Native Americans and Blacks in the American Revolution

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Native Americans and Blacks in the American Revolution

Native Americans and blacks fought on both sides during the American Revolution. Native American participation began in the earliest days of the conflict when, in March of 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress accepted an offer from the Stockbridge Indians to form a company of "minutemen" (armed soldiers who promised to be ready in a minute to defend the colonies against the British).

In the face of war, the Continental Congress wrestled hard with the trying issue of Anglo-Indian relations. Congress was well aware that a close relationship existed between Great Britain and some Native groups, especially the powerful Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy (an association of six tribes: the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora. The first five of the tribes originated in present-day New York. The Tuscarora came from North Carolina.) Congress also knew that Native Americans had many grievances against the colonists: white settlers had threatened their people and stolen their land. If large numbers of Indians chose to side with the British, such an alliance could easily contribute to America's defeat.

Realizing they were not likely to secure cooperation from most Native Americans in a war, Congress hoped to at least gain a promise of neutrality (noninvolvement) from them (see Chapter 4: The Roots of Rebellion [1763–1769]). On August 25, 1775, four commissioners appointed by Congress met with the Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy near Albany, New York, and delivered a speech, stating, in part: "Brothers and friends!… This is a family quarrel between us [the white colonists] and Old England. You Indians are not concerned in it. We don't wish you to take up the hatchet against the king's troops. We desire you to remain at home, and not join on either side, but keep the hatchet buried deep."

The Six Nations agreed to pledge neutrality. In the fall of 1775, the Western Nations (the Shawnee, Wyandot, and others) also agreed to remain neutral.

Other tribes took advantage of wartime to express their hostility toward Americans. The Cherokee, for example, staged an uprising in 1776 against settlers in Georgia and the Carolinas, but they were soon put down by American soldiers. Seven years later, the Cherokee lost much of their land in the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War.

Even some of the nations in the Iroquois Confederacy ended up taking sides in the war—despite their earlier pledges of neutrality. Most supported the British, although some favored the Americans. During the terrible winter at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania (1777–78), for example, the Oneida people brought corn to George Washington's troops, boosting their spirits and helping to ensure their survival (see Chapter 10: The Agonizing Path to Victory [1777–1778]).

Heavy participation by Indians on the British side began back in 1776, when the British under General John Burgoyne (1722–1792) were chasing the Americans out of Canada. Burgoyne urged the Six Nations to "take up the hatchet" against the Americans; he is said to have accompanied the urging with gifts and alcohol.

Burgoyne anticipated problems with his Indian recruits and tried to head them off with a famous speech he made on June 23, 1777. In his speech (quoted in Mark M. Boatner III's Encyclopedia of the American Revolution) he urged the Indians to fight "humanely." "I positively forbid bloodshed,

when you are not opposed in arms," he declared. "Aged men, women, children and prisoners must be held sacred from the knife or hatchet, even in the time of actual conflict…. [Y]oushall be allowed to take the scalps of the dead when killed by your fire and in fair opposition; but on no account … are they to be taken [otherwise]." (Note that North American Indian warriors often cut part of the scalp and hair from a defeated enemy as a souvenir of victory. This ancient custom was also seen as a way to capture a dead person's spirit, making it impossible for the victim to haunt his or her killer.)

Most of the Indians listening to Burgoyne's speech probably couldn't understand his English. The entire address was considered quite amusing in America and Great Britain— especially laughable was the thought that the Indians would change their fighting style to suit the British. (Many of Burgoyne's Indians deserted when he tried to make them fight his way.) But the laughter turned to outrage when news broke of the murder of Jane McCrea.

The Jane McCrea tragedy

McCrea was a young American woman who was engaged to one of General Burgoyne's soldiers. While on her way to meet her fiancé at Fort Edward, New York, in July 1777, she was apparently taken by a band of Burgoyne's Indians. Two days later, McCrea's scalped and bullet-ridden body was found near Fort Edward. Exactly what happened to the young woman remains a mystery. A tremendous uproar followed, and the tragic story of Jane McCrea grew into a legend.

Americans were horrified by the thought of a combined British- Indian invasion; inflamed by the tragedy of Jane McCrea, many rushed to join the fight against Burgoyne.

Violence escalates

The American Revolution had a profound effect on the longstanding harmony that had characterized the Iroquois Confederacy. Pro-British Iroquois tribes proved to be the greatest Native menace to the American cause when they participated with Loyalists (Americans loyal to Great Britain) in a series of raids on frontier communities in 1778–79. The most famous of the raids were the Wyoming Valley (Pennsylvania) Massacre of July 3–4, 1778 and the Cherry Valley (New York) Massacre of November 11, 1778.

