Canassatego and the Great Seal of the United States

I recently had the opportunity to speak to the second graders at Lafayette Elementary in the School District of Lancaster. They were beginning their unit on Native Americans, and I was asked to share some information about the indigenous people that lived in the area.

Why were they called Indians?

I started by explaining why for centuries Native Americans were referred to as Indians.

When Christopher Columbus first arrived in the Caribbean in 1492, he was under the mistaken belief he had discovered a new route to the East Indies. He could not have been more wrong.

Under this incorrect theory, he called the people he met there Indians. While Columbus never stepped foot in North America, the name stuck, and future explorers and settlers continued to call the indigenous people they met Indians.

Canassatego and the Great Indian Treaty of 1744

Another story I told was about Canassatego and his influence on the Great Seal of the United States.

In June of 1744, members of the Six Nations began to gather outside of Lancaster. By the middle of the month, the number of Iroquois had swelled into the hundreds. Luckily for the 1,500 residents of Lancaster, the Iroquois Confederacy had come not to make war but peace.

It was here at Lancaster’s original courthouse that would later shelter a fleeing Continental Congress on September 27, 1777, located in the center of what is now Penn Square, that the Great Indian Treaty of 1744 would be negotiated and signed. 

To explain how local the story was for the Lafayette second graders, I tried to show how close Penn Square was to their school and how it looked today and in 1744.

For two weeks, from June 22 through July 4, colonial leaders from Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia met with the chieftains of the Six Nations. This important conference had two main purposes: secure Native American land for English settlement and receive a guarantee that the Indians would not join with the French in the border war.

Men on both sides gave many great speeches. The most famous was by the Indian Canassatego. He was the chief of the Onondaga nation and a prominent diplomat. Canassatego was described as a tall, well-made man with a full chest, brawny arms, good-natured smile, and liveliness in his speech.

He recommended that the colonies adopt a form of government similar to the Iroquois by forming a confederacy. He feared that the colonies lacked a strong coordinated policy to address the military threat of New France. 

Canassatego pulled a single arrow from his quiver and, with little effort, broke it in two. Next, he pulled six arrows from his quiver, representing the Six Nations of the Iroquois. He tried to break the bundle of arrows but was unsuccessful.

Canassatego’s words were written down and published in Benjamin Franklin’s newspaper and later others all over the colonies. His words were read by colonial leaders. Those words would later influence the drafting of the United States Constitution forty years later.

We are reminded of Canassatego’s words still today when we look at the back of a one dollar bill. There you will find the Great Seal of the United States. In the eagle’s left talon is a bundle of 13 arrows representing the 13 original colonies and our strength when united together.

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