Charles Thomson and the Delaware

Charles Thomson, drawn from life. (New York Public Library)

There are many, many founding fathers in the story of America’s Revolution and unfortunately only a few are really known to the general public. Yet without those who are less known, there would have been no revolution.

One of those men was the official secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thomson. He was the sole fixture of the congress throughout its entire fifteen years of existence. All the others came and went, some were sent overseas to diplomatic assignments, many returned to their home colonies to participate in local legislatures. There was a time after the war was over when they all went home and left Charles Thomson all alone; he was the entire government for a period of time. He never left his post; he was always there. In the end, when it was all over, it was he who traveled to Mt. Vernon to inform George Washington, officially, that he had been elected to the presidency of the new government under the new constitution. He then accompanied Washington to New York, the new capital of the nation, and turned over to Washington all the official papers, journals, and documents of the nation including the Great Seal.

Charles Thomson was born into an Irish family. In 1739 his mother died and his father thought he should emigrate to America. Thomson’s father left his daughter in Ireland with other members of the family, took his three sons, and sailed for America. Charles was eight years old, the youngest. Unfortunately, his father died before the ship reached America. When the ship arrived at New Castle, Delaware, the two older brothers were able to get jobs and support themselves. The captain apprenticed Charles to a blacksmith in town who had no children of his own. That night Charles overheard the man and his wife talking about they now had someone who would learn the trade and support them in their old age. It seems no one asked Charles about that. So, that same night, Charles put what goods he had into a small bag, climbed out a window and left town.[1]

When he reached Philadelphia, he was able to enroll in a school run by Francis Alison, a Presbyterian minister. Mr. Alison has been recognized as one of the leading educators in early American history. Five of his students went on to be physicians, four were members of the Continental Congress, and when the new constitution was adopted and the new government formed, five went on to become either senators or members of congress. Four signed the Declaration of Independence, and some became federal judges.[2]

After graduating from Mr. Alison’s school, Thomson moved back to New Castle to start his own school. He did this for a number of years, often traveling to Philadelphia where he became friends with Benjamin Franklin and his son William. Franklin had created a trust to start a new school, the Academy of Philadelphia, which eventually became the University of Pennsylvania. Under Franklin’s plan it was to be a non-sectarian school. In 1750 Franklin suggested that Thomson apply there for a teaching position; he was hired at a salary of £60 a year.[3] He was originally hired as a teacher of Latin and Greek, but after a few years was also given the duties of treasurer.

Thomson spent five years at the academy but left to teach at a Quaker school, the Friends Public School of Philadelphia, as the head of the Latin Department at a salary of £150 a year.[4]

The colony of Pennsylvania was not a Royal colony, that is, it did not come under the rule of the King or Parliament. It was owned first by William Penn for the settlement of Quakers, as they were not allowed in Massachusetts or Virginia. After he died, the proprietorship of the colony was left to his heirs, all of whom lived in England. The family members appointed a governor to run the colony in their absence. He answered to the family, not to the British government. The colony was allowed to have an elected legislature as were other colonies, but the governors were always chosen by the family in Britain. This was an extremely lucrative situation for the family. Under the rules of the colony, as set up by William Penn, only the governor could negotiate with the Native Americans to buy land from them. The land belonged to the family, not the colony. The family then had the purchase divided into lots and the lots sold to settlers. Revenue came from taxes on land owned by settlers, not the land owned by the family—they paid no taxes. This left the tax burden solely on small land owners. The legislature of the colony decided to send Benjamin Franklin to London to petition the King and Parliament to make Pennsylvania a royal colony with a governor appointed by the King, as in other colonies. This was a long, drawn-out process that went on for years. Franklin was still in London trying to have Pennsylvania made into a Royal colony when the American Revolution began.

For over eighty years wars broke out between France and Britain. A number of battles were fought in the new world with American colonial militia units participating. The last great war prior to the American Revolution, was known in America as the French and Indian War. For the first few years the war went badly for the British and Americans. The French and their Native American allies defeated a large force of British regulars and Virginia militia in the Ohio Valley under British Gen. Edward Braddock. They were now able to raid well into territories settled by English settlers. The French had built a large fort in the area now known as Pittsburgh, and their Delaware and Shawnee allies owned lands between that fort and the surrounding area of western Pennsylvania. In order for new British forces to get to the French fort in Western Pennsylvania and round the great lakes, they would have to fight their way through Delaware and Shawnee lands.

