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An American Tragedy

The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities

by Colin G. Calloway
Cambridge University Press, 327 pp., $59.95; $16.95 (paper)

The American Revolution in Indian Country is an important and frustrating book, at once original and derivative, scholarly and polemical, subtle and obvious. It is a searing account of the impact of the Revolution on Indian life. The prologue, conclusion, and epilogue are highly readable, broadly interpretative, and moving; as independent essays they form a blistering indictment of the destructive effect of the Revolutionary War on the native peoples and of the racism of the nation that emerged from it. But the main, substantive chapters of the book are choked with detail and intricate narratives, meticulously glued to the documented sources and the innumerable writings on the subject. One has to struggle through dense and tangled episodes—of tribal factionalism, divided allegiances, microscopic shifting alliances, skirmishes, raids, captivities, devastations, and atrocities. Some of the complex accounts of borderland warfare during the Revolution throw clear light on major historical developments, but some prove to be dead ends—efforts that got nowhere and made little difference to the overall story of the Revolution’s impact on the native American population, or vice versa.

And yet for all the bewildering maze of the details of guerrilla warfare, microscopic factionalism, and forest diplomacy, the book is a real contribution to the history of the Revolution—though not, perhaps, only for the reasons Professor Calloway explains.

Wisely, he sets the book up as a discussion of the problem of context. His detailed narratives are “small patches of a huge tapestry,” and that tapestry “must be fully pieced together before we can begin to appreciate the experiences of all the participants in the American Revolution or understand the full meaning of the story of this nation’s birth.” By this he means to tell us, once again—it is no news—that “women, backcountry farmers, and ordinary laborers, as well as African slaves” were not liberated from the traditional social and legal constraints of their eighteenth-century world by the Revolution. And his “small patch” of the tapestry—the devastation of the lives of the eastern Indians—is no news either. But no one before Calloway has attempted to cover the whole subject, to explain in detail precisely what the Revolution meant to the native peoples, and to place their experiences within the “huge tapestry”—the full story—of Revolutionary history.

Professor Calloway, the author of authoritative books on the Indians of northern New England, seems peculiarly well situated to view the complicated, and largely tragic, story in an exceptionally broad, even global, setting. For, as he tells the reader at the start of the book, he is a British citizen living in the United States (he is professor of history at the University of Wyoming), and his book

is a non-Indian view of Indian history, and a non-American view of American history, written by an expatriate Briton who holds no brief for British colonialism but who believes that distance and objectivity can be as valuable as “inside information” in writing good history.

Still, perhaps happily for him, the British—or at least their government—come out pretty well from his account of race relations in the borderlands, especially in the prewar years. For he explains, as have others, that in the late colonial period the British government, especially the Crown, seeking to maintain its empire as a commercial rather than a territorial enterprise, attempted to seal off the West from the encroachment of land-hungry settlers, to negotiate with the Indians as with independent foreign states, and to guarantee to the natives the integrity of their traditional hunting grounds. The British government appreciated, Calloway writes (anticipating the contrast with the later, American, government), the importance not only of the Indians’ trade but of their “presence.”

Further, following the lead of the most sophisticated current scholarship on Indian–white relations in the eighteenth century, especially that of Richard White, Calloway explains (again anticipating the contrast with the later American years) how in pre-Revolutionary British North America the Indians lived not merely side by side with the whites throughout the borderland world but literally among them. They were everywhere in the colonies, a constant presence in what has been called “the middle ground” of racial accommodation. They are settled, Calloway quotes one British governor as saying, “amongst our Plantations, they have daily intercourse with them, and are as it were a People interwoven with us.”

As a result there was a large—we do not know how large—population of mixed bloods, métis, of great importance in Anglo-Indian relations. They lived in a strange, Faulknerian world, cultivating a new life style distinct from that of the “full-bloods.” Thus “James Colbert, a Scot, lived with the Chickasaws from his childhood, spoke Chickasaw fluently, and had three Chickasaw wives. His half dozen sons exerted tremendous influence in Chickasaw councils well into the nineteenth century.” Conversely, in Charleston in 1773 the Cherokee leader Oconostota was inducted into the Scots’ St. Andrews Club. The rising incidence of miscegenation and half-breed children is part of an exotic but attractive picture of the pre-Revolutionary borderlands that Calloway gives us. Later, during the war, ravaging American soldiers would be impressed by “the cornucopia they destroyed in Indian fields and villages…rich in agricultural foodstuffs when not disrupted by the ravages of war.” And there were psalm-singing Christian Indian villages, peaceful and prosperous, with small gardens for each house and sufficient livestock, fisheries, and farmyard equipment to provide ample subsistence if not affluence.

