“Daddy” Schuyler, Hamilton, and the Dakota Access Pipeline

State St. in front of the NYS Capital building, Albany, NY N 42 39.11 W 73 45.31 Text: <---- 1 1/2 Miles Schuyler Mansion Home of General Philip Schuyler. Residence of Alexander Hamilton in 1781 and 1795. State Education Department 1940

Three things happened in the last couple weeks to put Hamilton back on my mind: 1) the Victoria Palace Theatre in London announced that tickets for the show would finally (finally!) go on sale in January, 2) I started re-reading some of my research notes for this round of book edits, and 3) police arrested and pepper-sprayed peaceful Native Americans—Standing Rock Sioux, along with 90 additional nations and tribes—who were protesting the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.[1] I find that being a historian is a job of intellectual mood swings. I read my sources telling me about the horrible things some of the people I study did in the past, and then I have to pull back and contextualize their actions within an eighteenth-century milieu in which many people were terrible people most of the time by 2016’s standards (and people, our standards these days are low). All this is a longish way of saying that I, like many historians, love Hamilton while recognizing that its treatment of Early Republic history misrepresents and sometimes leaves out some of the topics that matter most to me as a historian. And so today I want to talk about Hamilton, settler colonialism, and Native American history—in particular, about land battles and the relationship between Indians, federal governments, and state entities.

There are some particularly pertinent lyrics that can do a lot of work for us here, so let me lay them out for you.

Peggy (!) in “The Schuyler Sisters”:

“It’s bad enough daddy wants to go to war”

Eliza, singing in “Take a Break”:

“Let’s go upstate . . . We can all go stay with my father . . . There’s a lake I know . . . In a nearby park”

Hamilton, rapping in “My Shot”:

“Foes oppose us, we take an honest stand / We roll like Moses, claimin’ our promised land”

Although we meet his eponymous grandson, Philip—doomed son of A. Ham and Eliza Schuyler—we don’t meet Philip Schuyler in the show itself. But Philip Schuyler is the “daddy” to whom Peggy refers. Philip Schuyler’s involvement in Indian affairs allowed him to acquire so much land, and is one of the reasons why Alexander Hamilton and Eliza had a summer escape.[2]

During the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763) Schuyler gained experience fighting alongside Native Americans, and in provisioning armies. He was elected to the New York Assembly in 1768, at a time of growing protests against the British. When push came to shove, he chose rebel allegiance over fealty to the empire.[3] He had a mixed military career—too detailed to be chronicled here—but it included advising George Washington on the devastating 1779 expedition into Iroquoia.[4] While Schuyler was telling Washington how best to attack British-allied Iroquois, he served on the Board of Indian Commissioners of the Northern Department (until 1785), conducting diplomacy among American-allied Oneida and Tuscarora members of the Iroquois. His interactions with them continued into the 1790s.

Between the 1783 Treaty of Paris with the British and the 1790s, the United States tried to claim that because it had beaten the British, it had also won Native American lands by right of conquest. Indians, who had neither accepted the idea that they were subjects under the British, nor ceded large portions of their territory to the British, disputed U.S. ownership of Native land. During the early 1780s the U.S. functioned under the Articles of Confederation, meaning that a weak central government possessed neither a strong enough army to fight Indian holdouts nor the power to levy taxes to raise a stronger army. Congress’s power to liaise peacefully with Native Americans was limited to those who were not “members” of the thirteen extant states.[5] New York claimed the Iroquois as their own, and tried to interfere with treaty negotiations from the 1784 Treaty of Stanwix onward, often on unscrupulous terms that demanded too much land. What land they could not obtain by cession, they tried to get by encouraging former colonists to grab via settler colonialism. Some of this situation had changed by 1790, when the Nonintercourse Act (AKA the Indian Nonintercourse Act or the Indian Intercourse Act) prohibited land sales between Indians and individuals and between Indians and the states, supposedly establishing the federal government as the sole entity capable of signing treaties with Indians.[6]

Which brings us to August 1795, when Philip Schuyler had a very interesting exchange with a delegation of Oneidas. At this meeting it is evident that Schuyler, now representing the state of New York, was deliberately ignoring this dictum laid down by the federal government. At this meeting, an Indian named Captain John addressed Schuyler, worrying, “Our Lands are almost all gone from us, for almost nothing!” Knowing that Schuyler planned to ask for land, he expressed his hope that New York State would “give us the full Value of our Lands.” He also, however, expressed dismay. He had assumed that Schuyler and his company had “Had with You an agent from the United States; but we find that you come only from the state of New York.” Nevertheless, Captain John seemed willing to cede some land, but not the territory Schuyler had delineated. “You have marked out too large a piece of Land,” said Captain John. “We will part with a small piece and hope you Will give us the value of it.”[7]

