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Apologies to the Iroquois


In 1700 the native peoples, whom the Europeans called Indians, demographically dominated the North American continent north of the Rio Grande. If we are to believe the best estimates, they numbered at least 1.6 million, nearly five times the 330,000 or so Europeans and Africans huddled along the Atlantic coast. A century later, by 1800, these proportions had been radically reversed: the inhabitants of North America with European and African ancestry had multiplied dramatically since 1700 and now numbered 5.5 million, over five times the number of remaining indigenous peoples, nine out of ten of whom now lived west of the Mississippi, with most of the eastern Indians having become the victims of war and especially disease.1

These startling demographic statistics form the basic setting for understanding European–Indian relations in eighteenth-century America. They also form the background for Alan Taylor’s extraordinary book about white–Indian relations on the northern borderland at the end of the eighteenth century.

Taylor, a professor of American history at the University of California at Davis, who is among the most distinguished American historians, has written before about the northern borderlands of America. His first book, Liberty Men and Great Proprietors (1990), dealt with the violent protests of settlers against rich and powerful land speculators in the frontier territory of Maine during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. His next book, William Cooper’s Town, which won the Bancroft Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for history in 1996, was a sensitive study of the great eighteenth-century land speculator who founded Cooperstown in upstate New York and was the father of the novelist James Fenimore Cooper.2

Taylor is obviously fascinated with borderlands, which are nearly as important a subject for historians these days as that of Indians. He has turned his remarkable gifts for historical recreation to studying the complicated ways in which the various Indian nations of the Iroquois, the rapidly growing numbers of white settlers, and the different governments of New York, the United States, and Great Britain all interacted and clashed during the late eighteenth century in the territory of the Six Nations of the Iroquois—the Mohawks, Oneidas, Tuscaroras, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas.

During the past thirty years or so the Indians have become increasingly central to early American historical scholarship, especially to the period of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Not that the Indians have been ignored by most historians, but most of the earlier historical studies were written from the white settlers’ point of view and dealt with what Indian scholars now call the “policies and attitudes” of the whites toward the Indians. The Indians were important, but only for their part in the history of white society; indeed, the native peoples often became simply a means by which the advantages and deficiencies of white civilization could be measured. Some distinguished historians even ignored them altogether. Frederick Jackson Turner, in an essay on the early American West published in the first issue of the American Historical Review in 1895, set forth his thesis for understanding the origins of the United States, and the Indians had no place in it. For Turner the New World the Europeans came to in the seventeenth century was “virgin soil,” an “unexploited wilderness” out of which American distinctiveness was born; it was “the fact of unoccupied territory in America that sets the evolution of American and European institutions in contrast.”

No historian of early America could write that way today. Through the efforts of dozens of historians, the Indians have made their presence in early America felt, not as foils in the whites’ efforts at self-examination but as historical participants in their own right, integrally involved in the making of the nation. During the fifteen years between 1959 and 1973, the principal journal of early American history, The William and Mary Quarterly, published only four articles on Indians; in the fifteen years between 1974 and 1988 it published twenty. Since 1988 the number of contributions to what is often now referred to as “ethnohistory” has increased even faster. Indeed, as the historian Ian Steele pointed out a decade ago, the “field of ethnohistory…is developing so quickly that any attempt at accessible synthesis is bound to be premature and incomplete.” Some of the best historians in the US have turned to the Indians as a topic of research, and books on Indians in early America are now winning prestigious prizes.

Some of this recent flourishing of Indian scholarship has come from a broadening of perspective on how early America should be defined. With the weakening or loss over the past several decades of a belief in the reality of any overall American national identity, many historians have ceased looking to the colonial period to account for the origins of the United States. As Joyce Appleby has pointed out, these historians found it “easy to abandon the idea that what was truly important about the colonies was their contribution to American nationhood.” With early American historians urging each other to “avoid letting their field again become the prehistory of the United States,” many now found it possible to write about the Indians in early America without being concerned whether they contributed to the creation of the United States.

Yet other historians of the Indians have increasingly sought to show, as James Axtell has put it, that the presence of the natives was “essential…to the exploration, colonization, and national origins of America…. Without the Indians, America would not be America as we know it.” Daniel K. Richter believes that even a history of early America written exclusively from the Indians’ point of view can help Americans “find ways to focus more productively on our future.” In his prize-winning book, Facing East from Indian Country, Richter argues that at this moment “in our fractious nation’s experience, it seems more than necessary and desirable to find frames of reference capable of embracing the common, if often excruciating, origins of the continent’s diverse peoples.”3 Some anthropologists have gone further, arguing that the Indians have made significant contributions to America’s political institutions, including its federalism and the making of its Constitution. Some have even contended that “democracy” was “perhaps Native America’s greatest contribution to the world.” It “toppled European monarchies and ultimately resulted in the formation of the United States.”

