There is a belief that for a deed or similar document to be valid, it must include the signatures of all 50 Chiefs of the Six Nations. For example, see here for the Six Nations Land and Resources Department website, where this position is expressed in their pamphlet, Land Rights: A Global Solution for the Six Nations of the Grand River. Here they question whether all 50 Chiefs were present at a Council where a particular land matter was discussed, and whether those present understood what was being said or read to them. The fact that there was never a requirement that 50 Chiefs be present at any Council meeting or at the signing of any document in the past does not seem to be acknowledged in this document. Furthermore, by the 1840s many of the Chiefs spoke or understood English, and they would be in a position to explain matters to any who had questions. Besides, there were always Government interpreters present. So basically, nothing could be further from the truth, but beliefs can be "sticky" even when faced with insurmountable evidence to the contrary.
Six Nations Territory, New York, Founding of the League to 1779: First, things are seldom as clear as people wish them to be. Even before the League of the Iroquois (Six Nations Confederacy) council fire was extinguished at Onondaga during the Revolutionary War, there was disagreement as to whether for example the Onondaga should have 13 or 14 chiefs, and whether the League itself had 49 or 50 chiefs.
What was important in the early days was to ensure that, if possible, there were signors from all of the major clans - a practise that extends far back into the 17th Century in Mohawk Country in what is today New York State. The Mohawks had three clans, the Turtle, Wolf and Bear, and three families within each clan. After examining most if not all of the deeds relating to Mohawk land in NY, I can report that never was there an instance where all 9 Chiefs signed any deed. The only time that all of the Mohawk Chiefs can be seen on a single document (and merely as a record of who was present) were at large multi-Nation conferences such as that in Albany in 1754; and on lists of those who participated in a particularly important battle or military campaign - such as those who went with Sir William Johnson to Montreal in 1760.
The "Nanfan Treaty" of 1701 includes the totems (clan symbols) of six Mohawks - not the 9 League Confederacy Chiefs. Not only that, but the composition of those authorized to sign a document of this nature included all those of "consequence", not just the Confederacy Chiefs. The Nanfan document states that, wee the Sachims Chief men, Captns and representatives of the Five nations ....... Chief men would include village chiefs, and Captains were war chiefs. Thus it is insupportable to suggest that only documents including the signatures of all 50 hereditary chiefs are legitimate. That was in fact simply not the case.
On deeds, the composition of signors was often irregular to say the least - yet these deeds were only challenged if it could be shown that the Mohawk had been cheated out of the land. For example the unscrupulous White man George Klock had located Mohawk men with no authority to sign deeds, and plied them with alcohol such that they were willing to put their marks on a document granting land to Klock. These deeds were indeed challenged by the Mohawk, and Sir William Johnson or other Crown representative attempted to have them annulled. Some deeds that stood the test of time, such as the that for the Timmerman property near St. Johnsville NY, even when signed by what might be considered an "unusual assortment" of individuals. In 1732 two Mohawk men and a Mohawk woman each put their clan sign to the paper. All three clans were represented. The property is still in the hands of Timmerman descendants to this day. No one challenged the paperwork for any reason whatsoever.
So local tribes / nations made their own deals with the White settlers, and the deeds were later confirmed by the Crown. Not only tribes / nations, but even villages made independent deals with Whites. For example, the Lower Mohawk of Tiononderoge (Ft. Hunter) signed land transactions that did not include any representatives from their kin at the upper village. Similarly the Upper Mohawk of Canajoharie made arrangements to sell land but there are no signatures or marks of any resident of the Lower Mohawk village located 20 miles down the Mohawk River.
Lets be clear about this, the belief that it has always been the case that all 50 Chiefs were required to sign any document that was to be considered legal is false, it was never true, except perhaps in the ideal, but NEVER in practise. In fact, the Six Nations in New York, as a group, generally only signed documents under the auspices of the Colonial officials at New York, Albany, or Philadelphia - and there was no guarantee as to who would and would not show up - or be delayed for weeks. As long as what might be considered a "quorum" appeared, it was a go - and was not challenged later by the Six Nations.
