William Shirley was the Royal Governor of Massachusetts, appointed by the King of England. Shirley had been a British official in England serving on negotiating committees with French officials determining boundaries. This had led Shirley to a thorough dislike of the French.
He was very aggressive and had been a stalwart advocate of invading Canada and driving the French out of North America. Shirley had written a strong criticism of the New York Congress for its resistance to an invasion of Canada in 1748. He was upset when New Jersey and Rhode Island refused to cooperate in the invasion because they were not threatened.
Shirley wanted a stronger unity of colonies so that they could be forced to cooperate to drive out the French. When signs of a renewal of Anglo-French warfare surfaced in late 1753, Shirley put out a call for a new conference. Virginia Governor Dinwiddie, who was also experiencing difficulty with the French in the Ohio Valley, had similar sentiments. They both wanted a London mandated plan forcing the colonies to work together to provide troops and supplies and invade New France.
On May 9, 1754, Benjamin Franklin’s newspaper, the Pennsylvania Gazette reported that Virginia militiamen building a fort on the Ohio River had surrendered to a French army. A sketch followed the story and depicted a snake cut into eight pieces, each piece showed the name of a colony and the caption under the cartoon read “join or die.” The article and sketch were carried in newspapers throughout the Northeast. Franklin had authored both.
Following instructions from London’s Board of Trade, New York Governor George Clinton put out a call to each of the colonies to attend an inter-colonial conference set to meet in Albany on June 14, 1754. Clinton wanted delegates from each colony to try to construct a more united defense and also to meet with representatives of the Haudenosaunee to repair the Covenant Chain, the agreement which had largely kept the colonies at the center of trade with the Iroquois for nearly half a century. New York, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Maryland participated. New Jersey and Virginia declined. North Carolina and South Carolina were too far south, but they said that they would support the effort.
At least two colonies, Pennsylvania and Connecticut, approached the conference as an opportunity to buy more land from Native People. Pennsylvania Indian Agent Conrad Weiser wrote that he hoped to find among the Haudenosaunee “some greedy fellows for Money that will undertake to bring things about to our wishes.” Both the Penn family of Pennsylvania and Connecticut officials asked William Johnson, the colonial figure with the closest relationship to the Haudenosuanee, to assist them in procuring their land. Thomas Penn wrote, “Colonel Johnson’s behavior is that of a man who expects to be courted.”
Due to pressure from London, Johnson was included as one of three representatives from New York, but Governor Clinton protected himself by not attending and sending Lieutenant Governor James De Lancey and Peter Wraxall and gave them no specific power to agree to anything.
On June 5, 1754, Pennsylvania’s representatives arrived in the city of New York and prepared to take a schooner to Albany. While waiting for the Albany boat, one of the representatives, Benjamin Franklin, drafted his ideas for constructing a colonial union that he titled: “Short hints towards a scheme for uniting the Northern colonies.”
Franklin proposed a colonial council; each colonial assembly would elect representatives to the council. The critical points in Franklin’s proposal were that the council be created from representatives of the colonies and the council, not the officials in England, would be responsible for taxation, defense and trade. Under Franklin’s plan, England could not argue that it was entitled to tax revenue from the colonies because it was providing protection, the colonies would become responsible for both taxing and defending its residents.
The arrival of Johnson in Albany could not have been pleasing to Albany’s traders and Indian Commissioners. They most likely looked upon the meeting as a usurpation of their authority. There were no traditional Albany traders appointed official representatives to the meeting. Albany’s leaders, including Van Rensselaers and Schuylers, hosted dinners for the delegates, as did the Albany Mayor and Common Council, merchants Robert Sanders and James Stevenson, Philip Livingston and the Lansings. Albany merchants housed the delegates.
The meeting was held in Albany’s new City Hall (Stadt Huys) built in 1741, a large three-story brick building with a steep pitched roof and belfry. The bell in the belfry was rung every day at noon and 8 pm. The new City Hall housed the city and county governments, the court, the clerk’s office and records storage, as well as the jail in the basement. (New York State government would meet here after the Revolution). The new City Hall was on the northeastern corner of Court and Hudson Streets (Broadway and Hudson Avenue-the current location of the plaza in front of the current SUNY Administration Building).
The Dutch Church at the intersection of Court and Jonkers (now State Street) and Fort Frederick at the head of Jonkers, together with the Episcopal Church and City Hall, were the four large buildings in Albany at that time. Grouped around them was a collection of about 300 steep-roofed private homes built in the Dutch style with the gable end facing the street.
Representatives to the 1754 Albany Congress entered a city of about 2,000 residents. Albany was unlike any other city in the colonies, it was like a step back to the old world, with its Dutch customs and architecture mixed with a substantial English fort and garrison and a significant but transient Native population.
