An old treaty document with script

1778 Treaty of Fort Pitt: U.S. Treaty-Making with the Lenape Nation

During the Revolutionary War, one of the United States’ earliest treaties was with the Lenape (Delaware) nation aimed at building an alliance against the British: the Treaty of Fort Pitt. Why did this treaty differ from the French alliance earlier that year? And why did it so quickly fall apart?

Crossing Lenape Territory During The Revolutionary War

In 1778, after news came from France that the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance had been secured, the Continental Army planned to march forces west and attack the British at Detroit. But the route crossed Lenape territory in the Ohio Valley.

The United States appointed brothers Andrew and Thomas Lewis as official diplomats to secure permission from the Lenape to cross through their lands. Congress appropriated $10,000 for goods and gifts to present to the Lenape leaders to show the United States’ goodwill.

drawing of a delaware lenape indian
European countries made contact with the Lenape nation in the 17th century, negotiating treaties and trade agreements. This racialized 1766 English drawing, “A Delaware Indian. with his Tomohawk [sic] scalping knife, &c.,” depicts the stereotypical white European propaganda that Native Americans posed a threat to Europe’s colonization of North America. Courtesy of JCB Archive of Early American Images.

The Treaty-Making Process

In September, the U.S. diplomats met with Koquethagechton (White Eyes), Gelemend (John Killbuck, Jr.), and Konieschquanoheel or Hopocan (Captain Pipe) at Fort Pitt in western Pennsylvania to begin negotiations.

No one is certain which language the Lenape and Americans spoke during the negotiations, but it was most likely a mixture of Algonquian dialects and English. But both communicated using the diplomatic tools that had been established between Native nations and European nations when the American colonies had been part of the British empire.

The American diplomats greeted their Lenape counterparts as “Brothers” and “the Chief and Wise men of the Delaware nation.” They explained why they had sought the negotiations, acknowledging that “the Chain of Friendship” (between the Americans and the British) had “Contracted some Rust, of a very Dangerous Nature” and were in need of Lenape assistance.

The Lenape presented the Lewis brothers with a belt of white wampum showing, in black, the 13 United States and the Lenape nation in a visual chain of the alliance. Wampum belts were a symbolic tool of treaty-making in some Native nations that showed parties in a kinship relationship.

wampum belt lenape nation treaty of fort pitt
The Lenape nation presented this 1680s-era wampum belt to William Penn, English founder of Pennsylvania, as part of a land sale or treaty. The 1778 wampum belt the Lenape presented to the Lewis brothers was made of similar materials and meant to convey a kinship relationship between parties. Courtesy of the National Museum of the American Indian.

The Americans also announced the recent alliance with France and offered to extend that “Bright and Extensive Chain” of “friendship and assistance” to the Lenape nation. The Lenape had an alliance with the French and interpreted this announcement as an expansion of existing Native American and European kinship networks that had been cultivated for centuries.

The negotiations lasted several days. On September 17, 1778, they signed a treaty called the Treaty of Fort Pitt, promising a “perpetual peace and friendship” between the two nations.

In the text of the signed treaty, the Lenape agreed to permit the Continental Army to cross across their lands, guide them to British locations, and to “join the troops of the United States.”

In return, the Americans promised to build a fort in Lenape territory for protection and promised trade goods. In addition, the treaty provided for the creation of a 14th state governed by Native Americans with a political representative in the U.S. Congress.

1781 fort pitt treaty map
1781 French topographic map showing Fort Pitt’s strategic importance to the United States’ military advances during the Revolution and its aggressive push into Native American territory after. Courtesy of George Washington’s Mount Vernon.

The Treaty of Fort Pitt Quickly Breaks Down

Like Franklin’s negotiations with the French, the Americans’ diplomacy with the Lenape leaders was conducted with mutual respect and discussions of each nation’s self-interest. In both cases, the treaty-making process involved diplomacy using traditional norms. Unlike the French alliance that lasted beyond the conclusion of the American Revolution, however, the Treaty of Fort Pitt began to crumble within weeks.

First, the Lenape leader White Eyes died. While American officials insisted White Eyes died from smallpox as the cause, evidence indicated members of the militia murdered him, and the circumstances remain unclear to this day. This act showed the Lenape that the Americans did not value nor honor the importance of kinship alliances.

