Armed Conflicts in America, 1587–1815

views updated


Four continuities, or themes, link the disparate wars, rebellions, and revolutions that characterize English North America during its colonial and early national periods. Conflicts between English colonists and the Native American peoples whose lands were being colonized constitute the first theme. By the late seventeenth century, a second continuity emerges in the European struggle for control of North America, which gradually absorbed the regional struggles between settlers and Indians. This triangular relationship between English American settlers, Native Americans, and European states persisted through this entire period. Warfare frequently aggravated preexisting sectional hostilities leading to the third theme of armed conflict between English settlers and their eastern governments. Not only did war stimulate sectional violence among whites, but in the fourth theme offered America's African slaves the occasion and inspiration to assert their drive for freedom in armed insurrections. Altogether these four themes intertwine as recurring patterns through the armed conflicts that America experienced from the end of the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century.

conflicts of colonization

England's first effort to colonize the new world ended in disaster. After an initial voyage of discovery, Sir Walter Raleigh in 1587 sent an expedition of over one hundred men, women, and children to establish a permanent colony on Roanoke Island off the Carolina coast. Three years later, a long-delayed relief fleet returned only to find the place abandoned with obvious signs of a struggle. Historians differ as to whether or not the Roanoke colonists moved to another location, but they generally agree that they fell victim to Indian attack. The same fate nearly befell the Jamestown colony which had been struggling for survival since its founding in 1607. Mutual coexistence with neighboring Indians came to a shocking end in 1622 when local tribes conducted a surprise attack that killed nearly one third of the Jamestown settlers. Yet, not only did the colony survive, it managed to weather yet another American Indian attack in 1644 and to retaliate with a ferocity that reduced the Indians to powerless tributaries.

The ever-expanding New Englanders also clashed with their Native American neighbors. In 1637–1638 English forces from Connecticut and Massachusetts combined to virtually destroy the Pequot of southern Connecticut in a dispute over land and trade. Forty years later Indians from southern New England, westward to the Connecticut River and northward in Maine, combined in a general movement to counter New England's imperialism. King Philip's War, named for a Wampanoag leader known as Philip by the English, broke out in 1675 and eventually rolled the frontier back to within twenty miles of Boston. But the Indians lacked the resources and organization to maintain their momentum. Philip was killed in 1676 as the war in southern New England came to a close; it dragged on for two years in northern New England. But like their counterparts in Virginia, New England's Indians were eventually reduced to subservience.

About the time of King Philip's War in New England, Virginia once more experienced Indian unrest along its western frontier. The disturbance provided Virginia's frontiersmen, led by the politically ambitious Nathaniel Bacon, the opportunity to vent their own frustrations and unleash a colony-wide rebellion against the royal governor and his ruling clique. Bacon, however, died in 1676 at the very moment of his success, and without his leadership, so did the movement. Governor Sir William Berkeley then reasserted his control over the colony with a heavy hand.

imperial rivalry and regional conflict

During the years from the end of the seventeenth to the middle of the eighteenth century, England, France, and Spain engaged in a series of wars for control of North America's native inhabitants. Most of these conflicts have European names and dates, but are known in America by the names of contemporary English sovereigns. Thus, the first is known as King William's War (1689–1697). An exception to the naming pattern is the brief conflict called Dummer's War (1722–1727), named after the acting governor of Massachusetts. But the pattern resumes with Queen Anne's War (1702–1713). An exception to this naming pattern is the brief conflict called Drummer's War (1722–1727), named after the acting governor of Massachusetts. But the pattern resumes with King George's War (1739–1748)—which began as the War of Jenkin's Ear—and finally, the French and Indian War, (1754–1763), so-called because although George II sat on Britain's throne there already was a war named after George I.


