American Indians: Middle Atlantic

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American Indians: Middle Atlantic

In 1830 residents of the mid-Atlantic region, led by New Jersey senator Theodore Frelinghuysen, protested loudly against President Andrew Jackson's program to remove Native Americans from the South. There was some irony in this, since the events of the previous seventy-five years had done much to relegate the native population of the mid-Atlantic to small reservations surrounded by white settlers or impel them to emigrate to the West or Canada.

In 1754 western and central New York (the Iroquois heartland) and central and western Pennsylvania were still under native control. The Six Nations Iroquois Confederacy held the balance of power between Great Britain and France, and they manipulated it to their own benefit vis-à-vis both European empires and other native groups. The Iroquois had settled Delawares and other groups fleeing conflict or loss of land on their vulnerable southern flank, in Pennsylvania and southern New York. Although these communities retained considerable autonomy, the Iroquois supervised their formal relations with colonial authorities.

seven years' war

Native power and territorial control eroded significantly as a result of the Seven Years' War (1756–1763). Since the French were fewer in number than the British and their colonial effort was predicated upon engaging Indians in trade rather than settling on their land, they were able to win greater native support during the war. The Indians proved crucial allies, without whom the French would have been unable to defend their North American empire. French-allied Indians, including Shawnees, Senecas, and some Delawares, devastated the frontiers of British America and even struck as close to the coast as New Jersey. However, their prowess was not sufficient to overcome British superiority in numbers or power, and Great Britain was eventually able to turn the tide. Mohawks and New Jersey–based Delawares, both keenly aware of the power of the British, were among the native groups who assisted them.

The British victory created a serious problem for native peoples in the region, since with the French threat removed, there were few reasons left for the British to court them. The flow of goods into Indian country diminished accordingly. The brutality of the war and the preponderance of Indians on one side also contributed to heightened consciousness of racial difference on the part of both white settlers and Indians. Whites proved increasingly willing to attack Native Americans regardless of whether they were friendly or hostile. The most dramatic example was the killing of fourteen friendly Conestogas under government protection by an angry mob at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in December 1763.

Indians' own heightened sense of racial solidarity permitted them to downplay tribal divisions and act with unprecedented coordination in surprising the British in 1763. Inspired in part by Neolin, a Delaware prophet who repudiated European ways, an alliance composed primarily of Indians from the Ohio Valley and Upper Great Lakes launched a series of attacks on forts and settlements across the frontier, including many in western Pennsylvania. Although the Indians were defeated in this conflict, known as Pontiac's War (May–November 1763), a partial resumption of British trade and tribute followed.

the proclamation line

After the Seven Years' War, the British government hoped to limit tensions between Indians and whites and thereby avoid further military expenditures. The centerpiece of its policy was the Proclamation Line (1763) that limited settlement to the area east of the Appalachian crest until the crown negotiated cessions from the Indians. However, because the Proclamation Line was perceived as restraining economic opportunities for the rural colonists (not to mention wealthy urban land speculators), it contributed to their alienation from Great Britain. The line was promptly pushed westward in 1768 by Superintendent of Indian Affairs Sir William Johnson and the Six Nations at the Treaty of Fort Stanwix. The Six Nations ceded much of the Mohawk homeland, some Oneida territory, and Seneca hunting territories. In general, however, the cession allowed the Iroquois to preserve the majority of their homeland at the expense of the Delawares, Shawnees, and others in Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky.

the revolution

If the concessions at Fort Stanwix suggest the difficult position in which Native Americans found themselves, the Revolution (1775–1783) restored their leverage. As with the Seven Years' War, diplomacy and interest led most Indians to align themselves with the side that was more likely to limit settler expansion. Four of the six Iroquois nations supported the British. U.S. actions such as the campaign of General John Sullivan in 1779, which burned nearly every village in western Iroquoia, and the murder in 1782 of over ninety unarmed Christian Indians (mostly Delawares) at Gnadenhutten, in the future state of Ohio, only made Indian support of the British more lopsided. Iroquois raids were so successful that the frontier of white settlement in upstate New York was rolled back to Schenectady, only sixteen miles from Albany and the Hudson River. The Oneidas were the only native nation from the region to provide the United States substantial support for the duration of the war.

