The Commissioners of Indian Affairs

The Dongan Charter of 1686 gave the city corporation an exclusive right to interact with the native peoples inhabiting the lands north and west of Albany. That privilege was based on Albany's business connection to the Iroquois and on the historical role played by the Albany-based fur traders as liaison between native peoples and provincial governments.

Maintaining a working relationship with Native American hunters had been a cornerstone of Albany's success in the fur trade. A number of Albany traders understood native dialects and some were employed as interpreters. As conflict with the French became inevitable during the 1680s, the English understood Albany's potential in first seeking to make allies of the Iroquois. Failing in that, provincial officials hoped Albany diplomats would be able to keep the Indians from joining with the French. That neutrality or arrangement has been known as "the covenent chain of peace and friendship."

The core Commissioners of Indian Affairs were the Albany city fathers. The mayor of Albany or the city recorder (deputy mayor) presided over business. Some aldermen and assistants seem to have been more active in Indian diplomacy than others - although the appointment of a corporation sub-committee is absent from the city records. The sheriff also was a member. Sometimes garrison officers, local magistrates, and former members of the Albany corporation joined the commissioners at their meetings. The Indian Commissioners predated the city charter but were drawn from a similar membership pool.

However, the mainstay of the "CIA" was the board's secretary who was appointed by the royal governor. Four outstanding individuals served in that capacity during the eighteenth century. Robert Livingston was the board's first secretary - officially from 1696 to 1710. Prior to that, the secretary was the clerk of Albany and before 1686, the clerk of Rensselaerswyck. Livingston held both of those posts and functioned as Indian secretary from the 1670s on. In 1710, he turned those responsibilities over to his nephew, Robert Livingston, Jr. Philip Livingston, son of the first Robert, became secretary following the death of "the nephew" in 1725. Philip Livingston served until his death in 1749. Peter Wraxall served the Indian commissioners as secretery from 1750 until his death in 1759. During Wraxall's tenure, Albany native, Abraham Yates, Jr. claimed he was the deputy secretary of the CIA.

In an effort to move the Iroquois more toward British aims and intentions, William Johnson again was named Superintendent of Indian Affairs in 1755. He still held that title at the time of his death in 1774.

With the outbreak of hostilities in 1775, the revolutionaries realized that the Iroquois could play a critical role in the conflict and took charge of Indian diplomacy. The British-sanctioned CIA became dormant although many Indian diplomats were found among Albany's leaders.



This overview discussion of the early phases of Indian diplomacy is based on Lawrence H. Leder's edition of "The Livingston Indian Records, 1666-1732," Pennsylvania History 23:1 (January 1956) and on Charles Mc Ilwain's Abridgement of the records of the CIA. See also, David A. Armour, The Merchants of Albany. For the Revolutionary-era, see "The Board of Commissioners for Indian Affairs in the Northern Department and the Iroquois Indians, 1775-1778,"the 1972 Notre Dame dissertation written by Ralph T. Pastore.

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revised: 10/7/06