TEGANISSORENS (Decanesora), influential Onondaga chief, orator and diplomat; played a leading role in English-French-Iroquois relations during the last quarter of the seventeenth and first quarter of the eighteenth centuries.
Teganissorens flits through the pages of history in the dispatches of the governors of Canada, and in the Albany records of negotiations with the Five Nations Confederacy. Cadwallader Colden, the first part of whose book, The history of the Five Indian Nations depending on the Province of New-York in America, was published in 1727, had a high opinion of him and testified to his great gifts from personal knowledge. He wrote: “Decanesora had for many years the greatest reputation among the Five Nations for speaking, and was generally employed as their Speaker, in their negotiations with both French and English. . . . He had a great fluency in speaking, and a graceful Elocution, that would have pleased in any Part of the world. His person was well made, and his Features, to my thinking, resembled much the Bustos of Cicero.”
From these scattered and frequently oblique references a picture emerges of a man possessed of a commanding personality and great dignity, who was extremely astute, very adroit in negotiations, equally at ease at the resplendent dining table of the governor general at Quebec as at the council fire of the Five Nations at Onondaga; a man who was spoken of with respect, even deference, by French and English alike.
Long before Teganissorens’ time the basic policy of the Five Nations was established, dictated largely by their geographic location. The various tribes in the Iroquois linguistic group were situated in three main areas. West of Lake Simcoe were the Hurons and Petuns, or Tobacco Nation; in the Niagara peninsula were the Neutrals; south of Lake Ontario and as far east as Lake Champlain were the Five Nations Confederacy comprising, in past to west order, the Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. To the west of the Five Nations were the Eries, or Chats, who in the 1680s were conquered and absorbed by the Senecas and Cayugas, and to the south were the Andastes, or Susquehannocks, who merged with the Senecas in the 1670s. The Five Nations Confederacy warred with all these surrounding Iroquois tribes, except the Neutrals, as well as with the Algonkin nations. In the early 17th century they had formed a commercial alliance with the Dutch traders at Fort Orange on the Hudson River. After the English conquered New Amsterdam in 1664, renaming the colony New York and establishing a settlement and trading centre at Albany, they and the Iroquois made a commercial and military alliance known as the Covenant Chain. The Hurons and Algonkins had, a few years earlier, established a fur trade partnership with the French at Quebec. Ancient hostilities were envenomed by these economic and military alliances with rival European powers. After decades of warfare the Five Nations succeeded in destroying the Huron trading empire and aspired to drive the French out of the St Lawrence valley. Their long-range aim was to monopolize the middleman’s role in the western fur trade. Since, however, their Indian foes greatly outnumbered them, they had to resort to guile, terror, even treachery, in their attempts to divide their enemies and destroy them one at a time. This required that one foe had to be immobilized by peace overtures while their own forces concentrated against another. Alliances formed against the Confederacy had to be disrupted by sowing suspicion, or by negotiating separate treaties. Thus diplomacy was every bit as important as military tactics, and the astute Iroquois diplomat, such as was Teganissorens, played a role equally as vital as that of the warriors.
In 1682, after the western Iroquois had attacked the French allies, the Illinois and Miamis, Teganissorens came to Montreal and persuaded the governor general, Frontenac [Buade*], that the Iroquois had no intention of harming French interests, thereby disrupting a possible counter move. The following year he was again at Quebec and when questioned more closely by Frontenac’s successor, Le Febvre* de la Barre, he admitted that the Iroquois were determined to destroy the Illinois nation, declaring proudly, “They have shed our blood, they deserve to die.” But he again gave assurances that the Five Nations would remain at peace with the French and their allies. Then, in 1684, the Senecas pillaged some French canoes and attacked the French fort at Saint-Louis-des-Illinois (Starved Rock). La Barre immediately launched an abortive campaign and was obliged to accept humiliating terms of peace dictated by Otréouati (Otreouti*), an Onondaga chief. When Louis XIV was informed of this he recalled La Barre and replaced him with Jacques-René de Brisay de Denonville, who invaded the Seneca canton at the head of an army in 1687, destroyed their villages, and the following year induced the Five Nations to agree to a cessation of all hostilities. In 1689, however, when England and France declared war, the Iroquois, confident of active English support, launched massive assaults against the Canadian settlements in an all out attempt to destroy the colony.
