Indians in the Colonial Wars and the American Revolution

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Indians in the Colonial Wars and the American Revolution

INDIANS IN THE COLONIAL WARS AND THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION. American Indian peoples played a vital role in the armed conflicts between the European empires in eighteenth-century North America and an equally significant role in the American Revolutionary War. In the War of the Austrian Succession (1740–1748) and the Seven Years' War (1754–1763), both of the contending European powers—France and Great Britain—went to war allied with communities of American Indians. During the American Revolution, both Great Britain and the United States sought Indian allies, although the British were far more successful in this endeavor. Native peoples in eastern North America understood the stakes of the British-American colonists' struggle for independence, and most believed that they would not benefit from a change in the status quo. Many American Indian communities continued to resist the United States after the Peace of Paris (1783), although dwindling British support made native armed resistance increasingly problematic. Upon the reorganization and strengthening of the United States government with the Constitution of 1787, the majority of eastern Indians attempted to reach some kind of accommodation with the new regime, although usually these accommodations did not favor the Indians.


By 1740 the majority of American Indian communities of eastern North America had a history of contact and interaction with European settlers stretching back a century, if not longer. Spanish conquistadors had made multiple forays, or entradas, into eastern North America during the sixteenth century, although the only significant settlement of the Spanish lasting into the seventeenth century in the East was at St. Augustine in Florida. In the first three decades of the seventeenth century, English, French, Dutch, and Swedish settlers established settlements along the Atlantic coast. New Netherland was conquered by the English in the Anglo-Dutch Wars of the 1660s, and New Sweden (on the lower Delaware River) was absorbed in the English colonies of Pennsylvania, West Jersey, and Delaware, leaving the colonies of France and Great Britain as the major European imperial presences in eastern North America in the early eighteenth century. Both the French Empire and the British Empire had extensive contacts and sustained interactions with the native peoples of eastern America, although the nature of the relationships varied greatly between the two empires.

Both France and Britain sent settlers to North America, and both groups established diplomatic and commercial relations with their Indian neighbors. Yet each empire emphasized these activities—settlement and Indian diplomacy—in such differing degrees that their colonial empires had become qualitatively different when their relations with American Indians were concerned. In North America, French settlement was concentrated in the St. Lawrence River Valley—including the substantial outposts of Quebec (founded 1608) and Montreal (settled 1638), and a number of peasant cultivators (habitants)—and the Lower Mississippi Valley. The bulk of the denizens of New France were either French military officers, fur traders, or Roman Catholic missionaries. Since the mid-seventeenth century, missionaries and fur traders had traveled throughout the Great Lakes Basin, Ohio Valley, and into the Mississippi River Valley, entering into alliances with various Indian communities, erecting a small number of forts and missions, and, in doing so, working to cement political and commercial alliances between the various native peoples and the kingdom of France. In exchange for furs, especially those of the beaver, the French traders provided European manufactured goods the Indians could not make for themselves—firearms, textiles, metal tools, and alcohol—and French Catholic priests provided access to the Sacraments to those Indians who chose to accept them. By 1740 New France was, as the historian Eric Hinderaker puts it, an "empire of commerce," from which the French extracted wealth in the form of furs acquired through commerce and diplomacy.

The British empire was markedly different. By 1740 Britain's settler colonies extended from the coast of Maine (then administered by the colony of Massachusetts) in the north to the recently founded colony of Georgia (founded 1732) between the Savannah and St. Mary's Rivers in the south. Settlers of many European nationalities (and in many places, enslaved Africans) populated each of the thirteen colonies on the Atlantic seaboard, and in most cases these settler populations extended up to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The indigenous peoples of the seaboard had been killed, dispersed, or encapsulated within reservations by British settlers in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Although British settlers often engaged their American Indian neighbors in commerce, more often than not they did so as a precursor to the purchase or expropriation of that American Indian community's lands. The British had constructed an empire of land: settlers came to British North America not to participate in the fur trade or to proselytize to the Indians, but to acquire land in order to build a family farm or a plantation, to provide the mother country with exotic agricultural commodities like tobacco and indigo and raw materials such as timber and naval stores, and also to provide the British West Indies with foodstuffs. A fur trade between British agents and American Indians did exist, but it was not the dominant economic sector in any colony. Thus, for British settlers, interaction with American Indians was usually a means to an end; for French settlers, interaction with American Indians was an end unto itself. The divergent nature of the two empires' relations with American Indians would influence their conduct in the imperial wars of the mid-eighteenth century and the Revolutionary War.


