American Indians: Overview

views updated

American Indians: Overview

The period between the onset of the Seven Years' War in 1754 and the inauguration of President Andrew Jackson in 1829 witnessed profound changes for the indigenous peoples of North America. It proved to be a time of paradoxes—with widespread destruction and creative adaptation, demographic collapse and cultural survival, colonization and nation-building, Christian missionization and spiritual revitalization all occurring simultaneously. Although native peoples met the challenges posed by these trying years, and often played central roles in shaping the outcome of the most pivotal events, their worlds would never be the same.

demography and disease

Native North America in the mid-eighteenth century represented a dynamic landscape, one that had already seen the rise and fall of ancient civilizations. It was an interconnected space in which trade routes bound together literally hundreds of distinct indigenous cultures embodying diverse sociopolitical and economic systems. Although they maintained their separateness, the peoples of the Great Lakes, the Ohio Valley, and the Lower Mississippi, for instance, had long been tied to one another by commerce, and these

lines stretched to the west and east as well. Commercial ties brought with them conflict, intermarriage and adoption, regional alliances, the development of trading languages, and the exchange of foods, tools, ideas, and technologies.

Native peoples not only knew of one another, but many had long been in contact with Europeans by the mid-eighteenth century. The presence of the French, English, and Dutch along the Atlantic Coast and down the St. Lawrence and Mississippi Rivers, Spanish incursions in the Caribbean, as well as the present-day southeastern and southwestern United States, and Russian settlements along the Northwest Coast had already brought significant change. These encounters did not need to be face-to-face to carry dramatic consequences. Exemplifying a process the historian Alfred Crosby called "the Columbian exchange," American Indians throughout the continent, even in places where Europeans were not physically present, had already confronted these outsiders' material goods, their plants and animals, and—most devastatingly—their diseases.

Scholars debate indigenous population figures prior to contact with Europeans, and determining aggregate population figures at any period prior to formal census taking poses great difficulties. But scholars do know that, by the mid-eighteenth century, many indigenous peoples had already experienced demographic collapse as a consequence of disease and war. European travel writings, missionary reports, oral traditions, and winter counts all tell of the devastation wrought by "Old World" diseases, especially smallpox, cholera, and typhoid. Wherever they occurred, these "virgin soil epidemics" fundamentally altered indigenous communities by striking down the old and young first, decreasing fertility, wreaking havoc on traditional systems of governance, and interfering with the transmission of sacred knowledge. The very connectedness of the trans-Mississippi West, with its commercial centers and intersecting trade routes, facilitated the transmission of disease, as with the smallpox epidemic of the late eighteenth century.

The demography of Native North America in the mid-eighteenth century, then, must not be thought of merely in terms of northward- or westward-moving frontiers that clearly separated indigenous and nonindigenous peoples. Rather, refugee communities in the Ohio River Valley brought together members of many different peoples who creatively remade themselves into new peoples. Through a process known as "ethnogenesis," for instance, the Delawares had become a far more centralized and corporate people after being pushed into eastern Pennsylvania and westward into present-day Ohio. The Hurons, once located north of Lake Ontario, experienced diaspora in the wake of Iroquois expansion and reconstituted themselves as the Wendat or Wyandot people of the southern Great Lakes region. The Iroquois, on the other hand, had adopted so many individuals from other tribes via their "mourning wars," that many of their communities had a majority population of non-Iroquois people in them.

On the Plains, the Lakotas, Cheyennes, Arapahoes, Crows, and Comanches developed equestrian buffalo-hunting cultures, replete with new vocabularies, rituals, songs, and gender roles that reflected the centrality of horses and bison. This, in turn, sparked ecological changes that would remake the landscape. Moreover, it set Plains people on a course of becoming increasingly dependent on a single source—the bison—for their sustenance. While this enabled equestrian peoples' quick rise to dominance,

it would also serve as their Achilles heel when non-Indian settlement pushed westward in the late nineteenth century. Along the Upper Missouri, Mandans, Arikaras, and Hidatsas developed a major center for trade that bound the region to a vast network of peoples across the continent. Meanwhile, intermarriage between European traders and Indians contributed to mixed-blood communities, such as the French-Indian Metís.

In the Southwest, Utes and Apaches followed a pattern not dissimilar to that found on the Plains. They developed an equestrian culture predicated in part on raiding neighboring Indian and Spanish settlements. Meanwhile, the Navajos and Pueblos cultivated more sedentary ways of life organized around a combination of livestock herding, cultivation of corn, and trade. Historian James Brooks has shown that a system of captivity and exchange bound together these peoples, as well as Comanches and Spaniards, into a tightly knit regional economy. Like the Northeast and the Ohio River Valley, then, the Southwest borderlands contained ethnically diverse and constantly changing indigenous and non-indigenous communities.