As the war was going on a group of Quakers tried to establish better relations with the Delaware and Shawnee who were the original occupiers of land in what is now Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The people known as the Delaware, a name given to them by the British, referred to themselves as the Lenape. Before the English came they lived in what is now known as New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, southern New York, and the Maryland Eastern Shore. Prior to the English coming they had been conquered by the Six Nations; also, their population had been decimated by European diseases.[5] Over the years after the settlement of Pennsylvania by Quakers under the leadership of William Penn, English colonists bought land from the Delaware to settle. As more and more settlers came, the demand for more and more land created ever more purchases. The problem was that what was supposed to be the boundaries of the land tended to be viewed differently by the English and the Delaware. The Delaware were constantly crying “foul” when they saw the English settling land that they felt exceeded the boundaries they had agreed to.

The Quakers, being pacifists, felt uneasy at the cost of the French and Indian war and the taxes that were being requested of them to finance it. They felt that if the Delaware could be satisfied with respect to their complaints and properly recognized borders be agreed to by both parties, there would be no need for the war, especially if the Delaware, who were siding with the French, could be made neutral if not allies. The Quakers formed a group called the “Friendly Association.” They approached Charles Thomson and asked if he would research all the records of treaty negotiations and land purchases between colonial authorities and the Delaware to determine the facts. He agreed.

He began by reviewing all the transcripts of minutes taken by colonial authorities with the goal of trying to determine exactly where the boundaries were supposed to be. He also interviewed a number of eye witnesses. He published his research in a report entitled Causes of the Alienation of the Delaware and Shawnese Indians from the British Interests.[6]

Thomson opened his report with the observation that “It has been to many a cause of wonder, how it comes to pass that the English have so few Indians in their interest, while the French have so many at command.” He also asked “by what means and for what reason those neighboring tribes . . . who, at the first arrival of the English in Pennsylvania, and for a long series of years afterwards, showed every mark of affection and kindness, should become our most bitter enemies.”

Some, he said, looked upon the Native American “as faithless and perfidious.” “Others,” he said, “imagine there must be some causes for the change in their behavior.” Native Americans, he said, “to explain the motives of their conduct, declare that the solicitations of the French, joined with the abuses they have suffered from the English, particularly in being cheated and defrauded of their land, have at length induced them to become our enemies and to make war upon us.” Thomson took notice of the fact that when challenged, colonial authorities took “much pain” to present the claims of the Native Americans “as groundless, and only lame excuses for their perfidiousness.” Thomson went on to explain the purpose and method of his research to find the truth.

In order, therefore, to clear up these points, and to examine into their foundation and truth of the complaints, recourse has been had to as many of the treaties and conferences held between the Indians and this government . . . It is a matter of no small consequence to know the ground of complaints made by the Indians, that in case they are false, justice may be done to the characters of those who are injured thereby; and if true, that proper remedies may be applied, and that the Crown of Great Britain may not, by the avarice and wickedness of a few be deprived of the friendship and alliance of those nations who are capable of being our most useful friends, or most dangerous enemies.
It could be wished, for the sake of truth, that access had been allowed to the minutes of Council, which are the only public records kept of the transactions between the Government of Pennsylvania and the Indians, or the minutes of several conferences with the Indians had been duly taken, and regularly published, or that all the deeds granted by the Indians had been recorded in the Rolls-Office, as they ought to have been: had these been done, the matter might have been set in a fuller and clearer light. However, by perusing the following extracts taken from such treaties as could be met with, from the votes of the assembly, from the deeds as have been recorded, and from other authentic papers and letters, it will be clearly seen whether the complaints of the Indians are only invented to palliate their late conduct; whether they are objects of party; or whether their pretensions are reasonable and their demands consistent with justice.

