Dolph Briscoe Center for American History
The first page of the letter George Washington sent to John Armstrong on August 24, 1769.

George Washington Letter Describes Killing of Natives as ‘Villainy’


A letter from George Washington recently acquired by the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin describes the killing of three Mingo Indians by white settlers as “villainy” and “mischief.”

The letter “sheds light on Washington’s views on Indian relations” said Don Carleton, the Briscoe Center’s executive director.

The letter, which was written to John Armstrong on August 24, 1769 before the Revolutionary War, describes the killing of the three Indians on the south bank of the Potomac River as murder, “for it deserves no other name.” Washington also demands “justice” in the letter.

“Washington’s indignation over the unprovoked killing of the Indians is clearly genuine,” notes Carleton in a university release. “He also evidences concern over ‘the evils that otherwise must follow’ if similar incidents were to go unchecked. Both Washington and Armstrong had a vested interest in any developments in that region that might indicate serious trouble with the Indians and therefore inhibit western expansion by colonists.”

At the time the letter was written, Armstrong—an Irish immigrant—was a land surveyor in Pennsylvania and a justice of the peace, but he would later serve as a major general under Washington in the Revolutionary War.

Washington’s views at the time were in line with those of his peers. An August 8, 1769 meeting of the Council of Colonial Virginia resolved that, “no injury or violence be offer’d to the Indians; and if hereafter it should become a serious business proper measures may be taken for the defence of the Inhabitants, who should be caution’d that if they wantonly draw on a quarrel with the Indians, they will not be supported by Government.”

As an ambitious landowner, Washington did not want to upset Indian relations, and so also notes that, “It is lucky however that … none escapd to carry the Intelligence, and we, in consequence, may represent it in as favourable a light, as the thing will admit of, having the knowledge of it confined to our selves.”

Let’s also keep in mind that Washington’s views on Indian relations changed over time. Just 10 years after this letter to Armstrong—in 1779—he instructed Major General John Sullivan to attack Iroquois people. He said, “lay waste all the settlements around... that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.” In the course of the carnage and annihilation of Indian people, Washington also instructed his general not to “listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected.”

His anti-Indian sentiments were again made clear in 1783 when he compared Indians with wolves, saying “Both being beast of prey, tho’ they differ in shape.” After a defeat, Washington’s troops would skin the bodies of Iroquois from the hips down to make boot tops or leggings. Those who survived called the first president, “Town Destroyer.” Within a five-year period, 28 of 30 Seneca towns had been destroyed. (Related story: “Happy Presidents’ Day)

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Dr. Faye Lone's picture
Dr. Faye Lone
Submitted by Dr. Faye Lone on
And so the Sullivan Campaign brings to light the origin, perhaps, of the "Washington Redskins"? They can make their uniform pants brown with blood red accent to more appropriately 'honor' Native Peoples from a true Washington perspective.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
What a horrible and disgusting thing to find out about George Washington! He was not such a wonderful person after all!

Sandra Weighknecht's picture
Sandra Weighknecht
Submitted by Sandra Weighknecht on
I live in Wyoming County of Pa. just 5 miles from Route 6 where the march of John Sullivan was traveled and all the horrific killings took place. I just moved here 6 1/2 years ago and have been learning of all the wars that took place in this area against the Native Americans, my brothers and sisters. I was very much surprised to learn of George Washington's command to John Sullivan. I often go to an overlook called "The Indian Rocks" where the natives would sit and watch over the Susquehanna River and meditate and pray to Great Spirit.

Submitted by JENNY BARROWS on
Where I have my home is some of the very large area where Sullivan & his crew slaughtered the innocent Natives. Mainly for what they had. Heartbreaking & much anger is still in the hearts & minds of both white & Native around this area....with very good reason.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
I gives me sorrow that these things happened (the Sullivan campaign), but they were in response to attacks against both white and Oneida settlements by the British and the rest of the Iroquois nations. Washington was, in part, attempting to eradicate the launching points from which the frontier was being attacked from the west. Oneida homeland had to be evacuated. Towns like Oriska and Kanowalohale and Cherry Valley were destroyed, but not by Washington. By Joseph Brant and the British rangers. That war lay waste to both sides.

Tim Abbott's picture
Tim Abbott
Submitted by Tim Abbott on
Horrific as it was just a single documented source for the practice of skinning bodies for boot tops in the historic record. The Journal of Lt. Barton, 1st NJ Regiment, records that the day after the Battle of Newtown his major sent Barton out with a detail to find a body specifically for this purpose, and Barton got a pair for himself. This was not general practice, as this article indicates, but it did happen in at least this instance.

Matthew Wilson
Matthew Wilson
Submitted by Matthew Wilson on
Such a horrible read. I was always taught how wonderful a person Washington was, but as I get older and wiser, I'm in dismay over all the false information and all the information left out of history classes. Sadly things are getting worse in how they teach in public schools. We are home schooling now and I'm going to teach and learn as much as I can about our Native American heritage/ancestry. I want my children to be as proud as I am about being part Native. Reading horrific stories like this make my resolve even stronger to make Native American culture more profound in our society.

WashRedskin's picture
Submitted by WashRedskin on
Wow! Before jumping to conclusions about Washington you need to know the whole story that is not included here. Yes, Washington sent troops into Western PA and NY to slaughter the Indian nations there. But he didn't just "decide" to do it. He was provoked. By the time he sent the troops in 247 families had been slaughtered by those same Indians. He had enough! We could learn from Washington when it comes to dealing with terrorists. And, please note how the author mislead you into a new view of Washington simply by omitting all the facts. Notice hoe influential the American media is. And we wonder why our nation is going to pot.