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Bradley Birzer

Jean Baptiste Richardville

In 1818, Indian Commissioner Benjamin Parke attempted to treat with the Miamis, Weas, and Delawares but found only frustration. He should have been wielding significant influence. Only three years earlier the United States had convinced the British, through a combination of warfare and diplomacy, to leave the Old Northwest. For almost three decades prior to the War of 1812, the British had instigated hatred among, given arms to, and traded with the Indians in what was ostensibly United States territory. Now the British were gone, and without them acting as a countervailing force to protect the Indians, the Indians should have been helpless. Americans like Parke assumed that the Indians would fall in line with the United States, recognizing the young republic as the indisputable new Great Father. But the title, Parke quickly found out, had to be earned.

Indeed, the hearings started on a very bad note and fifteen days behind Parke’s schedule. None of the tribes wanted to be the first to attend, as the others would interpret their early arrival as a signs of weakness. The Miamis especially held a superior attitude, believing it was their place to arrive only after their “lesser” neighbors, the Weas and Delawares. The latter two tribes accepted the Miami attitude but jockeyed with each other for dominance. With each tribe vying for position, Parke and the Americans had to wait for more than two weeks before the tribes began to trickle in slowly to the treaty grounds.[1]

To make matters worse, one man of French-Indian descent, Miami chief Jean Baptiste Richardville, seemed to be destroying the entire treaty process. Had it not been for the presence of this one man, all might have ended well for the United States in the 1818 treaty proceedings. The Miami chief, wrote Parke with a sense of bewilderment, was “avaricious, shrewd, acquainted with the value of property, and his manner that of a well bred gentlemen.”[2] Like most Americans, Parke had expected the Indians to be either ignoble or noble savages. Richardville fit neither stereotype.

During the negotiations, Richardville promised to back the initiative and goals of the United States. In exchange for land cessions in fee simple to him personally, Richardville promised to persuade the other Miami chiefs to treat with the United States.[3] Prior to arriving at the treaty grounds, though, Richardville had already developed a plan with his sub-chiefs, especially those from the main Miami villages, located at the confluence of the Mississinewa and Wabash rivers. Francis Godfroy—a sub-chief, good friend, and business partner of Richardville—and the other Mississinewa chiefs had agreed to walk out of the talks if the Miamis failed to get what they desired from the United States. The Mississinewa chiefs represented the most significant portion of the Miami population, between eighty and ninety percent of the tribe. Prior to the War of 1812, Richardville had been a Mississinewa chief himself and had developed very close ties with the other chiefs from these villages. They readily acknowledged his leadership.[4]

The plan was fairly simple. As Godfroy and the Mississinewa chiefs continuously walked out of the hearings, Richardville remained behind at the bargaining table. Alone with the government officials, he offered to bring the other chiefs back in to negotiate further. But, to expend so much of his own personal political clout to aid the United States, Richardville argued, he required something more to sweeten the pot for both himself and the other chiefs. The United States consented to Richardville’s demands, and the process would start all over again. The Miami chiefs came in once again to bargain, only to refuse the wishes of the United States, storming out of the meeting tent, and leaving Richardville behind in what probably seemed an endless cycle to Parke.[5]

When Parke finally comprehended Richardville’s strategy, he briefly contemplated treating with lesser Miami chiefs, bypassing Richardville and his allied Mississinewa chiefs altogether. Indiana Territorial Governor and future president William Henry Harrison had played such a game when war chief Little Turtle was alive. But in 1818, Little Turtle was six years dead, and, prior to his death, had lost almost all his respect from his tribe for working with Harrison. Little Turtle, though, ended badly. He had gone from a famed war leader to simply a “government annuity chief.” Knowing the consequences and inefficacy of Harrison’s divide-and-conquer policy, Parke wisely concluded that a similar strategy with the wily Richardville would only cause future problems. If he wanted to save at least some face for the United States in 1818, he would have to treat with Richardville on Miami terms.

At the conclusion of the proceedings, the government promised to defend Miami lands from white trespassers and offered massive land grants in fee simple to Richardville and his family, to the Godfroys, and to the mixed-blood children of the martyred Captain William Wells, a white captive among the Miamis who had served the U.S. government and had been killed in the attack (massacre) on Chicago in 1812. The United States also agreed to pay fifteen thousand dollars (in specie only, as Richardville distrusted paper money) to the Miamis in perpetuity, regardless of any past or future treaties.[6]

Perhaps most tellingly, Richardville demanded that the government give him his land in fee simple.[7] He wanted complete control over it, and he refused to have the government hold it in trust. As historian Jay Gitlin has adroitly noted, “treaty making was market making.”[8] This was certainly the case for Richardville. By treating with the United States, Richardville assured himself a role in and access to the local land markets. Never a good warrior, Richardville believed that well-defined and well-enforced property rights seemed the most effective means by which his family and the Miamis could protect themselves and their way of life from white Americans enamored with the market, money, and land. The recounting of this treaty process gives the modern reader insight into the character as well as the power of Jean Richardville. Specifically, this story offers the most telling example of the chief’s perseverance, his most blatant attempt to maintain the integrity of his family and the Miamis against the expansion of the Americans.

As much as Americans of 2018 lament the removal of the American Indians to the Great Plains, there were always alternatives.

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Notes:

[1]Parke to Calhoun, 7 December 1818, Parke Papers.

[2]Parke to Calhoun, 7 December 1818, Parke Papers.

[3]Allen Hamilton, Fort Wayne, to Louis B. Barthelet, December 28, 1839, Folder Q, Box 5, Godfroy Papers, Miami Indian Papers, Miami   County Historical Society and Museum, Peru, Indiana, (hereafter Godfroy Papers) discusses Richardville’s policy on specie.

[4]Parke to Calhoun, 7 December 1818, Parke Papers.

[5]Parke to Calhoun, 7 December 1818, Parke Papers.

[6]Parke to Calhoun, 7 December 1818, Parke Papers.

[7]Parke to Calhoun, 7 December 1818, Parke Papers.; and Charles J. Kappler, ed., Indian Treaties, 1778-1883 (New York: Interland Publishing), 171-4.

[8]Jay Gitlin, “From Private Diplomacy to Private Property: French and Métis Traders and the Transition from Empire to Nation-State in the West, 1793-1831,” paper delivered at the OAH Annual Meeting in Chicago, 29 March 1996.

Editor’s Note: The featured image above of Jean Baptiste Richardville is provided by Wikimedia Commons.

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