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Red Jacket: c.1758 - 1830

See also: Letter to Reverend Cram and Red Jacket's speech of July 19, 1819.

Picture of Red Jacket

RED JACKET (c. 1758-1830), Seneca chief and orator, also known as Sagoyewatha, was born at either Canoga (on Cayuga Lake in western New York) or Kanadesaga (near modern Geneva, N.Y.) [or possibly, near modern Branchport, N.Y., in Yates County, according to local tradition -- the specific place being, in fact, unknown], the son of Ahweyneyonh of the Seneca Wolf clan. His father was possibly Cayuga. Red Jacket enters the historical record around the time of the American Revolution when he is said to have habitually worn a red coat provided him by the British, who employed him as a messenger, thus the origin of his English name. During the conflict, his war record was undistinguished. He fled from the field at the battle of Oriskany (6 Aug. 1777), and early in the Cherry Valley campaign (November 1778) he left the Indian-loyalist force, complaining it was too late in the year to fight. Once he exhibited a bloody axe as evidence of his prowess as a warrior, but it was discovered that he had used the axe to kill a cow. War leaders such as the Mohawk Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea) later accused him of cowardice.

It was at the council fire instead of on the battlefield that Red Jacket achieved his position of prominence. He was both arrogant and eloquent in his defense of Seneca values. He once upbraided an inattentive U.S. official at a treaty negotiation: "When a Seneca speaks he ought to be listened to with attention from one extremity of this great island [North America] to the other." Later he told missionaries that before proselytizing among the Seneca, they should first refine the morals of the citizens of Buffalo, New York, so that they would no longer cheat Indians. "Let us know the tree by the blossoms and the blossoms by the fruit."

Red Jacket played a prominent role in negotiations between the Seneca and the new American republic. He personally maintained greatest influence at Buffalo Creek (now part of Buffalo), which remained the most populous Seneca reservation until its sale, after his death, in 1838. To assert Seneca grievances and claims, Red Jacket headed a delegation of fifty to the seat of U.S. government in Philadelphia in 1792. There George Washington, continuing a French and British diplomatic custom, presented him with a large silver peace medal, which Red Jacket invariably wore when posing for portraits later in his life.

Red Jacket's influence was not without challenge. The Seneca who had settled on the Allegheny River were followers of Cornplanter. There, Cornplanter's half brother, Handsome Lake, experienced a vision in 1799, which instructed him to preach religious reform and revitalization among the Seneca and the other Iroquois nations. Handsome Lake's message was accepted with enthusiasm by many, but not by Red Jacket. Matters came to a head in 1801 when Handsome Lake accused Red Jacket of practicing witchcraft, punishable by death under Seneca norms. Red Jacket's eloquent defense of his personal conduct is credited with clearing him of the charge.

When the War of 1812 broke out, Red Jacket, like many Seneca, became an ally of the United States. In his sixties, he fought bravely at the battles of Fort George (17 Aug. 1813) and Chippawa (5 July 1814), thus disproving earlier charges of cowardice. At the latter, heavy casualties suffered by both the New York Seneca and the Iroquois of Upper Canada led both to reconsider their participation in a non-Indian war. Red Jacket played a leading role in the decision of both to withdraw from the Canadian-American conflict.

Red Jacket's first marriage to Aanjedek ended in divorce, after she bore him ten children. None of these children survived their father, although Jacket as a surname was used by at least some of his grandchildren. Red Jacket then married Awaogoh, the widow of Two Guns, a Seneca chief who had been killed at the battle of Chippawa.
The remainder of Red Jacket's life was devoted to defending Seneca culture and religion against white domination. In 1821 he testified in the successful defense of Tommy Jemmy, a Seneca who was on trial for murder after executing a woman who had been declared a witch. Three years later he brought about the brief expulsion of missionaries from Buffalo Creek. When his second wife became a Christian in 1826, he left her and moved to the Tonawanda Reservation, although they were later reconciled and returned to his home in Buffalo Creek. In 1827 Christians on the Buffalo Creek Reservation attempted to depose him, but he managed to reassert his right to be chief. However, Red Jacket described himself at that time as "an aged tree"--"My leaves are fallen, my branches withered, and I am shaken by every breeze." He died of cholera on the Buffalo Creek Reservation. Despite his opposition to Christianity, he was buried in the mission cemetery there. His remains were later removed to the Forest Lawn cemetery in Buffalo.