For the Indians, as for Americans, the conflict had become a civil war. Brother fought against brother, and many brave warriors lost their lives. One of the survivors was Mohawk chief Joseph Brant (1742–1807; Indian name Thayendanegea, meaning "bundle of sticks"), a staunch supporter of the British. He had established a reputation for himself as a brilliant soldier and spokesperson for his people. Brant led his warriors

in lightning-fast raids on frontier rebel targets. His very name filled the patriots with terror. Although he acted with white Loyalists, Brant took most of the blame for the horrid Cherry Valley Massacre, in which many innocent men, women, and children were slaughtered. American forces retaliated by burning Indian villages.

The postwar fate of Native Americans

In the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution, the British gave up to the Americans all Indian lands as far west as the Mississippi River. This left pro-British Indians at the mercy of Americans, who were not inclined to be generous. It was generally believed that by helping the British, the Indian tribes gave up their rights to land within the United States. The new nation felt it was justified in forcing the Indians to retire to Canada or to the unknown areas beyond the Mississippi.

Joseph Brant, his Mohawks, and some other Indians relocated to Canada, where they continue to live today. Over the years, the Indians who remained in America were forced to give up most of their land. Even the two Iroquois nations who had fought with the Americans—the Oneida and the Tuscarora—were persuaded to sell their lands and move west as more and more whites intruded on their territory.

America's black soldiers

Between 8,000 and 10,000 blacks served in the Continental army at one time or another, comprising about a quarter of America's armed forces (see Chapter 7: Assembling an Army [1775–1776]). When the army was finally disbanded in 1783, about 5,000 so-called free blacks were told they could return

home. In reality, some of the 5,000 were slaves, but the need for soldiers had been so critical that no questions were asked when slaves claimed to be free men and sought to join the military.

After Congress set quotas—the number of soldiers each state was required to provide—some slaves were bought and freed by states that could not meet their quotas; they were then sent to serve with white soldiers in the Continental army. Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island met their quo tas by buying and freeing slaves and forming all-black units.

The Rhode Island Regiment, consisting of ninety-five slaves and thirty free blacks, distinguished itself at the Battle of Rhode Island in August 1778. When Count de Rochambeau, a French general, arrived in Rhode Island in 1780 to begin train ing French and American troops, one of his aides remarked that the Rhode Island Regiment was "the most neatly dressed, the best under arms, and the most precise in its maneuvers" of all the American soldiers.

Virginia slaves in the Revolution

Southern states, fearing slave uprisings, resisted the enlistment of black soldiers until late in the war. Virginia, the colony with the largest number of slaves in its population, would not allow slaves to carry weapons. Instead, in 1780 Virginia voted to meet its quota by offering rewards to any white man who enlisted for the duration of the war. The reward would be 300 acres of land and the choice of either a healthy

black male slave between the ages of ten and thirty, or money.

Some Virginia slaveowners sent slaves to serve in the army in their place, promising them their freedom as a reward. Hundreds of these black soldiers returned to Virginia after the war, expecting to be freed. Upon their return, though, many were forced back into slavery. This was so obviously unjust that in 1783, Virginia's lawmaking body passed a bill aimed at slaveowners who, "contrary to principles of justice and to their own solemn promise," kept those black former soldiers as slaves.

Slavery weighs against the colonies

From the beginning of the Revolutionary War, black slaves took advantage of the wartime confusion to escape from their owners by the thousands. Many ran to the British.

An English court's 1772 decision in a lawsuit brought by an American slave probably swayed many slaves to support the British in the American Revolution. The case involved James Somersett, a black slave who was taken from Virginia to England by his owner, Charles Steuart. Somersett ran away, was captured, and was sent in chains on a ship bound for Jamaica (an island in the West Indies where slaves worked on sugar plantations). On board the ship, Somersett sued for his freedom. In June 1772, English Lord Chief Justice William Mansfield (1705–1793) issued his decision in the Somersett case, stating that slavery "is so odious [hateful], that nothing can be suffered to support it." He declared that because English law did not allow or approve of slavery, "the black [and any other slave who set foot in England] must be discharged [set free]".

In September, when news of Judge Mansfield's decision reached the colonies and the ears of black slaves, a period of unrest followed. This was especially true in Virginia, where 250,000 slaves were concentrated (the total population of the colonies was about 1.5 million; about one-third of colonial people were slaves). The Mansfield decision outlawed slavery in England, not in the colonies, but this did not matter to American slaves. Thinking that King George was on their side, many slaves ran away, hoping to get to England—and freedom. Their owners lived in constant fear of a slave revolt.

