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Image: Mohawks, led by Joseph Brant, adhered to their long-standing allegiance to the British. American Indians and the American Revolution
by Collin G. Calloway

The Declaration of Independence accused King George III of unleashing "merciless Indian Savages" against innocent men, women, and children. The image of ferocious warriors propelled into action by a tyrannical monarch fixed in memory and imagination the Indians' role in the Revolution and justified their subsequent treatment. But many Indian nations tried to stay out of the conflict, some sided with the Americans, and those who fought with the British were not the king's pawns: they allied with the Crown as the best hope of protecting their homelands from the encroachments of American colonists and land speculators. The British government had afforded Indian lands a measure of protection by the Royal Proclamation of 1763 which had attempted to restrict colonial expansion beyond the Appalachian Mountains, and had alienated many American colonists. Indians knew that the Revolution was a contest for Indian land as well as for liberty.

Some Indian tribes went to war early. Cherokee warriors, frustrated by recurrent land losses, defied the authority of older chiefs and attacked frontier settlements, only to be soundly defeated by expeditions from Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. On the other hand, Indians from the mission town at Stockbridge in western Massachusetts, like most New England Indians, supported their colonial neighbors. They volunteered as minutemen even before the outbreak of the fighting, joined Washington's army at the siege of Boston, and served in New York, New Jersey, and Canada.

The Revolution split the Iroquois Confederacy. Mohawks led by Joseph Brant adhered to their long-standing allegiance to the British, and eventually most Cayugas, Onondagas, and Senecas joined them. But Oneidas and Tuscaroras sided with the Americans, owing in large measure to the efforts of their Presbyterian missionary Samuel Kirkland. The Revolution became a civil war for the Iroquois, as Oneidas clashed with Senecas at the Battle of Oriskany in 1777. Iroquois sufferings were compounded in 1779 when General John Sullivan led an American army through their country, burning forty towns and destroying crops.

In the Ohio country Guyashuta of the Senecas, Cornstalk of the Shawnees, and White Eyes of the Delawares worked hard to steer a neutral course in the early years of the war. At the Treaty of Fort Pitt in 1778, Delawares and Americans pledged "perpetual peace and friendship." But after Americans killed White Eyes and Cornstalk, and slaughtered noncombatant Moravian Delawares at the mission town of Gnadenhutten, Ohio Indians made common cause with the British. They won victories in the West long after Cornwallis had surrendered in the East, and continued to resist American expansion for a dozen years after the Revolution.

In 1783, under the terms of the Peace of Paris, without regard to its Indian allies, Britain handed over to the new United States all its territory east of the Mississippi, south of the Great Lakes, and north of Florida. The United States proceeded to expand westward, acquiring Indian lands by treaty and by force. Stockbridges and Oneidas who had supported the Americans lost lands as well as Senecas and Shawnees who had fought against them.

Indians fought in the Revolution for Indian liberties and Indian homelands, not for the British empire. But the image of Indian participation presented in the Declaration of Independence prevailed: most Americans believed that Indians had backed monarchy and tyranny. A nation conceived in liberty need feel no remorse about dispossessing and expelling those who had fought against its birth.

To learn more:

Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Barbara Graymont, The Iroquois in the American Revolution (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1972).

Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill : Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture by the University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

Richard White, The Middle Ground : Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991).


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