Peter Wraxall
Robert Allen
published in
American National Biography

Wraxall, Peter (?-11 July 1759), secretary of Indian affairs, was born in Bristol, England, the son of John Wraxall, a merchant. His mother's name is not known. No record of his early formal education has been found. Although the Wraxall family were prominent members of the local community, the economic fluctuations pertaining to merchant endeavors encouraged young Peter to leave the area in the hopes of achieving a greater degree of personal success and prosperity. He apparently resided in the Netherlands for a time, where he became familiar with the Dutch language. He next visited Jamaica and finally settled in the royal province of New York.

As early as 1746, during King George's war in America, Wraxall's name appears on the muster rolls of the colony, which include the names of men from Long Island "ready and truly inlisted in Peter Wraxall's Company of Foot for the present expedition to Canada." The following year, returning to England on urgent private business, he was entrusted with a letter from the colonial governor to the under secretary at Whitehall. Wraxall was to gather information on the state of relations between France and England in North America as well as on transactions relating to civil and military matters and political factionalism in the province of New York. The confidence shown in Wraxall suggests that he was competent and respected in colonial matters and was supported by powerful political friends in the governor's circle. While still in England, he received a royal commission dated 15 November 1750 to the positions of secretary or agent for the government of New York to the Indians and also as town clerk of the peace and clerk of the common pleas in the county and city of Albany. When he returned to New York, however, Wraxall discovered that through either neglect or ignorance the governor had already appointed someone town clerk. In spite of years of legal appeals, this royal commission was never honored.

Wraxall was therefore constrained to content himself with the wider duties of Indian secretary. This position was of significant importance, however, as the last great struggle for empire in North America between France and England was about to take place. Pivotal to the success of both powers was the ability to court and maintain the affections of the Six Nations Confederacy of Iroquois, whose land acted as a barrier between New France and the British colonies of New York and Pennsylvania, and "all other Indians." With the Iroquois wavering in their loyalty to the British, the factionalized American colonies, recognizing their military weakness and lack of defense preparations, organized a meeting at Albany in 1754. The "Albany Congress" resolved little, but of vital importance was the introduction of Peter Wraxall to William Johnson, one of the most powerful and influential men in the royal province of New York. The two men shared a common interest in Indian relations and a common distrust of the Albany Indian Commissionaires, who were essentially a group of self-interested merchants and traders.

That same year Wraxall wrote An Abridgement of the Records of Indian Affairs: Contained in Four Folio Volumes, Transacted in the Colony of New York, from the Year 1678 to the Year 1751. The Abridgement, based on the records of conferences and transactions between the Indians and the magistrates of the city and county of Albany, consisted of both Dutch and English documents and focused on the importance of Indian relations and the incompetency and inefficiency of the Albany Indian commissioners, suggested a single Crown appointment for Indian affairs, and hinted that William Johnson would be eminently qualified for the position. The Abridgement was promptly sent to the president of the Board of Trade and Plantations in London, a personal friend of Wraxall's, who subsequently forwarded to the king a series of recommendations drafted by the board, which offered solutions relating to the American colonies and Indian relations. Many of these recommendations echoed or recited the suggestions put forward by Wraxall, and in particular the idea of consolidating Indian affairs under one appointed Crown official. The importance of Wraxall's Abridgement in the formulation of British Indian policy in North America remains debatable, but there is no question that his detailed compilation of events, astute observations, and carefully worded suggestions influenced the final outcome. In April 1755 a formal and centralized Indian policy was finally realized when Johnson was given "the sole Management and Direction of the Affairs of the Six Nations and their Allies."

The close association and mutual respect between Johnson and Wraxall was strongly evidenced by the appointment of Wraxall, also in mid-April 1755, as Johnson's permanent secretary, a position he held until his death. With the outbreak of the French and Indian War in America, Wraxall participated alongside Johnson in conducting the affairs of the Indians. At Mount Johnson, north of the Mohawk River, a grand council was held between 21 June and 14 July 1755 in which an agreement was reached "to renew, to make more strong and bright than ever the Covenant Chain of peace and friendship." The Iroquois, especially the Mohawks, were particularly pleased with Johnson and put their trust in the king of England. Yet, for the most part, the "western nations" from the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes supported New France throughout the final conflict.

In the late summer of 1755 Wraxall, employed as secretary, aide-de-camp, and judge advocate, accompanied Johnson on the expedition against the French stronghold at Crown Point on the west side of Lake Champlain. A battle was fought south of that place at Lake George on 8 September in which Johnson's colonials won a stunning victory over a formidable force of French regulars. As a result of their success, one of the few victories achieved by the British and colonials over the next few years, Johnson's prestige, power, and influence in the colonies became paramount. In the shadows, his contributions to the shaping of British Indian policy unnoticed and not acknowledged by the public or the press, loomed the dominant figure of Peter Wraxall.

In January 1756, at Johnson's request, Wraxall prepared an astute analysis of the recent events from the Indian perspective. Titled "Thoughts upon the British Indian Interest in North America," the work accurately assessed the Indian view, observing in part that "our Six Nations and their Allies, . . . look upon the present disputes between the English and French . . . as a point of selfish ambition in us both and are apprehensive that which ever Nation gains their point will become their Masters not their deliverers." He concluded this section in prophetic fashion by declaring that the Indians suspected that neither of the two imperial rivals intended to restore lands to the Indians or to recognise the First Nations as the true "Proprietors of the soil."

For the next three years Wraxall continued to serve and attend the major Indian conferences as Johnson's secretary for Indian affairs. His last record of an Indian council was dated April 1759. But his life after 1756 was quite uneventful. He largely withdrew from military field service. Ill health and his marriage to Elizabeth Stillwell in 1756 may have contributed to his change of lifestyle. For the last two years of his life, he and his wife lived quietly in the city of New York, where he died.

Peter Wraxall made an important contribution to the formulation and implementation of British Indian policy during a critical period in the eighteenth century. His Abridgement and "Thoughts" influenced the course of British Indian policy and Indian-white relations for several decades. He understood and appreciated the nature of Indian politics and foresaw the long and bitter struggle between Indians and whites over the right of soil and land claims.

Bibliography: The most important and useful source for the study of Peter Wraxall remains Charles Howard McIlwain's edition of An Abridgement of the Records of Indian Affairs: Contained in Four Folio Volumes, Transacted in the Colony of New York, from the Year 1678 to the Year 1751 (1915). In particular, McIlwain provides a lengthy introduction that offers details, analyses, and background information to the events germane to Wraxall. In addition, there is an abundance of correspondence and records relating to colonial matters and Indian conferences to and from Peter Wraxall, scattered throughout The Papers of Sir William Johnson, ed. James J. Sullivan (14 vols., 1921-1965), and E. B. O'Callaghan and B. Fernow, eds., Documents Relative to the Colonial History of the State of New York (15 vols., 1853-1887). Some standard secondary sources that provide background details on events pertaining to Wraxall include Milton W. Hamilton, Sir William Johnson: Colonial American, 1715-1763 (1976), and Francis Jennings, Empire of Fortune: Crowns, Colonies and Tribes in the Seven Years' War in America (1988).

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first posted online: 2004