In 1775, with Revolutionary War battles already fought, Dunmore, the British-appointed governor of Virginia, added to slaveowners' fears by proclaiming that he intended to free rebel-owned slaves who would take up arms against their white owners. By December of that year, about 300 runaway slaves had joined Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment, as the military unit was called. (Ethiopian is an outdated term for black Africans.) Within six months, at least 800 more slaves had joined up with Dunmore. Outraged Virginia lawmakers responded by ordering the death penalty to "all Negro or other Slaves, conspiring to rebel" against their owners.

William Howe (1729–1814), the general in charge of British forces in America, finally put an end to the use of slaves in King George's army. It is impossible to know how many free blacks and slaves joined the British side, but certainly many more would have served if the British had allowed them to. For in a country where talk of freedom was widespread, many blacks were enslaved and would continue to be long after the American Revolution ended in 1783.

Runaway Southern slaves, many of them children, also served in the German military units hired by King George III. Hundreds served the British and Germans as laborers, servants,

drummers, fifers (flute players), and even as soldiers. When the war was over, some former American slaves— along with their wives and children— went to Germany with their employers. Some of the French took advantage of the confusion at war's end to reenslave many blacks and sell them in the West Indies.

Blacks in the postwar years

After the American Revolution ended in 1783, pro-British former slaves could not stay in America. The new United States was still a slaveowning country. Runaway black slaves who had fought for the British became the targets of hatred by white Americans. They could not go to the West Indies because the economy of those islands depended on slave labor; there was no room there for large numbers of free blacks who might stir up the slaves. Nor could they go to London and other major cities in Britain because of the severe economic problems plaguing these areas in the postwar period.

The British felt that the problem could be solved by sending the former slaves to Nova Scotia, the easternmost part of the Canadian wilderness owned by Great Britain. An unknown number of pro-British blacks, together with thousands of British ex-soldiers looking for a new life, descended on the sparsely populated land in the mid-1780s. They were not welcomed warmly by Nova Scotians. Finally, in 1790, a former slave by the name of Thomas Peters sailed to London with a petition signed by several hundred black families. The petition sought assistance from the British government for the blacks living in Nova Scotia. In response, arrangements were made for them to sail from Nova Scotia to the western coast of Africa, where sympathetic English citizens were establishing a safe haven for Britain's poor free blacks.

On January 15, 1792, a fleet of British ships set sail from Nova Scotia's Halifax harbor carrying several thousand people of African descent to the newly founded western African coastal settlement. This settlement, then known as Liberia (meaning "freedom"), is now the nation of Sierra Leone; its capital city is called Freetown. For more than half a century after the first blacks arrived there, many more black Americans would give up hope of obtaining freedom and equality at home and, like thousands before them, set sail for West Africa.

For More Information


Nardo, Don, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Braving the New World:1619–1784: From the Arrival of the Enslaved Africans to the End of the American Revolution. Milestones in Black American History Series. New York: Chelsea House, 1995.


"Black Soldiers Fought for Freedom during the Revolution." Philadelphia Tribune, February 9, 1999.

Web Sites

"History of the Black U.S. Soldier." [Online] Available (accessed on August 2, 1999).



Boatner, Mark M. III. "McCrea Atrocity," "Burgoyne's Proclamation," and "Indians in the Colonial Wars and in the Revolution." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994.

Franklin, Benjamin. Benjamin Franklin: Writings. New York: Library of America, 1987.

Greene, Robert Ewell. Black Defenders of America. Chicago: Johnson Publishing, 1974.

Johnson, Paul. A History of the American People. New York: Harper Collins, 1997.

Lyons, Oren R., and John C. Mohawk, eds. Exiled in the Land of the Free:Democracy, Indian Nations, and the U.S. Constitution. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers, 1992, pp. 102–4, 196, 246, 253, 257–64.

Marrin, Albert. The War for Independence: The Story of the American Revolution. New York: Atheneum, 1988.

Ploski, Harry A., and James Williams, eds. "Blacks in Colonial and Revolutionary America" and "Black Servicemen and the Military Establishment." In Reference Library of Black America, Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 1990, pp. 795–830.

Trevelyan, George Otto. The American Revolution. Edited by Richard B. Morris. New York: David McKay Co., 1964.

Washburn, Wilcomb E. "The American Revolution and Its Aftermath." In The Indian in America. New York: Harper & Row, 1975.

Williams, T. Harry. The History of American Wars from 1745 to 1918. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1981, pp. 3–82.

Web Sites

Selig, Robert A. "Black Soldiers of the Revolution." [Online] Available (accessed on July 14, 1999).

