One of the Most Important American Documents You’ve Never Heard Of
Colonial Lessons in Civility from the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee
Toward the end of 1721, a Quaker man named Isaac Norris discovered an alarming prediction in The American Almanack for the Year of Christian Account, 1722. A local magistrate, successful merchant, and gentleman farmer, Norris had stepped into the printshop at the Sign of the Bible on Second Street in Philadelphia looking for weather predictions, not astrological speculations. More than a century after the first permanent English settlements were established in Jamestown and still half a century before a then-unimaginable break from the British Empire, colonists of Norris’s era believed they were living in a new age of prosperity and rationality. Few could have expected that 1722 would usher in a crisis so severe that it would transfix the eastern seaboard from Native communities to colonial capitals and lead to debates that still echo today. But the pages of the 1722 American Almanack did provide certain clues about imminent events.
Scanning the almanac pages in the weak December light, perhaps Norris felt no shiver of anticipation over its prediction of a “Total Eclipse of the Moon” sure to be “visible, if the Air be clear, on the 17th day of June.” Illustrated with a woodcut of a dark-faced moon, the book warned that this celestial event “portends much evil.” Specifically, the author Titan Leeds claimed, the year would bring “Consumptions, Feavors, Fears, Exiles.” The list of coming catastrophes grew longer and ever more dire as Leeds predicted the “Death of the Elder People.” Most ominous of all, Leeds called for the “Murder of some,” adding, “and because the Eclipse falls in the 12th house near the Dragons Tail I’ll predict Imprisonment too.” Isaac Norris, sensible Quaker, likely took little alarm at first. What he could not know, as he requested his own personal printing of the almanac—asking the shopkeeper and publisher Andrew Bradford to interleave his copy with blank pages on which he could jot personal notes and to bind the whole thing with a sturdy paperboard cover—was that every one of Leeds’s predictions would soon come to pass.
Before another 12 months went by, the colony would be convulsed by a murder case involving two colonial fur traders and an Indian hunter. After a drunken night of bargaining beside a winter campfire in the woods near the Susquehanna River, two brothers named John and Edmund Cartlidge would assault a Seneca man named Sawantaeny and leave him for dead. Rival investigations by Indian leaders, including a Native spokesman known as “Captain Civility,” and colonial officials, including Isaac Norris, resulted in fierce debates about the nature of true justice.
Many feared the attack might become just the first act of a full-scale war. The crisis created by the confrontation grew so grave that news of it reached the king’s closest counselors on the British Board of Trade. It fueled urgent concern not only among the members of the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee, including the Seneca Nation to which Sawantaeny belonged, but also among all the various Native peoples of the Susquehanna River valley, from Iroquois groups such as the Susquehannock (who were affiliates but not official members of the Five Nations) to Algonquian ones such as the Lenape and the Shawnee. Resolving the case required a region-wide treaty conference, including the governors of three colonies and the leaders of over a dozen Native nations. The Great Treaty of 1722, signed in Albany, New York, in September of that year, brought the case to a close, but it could not put to rest the questions about savagery, civility, and justice it raised.
Today, when people think of the founding documents of the United States, nothing from 1722 is likely to come to mind. Most people, of course, remember the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. Those who have a longer arc of justice in view may think of the “Emancipation Proclamation” of 1863 or, perhaps, the related Civil War-era constitutional amendments that outlawed slavery, guaranteed equal citizenship, and secured the right to vote regardless of race or previous freedom status. Perhaps some will cast their minds still further forward to the 19th Amendment of 1920, granting women the right to vote. A small number may even call up the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, which first offered Native people rights as citizens of the United States. But very few people will ever have found reason to stop to think of an obscure piece of parchment signed at Albany in 1722.
Rare are those who have even heard of this agreement between members of the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee and representatives from the colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Yet this is the oldest continuously recognized treaty in the history of the United States. Much more than a simple diplomatic instrument, the treaty records a foundational American debate over the nature of justice, one with guidance still left to give.
The Great Treaty of 1722 entered into general obscurity almost as soon as it was written. The colonists who traveled to Albany for cross-cultural discussions that autumn believed they were averting a war, but they could not have known that they were enacting a key moment in American culture. Because they regarded the Native leaders they conferenced with as simple “savages,” colonial magistrates could not imagine the possibility that the Indigenous ideas they were encountering would endure for generations, dormant seeds awaiting the right moment for renewal.The Great Treaty of 1722 entered into general obscurity almost as soon as it was written.
Eighteenth-century Europeans and the settler colonists they sent to North America thought that the world could be neatly divided between savage peoples and civilized ones. As the French political philosopher Montesquieu summed things up in his masterwork, The Spirit of Laws, guiding legal principles arose from the character of the people who created them, “influenced by the climate, by the religion, by the laws, by the maxims of government, by precedents, morals, and customs; from whence is formed a general spirit of nations.” Montesquieu, in common with his European contemporaries, was quite sure that “nature and the climate rule almost alone over the savages.” Assuring themselves that “savages” existed in a state of nature almost entirely removed from culture, European theorists gave little credence to the possibility of Native American philosophy.
Yet the Pennsylvania murder case of 1722 contradicted such opinions; it led the Susquehannock man using the title “Captain Civility” to counsel colonial agents on the terms of true justice. John and Edmund Cartlidge violated both English and Indian norms of civilized behavior by attacking Sawantaeny. Brawling over a trade gone bad, the traders knocked the hunter unconscious, then fled the scene. By attacking Sawantaeny, the Cartlidges pitched all the peoples of the Susquehanna River valley into crisis. Because the Native man belonged to the Seneca Nation, one of the Five Nations of the Haudenosaunee, his death also drew concern from across Iroquoia, in Native communities from colonial Pennsylvania to colonial New York. Anxious to avert warfare, colonial leaders promised Native peoples that they would subject the accused killers to justice, even though a murder charge, if it were brought, could mean capital punishment for their own colonists.