1587–1590 Roanoke colony

1622 First Indian attack on Jamestown

1637–1638 Pequot War in Connecticut

1644 Second Indian attack on Jamestown

1675–1678 King Philip's War in New England

1675–1676 Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia

1689–1697 King William's War

1702–1713 Queen Anne's War

1712 New York slave rebellion

1722–1727 Dummer's War

1739–1744–1748 War of Jenkin's Ear–King George's War

1739 Stono slave rebellion in South Carolina

1741 New York slave rebellion

1754–1763 French and Indian War

1763 Pontiac's War

1763 Paxton Boys march in Pennsylvania

1771 Battle of Alamance Creek in North Carolina

1775–1783 American Revolution

1786–1787 Shays's Rebellion in Massachusetts

1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers

1794 Whiskey Rebellion in Pennsylvania

1798–1800 "Quasi War" against France

1799 Fries Rebellion in Pennsylvania

1800 Gabriel's slave rebellion in Virginia

1801–1805, 1815 War against the Barbary pirates

1812–1815 War of 1812

James S. Leamon

Although these wars become increasingly global in scope, the American frontier continued to play a vital part. For example, King William's War in the colonies began as a series of Indian raids before authorities, English or French in North America, ever received news of the European war. In similar fashion, the French and Indian War opened in America as a contest between colonists and the French over access to the trans-Appalachian west a full two years prior to the official declarations of war in Europe—making it really a war of nine years in North America rather than the Seven Years' War to which Europeans refer. Great Britain defeated both the French and Spanish in the French and Indian War, and by the peace settlement in 1763 gained possession of all territory east of the Mississippi, but the conflict on the frontier did not cease. A loose confederation of western Indians led by the Ottawa chief Pontiac, resentful at being excluded from the settlement and apprehensive about their future under the British, continued the hostilities. "Pontiac's War" ended later in 1763 only when the British agreed to protect Indian territory by enforcing a Proclamation Line drawn down the divide of the Appalachian Mountains, beyond which white settlement was prohibited.

internal conflict

Almost one hundred years of continuous conflict with Native American enemies aggravated tensions—political, regional, and racial—within early American society. A mere dozen years after Bacon's Rebellion in Virginia, King William's War broke out, during which similar uprisings erupted in Massachusetts, New York, and Maryland. In each case, wartime anxieties and local political rivalries in a power vacuum led to rebellions that overthrew existing colonial governments. Queen Anne's and King George's wars provided the environment for no less than three rebellions by African slaves, two of them in New York. In 1712 a handful of slaves in New York City conspired to set the town on fire and then to murder the white population as it responded to the emergency. The conspirators actually initiated their plan, setting fires and killing several townspeople before authorities acted quickly to reestablish control. In the aftermath, twenty-five slaves were executed by methods among which hanging was the most humane.

During King George's War rumors spread that English slaves who fled to the Spanish would be freed. In 1739 this news inspired a group of slaves near Stono Creek in South Carolina to murder their owners, seize arms, and begin a march toward Florida. The local militia quelled the movement with a terrible ferocity. But the news of the Stono uprising reached New York, inspiring anxiety among a population that vividly recalled the events of 1712 and was nervously conscious of its vulnerability to enemy attack by sea. In 1741 New York's townspeople responded to several unexplained fires with almost hysterical alarm over another conspiracy that embodied virtually all of New Yorkers' worst nightmares: arson and a slave rebellion led by Jesuit priests, coordinated with a Spanish invasion. In New York's search for revenge and stability, thirty-four persons were executed for conspiracy: thirty slaves and four whites, two of them women.

Frontier conflict had a particularly disruptive impact by intensifying the sense of discrimination and exploitation of which the backcountry repeatedly complained. Lacking political influence, western regions often resorted to armed violence against eastern governments. Pennsylvania's frontier had suffered severe losses during Pontiac's War in 1763. A group of westerners known as the "Paxton Boys" expressed their anger by slaughtering a group of peaceful Indians and then marching on the provincial capitol in Philadelphia. The government's hasty promise to redress grievances finally persuaded the angry frontiersmen to go home.

