Canadian Refuge #3: Borders New and Old

This is the third in a series of posts that will look at the long history of Americans seeking refuge and opportunity in Canada. Previous posts examined the history of the Vietnam draft and draft dodging, and the history of slaves seeking refuge before the Civil War.  Upcoming posts will examine Rum runners who used Canada as a supply station during Prohibition, and Loyalists who found sanctuary there during and after the American Revolution.

Red Jacket Monument and Grave
Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, NY

In the previous two posts in this series, I looked at groups that fled the US to Canada with the knowledge that they would be welcomed and safe in their adopted home. But that was not the case for all American refugees to Canada; today we’ll look at how Native Americans navigated the Canadian-American border at times of crisis, knowing that they were not necessarily safe in either domain.

The history of North America’s native population is, of course, incredibly complex and long. It is impossible to generalize for all Native peoples (as it is impossible for any group of people), a fact that becomes eminently clear when looking at especially the late 1700s and early 1800s, around three wars: the ‘French and Indian’ or Seven Years War, the American Revolution, and the War of 1812. These conflicts, which had dramatic effects on the destinies of both Canada and the US, also shaped the futures of the Native nations that spanned the new and evolving border. Their struggle in the face of expansionism and conflict gives us a trans-national look at the Canadian-American frontier and helps us see how Native peoples used that border – and those distinctions – to navigate this dangerous new reality.

Too often, the history of Native Americans is told as one that lacks agency. This has been true throughout the twists and turns of American historiography: Native Americans have been shown as savage and uncivilized, an approach which denies the possibility of rational agency; the noble savage, more a statue than a human; or the eternal victim, which presupposes that the only action worth considering is that of the oppressor. None of these tropes account for the variety of ways in which Native peoples of the eastern portion of North America dealt with, interacted with, and reacted to Western expansion into their lands throughout the 1600s, 1700s, and early 1800s.

The Onandowaga, or Seneca, nation of western New York was one of the most established and powerful Native nations of the 1700s. They were a critically important member of the five (later six) nation Iroquois Confederacy, a multi-national alliance centered on Lake Ontario. Through much of the 1700s, their contact with European powers – by then encroaching on Seneca land from several directions – had been peaceful. They traded with the Dutch and French, both of whom had settlements near Seneca territory, and by the mid-1700s had signed friendship treaties with a few British colonies (notably Pennsylvania and Virginia). However, the power politics of the period drew them into conflict directly; they fought with the British and American colonists during the Seven Years War, which drove the French out of their North American land and established British claims over all North American territory east of the Mississippi.

The Iroquios – including the Seneca – sided with the British during the American Revolution, and as a result were forced from much of their original land. Many Iroquois followed Mohawk leader Joseph Brant into Canada, to create a community at Grand River in southern Ontario. Today, that community remains, now called the Six Nations Reservation. Over 10,000 Seneca live within that community. Other Seneca, however, decided to stay. Among them was Red Jacket, whose monument is at the top of this post. Red Jacket was deeply controversial among the Seneca; often spoken of as a coward early in his life, he became closely tied to American power, and had a close relationship with George Washington. However, he also raised himself in stature in the years following the war. In 1805, he responded to the advances of an American missionary with a speech called, variously, “Religion for the White Man and the Red” and “Speech to the US Senate”. In his speech, he defended Seneca religion, contrasting it with Christianity as he saw it practiced by Americans. It became a well-known work of oratory, and one which was seized upon by romantic writers and transcendentalists after his death.

His monument in Buffalo, as seen above, is a legacy of that response. Red Jacket died in 1830 and was buried, initially, in a Seneca Burial Ground. However, his legacy in the United States was already growing. In 1876, romantic poet and writer William Bryant raised funds to have Red Jacket’s body exhumed and moved into the new Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, one of the new garden cemeteries that were becoming popular throughout the US. His grandson, Union general Ely S. Parker, supported the move. The new monument stands today just inside the cemetery’s main gate, among the first monuments seen by visitors. One wonders, upon seeing it, what Red Jacket himself would have thought about this final act: removing him from his people’s reservation land and replanting him in territory stolen from them, surrounded by markers to the religion he rejected so thoroughly.

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