The Frontier and Indian Policy

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The Frontier and Indian Policy


Treaties, Assimilation, and Removal. The Treaty of Paris in 1783 gave the United States possession of a large unsettled territory extending west to the Mississippi River. Spain controlled Florida, Louisiana, and access to the Mississippi River, and until 1796 Britain retained possession of Forts Oswegatchie, Oswego, and Niagara in upstate New York and Forts Miami, Detroit, and Michilimackinac in the Northwest. The Confederation government lacked the military strength to stop white settlers from pouring into Indian lands or to stop Native Americans, often supported by the British and Spanish, from resisting the invasion of their lands. Yet Congress boldly claimed sovereignty over Indian lands by virtue of their victory over Britain and imposed treaties on several tribes. Both white settlers and Native Americans ignored the treaties, and the resulting conflict was passed on to the new federal government in 1789. The Washington administration, hoping to avoid costly Indian warfare or confrontation with Britain or Spain, adopted a policy of purchasing Indian lands through treaty and trying to assimilate Indians into American civilization. Jedidiah Morse, author of The American Geography (1789), anticipated a future when the AMERICAN EMPIRE will comprehend millions of souls, west of the Mississippi. President Thomas Jeffersons Louisiana Purchase in 1803 made Morses vision a reality. When Jefferson recommended that the federal government offer Native Americans land west of the Mississippi in exchange for their land in the East, he acknowledged that assimilation could only slow inevitable white settlement of the frontier. After the War of 1812 the federal government began a policy of Indian removal that reached its height in the 1830s under President Andrew Jackson, who first gained prominence by defeating the Creek nation during the War of 1812.

Northwest. The Confederation Congress asserted national control over the Northwest Territory, a large region bounded by the Mississippi River, the Ohio River, and the Great Lakes, by passing the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 and signing treaties with several tribes in the region. Secretary of War Henry Knox believed that the new federal government could maintain peace by purchasing Indian lands. By 1789, however, the Shawnee, Miami, and Delaware Indians had organized a confederacy to resist white settlement north of the Ohio River. In 1790 Little Turtle and the Miami Confederacy defeated an American army under Gen. Josiah Harmar, and in 1791 they killed or wounded over nine hundred Americans under Gen. Arthur St. Clair, governor of the Northwest Territory. In August 1794 Gen. Anthony Wayne and an American army defeated the Miami Confederacy in the Battle of Fallen Timbers near Toledo, Ohio. Under the terms of the Treaty of Greenville, signed in August 1795, the Miami Confederacy ceded much of present-day Ohio and Indiana to the U.S. government. By 1805 a new confederacy began forming around Tenskwatawa, or the Prophet, a Shawnee religious leader, and his brother, Tecumseh, a war chief, who urged resistance against the white invasion of Indian land and culture. By 1809 two new federal land acts and a series of Indian treaties negotiated by Gov. William Henry Harrison of Indiana Territory had taken extensive territory from Native Americans, and Tecumseh began organizing a military confederacy. In the fall of 1811, while Tecumseh was recruiting among southern tribes, Governor Harrison and one thousand men prepared to attack the headquarters of the Shawnee Confederacy on the Tippecanoe River. On 7 November the Prophets surprise attack on the American camp failed, and the Shawnee Confederacy broke up. Tecumseh slipped away to Canada where he formed a British-Indian confederacy in the War of 1812 in a final attempt to preserve Indian culture.

Southwest. The federal governments ability to govern the southwestern frontier was impeded by aggressive expansion into Indian lands by the southern states who owned the lands and the support that Spain provided to Indians in the region. During the Confederation period Virginia rapidly settled its western lands in Kentucky, which, despite Indian warfare, became the fifteenth state in the Union in 1792. North Carolina, which did not cede its western lands in Tennessee to Congress until 1789, appropriated millions of acres of land belonging to the Creek and Cherokee Indians. Georgia, which did not cede its western lands to Congress until 1802, antagonized the Creek Indians by claiming their lands through questionable treaties in the 1780s and 1790s. The signing of the Pinckney Treaty between the United States and Spain in 1795 opened up new territory for American settlement and removed the immediate obstacle of Spanish-supported Indian warfare in the Southwest (now the southeastern United States). The federal government expanded settlement in western Tennessee by obtaining land from the Cherokees between 1798 and 1806, but they found the Creeks in Georgia and Mississippi Territory (present-day Mississippi and Alabama) resistant to offers of land and assimilation. Neither assimilation nor resistance could stop expansion, especially after President Jeffersons Louisiana Purchase encouraged further expansion into Indian lands. For many members of the Creek nation the War of 1812 was their last chance to preserve their tribal lands and culture.


In the years since their defeat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 the Wyandot Indians, once members of the Miami Confederacy, had become farmers and accepted assimilation into white civilization, but they could not stop the advancing frontier. On 5 February 1812 a group of Wyandot chiefs, after having already given up a large present of land, petitioned the United States government to protect their remaining land:

Fathers, listen! If you really want to ameliorate our condition, let us have the land given to us; we have built valuable houses, and improvements on the same; we have learned the use of the plough; but now we are told we are to be turned off the land in fifty years.

Fathers, listen! This has given us great uneasiness; This pretence of bettering our situation, it appears, is only for a temporary purpose: for, should we live on the land for fifty years, as farmers, and then be turned off, we will be very miserable indeed. By that time, we shall have forgot how to hunt, in which practice we are now very expert, and then youll turn us out of doors, a poor, pitiful, helpless set of wretches.

Source: American State Papers, Indian Affairs, volume 1 (Washington, D.C.: Gale & Seaton, 1832).

The War of 1812. When the United States declared war against Britain in June 1812 after years of British harassment of American ships and sailors, Native Americans in the Northwest and the Southwest calculated that a British alliance would help them expel the American invaders from their territory forever. Britain regarded Native American tribes as useful allies to prevent the Americans from invading Canada and occupying East Florida. In the first year of war the British-Indian alliance resulted in the surrender of Fort Michili-mackinac on Lake Huron and Fort Dearborn (in present-day Chicago). On 16 August 1812 Gen. William Hull abandoned plans to invade Canada and surrendered Detroit after British general Isaac Brock threatened that he could not control Tecumseh or the one thousand warriors he commanded. But Commander Oliver Hazard Perrys naval victory over the British at the Battle of Put-in-Bay in September 1813 secured American control of Lake Erie, and Gen. William Henry Harrisons

victory over a British-Indian force in the Battle of the Thames on 5 October 1813, during which Tecumseh was killed, ended Native American resistance in the Northwest. In the Southwest members of the Creek nation in Mississippi Territory decided to raid the American frontier after Tecumseh visited in 1811 and 1812 with promises of British and Spanish support and news of British victories in the Northwest. On 30 August 1813 the Creeks killed several hundred settlers and soldiers at Fort Mims near Mobile, but the American counterattack led by Gen. Andrew Jackson of the Tennessee militia was devastating. After American militia killed hundreds of Creeks in several battles in November 1813, Generals Jackson and John Coffee inflicted the final blow on 27 March 1814 in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Jacksons army of 2, 000 militiamen, aided by 200 Cherokee allies, killed over 550 Creeks, and hundreds more died trying to escape. The destruction was completed on 9 August 1814 when the Treaty of Fort Jackson forced the Creeks to give up two-thirds of their land in eastern Georgia and most of the Mississippi Territory.


Robert F. Berkhofer Jr., The White Mans Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (New York: Vintage Books, 1979);

Harry L. Coles, The War of 1812 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965);

Reginald Horsman, The Frontier in the Formative Years (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1975);

Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 16501815 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991).

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The Frontier and Indian Policy

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