Revisiting Red Jacket, alias Cow Killer

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Image from Wikimedia Commons

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.[1] U.S. Indian commissioner Timothy Pickering recorded his Seneca name as “Saco-que-y-wan-tau,” translating as “Sleeper Wake up.”[2] 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.”[3]

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.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6] 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.”[7]

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.[8] 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.[9] 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?


[1] Christopher Densmore, Red Jacket: Iroquois Diplomat and Orator (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999), xv, 23.

[2] Densmore, Red Jacket, 32.

[3] Densmore, Red Jacket, xiv.

[4] Densmore, Red Jacket, 13.

[5] Graymont, The Iroquois in the American Revolution, 215-16. See also Densmore, Red Jacket, 13.

[6] 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.

[7] 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).

[8] Virginia Anderson, Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), esp. 6, 39, 185.

[9] 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 [1838]); 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).

8 responses

  1. Paraphrasing the Dinsmore manuscripts, Thomas Abler describes this episode slightly differently…”Red Jacket was the first to retire,” implying that he had participated in the battle rather than “leaving to reconnoiter.” Then Red Jacket kills the cow. The account goes on, however, “Much to his discomfort, the ruse was discovered, and the incident was to haunt him later in life.” p. 109

    Thomas Abler, ed., Chainbreaker: The Revolutionary War Memoirs of Governor Blacksnake as told to Benjamin Williams. Univ. Nebraska Press, 1989.

    • Thanks for this citation; it does change the narrative of the lead-up to the event. It still seems like this interpretation makes the act of killing the cow an embarrassing one, doesn’t it? I think that’s what I’m most interested in.

  2. I wonder who the cow belonged to. I assume the Sullivan-Clinton expedition drove some cattle with them to slaughter on the way, so it could have belonged to the army. That would imply a raid on the supply train, which should have been meritorious. It seems unlikely that any white settler was living on the west side of the lake before the end of the Revolution?

    • It could have belonged to the army, but Sullivan writes of all sorts of delays and challenges in transporting provisions for the campaign so I don’t have a sense of how many cattle would have made it. The British sources from this time comment on the scarcity of cattle this year. David Preston does talk about German colonists living on Haudenosaunee territory, but I’m not sure about the lake. There’s also evidence (from Kurt Jordan and Gail MacLeitch) of some cattle-raising among Mohawk, Oneida, and Seneca communities.

  3. Stone’s Life of Joseph Brant is another source for your list, and offers a slightly different take. Stone (via Morris) says Red Jacket had a penchant for killing cows owned by Indians when they were off in battle, and alleges in Life and Times of Red-Jacket that this particular cow belonged to an Indian. Stone also transcribed a fragment of a letter from Brant to the Duke of Northumberland that sure reads like the name was an epithet: “Red Jacket, or the Cow-killer, the speaker, and the greatest coward of all the Five Nations…” (II, 417). Stone’s details suggest Brant was not just calling Red Jacket a coward but charging him with selfishly ransacking resources from his own people–pretty harsh accusations in late eighteenth-century Iroquoia. If this was the case, this particular name might say more about internal Haudenosaunee politics than the tactics of resistance that Anderson outlines so well. Here’s the link, p. 416-17:

  4. Targeting animals as part of resistance and warfare has a lengthy history, and there was a lot of cattle slaughter here, including fairly regularly by Brant in his campaigns. Some of this was obviously a means to destruction of settlements and farms – and of depriving Oneidas and Tuscaroras – but that does not mean that there may not have been a symbolic act in killing “settler animals” as well. There seem to be layers of insult and politics here – very interesting.

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