Champlain corridor between the two colonies would be the US/Canada border, which would mean the Akwesasne Wolf Belt is evidence of an actual treaty right protecting our “free and open trade.” The Supreme Court of Canada has recognized that other agreements between the former native allies of the French and the British Crown in 1760 are binding on Canada today, but so far, nobody from Akwesasne or the other Seven Nations communities has ever invoked this specific treaty when arguing our border-crossing rights before the courts. It may be far too late to do so now, as the courts seem to bend their own rules rather than allow a serious challenge to Canadian sovereignty.
the Crown may have forgotten its obligations and let slip the
Covenant Chain of Peace and Friendship with our people, we do not
have that luxury. We promised to keep a firm hold of our end of the
chain forever. It is a promise worth keeping, if only to ourselves.
Donaldson, Thomas, The Six Nations of New York: The 1892 United
States Extra Census Bulletin. Cornell University Press, Ithaca and
London, 1995, p. 33.
2 Ibid., p. 76.
3 Beauchamp, Rev. William M., Bulletin of the New York State Museum, No. 41, Vol. 8, Wampum and Shell Articles Used by the New York State Indians, University of the State of New York, Albany, 1901, p. 427.
4 Knox, John, The Journal of Captain John Knox, Vol. II, The Champlain Society, Toronto, 1914, p. 556.
5 The Sir William Johnson Papers, Vol. XIII, University of the State of New York, Albany, pages 163-166.
6 MacLeod, D. Peter, The Canadian Iroquois and the Seven Years’ War, Dundurn Press, Toronto and Oxford, 1996, p. 185.