The Covenant Chain is the name given to the complex system of alliances between the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Six Nations and Iroquois League) and Anglo-American colonies originating in the early 17th century. The first alliances were most likely between New York and the Kanyen'kehà:ka (Mohawk). These early agreements were referred to figuratively as chains because they bound multiple parties together in alliance. Today the Covenant Chain represents the long tradition of diplomatic relations in North America, and is often invoked when discussing contemporary affairs between the state and Indigenous peoples. (See also Treaties with Indigenous Peoples in Canada.)
Definition of the Covenant Chain
The Covenant Chain, which borrowed heavily from the political ideology of the Haudenosaunee, was a complex system of alliances between the Haudenosaunee and Anglo-American colonies originating in the early 17th century. The first alliances were most likely between the New York colony and the Kanyen'kehà:ka (Mohawk).
These alliances were often fragile, and therefore required more formal covenants. Following the chain metaphor, these more formal agreements required a change from an iron chain, which tended to rust, to a silver one. These agreements or treaties required periodic renewals accompanied by gifts and aid to the Haudenosaunee; this was known as polishing the silver chain.
Colonies, such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maryland, joined the chain, as did the Tuscarora on the Haudenosaunee side. New York and the Kanyen'kehà:ka remained the anchors of the system.
Dissolution and Restoration of the Covenant Chain
The Kanyen'kehà:ka announced formally in June 1753 that because colonial authorities had unjustly taken lands of the Haudenosaunee, the Covenant Chain was broken and the other five nations would be so informed. The following year, Anglo-American colonial leaders met in Albany, New York with Haudenosaunee delegates to restore the chain at a time when the French were establishing their hold on the Ohio Valley. The Haudenosaunee condolence ceremony, with appropriate gifts for requests presented and promises made (long adhered to in New France), was adopted as part of negotiating process and the chain was restored. At the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War the following year, the Haudenosaunee allied with Britain.
The Covenant Chain and Select Treaties
In August 1760, the Seven Nations (communities located at Lorette, Wolinak, Odanak, Kahnawake, Kanesetake, Akwesasne and La Présentation) abandoned their French alliance and entered into the Covenant Chain as neutrals. This happened at Oswegatchie following a meeting with General Jeffrey Amherst and Indian Superintendent William Johnson. (See also Treaty of Oswegatchie, 1760.)
In 1764, Indigenous peoples met with the British to negotiate an alliance, represented by the Covenant Chain. This concluded with the Treaty of Niagara in that year.
The British and Haudenosaunee also signed the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in October–November 1768, to fix the boundaries of the reserved hunting grounds provided for in the Royal Proclamation of 1763. A Haudenosaunee delegate thanked the British officers for having polished the chain when it grew dull, and he affirmed "we do now on our parts [sic] renew and strengthen the Covenant Chain by which we will abide so long as you shall preserve it strong & bright on your part." The Covenant Chain, as historian J.R. Miller has described, was a testament to the diplomatic skills of the Haudenosaunee.
However, the principle at the basis of the Covenant Chain — that New York was at the head of the other Anglo-American colonies and that the Haudenosaunee League was at the head of a wider Indigenous association — was sometimes tenuous. The test came during the American Revolution, which saw four of the six Haudenosaunee nations fight on the British side.
Did You Know?
In June 2010, Queen Elizabeth II commemorated 300 years of the Covenant Chain by presenting silver hand bells to chiefs of Haudenosaunee nations.
Today, the Covenant Chain has been used to refer to alliances between the Crown and the Haudenosaunee and the Seven Nations of Canada. While not a formal treaty document, the idea of the Covenant Chain remains a strong presence in affairs between the state and Indigenous peoples in Canada, especially in Haudenosaunee and Seven Nations communities.