The introduction of Christianity carried demographic consequences, as well. "Praying towns" populated by converts to Christianity could be found across the Northeast. Some, like the Wampanoag community on Martha's Vineyard, dated back to the seventeenth century. Elsewhere, such as in the Ohio River Valley, times of war made it dangerous to live in Christian settlements. These peoples were often looked upon with suspicion; their communities became targets of colonists and Indians alike. Such tensions could lead to disaster, as was the case with the massacre of converts living in Gnaddenhutten, a Moravian town in present-day Ohio, during the American Revolution (1775–1783). In the Southwest and along the coast of California, the Franciscan mission system continued to expand. But as with the Wampanoags at Martha's Vineyard, the Yokuts, Pomo, Miwok, Wappo and other diverse peoples who joined missions in places like Alta California did so for reasons that were very much their own. And when Spaniards overstepped the boundaries native peoples had set, they resisted as in the case of the 1824 Chumash uprising.

By the nineteenth century individual American Indians had also become part of European and American societies—as interpreters, traders, soldiers, scouts, husbands, wives, adopted children, ministers, and laborers. On the island of Nantucket, just off the coast of Cape Cod, Indian people adapted to the market economy by engaging in whaling. In the case of the Potawatomis and Miamis in the southern Great Lakes region, survival increasingly meant "hiding in plain view" by establishing farms, dressing in Western fashion, and intermarrying with non-Indians. Along the coast from Rhode Island to Georgia, peoples such as the Narragansetts, Catawbas, Cherokees, Chickahominies, and Monacans struggled to retain their identities as Indians, even as whites attempted to impose upon them racial classifications such as "Colored" and "Negro." Even as white Americans consigned native peoples living east of the Mississippi to the past, indigenous communities found ways to survive. Indeed, creative adaptation and change became hallmarks of Indian identity across Native North America.

indian-white relations

Out of their shared encounters with Europeans—physical, material, economic, political, ideational, religious, and epidemiological—Indians emerged with a vast array of distinct experiences. Since the initial contact period of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Spain, France, and Great Britain had adopted different approaches in their relations with indigenous peoples. Although all of these nations engaged in empire building, the day-to-day realities of diplomacy and exchange revealed that power more often rested in native communities through most of the eighteenth century. This is evidenced by the use of treaties to forge alliances, resolve disputes, and convey land. Treaties signified the respect the colonizers had for Indian claims to sovereignty, for even as they sought to conquer a land they portrayed as being inhabited by savages, they cemented nation-to-nation agreements that were consistent with those forged in the international arena. Treaties served multiple functions for indigenous people—they conveyed stories, signified sacred bonds, and established connections that were to be mutually beneficial to all parties involved. Unfortunately, Europeans often viewed treaties primarily as expedients and looked hopefully to a time when domination would replace diplomacy.

More than any other colonial power, the French came to understand the need to maintain appropriate relationships as Indian communities defined them—relationships predicated on the principle of reciprocity, the language of kinship, and the practice of ritualized gift giving. Because their claim to empire rested primarily on commerce, it also depended on the good graces of the tribes with whom they traded. But even the British, whose contempt for tribal sovereignty grew through the course of the eighteenth century, understood the import of proper treaty relationships. The Covenant Chain with the Iroquois Confederacy best symbolized this recognition. Also known as the Haudenosaunee, the Iroquois Confederacy represented an alliance that allowed the Senecas, Cayugas, Onondagas, Oneidas, Mohawks, and Tuscaroras to dominate trade throughout the Northeast. This, as well as the formidable military power it wielded, impelled the British to renew the Covenant Chain ritually and symbolically, even as they sought to exploit it for their own purposes.

During the Seven Years' War (1754–1763), both the British and French relied on their Indian allies to establish dominance in the Upper Ohio Country, an area bounded by Lake Erie to the north, the Ohio River to the south, the Maumee and Miami Rivers to the west, and the Appalachian Mountains to the east. The inverse was true as well, as diverse Indian peoples attempted to play off European powers so as to preserve their homelands, hunting grounds, and political autonomy. The most intense conflict occurred in the Upper Ohio Country, where refugee communities made up of Delawares, Shawnees, Miamis, Ojibwas, and other tribes sought to fend off the intrusion of British colonists and the Iroquois Confederacy by aligning themselves more closely with the French.

wars, alliances, and changing relations

In the wake of French defeat in 1763, a nativistic spiritual revitalization movement erupted across the Upper Ohio Country. The conflict known as Pontiac's Rebellion or Pontiac's War can be traced to many contributing factors, but its particular significance was a clear shift in Indian-white relations. As their military power diminished and economic dependency grew, indigenous peoples were no longer treated in accordance with what they considered to be their proper status. No less than the pan-Indian movement that would follow in the second decade of the nineteenth century, this struggle sought to reestablish Indian control over the rate and nature of change in tribal communities. By invoking sacred power, rejecting many of the outward manifestations of Anglo-American culture, and freeing themselves from economic dependency, Indians endeavored to restore balance to their worlds. This came at a time when the British signaled their desire to replace reciprocity with dominance, kinship with subordination.