In large part because they emphasized commerce over acquisition of land, France had a more extensive alliance structure with the American Indians of eastern North America. France's longest-standing Indian allies were the various Algonquian-speaking peoples of Canada, the Great Lakes Basin, and the Ohio Valley. (Algonquian, the family of Indian languages, is distinct from Algonquin, an Indian nation; the Algonquin were one of many Algonquian tribes.) In the early decades of the seventeenth century, the French made alliances with their near neighbors, the Huron, the Algonquin, and the Montagnai (or Innu). Through the Huron, the French goods came to the more westerly Ottawa. To the south of New France, the Dutch had made an alliance with New Netherland's nearest neighbors, the Iroquois. Armed with superior Dutch guns, the Iroquois ranged out of their homeland, occupying fur-trapping grounds by force and, more often than not, taking already trapped furs from French allies. The so-called Beaver Wars (c.1640–1701) disrupted Huron communities especially. Some Huron embraced Catholic Christianity and lived alongside the French; others moved westward into the Great Lakes Basin, joining the villages of the Petun, the Erie, and the nation known as the "Neutral." Iroquois attacks on these peoples followed. As the Huron moved westward, French trappers, traders, and missionaries followed them, and this movement of people opened the door for an expansive French alliance. By the end of the seventeenth century, the bulk of the Great Lakes Algonquians—the Ottawa, the Potawatomi, the Sauk and Fox, and the Ojibwe (or Chippewa)—as well as the Iroquoian-speaking Huron-Petun and the Siouan-speaking Winnebagos, had all committed themselves to alliance with the French.

The French maintained their alliance through the annual exchange of goods for furs, conducted at a chain of missions, forts, and small settlements that came to dot the shores of the Great Lakes in the seventeenth century and by 1740 stretched the entire length of the Mississippi Valley. French mission towns were founded at Sault Saint Marie (1668), Green Bay (1669), Michilimackinac (1670), and at Kaskaskia among the Algonquian-speaking Illinois (1675). When Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet traversed the length of the Mississippi River to its mouth in 1673, many French, notably explorer and imperial promoter Réné-Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle, began to imagine a chain of French forts and settlements stretching from Montreal to what would become New Orleans. Although La Salle was killed by the men under his command in 1687 during an abortive attempt to establish a settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi, subsequent French efforts led to the founding of Natchitoches (1714) on the Red River and the strategically invaluable New Orleans (1718) at the mouth of the Mississippi. The French also claimed sovereignty over most of the interior of North America drained by the Mississippi, which they called Louisiana. Yet their nominal control of Louisiana, like that in Canada, was rooted in their constant maintenance of alliances with native peoples. It is important to note that, as the historian Richard White has demonstrated, the French-Algonquian alliances were rooted in mutual misunderstandings as much as they were rooted in common interests. What the French saw as purely commercial transactions, native peoples saw as the exchange of gifts that continually reinforced and reaffirmed fictive kinship relationships. The various Algonquian peoples called every French governor at Montreal by the same name, Onontio, after a Mohawk transliteration of the name of an early governor. Thus, through trade, Indian peoples affirmed timeless identities while the French (and all Europeans) sought to maximize advantage in a marketplace they knew was constantly changing. Both sides realized that they each took something different away from their exchanges, but they tacitly agreed to disagree.