A similar situation provoked a similar response in the Carolina backcountry, where depredations during the French and Indian war had created anarchy. During the late 1760s, local vigilantes called "regulators" restored a semblance of order in both South and North Carolina, but demanded from their respective governments reforms such as more effective protection, lower taxes, better representation, and an effective judicial system. In South Carolina, the mere threat of violence won assurances of reform, but in North Carolina angry armed regulators exchanged fire with an eastern militia, commanded by the royal governor himself, in the "Battle" of Alamance Creek in 1771. After an initial volley that killed several on each side, the regulators turned and fled.

the american revolution

The most serious repercussions of the French and Indian War arose from the means of paying for it. This issue led directly to the American Revolution. Victory over the French and Spanish, and the subduing of Pontiac's confederacy, had left the British with a huge debt, plus the cost of administering an expanded empire. It seemed only reasonable to the British that Americans should bear some share of the burden since they were the obvious beneficiaries of the wars. Beginning in 1764, Parliament passed a series of measures imposing duties on sugar and molasses as well as taxes on stamps, paper, paint, lead, glass, and especially tea. Although many of these taxes were later repealed, they stimulated heated debate over whether Parliament had a constitutional right to tax or to legislate for those whom it did not represent. Debate led to protests, protests to riots, riots to armed rebellion in 1775, and to revolution in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence.

As a military conflict, the Revolution had several different theaters. The "frontiers" of the war included the high seas as well as the more traditional western frontier where Native Americans generally sided with the British as the lesser of the evils confronting them. The states, however, became the military focus of major campaigns that moved progressively from New England (1775–1777), to the middle states (1776–1778), to the south (1779–1781) until October 19, 1781, when the British surrender at Yorktown ended formal hostilities. Meanwhile the scope of the revolution had expanded from a mere civil war to an international conflict when, in 1778, France allied with the Americans, and in successive years the Spanish and even the Dutch joined in the expanding conflict against Great Britain. The war finally came to an end in the Treaty of Paris, September 3, 1783, which acknowledged the independence of the United States with boundaries extending from Florida to Canada and westward all the way to the Mississippi River. The Revolutionary War thus concluded the long sequence of imperial conflicts over the control of North America that had begun almost one hundred years earlier in 1689.

the new nation in a conflicted world

The new United States now had to deal with the expectations and fears accompanying the end of the war. Freed from British restrictions, the western frontier surged into the Northwest Territory, creating a crisis with Native Americans similar to that of 1763. Already angry at being excluded from the peace negotiations and fearful of American intentions, Chief Little Turtle of Ohio's Miami tribe, like Pontiac before him, sought to build an Indian confederation. In 1790 and 1791 this confederacy soundly defeated two American military expeditions, but it broke apart in 1794 after the Indians were defeated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The collapse of Indian resistance opened most of the Ohio territory to white settlement.

Americans themselves clashed over their expectations and fears in the postwar world. A dislocated economy, debts, taxes, and unresponsive governments provoked widespread unrest, especially in western Massachusetts during the winter of 1786–1787. Led by Daniel Shays, among others, western farmers shut down courts and even attacked the armory at Springfield before being dispersed by the state militia. Not long after Shays's Rebellion, two more armed uprisings, the Whiskey and the Fries Rebellions, broke out in Pennsylvania. In 1794, farmers in the western counties challenged the authority of the new federal government by riotously nullifying a federal tax on whiskey, their chief export. Five years later in the eastern part of the state, Pennsylvania Dutch (German) farmers, led by John Fries, resisted a new federal tax on land and houses as an assault on their local autonomy. In both episodes, popular opposition simply evaporated when federal troops arrived to restore order. The two rebellions soon assumed a significance more political than military as the two emerging political parties, Federalist and Democratic Republican, blamed each other for the disturbances.

Meanwhile, the United States was discovering the perils of being a weak neutral nation in a world engaged in war. Britain and France had once again resumed their hostilities. In an effort to weaken each other economically, each country interfered with the other's American trade. Britain was the worst offender, but when French officials brazenly demanded that American commissioners pay a large bribe simply to open negotiations, a powerful groundswell of popular hostility to France could easily have led to open war. Congress expanded the army and navy, and in fact, informal naval warfare, as a "Quasi War," did break out on the high seas in 1798. Already engaged in a war with Britain, the French government responded positively when President John Adams renewed the offer for negotiations. By 1800 outstanding differences were resolved.