Much of Thomson’s report dealt in depth with the numerous treaties and conferences, especially conferences in 1722, 1727, 1729, 1732, 1736, 1737, and 1749, with reference to various deeds documenting purchases from the Delaware. One treaty which was much discussed between the parties was that of 1686. This deed was missing from the record and seems to be the one that started the process of buying lands from the Delaware. Colonial officials often referred to it, but never produced it, much to the chagrin of the Delaware.

The primary complaint of the Delaware was that the boundaries agreed to in the treaties were never respected by the English. A boundary was described in a treaty, be it a river or a mountain range in which one side was for the English and the other remained the possession of the Delaware. No sooner was the ink dry than English pioneers began to settle on the Delaware side of the border in ever increasing numbers. When the Delaware complained to colonial officials, the officials claimed that there were too many settlers to be removed and that therefore they needed to buy the disputed land from the Delaware and set up a new boundary. Thus, the Delaware were forced to move further and further west until they were forced onto Shawnee lands. Then, the two of them were forced into the Ohio where they bumped up against the French who were expanding their settlements and forts down from Quebec into the Ohio Valley. Thomson noted that it “was commonly the case that when the Indians complained; they had fair promises made them, but no effectual measures seem to have been taken to redress their grievances”.

Map of the Province of Pennsylvania, 1756. (New York Public Library)

Thomson could find no notes or minutes of the 1737 meeting. While there were deeds going back to 1718 there were no records or minutes of the meetings to prove there were payments made to the Delaware for the land described in the deed. He concluded that the deeds were questionable if not downright fraudulent. This led to the infamous Walking Purchase. It was agreed that the boundaries would be defined by the distance a man could walk in one-and-one half days, which normally would be about forty miles. To this the Delaware agreed. What the Delaware did not know was that the Pennsylvania governor prepared ahead of time for this and even before he suggested it to the Delaware, he had a trail prepared and pathway cleared. He then arranged for runners to run in relays. When the Delaware saw this, they were furious. Instead of a forty mile boundary the English were able to declare they had an eighty mile boundary, and they refused to budge on the issue.[7] When the Delaware kept complaining of fraud the governor requested the Iroquois of the Six Nation Confederacy send representatives to the conference to speak to the Delaware as the Six Nations claimed supremacy over them. The Six Nations Confederacy, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy, consisted of the Mohawks, Oneida, Onondagas, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations.[8]

When the representatives of the Six Nations arrived at the meeting, they told the Pennsylvania governor “that they saw the Delawares had been an unruly people, and were altogether in the wrong; that they had concluded to remove them, and oblige them to go over the River Delaware, and to quit all claim to any lands on this [the east] side for the future, since they have received pay for them.”

Then the representative of the Six Nations turned to the Delaware and said,

they deserved to be taken by the hair of the head and shaked severely, till they recovered their senses and became sober—That he had seen with his eyes a deed signed by nine of their ancestors above fifty years ago for this very land . . . But how came you to take upon you to sell lands at all? We conquered you; we made women of you: you now are women, and can no more sell land than women; nor is it fit you should have the power of selling lands, since you would abuse it. This land that you claim is gone thro’ your guts; you have been furnished cloaths, meat and drink, by the goods paid you for it, and now you want it again like children as you are. But what makes you sell lands in the dark? Did you ever tell us that you had sold this land? Did we ever receive any part, even the value of a pipe shank, from you for it? You have told us a blind story, that you sent a messenger to us, to inform us of the sale, but he never came amongst us, nor we ever heard any thing about it. This is acting in the dark, and very different from the conduct our Six Nations observe in the sales of land . . .
But we find you are none of our blood; you act a dishonest part not only in this but in other matters; your ears are ever open to slanderous reports about your brethren—for all these reasons we charge you to remove instantly; we don’t give you the liberty to think about it. You are women. Take the advice of a wise man, and remove immediately. You may return to the other side of Delaware where you come from; but we do not know whether, considering how you have demeaned yourselves, you will be permitted to live there, or whether you have not swallowed that land down your throats . . . We therefore assign you two places to go, either to Wyomen or Shamoken. You may go to either of these places, and then we shall have you more under our eye, and shall see how you behave. Don’t deliberate, but remove away.

