It has become a convention among Native Americanists, and American historians of a liberal or iconoclastic bent, that in discussing George Washington with students or the public we should remind them that the Six Nations of Iroquois called Washington the “Town Destroyer.” I first heard this in graduate school, and like many people assumed it referred to the Sullivan Expedition, the 1779 offensive Washington ordered against Iroquoia. Even one of Washington's own subordinates, Indian commissioner Timothy Pickering, tactlessly reminded him of the moniker, assuming that the Iroquois always meant it as a term of opprobrium. What Pickering did not know, and what I suspect many modern historians do not know, is that Washington had used the title of Town Destroyer (or, more precisely, “Town Devourer”) a quarter-century before Sullivan's army marched, and that he had meant to earn the Iroquois’s respect rather than their fear and hatred.
In April 1754, en route to the Forks of the Ohio, Lieutenant George Washington sent a request for aid and counsel to Tanaghrison, an Ohio Iroquois leader who acted as an intermediary between Virginians and Ohio Indians. He signed the message “Conotocarious,” or Town Devourer. Washington later told one of his proteges, David Humphries, that Tanaghrison had called him Conotocarious when the two men first met in 1753, long before Washington had destroyed any towns. In their footnote to this letter, the editors of the Diaries of George Washington report that the Iroquois originally gave the name Town Devourer to George's grandfather, John Washington, leader of the 1675 expedition that destroyed the Susquehannock Indians' town in Maryland. The Susquehannocks and Iroquois were then military adversaries, so the Five Nations meant the name Conotocarious as one of respect for an accomplished warrior.
Washington's invocation of his grandfather did not bring the Shawnees, Lenapes, and other Ohio Indian nations over to Virginia's side. It reminds us, though, that the Iroquois commonly applied the names and titles of previous generations of worthies to their lineal successors. Onontio, or “Big Mountain,” a translation of the name of Governor Montmagny, became the Iroquois title for succeeding governors of New France. Onas, or “Quill” (i.e. a quill pen), the Iroquois word for Governor Penn, became their term for the colonial governors of Pennsylvania. This in turn grew out of the Iroquois League's practice of “requickening,” whereby Iroquois matrons awarded the names and political identities of deceased League chiefs to their successors. For Tanaghrison, “Town Devourer” implied a multi-generational continuity of friendship, or at least alliance, between the Virginians and the Six Nations, and grounded that continuity in familial descent.
Washington’s Iroquois name acquired a bitterer meaning after Sullivan's expedition, which destroyed forty towns and killed hundreds of people. The survivors spent a hard winter as refugees near British-held Fort Niagara, where more succumbed to hunger and disease. Now the Six Nations saw Washington as an enemy, the towns he devoured their own. Seneca leader Cornplanter reminded Washington of Iroquoia's near-destruction during a 1790 meeting with the president, and while Washington promised to bury “the miseries of the late war,” it is unlikely Cornplanter and his kinsmen trusted him. Commissioner Pickering complained in 1792 that the Iroquois viewed his own promises as no more valid than the lies told by “Town Destroyer.”
By the late 1790s, however, Iroquois attitudes toward the old general had recovered some of their complexity. At the Big Tree conference in 1797, the Seneca chief Red Jacket (Sagoyewatha), while he opposed the treaty, insisted on signing his name because otherwise “General Washington, when he examined it and found his signature wanting, might imagine that he...had lost his rank and influence.” Through his association with the U.S. government, Town Destroyer had become someone whose regard mattered to Iroquois leaders. And a few years later Washington re-entered the Iroquois's collective consciousness with a new identity. During one of his 1799 dream quests to the realm of the Master of Life, the Seneca prophet Handsome Lake “met George Washington, sitting on the veranda of a house with his dog, halfway to heaven; he was the good white man, who at the Canandaigua Treaty told the friendless Iroquois to live happily in their own villages as long as the sun shines and the waters run, 'for they are an independent people'” The Iroquois now associated Washington with his employee Pickering, negotiator of the 1794 treaty guaranteeing the Six Nations' land claims, whom the Senecas called The Hill of Peace. In his dying year, Town Destroyer had climbed at least halfway up that hill himself, and become, if not a friend, at least a “good white man.” Good enough.
Big Tree Conference Journal, Henry O'Reilly Papers (New York Historical Society, New York, NY), vol. 15, p. 44.
Colin Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country (Cambridge, 1995), 129-157.
David Nichols, Red Gentlemen & White Savages (Charlottesville, 2008), 133.
Timothy Pickering to George Washington, 21 March 1792, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/05-10-02-0084
Timothy Shannon, Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier (New York, 2008), 27-28, 42
Dorothy Twohig et al., Diaries of George Washington (6 vols., Charlottesville, 1976-79), 1: 183.
Anthony F.C. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca (New York, 1972), 244.