American Indians: Old Northwest

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American Indians: Old Northwest

In the early decades of the eighteenth century, much of the Old Northwest (the area north and west of the Ohio River, encompassing the present-day states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and a portion of Minnesota) underwent an extensive indigenous repopulation. Driven to the far western reaches of the region (or, in the case of the Shawnees of southern Ohio, to the southeast) by the Iroquois during the Beaver Wars of the previous century, the surviving elements of the northwestern tribes returned to their traditional area homes in response to Iroquois peace initiatives in the early eighteenth century. These groups were joined in the region by eastern tribes fleeing white encroachment, disease, and ongoing Iroquois raids from the north and east.

Among the larger tribal groups inhabiting the Old Northwest by mid-century were the Ojibways, settled primarily around Lake Superior; the Ottawas, located in the straits region of present-day Michigan; the Potawatomis of southern Michigan; the remnants of the Huron nation (also known as Wyandots), settled around Detroit and northern Lake Erie; the Delawares (migrants from Pennsylvania) of south central and central Ohio; the Shawnees (also migrants from the east) of southern Ohio and Indiana; the Miamis, settled in northwestern Ohio and northern Indiana; the Illinois; and the Winnebagos of present-day Wisconsin. Most of the region's estimated 60,000 to 80,000 natives were of Algonquian stock (the main exceptions being the Iroquoianspeaking Hurons (or Wyandots) and the Siouan Winnebagos) and practiced, with varied emphasis, a mixed pattern of relatively settled horticulture combined with seasonal hunting and gathering.

french and indian war

The northwestern territory where these tribes settled rapidly became a highly contested borderland between rival European powers. As France and Great Britain maneuvered for control over the rich fur resources of the Ohio Country and the interior of the American continent, hostilities broke out in 1754 when Virginia militia, under the command of George Washington, failed in their attempt to dislodge the French from the headwaters of the Ohio River near present-day Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Eager to strike back at those who had driven them from their eastern homes, many of the Ohio natives, along with the stridently pro-French tribes of the Great Lakes, joined the fray against the British and their American colonists, playing a critical role in the defeat of British forces under the command of General Edward Braddock in 1765, and staging ongoing raids throughout the Pennsylvania and Virginia backcountry. Although the war began well for the French and their northwestern native allies, defeats at Quebec (1759) and Montreal (1760) paved the way for British victory and the loss of France's mainland American colonial empire.

The natives' long-standing accommodationist strategy of pitting one European power against the other was no longer viable. As a result the British commander in chief in America, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, who was also motivated by personal disdain for the natives, drastically altered British Indian policy. He confined the fur trade to army posts; banned the sale of weapons, ammunition (necessary tools in the fur trade), and alcohol to the Indians; and ended the tradition of diplomatic gift giving (originally adopted in adherence to the native concept of reciprocity). Stunned by the unexpected French abandonment, the northwestern tribes bristled under Amherst's insulting and culturally demeaning policies. Additionally, a steady stream of westward-moving white settlers and the British occupation of abandoned French posts in the west fueled native fear and animosity. Inspired by the teachings of a Delaware prophet named Neolin, who preached renunciation of white culture and a return to traditional lifestyles, many northwestern Indians, such as the Ottawa chief Pontiac, embraced a more radical, oppositional philosophy and turned their backs on accommodation with whites. The resulting conflict, referred to as Pontiac's Rebellion or Pontiac's War (1763), failed in its primary objective of ridding the region of any British and American presence. Nonetheless, it did prompt an alteration of British policy culminating in the ouster of Amherst and his replacement by General Thomas Gage, the appointment of two regional (northern and southern) superintendents of Indian relations, and the creation of a demarcation line separating Indians and colonists designed to stop settler encroachment into the region. Moreover, the conflict, coming as it did on the heels of French withdrawal from the region and the collapse of the complex web of layered Indian and European alliances, also delineated a clear racial fault line in the northwest between Indian and white.

The Northwestern Indians' hopes that the boundary line might hold and that native autonomy might become a reality, however, were rapidly dashed. In 1768, the Six Nation Iroquois, intent on preserving their New York homeland, ceded their tenuous claim to western lands south and east of the Ohio River in the Treaty of Fort Stanwix. Conspicuously absent from the negotiations were the tribes—the Cherokees and Shawnees—actually inhabiting the region. Equally problematic for the local tribes were the competing claims of Pennsylvania and Virginia to the disputed region. The intense intercolonial rivalry led to numerous attacks on local Indians and in 1774 to open warfare between Virginia, aggressively seeking to preempt Pennsylvania claims to western lands, and the Shawnees in Lord Dunmore's War. The ensuing Treaty of Camp Charlotte (1774) forced Shawnee recognition of Virginia's claim to Kentucky.

the revolutionary war and the northwest

As Lord Dunmore's War drew to its close, the imperial struggle between Great Britain and its American colonists reached a heightened level, spilling into open warfare in April 1775. Among the grievances cited by the Americans in making their case for independence was the ministry's concerted effort to deny white migration onto western lands and its alleged encouragement of Indian raiding along the frontier.