Schuyler’s response a couple days later sheds further light on the inherent contradictions of the situation. He observed that the Oneidas were not “altogether Consistent.” “You at one time tell us you cannot treat for want of a Commissioner from the United States,” but on the other hand, he said, “you propose to Make certain Bargains and wish that we would approve of and Ratify them.”[8] Without intending to, Schuyler identified the difficult position in which Native Americans found themselves in the 1790s: they had to hope that the federal government would protect their lands, but past experience during the 1780s had taught them that if a good enough deal could be made to retain some land in a cession to the states, that they should make that deal. This meeting concluded with no land cessions.

Credit: Fibonacci Blue, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License

Credit: Fibonacci Blue, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution License

These events matter in the context of the Dakota Access Pipeline protests because the Department of Interior, the Department of Justice, and the US Army Corps of Engineers, along with the Obama administration, have called on DAPL to voluntarily halt construction; DAPL has ignored these requests. As I understand it there is more than one standoff going on at the moment: there’s the one between a pan-Indian movement and Dakota Access, LLC (owned by Energy Transfer Partners), along with the various state entities in Iowa, Illinois, and the Dakotas that have approved construction of the pipeline, but those state entities and DAPL are also fighting various branches of the federal government. Native Americans, for their part, have been urging President Obama and most recently, Hillary Clinton, to come out more vocally (and decisively) against construction. These types of confrontations have existed during the colonial period, and continued during the 1780s and the 1790s—but they are absent from Hamilton.

Schuyler, as the musical tells us, was a state senator; he held a senate seat from 1792 to 1797. Before that, though, he surveyed land as a state surveyor general. Schuyler became interested in canal construction north and west of Albany in the 1790s. He built up lands at Saratoga (now Schuylerville) and “Cortlandt Manor,” inherited from his parents and his uncle. He also acquired thousands of acres in the Mohawk Valley. This territorial acquisition continued because New York State had taken the land of the Iroquois—at Fort Herkimer in 1785, at Fort Schuyler in 1788, and at Albany in 1789—despite the fact that some Iroquois, particularly the Oneidas, fought for the Americans in the war.

All of which brings us back to my third Hamilton lyric, which conveys Hamilton’s sense that this land has been promised to him and his rebel coterie on the brink of revolution. It hadn’t been. I couldn’t figure out in the reading I did for this post whether the Schuyler family itself acquired the land in Albany from Indians, whether English colonists got it, or whether it was other Dutch colonists (like the Schuylers) before them—but in a sense it doesn’t matter. It was land owned by sovereign Native Americans, who signed often illegitimate treaties with state governments because they had to hedge their bets while considering the weak position of the federal government. In telling the story of Eliza and Hamilton, the musical leaves these land grabs out.[9] And although that omission is the result of the fact that this is a pop-cultural interpretation of history, this Oneida-Schuyler episode is one that bears remembering as disputes about land ownership and sovereignty continue in North Dakota.[10]

[1] This is the clearest article I’ve read about the conflict. My understanding of Native protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, summarized from that piece, falls under four points:

  • That the pipeline’s proposed route falls on land of contested ownership. Protesters claim that this land was protected by the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed between U.S. Indian agents acting on behalf of the federal government, and Sioux, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow, Assiniboine, Hidatsa, Mandan, and Arikara Natives. You can read the text of that treaty here. Protesters argue that this treaty has not been properly honored, and given the long and well-studied history of non-Natives disregarding treaty boundaries, it’s imperative to be skeptical of claims that the land was “legally” purchased.
  • That the pipeline will destroy recently-discovered sacred sites and burial places that are not currently part of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. As protesters have pointed out, this land used to belong to Native Americans, but has been colonized over the last century and a half.
  • These first two issues come down to the question of sovereignty: the point that the Standing Rock Sioux constitute their own government, which is parallel to, but not subservient to the federal government.
  • That the pipeline, which would transport crude oil obtained via fracking, endangers the environment because of the (proven) potential for pipe leakage. The pipeline is planned to cross Lake Oahe, which provides the reservation’s prime source of water. This risk was so great that white residents of Bismarck, where the pipeline was initially supposed to go, protested, and the location of the pipeline was moved. Standing Rock Sioux have stated that the Army Corps of Engineers did not consult them to the extent that they should have before planning to build the pipeline so close to their reservation.

If you’d like to do more, consider signing this petition, and having a look at other options for helping protesters. If you’d like to incorporate this issue into your teaching, consider the #StandingRockSyllabus, which is explained in depth here.

