The History of Treaties Between Settlers & Indigenous Communities

Long before native people signed treaties with European settlers, Indigenous tribes made agreements that governed their relationships with other tribes. In northeastern North America, the Mohawk (Kaniekkehaka in the Mohawk language), Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca tribes formed the Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Haudenosaunee or Five Nations. Not only did they craft a democratic system to govern their own alliance, but their form of government went on to influence the American Constitution. Both conflict and collaboration with the Haudenosaunee had long-term influence on the early history of Pennsylvania and America. In Lancaster County, the Susquehannocks fled after the Iroquois conquest of 1675, and those who remained became the Conestoga, affiliates of the Iroquois.

The English government granted William Penn a charter for the province of Pennsylvania in 1681. When he arrived in North America in 1682, he met the Delaware tribe, who was native to the region. He promised peaceful relationships, and in 1683 and again in 1701, they signed treaties to that effect. They each looked forward to “a firm and lasting peace” in which Indigenous people and European settlers would “for ever hereafter be as one head & one heart, & live in true Friendship and Amity as one people.” Penn promised religious freedom and tolerance for his new colony and he extended this respect to the Indigenous people whose land he purchased before granting it to new European settlers.  

However, over the course of the 18th century, agreements–both honest and deceitful–combined to push Indigenous people farther west and eventually out of Pennsylvania. Tribes did fairly exchange money and goods for land. They also signed treaties in which they negotiated new boundaries diplomatically. Among these were The Treaty of Albany in 1722, the Treaty of Easton in 1758, and the Treaty of Canadaigua in 1794. Although these treaties were considered mutual agreements, tribes were often forced to negotiate from weakened positions, both due to settlers’ prior incursions on disputed lands, and due to white interpreters misrepresenting the terms of the agreement to them. And regardless of the negotiations, European settlers often violated their terms by pressing westward from Philadelphia–first into Lancaster County, then to the Susquehanna River, then farther and farther beyond– seeking more land and more profits for themselves. As a result, they left less and less land for tribes like the Susquehannocks and the Delawares, who had been here for thousands of years.

On the one hand, the actions of the colonial government and European settlers were unjust because they violated the legal agreements they had made with native people in their treaties. At the same time, Pennsylvanians imposed British ideas about the laws of private property and land ownership on people who had lived on and stewarded the land for thousands of years without a need for deeds and legally enforceable covenants. Europeans also denied native peoples the protections of private property law that they granted to white settlers. Not only were native and European communities guided by different laws, those laws were continually enforced unevenly and unjustly. 

As many treaties did, the Treaty of Albany, signed in 1722, established national boundaries between Indigenous people and European settlers that would later be violated. However, it also negotiated complex questions of crime, punishment, and conceptions of justice. After John and Edmund Cartlidge murdered Sawantaeny, a Seneca hunter living near the Maryland border along the Monocacy River, negotiations between Indigenous tribes and English colonists ensued over the appropriate punishment for the crime.

Governor William Keith promised to execute the brothers, but representatives of the Haudenosaunee argued instead for a restorative justice that would repair the harm that was done and bring the two communities closer together, rather than driving them apart. They wanted an apology and reparations that would reestablish community relationships that had been harmed by violence. Satcheechoe told the governor: “One life is enough to be lost. There should not two die.” Keith complied in Albany, but restorative practices did not take hold among the colonists. Violence, rather than understanding and communal ties, would characterize the relationship between European settlers and Indigenous people for the next several hundred years.