The Seven Years' War carried important implications for Indian-white relations in the Southwest as well. Through the 1760s the Spanish staked a claim to and held nominal control over the region they named New Mexico. However, the Comanches held sway in the surrounding area and used their own tenuous alliance with the French to establish peaceful relations on terms of their own making. Known as the "lords of the southern plains," the Comanches possessed vast numbers of horses and drew their strength from the enormous herds of buffalo in the area and their access to larger trade networks. When France transferred the Louisiana Territory to Spain in 1762, however, the Comanches lost a critical countervailing force. This, combined with the increasing movement of other Indian peoples onto the plains, complicated trade relations, made access to goods and firearms more difficult, and forced Comanches to turn to the British as commercial partners.

Throughout the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, conditions worsened for tribes living east of the Mississippi River. The American Revolutionary War meant many things to many different peoples—from opportunities to renew the system of playing powers off against each other to the impetus for civil war—but it ultimately brought with it a diminution of tribal autonomy, the loss of land and life, the destruction of crops and villages, and the dislocation of peoples from their homelands. As had happened in the wake of the Seven Years' War, American Indians were not given a place at the table during the negotiations that brought the Revolutionary War to an end. In war's aftermath, the United States followed British precedent by establishing boundaries to separate Indian from non-Indian lands and passing legislation to regulate trade. The use of treaties to secure land cessions and establish peace became the cornerstone of the new nation's policy that contemporaries called "expansion with honor." Best captured in the text of the Northwest Ordinance (1787), a document that attempted to lay the foundation for future American expansion into the Ohio Country and beyond, expansion with honor meant that the federal government pledged itself to the continuation of treaty making with "the utmost good faith" and supported the "civilization" of Indian people by sending missionaries and federal agents specializing in animal husbandry and agriculture into their communities. Congress further passed the Indian Trade and Intercourse Act in 1790, establishing systems for licensing traders operating in Indian country, purchasing Indian lands, and taking over the Indian trade.

Contradictions riddled Indian-white relations. In the Northwest Ordinance, the federal government simultaneously laid claim to the right to wage just wars—as it defined them. Like their British and Spanish forebears, they had no intention of forfeiting what they considered to be their right—by discovery, conquest, or otherwise—to Indian land. If they met resistance they deemed unwarranted, Americans similarly found it easy to rationalize war. On more than one occasion during the 1790s, this was precisely what happened in the Upper Ohio Country. After delivering several decisive defeats and suffering one of their own, representatives from the Miamis, Potawatomis, Ottawas, Kickapoos, Shawnees, and other tribes signed the Treaty of Greenville. This event not only failed to end conflict in the region, it also underscored the extent to which the treaty-making process had altered traditional systems of governance. The advent of treaty or annuity chiefs—individuals who gained their authority primarily by virtue of having control over American largesse—ultimately caused strife in Indian communities.

Still other contradictions complicated the notion of expansion with honor. First, neither words nor lines could stanch the flow of westward-moving settlers. By the time of the War of 1812, the onrush of non-Indians into the Ohio Country and throughout the Southeast set the stage for bloody warfare. Second, the factory system established by the federal government served a purpose greater than regulating trade between the United States and Indian nations. President Thomas Jefferson (1801–1809) indicated his hope that trade would cultivate dependency among Indian people and that dependency would lead to United States control over them. Finally, the so-called civilization program championed by federal policymakers during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries failed to destroy tribal cultures or transform Indians into yeoman farmers. Rather than clearing the way for non-Indian settlement, the presence of missionaries and federal agents sowed the seeds of anomie and discontent.

The roles of men and women played a critical part in Indian-white relations from the moment of initial contact with Europeans, and the import of gender did not diminish during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Across cultures, Indian women served as intermediaries, particularly in the realm of trade and commerce; they were integral to the process of forging fictive and literal kinship ties between their communities and outsiders. Historian Susan Sleeper-Smith has revealed a fascinating fur trade network that reached across the southern Great Lakes, from Cahokia, Detroit, and Green Bay to Michilmackinac, Ouintnanon, and St. Joseph. An extensive Catholic kin network that bound multiple families together through godparenthood made this possible.

