The Commissioners of Indian Affairs

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This offering seeks to define and treat the subject of the CIA in its Albany context. We are primarily interested in the work and diverse roles of the Albany people associated with this diplomatic organization. We recognize that much more/better/and more interesting on the Commissioners now appears online. The notes provided below are basic and only begin to consider the historical treatment of the subject. Some of the best scholarship on the Commissioners has appeared since this webpage first was activated in 2000. Additionally, we are NOT the last and/or most authorative source on the work of the Commissioners of Indian Affairs. What follows represents what we think we know about the Albany context of the topic.

The so-called Dongan Charter of 1686 awarded the city corporation an exclusive right to interact with the native peoples inhabiting the lands to the 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 convenient 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 subcommittee 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 secretary 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. Our work must focus on the activities of those individuals within the Albany community context. The subsequent stories of state and federal "Indian" diplomacy are lengthy and complicated and must be left for another day.