American Indian Resistance to White Expansion

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American Indian Resistance to White Expansion

North American Indians had been accustomed to dealing with Europeans long before the United States came into existence. For two centuries Indians traded, intermarried, allied with, and fought against the various groups of newcomers. The people of the United States, however, represented something new in their seemingly limitless appetite for Indian land. For many native people, a long struggle to contain this aggressively expansionist nation consumed the eras of the Revolution and new Republic.

a war for indian independence

Many Indians fought in the Revolution, most of them on the side of the British. In joining they acted less out of loyalty to the king than from an awareness that American settlers threatened their land and freedom. Some Cherokees, for example, saw the Revolution as an opportunity to punish squatters and regain territory lost to Virginia and the Carolinas over the previous decade. Against the advice of older leaders, Cherokee warriors began raiding backcountry settlements soon after the start of the conflict. In the Ohio Valley, Delaware and Shawnee leaders at first tried to keep their people neutral. Americans, however, treated both tribes as enemies, and soon Delaware and Shawnee warriors accepted British offers of alliance. For the Iroquois Six Nations, the Revolution became a civil war. The Mohawks, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas joined the British, whereas the Oneidas and Tuscaroras sided with the Americans.

The Revolution brought terrible destruction to Indian country. In the South, Americans responded to Cherokee raiding with punitive expeditions that burned crops and villages and drove whole communities into flight. In the North, Britain's Iroquois allies suffered similar forays, including John Sullivan's infamous 1779 raid, in which Americans burned some forty Iroquois towns. Yet for all of the damage, the fighting was inconclusive. When invading armies left, native people often returned, and in 1783 Indians still controlled most of the interior. The Treaty of Paris, signed that year, ended the Revolutionary War and granted the United States all territory east of the Mississippi, but from an Indian perspective this was a fraud. The British had no right to give away these tribal homelands. Americans claimed the interior, but Indians possessed it. In those circumstances, conflict was bound to be renewed.

indian unity against the new republic

Soon after the Revolution ended, the United States began pressuring tribes for land cessions. Believing they were dealing with conquered peoples, American treaty commissioners tried to dictate new territorial borders. They worked to gain possession of Indian country piece by piece, signing agreements with single tribes and, if that failed, with particular factions or individuals. American citizens, meanwhile, pushed westward, with settlers and land speculators ignoring any and all boundaries. In response, northern Indian leaders attempted to unite their peoples in common defense. The Mohawk Joseph Brant, the Shawnee leader Blue Jacket, and others built a multitribal alliance, rejecting the earlier treaties and insisting that future land cessions be made only with the tribes' unanimous consent. In 1786 they informed Congress that they wanted the Ohio River to be a firm boundary between the new Republic and the Indian nations. That arrangement, they suggested, would be fair to everyone and would promote peaceful coexistence. If the Americans continued to demand land beyond the Ohio, however, the united tribes would fight for their homes.

Confederation was not a new strategy. Before the Revolution, Indians had attempted similar alliances, the most famous being the movement named for the Ottawa leader Pontiac. In 1763 this coalition of Great Lakes and Ohio Valley tribes attempted to rid the Northwest of the British. Indians seized seven military posts and killed some 2,500 soldiers and settlers before disease and the British army broke the "rebellion." The confederacy of the 1780s reflected what was, by then, a well-established political tradition.

The Indians' effort to contain American expansion led to war, and for a time the confederacy had the better of the fighting. On two occasions multitribal forces led by Blue Jacket and the Miamis' Little Turtle defeated invading American armies—in 1790 near modern-day Fort Wayne, Indiana, and the next year in northwestern Ohio. In the wake of those victories, however, the confederacy began to splinter, as some leaders (among them Joseph Brant) advocated negotiation over continued war. In 1794 General Anthony Wayne led a third invasion, besting an outnumbered Indian force at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in northwest Ohio. That defeat broke what was left of the Indian alliance, and in 1795, in the Treaty of Greenville, tribal representatives assented to large new land cessions in return for American promises that their remaining territory would be secure.

prophecy and resistance

While white farmers sought to take Indians' land, other Americans pursued their minds and souls. Missionaries, teachers, and government agents worked to "civilize" native peoples, urging them to change their economies and abandon their religions and languages. The men and women involved in this effort assumed that when confronted by a "superior" society, Indians would be destroyed if they did not join the new order. They also anticipated that as Native Americans discarded their old ways they would become willing to part with much of their land. The eradication of Indian cultures, they believed, would promote the growth of the Republic while rescuing native people from annihilation.

Few Indians accepted the logic of the civilization campaign. They adopted specific elements of Euro-American cultures that they found attractive, but they seldom sought the kind of wholesale transformation desired by agents and missionaries. Some Indians, meanwhile, responded to cultural pressure by actively rejecting white ways. This resistance often took religious form. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, prophets appeared in many tribes, holy men who taught that the acceptance of Euro-American culture had weakened the Indians and angered the Creator. Indians needed to purify themselves, casting away at least some foreign practices and ideas, if they were to restore order to their lives and communities. Together, the prophets represented an ongoing Indian effort to regain spiritual power and autonomy in a world unbalanced by colonization.

Although some prophets opposed warfare, others played crucial roles in maintaining the armed defense of Indian land. Pontiac's movement, for example, drew inspiration from the Delaware prophet Neolin. Something similar occurred in the early nineteenth century with the last, and most famous, effort to create an Indian confederacy. Like other holy men before him, the Shawnee Prophet, Tenskwatawa, taught that Indians must reject Euro-American religion, goods, and economic practices if they were to regain the favor of the Creator. This message, which he began preaching in 1805, won him followers from a variety of northwestern tribes. Tenskwatawa's brother, Tecumseh, shaped that religious revival into a new movement for Indian unity. Like the previous generation of leaders, he urged an end to land cessions and criticized chiefs who continued to sign American treaties. He traveled throughout the interior, inviting tribes to join together to restrain the United States.

