Rufus Putnam letters  1797-1799
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Collection Scope and Content Note

The Rufus Putnam letters (1797-1799) are made up of 13 drafts of letters written by Putnam, primarily concerning the Greenville Treaty boundary line. Putnam was surveyor-general of the United States from 1796 to 1803, and the letters provide insight into his duties related to the partitioning of the Northwest Territory. Putnam wrote twelve of these letters to Secretary of the Treasury Oliver Wolcott, informing him of progress in drawing the treaty line, and of various other activities.

The earliest letters in the collection pertain to contracts for ax men and deputy surveyors needed in order to complete the "Greenville Treaty Line" survey in a timely fashion, as well as keeping Wolcott informed of Putnam's surveying plans. In a letter dated May 10, 1797, Putnam humorously reported that he had to acquire a new certification of his appointment as surveyor-general because the Senate revised his original commission, which meant he had to swear into office again. As surveyor-general, Putnam wished to avoid difficulties when working with Native Americans; on January 25, 1797, he wrote, "It will be proper to have the boundary lines between these lands & the present Indian claims ascertained as soon as may be to prevent all danger of our encroaching on the Indian Lands." To aid in the distinction between U.S. territory and Indian lands, Putnam believed that the construction of a "great road" was the best way to give the Indians "satisfaction & leave the white people without excuse with respect to their knowledge of the boundary line" (March 15, 1799).

The Rufus Putnam letters offer a glimpse into different native tribes' responses to the drawing of the Greenville Treaty line. A letter dated August 15, 1799, respects military officer Israel Ludlow's invitation to Indian chiefs to appear at the surveying of the line. However, after waiting for two weeks, no chiefs presented themselves to Ludlow. In a subsequent letter, Putnam described an encounter between Ludlow's men and "a party of Indians at Greenville; the Indians told them that they must go no farther [on] that course, that they would all be killed if they continued on." (10 September 1799) These situations left no doubt in Putnam's mind "that it was the intention of the Indians to prevent runing [sic] the boundary line, if it was in their power to effect a delay without employing actual force." (September 10, 1799) Ludlow completed the survey without any Indian representatives present.

The collection includes a copy of a letter from Shawnee chiefs to Ludlow, expressing their displeasure at Ludlow's apparent condoning of Chickasaw raids against the Shawnee (July 16, 1799). The Shawnee chiefs explained their dissatisfaction: "Brother you help the Chickasaws, you gave them provisions & they come here secretly to kill us and our families, we see them every morning but the woods is so thick we cannot catch them… When you send word that the Chickasaws are gon we will come to you to make the road, but if the Chickasaws kill one Shawonnoe we will follow them through your Town until we kill the most of them."

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