Lately I’ve been thinking about names and what they mean. The Seneca orator Red Jacket had several of them. Red Jacket lived on the Buffalo Creek reservation, and according to Christopher Densmore, he was less influential than other leaders—though his name increasingly appears in council speeches in the 1780s and 1790s. U.S. Indian commissioner Timothy Pickering recorded his Seneca name as “Saco-que-y-wan-tau,” translating as “Sleeper Wake up.” Usually Red Jacket seems to appear in the records as Red Jacket—but I am interested in a fourth name. According to most historians Red Jacket’s alias, Cow Killer, was derogatory, meant to tease him for “his distinct disinclination to fight during the American Revolution.”
By various historians’ accounts, Red Jacket received the nickname Cow Killer while on the way to Kanadesaga during the Newtown campaign in summer of 1779. Here’s how Barbara Graymont tells it:
While the army was yet advancing on Kanadesaga, Red Jacket and a companion went out into the woods to reconnoiter. Red Jacket killed a cow and smeared his hatchet with blood. When they returned to the village, he boasted of having killed an American. His companion thought the joke too good to keep quiet and exposed the fraud to the rest, who enjoyed themselves enormously at Red Jacket’s expense. [Joseph] Brant ever afterwards contemptuously referred to the pusillanimous Seneca as “the cow killer.” Red Jacket had a brilliant mind and would later become one of the most renowned orators in his nation. His strength was in the council rather than on the field of battle.
In reading this interpretation there are two reasons why I am suspicious about the attack against a cow as inherently shameful. First, because of the extent to which killing and stealing cattle was a recognized form of warfare during the War of Independence, and second because of the ways in which historians have described attacks against cattle as a symbolic form of violence during the colonial period more broadly. With respect to the war, a quick foray into the Haldimand Papers at the British Library yields return after return of grist mills destroyed, crops burned, and cattle and horses killed and carried away. Would it really have made sense to make fun of Red Jacket for participating in a form of guerilla warfare that was so common among other Indians—and indeed, among the non-Native rangers who went out on these expeditions? Red Jacket killed the cow in the woods, but so what? Any history of Native American warfare will describe tactics that avoided direct battlefield confrontation in favor of “the skulking way of war.”
Regarding attacks against domesticated animals, Virginia Anderson has argued that cattle in particular became symbols of colonists’ land-grabs because animals destroyed unfenced Indian crops, often in advance of the arrival of colonists. Although Native Americans gradually adopted pigs and then cattle, it was also not uncommon to find cattle killed or maimed during periods of increased violence—as in King Phillip’s War, but certainly during the American Revolution, too. It doesn’t seem that much of a jump to say that Red Jacket might have referred to the cow as an American without joking about it, because the cow would have been an actual enemy while also symbolizing one. I’d be interested in having another look at Joseph Brant’s references to Red Jacket in this context, too. It’s possible that Cow Killer could have been a name that acknowledged some military service, rather than denying it—and it wouldn’t negate Brant’s other critiques of Red Jacket.
There are several sources that I’d need to examine to consider this reinterpretation in more detail. Before I venture down this rabbit hole, however, I thought I’d ask: has anyone interpreted Red Jacket’s cow-killing incident positively? And if so, does that change the interpretation of his contributions to diplomatic negotiations during the Early Republic?
 Christopher Densmore, Red Jacket: Iroquois Diplomat and Orator (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999), xv, 23.
 Densmore, Red Jacket, 32.
 Densmore, Red Jacket, xiv.
 Densmore, Red Jacket, 13.
 Graymont, The Iroquois in the American Revolution, 215-16. See also Densmore, Red Jacket, 13.
 For example see Return of Indian Partys of Colo. Johnsons Department set on Service from the 12th February to the last of June 1780, with the Number Killed & made Prisoners & Damages done by them, Niagara, 1 July 1780, ff. 64-5, Add. MS 21769, BL. For similar accounts see ff. 76, 80, 83, 94, 165.
 Armstrong Starkey, European and Native American Warfare, 1675-1815 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998); John Grenier, The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814 (Cambridge, 2005); Wayne E. Lee, Barbarians and Brothers: Anglo-American Warfare, 1500-1865 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).
 Virginia Anderson, Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), esp. 6, 39, 185.
 Primaries include William L. Stone, The Life and Times of Red-Jacket, or Sa-Go-Ye-Wat-Ha, Being the Sequel to the History of the Six Nations (New York and London: Wiley and Putnam, 1841 ); Robert Morris’s account of interactions with the Senecas in the Henry O’Reilly Papers at the New-York Historical Society; the Draper Manuscripts. Secondaries include Isabel Thompson Kelsay, Joseph Brant, 1743-1807, Man of Two Worlds (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1986); Thomas S. Abler, Chainbreaker: The Revolutionary War Memoirs of Governor Blacksnake, As told to Benjamin Williams (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989).