Even though the Native representatives had not yet arrived, the meeting opened on June 19. Representatives presented their credentials; a letter from the London Board of Trade was read, as were the minutes of the last two meetings of the Albany Indian Commissioners and comments from the traders in Oswego.
The Oswego trader’s letter complained: “in passing the Mohawks and Conajohary castles, they board our battoes with axes, knives, etc and by force take what Rum they think proper, hooping and yelping as if they Glorified in their depredations and threatening murder to any that oppose them, and at our arrival at the great carrying place, the Oneida Indians force our goods from us … to carry over, and not content with making us pay a most exorbitant price, … but rob us of our rum, stores and other goods, with a great deal of invective threatening language.”
The London Board of Trade letter was accompanied by gifts for the Haudenosaunee sent from England. The letter instructed that “proper presents be furnished to the Indians” and representatives to the conference be persons “not obnoxious to them.” It also suggested that the meeting not take place in Albany but be moved to Onondaga (closer to William Johnson’s home). The Board of Trade also directed that claims by Native People that their lands had been inappropriately taken from them be investigated. The letter could have been written by Johnson, it so closely followed his agenda. He obviously had been in contact with friends on the London Board of Trade. The colonists prepared for the arrival of Native People and, in the meantime, discussed the issues amongst themselves.
The Board also recommended that individual land purchases from Native People be prohibited and only purchases made in His Majesty’s name be allowed. The colonial representatives adopted this recommendation.
At this time Colonel Myndert Schuyler was chairman of the Albany Indian Commissioners. Other members included Mayor Robert Sanders, Sybrant Van Schaak, Captain Hubert Marshall – commander of the fort, Cornelius Cuyler, John Beekman, Johannes Van Rensselaer, Jacob Coenradt Ten Eyck and Peter Winne. The commissioners recommended that the Haudenosaunee “move back to their traditional castles” and away from French settlements in the north, that two forts be constructed with missionaries to administer to them, that rum trading be prohibited and that Frenchmen be prohibited from trading in New York.
From June 19th until the 27th, the Commissioners awaited the arrival of the Haudenosaunee and worked on a speech to be given to them. On the 27th, Mohawks from the lower castle were in the city and requested to see Lieutenant Governor De Lancey. They told him that they were concerned that “there are writings for all our lands, so that we shall have none left but the very spot we live upon and hardly that.” They said that the Canajoharie Mohawks would have a similar claim. They presented De Lancey with a belt.
De Lancey asked the Mohawks to be specific, which parcel were they contesting? The Mohawk replied “We are told a large tract of land has been taken up called Kayadarosseras [now in Saratoga County] beginning at the Half Moon and so up along the Hudson’s River to the third fall and thence to … [West] Canada Creek.” De Lancy said he would send for the patentees and give them an answer before they left.
On June 28th, the Mohawks from the Upper Castle (at Canajoharie) arrived and requested to see De Lancey. They appeared with Hendrick Theyanoguin as their speaker. Hendrick said that they met the messenger telling them to come to Albany at Colonel Johnson’s. He said that their group included representatives of all of the Five Nations of Iroquois. Hendrick said they were late because they did not want to appear to be too friendly with the colonists so they let other Indian Nations arrive first.
On the 29th, De Lancey gave the prepared speech to the Haudenosaunee. There were about 150 Iroquois in attendance. De Lancey said that he was there to give presents to them on behalf of the King of England. He told them that representatives were there from each of the other colonies and he said he was glad to see them in good health and presented them with a belt.
He said he was sorry to hear of the death of some of their people since the last conference and gave them three strings of wampum.
He said he wanted to brighten and strengthen the Covenant Chain and gave them a chain belt.
De Lancy said that they should not live so scattered and asked them to return to their traditional homes and presented them with another belt.
He said that the French were professing peace but trying to take over the whole country and were threatening trade between the English and the Indian Nations. He said that the French were building new forts and he wanted to know if the Haudenosaunee had agreed to this. He presented them with another large belt.
He said that he did not want to talk of other issues until these were resolved and presented another belt. The meeting was adjourned until the next day to allow the Haudenosaunee time to respond.
On June 29th , the lieutenant governor was advised that a large number of Native representatives from Stockbridge, Massachusetts, were in Albany. They were most likely visiting the merchants, buying goods, possibly getting guns repaired. De Lancey agreed to meet with them but said that it should be the responsibility of the Massachusetts delegation to provide presents. Also at the meeting of the 29th Benjamin Franklin probably made his presentation and plans for the union of the colonies were debated.
One of the representatives wrote home: “Sunday, 30th June. Went to Church forenoon and afternoon, after which attended at Church w(h)ere the Mohawks were called to prayers and the Service in their language, which was performed with the utmost Decency. Many of them had books and responded.”