The Northwestern tribes initially approached the revolutionary crisis with a great deal of caution, with most attempting to remain neutral in the conflict. Sustained diplomatic and economic pressure, along with the recognition that the war was also a conflict for native land, however, persuaded many western tribes to side with the British and to wage their own war for freedom. Among the areas hardest hit by the conflict was Ohio. There American and British agents worked tirelessly to persuade the Delawares and Shawnees to take up arms. Despite assuming a neutral stance, the Delawares and Shawnees faced continued American depredations—the murder of the pro-American Delaware Chief White Eyes (1778), the massacre of pacifist Moravian Delawares at Gnadenhutten (1782), and the killing of the Shawnee Chief Cornstalk while under a flag of truce (1777). As a result, by war's end members of both tribes were actively engaged in the struggle against the Americans.

war for ohio

As British and American diplomats conducted talks to end the war, the northwestern tribes found themselves in a familiar position—without representation. Indeed, the ensuing Treaty of Paris (1783) completely disregarded Indian interests and resulted in the unauthorized cession of their homelands by their wartime allies to a now independent United States. American officials quickly made it clear to the Northwestern tribes that they considered them conquered peoples and that they were to submit to American authority or perish. In light of the altered circumstances, elements of the western tribes met with American officials at Fort Stanwix (1784) in New York, Fort McIntosh (1785) in Pennsylvania, and Fort Finney (1786) in Ohio. Under great pressure, they recognized American sovereignty and ceded large tracts of land, including lands in the Ohio country, to cement the peace. The Confederation Congress followed up on the cessions with laws providing for the structured survey and sale of the newly acquired lands and, with the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, by organizing the area as the Northwest Territory. White Americans swarmed into the region.

Large segments of the western native population, however, refused to recognize the cessions as legitimate and held fast to the idea of an Ohio River boundary between white and Indian. Encouraged by the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, the northwestern tribes forged a confederation that refused to accept treaties signed by individual tribes and pledged itself to resisting American settlement in Ohio. Violence was not long in coming. In 1790 and 1791 American armies (the first commanded by Josiah Harmar and the second by Arthur St. Clair) invaded Indian country intent on subduing the confederation. Both armies were decimated by confederation warriors led by the Miami Chief Little Turtle and the Shawnee Blue Jacket. In spite of their success, however, the confederation began to unravel as Brant recommended reaching a settlement with American authorities. While the western tribes debated the merits of continued resistance or compromise, the Americans raised a new army, placing it under the command of General "Mad" Anthony Wayne. Indian factionalism played into Wayne's hands; in 1794 his Legion marched into the heart of the northwest. Confronting a reduced Indian force on the Maumee River near present-day Toledo, Ohio, Wayne's army drove the natives from the field (the Indians were then denied refuge at a nearby British fort) and then proceeded to destroy native villages and crops in the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The following year, Wayne extracted a promise of peace and vast cessions of land from the natives in the Treaty of Greenville, thus opening the door to unimpeded access to most of Ohio.

tecumseh and tenskwatawa

With peace at hand, American officials stepped up their effort to "civilize" the western tribes by converting them to Christianity, recasting traditional gender roles, and reorganizing native life around intensive agriculture. The rigorous pressure on the western tribes and the assault on traditional life helped to spawn one final effort, led by the Shawnee brothers Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh, to build a united native front in the northwest. Inspired by a visionary trance in 1805, Tenskwatawa (also known as the Shawnee Prophet) renounced his previous life of drunkenness and debauchery and began to preach a messianic message urging native peoples to abandon alcohol and to reject Christianity and all things white. Tenskwatawa's religious vision was spread by his brother Tecumseh, who added a plea for Indian unity in resisting white expansion. The combination was a potent one, and its success frightened American officials. In response, in 1811 the American army under General William Henry Harrison launched a preemptive attack on the prophet's settlement on Tippecanoe Creek, Indiana. The Americans' victory in the Battle of Tippecanoe dealt the prophet and Tecumseh's confederation efforts a blow. Tecumseh's subsequent death at the Battle of the Thames (1813) during the War of 1812 destroyed what was left of the movement.

With the resistance movement broken, American authorities redoubled their efforts to "civilize" the tribes, concentrating them onto small "reservations" of land and exploring the possibility of relocating the tribes to new lands west of the Mississippi River (lands acquired through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803). It was argued that the natives would be insulated there from the vices and pressures of white society and free to advance at their own pace. This policy, known as removal, became the key component of President Andrew Jackson's Indian policy in the early 1830s and eventually resulted in the forced relocation of most of the native peoples of the lower northwest (Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois) to Indian Territory (Oklahoma).

See alsoFrench and Indian War; Fur and Pelt Trade; Northwest; Northwest and Southwest Ordinances; Pontiac's War; Proclamation of 1763; Thames, Battle of the; Tippecanoe, Battle of; Treaty of Paris .


Dowd, Gregory Evans. War under Heaven: Pontiac, the Indian Nations, and the British Empire. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

Hinderaker, Eric, and Peter C. Mancall. At the Edge of Empire: The Backcountry in British North America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003.

McConnell, Michael N. A Country Between: The Upper Ohio Valley and Its Peoples, 1724–1774. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

O'Donnell, James H., III. Ohio's First Peoples. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2004.

Richter, Daniel K. Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001.

White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

Martin J. Hershock

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American Indians: Old Northwest

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American Indians: Old Northwest