In the early years of this war they enjoyed considerable success, inflicting heavy casualties, but the French eventually gained the upper hand. The Five Nations, therefore, in 1693 began treating for peace separately with both the French and their allies, hoping to divide them and at the same time gain a respite for themselves. Frontenac, reinstated as governor general in 1689, was willing to entertain their proposals and agreed to a cessation of hostilities in 1694, but he insisted that Teganissorens must be one of the plenipotentiaries in further peace negotiations. Meanwhile, the Iroquois, with Teganissorens as their spokesman, informed the Albany authorities that unless they received more assistance they would have to make peace with the French. At the same time other Iroquois ambassadors approached the French allies, the Hurons and Ottawas, at Michilimackinac, telling them that they had been abandoned by the French who had made a separate peace behind their backs. The Hurons and Ottawas were easily convinced and they made their peace with the Iroquois. New York, dismayed at the prospect of carrying on the war alone, provided the Iroquois with more abundant supplies. With their western flank now secure the Five Nations were in a much stronger position. In the spring of 1694 Teganissorens led a delegation to Quebec and, resplendent in a scarlet coat trimmed with gold braid and a new beaver hat provided by the governor of New York, met Frontenac and his senior officers in audience “with great solemnity” and offered peace on Iroquois terms.
These terms required the French to include the allies of the Five Nations, the English colonies, in a general peace settlement to be arranged at Albany. Teganissorens, in the ninth article of the Iroquois proposals, informed Frontenac bluntly, “We will admit of no Settlement at Cadaraqui, You have had your Fire there Twice wch we have Quenched, and therefore will not consent to any rebuilding there, We clear the River that we may have a Clear Passage thro it and come freely to Onondaga.” The French could not have been expected to agree and after three more days of futile discussions Teganissorens returned to Onondaga. Although Frontenac refused to admit it, the other senior French officials were convinced that they had been duped by the Iroquois who had sought to gain a respite for themselves and to split the French alliance with the western tribes. This estimate was confirmed when early the following year the Iroquois again launched savage attacks on the settlements at Montreal.
This offensive failed to crush the French who received over 400 additional regular troops from France, bringing their total to more than 1,500, in addition to over 1,500 Canadian militia. Thus reinforced, the French were again able to take the offensive. Fort Frontenac (Cataracoui, now Kingston, Ont.) was restored and garrisoned in 1695, and the following summer a French army numbering 2,150 regulars, Canadian militia, and mission Indians invaded the Onondaga and Oneida cantons. The western allies of the French refused to join in the campaign. They had been incensed by the earlier peace negotiations which Frontenac had held without their participation, and by the activities of Canadian fur-traders who were trading arms to the Sioux, ancient foes of the western Algonkian nations. When, however, in 1697, France and England ended their war in Europe, New York promptly withdrew its meagre support from the Five Nations and left them to fight on alone or make peace as best they could. The Iroquois had no choice now but to treat for peace in earnest. To arrange a firm peace was by no means easy. The French insisted that their western allies had to be included in any treaty. They were also eager to have Jesuit missionaries established in the Iroquois villages. The English of New York were always very suspicious of any negotiations between the French and the Five Nations, who were their first line of defence. They were particularly fearful of the Jesuits, regarding them as political agents of the French crown, as well as apostles of a detested brand of the Christian religion. Thus they did all they could to disrupt the negotiations. The Iroquois were also hindered by Teganissorens’ temporary removal from affairs. In 1700 his wife, reputed to have been a Christian Iroquois from Caughnawaga (Sault-Saint-Louis), died as the result of an accident. In his bereavement he resolved to divest himself of all his responsibilities and live apart. However, upon the earnest entreaties of the Albany authorities, who were fearful of what might transpire at the Montreal talks if Teganissorens were not the Iroquois spokesman, he agreed to resume his office.
