American artist Robert Motherwell once wrote that “art is much less important than life, but what a poor life without it”. Perhaps Motherwell has something important to say with this quote. Perhaps art is the extra spice that makes life worth living. Or perhaps art enriches and makes better things that are already impressive. That I think is the idea when one looks at the latest artistic addition to the Lancaster County Convention Center in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
After nearly a year and a half of lengthy legal wrangling, the Convention Center Authority has reached a deal with Detroit Athletic Club, a landmark training facility in Detroit, Michigan famous for its clientel of US Olympic hopefuls, to bring a replica of the 1936 “Treaty of Lancaster” mural to the Convention Center’s second level. The original seven by fifteen foot mural, which depicts the 1744 meeting of Iroquois Indian leaders with colonial officials in Lancaster, was painted by American illustrator and muralist Dean Cornwell and was purchased by the Club shortly there after due to Detroit’s rich Native American and French and Indian War history. Convention Center officials had hoped to bring a replica of the mural to the Center to showcase Pennsylvania’s own rich Native American history. (To read more on this event from Lancaster Online.com, click here)
The meeting that culminated in the 1744 Treaty of Lancaster was a landmark case of diplomacy for the early governments of the American colonies. The Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy had long been the dominant Native American force in the mid-state and both Britain and France were vying for an alliance with the Six Nations as the dark clouds of war formed on the horizon. In the 1720’s, the Iroquois had signed a treaty of friendship with the British with the understand that further European settlement west of the Allegany Mountains would be stopped, but when white encroachment continued the Iroquois threatened to go to war with the British and switch their allegiance to the French. Hoping to appease their Native American ally, Virginia’s British governor Alexander Spottswood called a meeting in Lancaster of dignitaries from the Six Nations along with colonial representatives from Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland. It was here that the colonial officials wined and dinned their Native guests and in the process received not only a firm commitment of renewed friendship, but also bought from the Six Nations the right to trade with native tribes in the Ohio River Valley under the Iroquois dominance. Though the Six Nations would later claim they never gave such permission, the 1744 Treaty of Lancaster would firmly keep the Iroquois on the side of the Crown in the coming French and Indian War and would insure the British a firm ally in dealing with marauding Indians throughout the conflict.
Two subplots to the 1744 Treaty of Lancaster are interesting here. First, one of the Pennsylvania delegates that attended the meeting in the Red Rose City was none other than Pennsylvania Renaissance man, Benjamin Franklin. Franklin had always had an interest in Native American culture and the negotiations in Lancaster provided him with a first-hand opportunity to discuss a wide variety of topics with the visiting Iroquois dignitaries. One of the issues that was of particular interest to Franklin was how the Six Nations had survived so long as six very different tribes under a very democratically created style of government. The answer must have influenced Franklin greatly because in 1754, at a meeting of colonial delegates in Albany, New York, Franklin presented his famed Albany Plan, which was loosely based on the government structure of the Iroquois Confederacy. Though not taken seriously by the colonial delegates at the time, Franklin’s plan was the first serious attempt by an American statesman to try and unite the colonies under a singe government. Some would even say this helped to foster the idea of a “united” American state, which would come into being with the American Revolution and the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 (which Franklin was also instrumental in helping to write).
But perhaps Franklin’s story would have never happened without the help of our second subplot. No major colonial officials knew the Iroquois language at the time of the 1744 conference. The only man in the colonies who could communicate with the Native Americans in there own tongue was German immigrant and adopted Pennsylvanian, Conrad Weiser. Upon coming to the New World in 1710, a then sixteen-year-old Weiser spent the summer and winter of 1712-13 living with and learning the customs of the Iroquois in upstate New York near his father’s farm. In 1723, he moved his wife and family to the little village of Womelsdorf, Pennsylvania near present-day Reading. With the help of an Ottowan chief and confidant, Shikellamy, Weiser would become a diplomat trusted not only by the British but also the Native Americans. He helped to interpret and negotiate every major Indian treaty in the middle colonies between 1731 and his death in 1760. His home (which is now a Pennsylvania historic site) would quickly become a meeting place for European and Native diplomats during the turbulent years leading up to the French and Indian War. The Six Nations respected and believed so much in Weiser that he was one of the few colonial Indian agents to be honored with an Iroquois name – Tarachiawagon, which means “Holder of the Heavens”. Upon his death at the age of sixty-three, one Iroquois chief lamented to a colonial ambassador, “we are at a great loss and sit in darkness…as since [Weiser’s] death we cannot so well understand one another.” Without Weiser’s guiding hand and diplomatic skill, relations between the Six Nations and the British rapidly declined especially with the coming of Pontiac’s Rebellion and the Conestoga Indian Massacre in 1763 (see past History Examiner writings)
To visit the Conrad Weiser Homestead website, click here
Perhaps Motherwell was right when he said that life is poorer without the addition of a good piece of art. All I can say, it that the Lancaster Convention Center can now showcase proudly one of the Red Rose City’s finest moments of peace and diplomacy especially as we work to try and meet the international challenges to peace and diplomacy in our future.
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