As was frequently the case, the agitated wartime atmosphere again stirred unrest among America's African slave population, this time in Virginia. Talk of potential war with France and the heated political rhetoric between Federalists and Democratic Republicans convinced observant slaves that civil war was imminent. Providing inspiration was the apparently successful slave rebellion on the French-owned island of Santo Domingo (Haiti). In 1800, slave Gabriel Prosser devised a plan to seize Richmond, the state capital, taking hostage the governor, James Monroe. The occupation of Richmond was to be the signal for a general slave uprising which, with the aid of non-slaveholding whites, would destroy the institution of slavery throughout the South. So complex a scheme never had a chance. Authorities quelled the conspiracy as Gabriel and his followers were in the act of carrying it out. Interrogations and executions quickly followed, but the dream lived on in yet another abortive insurrection by one of Gabriel's followers in 1802.

The civil war that Gabriel had anticipated with hope, and many other Americans with dread, never materialized, even when Jefferson and the Democratic Republicans won the election of 1800. Indeed, Jefferson even rallied the country in a short naval war against the so-called Barbary Pirates. These petty North African pirate kingdoms had long exacted tribute, or protection money, to allow commercial vessels unmolested passage through the Mediterranean. Now independent, the United States had to pay for its own protection, but a dispute over the amount induced the pasha of Tripoli to commence plundering American vessels and holding their crews for ransom. Jefferson retaliated by sending the American navy to chastise the pasha, but despite moments of daring and even brilliance by American forces, the war dragged on from 1801 to 1805 when the United States and the pasha reached a compromise on how much protection money the Americans were willing to pay. For Jefferson, diplomatic tensions with Great Britain were taking precedence over the Barbary pirates, but late in 1815 President Madison dispatched a fleet to the Barbary Coast that ended payments of tribute once and for all.

the war of 1812

By 1805, Britain and France had resumed their almost perpetual warfare, which meant that American commerce was again subjected to interference by both powers. Jefferson tried to withhold American trade as a lever to exact concession from each belligerent, but Great Britain's powerful navy continued to confiscate cargos and impress crews from American vessels—even on one occasion firing upon an American warship. Discarding economic coercion as ineffective, President James Madison led the country into war on June 17, 1812. The chief push for war, however, came not from the commercial northeast, but from the American west, where settlers were again engaged in conflict with the Indians—in the north with a confederation led by Tecumseh, a Shawnee, and with the Creek Indian confederacy in the south. Behind Indian resistance westerners suspected British intrigue and they hoped for the opportunity to acquire more land, even Canada.

For the United States, the early fortunes of war on land varied from disappointing to disastrous, but Americans enjoyed brilliant success on the water, both on the Great Lakes and on the high seas. In the latter part of the war, the order was somewhat reversed. The British imposed a successful blockade of the American navy and burned Washington in 1814. But in the north, in 1813, American forces defeated the British and their Indian allies at the Battle of the Thames, where Tecumseh died, and continued to dominate the Great Lakes. In the southwest, Andrew Jackson crushed the Creek confederacy in 1814 then invaded Spanish Florida to pursue Indian renegades and to punish those who protected them. Jackson's demonstration of Spanish ineptitude laid the foundation for the 1819 purchase of Florida by the United States. But Jackson's greatest acclaim as a national hero came from his overwhelming victory against the British army in 1815 in the Battle of New Orleans.

The Treaty of Ghent that ended the war was signed before the Battle of New Orleans took place, and that the treaty resolved none of the issues that caused the war bothered almost no one except some grumpy New Englanders. A sense of national euphoria enveloped the country with the conviction that having defeated their enemies at home and abroad, Americans were now free to exploit the fruits of their success. As Thomas Jefferson had phrased it somewhat earlier, Americans were a "chosen nation" blessed "with destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye"—an exhilarating, but dangerous, self-image.

James S. Leamon

See also:Legacies of Indian Warfare; Shays's and Whiskey Rebellion; Slavery in America; War of 1812.

About this article

Armed Conflicts in America, 1587–1815

Updated About content Print Article Share Article