Red Jacket (ca. 1758–1830) considered himself, first and foremost, an orator. An avowed traditionalist, he is most famous for his speeches denouncing the presence of Christian missionaries on the reservations and for opposing the sale of Indian lands. Never actually appointed a sachem, he nonetheless became a very influential Seneca chief. Although he was sometimes accused of cowardice, demagoguery, and alcoholism, Red Jacket's speeches are among the most compelling explanations of aboriginal sovereignty in U.S. history. In addition to his significance as a political figure in the early national period, Red Jacket became popular because he was an extraordinarily dynamic speaker. His speeches, of which dozens are extant, are notable for their sarcasm and disarming humor.
Red Jacket's birth name was Otetiani ("Always Ready"). According to Arthur C. Parker, he was born to a Seneca mother of the Wolf Clan named Ahweyneyonh ("Drooping Flower" or "Blue Flower"). His father was Thadahwahnyeh, a Cayuga of the Turtle Clan. There are a number of rival stories about the date and location of his birth, but Christopher Densmore argues that he was probably born in 1758 on the west side of Lake Cayuga, near either Geneva or Canoga. He was drawn to public speaking at a young age and was rumored to practice the art by himself in the woods, although this story seems fanciful.
Red Jacket served as a message runner for the British during the Revolutionary War. For this work, he was awarded a red jacket, from which his English name derived. Later in life, he was as well-known as Red Jacket as by his Seneca name, with his Christian children taking the last name of Jacket. Shortly after the war, Red Jacket was recognized by the Senecas for his verbal skills, appointed as a minor chief, and renamed Sagoywatha (roughly pronounced, Shaygo-ye-watha), which has been variously translated as "disturber of dreams," "keeper awake," or "he keeps them awake." In the early years of his political work among the Seneca, he served to convene councils with condolence speeches. He also served as speaker for the clan mothers, charged with conveying their deliberations to the councils of sachems and warriors.
Although distinguished for his verbal abilities during the Revolution, he also earned a reputation for cowardice that followed him for many years afterward. Cornplanter, an influential Seneca warrior, claimed that Red Jacket fled from the Battle of Newtown. Joseph Brant was fond of retelling a story that Red Jacket and a friend smeared themselves with the blood of a slaughtered cow to claim that they had been in battle. As a result, Brant called him Cowkiller, an unflattering name by which he was designated in most British council records of the 1790s and early 1800s. Fighting on the American side during the War of 1812, however, Red Jacket redeemed his martial reputation by fighting with distinction at the Battle of Chippewa.
Several diplomatic triumphs in the 1790s significantly raised Red Jacket's stature. He was an active participant at the U.S.-Haudenosaunee (Six Nations, or Iroquois) councils of Tioga Point and Newtown in 1790 and 1791. He served as a leading spokesman for a Seneca deputation that met George Washington in Philadelphia in 1792. While in Philadelphia, Red Jacket (among other chiefs) was given a large chest medal by the president, which he wore proudly for the rest of his life. Most importantly, he was a principal negotiator at the 1794 Treaty of Canandaigua, where the Seneca secured nearly four million acres of land in perpetuity. The terms of this treaty have served as the basis for a series of successful Haudenosaunee land claims in New York State since the 1970s.
In 1797, Red Jacket attended the Treaty of Big Tree, where the Senecas sold much of the land guaranteed to them by the Treaty of Canandaigua. At this famous council, Red Jacket spoke on behalf of the sachems to oppose the sale, but, once the warriors and clan mothers overruled the sachems, Red Jacket successfully argued to double the proposed size of the Buffalo Creek Reservation. Because of this apparent change in position, the historian William Leete Stone charged him with duplicitous conduct. The allegation was supported by his Indian political rivals, such as Joseph Brant, but it has little substance to it.
Red Jacket's most famous speech, a reply to the Reverend Jacob Cram in 1805, was one of several speeches he gave in the early 1800s that explained why the Indians did not want Christian missionaries in their midst. The speech is noteworthy for his condensed history of white-Native relations and his objection to Cram's attempt to "force your religion upon us." Although the level of sarcasm is difficult to gauge, Red Jacket told Cram that the Senecas might ask him back only if they saw that Christianity could soften the habits of the white frontiersman living on their borders. The speech's authenticity has been a topic of debate, but Red Jacket gave many such speeches on the topic over the decade (Densmore, 1999; Robie, 1986). Furthermore, Red Jacket had become a minor celebrity on this issue. He often took pride in the publication of his speeches, and he saw to it that they were properly translated.