As in the 1790s, the effort to create an Indian confederacy ended in war. In 1811 an army led by William Henry Harrison marched against Prophets-town, Tenskwatawa's village, while Tecumseh was away. In the Battle of Tippecanoe, the prophet's followers ambushed the Americans as they camped near the village; but Harrison's troops drove the attackers back, forcing the Indians to abandon Prophetstown. The following year, the Indians' conflict with the United States merged with the War of 1812. Tecumseh allied with the British, hoping to use the war to end American expansion. The Indians enjoyed some military success, but when the fighting closed the United States retained possession of the Northwest. Tecumseh himself was killed in 1813 at the Battle of the Thames in southeast Ontario. With his death, and in the absence of a British victory, the last movement to create an eastern Indian alliance unraveled.

different strategies

In the South several tribes adopted a different path. As Tecumseh worked to form a confederacy, Cherokees began building a centralized political system for their tribe. This was partly a response to American land hunger. Tribal leaders hoped that a strong national government would prevent individuals and faction leaders from negotiating their own treaties. It also reflected the Cherokees' accommodation to Euro-American culture. By the 1810s and 1820s, many Cherokees had adopted at least some of their white neighbors' ways, in particular economic activities such as raising livestock and spinning cloth. A segment of the tribe, meanwhile, undertook a more thorough change, entering the market economy as owners of businesses and plantations and seeking Euro-American education for their children. This latter group led the move toward political centralization, although often with the agreement of more traditional Cherokees. The culmination of the trend came with the framing of the 1827 Cherokee Constitution, which created a government modeled on that of the United States and declared that government to be the only authority capable of selling Cherokee land. Creeks likewise began centralization, particularly after the Creek War of 1813–1814. The national council took control of tribal law, drafting and enforcing national statutes. Politics, however, remained far more decentralized than among the Cherokees, and the Creeks did not adopt a national constitution until the 1860s.

By the 1820s the Cherokees had become one of the most important targets of the removal policy, the United States' campaign to persuade the major eastern tribes to trade their lands for new homes west of the Mississippi. The state of Georgia demanded, with increasing fervor, that the federal government end Indian possession of land within its borders, citing an 1802 agreement in which the federal government had promised to do just that. Federal officials urged the Cherokees to cooperate, offering them new lands and pledges of future security, and some did choose to migrate. By the 1820s, however, those who remained were determined to preserve their homes, and the United States faced the choice of either reneging on its promise to Georgia or violating its treaties with the Cherokees in order to force the tribe out.

The balance in this standoff tipped in Georgia's favor with the presidential election of 1828. Andrew Jackson was a longtime advocate of the removal policy, and Georgia's leaders took his victory as an invitation to force their claim to Cherokee land. Soon after the election, the state legislature passed an act to absorb tribal territory into existing Georgia counties. It then extended state law over the Cherokees and established a process to parcel out the tribal lands to Georgia citizens. The Cherokees responded by asking the federal government to protect the tribe, as promised in the treaties. The new president, however, refused to act.

Some in the South expected violence, but the Cherokees chose different methods of resistance. Led by Principal Chief John Ross, they lobbied Congress, seeking allies among Jackson's political opponents. They conducted what modern Americans would call public relations campaigns, appealing in particular to opinion in the North. They received aid in these efforts from reformers and philanthropists, including missionaries with ties to the tribe. Using the Cherokees' reputation as "civilized Indians," Ross and his allies argued that the Cherokees had done everything Americans ever asked and wanted only to be left unmolested to continue their progress. When the Jackson administration ignored their appeals, they sought to compel federal action through the Supreme Court, a strategy that resulted in two of the most important cases in Native American legal history: Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia (1832). In the second of these cases, Chief Justice John Marshall affirmed the Cherokees' right to self-government and acknowledged that, under the treaties, the federal government had a duty to protect the tribe from Georgia and its citizens.

The Cherokees won the day in court, and they gained a great many sympathetic allies. They did not, however, defeat Georgia and Jackson. The president ignored the Supreme Court's decision, and his lieutenants continued to press the Cherokees for a removal treaty. In this increasingly desperate situation, some Cherokees broke with the tribal government and began to advocate emigration. In 1835, arguing that the battle had been lost, this "Treaty Party" negotiated and signed a removal agreement. The Cherokee government continued to resist, leaders insisting (correctly) that the Treaty Party did not represent the tribal majority. In 1838, however, federal troops began to implement the agreement, gathering Cherokees together for the long journey west. By the time the last group arrived in Indian Territory (today, eastern Oklahoma) in early 1839, at least four thousand Cherokees had died either in camps prior to departure or while traveling the "Trail of Tears."

In the end, the Cherokees, like Tecumseh's confederacy, failed to keep Americans at bay. In the twentieth century, however, it would be the Cherokees' methods that would help Native Americans regain some of their property and autonomy. Political organizing, public relations, and the law would be the weapons of the new warriors.

See alsoExpansion; Fallen Timbers, Battle of; Jackson, Andrew; Marshall, John; Missionary and Bible Tract Societies; Pontiac's War; Proclamation of 1763; Prophecy; Thames, Battle of the; Tippecanoe, Battle of; Treaty of Paris .


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Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745–1815. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

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Andrew Denson

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American Indian Resistance to White Expansion

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American Indian Resistance to White Expansion