The British managed similar alliances but on a smaller scale. After they displaced the Dutch in the 1660s and 1670s, and remade New Netherland into New York (confirmed at the Treaty of Westminster, 1674), the British sought to take the place of the Dutch as the main European allies of the Iroquois. It was in the later decades of the seventeenth century that many of the Algonquians, aided by the French, began to push back against the Iroquois. This ultimately brought the Beaver Wars to an end with the negotiation of the Grande Paix, or Grand Settlement, of 1701 at Montreal, which terminated hostilities between the Iroquois and the French-allied Algonquians. Over the next decades, the Iroquois remained equally divided internally between Francophiles, who advocated a real alliance with France, Anglophiles, who wanted closer ties to the British colonies, and Neutralists, who wanted neither. The Iroquois League moved firmly toward a regular alliance with the British colonies with a 1722 treaty conference at Albany. The 1722 treaty was negotiated between representatives of the original Five Nations and the governors of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Pennsylvania would open Philadelphia to trade, and Virginia agreed to broker an end to hostilities between some of its Indian allies and the Iroquois. All three colonies recognized long-standing (and somewhat unrealistic) claims to Iroquois suzerainty over the Delaware and the Shawnee. The parties came together (minus New York, but with Maryland) two decades later at the Treaty of Lancaster (1744), in which the Iroquois actually sold their shaky claims to the Ohio Valley lands of the Delaware and the Shawnee to the colony of Virginia. The Lancaster treaty coincided with an increased interest among Virginia elites in speculation in trans-Appalachian lands, as well as the beginning of the hostilities on North American ground between Britain and France related to the War of the Austrian Succession.


The British colonials' interest in engagement with American Indian communities was multifaceted. Pennsylvania and Virginia agents penetrated the trans-Appalachian region with increasing frequency in the mid-1740s; traders from Pennsylvania, in particular, could offer Ohio Valley Indians British-made trade goods that were of higher quality than French goods, and they could offer more of them. Many Shawnee, Wyandot, Miami, and other Indians chose alliance and trade with Pennsylvania over New France during these years. The French-Algonquian alliance was weakening. At the same time, few American Indians were willing to join the British in open warfare against the French. Some Iroquois—mostly Mohawk—went along with Crown agent William Johnson's plans to attack Montreal, which did not go well. At the same time, on the southern borderlands, the Creek Indians (ostensibly British allies) refused to follow the orders of the governor of South Carolina, James Glen, to attack the French outpost of Fort Toulouse. Likewise, the French incorporated some of their Algonquian allies in their war effort, but with British traders actively weakening their alliance, they usually did not push too hard. The 1740s was a quiet period compared to the full-scale warfare in North America in the 1750s and 1760s.


When the Treaty of Aix-la-Chappelle ended the War of the Austrian Succession in 1748, the leadership of both the French and British colonies believed that a renewal of war would only be a matter of time. British colonial elites were very concerned that their colonies were unprepared for another war. Many officials and commentators, including Pennsylvania's Benjamin Franklin, New Yorkers Cadwallader Colden and Archibald Kennedy, and Carolina's Edmund Atkin, called for a strengthening of the alliance structure between the British colonies and their Indian neighbors. Indian allies were seen as France's secret weapon, and it was widely argued that the British needed to have Indian allies of their own. While politically aware British Americans called for stronger British-Indian relations, agents of the French Empire were seeking to undermine the inroads the British had already made. New France's governor dispatched Captain Pierre-Joseph Céloron de Blainville on an expedition to traverse the entire Ohio Valley in 1749. While Céloron was supposed to renew the French-Algonquian alliance, his only real substantive accomplishment was to bury a series of lead plates proclaiming the French claim to the Ohio Valley at regular intervals along the river. More direct action was taken in 1752, when Charles Langlade led a force of French, Ottawa, and Ojibwa to destroy the Miami town of Pickawillany, in modern-day central Ohio. Pickawillany was home to a trading post operated by British traders, and its destruction was an active attempt on the part of the French to assert their primacy over the Ohio Valley and its Indian communities. Like the British, the French were preparing for war, and the arrival of Marquis Duquesne, a career military officer, as governor of Canada in 1752 only confirmed this. Building on Langlade's success at Pickawillany, Duquesne in 1753 ordered the construction of four new forts—including Fort Duquesne at the strategically important confluence of the Ohio, Allegheny, and Monongahela Rivers. France thus actively sought to inhibit both British territorial expansion into the Ohio Valley and to prevent British colonial traders from having access to the valley's Indian communities.