In addition to his reply to Cram, other famous performances include his May 1811 replies to the Ogden Land Company agent, John Richardson, and the missionary, John Alexander. These speeches contain very clear examples of Red Jacket's acerbic wit. After rejecting Alexander's overtures, Red Jacket concluded with the gentle request that the missionary forbear his generous offers, "lest our heads should be too much loaded, and by and by burst" (Stone, 1841, 204).
By the end of the War of 1812, the Senecas lived on ten reservations totaling about 200,000 acres. They were beset by land companies externally and Christianity internally.
By 1819, two leading Seneca chiefs, Young King and Captain Pollard, had become Christian. After the conversion of his grandson, Red Jacket allied with the so-called Pagan party, and he began to stridently condemn the encroachment of missionaries and land companies. Every year, he and other traditionalist chiefs lobbied the governor and legislature to support Seneca self-determination. He succeeded in obliging the state to pass a law that prohibited missionaries living on Native lands from 1821 to 1824.
Red Jacket spent the 1820s denouncing the corrupt practices of the Ogden Land Company agents who succeeded in buying large portions of Seneca lands in August 1826. Red Jacket traveled to Washington to overturn the sale but he was unable to do so. At the same time, Secretary of Indian Affairs Thomas McKenney convinced the Christian chiefs to depose Red Jacket as a troublemaker, which they did in 1827. A year later, having proved corruption during the federal inquiry into the sale, Red Jacket was reinstated as a chief in July of 1828. Even though Red Jacket's protests were successful in preventing federal ratification of the Ogden sale of 1826, the lands were not returned. (Shortly afterward, the land sale of 1838 rendered it a moot issue.) Exhausted by his political efforts, pinched for money, and trying to make peace with his Christian wife, Red Jacket went on a commercial speaking tour the following year, traveling in museum shows from Boston to New York. He died of cholera on January 20, 1830.
There are four principal biographies of Red Jacket. The first, by William Leete Stone, was published in 1841. It contains a wealth of primary and anecdotal information because Stone was able to interview and correspond with many people who knew Red Jacket personally. More importantly, Stone reprinted as many of Red Jacket's speeches as he could obtain, thinking that future generations of historians would benefit more from the original documents than from historians' glosses of them. Stone's transcripts compare very accurately with extant manuscripts. Stone occasionally changes a preposition or inserts a period for clarity, but he did not dress up the vocabulary. The translations Stone used were principally those of Jasper Parrish, a federal Indian agent who was captured as a child by the Senecas and who spoke both Mohawk and Seneca fluently. The only major weakness of Stone's biography is that he accepted the opinions of Red Jacket's lifelong opponents, namely Thomas Morris, Joseph Brant, and Thomas McKenney, all of whom were invested in protecting their own reputations.
Niles Hubbard's 1886 biography largely reprints Stone's material without Stone's biases. Arthur C. Parker's 1952 biography is important for its sources in Seneca oral tradition, but it seems to have been intended as a children's book, not an academic history. The best recent biography is Christopher Densmore's, which avoids the demonization and hagiography of the earlier works and which puts dates and places to many of the events Stone did not document.
Blacksnake, Governor. "Narrative." "Notes of Border History." Lyman C. Draper Collection of Indian Artifacts. Microfilm. Reel 47, vol. 4: 13–82.; Densmore, Christopher. 1987. "More on Red Jacket's Reply." New York Folklore 13, no. 3–4: 121–122.; Densmore, Christopher. 1999. Red Jacket: Iroquois Diplomat and Orator. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.; Ganter, Granville. 2000. " 'You Are a Cunning People Without Sincerity': Sagoyewatha and the Trials of Community Representation." In Speakers of the Northeastern Woodlands. Edited by Barbara Mann, 165–195. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.; Hubbard, Niles J. 1886. An Account of Sa-Go-Ye-WatHa, or Red Jacket and His People. Albany: Joel Munsell's Sons.; Parker, Arthur C. 1943. "The Unknown Mother of Red Jacket." New York History 24, no. 4 (October): 525–533.; Parker, Arthur C.  1998. Red Jacket: Last of the Seneca. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Robie, Harry. 1986. "Red Jacket's Reply: Problems in the Verification of a Native American Speech Text." New York Folklore 12, no. 3–4: 99–117.; Stone, William Leete. 1841. The Life and Times of SaGo-Ye-Wat-Ha, or Red-Jacket. New York: Wiley and Putnam.