It must be emphasised that in examining any document signed by the Chiefs in Council, there will be some whose signatures appear on almost every occasion until their death, and others who appear to have been much less diligent in attending, and their names appear sporadically. It is important to note that since about 1720, the Tuscarora have been accepted as members of the Confederacy (changing the Five Nations to the Six Nations). However they were not "fully incorporated" members, and were typically only allotted one to two "unofficial" chiefs to council. Also, if one takes the time to examine the names of each and every individual present at a council meeting, at a treaty, or at a signing of a surrender, there are typically a very heterogeneous group in attendance. For example the Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1768), was attended by Sir William Johnson and 3008 Indians, the Six Nations - Shawanese, & Delawares, Senecas of Ohio & dependts. At this treaty there was some notables not present. The 6 chiefs who had died about this time were condoled here. Sir William gave 6 Black Belts (wampum) to "Cover the Graves of the Six following Chiefs viz - including one Mohawk, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, Shawanese, and Delaware (Sir William Johnson Papers, Vol. 12, p. 629). The treaty was not considered invalid because some of the chiefs had died and had yet to be replaced. Anyone who would assert that all 50 League chiefs should magically be in one place at one time, or anything done at the conference or treaty or other event was invalidated, simply has not read the history.
Six Nations Territory, Grand River Ontario, 1785 to Present: Once the Six Nations and allied tribes arrived at the Grand River, signatures were only valid if they were signed at one of the council meetings which took place in the years 1785 to about 1805 occasionally at the Indian Council House near Ft. George, Niagara, but more commonly at the Mohawk Village in what is today Brantford. From about 1805 onwards, most of the Council work took place at the Onondaga Longhouse near what is today Middleport (until the Council House was built at Ohsweken some years after the move to the consolidated Reserve in 1847). Thus the document only had to be signed by the Chiefs who attended Council on the day the item was presented for discussion. I have seen deeds from the early 19th Century with only a half dozen signatures, and others from the mid 19th Century with 40 or more.
There were occasions when it was more important to have the signature of every available head woman, plus principal warriors and chiefs. An example is the deed signed by the Mohawks of the Lower Village (Fort Hunter, Tiononderoge) and one signed by the Mohawks of the Upper Village (Canajoharie) at the Indian Council House in Niagara in July 1789. By these instruments they signed away all rights to their former property in the State of New York via their negotiator Jelles Fonda (references available upon request). A later document to the same effect was signed by the head chiefs of these villages, John Deserontyon and Joseph Brant Thayendinagea, in 1797. As a result, the Mohawks of Tyendinaga and Six Nations have no claim to any lands in the State of New York, despite this being their aboriginal homeland - these points no one could or should contest.
Even the task of a researcher deciding the status of someone signing any particular document could be problematic. It appears that until about 1812, some of the Hereditary Confederacy Chiefs were "prohibited" from signing their Chiefly names to documents (which would have been something of a "profanity"), although others such as Tekarihogen and Ayonwagtha of the Mohawks were seen on the earliest documents at Six Nations. Thus many used their "everyday" names, those that they had used before accepting the horns of office. Sometimes it is unclear as to whether a Chief was actually a Hereditary Chief or a Pine Tree (merit based) Chief. Both, as well as "principal warriors", signed documents. After the deeds of 1789 noted above, only the names of men appear on deeds or are listed in Council Minutes. One of the most "prolific signors" prior to 1812 was Delaware Aaron, who was not a member of the Five or Six Nations Iroquois, but was certainly a prominent member of the Six Nations Community. His signature was never considered as being anything but legitimate based on his local status.
Those who would try to impose the "Roll Call of Chiefs" as seen in publications such as Fenton (1950, pp. 59-67) on the Six Nations of the Grand River need to study the records pertaining to those who settled here after 1785. If they do they would quickly realise that it would be a Procrustean fit, that would not work if only because there were always "vacancies" (some at Six Nations were permanent) and other "issues". When the Six Nations refugees arrived at the Grand River in 1785, most of the Oneida, Tuscarora, and Seneca stayed back in New York. I can find no record that indicates that the 50 Chiefs of the 5 Nations were ever assembled here at the Grand River. As in the pre - Revolutionary War days, the Tuscarora, many of whom remained in New York, were never given an "official" chiefship, but those here were allowed to send one or more members to Council as a Chief. The most serious problem in terms of re-constituting the League in Canada was the paucity of Seneca. The majority chose to remain in New York. In 1785 they were consigned to one village, near the mouth of the Grand River, and could muster no more than 78 souls - about the same number as the Tutelos (who were a remnant tribe attached to the Nanticokes and Upper Cayugas), and paling relative to the number of for example Onondaga at 245 and the Mohawk at 464 (Johnston, 1964, p. 52).