Thomson wrote that some of the Delaware did as they were told and moved up closer to the Six Nations, but others refused to go to where they were told; instead, they moved further west, merging with the Shawnee and into the Ohio. There they formed an alliance with the Shawnee and both found a powerful new ally in the French. The French were quite happy to give them guns, powder and clothes without making territorial demands.

Here Thomson noted the difference in how the French treated the Native Americans as opposed to the British. The English, he said,

in order to get their lands, drive them as far from them as possible, nor seem to care what becomes of them, provided they get them removed out of the way of their permanent settlements; whereas the French, considering that they can never want land in America, who enjoy the         friendship of the Indians, use all the means in their power to draw as many into their alliance as possible; and to secure their affection, invite as many as can to come and live near them, and to make their towns as near the French settlements as they can. By this means they have drawn off a great number of Mohawks, and other Six Nation tribes and having settled them in towns along the banks of the river St. Lawrence, have so secured them to their interest, that even these, they can command about six or seven hundred fighting men.

Thomson noted that by 1742 even the Six Nations were beginning to complain that they were suffering from illegal land seizures by the English, and by 1744 were demanding the English remove all English settlers along the Juniata River.

By the 1750s English settlers who had remained east of the Appalachian Mountains began to spill over into western Pennsylvania and the Ohio lands. The Six Nations began to rethink their alliance with the English. Hunting grounds were being compromised and over hunted; worse, land in the Ohio was being cleared and cultivated.

In 1749 Pennsylvania authorities made a purchase of lands from Native Americans around the Susquehanna and the Juniata Rivers. More and more land was being cleared and cultivated. Thomson wrote that by 1753 the Native Americans had requested a new meeting to clear up some deeds and land grants. This meeting was to open to the Delaware, Shawnee, and Six Nations. In 1754 Thomson reported that

a purchase of land was made by the proprietors of Pennsylvania which ruined our interest with the Indians and from then, especially those westward of us and drove them entirely into the hands of the French . . . By this the lands where the Shawnese and Ohio Indians lived and the hunting grounds of the Delaware, the Mohicans and the Tuteloes were included and consequently these nations had nothing to expect but to see themselves in in a short time, at the rate the English settled, violently driven from their lands, as the Delaware had formally been, and reduced to leave their country and seek settlement they knew not where. This engaged many of the people to give ear to the French, who declared that they did not come to deprive the Indians of their land but to hinder the English from settling westward of the Alleghany hills.

The Delaware, the Onandago, and the Shawnee were never invited to the meeting, as the Pennsylvania authorities dealt directly with the Six Nations. By this time the Six Nations were suspicious, so the Pennsylvania authorities pulled a ruse. According to Thomson, the governor told the Six Nations that they were buying this additional land over the mountains, not to settle, but to keep settlers out. They persuaded the Six Nations that if the government owned the land they could better accomplish this. They said they wanted to own the land simply to keep the French from settling there and building forts. The Six Nations agreed, but as soon as the land was transferred to the governor surveyors started showing up and dividing it into lots. The Six Nations, those who had been stalwarts in defending the English against other tribes in the area, had been deceived.

Around this time several tribes under the leadership of the Delaware realized that each tribe by itself could never stand up to the English or the Six Nations. They needed an alliance of their own. Several, primarily the Shawnee and the Delaware, decided to unite and elect a chief to speak for them all. They elected a man called Teedyuscung. He led them on several raids against the English on the frontiers of New York and Pennsylvania. The English called upon the Six Nations to stop the raids. The Six Nations notified the Delaware to send representatives to meet with them. When the delegates arrived the leaders of the Six Nations started to talk down to them as they had in the past, but the representatives of the Delaware stopped them short. They replied to the Six Nations,

They looked upon themselves as men, and would acknowledge no superiority that any other nation had over them. We are men and are determined not to be ruled any longer by you as women; and we are determined to cut off all the English, except those that escape from us in ships; so say no more to us on that head, lest we make women of you as you have done us.

Having thus gotten the attention of the Six Nations, the Delaware did agree to listen to the Seneca who had backed the stance of the Delaware.

