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Euro-American/American Indian Relations

The tenor of relations between American Indians and Euro-Americans in the Northwest Territory was shaped by a variety of factors, including the formation of trade networks, the development of a patriarchal relationship between the French (and later the British) and the various Indiana tribes, and struggles for military and political control of the region. Epidemics and displacement of eastern tribes greatly affected the Indians' ability to respond to the changes in their traditional lifeways that intercourse with Europeans demanded. The succession of French and British traders by American settlers proved even more disruptive to traditional ways. Ultimately, American hegemony forced the Shawnee, Delaware, Miami, and other tribes to surrender all of their claims north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi rivers.


The identities of the tribes occupying Indiana in the early 1600s have not been established with certainty. Considerable displacement and migration was taking place among Indian tribes at this time, largely as a result of European colonization of the eastern seaboard. Furthermore, during the early-seventeenth century, the Five Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca) in northern New York carried on a lucrative trade with the Dutch and the English, exchanging beaver pelts for manufactured goods. By the 1640s, overtrapping had severely depleted the beaver population in Iroquois territory. Beginning in 1641, the Iroquois mounted a series of expeditions to the Western Great Lakes region seeking to gain control of the fur trade that the Huron and other western tribes conducted with the French. The Iroquois were equipped with firearms procured from traders in New York, which gave them a tactical advantage over their rivals and enabled them to drive the Huron from their traditional territory. Tribal warfare continued throughout the late-seventeenth century, with the Iroquois sporadically dispatching military expeditions into New England, south to Chesapeake Bay and the southern Appalachians, north beyond the headwaters of the Ottawa, and westward into Illinois. As a result, a number of western indigenous groups were displaced further to the east, west, and south. [54]

Around 1680, western tribes armed and supported by their French allies began a counter-offensive that ultimately succeeded in arresting the Iroquois ascendancy. In 1701, the representatives of the Iroquois League, the French, the British, and more than twenty western, eastern, and northern indigenous groups met in councils at Onondaga, Albany, and Montreal. A final council the same year in Montreal resulted in a comprehensive peace, ending the Iroquois Wars. [55]

Large scale population shifts among Indian tribes were ongoing during this period and continued for more than a century. The Miami, Wea, and Piankeshaw are known to have arrived in northern and central Indiana after 1680. The Miami occupation may have preceded this date, as historical links between this tribe and Upper Mississippian cultures in Indiana and Illinois have been speculated, but not yet proven. The Kickapoo established villages in the Wabash Valley during the 1740s. By the 1780s, Delaware tribes migrated to Indiana from Ohio, and some groups of Shawnee, Potawatomi, and Wyandotte came shortly thereafter; the Shawnee also have been linked to the Fort Ancient culture of the 1600s in Ohio. [56] These groups were the first tribes encountered by European explorers during the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Figure 5).

Figure 5: Indian Villages and Tribal Distribution in the Northwest Territory, c. 1768 (Tanner, 1987: 58-59)


The first forays by European explorers into Indiana occurred on a sporadic basis from the late-seventeenth through the mid-eighteenth centuries. Father Jacques Marquette may have crossed the dune country of northern Indiana in 1675. His successor, Father Allouez, probably crossed the St. Joseph Valley. Robert Cavelier, Sieur de la Salle ascended the St. Joseph River in 1679, to the site of modern South Bend, Indiana. In 1681, and for several years thereafter, La Salle conducted extensive explorations throughout the region that became Indiana. By 1720, dozens of fur trading French voyageurs or coureurs de bois were engaged in trade with the Miami villages clustered along the Wabash River and its tributaries. In order to maintain open communication between Lake Erie and the Mississippi River, the French constructed forts along the Wabash-Maumee line across Indiana, at Miami, Ouiatenon, and Vincennes. These were the first permanent European settlements in Indiana and were constructed between 1715 and 1731. [57]

Locating forts and trading posts in close proximity to rivers represented a sensible and opportunistic choice on the part of the French. Rivers were central to eighteenth century life in Indiana. In addition to serving as the principal means of transportation, they were sources for water and fish, and the rich bottomlands proved to be fertile farmland. But while the French preferred to travel to their various posts by water, the Miami predilection was to travel overland. Numerous trails crisscrossed the region, serving as arteries for trade, hunting, and war parties. [58] The landscape through which these trails passed was vastly different from that of the late-twentieth century. Hardwood forests covered much of the region, with only 13 percent of the future state's area given over to prairie. Fowl and game were plentiful, and agriculture provided a principal means of sustenance as well, most notably cultivation of maize, beans, squash, and melons. The fur trade, however, caused overtrapping, initiating a process of ecological imbalance that would have far reaching implications for the Native American tribes. Forced to travel ever greater distances to acquire the pelts they needed to trade for European goods, tribes such as the Miami became involved in trade networks that skewed their traditional lifeways and subsistence patterns. The transformation of Indian cultural practices brought on by the fur trade reached even more deeply than a desire for technologically superior manufactured goods. The symbolic value of European goods was held in equally high regard. European glass beads could be likened to native crystals for their ceremonial use, and mirrors, like water, were useful for divination rituals. Consequently, a process began in which European items gradually began to supplant traditional native materials for many rituals. Perhaps the most vivid was the widespread use of iron tools, knives, kettles, and necklaces of beads in burial ceremonies, often in dramatically greater amounts than grave goods had been provided in the precontact period. Such instances illustrate that, within Indian culture, the symbolic value of these materials in the social and political realms often outstripped their utilitarian value. [59]