White Views of Native Americans

As uninformed and stereotypical as it sounds to us today, it was common for eighteenth–century Americans to refer to Indians as "savages." Not all colonial Americans held Indians in such low regard, however. Founding Father John Adams, like many other colonists, grew up near Native American families in Massachusetts and considered them good neighbors. Benjamin Franklin admired the Indians and had high praise for the Iroquois Confederacy, whose form of government was the inspiration for the democratic (government by the people) ideals in the Articles of Confederation (1781) and its successor, the Constitution of the United States (1789). In his 1783 essay "Remarks Concerning the Savages of North-America," Franklin wrote: "Savages we call them, because their manners differ from ours, which we think the Perfection of Civility; they think the same of theirs."

Crispus Attucks Dies in the Boston Massacre

Crispus Attucks (c. 1723–1770) has been called the first black American to die for his country. Attucks, who was thought to be of African, Native American, and white ancestry, was probably born on an Indian reservation near Framingham, Massachusetts. The details of his youth are uncertain, but he is believed to have been a Christian, may have once been a slave, and was known to have worked on the Boston docks. The story of his death in the Boston Massacre (see Chapter 5: On the Brink of War [1770–1774]) has become a legend.

According to Black Defenders of America author Robert Ewell Greene, eyewitness accounts of events on the night of March 5, 1770 place Attucks at the head of a mob of "wrathful townsfolk" ready to attack British soldiers. "[C]rying out, 'Let us drive out these ribalds [pronounced RIB-uldz; crude, offensive, unprincipled persons; rascals]. They have no business here,' Attucks and his followers proceeded to assault British soldiers" with snowballs, rocks, and pieces of ice; some sources say that he and about thirty of his sailor friends were armed with heavy clubs.

Attucks and his comrades continued taunting the redcoats. Finally, a riot broke out, and Attucks began assaulting British soldiers with either a club or a gun he had seized in the scuffle. Voices in the crowd cried to the redcoats, "Why don't you fire?" Hearing this, a soldier who had been knocked to the ground opened fire as he arose. Attucks was killed by bullets to the chest.

Newspapers of the day used the incident to illustrate how the British were threatening American liberties, but few people in the colonies defended the rioting. The Sons of Liberty claimed no responsibility for planning it; some Sons, in fact, had urged the crowd to go home. The question remains: Were Attucks and his fallen companions heroes slaughtered in the quest for justice or rioters killed in mob violence?

A Trusted Spy

French soldiers had worked with blacks for years because the French controlled land in Africa. The Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834), a close associate of General George Washington during the American Revolution, enlisted a black Virginian to act as a spy for him. The man was called James Armistead because he was the "property" of a slaveowner named William Armistead. His reports about enemy activities proved so useful, and he won such high praise from Lafayette, that the Virginia legislature eventually granted James his freedom. Lafayette returned to America in 1824 and looked up his old comrade. By that time James was calling himself James Lafayette.

Austin Dabney, Black Soldier in the American Revolution

Austin Dabney was a mulatto (pronounced muh-LAH-toe; a person of mixed white and black [then called Negro] racial heritage) and a slave. Slave status was transferred through mothers to their children. Since his mother was black, it did not matter if Dabney's father were free; it was his fate to be a slave. Dabney was sent to serve in the Revolutionary War in the place of his white owner. (This was a common and legal practice of the day, however unfair it may seem to us today.) He served bravely in the war against the British until the day he was wounded and given up for dead on the battlefield.

On February 4, 1779, while fighting the battle of Kettle Creek, Georgia, Dabney received a crippling musket shot to the thigh. He would have died there if he had not been found and rescued by a white American farmer named Giles Harris. Harris took Dabney to his home and nursed him back to health. In return, Austin Dabney—at this point a free black man—devoted the rest of his life to the Harris family, working for Harris and his children on the farm and even saving up his money to help finance a law school education for Harris's eldest son. Dabney later received a land grant for his service in the war. He and the Harrises are believed to have farmed that land together for several years before moving to Georgia's Pike County in 1826. Dabney died in Zebulon, Georgia.

Sources: Robert Ewell Greene, Black Defenders of America, 1775–1973. Chicago: Johnson Publishing Company, 1974, pp. 8–9. From George R. Gilmer, Sketches of the First Settlers of Upper Georgia. Baltimore: Baltimore Genealogical Publishing Co.,1965. Courtesy of Georgia Department of Archives and History, Atlanta, GA. Also see Scott, Carole E. "Georgia's Black Revolutionary Patriots." [Online] Available (accessed on January 19, 2000).

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Native Americans and Blacks in the American Revolution

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Native Americans and Blacks in the American Revolution