[2] You can read about many of his activities by looking at the Philip Schuyler Papers at the New York Public Library—they’re on microfilm, but if you’re lucky enough to be a fellow, they might be super nice and let you examine the originals.

[3] Don R. Gerlach, “Schuyler, Philip John,” American National Biography Online, <http://www.anb.org/articles/01/01-00812.html&gt; [accessed October 28, 2016].

[4] Barbara Graymont, The Iroquois in the American Revolution (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1972), 192-223; Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in North American Communities (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 108-57; Karim M. Tiro, The People of the Standing Stone: The Oneida Nation from the Revolution through the Era of Removal (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011), 54-8; Rachel B. Herrmann, “‘No useless Mouth’: Iroquoian Food Diplomacy in the American Revolution,” Diplomatic History (Published early online May 2016 at http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/dh/dhw015 [print publication date TBD]), 22-4.

[5] Native Americans would have disputed the fact that they were members of the states; many Natives might have found it more convincing to say that the states were located in Indian country.

[6] Reginald Horsman, “The Indian Policy of an ‘Empire for Liberty,’” in Frederick E. Hoxie, Ronald Hoffman, and Peter J. Albert, eds., Native Americans and the Early Republic (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1999), 37-61; James H. Merrell, “Declarations of Independence: Indian-White Relations in the New Nation,” in Jack P. Greene, The American Revolution: Its Character and Limits (New York: New York University Press, 1987), 203, 205; Stuart Banner, How the Indians Lost their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005), 113, 135; Alan Taylor, The Divided Ground: Upper Canada, New York, and the Iroquois Six Nations, 1783-1815 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), 155; Kathleen DuVal, “Independence for Whom?: Expansion and Conflict in the South and Southwest,” in Andrew Shankman, ed., The World of the Revolutionary American Republic: Land, Labor, and the Conflict for a Continent (New York and London: Routledge, 2014), 97-115; Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, “Independence for Whom?: Expansion and Conflict in the Northeast and Northwest,” in Shankman, The World of the Revolutionary American Republic, 116-33. For a recent essay calling for a synthesis of work on state power and settler colonialism, see Lori J. Daggar, “The Mission Complex: Economic Development, ‘Civilization,’ and Empire in the Early Republic,” Journal of the Early Republic, 36, no. 3 (Fall 2016): 467-91, esp. 470.

[7] [At a meeting of the Oneidas and Commissioners of the State of New York], 8 August 1795, Folder 40, Box 81, Philip Schuyler Papers, MssCol 2701, the New York Public Library.

[8] [At a meeting of the Oneidas and Commissioners of the State of New York], 10 August 1795, Folder 40, Box 81, Philip Schuyler Papers, MssCol 2701, the New York Public Library.

[9] As a commenter at this blog pointed out, there might be a different play to be made about the Haudenosaunee and Sir William Johnson. Lin-Manuel Miranda, are you listening? Karin Wulf has recently told us that your take on King George III could change with additional research. I feel like if you applied for a Georgian Papers Programme fellowship (you’re in London; go do research at Windsor Castle!), there are rhymes about Johnson’s relationship with the crown and with the Iroquois just waiting to be written.

[10] Maybe at some point, I (or a guest poster) will take a look at another section of Hamilton vis-à-vis the primary sources: those “revolutionary manumission abolitionists” (!). In the meantime, however, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m on somewhat shaky historical ground with respect to Native American history after about 1830. If there’s anyone who wants to write about history and the Dakota Access Pipeline, please contact us about a guest post.

5 responses

  1. Pingback: “Daddy” Schuyler, Hamilton, and the Dakota Access Pipeline | Buffalo Doug

  2. Excellent article. It’s interesting how much more violence has been directed at the South Dakota protesters than the occupiers in Oregon.

  3. The Schuyler family acquired its first land holdings in the 17th century at a time when private individuals could buy directly from Indians. Beginning with Dutch settlers Philip Pieterse Schuyler and his brother David, they were key players in Indian affairs under the Dutch and then the English. Initially they focused on maintaining good relations and promoting trade, which both natives and Europeans wanted. But as land became more commodified, the focus shifted. The bottom line all along was that in European minds, they were entitled to the lands of the (native) Americans, and “Indians” were by their nature unable to fully own land. This belief is fundamental to settler colonialism and events in both Oregon and North Dakota suggests that it persists in the thinking of a lot of people. I’ve started a blog (still in initial stages) relating to some of this history at https://thecommissionersformanagingtheindianaffairsatalbany.wordpress.com/

  4. Pingback: This Week’s Top Picks in Imperial & Global History – Imperial & Global Forum

  5. Pingback: History and Hamilton: An American Musical – Hamilton: An American Musical Syllabus


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