American Revolution For Dummies
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If one group was destined to lose no matter how the American Revolutionary War came out, it was Native Americans. If the British won the struggle, they were no more likely to be successful in keeping the colonists from encroaching on lands promised to the tribes than they had been before the war. If the Americans won, the push west would only be accelerated. As the following figure points out, all the Indian nations could do was watch the two sides fight over land that didn’t belong to them.

Native Americans in the Revolution ©Library of Congress

A French engraving showing an American Patriot and Loyalist fighting over the deed to America, while a Native American looks on.

“O, strange Englishmen kill each other,” a baffled Seneca chief observed. “I think the world is coming to an end.”

Native Americans pressured from both sides during the American Revolution

At the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, there were an estimated 200,000 Native Americans living east of the Mississippi River, in about 85 nations. The instinct for many of the nations was to stay out of the fighting between the whites. “We are unwilling to join on either side,” an Iroquois chief smoothly told the Patriot governor of Connecticut, “ . . . for we love you both — Old England and New.”

Indian neutrality was fine for the Americans. In 1775, the First Continental Congress had sent representatives to meet with the powerful six-tribe Iroquois Confederacy, at Western Pennsylvania’s Fort Pitt. The congressional delegates told the tribes that while King George was a good guy, his counselors were “proud and wicked men” who “tell us they will slip their hand into our pockets without asking.” After a second meeting, the Iroquois nations agreed “not to take any part; but as it is a family affair, to sit still and see you fight it out.”

But the British had a long history of dealing with the tribes. One British Indian agent, Sir William Johnson, had been so trusted by the Iroquois, he was named an honorary chief of the Six Nations. The British contended that while they wanted to protect Indian rights to their lands, the Americans were poised to invade them. “They mean to cheat you,” British agent John Butler told an Iroquois delegation, “and should you be so silly as to take their advice . . . their intent is to take all your lands from you and destroy your people.”

Some tribal leaders were dubious. “I now tell you that you are a mad, foolish, crazy and deceitful person,” the Seneca war chief Cornplanter replied. “ . . . For suppose the Americans conquer you, what would they say to us?”

But pressures mounted to forgo neutrality and side with the British. The U.S. cause wasn’t helped by language in the Declaration of Independence that described Indians as “merciless savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

In late 1775, a Mohawk leader, Thayendanegea, who dressed in English clothes and was better known by the name Joseph Brant, went to England to meet with war minister Lord Germain and enlist British logistical support and supplies. Germain was happy to oblige: “The dread the people of New England and company have of a war with the savages proves the expediency of holding that scourge over them,” Germain wrote.

What neither the British nor the Americans fully grasped was that the structure of the Iroquois Confederacy was such that individual tribes, and even individual members within tribes, were free to fight on either side, or not. Americans and Britons, used to government by consensus and not pure democracy, didn’t get it.

As a result, some of the Six Nations fought for the British while others fought alongside the Americans, and at least one tribe, the Onondaga, tried unsuccessfully to stay out of it.

In the South, the situation was much the same. British agents, such as the half-Creek Alexander McGillivray, convinced some tribes to fight on the British side, while other tribes tried to avoid the war or fought only when attacked by American forces who failed or refused to differentiate among the Indian nations.

The aftermath of the American Revolution on Native Americans

The American victory and subsequent peace treaty that the British agreed to basically hung the Native Americans out to dry. Lands that the British had once guaranteed to the tribes were given to the Americans, with no guarantees that the Americans would give any of them back. The new British prime minister, William Petty, the Earl of Shelburne, tried to put a veneer of concern on the sell-out, saying the tribes “were not abandoned to their enemies,” but “they were remitted to the care of (their American) neighbors, whose interest it was as much as ours to cultivate friendship with them. . . . ”

But the tribes didn’t buy Shelburne’s baloney. At a post-war meeting with British officials in Canada, a tribal leader said, “Pretending to give up (our) country to the Americans without our consent . . . was an Act of Cruelty and Injustice that only the Christians were capable of doing.”

In the fall of 1783, tribal representatives met twice with an American delegation led by the young Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette had been chosen by Washington to lead the delegation because the French had historically enjoyed good relations with many of the tribes.

Lafayette, however, reminded them they had been warned not to fight Americans, and that the “great General Washington” (whom the Iroquois had named Town Destroyer for the many villages burned under his orders) had won the war, and therefore didn’t have to bargain. The tribes agreed to cede sizeable tracts of land in return for promises of fair treatment in the future and profitable trade agreements. The reality turned out to be something far different — and far more tragic — for most tribes.

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Steve Wiegand is an award-winning political journalist and history writer. Over a 35-year career, he worked as a reporter and columnist at the San Diego Evening Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, and Sacramento Bee. He is the author or coauthor of seven books dealing with various aspects of U.S. and world history.

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