A snapshot of how many chiefships were represented in Canada can be found in the work of Chadwick who included all of the names of Chiefs then installed at Six Nations, their assistant or "second chief", as well as Pine Tree Chiefs associated with the title, in the late 1890s. For example, using Fenton's listing, Seneca titles 45, 46, and 48 were "extinct" in Canada. The Onondaga's were better represented, with only numbers 23 and 31 "extinct". There were three Tuscarora titles still active in Canada, and each sent a Chief to Council. In addition there were two Nanticoke and one Delaware (Chadwick, 1897, see here). As the 19th Century was drawing to a close, some at Six Nations became very concerned that the ancient traditional system was in disarray and much was in the process of being lost. Hence Seth Newhouse (Mohawk) researched and wrote a treatise on the Constitution of the League, and even included all of the warrior's and women's names associated with each existing chiefship. He finished this work and submitted it to Council for approval in 1885 (Library and Archives Canada, MG19, F26). This monumental effort was not accepted by Council, who in turn commissioned their own version. The fruits of this request was the study of Chief John A. Gibson (Seneca) who placed the manuscript before Council in 1900, where it was approved, and subsequently published by Duncan C. Scott in 1912.
The land transactions at the Grand River, ultimately accepted by the Chiefs in Council, have yielded the most misinformation and led to the most acrimony to the date of writing this blog post - the stakes are so high. When the Six Nations first moved to the Crown land on the Grand River there was a period of time when they were only allowed to lease their lands, since the Haldimand Proclamation was not a deed in fee simple to the Six Nations, and any sales had to be approved by the Crown. Hence in 1787 many of the Mohawk Chiefs (some hereditary, some village or Pine Tree Chiefs) and a scattering of those who resided near the Mohawk Village (Auquaga Oneidas, Upper Cayugas and Delaware Aaron's people) penned their names or marks to sundry deeds which were initially 999 year leases. As time went on, most standard "bargain and sale" transactions were permitted by the Crown. Initially, large blocks of land were sold by Chief Joseph Brant (who from 1796 had "power of attorney" from the Six Nations to make such sales). Thus, for example, the Nichol Block at the northern most end of the Tract was sold. A series of "Brant Leases" for 999 years continued to be made, until such time as the lease was converted to a deed in fee simple. The typical procedure was for a Six Nations member to claim a specific piece of property on which he had made improvements (many of these plots are shown in survey maps of the time), sell it to a white man for what was considered to be a fair price, then the deed would be ratified by the Six Nations Chiefs in Council (whomever happened to be there that day), with a copy going to the purchaser, and a copy made by staff of the Indian Department and registered within their system and a Crown deed issued. This process went on at an accelerated pace throughout the 1830s and 1840s (see Johnston, 1964 for examples of these transactions).
I will focus here on the 1840s, since this was the time when the last major surrenders of land were made by the Six Nations in Council. While the "Great Law" of the Six Nations may have specified the number of hereditary chiefs assigned to each tribe, some chiefships stayed in the U.S.A., and even at the Grand River it was common for a seat to remain vacant for a long time (e.g., 3 years) after a Chief died, and there was great difficulty in finding a suitable candidate to install in the chiefly position (see Shimony, 1961, pp. 104-117 for the situation to that time). I have seen only one document that quite by chance included the "magic" number 50. On 18 February 1846, 50 Chiefs were assembled for the purpose of hammering out a land surrender agreement that included all land parcels except the consolidated Reserve (including 200 acres near the Mohawk Institute) to be retained for the Six Nations. Those Six Nations members already in possession of lands within the Grand River Tract outside the boundaries of the agreed upon Reserve could retain or sell their property and move at any time to the new Reserve. An inspection of the tribal composition of these individuals shows that there were 14 Upper and Lower Mohawks (more than the 9 described in the Great Law), and 6 Onondaga (fewer than the prescribed number). It is also important to note that there were present 4 Delawares and 2 Nanticoke among the Chiefs. These were not members of the traditional Five or Six Nations, but rather were Community members by virtue of their having moved with the Iroquoian Six Nations at the time of the American Revolution. People at Six Nations are registered as members of the Delaware band to this day, and are no less members of the Six Nations Community due to their Algonquian (Anishinabe) roots. Five days after the above Council meeting, the next gathering mustered only 47 Chiefs.