The construction of Fort Duquesne touched off the series of events that led to the beginning of the Seven Years' War. Seeking to assert its claims to the Ohio Forks region, the Virginia colony's legislature dispatched militia colonel George Washington on expeditions toward the Forks in 1753 and 1754. Washington was unable to secure Indian allies of any significant number, and though the French garrisons at Fort Duquesne were relatively small, the large numbers of Indians who came to the fort to trade ensured that French commanders would have ample numbers of allies to draw from to repel British incursions. This was the state of affairs when Washington surrendered the makeshift Fort Necessity in 1754, and when General Edward Braddock's armies suffered defeat (and Braddock himself was killed) in an ambush on the road to the Forks in 1755. As the Seven Years' War (or French and Indian War) erupted, France could count the vast majority of the Algonquian peoples of the Great Lakes Basin and Ohio Valley as allies. The British relationship with many of its Indian allies had grown rocky in the early 1750s; for example, the intercolonial alliance with the Iroquois, the Covenant Chain, was only renewed at the Albany Congress of 1754.

The French followed up their victory over Braddock with further successes in the North American theater over the course of the next two years. By 1757 French forces under General Louis-Joseph, marquis de Montcalm-Gozon de Saint-Véran, penetrated deep into upstate New York via the Lake Champlain-Lake George-Hudson River corridor. Montcalm's success was due in large part to the recruitment of many Algonquian warriors from all over New France, a policy engineered by Pierre de Rigaud de Vaudreuil, the Governor of New France. Understanding that he could not field matching numbers of regular troops against the British, Vaudreuil called in as many Indian warriors as he could to allow his commanders to take the offensive as deep as possible into British territory. Montcalm was the most successful at adopting this strategy, but after his capture of Fort William Henry in 1757 it came undone. Vaudreuil having promised them captives to adopt in their communities, the Algonquian warriors did not approve of Montcalm's strict adherence to European rules of warfare and thus took dozens of captives after the formal surrender of Fort William Henry. The loss of life was not great enough to justify the claims of a "massacre" put forward by authors such as Francis Parkman and James Fennimore Cooper, and the ultimate damage at Fort William Henry was done to the French forces rather than the British. Vaudreuil was forced to pay the Algonquians for the return of most of the captives in order to satisfy Montcalm's surrender agreement. With the rules of American Indian warfare thus broken, the French could never again call on the numbers of native allies they had during the campaigns of 1756–1757. Montcalm was forced to fight on the defensive until his defeat (and death) at the hands of James Wolfe at Quebec (1759). New France fell completely to British arms with the surrender of Montreal the following year. British dominion over all of eastern North America was confirmed with the Treaty of Paris (1763).


In the years following the Treaty of Paris, Great Britain's policy of engagement toward the American Indian communities of eastern North America was a confused one, alternately turning on considerations of military and economic expediency, accommodation of Indian interests and expectations, and attempts to mollify growing resentment of imperial policies at the colonial level. With James Wolfe's death at Quebec in 1795, Jeffery Amherst succeeded to the post of commander in chief of British forces in North America. At the war's end, Amherst made a conscious decision to adopt a policy of economizing. He consolidated his scattered frontier forces in a smaller number of posts, and also acted to limit the amount of trade goods regularly given to Indian leaders in the Great Lakes-Ohio Valley region. Most of the Algonquian peoples—the former allies of the French—resented Amherst's new policies deeply, and at the instigation of Ottawa war chief Pontiac and Delaware religious leader Neolin, a pan-Algonquian uprising against British forces began in May 1763. Pontiac's Rebellion, as it became known, lasted into 1765. The main results of the uprising were the removal of Amherst as commander in chief and the British Indian Agents' adoption of the generous trade policies that had characterized the French alliance. On 7 October 1763, the British government also put forward the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which established the spine of the Appalachian Mountains as the boundary line between the British settler colonies on the eastern seaboard and the vast Indian country to the west. During and after Pontiac's Rebellion, the British government sought to maintain peaceful relations with the Indians of eastern North America: it adopted the generous trade and gift-giving policies of the French and also sought to curtail potentially violent interactions between European settlers and Indians.