After church he walked up to Fort Frederick and was startled and then laughed to see hundreds of Native People camped around Albany’s fort. He said that any other city in the colonies would be considered to be under siege if so many Indian People surrounded its fort.
Albany was used to having hundreds of Native People in the city at any given time. They came there with their stacks of furs that they sold for sewant and then walked through the market and obtained goods. They also brought items to be repaired by Albany blacksmiths, gunsmiths, silversmiths and tailors. Many different Native groups from many different nations, including some from Canada, were there regularly. Albany’s stockade wall was frequently in disrepair because Albanians could see no purpose in paying to repair it.
On Tuesday afternoon, July 2, a prominent Mohawk known to Albanians as “Old Abraham” asked if the commissioners were ready to hear their response. Hendrick rose and spoke. He said he was happy that they had all met and gave them a belt.
He said he offered condolences for any of their people who had died since the last meeting and gave a belt. Hendrick said that they “do now solemnly renew and brighten the covenant chain.” He said that they were dispersed and not living in their traditional homes because they were ignored by the English but courted by the French and he gave a belt.
He said that Pennsylvanian and Virginian settlers regularly traversed through their country without their permission and they had not given the French permission to build forts on their land and gave another belt.
He said that Albany was “the ancient place of Treaty where the Fire of Friendship always used to burn” and it had been three years since they had been invited here and gave a belt.
Hendrick said that the English fortifications were weak even at Albany and should be strengthened and the “French can come here easily.” Abraham then rose and asked that William Johnson be reinstated as commissioner and presented another belt.
On Wednesday, July 3rd, the commissioners again met with the Haudenosaunee to respond.
They said that they were very happy that the Covenant Chain was renewed and presented a belt.
The commissioners said that the Haudenosaunee accusation that Pennsylvania and Virginia settlers had moved into the Ohio Valley was a surprise to them. They knew that the French had moved many soldiers into the area and constructed two forts but were not aware that English settlers had settled there. They said that Mr. Weiser was at the meeting representing Pennsylvania and he would respond.
Conrad Weiser said that the road from Pennsylvania to Ohio was an old and frequently used one. All nations had used the road for many years. The soldiers that went into the area had been sent at the request of the Shawnee and Delaware (Lenape) and had been repulsed by the French. No British colonial forces remained in the Ohio Valley. He presented a belt.
De Lancey then responded to the next point:
“You have told me that this is the place of Treaty; that ‘tis now three years ago since you were asked to smoak a pipe here; that there are Commissioners but they have never invited you to smoak with them. It was their duty on their appointment to … invite you to smoak with them to rekindle the fire, which was then almost extinguished, and if they had done it earlier … it would have been very agreeable to me. Brethren, you say the houses here are full of beaver; this is a trading place, and the Merchants have a right to traffick for beaver or other skins, which they sometimes pay for in goods and sometimes in money, but as to what you say about guns and powder being sold to the French, I have made all the enquiry I could into this matter, and am assured you are misinformed, for neither guns nor powder are sold by any persons here to the French.
“Brethren, you tell me that whilst Colonel Johnson had the management of Indian affairs you all lived happy, that you loved him and he you, and that he has always been your good and Trusty friend; I am … convinced that he is still your friend; but as this is the place where the ancient fire was kindled which was nearly burnt out, & as Colonel Johnson has for some reasons declined the management of Indian Affairs, it was thought proper to rekindle the fire here, by appointing commissioners whom I shall direct to receive and consult with you … (I) expect that you will for the future apply to them according to the Custom of your forefathers … I will tryal of them another year … .” He gave a belt.
Killogg from Massachusetts Bay then responded to the next point that the French had been building on the Kennebec River and Governor Shirley was going to send troops to repulse them and build a new fort. He said that a man and his wife and three children were carried into captivity by the St. Francis Indians (composed of families from a number of Indian Nations) and 21 Massachusetts fishermen were killed and scalped and the St. Francis were “well rewarded” at Cape Breton by the French.
The Haudenosaunee responded that they were glad the covenant Chain was brightened and their complaints against Albany heard, and presented a belt.
They said they were happy to hear the story of the Ohio Valley, and gave a belt.
They said that immediate steps should be taken to fortify and repair defenses at Albany and Schenectady and said that while they were meeting here the previous day, a native person allied to the French had taken measurements of Colonel Johnson’s house and that Colonel Johnson was in grave danger. They said that Colonel Johnson was part of the Five Nations as he was a sachem of the Iroquois, and gave five strings of wampum.
