The death of captain big tree: Suicide and the perils of US–Iroquois diplomacy in the early 1790s

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Owens, Robert M.

Owens, R. M. (2021). The death of captain big tree: Suicide and the perils of US–iroquois diplomacy in the early 1790s. Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 145(2), 95-118. doi:10.1353/PMH.2021.0010


Many works examine how murder complicated Indian–White diplomacy, but historians have largely ignored the impact of suicide. Suicide challenged intercultural relations because of differing interpretations. For Whites, it was a shameful result of mental defect. Prior to 1800, Indians tended to see individuals who died by suicide as sympathetic, tragic figures. When an Indian confederacy north of the Ohio killed Gen. Richard Butler at the Battle of the Wabash in 1791, Big Tree, a Seneca war chief allied to the US, claimed Butler as a "friend of my heart," a virtual kinsman, and vowed blood vengeance. He asked to fight the confederates, but in early 1794, Gen. Anthony Wayne grudgingly agreed to a ceasefire. Big Tree, furious and mortified, killed himself. Stunned, Wayne honored him with a military funeral but later tried to exploit the chief. The American response to Big Tree's death revealed both desperation and an inability to understand his act.

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