“Captain Civility” stepped forward to represent the Native peoples of the river valleys. Claiming the title by virtue of his unstinting efforts to bring people together in civil society, this diplomat tried to teach colonists the strength of the Indigenous commitment to building community. Native peoples sorrowing for Sawantaeny were “covered with night and wrapped in darkness,” as generations of Iroquois storytellers would describe the feeling of grief. Dawn could come only when the mourners’ grief was assuaged. On that new day, killers and survivors could become fully reconciled to one another.
Following the loss of Sawantaeny, Captain Civility offered to welcome the traders back to Native villages, as soon as the colonists metaphorically “covered” the body of the slain man, by offering both ritual condolences and reparation payments. Native principles of civility stretched wide enough to embrace even the Cartlidge brothers, men accused of crimes so severe that the colonists believed that their actions might—pending an investigation of the precise circumstances of the killing—deserve a judicial sentence of death.If we adopt Montesquieu’s insight that laws offer a unique window into the spirit of a people, we may realize how much we have left to learn from 18-century Indigenous ideals of justice.
Colonists were so unprepared for Native offers of clemency, a total inversion of their expectations, that they made little deliberate note of the philosophy that informed Native policy. Indigenous ideals entered the record made at Albany almost inadvertently, the by-product of colonial desires to document the land and trade agreements that would further Pennsylvania’s prosperity and security. Still, colonists dutifully set down the speeches that Captain Civility and other Native speakers made to them. And in the process, they preserved Indigenous ideas on crime and punishment, violation and reconciliation.
Today, we can learn more from the treaty than colonists were aware of recording. If we adopt Montesquieu’s insight that laws offer a unique window into the spirit of a people—while rejecting his contention that some peoples could be cast as “savages” incapable of civility—we may realize how much we have left to learn from 18th-century Indigenous ideals of justice.
To understand the spirit, we must tell the story. The essence of the Native approach to justice emerges not in any single piece of writing, authored by an acclaimed solitary genius and preserved for the ages in a magisterial tome. Rather, Indigenous understandings of civility were enacted again and again in countless small interactions and large diplomatic exchanges, in ritual traditions and customary practices passed down from one learned leader to another and shared with even the most ordinary members of society.
In itself, the spare text of the Great Treaty of 1722 can only begin to suggest Indigenous attitudes; it gains full significance only when we witness the countless conversations and negotiations that led to its existence. If we step back into the time in which those ideas were recorded and fill in the details of who said what to whom and why, we can emerge with a fresh understanding. We can come to appreciate Indigenous history both for its own sake and for its integral, if too-long-overlooked, place in the history of the United States.
In many ways, neither Isaac Norris nor anyone else should have been surprised by Titan Leeds’s forecast of troubles to come. When the English boarded tall ships bound for America, they considered civility their most important cargo. The founding document of Pennsylvania—the official charter granted by the English Crown that first established William Penn’s authority over the colony—had declared in 1681 that Penn was acting “out of a commendable desire to enlarge our English Empire and promote such useful commodities as may be of benefit to us and our dominions as also to reduce the Savage Natives by Gentle and just manners to the Love of civill society and Christian Religion.”
Colonists and Crown alike wanted to win land and trade through overseas adventures. In return for these material rewards, they offered the original inhabitants of North America what they regarded as the intangible riches of European culture and religion. The English were certain that the value of “civil society” was theirs to share with “savages.” Civility, in this sense, was a synonym for civilization, not mere good manners. But in any case, refined conduct had little to do with it. Those who called themselves “civill” were frequently and extraordinarily violent.
From the earliest days of the English Empire, its architects took strength from classical theories that justified the seizure of alien lands and peoples on the basis of the supposedly superior civilization of the imperialists. In the 16th century, at a time when the Spanish were establishing a significant empire on the other side of the Atlantic, the English rehearsed for overseas expansion by invading Ireland. Sir Thomas Smith, a professor and administrator at Cambridge University, opined in his 1549 Discourse of the Commonweal of this Realm of England that “among all the nations of the world, they that be politic and civil do master the rest.” Civility guaranteed the right to mastery. The very proof that the Irish were savage lay in England’s success in invading them.
By the 18th century, as British thinkers began to develop a new brand of ethics they called “moral philosophy,” theorists such as Adam Smith relied on debased images of Native Americans as a key point of comparison with the elevated British. He told his readers, “Among civilized nations, the virtues which are founded upon humanity are more cultivated . . . Among savages and barbarians, it is quite otherwise.” The rise of moral philosophy, with its high praise for civility, did not merely coincide with the modern age of empire; it actively helped underwrite it.
By the time Norris picked up a copy of the Leeds almanac for 1722, the English had been sailing the Atlantic for over a century, seeking fortunes wherever they could. Land for planting, soil for stripping of minerals, forests for harvesting resources from fur to timber, sea lanes for commercial trading, and people for laboring were among the many sources of wealth eyed by English adventurers. And everything began to speed up after 1714, when, at last at peace with France and Spain after a protracted war, the British gained an exclusive contract from Spain to supply its empire with enslaved Africans along with the right to trade throughout the “South Sea,” as the ocean around South America was then called. Courtiers and common folk across Britain invested heavily in the South Sea Company, only to lose everything when the bubble burst in 1720. Nothing but improved receipts from the colonies could repair the fortunes of Crown and country, and so the British began to keep a closer eye on North America than ever before. Maintaining smoother relations with Native peoples became key to these new efforts.
Excerpted from Covered with Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America by Nicole Eustace. Reprinted with permission of Liveright, an imprint of W.W. Norton. Copyright © 2021 by Nicole Eustace.