If the creative adaptations to kinship ties enabled native trade networks to thrive, the disruption of these kinship ties, and the reciprocal obligations they implied, also figured significantly in conflicts between Indians and outsiders. The United States civilization program, for instance, could do violence to native peoples' own conceptions of appropriate gender roles for both men and women. Among the Cherokees, for instance, the process of becoming "civilized" actually marginalized women economically, politically, and socially. Patriarchy and patrilineal descent competed with the clan-based matriarchal and matrilineal system of governance. And, as the market economy prevented Cherokee males from attaining prestige through traditional means, they often turned to things such as horse stealing. This, in turn, further complicated the already difficult relationships between Indians and non-Indian settlers. And finally, early-nineteenth-century prophets of nativistic revival such as Neolin (Delaware), Tenskwatawa (Shawnee), and the Trout (Ottawa) warned that the disruption of traditional gender divisions of labor—in which women cultivated crops and men served as hunters and traders—carried profound spiritual consequences. Indeed, they tied the Christian effort to move women into the home and men into the fields to a loss of sacred power.

With that said, neither the fur trade nor the United States government's civilization program should be thought of as solely deleterious to women or destructive to native societies. Among the Ojibways in the Western Great Lakes, women carved out their own niche in the fur trade predicated on traditional responsibilities for producing maple syrup and cultivating rice well into the nineteenth century. And among the Cherokees, the authority of clans and the power of women continued to be influential. To be sure, the governing elite in Southeastern tribes such as the Cherokees embraced Christianity and Euro-American culture. By the 1820s, the Cherokees had forged a constitutional form of government, developed a syllabary that allowed their language to be written, established a national newspaper entitled The Cherokee Phoenix enjoyed a literacy rate higher than that of surrounding non-Indians, and actively engaged in the southern plantation economy. Cherokees used all of these to fashion themselves not only as a "civilized tribe," but also as a nation with a claim to sovereignty equal to that of the United States. No less important, as historian Theda Perdue has demonstrated, elite members of the Cherokee Nation—like the majority of Cherokee people—continued to recognize the traditional authority of clans and matrilineal descent. At times, this proved to be the case even when that meant that Cherokee National Council and Supreme Court might refuse to enforce its own laws.

By the inauguration of Andrew Jackson in 1829, the balance of power had shifted decisively toward the United States—at least east of the Mississippi. A culture of Indian hating, a hunger for land, and a growing sense of both states' rights and nationalism brought increasing pressure for the removal of the remaining tribes. Historian Daniel Richter did not overstate the situation when he likened the resulting policy to one of ethnic cleansing. The roots of removal extended at least to the late eighteenth century and gained momentum with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and the Lewis and Clark expedition (1804–1806). American Indians east of the Mississippi would mount spirited defenses of their homelands during the 1830s and 1840s, but for most of them the effort ended in the forced relocation of their people to western lands. Like their relatives who made long journeys to remake their homelands in places they had never seen, those who stayed behind found ways to survive. This survival would come at considerable cost.

See alsoBritish Empire and the Atlantic World; Expansion; French; French and Indian War, Consequences of; Jackson, Andrew; Jefferson, Thomas; Northwest and Southwest Ordinances; Pontiac's War; Spain; War of 1812 .


Brooks, James F. Captives & Cousins: Slavery, Kinship, and Community in the Southwest Borderlands. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002.

Calloway, Colin G. One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West before Lewis and Clark. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.

Cayton, Andrew R. L., and Fredrika J. Teute, eds. Contact Points: American Frontiers from the Mohawk Valley to the Mississippi, 1750–1830. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998.

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

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

Fenn, Elizabeth. Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1775-82. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001.

Gutiérrez, Ramón A. When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500–1846. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1991.

Jones, David S. Rationalizing Epidemics: Meanings and Uses of American Indian Mortality since 1600. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Mancall, Peter C., and James H. Merrell, eds. American Encounters: Natives and Newcomers from European Contact to Indian Removal, 1500–1850. New York: Routledge, 2000.

Merrell, James H. The Indians' New World: Catawbas and Their Neighbors from European Contact through the Era of Removal. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 1989.

Perdue, Theda. Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700–1835. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.

Prucha, Francis Paul. The Great Father: The United States Government and the American Indians. Vol. 1. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984.

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

Sleeper-Smith, Susan. Indian Women and French Men: Rethinking Cultural Encounter in the Western Great Lakes. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2001.

Sturtevant, William C., ed. Handbook of North American Indians. 12 volumes. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution, 1978–2001.

Thornton, Russell. American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History since 1492. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.

Weber, David J. The Spanish Frontier in North America. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992.

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.

Williams, Robert A., Jr. Linking Arms Together: American Indian Treaty Visions of Law and Peace, 1600–1800. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Daniel M. Cobb

About this article

American Indians: Overview

Updated About content Print Article


American Indians: Overview