American Indians: British Policies

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American Indians: British Policies

Between 1754 and 1829, British policies toward native North Americans sought three key objectives: recruitment and supply of native military allies; regulation of trade and diplomacy; and protection of native peoples' territorial integrity through negotiated settlement boundary lines. Although these policies played a crucial role in the British victory over France in the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), they rapidly fell into disfavor among the settler population of British North America after 1763. By 1776, colonists' discontent with imperial oversight of Indian affairs constituted a significant grievance against Great Britain. In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War (1775–1783), the ongoing influence of the British Indian Department in Canada with native peoples in the United States was viewed by many Americans as a threat to the survival of the Republic itself. Only after the Treaty of Ghent (1814) ended the War of 1812 (1812–1815) did the British cease to pursue alliances with Native Americans as a means of checking American expansionism.

late colonial years

The Albany Congress of 1754 witnessed the first call by imperial reformers for centralizing control of Indian affairs in British North America. General Edward Braddock commissioned William Johnson as his agent to the Six Nations (Iroquois) in 1755, and in 1756 the crown established northern and southern superintendencies for the colonies. South Carolina merchant Edmond Atkin became the first superintendent of the Southern Department; William Johnson headed the Northern Department. Leaving Indian affairs primarily in the hands of locally constituted bodies in individual colonies marked a dramatic change from past practice. After 1755, the crown sought to rationalize and extend its control over Indian policymaking, employing the superintendents to integrate Native Americans into a multinational North American empire in which all constituent peoples were at once protected by and subordinated to the crown.

During the Seven Years' War, the administrative reforms in British Indian policy had minimal impact on military affairs. Neither Johnson nor Atkin proved successful in imposing their authority over the Iroquois or the Cherokees (the two largest British-allied Indian nations). As in prior colonial conflicts, native warriors dictated the extent of their participation in British military campaigns notwithstanding threats, cajoling, and lavish outlays of cash, arms, and supplies from the superintendents. The critical turn for British Indian policy came at the Treaty of Easton in October 1758, when Pennsylvania officials conceded a settlement boundary line (at the Allegheny Mountains) to hostile western Algonquian nations then allied to France. This promise, which became fundamental to subsequent British Indian policy, encouraged native peoples to withdraw military support from France. The lack of Indian allies to pursue offensive frontier raiding forced the French into a defensive posture, which contributed to the British conquest of Canada in 1760.

The expansion of British territorial jurisdiction in North America after the Seven Years' War created conflicting needs to forge diplomatic and economic ties to many native peoples previously connected to France and Spain on the one hand, and to economize Indian Department expenditures on the other. Provision for a settlement boundary line in the British Crown's Proclamation of 1763 was intended to protect native peoples' territorial integrity from settler encroachment, but it also antagonized many squatters and colonial land speculators with claims to lands beyond the boundary. The British military presence in the trans-Appalachian West proved incapable of stemming the postwar movement of settlers into Indian territory, forcing Johnson and John Stuart (who replaced Atkin in 1762) to continually revise the northern and southern boundary lines through treaty negotiations with influential tribal groups between 1763 and 1773. In 1764 Johnson proposed a comprehensive "Plan for the Future Management of Indian Affairs," which advocated confining all Indian trade to licensed merchants at military posts operating from a fixed price schedule and official renewal of the diplomatic custom of regular distributions of military supplies and material goods (or "presents") to allied native nations. However, the British Parliament's repeal of the Stamp Act in 1766 eliminated the colonial revenues needed to fund Johnson's plan. Parliament took further steps toward the deregulation of Indian affairs in 1768, restoring control over the Indian trade to individual colonies and relocating the bulk of the military establishment from the scattered interior posts to cities on the colonial seaboard to deter civilian unrest.

Mounting colonial protests against crown efforts after 1768 to raise revenues to fund the costs of frontier defense compounded problems of Indian policy. In the vacuum of imperial authority in the West, settlers and speculators continued to encroach on Native American lands; employed questionable techniques to clear native title in lieu of treaties; and murdered Indians, who often responded in kind. Even in moments of crisis, settlers, not Indians, enjoyed the support of crown officials. For example, in 1774 Lord Dunmore, the governor of Virginia, opposed the efforts of the Shawnees to retain hunting grounds east of the Ohio River. At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775, British officials sought to enlist Native American assistance in suppressing the colonists' rebellion. This led an outraged Thomas Jefferson to decry King George III's intended use of "merciless Indian savages" in the Declaration of Independence in 1776.