Then came the war. The Americans, once released from the constraints of Britain’s presumably benevolent policies toward the Indians and of the normal desire for peace, emerge from Calloway’s account as a bloodthirsty lot of racist land-grabbers whose new national government endorsed their rapacity. No one is spared. The American missionaries, Calloway writes, had as destructive an effect on the Indians’ cultural survival as the soldiers and frontiersmen had on their physical survival. Jefferson, of course (he has been re-invented, these days, as a model of hypocrisy), dismissed and condemned the Indians in his egalitarian Declaration as “merciless” types whose “known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions,” and as governor of Virginia he sent out the troops to destroy them. So too did Washington. Indians loyal to Britain, or even suspected of being loyal, were hit hard by “terror tactics.” Their crops were deliberately destroyed so late in the year that no new crops could be raised before winter; trade routes were disrupted; Indian towns were torched, hunting lands overrun, warriors killed for their scalps, and village populations decimated and driven off in panic.

Search-and-destroy missions” (references to Vietnam run through the book) had deadly effects. “Cherokee women and children,” Calloway writes, relying on a British report written more than half a century later, “were butchered in cold blood and burned alive.” Small children of the Iroquois league were murdered, according to the recollection of a boastful veteran a decade after the event, which Calloway also quotes, “by running them through with bayonets and holding them up to see how they would twist and turn.” Graves were plundered for booty, and Onondaga women and children were murdered “excepting some of the Young Women [an Onondaga chief later claimed], whom they carried away for the use of their Soldiers, & were afterwards put to death in a more shameful manner.”

Yet, though there seem to have been no limits to the atrocities inflicted by rebels whom an Onondaga leader called “perfidious,” the physical devastation seems to Calloway not to have been the worst of the injuries sustained by the Indians. The structure of their social organization was destroyed—by forced migrations that drove into huddled refugee camps scattered remnants of disparate peoples who thereby lost their identity; by the sudden dominance of wild-eyed, avid young warriors bent on vengeance in communities once controlled by moderate, conciliatory elders; and by the upheaval in the seasonality of ritual and ceremonial life.

The Revolution, Calloway concludes—with its “burned villages and crops, murdered chiefs, divided councils and civil wars, migrations, towns and forts choked with refugees, economic disruption, breaking of ancient traditions, losses in battle and to disease and hunger, betrayal to their enemies”—was “one of the darkest periods in American Indian history.”

And when the war, with all its suffering, was over, what then? Peace brought no peace for the Indians. The American victory reduced the Indians “to further dependence and pushed them into further dark ages.” The natives who had been loyal to Britain felt utterly betrayed by the Treaty of 1783, which gave to the United States all the land—their land—east of the Mississippi. Some, like the Creek leader Alexander McGillivray, considered asking the Spanish for help, preferring, he said, “the protection of a great Monarch…to that of a distracted Republic.”

The Americans and their government, claiming the Indians’ land “as the fruits of victory,” moved quickly to exploit their advantage. On the borderlands, violence continued as a flood of back-country settlers swarmed over the land, destroying once and for all the narrow but important “middle ground” of accommodation that had existed before. National, state, and tribal interests clashed repeatedly, and the myth developed that all Indians had sided with Britain and thus deserved to lose their land.

By the mid-1790s, after the Battle of Fallen Timbers, which eliminated Indian resistance in the Old Northwest, and the Treaty of Greenville, by which the Indians ceded most of the present state of Ohio and southeastern Indiana, the conflict was essentially over. Thereafter the Indians would struggle to rebuild what they could, but not as part of the new nation. “The new America,” Calloway writes after surveying the events of the 1790s—and it is his main conclusion—“had no room for Indians and their world.”