The Haudenosaunee said that they were deeply concerned about the “selling of Rum in our Castles. It destroys many, both of our old and young people. We request of all the governments here present, that it may be forbidden to carry any of it amongst the Five Nations. … it [rum] keeps them all poor, makes them idle & wicked; if they have any money or goods they lay it all out in Rum, it destroys virtue and the progress of Religion amongst us.” The Indians also asked for help to build a “church at Conojohary, and that we may have a bell in it.” They also said that they had one unsettled issue regarding land belonging to the Canajoharies.
Penn of Pennsylvania then rose to respond and said he would consider the request on rum and look into the claim on the land and offered to purchase a tract of land within Pennsylvania. (The Haudenosaunee agreed to sell.)
Lieutenant Governor De Lancey reported that William Livingston and William Alexander, heirs of Philip Livingston, the patentee of the disputed land at Canajoharie had declared their readiness to give up all rights to it. Hendrick pointed out to De Lancey that Caughnawagas were in the city and would bring back news of the meeting to the French. There were so many Native People eating, drinking and bartering at the market places on Jonkers and Market Streets (State and Broadway) and visiting shops in Albany that the Caughnawagas had been unnoticed by the colonial officials.
De Lancey then met with the “Scaakticook Indians” and went through much the same ceremony he had done with the Haudenosaunee and the “River Indians” (presumably Algonquin speaking Mohican) They celebrated the renewal of the Covenant Chain and again there were grievances that new settlers were constantly arriving and settling on their land. The new settlers told them that the land belonged to the King, but they said that they had never sold most of it.
On the 4th of July, morning and afternoon meetings were held to continue discussions of a plan of union of the colonies. Benjamin Franklin’s “Albany Plan” was discussed in detail.
On the ninth of July, the colonial representatives passed a resolution claiming rights to all of North America based on its discovery by Henry Cabot in 1497 and defined the boundaries of the various colonies. They resolved to oppose French expansion.
They then reviewed the complaints of the Native People and resolved that all disputed land sales be investigated; that “all future purchases of lands from the Indians be void unless made by the Government where such lands lye, and from the Indians in a body in their public councils;” that “boundaries of the colonies claimed to extend to the South Sea [Pacific Ocean] be limited to the Allegheny or Appalachian mountains,” that large tracts purchased be either settled or forfeited; and that “there be a plan of Union of His Majesty’s several Governments on the continent.”
Despite the Native protestations about land sales, the Albany Congress was used as a venue where more land was sold. The Haudenosaunee representatives under the leadership of Hendrick and including members of all the Iroquois nations sold a large plot to delegates Peters and Penn from Pennsylvania. The parcel extended all the way west to the Ohio River and north to Lake Erie, lands controlled by the Cayugas and Oneidas “in their right of conquest of the Susquehanna Indians.” The Delaware and Shawnee however occupied part of this land and were not consulted. They would later side with the French in the approaching war because of this sale. (This land would become part of the Northwest Territory and restricted from settlers under the Northwest Ordinance after the Revolution).
On Wednesday, July 10th “Mr. Franklin reported the … [draft of] … a new form of a plan of a union …” The plan called for a President General and Grand Council to be elected by representatives of each colony. The Grand Council would negotiate all treaties with Indigenous People, make laws governing new settlements, raise and pay soldiers and build forts, and “levy such general duties, imposts or taxes as to them appear most equal.” In the afternoon, Franklin’s plan was considered and adopted.
After being in Albany at least twenty-two days, the delegates returned home having renewed the Covenant Chain with the Haudenosaunee and reinstated the Albany Indian Commissioners. They made progress toward resolving Indigenous complaints and adopted Franklin’s Albany Plan of Union.
The Albany Plan of Union was not adopted by the individual colonial legislatures however, nor was it greeted with favor by the King’s representatives, who all thought they were surrendering too much power to this proposed new government.
Benjamin Franklin later said that his failure to get this plan adopted was his greatest success. If it had been adopted and successfully implemented, there may have been no need for the American Revolution.
Illustrations, from above: A December 1754 map of the English colonies (courtesy Library of Congress); Ben Franklin’s 1754 “Join or Die” cartoon for Albany Plan of Union; Albany’s Stadt House in 1754, site of the Albany Plan of Union, from a mural in the US Capitol by Allyn Cox 1973-1974; Map of Mohawk communities from History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925 edited by Nelson Greene (1925); Henderick Peters Theyanooguin (King Hendrick), wearing the English coat he wore on public occasions and his distinctive facial tattoo. This print published just after his death and titled “The brave old Hendrick, the great Sachem or Chief of the Mohawk Indians” is considered the most accurate likeness of the man; and delegates at the Albany Stadt House from a mural in the US Capitol by Allyn Cox 1973-1974 (from left to right): William Franklin and his father, Benjamin (Pennsylvania); Governor Thomas Hutchinson (Massachusetts); Governor William Delancey (New York); Sir William Johnson (Massachusetts); Colonel Benjamin Tasker (Maryland).