A particular stumbling block, one that nearly prevented the treaty being ratified, was the return of prisoners taken by the various nations during the war. The French were able to persuade their allies to give up their Iroquois prisoners, but this was not reciprocated. When taxed with this apparent lack of faith Teganissorens declared that their prisoners had been adopted by particular families and had no wish to leave; moreover, if these adopted prisoners had to be returned forcibly then the French must throw all the mission Iroquois into canoes and bring them back to the Five Nations villages. The Iroquois had suffered such heavy losses during the war it is little wonder that they were reluctant to give up even a few assimilated prisoners. In the spring of 1701 Teganissorens went to Montreal to discuss these problems and was warmly received by the governor general, Louis-Hector de Callière. Upon his return to Onondaga he informed the Albany representatives, anxious to counter any leaning towards the French, that the governor had “received him kindly, saluting him with two kisses, telling him he was glad to see him alive, and while he was discoursing with the Governour, a person of quality came whom the Governour’s interpreter told – This [is] the great Hero whose picture you have seen att Paris and further that he dined with the Governour att his table and din’d also with a Clergyman a Fryer who desired that he might have his picture drawn – That he gott many presents of the Governour, a gunn with two barrels, a lac’d coat a hatt a shirte Tobacco and sundry other things. . . .” After six days of being dined and wined in a manner which the English provincials could not emulate, Teganissorens declared his intention to return to Onondaga. Callière made no demur, but subtly stated that Teganissorens would doubtless be needed at Onondaga to send for the other Nations to meet with Paul Le Moyne, Sieur de Maricourt, who, along with Father Jacques Bruyas, was to go to Onondaga to arrange for the exchange of prisoners. As a final touch Teganissorens was speeded on his way in a canoe manned by three French voyageurs, specifically instructed that their distinguished passenger was on no account to put a hand to a paddle.
Teganissorens did not allow such treatment to impress him unduly. When Maricourt arrived at Onondaga and acted in a high-handed manner Teganissorens sternly rebuked him, declaring: “You come and speak of peace and scarce are set down to smoke a pipe, but talk of coming and knocking us on the head, and therefore I say nobody knows your heart.” In early August 1701, the prisoner question was resolved and the definitive peace treaty was ratified, finally ending the Iroquois wars that had endured, off and on, for nearly a century. In 1699 Richard Coote, Earl of Bellomont, governor of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and New York, had stated: “Decanissore is . . . a brave fighting fellow that has done the French much mischief, and they have mightily endeavoured to debauch him from us, but in vain.” Bellomont, newly come to the colony, appears to have believed that Teganissorens served the English interest. He was soon to be disabused. When the Albany authorities sought to establish a fort in Onondaga territory on Lake Ontario they were frustrated at every turn by Teganissorens who never gave an outright refusal but blandly put one obstacle after another in their path. Only when English interests coincided with those of the Five Nations did Teganissorens further them. Cadwallader Colden put it quite succinctly when he wrote that whenever Teganissorens represented the Iroquois cause at Albany he was always able “to make an account of an affair less disagreeable to English Ears, which had been undertaken against their advice, and contrary to their Interest.”
By the time the treaty of 1701 was finally signed England and France were again at war, the War of the Spanish Succession; but one of the terms of the Iroquois treaty, to the dismay of New York, stipulated that in any such war the Five Nations would remain neutral. During the preceding decade their fighting strength had been cut in half, to an estimated 1,320, but the population of Canada had risen by half to an estimated 15,000 by the end of the century. The population of the English colonies on their southern flank was also increasing rapidly. The Iroquois could no longer hope to make gains in war, they now had to concentrate all their efforts on preserving their lands against the pressures of the rival European colonies. From this time on their policy was to preserve the peace and play off the English against the French.
At the turn of the century this suited both the French in Canada and the English in New York, Neither was strong enough to conquer the other. The French had suffered heavy damage and casualties at the hands of the Iroquois and had no stomach for further hostilities; the devastation of the New York frontier settlements by the Canadians and their Indian allies had been so severe that the authorities at Albany were eager to accept any arrangement that would spare them more death and destruction. Moreover, the French regarded the Iroquois as an essential barrier to stop their Indian allies taking their furs to Albany rather than to the French posts in the west. When, therefore, in 1703 Teganissorens proposed to the French a treaty of neutrality between New York and Canada it met with ready acceptance from both sides. This allowed the French to take the offensive on the New England frontier to safeguard Acadia. The Iroquois protested the French attacks on the New England settlements, but to no avail. In 1709 New York was constrained to join the other colonies in a major assault on New France by land and sea, but the expeditions proved abortive. Two years later, with massive aid from Britain, fresh expeditions were mobilized. Teganissorens sent a messenger secretly to the governor general of New France, Philippe de Rigaud de Vaudreuil, to warn him of the impending assaults. Although these expeditions failed in their objectives Teganissorens’ action is a clear indication of the concern felt by the Five Nations. They had to preserve the balance of power to safeguard what remained of their own independence.
After the war the Iroquois had to resist the attempts of New York land speculators to deprive them, by all manner of ruses, of large sections of their land. Only by appeals to the crown were they occasionally able to frustrate these efforts. This may be the motive behind Teganissorens’ declaration to the Albany commissioners for Indian affairs in 1715 that the Five Nations had resolved to send delegates from each nation, and some from the Mohicans, to England. He asked that a ship with proper accommodation be provided for the voyage. Apparently nothing came of this request.