The rich symbolism with which Indian tribes endowed European goods influenced their approach to maintaining trade networks as well. In many instances, the French developed close, even paternalistic, relationships with the Indian tribes with whom they traded. The devastation wrought by epidemics and displacement from their traditional eastern territory led tribes such as the Miami to welcome such relationships, as they buttressed the primacy of social relationships in their traditional systems of exchange while also bringing them into the sphere of a much larger world economy. Ironically, the paternalistic role did not translate into greater cultural hegemony for the French, but instead obligated them to mediate conflicts amongst the tribes and provide material goods to those in need. [60]

Expansionist pressure from the English colonies on the Atlantic coast and British efforts to control the fur trade disrupted the status quo by the mid-eighteenth century. Escalating episodes of conflict culminated in the French and Indian War, which began in 1754 and ended early in 1763. Defeated, the French surrendered their claims to the Northwest Territory in the Treaty of Paris. However, renewed Indian resistance to European influence left British control of the territory often tenuous. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that, in their relations with the resident Indian tribes, the British enjoyed a lesser degree of success than had the French at establishing productive trade networks. In a misguided attempt at economy, Sir Jeffrey Amherst, British commander-in-chief, ordered his western commanders to limit the provision of gifts, ammunition, and liquor to Indians. Such measures made the British appear ungenerous and inhospitable in the eyes of Native Americans, and had the disastrous consequence of disrupting commerce throughout the Great Lakes region. Frustrated tribes turned to armed reprisals, under the leadership of the Ottawa war chief Pontiac. [61]

Pontiac's War soon devolved into a conflict of attrition, with various tribes laying siege to Detroit and military outposts along the Wabash and Maumee rivers. Belated word of the Treaty of Paris, in which the French abrogated their claims to the Northwest Territory, proved demoralizing to the Indians. A stalemate occurred, with the Native American tribes ultimately conceding that the British might prove as adept as the French had been in maintaining beneficial relations. The replacement of General Amherst with Sir William Johnson, who saw to it that trade goods and gifts flooded into the Great Lakes region, helped ease the sting of military defeat. Furthermore, in an attempt to maintain peaceable relations with the Native Americans, a royal decree issued in 1763 forbade white settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains. The Quebec Act of 1774, which incorporated the territory north of the Ohio River into the Province of Quebec and forbade immigration from the eastern seaboard colonies, was another attempt to limit settlement in the region. [62] Enforcement of the proclamations proved almost impossible; however, and the incursions of land speculators and squatters not only continued, but increased west of the mountains.

The undoing of British aspirations in the Indiana territory, however, lay in the monarchy's growing rift with its American colonists. The British failed to maintain control over land speculation and the revenue generated by trade networks, and overextended themselves by dint of the enormous territory they sought to control from a distance. Consequently, they proved unable to maintain either a strong military presence or a coherent bureaucratic process for trade, governance, and land transactions. [63] These difficulties left the British poorly equipped to follow up the military victories of the French and Indian Wars. At the outbreak of the American Revolution, in 1775, there was no British garrison in all of Indiana.

In 1777, British commanders belatedly sent temporary garrisons to the region with explicit orders to incite Indian attacks on American frontiersmen. Such a charge was not difficult, as many Indian tribes had grown increasingly alarmed by the rapid influx of white settlers and the increasing stridency of land speculators determined to acquire huge tracts of land. The year 1777 became known as the "bloody year," as a result of the ensuing Indian attacks. Atrocities were committed by combatants on all sides producing an enduring legacy of hatred and fear between Native Americans and American settlers. [64]

Under the leadership of George Rogers Clark, an American expeditionary force won a decisive American victory over the British at Vincennes on February 25, 1779. Thereafter, the two sides stood at a military stalemate in the Northwest Territory until the American victory at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781. [65] During the ensuing peace treaty negotiations, one of the most important issues was the location of the boundaries of the United States. Eventually, the British conceded designation of the Mississippi River as the western boundary, a major victory for the newly recognized nation.

Other parties, however, were not prepared to accept the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris. The Miami, Shawnee, and other tribes that occupied the Northwest Territory were not parties to the negotiation and saw no reason to recognize its legitimacy. French inhabitants, many of whom were descendants of the region's earliest French explorers, were also wary of American intentions. Additionally, the British proved reluctant to surrender their forts and outposts to the upstart nation. [66] Americans, on the other hand, quickly came to regard the Northwest Territory as theirs to exploit in whatever manner they deemed appropriate.

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Last Updated: 19-Jan-2003