There were typically Pine Tree chiefs, Hereditary Chiefs, principal warriors and sundry others in any list of "chiefs", including the period of the 1840s. No one ever questioned this arrangement as being illegitimate at all ever - only recently when it has been convenient to look back at what was done 160 years ago and criticise what was, with a "what should have been". This is a gross insult to the Chiefs who had adapted to the changing situation at Six Nations. When some St. Regis Onondaga came to Six Nations about 1840 they were given a chiefly seat. In addition to the Delaware, until 1924 the Tutelo and Nanticoke (related to the Delaware) continued to be given chiefly council seats. The magical number 50 plus or minus zero makes absolutely no sense in terms of the realities of what was found at Six Nations from 1785 to 1924.
The "Holmes Report" (Joan Holmes & Associates) addresses the matter of the ever changing number of Chiefs present at Council meetings in her comprehensive study of Six Nations land surrenders seen here. Part 1 provides all the documentation underpinning the various surrenders from 1841 to 1848, which resulted in the present day Six Nations Reserve. All of the earlier requests to include lands such as the Johnson Settlement and the Burtch Tract in the Reserve were rescinded by the Six Nations Chiefs in Council by 1848. In Part 2, Supplemental Report, dated February 2, 2009, Joan Holmes includes a 7 page chart showing the list of names of the Chiefs present at each of 7 meetings between 1841 and 1846. This part of her work was included as a "response to the Holmes Report" by Professor Darlene Johnston, who maintained that, various Tracts were not surrendered between October 1843 and 1867. Presumably, Johnston had questioned the fact that the entire compliment of 50 Confederacy Chiefs were not at each of the various pertinent events (e.g., Council Meetings).
It is equally difficult to understand how some Six Nations can claim that for example Caledonia was never ceded, and to this day believe that it still belongs to the Six Nations. That is patently false since the lands were sold by the individual Six Nations claimants (in this case the Barefoot Onondaga Crawford family), usually to Whites (their right was never challenged by the Six Nations), and the deed was ratified by the Chiefs in Council (traditional and legal representatives of all their people) in the standard manner, and accepted by both the Six Nations and the Indian Department (the latter representing the Crown) as being entirely legal and binding. There was at the time no great dispute when between the years 1841 and 1848, the Chiefs in Council ratified the surrender of all lands not reserved for their own use by the latter date. Any lands outside these boundaries which were in possession of individual Six Nations were left in their possession, to be sold at their discretion. It was all very clear, and all were accepting of the agreement in 1850 when Lord Elgin signed a description of the specific reserved lands to be placed on record in the Indian Land Registry system.
No person or group came forward at the time to challenge the binding decisions of the combined Hereditary and Pine Tree Chiefs. The wording of all of these deeds was carefully chosen so that someone could not, or rather should not, emerge at a later date and challenge the decision of the Chiefs. Hence coming back over 150 years later and scratching around for a way to lay claim to for example the lands on which Caledonia rests is disingenuous, and as such, attempts to circumvent what the ancestors believed to be just and fair at the time. Much more on the particulars of this subject will appear in later blog posts - this point will be repeated since it is perhaps the most important factor underlying the recent efforts to "recover" land that were in fact sold long ago. There is a term or expression, reflecting racial stereotyping, that could be mentioned at this time. One wonders where the expression, "Indian giver" came from, and whether some White people may decide to press it into service in the present conflict.
What is of utmost importance is to understand the will of those Chiefs who signed the deeds to the year 1848. The wording of the deeds clearly spells out their intent. For example a typical phrasing from the 1780s is seen the what was known as the "Mohawk Deed" signed in 1787 by 9 Mohawk Chiefs (not all hereditary Confederacy Chiefs though), and 13 other Chiefs of other Six Nations members and others (e.g., Delaware) who resided on the Haldimand Tract. This deed, to members of the Nelles, Young, Huff and Dochstader families, concluded with a statement that, This being done and concluded by us the Five Nations and our Nephews the Delaware, let never our Grand Children or any whomsoever attempt to undo what we have done the same with due consideration (Johnston, p. 71). The language and intent could not be clearer. Since at least half of the Mohawks spoke English fluently, there can be no claim that, "well they did not understand what they were signing". That would be an insult to the ancestors.
In conclusion, the recent "demand" that deeds have 50 Chiefs as signors can now been seen as specious, and merely a convenient tool to confuse those unfamiliar with the history of the Six Nations and the Haldimand Tract.
Updated: 16, 22, 23 December 2013.