Fit for Freedom (part 36)
The Peace Council Begins Anew
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Nat stabbed at his cut of roast beef absentmindedly. Evening had come too quickly on the first day of the council and he had found himself once again in the common room with Black Fox. Camden had been invited to dine with the governors and could not turn down the invitation, though he promised to visit the public house as soon as he could politely excuse himself.
The opening afternoon of the council had been spent in having each of the chiefs describe their territories and marking those areas on a series of maps. Among the tribesmen themselves, there seemed to Nat to be nothing like widespread agreement about what territory belonged to which tribes and bands. How that would all be sorted out remained a mystery to him. He drew relief from the fact that Camden Page and James Monroe were in the thick of it all. They were relatively young—Camden especially so—but they saw clearly enough what was at stake and they possessed the intellect to help Governor Tyler navigate treacherous waters.
The proprietor came to the table to collect plates, grumbling to himself about the foolishness of giving the kitchen maid the evening off to attend a special service at the Methodist meeting house. Nat offered the remainder of his dinner to Black Fox who gladly accepted and devoured the last few bites of meat and vegetables. The dishes were removed and the two men found themselves alone once more.
“What do you make of that first day?” Nat began.
“I make nothing until a paper is signed. And even then . . .” Black Fox’s voice trailed off as he stared blankly in the direction of the kitchen.
Nat had the hankering for a mug of ale, but even if he had not sworn off strong drink, he would not drink alone—nor would he test the hospitality of the lodgings by daring to suggest that intoxicating beverages be served to a young Shawnee. At that moment he also realized that he did not even know whether Black Fox would accept the offer; Nat had never seen him so much as take a sniff at an alcoholic beverage. There was yet much that he had to learn about his young compatriot. That he found himself wanting to learn came as a surprise, but not an unwelcome one.
Camden made his appearance just as Black Fox was ready to roll up his blanket into a makeshift pillow and try to sleep.
“I’m sorry to come so late,” he said. “Were you able to learn anything helpful that I can relay to Governor Tyler?”
Nat watched Black Fox carefully as he refolded his blanket and swung his legs back to the floor. His mind always seemed to be active—like a duck on the water—a trait Nat believed that the two of them had in common. Whether that activity meant good or ill for the peace council remained to be seen. Nat had wanted to ask Black Fox about his observations earlier, but thought better of it. Surely, he would want to give his report once, rather than regurgitate it a second time.
“The chiefs seem satisfied with the council so far. Yes, many of them talk big for the governors, but they must do that for honor. When they talk to each other it does not sound anything so hostile.”
“Well, that sounds very hopeful,” Camden said. “Is there anything else?”
Black Fox shot Nat a glance before speaking. “There is one point about which the chiefs are not so hopeful.”
“What’s that?” asked Nat.
Camden rubbed his forehead, but quickly shook off the look of frustration that appeared on his face.
Black Fox continued. “They feel cheated by the British, but do not feel that they should have to give up the weapons that they have paid for. If it were furs or cloth or tobacco, that would be one thing, but the muskets are more of a guarantee against the encroachments of the white settlers and the soldiers.”
“Encroachments,” Nat said, as much a question as a statement.
“No, you must try to see it from their perspective,” Camden said. “From their point of view we are, at best, unwanted passers-through, but at worst, an invasion force bent on their ruin.”
Black Fox shifted slightly in his seat. “There is another point also, Mr. Page.”
“Red Cap is the key. He is loved by some and feared by all. If he will not come to an agreement with the white men, many will follow his example.”
Those sobering words brought the serious conversation to a close. Camden lingered for another quarter of an hour, but rose to leave when he saw that the other two both seemed to be in need of sleep. Nat, for his part, could not disagree.
When they arrived at the council the next morning, Nat sensed a tension in the air that had not been there the day before. When it seemed that everyone was in his place, Governor Shelby rose to address the assembly, which seemed to include a great many more outside observers than the day before.
“Friends and honored guests,” he began.
Nat could not tell whether anyone else would notice it, but Shelby’s tone and diction seemed grand beyond anything he would have expected from the man whose kitchen fire Nat had sat beside so recently. Regardless, all seemed to be hanging on his every word.
“We all say that we have come to make peace, to put to rest the enmity that exists between our peoples,” the acting governor went on. “Before the sun sets this evening, I believe we will have done just that; we will seal a peace that will serve us all well and be a legacy to our children and their children’s children.”
Shelby went on in that same vein for quite a bit longer than was either necessary or wise, Nat thought. He glanced over to see Camden squirming in his seat. A dark scowl was etched into Monroe’s noble features. Governor Tyler’s face was obscured from Nat’s view, but he could guess at its appearance. The thief-taker from Philadelphia was glad to see that even men of much higher station than his own could be wearied by the long-winded speeches of ambitious politicians. Finally, Shelby came to the point.