Second, the Americans lacked cultural awareness when negotiating with the Lenape. To the United States, a signed paper treaty made the terms of the agreement final and ended the treaty-making process. This is what the Americans and French mutually understood after the signing of their alliance. But for the Lenape, the relationship built during the negotiations was dynamic and needed cultivation to continue the alliance. The paper treaty represented the relationship’s beginnings, not the end.

drawing of George Morgan’s Prospect Farm
1779 sketch showing Morgan’s farm in Princeton, NJ. Colonel George Morgan (1743-1810), a U.S. representative in Indian affairs during the Revolution (1776-1779), had gained the trust of the Lenape, who called him “Tamanend” in honor of one of their lost warriors. He was a trusted translator between the Lenape and the Americans but was notably absent from the September Fort Pitt negotiations. After the treaty’s signing, Morgan encouraged the Lenape to challenge its terms, telling them they had been deceived in the negotiations and to “protest against this false interpretation with a spirit becoming the wise Delaware nation.” In 1779, Morgan accompanied the Lenape delegation before the U.S. Congress in Philadelphia as they demanded the United States respect their sovereignty and right to neutrality. To Morgan’s disappointment, Congress responded that the United States was not bound to any agreements as long as any Lenape warriors aided the British. Morgan promptly resigned from his position. He also later wrote Congress countering the official narrative that White Eyes had died from smallpox. Photo courtesy of Princeton University.

Most importantly, the Americans did not keep their treaty promises. The trade goods never arrived. The U.S. Congress never discussed the creation of a sovereign 14th Native American state. The United States hastily built a fort in Lenape territory, Fort Laurens, but the British quickly took it over. The U.S. government also failed to prevent white Americans from occupying Lenape lands.

The Lenape Attempt to Salvage the Treaty

The Lenape people initially tried to salvage their alliance with the United States.

First, a Lenape delegation went to the Continental Congress asking for them to uphold their promises. In addition, some Lenape warriors assisted the Continental Army, but after it became clear that the alliance was broken, more Lenape joined the British against the Americans. The United States used this as an excuse to declare that the Lenape had broken the terms of the treaty and made no diplomatic attempts to mend the relationship.

In 1782, Pennsylvania militia massacred a peaceful Christian Lenape community in Gnadenhutten. Many left the Ohio Valley afterward. Their Lenape descendants later founded the Delaware nation at Moraviantown, Ontario, the Delaware Tribe of Indians of northeastern Oklahoma, and the Delaware nation of central Oklahoma.

Gnadenhutten Massacre sign
Ohio historical marker noting the 1782 massacre of Christian Lenape who had joined the Moravian church. The brutal attack further fueled violence between white Americans and Native nations, as the Lenape were joined by Shawnees and Wyandot as they sought to defend their people and lands. Courtesy of the Historical Marker Database.

Violence committed against the Lenape, lack of cultural awareness, and poor diplomatic communication were only some of the problems that led to the breakdown of the Treaty of Fort Pitt. Similar problems continued between the United States and sovereign Native Americans for years to come.

The National Museum of American Diplomacy thanks Dr. Margaret Ball, Historian at the Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, for her thoughtful contributions to this blog.

Sources and Further Reading

Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian County: Crisis and Diversity in Native Communities (Cambridge Studies in North American Indian History, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Congress, United States Continental, Worthington Chauncey 1858-1941 [Ford, and Gaillard 1862-1924 Hunt Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789; Volume 9. Biblio Bazaar, 2016).

Brian Delay, “Indian Polities, Empire, and the History of American Foreign Relations,” in Diplomatic History 39, no. 5 (November 2015): 927-42.

Gregory Evans Dowd, A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993).

Randolph Chandler Downes, Council Fires on the Upper Ohio: A Narrative of Indian Affairs in the Upper Ohio Valley until 1795 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1969).

Richard S. Grimes, The Western Delaware Indian Nations, 1730-1795: Warriors and Diplomats (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017).

Suzan Shown Harjo (ed.), Nation to Nation: Treaties Between the United States and American Indian Nations (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 2014).

Dorothy V. Jones, License for Empire: Colonialism by Treaty in Early America (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1982).

Francis Paul Prucha, American Indian Treaties: The History of a Political Anomaly (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1994).

Otis K. Rice, The Allegheny Frontier: West Virginia Beginnings, 1730-1830 (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2021).

Amy C. Schutt, Peoples of the River Valleys: The Odyssey of the Delaware Indians (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007).

Eric Sterner, “The Treaty of Fort Pitt: The First U.S.-American Indian Treaty,” in Journal of the American Revolution

Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006)

Museum of the American Revolution

National Museum of the American Indian