The new British policy of the mid-1760s provoked discontent in a number of quarters. The British Indian Agents—William Johnson in the north and John Stuart in the south—brokered treaties and deals that often favored their own personal interests; moreover, they favored the interests of some Indian nations over others. A case in point was the Treaty of Fort Stanwix of 1768, which Johnson negotiated. This treaty conference brought together representatives of the Iroquois League as well numerous Algonquian peoples from the Ohio Valley and eastern Great Lakes. Johnson secured a readjustment to the boundary line set forward in the Proclamation of 1763, extending the realm of white settlement out to the Ohio River. He did so, however, by ignoring the western Indians present and by negotiating through the Iroquois—confirming the claims of Iroquois suzerainty that had been put forward two decades before at the Lancaster Treaty. Johnson also negotiated private land sales from various Indian communities for speculative interests he was involved with outside of the formal treaty negotiations. Thus British policy, as it was experienced, treated some Indian nations better than others.

At the same time, many colonial governments bristled at the restrictions on expansion imposed on them by the Proclamation of 1763. Responding to colonial pressures, in March 1768 the Board of Trade, at the urging of the new American Secretary Wills Hill, earl of Hillsborough, removed control of Indian trade from the Indian superintendents and returned it to the individual colonial governments. The Indian Agents retained control over diplomacy, but each colony began licensing increasing numbers of Indian traders, and many of these men were more interested in Indian lands than they were in Indian trade. Generally speaking, the interests of the colonial governments and the imperial government were divergent: the former wanted expansion of settlement, whereas the latter wanted to preserve the status quo. Indian peoples recognized this and, when the rupture between the two sides finally occurred, were more receptive to agents of the crown than to agents of the colonies.


With the outbreak of war between the American colonies and the British government in the spring of 1775, the question of which side the various American Indian communities would take in the conflict loomed large. Both the Continental Congress and the British government initially hoped that the various American Indian communities would remain neutral. Nevertheless, preparations were soon made on both sides to attempt to woo Indians into alliance and accommodate them once that was accomplished. To coordinate Indian policy among the thirteen colonies, the Continental Congress created three Indian departments on 12 July 1775. The Northern Department would focus on the Iroquois and all of the nations to their north, the Southern Department on the Cherokees and all nations to the south, and the Middle Department on the Indian nations in between these two. Congress then appointed commissioners for each of these departments who would be responsible for conducting diplomacy and managing military interaction between the Indians and the various American armies. The British retained the Indian Superintendent system, with its Northern and Southern Departments. John Stuart remained southern superintendent at the start of the war; Guy Johnson had succeeded his uncle William Johnson as northern superintendent when the elder Johnson died in 1774. In 1775 and 1776, agents on both sides made numerous attempts to win as many Indian allies as possible.