The best of the recent historians of the Indians, including Alan Taylor, do not have to make such exaggerated claims to justify the importance of the Indians in histories of early America. They now know only too well that the Indians were present everywhere in early America. Not only did the native peoples dominate nearly all of the trans-Appalachian West in the eighteenth century, but at the time of the Revolution they were also essential to the life of the eastern seaboard—as traders, as farmers, as laborers, as hunters, as guides, even as sailors. Both Thomas Jefferson in Virginia and John Adams in Massachusetts grew up knowing Indians who lived near their homes.

A half-century or so later, however, everything had changed. By the early decades of the nineteenth century the Indians had disappeared from the lives of most white Americans. As the distinguished historian James Merrell has pointed out, instead of being omnipresent neighbors, trading partners, fellow laborers, or hostile enemies, the Indians by the early nineteenth century were reduced in American eyes to rare curios and exotic specimens. When the defeated Sauk leader Black Hawk and some of his men traveled through several eastern cities in 1833, thousands of whites lined the streets to catch a glimpse of these strange beings whom their parents and grandparents only a half-century earlier had taken for granted as members of their neighborhoods.

Such a dramatic transformation makes the early decades of US history one of the most important eras in the history of the North American Indians and, not surprisingly, Taylor has concentrated on this crucial period. He begins roughly in the 1760s when the Iroquois moved freely between Canada and the colony of New York and ends in the early nineteenth century when two borders had been erected in the region, one between the new United States and the British Empire in Canada and one between the American white settlers and the remnants of the Six Nations of the Iroquois in the state of New York. Playing on the title of Richard White’s celebrated history, The Middle Ground (1991), which stressed the extent to which Algonquian Indians and whites accommodated one another in the Ohio Valley during the pre-Revolutionary period, Taylor’s title, The Divided Ground, emphasizes the degree to which Iroquois and whites became separated from each other in the northern borderlands of New York during the post-Revolutionary period.

In the years before the Revolution there may have been ten thousand Iroquois roaming free of white settlers, with the Senecas in the far west of New York making up about half that number. The Revolution changed everything; indeed, it was a catastrophe for the Iroquois nations. Since most of the Six Nations sided with the British or tried to remain neutral, the victorious Americans tended to treat all the Iroquois nations, even the Oneidas who had supported them, as conquered enemies.

By the end of the Revolution in 1784, the dislocations of the war, malnutrition, and disease had diminished the Iroquois numbers by well over one third, to about six thousand in a state that already had 240,000 whites. (Though, as Taylor points out, the Indian “warriors possessed a prowess disproportionate to their limited numbers.”) Two decades later the once- proud Six Nations had been reduced to tiny scattered enclaves each with populations numbering in the hundreds surrounded by rapidly growing numbers of white settlers. By 1802 the Oneidas, for example, were left with only 2 percent of the land they had held in 1783.

This story is a poignant one, as any story about the Indians in this period must be, but, according to Taylor, it is not a simple story of Indian victimization; the Iroquois were never, he says, “mere pawns” in a game between the British and the Americans. Taylor rejects the common view of “Indians as defiant but doomed traditionalists, as noble but futile defenders of ancient modes of land use and ownership.” He denies that they were “adamant primitives who bravely but hopelessly resisted the inevitable.” This common view of the Indians, he says, was created by the settlers who dispossessed them, and he wants no part of it. Instead, he wants to show the resourceful ways by which the Indians struggled to resist the process of white settlement. While they realized that the demographics were against them, they tried to offset the disparity of numbers by leasing their land to settlers rather than selling it; by choosing as neighbors white settlers who were more apt to respect their rights; and by asking for annual payments to make up for the loss of their hunting grounds. They tried to deal directly with the white settlers and fought valiantly to prevent the state and federal governments from becoming preemptive buyers of their land.

  1. 1

    I owe these figures to an unpublished paper by Peter H. Wood, “When Will Colonial History Become Truly Continental? A Pacific Perspective on North America’s Intercultural Frontiers in the Eighteenth Century.”

  2. 2

    See my review in the pages, The New York Review, August 8, 1996.

  3. 3

    Harvard University Press, 2001, pp. 5–10.

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