Between 1778 and 1871, the United States negotiated treaties with Indians. The first treaty was signed on September 17, 1778 at Fort Pitt, present day Pittsburgh, between the Delaware Nation and the United States of America, which was the name of the Confederacy of States before the adoption of the U.S. Constitution.
The Articles of Confederation was adopted a little over a year earlier in 1777, and was designed to establish a government independent of British rule. The primary purposes of the treaty with the Delaware was to gain Delaware trade, political, and military alliance on the side of the Americans during the War of Independence. The British likewise sought military and political alliances among the Indian nations to fight against the rebellious Americans. Both the Americans and British sought alliance of Indian nations in the war, and in return promised trade and goods.
Many tribes allied with the British, others with the United States of America, while some tribes tried to remain neutral. The Indians, already dependent on trade goods, needed to keep trade and diplomatic exchanges of goods open to one or the other of the warring antagonists. This situation gave Indian nations a strategic advantage at this point in history, since both the British and Americans needed Indian military alliances, or at least an agreement of neutrality. The Indian nations could negotiate with either the warring nations, although alliances were often determined by long-term friendly relations with the British or American communities.
The treaty with the Delaware gives insight into Indian and U.S. relations at the very beginning of the treaty making process. The Delaware treaty was a treaty of peace and mutual protection. “(A) perpetual peace and friendship shall from henceforth take place…” Both sides agreed to peaceful relations and to forget any past harm done to each other. If new antagonisms arose, the two nations agreed to negotiate their differences. As peaceful allies, the Delaware and United States of America agreed to supply military aid to each other in any just war.
In article three, the Americans argued that “the King of England and his adherents” invaded the United States of America, and the Delaware are asked to provide access through their country to American troops, assist in positioning of forts, and provide supplies. The Americans asked for the assistance of the best Delaware warriors and offered protection to the Delaware families while the warriors served with the US army. The Americans also offered the Delaware a well regulated trade in goods of clothing, utensils and implements of war.
Article four of the treaty was dedicated to procedures for handling justice relations. Unlike contemporary justice relations, the treaty makers agreed that “neither party shall proceed to the infliction of punishments on the citizens of the other … til a fair and impartial trial can be had by judges and juries of both parties, as near as can be to the laws, customs and usages of the contracting parties and natural justice…” The nations would negotiate the mode of such trials, and make further agreements to handle criminal fugitives, enemies, servants and slaves belonging to either nation.
The Americans recognized Delaware land rights and offered statehood to friendly Indian nations. The United States agreed to “guarantee to the aforesaid nation of Delawares, and their heirs, all their territorial rights … as it hath been bound by former treaties…” The Delaware could “invite any other tribes who have been friends to the interest of the United States, to join the present confederation, and to form a state whereof the Delaware nation shall be the head, and have a representation in Congress.”
Needing Delaware military alliance and upholding treaties previously negotiated by the British, the Americans recognized Delaware internal judicial powers, and cultural differences, as well as Delaware independent political government, territory, and power to make treaties.