Letters to William and Caroline Eustis, Part V

by Susan Martin, Processing Archivist & EAD Coordinator

This is the fifth part of a series about the letters to William and Caroline Eustis at the Massachusetts Historical Society. Click here to read Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

When working with manuscripts at the MHS, I often read something unexpected that makes me stop short. This happened when I processed the letters to William and Caroline Eustis, a remarkable collection of letters by U.S. presidents, cabinet members, a first lady, the Marquis de Lafayette, and others.

The passage that caught my eye was: “The detention of the Indians as hostages is liable to the most serious objections. The most extreme case only would justify it.”

Madison letter to Eustis
Excerpt of letter

These sentences appear at the top of a letter from President James Madison to Secretary of War William Eustis, dated 8 September 1812 and marked “private.”

Madison to Eustis, 8 September 1812
Complete letter

My curiosity was piqued, so I decided to investigate. I found the letter to which Madison was replying at Founders Online, a project at the National Archives containing searchable transcriptions of the papers of founding fathers. William Eustis had written to Madison the previous morning:

By the mail of this day I have only time to submit for consideration a suggestion which has been made of the expediency of detaining the Indian chiefs as hostages. If their tribes should become hostile it is in my mind doubtful whether they may not be useful with their influence among them; if they are not hostile detaining them will give great cause of offence.

To learn more about the historical context of this correspondence, I backtracked through Madison’s papers. I wondered what had prompted Eustis’ suggestion and whether it was carried out. One source led me to another and another, and I finally pieced the story together.

Ask someone what they know about the War of 1812, and you’ll probably hear of naval battles between the United States and Great Britain, the impressment of sailors, and the burning of Washington, D.C. But Native Americans played an incredibly significant role in the war. Many of the indigenous peoples, fearing the further loss of their territories to the expanding United States and encroachments by white settlers, decided to fight alongside Great Britain. The great Shawnee warrior Tecumseh, for example, with his brother Tenskwatawa, led a multi-tribal confederation allied with the British.

When Madison and Eustis exchanged these letters in early September 1812, they were reeling from the devastating loss of Fort Detroit. Gen. William Hull, tricked by British troops and their Native American allies into thinking that his forces were outnumbered, had surrendered the fort on August 16. Hull was reviled as a coward for the act, and President Madison received frantic letters from white settlers who feared that “savages” would sweep through the entire area.

At the same time as the siege of Fort Detroit, an important council was underway about 200 miles south at Piqua, Ohio. Secretary of War Eustis had invited the chiefs of a number of tribes to meet with U.S. commissioners and discuss a possible treaty. Some accepted, but others declined, distrusting the promises of the federal government and fearing the meeting was a pretense for taking more land.

According to the Letter Book of the Indian Agency at Fort Wayne 1809-1815 (p. 170), the Piqua council convened “August 15 and lasted for about three weeks.” That means it was these chiefs Eustis proposed taking as hostages in his letter to the president on September 7. Apparently negotiations weren’t going well.

Madison, quoted at the top of this post, was reluctant, but he didn’t rule it out. He wrote back, “The opinion of Clarke at least ought to [be] in favor of it. Is that known?” Clark was none other than William Clark, of Lewis and Clark fame. He was serving as U.S. agent for Indian affairs at St. Louis, Missouri. Clark may have nixed the idea, or perhaps the risk was considered too great, because the plan was never carried out. I found no other references to it.

The War of 1812 ended with the Treaty of Ghent, which essentially returned the United States and Great Britain to the pre-war status quo. But the territorial rights of the indigenous peoples were abandoned at the bargaining table. The British troops withdrew, and American expansion continued unabated.

I would urge anyone interested in the history of Native American treaties to read this petition I found while browsing the Madison papers online. Submitted to Madison on 5 February 1812 by representatives of the Wyandot Nation, it’s a heartbreaking plea for the preservation of the tribe’s ancestral territory, much of which had already been ceded to the U.S. Hearing that they may lose what little land they had left, the petitioners wrote, “We, the Wyandotts, are now a small nation. Unless you have charity for us, we will soon be forgot.”

The Wyandots were forcibly removed to a reservation in Kansas in 1843.

I’m also reminded of the MHS collection of sketches made by Cheyenne and Kiowa prisoners in 1877. These men were held by the U.S. military at Fort Marion, Florida, for the same reason William Eustis gave 65 years before: to prevent uprisings. Though they arose from tragic circumstances, the drawings are beautiful, and you can view all of them online at our website.

 sketches made by Cheyenne and Kiowa prisoners in 1877
“Sioux and Ute tribes at war” by Making Medicine, 1877