Native Americans and the American Revolution
Digital History ID 220
Prior to the American Revolution, a surprisingly large number of Native Americans lived among whites. There was a large population of people of mixed ancestry, and many lived in such colonial cities as Philadelphia and Charleston. At the start of the Revolution, Indians in Stockbridge, Massachusetts (Algonquins who originally came from western Long Island and eastern New Jersey), provided Minutemen to fight the British.
The Revolution marked an important watershed in the history of Native Americans east of the Mississippi River. Because of their interest in the fur trade and in avoiding costly Indian wars, the British had been eager to prevent rapid settlement of the backcountry and to guarantee Indians the integrity of their hunting grounds. Not surprisingly, Native Americans usually sided with the British during the Revolution.
The American patriots, in contrast, did not need Native Americans in the way either the French or the British had. They were much more interested in rapid western settlement, which resulted in campaigns to subdue and remove tribes on the borders of white settlement. Indeed, such campaigns of removal began during the war itself, as this letter from Thomas Jefferson, then serving as Virginia's governor, makes clear. Jefferson ultimately recommended the expulsion of all borderland Indians.
During the war, many traditional hunting grounds were devastated. British-Indian attacks in the borderlands brought retaliation from American patriots, who destroyed the crops and burnt down towns of Indians suspected of being loyal to the British. Many patriots regarded all Indians as disloyal and forced them to migrate westward. The Stockbridge Indians who had provided Minutemen were forced to move from Massachusetts to New York. The end of the war brought a westward surge of backcountry settlers onto Indian lands.
I have heard with much concern of the many murders committed by the Indians...in the neighborhood of Pittsburg[h]. Hostilities so extensive [indicate]...a formidable Combination of that kind of enemy. Propositions have been made for...stations of men as present a safeguard to the Frontiers, but I own they do not appear to me adequate to the object; all experience has proved that you cannot be defended from the savages but by carrying the war home to themselves and striking decisive blows. It is therefore my opinion that instead of putting our Frontier Inhabitants under that fallacious idea of security, an expedition must be instantly undertaken into the Indian County. Want of full information...put[s] it out of my power to direct the minute parts of such an expedition or to point it to its precise object. Such a plan laid here would probably be rendered abortive by difficulties in the articles of provisions, ill adjusted times and places of rendezvous, and impose unforeseen events and circumstances, which if to be explained and amended from here time to time, the evil will have had its course while we are contriving how to ward it off. I can therefore only undertake to authorize such an expedition and put it into a train for execution....
It might be premature to speak of terms of peace but if events will justify it, the only condition with the Shawnees should be their removal beyond the Mississippi or the [Great] Lakes, and with the other tribes whatever may most effectually secure their observation of the treaty. We have been too diverted by interests of Humanity from enforcing good behavior by severe punishment. Savages are to be curbed by fear only; We are not in a condition to repeat expensive expeditions against them. The business will more be done so as not to have to repeat it again and that instead of making peace on their Application you will only make it after such as shall be felt and remembered by them as long as they a nation.
Source: Gilder Lehrman Institute
Additional information: Thomas Jefferson to Lieutenant of Berkeley County, Virginia
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