While war was ongoing between the English and the French with the Delaware and Shawnee among others siding with the French, a group of Quakers in Philadelphia talked the Pennsylvania governor into trying to discuss a real peace with the Delaware and honestly address their complaints. The Pennsylvania authorities, speaking through the Six Nations, invited the Delaware and the new confederacy to a new conference. The Delaware agreed to listen to what the English had to say and as an act of good faith agreed to return a number of captives to the English.

In the conference the Six Nations agreed to the independence of the Delaware and recognized Teedyuscung as a chief speaking for the new alliance of the four nations as well as the Six Nations.

All through 1756 and 1757 there were a series of negotiations about how and where a conference would take place and who should be invited. It was agreed that the Delaware, Shawnee, Seneca, and the rest of the Six Nations would attend and that Teedyuscung would speak for them all. As this meeting, held in Easton, Pennsylvania, started, Teedyuscung did something that had never been done before at a treaty conference between Native Americans and the English. He requested that he have his own secretary present to keep notes on the speeches and agreements. Up to this time it had always been the English who had a scribe present to keep notes, who would give a copy of any agreement to the Native Americans at the end of the conference. Often those notes were incomplete or inaccurate—in one past treaty meeting the scribe had thrown down the pen and refused to write down what the chief was saying as he complained about the cheating done by the English in land transactions. The Quakers, who had meetings with Teedyuscung prior to the conference, suggested having a scribe to him. When the request was made the Pennsylvania governor refused and said that it had always been that the English had kept the notes and he saw no reason why that should change. Teedyuschung refused to meet unless he had his own scribe. The standoff lasted four days until the governor realized he needed Teedyuscung more than Teedyuscung needed him. When it was finally agreed, Teedyuscung announced that Charles Thomson would be his scribe.

The conference went on for days, but in the end it was agreed that the Delaware would make a complete list of all their complaints that would be sent to the King in England who would make the final decision. In addition to the complaints listed by the Delaware, the report of the histories of the various treaties written by Charles Thomson would be a part of papers that would be sent to London. By this time, with the war against the French going badly with the defeat of Braddock in the Ohio, the King and his ministers decided to get directly involved in dealing with the Native Americans. Teedyuscung agreed to abide by the decision of the King. But he made one additional and far-sighted request of the King, besides just addressing his specific complaints. He was looking into the future and sought a way to create a final peace. What he asked for was simple but far-reaching and was a huge admission that for there to be a real peace, the culture of Native Americans had to adjust to the reality that the English were not going to ever leave the lands. He said that for the Delaware, he thought it was

best to have a certain country fixed for our life and the lives of our children forever and as we intend to make a settlement . . . and to build houses from what we have done before, such as may last not only for a little while, but for our children and us; we desire you will assist us in making our settlements, and send us persons to instruct us in building houses and in making such necessaries as shall be needful; and that persons be sent to instruct us in the Christian religion, which may be for our future welfare, and to instruct us into reading and writing. That our trade be established between us and such persons appointed to conduct and manage affairs as shall be agreeable to us.

This was an extraordinary request which, if carried out, had the potential of creating a lasting peace throughout the land.

With this treaty, both the English and the Delaware agreed to abide by the King’s decision. The Delaware ceased their war against the English which allowed the English free passage through to the French in Ohio. The Shawnee remained loyal to the French and pulled their forces back closer to the French forts. The French abandoned their fort at what is now Pittsburgh and withdrew further into the Ohio territory.

Charles Thomson made one final note, a request to the English as well as the King. He said,

Here the affair rests. If the proper papers and true state of case be laid before the king and council for a just determination: If the Indians be assisted in making this settlement, secured in their property and instructed in religion and the civil arts, agreeable to their request, and the trade with them regulated and set upon such a footing that they may be secure from abuse, there is not the least doubt but the alliance and friendship of the Indians may be forever secured to the British interest; but should these things be neglected, the arms of the French are open to receive them.

While working and living with the Delaware Thomson was adopted into the tribe and given the name that means “the man who tells the truth.” This legend of telling the truth stuck with him throughout his time at the Continental Congress. After the American Revolution he wrote to a man who asked him about this legend and Thomson wrote back saying that “It was well known that I had resolved in spite of consequences, never to put my official signature to any account, the accuracy of which I could not vouch as a man of honor.”[9] Under the rules of the Continental Congress, no document was official unless it contained signatures of both the President and the Secretary. This meant that Charles Thomson’s signature was required on all official documents of the United States during the time of the Continental Congress.

