Indians in the Revolution

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INDIANS IN THE REVOLUTION. Many Indian tribes, out of traditional loyalty, the need for British trade goods, or a fear of land-hungry colonists, sided with Britain during the American Revolution. It is important to note, however, that almost all tribes were divided between neutral, pro-British, and pro-American factions. For the Ohio Valley tribes, especially the Shawnees and Mingos, war with the Americans began when they fought against the expansionist policies of Virginia in 1774. Virginia's victory led to the Shawnees' forced cession of their claims to Kentucky. As a consequence, this tribe, along with most other Ohio Valley-Great Lakes area tribes, quickly joined the British when fighting began.

The Shawnees clamored for American blood after the murder of their unarmed Chief Cornstalk by Virginia militia in 1777, while during the same period the Mingos tried to wipe out American settlements in Kentucky. Britain's superior supplies won over many Great Lakes tribes in 1778; the powerful Delawares waited until 1781. In 1782 American militia massacred one hundred peaceful, Christian Delawares (men, women, and children who had been converted by Moravian missionaries) at their Gnadenhutten, Ohio, town. This atrocity enraged other Delawares who had moved to the Ohio Valley. Later in 1782 the Delawares turned back Colonel William Crawford's invasion of their Ohio homelands and tortured Crawford to death. That same year the Shawnees and Wyandots successfully ambushed American militia at Blue Licks, Kentucky, killing dozens of rebels (including one of Daniel Boone's sons).

The Northeast proved a more contested area. In March 1775 Massachusetts formed an alliance with the Christian Stockbridge Indians, and made overtures for similar arrangements to the Iroquois, Penobscots, and St. Francis Abenakis. Sir Guy Johnson, British superintendent of Indian affairs in the northern colonies, also tried to secure Indian allies. Johnson's great council at Oswego in July 1775 failed when the American invasion of Canada, otherwise a disaster, cut off British supplies, under-cutting the British agent's ability to offer "presents" to his potential allies. Continental commissioners gained the neutrality of some of the Iroquois at Albany that September and of some of the Ohio Valley tribes at Fort Pitt in October. Nevertheless, after it became clear that the American invasion of Canada had failed, many northern tribes rejoined the British. The Continental Congress's inability to support the subsidy policy of Indian agent George Morgan at Fort Pitt, combined with long-standing settler-Indian animosity, also influenced Indians' decisions. Chief Joseph Brant led his Mohawks and other Iroquois (minus the Oneidas and Tuscaroras, who remained officially neutral) in the British Burgoyne–St. Leger campaign of 1777. After Burgoyne's failure, Brant's men operated independently, terrorizing the New York frontier until an American army under General John Sullivan utterly devastated the Iroquois heartland in 1779.

In 1776 the Cherokees, hoping for British aid in dislodging settlers from North Carolina's Watauga and Nolichuckey Valleys, launched a war on frontier settlements in North Carolina and Virginia. The ferocity of these attacks led Thomas Jefferson to write of King George's "merciless Indian savages" in the Declaration of Independence. The raids backfired horrifically, however, and the Cherokees were forced to cede the disputed territory in the Treaty of Holston on 20 July 1777. The Cherokees later renewed their attacks on Americans, hoping to capitalize on recent British successes in the South, but militias from Virginia and Carolina crushed them again at the Battle of Boyd's Creek and won additional land cessions. The Creeks had generally avoided the war until 1781. Then, as General "Mad" Anthony Wayne sought to complete the restoration of American control in Georgia, Creeks under Emistesigo made a heroic but futile attempt to relieve the British besieged at Savannah.

While the Cherokees were much chastened by the war, and Iroquois military capabilities were all but obliterated, many tribes remained uncowed by the rebels' victory. In the Ohio Valley, the Treaty of Paris in 1783 meant nothing, and the violent struggle to keep the Americans out of that strategic region continued for more than a decade. West of the Mississippi, the Revolution had almost no effect on Native American communities and their British and Spanish allies.


Calloway, Colin G. The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Hatley, Thomas M. The Dividing Paths: Cherokees and South Carolinians through the Era of Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Ward, Harry M. The American Revolution: Nationhood Achieved, 1763–1788. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1995.

Robert M.Owens

See alsoWars with Indian Nations: Colonial Era to 1783 .

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Indians in the Revolution

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