Gifts of Diplomacy

Habit of Cunne Shote a Cherokee Chief1

(Stalking Turkey)

American indian wearing blue and scarlet clothes, 2 peace medals, and a British gorget

Artist: James McArdell, James (ca. 1729-1765)

In his analysis of a painting contemporaneous with the one shown here, Duane King identifies the two peace medals worn by Cunne Shote: A Proclamation Medal of King George III and the Wedding Medallion of King George III and Queen Charlotte. Below the medals is a gorget inscribed "GR III." All three items were British and likely gifts received during a visit of three Cherokee diplomats in England in 1762.2

For many decades before the American Revolution, the instruments of diplomacy that the rulers of civilized nations had relied on in dealing with the native occupants of the lands they claimed, were gifts of flags; printed certificates called commissions or paroles; clothing such as cloaks, blankets or military dress uniforms; engraved silver pipes and silver-headed canes; silver gorgets (small decorative breastplates); and medals. By far the most important were the gifts called "peace medals," because the giving and the receiving of the token signified an understanding that the parties would maintain peaceable relationships with one another and with their neighbors, in the interest of free and profitable commerce, at least to the foreigners instead of their foreign competitors. Some Indians tended to believe that a medal was a guarantee of the giver's military support against their own native rivals and enemies.

The symbolism of the king's or president's likeness, and of the images on the reverse, were powerful in themselves, but to recipients without written languages, the representations of words undoubtedly bore the potency of "strong medicine." Yet in the latter regard, American peace medals were far simpler and more direct than contemporary British or Spanish medals.

Jefferson's 1793 Letter

In 1793, when he was Secretary of State under President Washington, Thomas Jefferson wrote to the American commissioners to Spain in Madrid:

Giving medals and marks of distinction to the Indian chiefs . . . has been an ancient custom from time immemorial. The medals are considered as complimentary things, as marks of friendship to those who come to see us, or who do us good offices, conciliatory of their good will towards us, and not designed to produce a contrary disposition towards others. They confer no power, and seem to have taken their origin in the European practice, of giving medals or other marks of friendship to the negotiators of treaties and other diplomatic characters, or visitors of distinction. The British government, while it prevailed here, practiced the giving medals, gorgets, and bracelets to the savages, invariable. We have continued it, and we did imagine, without pretending to know, that Spain also did it.3

Commissions

In keeping with the accepted Euro-American policy of putting contracts in writing, signing, and sealing them, each peace medal given out was usually accompanied by a commission, also called a parole, which is the French word for promise. A parole guaranteed universal peace and friendship between the recipient and all other persons, Indian or American, represented by the signators. It also attested, implicitly, that the recipient was an official representative and chief of his band or tribe, a false and unfair assumption that remained at the core of troubled Indian-white relations for most of the nineteenth century.

Over time, the diplomatic gifts in style—at least in the Indians' eyes—depended on the nation making the best promises. Early French medals were replaced by British and Spanish medals, and Lewis and Clark were intent on replacing those with United States medals. These diplomatic overtures continued through the War of 1812 and into the late fur trade.

—This page made possible with generous assistance from Bob Moore, historian,
Jefferson National Expansion Memorial; Bonnie Bowler, and Barry D. Tayman.

These pages funded in part by a grant from the National Park Service, Challenge Cost Share Program

  • 1. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Art & Architecture Collection, The New York Public Library. "Habit of Cunne Shote a Cherokee Chief. Cunne Shote Chèf des Chiroquois." (New York Public Library Digital Collections), http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e4-81c9-a3d9-e040-e00a180.... Accessed 09 February 2017.
  • 2. Duane H. King, "British Medals Depicted in Cherokee Portraits of 1762" in Peace Medals: Negotiating Power in Early America, ed. Robert B. Pickering. (Tulsa, Oklahoma: Gilcrease Museum), 42–45. See Chapter five for much more of the story behind the Cherokee delegation and to view Francis Parsons' portrait of Cunne Shote. That painting prominently displays the two peace medals and gorget.
  • 3. Thomas Jefferson to William Carmichael and William Short, the U.S. Commissioners to Spain, June 30, 1793. Paul Leicester Ford, ed., Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 10 vols. (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1892-99), 6:336.