“It is, then, my distinct honor to present to the leaders of the peoples of the Northwest Territory this Treaty of Louisville.”
He gestured toward the American delegation with a too-grand sweep of his right hand and an assistant presented the leader of the Kentuckians with a small stack of parchment sheets.
“This, my friends and countrymen, is the document. We welcome you now to come and make your marks, in show of our lasting friendship and our mutual commitment to the peaceful cooperation of our peoples.”
The French translator finished conveying the message first. As he did so, the Algonquian interpreter seemed almost hesitant to begin. Nat caught a glance of Red Cap, who was once more seated near the front, but the chief’s face betrayed none of his thoughts or emotions. When the translators had finished, none of the chiefs moved, although more than a few exchanged hushed words with his neighbor.
At the very moment that Governor Shelby looked as if he were about to speak again, the buzz of talking faded in an instant as Red Cap rose from his place and approached the American delegation. He spoke in a loud clear voice in his native tongue, but faced Shelby and the aides at his side. Nat could pick out a word or two, but was forced to rely on the translator like almost everyone else seated around him.
“You call us friends, Governor Shelby, and we are sure that you want it to be true. But this thing you have done is not how friends treat one another. You see us as children who must accept the word of their fathers and obey. I have fought battles. I have led men to war. I have kept my people safe from the French and from the English and from the other tribes and I will keep them safe from you also if there is no real peace to be had here.”
At that point, he turned from the Americans to address those assembled on the other side.
“Red Cap and his people are not children to be led by the hand. If Kentucky and Virginia would be friends of me and my people then they must act toward us as friends act. I will not sign this paper that no Indian has seen. When the white men are ready to talk as friends talk, I will return.”
Nat half expected the man to make a great show of his exit, but he did not. Red Cap simply walked to the edge of the meadow and disappeared into the woods.
Turning to Black Fox, Nat asked, “Where is he going?”
“I do not know. Their camps are all in that direction, but so is the path that leads back to where most of the chiefs would have crossed the river. Perhaps he is going back to his tent or perhaps he is going back to his people. I cannot say.”
The din of huddled conversations on both sides of the council was quickly growing in volume. A handful of chiefs had followed close on the heels of Red Cap while others merely stood in place, looking confused. Still others had approached Governor Shelby where he stood at the tables and clamored for his attention in excited voices which the translators had no hope of sorting out. Shelby implored the chiefs to stay, but what began as a trickle ended just a few minutes later with a mass exodus. A few American aides talked with a few of their counterparts, but the council was at a decided standstill.
Camden approached Nat and Black Fox, the haste and uneasiness apparent in his voice and carriage.
“Can you follow them?” he asked Black Fox directly. “Governor Tyler is adamant that we must know whether they mean to stay or go. For any of us to go would be foolish, he thinks, and I agree.”
Glancing at Black Fox, Nat thought he looked very skeptical. No doubt he had plenty of reasons to be cautious.
“You needn’t take any responsibility for the negotiations. The Governor just wants a friendly set of eyes and ears.”
Black Fox nodded. “Yes, I will go.”
Without another word, he folded the blanket he had been sitting on that morning, handed it to Nat, and headed off in the direction of the encampment.
Over the next two days, only a handful of chiefs emerged from the woods. From Governors Tyler and Shelby down to the youngest aides who were still wet behind the ears, the feeling that the council would end in failure was palpable.
A gray-haired, English-speaking Wyandot was one of the few that tarried.
“I agree with the words of Red Cap,” he told Governor Tyler as Nat looked on. “But I think he was too quick to leave. He still thinks much like one of our young men. I will go to him, but I make no promises.”
By mid-morning on the third day after the dramatic departure of Red Cap and the others, hope of success was at a low ebb. Nat was worried for Black Fox who had not been seen or heard from since leaving on his mission for Governor Tyler. He could take care of himself, Nat knew, but that was little comfort under the circumstances.
One of his boots had come unlaced and he was cinching up the final knot when Nat felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Camden and he was pointing at the treeline.
Nat looked up to see the procession returning to the council. Rather than arriving late once more, however, Red Cap was near the head of the group. Nat’s relief was augmented when he saw Black Fox emerge from the throng and break off to take his place next to Nat. He sat down, but said nothing at first.
“Well?” Nat asked, failing to mask the irritation in his voice, either from Black Fox or from himself.
Black Fox turned to look at him.
“Well, what happened?” Nat went on.
“You will see,” was all Black Fox said.
That was far less than the answer that Nat had wanted, but there was nothing to do for it at that moment: a hunching, old sachem slowly approached the tables and stillness fell over the crowd. Several boys had been observing the proceedings almost as sentries and they hurriedly ran off to fetch those residents of Louisville who wanted to see what would happen, but could not idly wait around at the fence line.