As had been the case during the imperial wars of mid-century, British North Americans generally regarded the Iroquois League as the most important of all the eastern Indian nations. The Six Nations' crucial geopolitical position between Loyalist Canada and Patriot New York, placing them on the front lines of any conflict, no doubt played a great role in both sides' strategic calculus. Operating out of a headquarters in Albany, General Philip Schuyler served as the lead Indian commissioner for the Northern Department and made repeated attempts to entice as many of the Iroquois nations to the American side as possible. He held a series of diplomatic conferences with the Iroquois—Albany (1775), German Flats (1776), Albany (1777), and Johnstown (1778)—that had the effect of attracting only a majority of the Oneida and Tuscarora nations to the American side. The bulk of the Iroquois remained loyal to the Johnsons and the British. Members of the Iroquois League would fight on both sides during the Revolutionary War, and Iroquois actually fought against one another during the Battle of Oriskany (1777), a part of John Burgoyne's failed invasion of New York. The nadir of hostilities came with the infamous Sullivan Expedition of 1779, in which General John Sullivan led American troops into the lands of the British-allied Iroquois nations, systematically destroying villages and burning crops. Americans viewed the expedition as retaliation for Indian attacks in Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley the year before (1778) and also as an attempt to weaken the Iroquois' ability to wage war.

The United States met with similar frustrations in attempting to find Indian allies on the southern and western borderlands. John Stuart succeeded in keeping most of the southern nations either allied with the British or ostensibly neutral. The Cherokee were a prominent exception, openly declaring war on the American colonists in 1776. Cherokee raids were countered by punitive expeditions from all of the southern colonies in the summer and fall of 1776. The Americans destroyed many Cherokee towns and cornfields, and the Cherokee sued for peace a year later. Low-level warfare between Indians and colonists persisted until the formal end of the Revolutionary War. In the Ohio Valley and the Great Lakes region, only the Delaware joined wholeheartedly with the American cause. Congress appointed George Morgan, a Pennsylvania merchant and land speculator, as Indian agent for the Middle Department. After much negotiation Morgan succeeded in getting a Delaware delegation, led by pro-American chief White Eyes, to sign a formal treaty at Fort Pitt (1778). After White Eyes was murdered by American settlers, the alliance with the Delaware fell apart, and more Delaware communities in the Ohio Valley lapsed into either neutrality or outright hostility toward the American cause. Momentary success also occurred in the Ohio Valley with the expedition in 1778–1779 of Virginian George Rogers Clark, who captured British posts at Vincennes and Kaskaskia. The Kaskaskia Indians sent a delegation that was received by Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson in 1781. The alliance with the Kaskaskia was never formalized via treaty, and Clark's "conquest" of the Northwest proved to be tenuous. Low-level conflict persisted between American settlers in Kentucky and the Shawnee and between American settlers in the Ohio Forks region and Wyandot, Mingo, and other British-allied Algonquians through the remainder of the Revolutionary War and into the 1780s.

Although most eastern Indians fought on the British side and held their ground in trans-Appalachia, with the Peace Treaty of 3 September 1783 British negotiators ceded sovereignty of the entire trans-Appalachian region south of the Great Lakes, north of Florida, and east of the Mississippi to the now-independent United States of America. When commissioners of the American Congress asserted their sovereignty over all of the British-allied (and hence defeated) Indian nations at the Treaty of Fort Stanwix (1784) and subsequent negotiations, Indian negotiators generally reacted with dismay, and ultimately with continued resistance. General resistance (either through fighting the Americans or ignoring them) would continue until the adoption of a policy of Indian negotiation, put forward by Secretary of War Henry Knox during the first Washington administration (1789–1793), that paid more respect to native sovereignty.

SEE ALSO Amherst, Jeffery (1717–1797); Austrian Succession, War of the; Braddock, Edward; Clark, George Rogers; Colonial Wars; Fort Stanwix, Treaty of; Fort William Henry (Fort George), New York; Franklin, Benjamin; French and Indian War; Johnson, Guy; Johnson, Sir William; Knox, Henry; Langlade, Charles Michel de; Oriskany, New York; Paris, Treaty of (10 February 1763); Peace Treaty of 3 September 1783; Pontiac's War; Proclamation of 1763; Schuyler, Philip; Stuart, John; Sullivan's Expedition against the Iroquois; Wolfe, James.


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                              revised by Leonard J. Sadosky