In 1716, when the fur trade had begun to revive from a 20-year depression and French traders were more active in the west, Vaudreuil came to suspect that Teganissorens was urging the Miamis to take their furs to an English post in the Ohio country. There was likely little foundation to this rumour since the Iroquois claimed the Ohio country as theirs by right of conquest, a claim that the French were later constrained to recognize and the English to disregard. The long-term policy of the Five Nations, and the dilemma upon which it was based, was more clearly revealed in 1717 when French traders established a post at Irondequoit Bay on the south shore of Lake Ontario. When the Albany commissioners protested, Teganissorens informed the governor of New York that the English had no one to blame but themselves since the French traders were supplied with their goods by the merchants of Albany. Were this contraband trade between Montreal and Albany to be stopped, he declared, the western tribes would have to take their furs to the English posts. He did not add that this would be by courtesy of the Iroquois middlemen, but it is clear that the Montreal-Albany contraband trade deprived the Iroquois of a profitable role in the northern economy.
Two years later Teganissorens informed the Albany commissioners that the French were building a fort at Niagara and were settling all around the Iroquois lands, confining them to very narrow limits. Governor Vaudreuil had earlier rejected proposals that the French build a post there on the grounds that it would bring the western nations into too close proximity with the Iroquois and likely tempt them to go on to trade with the English in the Iroquois villages, or at Albany. It was only when the English of New York began to talk seriously of building a post at Niagara that the French, moving swiftly, built Fort Niagara to forestall them. Had they allowed the English to build their post it would have given them direct contact with the western tribes and threatened the French position throughout the west.
The Senecas, however, had granted Louis-Thomas Chabert de Joncaire permission to build only a trading post at Niagara; the Five Nations regarded the massive fort which they saw established as a serious threat. They lacked the strength to force the French to abandon it, and the English of New York could do nothing but bluster in the face of the fait accompli. The only recourse the Iroquois now had was to offset this French move by granting the English what they had long denied them: permission to build a fort at Oswego. In this way they restored the balance of power, but the price they had to pay was a diminution of their own sovereignty and ability to control events. The bitter truth was that the power of the French and the English was growing rapidly, that of the Iroquois was not. Yet it is difficult to see what better policy the Five Nations could have pursued. Certainly Teganissorens, their chief spokesman during these difficult years, displayed great adroitness in his dealings with the officials at Albany and Quebec.
When Teganissorens died is not known. An incident that occurred in 1716 gives cause to suspect that his faculties had begun to betray him. In June of that year he pleaded with the Albany authorities to ban the sale of rum to his people to prevent serious trouble in their villages. The request was granted, but the following September Teganissorens protested it, declaring that before the prohibition was imposed all the nations should have been informed. He demanded to know who had requested the ban. When told that he and the whole Five Nations had demanded it “in the most earnest manner,” Teganissorens, not a whit abashed, asked that the ban be lifted. Five years later he was replaced as chief orator of the Onondagas, ostensibly at the request of the Albany authorities on the grounds that he was a French spy. If word of this reached the ears of the officials at Quebec they must have been rather startled. A more likely explanation would be that he was no longer capable of speaking for his nation with authority and the English demand afforded an excuse for his deposition. In 1727 Cadwallader Colden wrote: “He was grown old when I saw him, and heard him speak.” The use of the past tense would seem to indicate that Teganissorens was no longer living.
At a conference held at Albany in 1694 the chief sachems of the Five Nations remarked rather plaintively that they wished some of them could read and write in order to keep accurate records of all that went on, for future reference. Had this wish been fulfilled the history of North America might well appear in a somewhat different light, and men such as Teganissorens would then take their proper place in it.
Charlevoix, Histoire (1744). Colden, History of the Five Nations (1958). “Correspondance de Frontenac (1689–99),” APQ Rapport, 1927–28, 1928–29. “Correspondance de Vaudreuil,” APQ Rapport, 1938–39, 1947–48. La Poterie, Histoire (1744). Livingston Indian records (Leder). NYCD (O’Callaghan and Fernow), IV, V, IX, X. PRO, CSP, Col., 1660–1726. Wraxall, An abridgement of Indian records (McIlwain). Eccles, Frontenac. G. T. Hunt, The wars of the Iroquois (Madison, Wis., 1940). Y. F. Zoltvany, “New France and the west,” CHR, XLVI (1965); “The frontier policy of Philippe de Rigaud de Vaudreuil (1713-1725),” CHR, XLVIII (1967), 227–50.