Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 150

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 150


This is the grave of Sa-go-ye-wa-tha, or as he was known among whites, Red Jacket.

Born in approximately 1750, the future Seneca leader lived in a world of massive and terrible change for his people. The Seneca allied with the British during the American Revolution and for good reason since the war was fought in part because colonists were angry the British military wouldn’t engage in genocide. The Proclamation of 1763 that went far to protect tribes such as the Seneca from white incursions infuriated colonists and as soon as the Revolution started, long before its conclusion, whites flooded into these territories. This divided the Iroquois Confederacy, but even tribes that sided with the United States did very poorly in the aftermath. Red Jacket, who took the name from a British military coat an officer gave him, fought with the British during the Revolution. But he didn’t gain much of a reputation. Many reported he ran from battles, but this did not hinder his ultimate role within the tribe, as he showed special skill as a diplomat, increasingly a more important role than a warrior.

After the war, Red Jacket played a leading role in speaking out for his people and negotiating the best he could with the American government. He led a group to meet with George Washington in 1792 and wore the peace medal he received from Washington for the rest of his life. That meeting didn’t help his people, but what really could. In 1794, Red Jacket and others signed the Treaty of Canandaigua, which ceded the vast majority of their territory to the state of New York. What they had left came under constant pressure. Robert Morris bought much of the rest of the Seneca lands in 1797 for $100,000. During all of this, Red Jacket may have engaged in that classic act of a diplomat, which was telling his tribe how horrible all of this was and how they must resist while telling the Americans he was on board with it all. That said, again, his options were extremely limited.

Red Jacket survived the best he could through the rest of his life. He posed for many famous paintings, always with his Washington peace medal around his neck. He drank too much and deeply regretted the arrival of alcohol into his people’s lives, including himself, but he couldn’t really stop drinking. He took on the role of a defender of Seneca culture, including its language and religion. He gave a famous speech in the U.S. Senate in 1805 that was really quite defiant, saying he and his people would not change their way of life anymore than they had to, that Christianity and Seneca religion were not that different, and that white Americans were complete hypocrites who said one thing to his people and did something very different. During the War of 1812, he supported the U.S. against the British, largely out of survival than belief that the U.S. was right. The War of 1812 was the last time Native Americans had a real chance to limit American expansionism and the loss there doomed nearly all tribes to a fate similar to that of Red Jacket and the Senecas. Red Jacket and 500 Senecas participated in the Battle of Chippawa in 1814, leading to a large loss of life on both sides.

In 1821, when New York passed a law that disallowed whites from living on the very small Indian territories remaining in the state, Red Jacket personally led his fellow Senecas to forcibly evict a missionary who had moved them to convert them. By the end of his life though, this resistance to white culture made him less popular. His own wife became a Christian in 1827, despite his threats to leave her if she did. He did leave, but then came back a few months later. He also lost his chief role that year by groups now wanting closer ties to American culture, hardly a surprising development a half-century after their lands started to be lost.

Red Jacket died in 1830. He is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, New York. The grave itself is interesting. Red Jacket was initially buried with his people, but in 1876, to honor him (and really to romanticize the conquest of the Seneca at the nation’s centennial and when the final tribes were being conquered), the people of Buffalo proposed to reinter him with a big monument. He was reburied in 1884 and the monument completed in 1891.

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