The substance of Calloway’s book is not as general and sweeping as this summary would suggest. Two thirds of it consists of a series of eight heavily documented, monographic chapters, in which he explores the detailed, nuanced, sometimes bewildering complexities of the story. From each region or major Indian group, moving from north to south, he selects one small, in some cases minuscule, village, and devotes a full chapter to tracing its fortunes. Each chapter begins with a general summary of the prewar condition and life of the village and of the larger community of which it was a part, and then moves through a chronicle of the war years, and ends with a brisk survey of the postwar fate of the village, its people, and the larger group it represents.

His exemplary villages are obscure, unknown to all but specialist scholars, but they serve his purpose well. Thus Odanak, in Quebec, is chosen to represent the ambiguous responses of the Abenakis; Oquaga, to illustrate “dissension and destruction” in the Iroquois lands, especially among the Indians on the upper Susquehanna River; Maquachake, to typify the failed attempt at neutrality by the Indians in the Ohio country; Chota, to demonstrate the decimation of the Cherokees; Tchoukafala, to dramatize the Chickasaws’ struggle for independence within the American war for independence; and Cuscowilla, to illustrate not only the British loyalism of the Seminoles in northeastern Florida but their actual creation as a distinct people from among migrating fragments of the Creek confederacy. The tales of these obscure villages form micro-narratives of great complexity, which are not simplified by Calloway’s year-by-year, chronicle form of exposition. Within the complexity, however, one finds ambiguities and nuances that sweeping generalizations obscure, and it is to Calloway’s credit that he explores these shadings and subtleties despite the black-and-white character of his overall interpretation.

Thus he explains that many of the Abenakis, forced to abandon the neutrality they sought, went over to the rebels, with whom they had long coexisted, rather than to the British, who, Calloway writes, “ignored the social, political, economic, and geographical realities of Abenaki life” in attempting to centralize “their dispersed and mobile lifestyle.” So the Indians in the pivotal community of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, provided Minutemen at the start of the Revolution; and though ultimately forced to migrate to “New Stockbridge” in New York, they managed to retain their integrity as a group despite the bedlam of ten different Indian language groups that crowded into that refugee village. He shows that the devastation of the Susquehanna Valley was the work of both armies, and if the Americans treated the Indians there as utterly inferior and exploitable people, so too did the “haughty & proud” British officers.

And the nuances that he does not show he clearly implies. The corruption of the Indians during the war resulted as much from British as from American ruthlessness. The ravages of the American troops in the Iroquois country were responses to an Anglo-Indian reign of terror in the northern borderlands no less notable for its atrocities. Many of the conflicts of those years were not sudden creations of unleashed American terrorists but extensions and intensifications of struggles that had originated long before the war for independence, as part of England’s original conquest of the land. And in any case, the “Americans” who savagely encroached on Indian land during the war had been British only a few years before. They had been British when they overran the Proclamation Line of 1763 designed to preserve the trans-Appalachian west for the Indians and when they ruthlessly exploited the westward extension of that line five years later. No American military campaign during the Revolution was as brutalizing and utterly vicious as South Carolina’s Cherokee War of 1760–1761; its wild ferocity turned both the Indians and the back-country vigilantes into appalling savages. There cannot have been many Americans who loathed the Indians as much as Lord Jeffrey Amherst did, or who would have proposed, as he did, “to send the small pox among those dissatisfied tribes”—a proposal concurred in by Colonel Henry Bouquet, who added that it was a shame to waste good soldiers fighting Indians: it would be better to “make use of the Spanish method, to hunt them with English dogs…who would…extirpate or remove that vermin.”

When, during and after the Revolution, Americans seized Indian land by all available means—legal and illegal, peaceable and violent—they were continuing a tradition whose antecedents went back to the earliest years of English settlement in North America. England fought its first Indian war more than a century and a half earlier (1609–1614), and had fought it, in coastal Virginia, with atrocities that shocked even the most hardened soldiers of the time. To pursue it so as to allow the natives “no roome in [their] countrie,” the English authorities sent over a strike force of combat veterans of the Low Countries wars: “hammerours” their contemporaries correctly called them, who acted on the principle that “terrour…made short warres.” As the coastal settlements gradually became gentrified, the savagery of those early years continued unabated in the back-country, with consequences that were reinforced by the pseudo-legalities of large-scale land purchases.