Despite the military contributions made by its native allies, Great Britain failed to make any provisions for them in the Treaty of Paris (1783). This permitted the United States to proclaim the Indians to be conquered peoples. At a gathering convened in the autumn of 1784 to settle affairs between the United States and the Six Nations, delegates of the latter were forced to sign away their claims to Pennsylvania and Ohio lands in the second Treaty of Fort Stanwix.

decline of the iroquois

Eager to defend its claim to Iroquois lands against a rival assertion by Massachusetts, New York began treating directly with the Iroquois beginning in the 1780s. By 1790, New York signed treaties with the Oneidas (1785 and 1788), Onondagas (1788), and Cayugas (1790) that transferred millions of acres of Iroquois land to New York State. The Senecas conveyed a large parcel to private speculators in 1788. The fact that these cessions involved individual nations of the Iroquois Confederacy reflected the weakening of that entity. Wartime division and powerlessness in the face of settler encroachment led many Iroquois to emigrate to Canada and Ohio. A parallel Iroquois confederacy emerged in Upper Canada.

In 1794, the U.S. government and Six Nations signed the Treaty of Canandaigua. This treaty returned some lands ceded in 1784 in exchange for the Seneca relinquishment of their claim to Presqu'Isle in Pennsylvania. The treaty provided the Six Nations with annuities and technical assistance to help them adjust to European-style plough agriculture. Although the Canandaigua treaty also guaranteed that reserved lands would not be alienated except at treaties held under federal authority, it did not put an end to Indian land loss. In the Treaty of Big Tree in 1797, the Senecas traded millions of acres for $100,000 and reservations totalling 200,000 acres. Pressure to shrink even these reservations continued, abating during the War of 1812 (in which most of the region's Indians remained neutral or supported the United States) and resuming when canals raised land values across the state.

emigration, reservations, and survival

Reservation life demanded great adjustments on the part of Native Americans. It was particularly disorienting for men, whose traditional hunting and warring activities were sharply curtailed. This challenge was met spiritually by prophets, of which the most renowned was a Seneca named Handsome Lake (c. 1735–1815). He experienced a series of visions that served as the basis of a new theology. He preached against alcohol, witchcraft, and neglect of ceremony. Although Handsome Lake's endorsement of male plough agriculture and the nuclear family helped men adapt to their new context, it undercut traditional sources of women's authority such as the extended family.

As white settlement spread to every corner of the region, the adaptations of Indians newly limited to reservations resembled those of native groups living further east who had faced similar pressures earlier. Some attempted to lease tribal lands to whites. Some also took up small-scale farming or became laborers, usually domestics or farm hands (although whaling remained a popular choice for Native American men on Long Island). Some manufactured and peddled brooms and baskets.

Others decided not to stay and moved west or to Canada. The Ogden Land Company, which held the preemption rights to most of the Indian reservations of upstate New York, provided financial and political support for Indian emigration. About 150 Oneidas had already emigrated to the vicinity of Green Bay, Wisconsin, before 1830, and more would follow. Nevertheless, about 4,000 Iroquois remained in New York State at the end of the 1820s. Also remaining were scattered tribes such as the Montauks on Long Island whose population numbered in the dozens or fewer. In addition, Native Americans continued to live in the region as families or individuals, and many intermingled with African Americans and others. Of these, some maintained an Indian identity, at least privately, while others did not.

By 1829, Indians of the mid-Atlantic had lost the vast majority of their lands. While well over half the native population departed, others adapted to life in the midst of white settlement. Although further erosion of their land base would ensue, the adaptations made during this early period formed the basis for Native American persistence in the region into the twenty-first century.

See alsoFrench and Indian War, Battles and Diplomacy; French and Indian War, Consequences of; Iroquois Confederacy; Pontiac's War; Proclamation of 1763 .


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Karim M. Tiro

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American Indians: Middle Atlantic

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American Indians: Middle Atlantic