“We cannot sign a paper that we have not seen, just because you present it to us,” the elderly chief began.
“It is not the way of friends to do such things to one another. But is also not the way of friends to turn their backs and leave. We want to sign a treaty together. It must be one that we all agree to and that we all have helped to write. That is all we ask and that is why we have come back. Black Fox has written down what we have said and put it into English so that the governors can read for themselves. We will wait.”
Nat watched, surprised but also proud, as Black Fox rose from his place and presented a single sheet of yellowed parchment to Governor Tyler. The governor accepted it and Black Fox returned to his place.
“We are glad that you have returned to talk with us more,” Governor Tyler said through the translators. “We will read what you have written on your paper, but we must also talk amongst ourselves. Please stay here so that we may talk with you more.”
A small crowd amassed around Governor Tyler almost as soon as he turned around and made his way to Governor Shelby. More than one frustrated junior aide found himself outside the circle, the disappointment at not being able to see or hear what the chiefs had written abundantly evident on his face. With all their formal education, Nat thought, it was surprising that none of them seemed astute enough to try to get information from the only other source available at the moment. Fortunately, Nat himself was in the perfect spot to do just that.
Nat grinned a little in spite of himself and asked “Well, what happened?”
Black Fox too seemed to appreciate the humor in the moment.
“The chiefs say several things.” Black Fox held up a finger and said, “First, they say that we cannot resolve borders and land questions now. That will take more time, and for that they say they will return another day, but no later than one year from now.”
“Seems like a long time,” Nat mused.
Black Fox continued as if Nat had not spoken.
“Between now and then both sides agree to keep the peace. The chiefs will not raid any settlements and the whites will not send the soldiers out to fight. An ‘armistice’ I think the English would call it.”
“That’s the word, yes.”
“As a token of good faith that the Americans will not violate the armistice and that they will negotiate in good faith at the next council, the chiefs have asked the Americans to make the muskets a gift to them.”
Nat must have betrayed his astonishment because Black Fox raised a hand before he continued talking.
“Or to say it another way, the Americans will agree not to make any claim of right to muskets that might have been received by the Indians.”
“That won’t go over very well, I think,” was all Nat could manage to say.
“Perhaps not. I told them so, but Red Cap would not be moved. At least, I think it was him behind it. That is the kind of thing he would demand.”
The governors’ conference lasted for the better part of an hour, Nat estimated. They had removed themselves a short distance away, presumably so that their discussions would not be overheard by any English-speakers. They did not go far enough, however, to prevent Nat’s being able to hear when voices were raised. Though he could not make out the words distinctly, the tones clearly conveyed that there was a sharp disagreement. Nevertheless, the discussion eventually wound down and the American delegation resumed its place when the sun was nearly overhead.
It was Governor Tyler who stood to address the assembly. Noticing the large crowd of observers that had gathered—by far the largest crowd so far, Nat thought—the Governor retrieved a handkerchief from his waistcoat pocket and gently dabbed at his forehead.
“It has often been observed,” he began, “that liberty ought not to be given up without knowing the terms.”
Tyler paused for effect. Shelby slumped back in his chair and crossed his arms.
“We did not come to this council to ask you to give up any liberty, but we understand how it may seem otherwise from your point of view. We have read your terms and are ready to talk as friends.”
A gentle breeze tickled the needles of the pine trees that surrounded the meadow, but Nat could hear no other noise when Governor Tyler had finished. Only the sharp staccato of a far-off woodpecker pierced the quiet, for an excruciatingly long interval.
Finally, the gray-haired man who had delivered the terms earlier that morning rose. One of his young men—a son, or perhaps a grandson, judging by his appearance—helped the man to his feet, but once up he stood full and erect, as if he were ready to stride into battle or pursue a deer in the hunt. Nat could tell that he must have been a fierce warrior in his day.
“What you have said is good, Governor Tyler. At least it is a good start. I will stay and talk as one friend to another. I know others will join me.”
As the aged chief said this, he spread his arms wide. In what Nat surmised must have been a prearranged signal, a dozen or more chiefs stood to join the speaker. Nat noticed a look of satisfaction spread across his wrinkled and weather-hardened face as he looked over his shoulder to the left and then to the right. Then, slowly, in a way that did not seem planned, the other leaders and their young men also began to stand up. Nat scanned the crowd for Red Cap and finally caught a glimpse of his scowling face; he, like all the others, stood ready for the effort to make a lasting peace.
Leaning over close to Black Fox, Nat said, “You did well, my friend.”
“The council is not over.”
“True, as far as that goes. But it seems to me that if it hadn’t been for you, the council might never have really started in the first place.”
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