Britain’s Governor James Wright was acting within a long tradition when, in the decade before Independence, he negotiated the purchase from the Indians of close to a fifth of the entire present state of Georgia, which resulted in the replacement of the native population with migrant settlers, slaves, and immigrants from abroad. The efforts of the British government in the years just before the Revolution to preserve the trans-Appalachian west for the Indians was no consequence of humanitarian virtue or ethnic tolerance. Britain’s mechants wanted to maintain the lucrative Indian trade; great landowners like Lord Hillsborough, who for a time was the dominant figure in Anglo-American policy making, feared that opening the American West would draw off tenants from their vast estates at home; and the government was determined to avoid the expense of Indian wars that would result from the westward rush of land-hungry settlers and high-flying, well-organized land speculators.

And would the seeming benignity of Britain’s failing prewar Indian policy have continued into the nineteenth century if the rapacity of the new American nation, which Calloway sketches, had not come to dominate the scene? A generation later, in a presumably more humanitarian era, Britain created another settler society in an aboriginal world—in Australia and New Zealand—and the results are instructive. The Anglo-Australian settlers, backed by the government, seized the natives’ land, exploited the aborigines savagely, and on occasion killed them like animals. It was not in the United States but in Tasmania, and not in the insensitive eighteenth century but in one of the dawning years of humanitarian benevolence, that a public official mobilized an entire settler population to drive out a native population. In 1830, under the direction of Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Arthur, a “black line” of more than five thousand linked militiamen, soldiers, and vigilantes was stretched across the settled two thirds of the land and, like beaters in an animal hunt, moved methodically toward the sea to drive the native population into a refugee camp on an isolated peninsula. That in the end they managed to bag a total of one man and a small boy at an expense of £30,000 turned tragedy into farce, but the goal of extermination was reached anyhow. By 1847 there were only forty-seven aborigines left in Tasmania, and in Australia the ranchers continued to treat the remnants, in Bouquet’s phrase, like vermin.

Calloway’s book shows, in its complex way, how in the American war for freedom and independence Britons, British-Americans, and then Americans intensified the age-old exploitation of the native population. The Anglo-American world of the late eighteenth century was still as racist, as ruthlessly exploitative, as it had been in the early seventeenth century. Yet, despite that, something remarkable happened. When one puts Calloway’s grim story in a truly global context—which Calloway, as an expatriate Briton who holds no brief for British colonialism, would have been in an excellent position to do—what strikes one most forcefully is not the brutality and racism of the war in the Indian country, or the persistence of slavery, the crushing paternalism, or the savage treatment of dependent people. That is what the world was like. What is remarkable is that, amid all these commonplace evils of the age, an Enlightenment project was born, designed to create a better world.

What is surprising, in the context of the time, is not that Jefferson as a war governor sent troops to drive out enemy warriors, and for safety’s sake recommended the expulsion of all of the borderland Indians, and not that he continued to own slaves. What is surprising is that he dreamed of a different, more just world, in which humanity would be freed of its burdens, and did what he could to bring it into being; not that he retained his inherited racism but that he struggled with it, tried to think it through and to understand the contingencies that lay behind apparent racial differences.

We know that in much of this he failed, but in much he succeeded. Lincoln had a better sense of historical context than the historians who now condemn Jefferson for his racism. He recognized that Jefferson remained a slaveholder, but he noted again and again, in speech after speech, that Jefferson truly loathed slavery, spoke out against it, condemned it as an abomination and a curse on mankind, and insisted that since God is just and since His justice will not sleep forever, someday, somehow, that curse would be wiped off the face of the earth.

America’s Enlightenment project was not realized at the time, nor has it been fully realized now. The miracle, in view of the everyday realities of the eighteenth century, is that it existed at all, that it had any kind of practical expression, however limited, in a world as brutal and exploitative as the ancien régime, and that it established ideals to which, in our better moments, we still aspire. Calloway shows just how grim the reality of racial exploitation was, and how incompletely realized the Revolution’s ideals proved to be in the Founders’ generation. The “huge tapestry” of the “full meaning” of the Revolution that he refers to at the start will have to include the “patches” he presents in this comprehensive account of the devastation of the Indian country; but it will also have to include the basic fabric and bright coloration of the enlightened aspirations that defined the purposes and ideals of the new nation.

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