from 1776 through 1815

During the Revolutionary War, the British enjoyed far more success recruiting Native American allies than did the Continental Congress. An experienced diplomatic corps, a steady flow of arms and ammunition, and continued promises to protect native lands earned the British the allegiance of an estimated thirteen thousand native warriors over the course of the conflict. Yet despite these impressive numbers, British generals hesitated to make full use of allied native warriors in the early years of the conflict, fearing that any overt appearance of support for "atrocities" inflicted by Indians might hinder efforts to reintegrate the rebellious colonists into the empire. For their part, Indians allied to Great Britain during the Revolutionary War placed their own objectives first, fighting a proxy war against settler expansion with British supplies. The significance of the eventual American victory in the Revolutionary War extended beyond the failure of the British to secure territorial protections for their native allies in the Treaty of Paris (1783). Americans used the fact that Indians had chosen the wrong side and lost as justification for punitive treatment of them in the aftermath of the conflict.

After 1783 the British provided material support for allied Native Americans (including arms and ammunition) in the trans-Appalachian region in order to preserve their territory as a buffer zone against the expansion-oriented United States. Operating from Great Lakes posts such as Detroit and Michilimackinac, retained by the crown in violation of the Treaty of Paris (on the grounds of illegal American confiscations of Loyalist property), British Indian agents sustained highly effective Native American resistance to settler encroachment for a decade after 1783 along a frontier stretching from modern Ohio to Florida. However, the refusal of the British garrison at Fort Miami (near modern Toledo, Ohio) to provide refuge to allied Indians retreating from American general Anthony Wayne's army sealed their defeat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers on 20 August 1794. The ratification of Jay's Treaty with Great Britain by the United States in 1795 prompted the British evacuation of the Great Lakes posts, creating further distance between erstwhile native allies and the material support of the British Crown.

British fear of an American invasion of Upper Canada (modern Ontario) in the aftermath of the Chesapeake affair of June 1807 motivated imperial officials to renew ties to the native peoples bordering on the province. The reappearance of the British as a potentially viable military partner, however, offered substantial encouragement to native leaders such as Tecumseh, who employed promises of British assistance in his efforts to recruit a pan-Indian army to oppose American settler expansion. Native Americans played crucial roles as British allies during the War of 1812, but the American naval victory on Lake Erie in September 1813 prompted the British to withdraw from Fort Malden (modern Amherstburg, Ontario) and other advanced Great Lakes posts. Allied Native Americans, who remembered 1783 and 1794, expressed bitter opposition to this decision, since they recognized it as another British abandonment of their territorial interests. The Treaty of Ghent of 1814 ended the war by restoring the 1811 status quo ante bellum. Although the United States did not implement this provision, never again would the British pursue offensive alliances with Native Americans against the United States.

after 1815

Although the newly elected President Andrew Jackson worried in 1829 about the British "stirring up" of soon-to-be-removed southeastern Indian nations in the United States, official British Indian policy had long since shed its aggressive component. During the post-1815 rapprochement between Britain and the United States, British Indian Department officials made clear in a series of public Indian councils that they would no longer assist or turn a blind eye to native hostilities against the United States. For six decades after 1754, Native Americans allied with Great Britain in hopes of securing their interests against an aggressively expansionist settler population. After 1783, however, power dynamics in North America east of the Mississippi River led the British to treat native peoples as expendable inferiors in international diplomacy with the United States. Increasingly after 1783, Britain looked to North America for markets and raw materials, not for Indian allies or the furs they traded. Although the image of perfidious British Indian agents inciting "savages" to terrorize innocent frontier inhabitants persisted in the American mind-set, British Indian policy after 1815 closely resembled that of the United States insofar as it attempted to change those belonging to independent Native American nations into Christian citizenfarmers occupying bounded spaces.

See alsoFallen Timbers, Battle of; French and Indian War, Battles and Diplomacy; French and Indian War, Consequences of; Ghent, Treaty of; Jay's Treaty; Treaty of Paris; War of 1812 .


Allen, Robert S. His Majesty's Indian Allies: British Indian Policy in the Defence of Canada, 1774–1815. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1992.

Calloway, Colin G. Crown and Calumet: British-Indian Relations, 1783–1815. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

Hall, Anthony J. The American Empire and the Fourth World. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 2003.

Snapp, J. Russell. John Stuart and the Struggle for Empire on the Southern Frontier. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.

Sosin, Jack M. Whitehall and the Wilderness: The Middle West in British Colonial Policy, 1760–1775. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1961.

University of the State of New York. Division of Archives and History. The Papers of Sir William Johnson. 14 vols. Albany: University of the State of New York, 1921–1965.

Jon Parmenter

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American Indians: British Policies

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American Indians: British Policies