Wednesday, October 3, 2018

The Native American War for Independence

Pontiac Calls for War
Refiner’s Fire is scheduled to release April 15 next year. In this episode of the story Jonathan Carleton returns to the Shawnee as an emissary for George Washington. The issues he has to confront as an adopted member of this proud tribe in its fierce push-back against the incursions of white settlers into their ancestral lands have radically changed my way of thinking about Native Americans.

We celebrate the American Revolution as the seminal event in which we Americans won our independence from Britain. It’s ironic that throughout our history we’ve largely remained blind to the fact that Native Americans fought us for exactly the same reason: to preserve their liberty, rights, and way of life from an oppressive power. I’ve been deeply impressed by this fact while doing research for this series. In delving into how the war affected women as well as men, blacks as well as whites, I couldn’t avoid the question of what impact our Revolution had on the native peoples who inhabited this continent long before white people showed up. How did they view the colonists’ claim that England denied their lawful rights while at the same time denying Indians the freedom to live unmolested on their own lands, feed and protect their families, and maintain their long-held traditions?

This struggle goes all the way back to the arrival of the first Europeans on the shores of North America. In treaty after treaty, Indian lands and freedoms were whittled away. The loss of land accelerated in the late 1760s and 1770s as settlers increasingly pushed their way into the fertile western territories where land could be had for the taking. And the taking was often bloody, with atrocities committed on both sides.

Sketch of Stockbridge Mahican warrior
in Continental Army by Von Ewald
Long before the Revolution the Ohio Valley became a fiercely contested war zone. The Lenape, Shawnee, Mingo, and other tribes made Ohio Territory their homeland due to its rich hunting grounds; fertile cropland; expanding trade opportunities, first with the French, then with the English; and the ever increasing pressure of white settlers’ westward expansion. When the British won the French and Indian War and took control of the trans-Appalachian country, the opposition of the native peoples stiffened. Between 1763 and 1764 a coalition of tribes led by the Ottawa chief Pontiac and Guyasuta, a Seneca-Mingo chief, unsuccessfully tried to push British soldiers and settlers out of Ohio Territory. Then in 1774, in what became known as Lord Dunmore’s War, the Shawnee went to war to keep white settlers out of their Kentucky hunting grounds. Their towns and crops were put to the torch, forcing them to give up claim to the land and agree to recognize the Ohio River as the boundary between Indian lands and the British colonies.

Cornstalk by Sherman
When the Americans went to war with England the following year, it came as no surprise to the Indians that their lands were once again up for grabs. At the beginning of the conflict, the majority of the tribes tried to remain neutral, but that was not a viable option for long. The Stockbridge, or Mahican, Indians of western Massachusetts were one of the first to join forces with the Americans. Later some Lenape, along with the Oneida and the Tuscarora, did the same. But in the end most of the tribes came to see the Americans as the greater threat to their liberty and way of life than a distant English king.

In 1776 the Cherokee independently attacked frontier settlements to drive trespassers off, only to have their communities devastated. Other native nations formally allied with the British and suffered the same result. Among the Shawnee, the great chief Cornstalk tried to cultivate peaceful relations with the Americans, only to be murdered along with several companions by militia soldiers in 1777. Even so, his sister, Nonhelema, continued to assist the Americans and work for peace. But as Kentucky militia crossed the Ohio River almost every year to raid Shawnee villages, about half of the nation migrated across the Mississippi to Spanish-held lands, while others moved farther and farther west to put space between them and the Americans, and increasing numbers joined the war of resistance. By the end of the Revolution most of the Ohio Indians were concentrated in the region’s northwestern area.

General John Sullivan's Campaign against the Iroquois
The Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee, was shattered by the war, with the Oneida and Tuscarora fighting on the side of the Americans, while the Mohawk and Seneca allied with the British, tearing apart clan and kinship ties. Like the Cherokee, many Iroquois lost their homes during the Revolution. In 1779 George Washington dispatched General John Sullivan to conduct a scorched-earth campaign in Iroquois country. During Sullivan’s Expedition, his troops burned forty Iroquois towns, cut down orchards, and destroyed millions of bushels of corn. Thousands of Iroquois fled to the British fort at Niagara, where they endured exposure, starvation, and sickness during one of the coldest winters on record. In desperation their warriors attacked American frontier settlements as much for food as for scalps. At the end of the Revolution many Iroquois relocated in Canada to avoid American reprisals.

Gnadenhutten Massacre
The Lenape were also initially reluctant to take up arms or support the British. Their chief White Eyes led his people in concluding the Treaty of Fort Pitt in 1778, the first treaty Congress made with Indians,  in which the two nations agreed to a defensive alliance. But American militiamen murdered White Eyes, America’s best friend in Ohio Territory, and claimed he died of smallpox. Then in 1782 a detachment of American militia marched into a community of Moravian Lenape named Gnadenhütten, or “Tents of Grace.” That these Indians were Christian pacifists made no difference to the soldiers. They separated the men, women, and children, and with their victims kneeling in front of them singing hymns, used butchers’ mallets to beat 96 people to death. Outraged, the Lenape allied with the British and exacted brutal retribution whenever American soldiers fell into their hands.

David Zeisberger
As the Revolution began, in spite of American assurances, Indian nations feared that the Americans’ ultimate goal was to steal their lands. Those fears turned out to be well founded. In April 1783 Britain recognized the United States’ independence at the Peace of Paris and transferred to America all her claims to the territory between the Atlantic and the Mississippi and from the Great Lakes to Florida. No Indians were invited, nor did they receive any mention in the treaty. When they learned that their British allies had sold them out and given away their lands, they understandably felt betrayed.

The United States won its Revolution, but in the west the Indians continued their war for independence for many years afterward. Once subdued, they were confined to reservations and were denied their culture and even their language. You’ll find accurate and heartrending accounts of what the native peoples suffered in their struggle against white expansion in Black Coats Among the Delaware by Earl P. Olmstead, based on the diaries and letters of the Moravian missionary David Zeisberger, who lived and ministered among his beloved Lenape until his death. It’ll change the way you view the history of our country.

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