After the 1757 conference Thomson organized his notes into a full report and in addition to giving the governor a copy, sent a copy to Benjamin Franklin in London. Realizing the report would give great discomfort to the Penn family, Franklin had it published. He sent several copies to various crown officials, sent 250 copies back to Pennsylvania to be distributed, and put several hundred copies up for sale in Britain. He reported back to his allies in Pennsylvania that sales were brisk and said that the effect “was more positive that I expected. It will, I think, have a good effect”.[10]

To what extent Charles Thomson’s report may have influenced official British thinking we do not know. We do know that it was circulated in the highest circles in the British government. Benjamin Franklin confirmed this. We also know that after the French and Indian War, the King of England issued his famous Proclamation of 1763, in which he addressed Native American concerns. This proclamation specifically addressed a number of issues described in Thomson’s report: settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains, insecure borders, fraudulent land grabs, porous borders, and unscrupulous traders. The Proclamation stated:

Whereas it is just and reasonable, and essential to our interest, and the security of our colonies, that the several Nations or Tribes of Indians with whom we are connected and who live under our protection, should not be molested or disturbed in the possession of such parts of our Dominions and Territoriesas, not having been ceded to or purchased by us, are reserved to them. . . no [colonial authority] do presume, upon any pretense whatsoever, to grant warrants of survey, any patent for lands beyond the bounds of their respective governments . . . beyond the heads or sources of any rivers which fall into the Atlantic Ocean . . . nor any lands whatever which . . . are reserved to the said Indians or any of them.
We do further declare it to be our Royal will and pleasure . . . to reserve under our sovereignty protection and dominion, for the use of the said Indians, all the lands and territories lying to the westward of the sources of the rivers which fall into the sea . . .
And we do hereby strictly forbid, on pain of our displeasure all our loving subjects from making any purchase or settlements whatever or taking possession of any of the lands above reserved . . .
And we do further strictly empower and require all persons who have seated themselves upon any lands . . . still reserved for the Indians as aforesaid, forthwith to remove themselves from such settlements.
And whereas great frauds and abuses have been committed in purchasing lands of the Indians . . . we do, with the advice of our Privy Council, strictly require that that no person or persons is to presume to make any purchase of land from the said Indians.
And we do, by the advice of our Privy Council declare and enjoin that the trade with the said Indians shall be free and open to all our          subjects whatsoever provided . . . they do take out a license for carrying on such trade . . . and give security to observe all our regulations as we shall at anytime think fit . . . taking car to insert a condition that such license shall be void and security forfeited in case the person . . . shall refuse or neglect to observe such regulations.[11]

This proclamation was considered by the American colonists to be one of the “intolerable acts” and as such was given as an excuse to rebel against Britain. With American independence, the proclamation became moot and under the American flag settlers poured into the Ohio territory, pushing ever westward and leading to one hundred years of wars with Native Americans until Anglo-Americans completed their “manifest destiny” and occupied all the lands between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Teedyuscung’s dream of a secure place was not to be.


[1]Boyd Stanley Schlenther, Charles Thomson, A Patriot’s Story. (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1990), 19.

[2]Ibid., 20.

[3]Ibid., 7

[4]Ibid., 22-23.

[5]Joseph E. Wroblewski, “Governor William Franklin: Sagorighweyoghsta, ‘Great Arbiter’ or ‘Doer of Justice,’ Journal of the American Revolution, April 8, 2022,

[6]Charles Thomson, Causes of the Alienation of the Delaware and Shawnese Indians from the British Interest (Philadelphia: John Campbell, 1889). All quotes from this report in this article are taken from this edition, reprint from the first publication in London by J. Wilkie in 1759.

[7] 2/18/2022

[8]Wroblewski, “Governor William Franklin: Sagorighweyoghsta.”

[9]Schlenther, Charles Thomson, 48-49.

[10]Ibid., 23


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1 Comment

  • Thank you James! This was a wonderful piece on a man underrepresented in our history. You have sparked my interest to learn more about him as well as the Native American tribes during that period.

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