42. Native Narrative II

As you may recall, the last post focused on how the interrelationships among Indian Nations, Great Britain, and North American colonists played a significant role in precipitating the War of Independence. As noted therein, many among the Native Nations perceived a threat to their way of life from colonial settlers moving into their lands, notwithstanding the Proclamation Line of 1763 that was established by Parliament to restrict that movement, and this influenced their decision as to which side to support when war erupted. In general, they backed the British, who represented the indigenous peoples’ best hope for restraining the incursion into their lands by white homesteaders.

A Cruel Conflict

The long and violent history between colonists and Indians made it unlikely that the “Glorious Cause ” (Washington’s term for the struggle for American independence) would win widespread support among Native Americans. The best the Revolutionary enterprise could hope for in that regard was a neutral stance among the Indian Nations, but continued encroachment on their lands undermined that possibility and incentivized most tribes to side with the Crown. Ironically enough, the Patriot forces utilized Indian tactics—which the colonists had adopted over generations of conflict with hostile tribes—when fighting against the latter during the War of Independence. These included the hallmarks of what we would call “guerrilla warfare” today: ambushes, hit-and-run assaults, the use of snipers, shooting from behind protective cover, maneuverability, and terror-inducing means of gaining a psychological edge over their opponent—burning Indian villages and destroying their crops, for example. And, yes, scalping the dead—for this Indian custom had long since become common among colonists, motivated by a well-established practice of paying bounties for Natives’ scalps (a hair-raising experience, to be sure). Loyalist Peter Oliver wrote in 1778: “This Scalping Business hath been encouraged, in the Colonies, for more than a Century past. Premiums have been given, frequently, by the Massachusetts Assemblies, for the Scalps of Indians, even when they boasted loudest of their Sanctity; & I have seen a Vessell enter the Harbor of Boston, with a long String of hairy Indian Scalps strung to the rigging, & waving in the wind.”

According to Michael Stephenson (in Patriot Battles: How the War of Independence was Fought, Harper Perennial, 2007), “Native Americans, contrary to the woolly-minded notion that they were simply put-upon protohippies, fought for their land ferociously. Women and children were killed as often as they were taken into captivity and adopted.” In 1779, Washington launched a large-scale expedition under General John Sullivan against the Iroquois of the Six Nations in response to a series of Loyalist-Indian attacks on the northern and western frontiers, and Sullivan’s force (which included a party of Oneida who had taken up arms against the Iroquois) resorted to scorched-earth warfare. They destroyed a wide swath of villages and crops and inflicted heavy casualties, but their success was limited in strategic terms because large numbers of Iroquois warriors simply melded into the wilderness, only to fight another day.

A Cruel Peace (for some)

The Treaty of Paris that ended the war in 1783 left the Native Nations who had supported Great Britain virtually abandoned by their ally when the Crown yielded the lands extending westward to the Mississippi to the United States. Michael Stephenson observes that, in one of the great ironies of the quest for independence, the rebels’ struggle to free themselves from the British empire was accompanied by their own effort at empire-building, one in which they were “bloodily engaged…at the expense of native Americans.” He quotes Jefferson on the subject of American territorial ambition and the tribal populations standing in the way thereof: “Nothing will reduce these wretches so soon as pushing the war into the heart of their country. I would never cease pursuing them while one of them remained on this side of the Mississippi.” Clearly the author of the Declaration of Independence had a decidedly restrictive view of the Indians’ entitlement” to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness,” those “unalienable Rights” that he articulated in his memorable expression of America’s founding ideals.

41. Native Narrative I

The role of the American Indian nations in our war for independence—largely neglected by historians for so long—has gained more historiographic attention over time, and deservedly so as it had important implications for the Revolutionary contest. What is commonly unappreciated among the general public is the extent to which the interrelationships among the native nations (Cherokee, Delaware, Iroquois, Mingo, Ottawa, Shawnee, and Wyandot ), Great Britain, and the North American colonists played a significant role in precipitating the War of Independence.

What Really Happened

The British ministry resolved in 1762 to maintain a force of ten thousand troops in North America even after the then-ongoing but nearly concluded French and Indian War (known as the “Seven Years’ War” in Europe) ended, in order to protect the colonies from the Indians and vice versa—as well as to guard against possible designs by the Spanish who occupied the provinces of East and West Florida. Britain’s national debt had doubled during the war, and the King’s ministers refrained from imposing the cost of supporting this troop presence in America on their already overburdened constituents, then among the most heavily taxed in Europe. This policy decision, along with Parliament’s effort to crack down on rampant smuggling among colonial merchants that deprived Britain of significant revenue from items imported into the colonies, had significant repercussions for Anglo-American relations as they deteriorated in the mid-to-late 1760’s and the early 1770’s. The majority in Parliament thought it eminently reasonable to tax Americans in order to pay for the presence of British soldiers whose ostensible purpose was to protect the colonists. However, the latter regarded these soldiers as an unwanted force who embodied a policy of restricting the colonists’ access to western land occupied by the native nations and whose deployment was to be paid for by taxes imposed by a legislative body in which Americans were not represented.

Parliament’s Proclamation of 1763 that prohibited colonists from moving westward into land populated by Native American tribes was impracticable because there were simply not enough British soldiers on the continent to enforce this edict; and by 1774, some fifty thousand settlers resided beyond the proclamation line. Notwithstanding that reality, this policy represented a sharp departure from Britain’s previously understated approach to colonial oversight and and was widely perceived among Americans as an overbearing intrusion into their sovereignty.

In his new and highly recommended book, Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution (Simon & Schuster, 2021), Woody Holton cites an observation by an anonymous newspaper writer that “not even a second Chinese Wall, unless guarded by a million of soldiers,” could prevent settlers from moving into the lands from which they were officially excluded by the Proclamation Line of 1763. Moreover, as he points out, the colonists facilitated even further encroachment beyond that line by refusing to pay for British troops stationed on their frontier. Once Parliament repealed the Stamp Act of 1765 in response to widespread American opposition to its tax on legal documents, newspapers, licenses, pamphlets, and bills of lading, and to the concerns of British merchants over how the colonists’ willingness to boycott British goods in response would impact Anglo-American trade, the Crown’s ministers decided to reduce British expenses in the New World by abandoning all but the most vital western forts that their soldiers had been garrisoning. As Holton puts it, “Now it was simpler than ever to glide across the home government’s imaginary boundary.”

What Does All This Mean?

Parliament’s effort to restrict the colonists’ movement into Native American lands was firmly opposed by prospective settlers who wanted to start a new life on the frontier and by speculators who dreamed of making significant profits from land holdings beyond the proclamation line—among the latter, for example, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. This obviously contributed to the ill will that came to dominate Anglo-American relations and propelled the opposing sides toward an armed confrontation. At the same time, many among the native nations clearly perceived a threat to their way of life from the specter of colonial intruders, and this would influence their decision as to which side they should back when war erupted—more often than not, the British, as they represented the indigenous people’s best hope of restraining the invasion of their lands by white homesteaders.

More about this in the next post.