Native American Relations
Native American RelationsU.S. Congress ...168
William Blount ...177
Treaty of Greenville ...191
By the American Revolution (1775–83), population growth in the thirteen original colonies had pushed most Native Americans inland across the Appalachian Mountains. Even there, the Native Americans had begun to see a few hardy white settlers, who had crossed the Appalachians to farm the fertile lands in the Ohio River valley. The Native Americans lived in small groups thinly spread across the countryside, and to the white frontiersmen, it seemed they were not making full use of the land. Therefore, the white settlers reasoned that the land was an open, unclaimed, untamed wilderness available for the taking.
The loss of their homelands along the coast and the continuing westward expansion of the United States led to strong resentment among the Native American peoples. When the American Revolution broke out in 1775, some thirty-five thousand Native American warriors lived in the frontier region west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River. By 1777, many had sided with the British who operated fur-trading posts in the region. The Native Americans realized it was the American frontiersmen and farmers who were steadily taking their land away. Some of the bloodiest fighting between the two sides during the war occurred in Kentucky, western Pennsylvania, and northern New York. These conflicts and many others produced considerable hatred and influenced U.S.–Native American relations for many years following the end of the war.
Even though they participated in the American Revolution, Native Americans were not included in the 1783 Treaty of Paris negotiations ending the war, nor were they mentioned in the treaty. Earlier, Britain and the colonists followed established European policy in treating the Native Americans as though they still possessed a "right of soil" that had to be purchased through formal treaty. While the Native Americans had the right of possession, the European nations had divided up their claims to North America under a "right of discovery" and with the claims the right to negotiate acquisition of the Native American possession rights within the areas they claimed as "discovered." Such a policy often hid the actual conquest of Native American lands that was the more common way of acquiring Native American possession rights. Therefore, the British contended at the conclusion of the American Revolution that the Native Americans still held certain possession rights to use the land and it was up to the United States now to make its own arrangements with tribes living within the new U.S. boundaries.
In establishing a new nation, American leaders had to determine how the new U.S. government would deal with the Native American population. The Articles of Confederation, the nation's first constitution, did not clearly address Native American affairs. The new central government had overall responsibility for Native American relations, but under the Articles it could not establish policy that would in any way restrict state activities. Several states still claimed lands extending far westward to the Mississippi River. They established these claims while still colonies immediately following conclusion of the French and Indian War (1755–63) in which the British gained firm control from the French of lands west of the Appalachians to the Mississippi River. The colonies based their claims on the original colony charters issued by England. Therefore, the central government was limited in how it could exercise its powers in those areas. In addition, the central government had no money to help maintain peaceful relations between the aggressive frontiersmen and Native American residents. As a result, considerable confusion existed regarding Native American relations through the 1780s.
The new nation first took a harsh position in regard to Native Americans. Because the Native Americans had largely sided with the British during the war, the Americans treated the Native Americans as defeated enemies through much of the 1780s. The U.S. government asserted that the Native Americans had given up their "right of soil" by going to war against the United States. The resulting Confederation policy was to let the Native Americans live on the land they still held until white settlers needed it. The government would then take the land from the Native Americans, forcing them to sign it over to the United States in a treaty and offering them no payment.
The Confederation's policies soon led to armed resistance by Native American alliances. By the late 1780s, they had essentially stopped the spread of U.S. settlement on the western frontier. To solve this problem, the new federal government established under the U.S. Constitution changed course from the Confederation's Native American policy. The following three excerpts provide insight into the shaping of U.S.–Native American policy through the early 1790s. The first excerpt is from "An Act to Regulate Trade and Intercourse with the Indian Tribes," passed by Congress on July 22, 1790. The act shaped the foundation of U.S.–Native American policy regarding the role of Congress in overseeing Native American relations by controlling all commerce between Native Americans and U.S. citizens and not allowing Native Americans to transfer lands directly to U.S. citizens or states, only to the U.S. government. The United States would build on this policy for the next two centuries.
The second excerpt, "Treaty with the Cherokee," was signed in July 1791 on the Holston River in Tennessee. The Cherokee were one of the largest tribes on the southern frontier. They attempted to peacefully adjust to the expansion of U.S. settlements, but aggressive actions by frontiersmen and the Southern states led to endless boundary conflicts.
The third excerpt, "Treaty of Greenville," signed on August 3, 1795, at Fort Greenville in southern Ohio, temporarily brought peace to U.S.–Native American relations in the Old Northwest, where considerable Native American resistance had stopped the spread of white settlements through the early 1790s. This treaty and the treaty with the Cherokee sought to define boundaries between U.S. and Native American settlements and establish peace on the frontier. However, the relentless march of U.S. expansion inevitably led to renewed hostilities in both regions and frustrated national policy.