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A Native American Vision of Justice From 1722 Offers a Model for Today

Three hundred years ago, leaders of three British colonies and representatives of the Indigenous nations known as the Haudenosaunee Confederacy gathered in Albany, N.Y., to sign what is the oldest continuously recognized treaty in colonial American and United States law. They sought to resolve a crisis that colonists believed could convulse the continent like no other: the brutal murder of a Seneca hunter named Sawantaeny by a pair of white fur traders, the brothers John and Edmund Cartlidge.

Colonists feared that violence would spark a war with the confederacy and threaten the British Empire in North America. But the gathered Haudenosaunees had set their minds on peace, not war. The treaty the two sides negotiated and signed that September contained a Haudenosaunee vision of reparative justice that set aside every anxious expectation of the colonists. Yet its contents came to be buried by the passage of time as surely as Sawantaeny’s body was covered with earth.

When we learn as students about the founding documents of the United States, we seldom hear about the Great Treaty of 1722, even though it is the oldest treaty still recognized by the U.S. State Department. The ideals espoused by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other colonial revolutionaries are central to the story of the nation’s founding. But what’s been largely forgotten are the extensive statements on justice that Indigenous people advanced in carefully composed speeches made at treaty conferences. These records of diplomatic meetings are as much a part of our national heritage as the familiar writings of Revolutionary-era leaders.

What’s distinctive about the Treaty of 1722 is the alternative approach it offered to creating a fair society, one in which people who commit crimes can later be reintegrated into the community — and one in which a crisis of violence can be resolved without inflicting further harm. The treaty provided a working model of restorative justice, demonstrating how communities of the victims and the perpetrators of a crime can come together to repair social relationships through economic, emotional and spiritual offerings. The story has applications today, demonstrating that criminal justice reforms that may sound radical now, as they are pursued by a wide range of community activists, researchers, educators, legislative reformers and progressive jurists, actually have a long American tradition.

On a freezing February afternoon in 1722, John Cartlidge and his younger brother Edmund rode their horses up the Susquehanna River Valley in what today is Pennsylvania but was then Native ground to the cabin where Sawantaeny lived with his Shawnee wife, Weenepeeweytah. The Cartlidge brothers had hoped to bargain for a large assortment of deerskins and fur pelts that Sawantaeny had accumulated. But after a long night of drinking and haggling without success beside a winter campfire, the brothers came to blows with Sawantaeny.

They beat him to death, then galloped off into the woods. John Cartlidge was the justice of the peace in nearby Chester County, and he, for one, knew just what sort of harsh punishment they could expect from British colonial justice, with its emphasis on guilt, punishment and retribution: jailing in Philadelphia’s prison house attic, a trial in the neighboring brick courthouse and then a trip to the gallows. They were later captured and jailed in Philadelphia to await their fate.

But the Native people of the Susquehanna River Valley — a multicultural, multilingual group of many different Iroquoian- and Algonquian-speaking nations — told the British that their preferred remedy was reparations, not retribution. Their position on the fate of the Cartlidge brothers set off a debate with the colonists about the true nature of justice that stretched on for more than six months as each side argued over which culture’s legal customs would be followed.

At a meeting in Philadelphia to try to resolve the crisis, Native diplomats explained to William Keith, the governor of Pennsylvania, that the Haudenosaunees expected Native practices to prevail in resolving the murder. One of those diplomats, Satcheechoe, a member of the Cayuga nation, presented the Haudenosaunees’ view. He demanded that the governor travel to Albany to join British and Haudenosaunee leaders there in working out a treaty between the two and to pay his respects in person to the Native representatives. Only a formal visit could satisfy Haudenosaunee protocols, which required the expression of formal condolences, participation in spiritual rituals of community renewal and the payment of trade goods as reparations.

Then Satcheechoe added a final explicit instruction to the governor: The Haudenosaunees, he said, “desire John Cartlidge may not die for this. They would not have him killed.” Governor Keith argued that “the laws of our great king” did not allow for setting a killer free, insisting that “such a man by our laws must die.” But Satcheechoe made the Native position clear: “One life is enough to be lost. There should not two die.”

In September of 1722, Governor Keith traveled to Albany to meet with the Haudenosaunees and delegations from the colonies of Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania. Because all of the assembled were at peace with one another, Native leaders argued that it made no sense to pursue vengeance. Rather, a representative of the gathered members of what were then five confederated nations of Haudenosaunees explained, “we do in the name of all the Five Nations forgive the offense and desire you will likewise forgive it.” The Haudenosaunee representative asked that the Cartlidges “be released from prison and set at liberty.” Governor Keith responded that he would fulfill their request “in order to confirm the friendship that is so happily renewed and established by this treaty.”

As a further diplomatic courtesy, the Haudenosaunees offered to confirm the colonists’ Pennsylvania land claims. This offer explains why colonists safeguarded the treaty and passed it down through the centuries from the British Empire to Revolutionary America and the U.S. State Department today.

British leaders never wanted to reveal to their colonists how closely they had been forced to adhere to Native principles of justice, nor to acknowledge Native arguments against incarceration and capital punishment. Instead, as he sent a copy of the treaty off to the British Board of Trade to be archived, Governor William Burnet of New York pretended that English law had determined the outcome and that Governor Keith had decided against prosecuting the Cartlidges only because of a lack of admissible evidence, not because he admitted the validity of the Native position.

The month of November has been celebrated as Native American Heritage Month, certainly an appropriate time to recall the Great Treaty of 1722 and its lessons, still fresh after 300 years. As movements for criminal justice reform seek new momentum, it is time to resurrect Native principles of justice and reconsider this treaty in a new light.

Nicole Eustace is a professor of history at New York University. Her book “Covered With Night: A Story of Murder and Indigenous Justice in Early America” received a Pulitzer Prize in history this year and was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2021.

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