In cultural mythology, Native Americans often hold a reputation for violence and bloodshed. Images of tomahawks, bloody scalps, and screaming masks of paint occupy a lengthy tradition in popular movies and literature. If these assumed images are true, then one might expect that the era of the American Revolution would stand as a true testament to the “savage” ways of the Indian population. Warfare and chaos would presumably create perfect conditions for Indian brutality to manifest itself. Yet, as another popular assumption reminds us, history is written by the winners.
And if the real-life accounts of Native Americans in the late eighteenth century are any indication, then popular history may have proven this latter statement true. Emerging from these long-ago documents is the story of a people embodied not by the specter of death, but rather driven by the spirit of brotherhood and peace. Did these principles serve the natives well in interactions with their new neighbors, the British/American colonists? If one were to solely base this question on native/colonial interactions prior to the Seven Years’ War, then the answer might be yes.
During this era, natives and colonials frequently “lived in great friendship” (111). Colonials and natives would engage in trading goods, with the natives acquiring such heretofore unknown luxuries as guns and ammunition. Various native tribes would also form alliances with the colonial governments of their respective lands. However, these alliances would provide the first crack in native/colonial relations. During the Seven Years’ War, governments of both France and Britain used their Indian allies for military advantage. Many great warriors of the tribes joined the fighting, leaving their own villages “vulnerable to enemy attack” (116).
The losses incurred in this conflict angered many natives, as did the apathetic and disrespectful treatment which they felt was received after the war’s end. In particular, the dismissive nature of British gratitude for wartime assistance ruffled native tribes. The British, perhaps due to ignorance of many native customs, “ignored longstanding traditions of respectful dealings with Indian nations” (116). They took little notice of the gift-giving tradition which was crucial to alliance-forming among native populations, a lesson which the French had long ago learned.
In addition, “commissioners often dictated terms and spoke down to Indian delegates with the arrogance of power” (126). While natives had previously lived by the motto of “We look upon your enemies as ours and your Friends as our Friends” (127), colonial action after the Seven Years’ War and subsequent conflicts such as the Pontiac War began to sow a seed of distrust among natives of all tribes. The evidence of this discord can be found in rebellions such as that led by the Ottawa war chief in 1763.
Eventually, the words of a Delaware chief echoed in the minds of the natives, “We love you more than you love us” (133). If the dismissive nature of the colonials sparked Indian ire, then the wave of encroachments that characterized the late 1760s and early 1770s only fueled that ire. In 1768, the British government (determined in its own right to avoid further Indian rebellions), issued a proclamation which forbade colonials from claiming Indian land past the Appalachian mountains. Despite this order, colonials eager for new land and new prospects continued to cross the “border.
” The encroachments intensified following the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, in which the Iroquois nation ceded a large chunk of land to British representative Sir William Johnson. The Treaty also proclaimed that the Ohio River would serve as a new boundary between Indian and colonial lands. However, rather than cool tensions, this agreement further angered Indian tribes such as the Shawnees, who claimed that they had no say in parting with their own land. The situation also remained tense because colonial settlers still violated the agreement, crossing over into native lands from the Ohio River.
Finally, a 1771 meeting between the Delaware natives (and other tribes) and the governors of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia yielded a plea for assistance from the natives. The tribal chiefs spoke of “several quarrels” (111) which had occurred due to the encroachments, and chastised the governors who “could not or would not remove” (111) the encroachers. The chiefs reminded the governors of their promise of “laws to govern your people” (111), and wondered why these laws were being ignored with no punishment.
Finally, they asked the colonial leaders to “fall upon some method of governing” (111), and reiterated their desire to “live in peace and friendship with our brethren the English” (113). As the above quote demonstrates, many Indian tribes still retained their loyalty to colonial settlers. This loyalty would be put to the test as the American Revolution consumed the late nineteenth century landscape. As one historian so aptly summarizes, “the Revolution was a devastating experience for many Indian people and marked the beginning of a new era in their history” (146).
Initially, many Indian populations sought neutrality in the conflict between Britain and America, having learned a hard lesson in the Seven Years’ War. That war had witnessed the depletion of many tribes, particularly the Iroquois, and it also served to divide Indian tribes, as demonstrated by the following quote of one tribal chief (directed at a fellow chief): “They would make Women of us, and would always be at War with us” (126). Seeking to avoid these same pitfalls, most tribes preferred to view the Revolution as a “family quarrel between the King and his children” (146).
One tribe had even sought an official policy of neutrality at German Flats. However, the combined pressures from British and American militia for assistance and the violent actions of the American militia forced many tribes into the conflict. American tradition still regarded most Indians as savages, and thus questionable actions such as the murder of Delaware tribe hero White Eyes and the destruction of forty Iroquois towns by George Washington resulted. Such instances only encouraged tribes such as the Delawares to formally side with the British, conducting invasions and massacres on behalf of the British militia.
Other tribes (like the Oswego) found themselves allying with the British following promises of great reward, such as clothing, tomahawks, and the “promise of a bounty on every scalp” (158). Likewise, American rebel officials made promises of their own, such as “guaranteed territorial rights” and “the possibility of an Indian state with representation in Congress” (155). While both the British and Americans likely looked upon these deals as nothing more than a necessity in securing more manpower and access to needed strategic battlegrounds, their native allies took the vows most seriously, especially the now-fractured Iroquois confederacy.
In essence, the natives had divided themselves (particularly along age lines) in the name of friendship toward colonials. It was a decision they would soon regret. Prior to and during the American Revolution, native suspicions had emerged that the various conflicts were a smokescreen for a planned destruction of Indian populations and a subsequent expansion of white culture: “It is told us, that you and the French contrived the war…. the French and the English intend to kill all the Indians, and divide the land among themselves….
” (134) Natives, perhaps correctly, characterized their white brothers as having a good heart but an insatiable desire for material gain. The era of the Seven Years’ War and Pontiac’s War also brought a “rejection of European ways and values” (137) amongst some tribes in the Ohio Valley: “This land, where you live, I have made for you and not for others. How comes it that you suffer the whites on you lands; Can’t you do without them…. I love them not, they know me not, they are my enemies and the enemies of your brothers” (138).
While this resistant faction of the Indian population remained a minority, their dire predictions would prove a reality following the Peace of Paris which ended the American Revolution. In short, one word characterized the post-war landscape for Native Americans, betrayal. When British and American officials ironed out the terms of their treaty, Americans emerged with a large chunk of land from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Ocean.
The newly formed American government hoped to utilize this land in repaying war debts and expanding their newly formed empire. The only problem with this plan was that most of these lands fell under claimed Indian territory. Neither the British nor the Americans even mentioned the potential displacement of the natives in their talks. Faithful allies had been forgotten, leaving native tribes feeling “anger, bewilderment, and disbelief” (166).
The newly formed American government was already viewed negatively in the eyes of many natives, especially those which showed “their zeal and loyalty to the Great King” (152) and those who witnessed colonials that “cheat(ed) us in the manner of small spots we have left for our women and children to live” (152). In fact, many natives who supported the American quest for independence were derided with the term of “Virginian. ” The American government’s viewed of the seizing of native lands as a “right of conquest” only intensified resentment.