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The Trial of Red Jacket

John Mix Stanley's "The Trial of Red Jacket" is the centerpiece of an exhibit at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.

John Mix Stanley's painting at BECHS

Around the year 1800, the great orator and Seneca Chief Red Jacket was supposedly tried by his fellow Iroquois on a charge of witchcraft. A splendid huge painting of the supposed event is the centerpiece of a recently installed exhibit at the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society. And either way—whether it actually happened or didn’t—it’s an intriguing story.

The painting is by the redoubtable artist John Mix Stanley, who grew up in Buffalo. He painted it in the 1860s, many decades after the supposed event, based on a remark New York Governor DeWitt Clinton made around 1810.

The painting shows Red Jacket, speaking, apparently defending himself, amid a large circle of Indians, seated and standing, in a forest setting.

Notably, there are also two white men among the circle of auditors of Red Jacket’s defense oration. One is the painter, Stanley, who put himself in his picture. This was pure painterly license. Stanley wasn’t born until 1814. The other is more interesting and possibly more telling. It’s the Reverend Samuel Kirkland, a Presbyterian missionary to the Iroquois.

Two Indians in the circle, one at each side of the painting, are prominent and have been identified as Chief Cornplanter and his half-brother Handsome Lake.

The remark by Governor Clinton was to the effect that Handsome Lake had accused Red Jacket of witchcraft. Hence the trial.

Handsome Lake was an interesting case. After most of a lifetime of wastrel hard drinking, in 1799 he started having religious visions—the visions might have had something to do with all the years of hard drinking—that led him to abandon spirituous liquor altogether, and also formulate a stringent religious code, an amalgam of traditional Iroquois and Christian values. It outlawed such practices as witchcraft, drunkenness, sexual promiscuity, wife-beating, quarreling, and gambling.

The witchcraft allegation against Red Jacket was in line with Handsome Lake’s prohibition of the practice from his code, however he might identify witchcraft activites. The allegation in this instance may have related to Red Jacket’s own well-known heavy use of alcohol. But particularly the presence of Kirkland in the picture suggests the attack on Red Jacket may have related to something bigger than witchcraft, bigger even than alcohol. Namely, the whole matter of the appropriate Indian attitude and response toward the white man’s ever increasing incursions into traditional Indian territories and traditional Indian culture (including of course religion).

Red Jacket, whose attitude in this regard was intransigent in the extreme—eventually he came to pretty much hate the white man and all his works and pomps, at least as they affected Indians—did not make much distinction—and properly so—between the territorial incursions and the cultural (including religious). It was all part of one imperialist package.

In a speech about this time specifically addressing the religious matter (in response to an offer of another missionary—not Kirkland—to come and preach to the Indians), Red Jacket begins with an overview of how, when the first white men came to the new land, the Indians had welcomed them. But then “an evil day came upon us” when the whites’ numbers increased and “they wanted more land; they wanted our country. Our eyes were opened and our minds became uneasy. Wars took place. Indians were hired to fight against Indians, and many of our people were destroyed. They also brought strong liquor among us. It was strong and powerful, and has slain thousands…”

Then, getting into the topic at hand: “You have got our country, but are not satisfied; you want to force your religion upon us…You say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit.

If there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it?…We also have a religion which was given to our forefathers and has been handed down to us, their children. We worship in that way. It teaches us to be thankful for all favors we receive, to love each other, and to be united. We never quarrel about religion.”

Finally, he proposes an experiment. “Brother,” he said to the missionary, “we are told that you have been preaching to the white people in this place. These people are our neighbors. We are acquainted with them. We will wait a little while and see what effect your preaching has upon them. If we find it does them good, makes them honest, and less disposed to cheat Indians, we will then consider again of what you have said.” And so sent him packing.

The Cornplanter and Handsome Lake team was of a much more accomodational mind toward the white man, as evidenced by the Christian component of Handsome Lake’s religious code. And Cornplanter about this time functioned as a negotiator between the American government and Indians, and in the War of 1812 proposed getting up an Indian contingent to fight on the American side.

Eventually, Cornplanter may have come to regret his enthusiasm for and active cooperation with the white man. He lived until 1836, the heyday of machinations to extinguish Indian title to the Buffalo Creek Reservation, encompassing the territory we now know as South Buffalo. (Red Jacket died in 1831, Handsome Lake in 1815.)

The exhibit should have done more to make the issues more explicit. But the painting is a beauty and worth seeing, along with the ancillary items on display,

including reproductions or representations of a number of other paintings by Stanley in a wide range of genres. He was an excellent artist, who could produce convincing portraits, evocative landscapes, and realistic action paintings. Unfortunately, about 150 of his paintings on exhibit at the Smithsonian in the 1860s were lost in a fire at the institution.

Also on display is the large silver medal President Washington presented Red Jacket in 1892, basically to co-opt him. It didn’t have quite that effect. But Red Jacket was extremely proud of the medal. He is shown wearing it in all of his portraits, of which there are many shown here, some by artists who may have actually seen Red Jacket.

The medal shows Red Jacket and Washington in friendly encounter—Red Jacket smoking a peace pipe and with war tomahawk lying discarded on the ground—and in the background, an Indian plowing with a team of oxen, white man style. Precisely George Washington’s idea for the Indian. Just do it our way. But on the reservation, that is.

The Stanley painting is owned by the Historical Society but has been in storage.

jack foran

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