Chapter Five: Native Peoples and the Rise of a New American Empire

Chapter Five

 Native Peoples and the Rise of a New American Empire



American children long have learned about the great men who led their people in the revolution against British tyranny, who fought against long odds to win their independence, and who assembled in Philadelphia to establish a more perfect union.  The “Founding Fathers,” however, went by other names in native communities.  Many Indians saw the Americans not as patriots fighting for freedom but as “perfidious cruel rebels” and as “white savages.”  They referred to them not as champions of liberty but as “Butchers” and “Killers” and “madmen.”  They called them “Big Knives” or “Long Knives,” a name that reflected the violence they associated with the citizens of the new republic.  To the Senecas, George Washington was not the father of his country, but the “Town Destroyer,” for the campaign he launched against them in 1779.   Indeed, when the citizens of that republic declared their independence in July of 1776, they did so not only on the grounds that all men “were endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights” including “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” but because the King and his corrupt ministers had, as Thomas Jefferson put it, “endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” Many native people did fight against the Americans, and the birth of the American republic was a catastrophe for them. The new American empire rose on the ruins of Indian communities, and threatened their lives, liberties, and properties in unprecedented ways.


To Learn More

A provocative overview of this period is offered by Edward Countryman in “Indians, the Colonial Order, and the Social Significance of the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly, 53 (April 1996), 342-362.

For the Plains in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, see Claudio Saunt, West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776, (New York: Norton, 2015) and Colin D. Calloway, One Vast Winter Count: The Native American West Before Lewis and Clark, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003).  Richard White’s important article, “The Winning of the West: The Expansion of the Western Sioux in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Journal of American History, 65 (1978) covers the Northern Plains. It is still widely read.  Also generally useful for this early period are Pekka Hämäläinen, The Comanche Empire, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009) and “The Politics of Grass: European Expansion, Ecological Change, and Indigenous Power in the Southwest Borderlands,” William and Mary Quarterly 67 (April 2010), 173-208.  James Mooney’s Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians, Introduced by John C. Ewers, Classics of Smithsonian Anthropology, (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1979) is valuable, as is Mildred Mayhall, The Kiowas. 2nd ed. (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1971) and Thomas Kavanaugh, The Comanches: A History, 1706-1875, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999).  Juliana Barr, in Peace Came in the Form of a Woman: Indians and Spaniards in the Texas Borderlands, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), and Ned Blackhawk, in Violence Over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), cover geographic areas traditionally ignored by American historians, as does Natale Zappia, in his excellent Traders and Raiders: The Indigenous World of the Colorado Basin, 1540-1859, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014).  All three of these are fantastic studies that will provide useful material for classroom discussions. See also  Loretta Fowler, Shared Symbols, Contested Meanings: Gros Ventre Culture and History, 1778-1984, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1987); Andrew Isenberg, The Destruction of the Bison: Social and Environmental Changes In the Great Plains, 1750-1820, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Lucy Eldersveld Murphy, Great Lakes Creoles: A French-Indian Community on the Northern Borderlands, Prairie du Chien, 1750-1860, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014); and James P. Ronda, Lewis and Clark among the Indians, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1984).

For the Caddos during the years of the American Revolution, see Kathleen Duval, The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006); Mark Allan Goldberg, “Negotiating Nacogdoches: Hasinai Caddo-Spanish Relations, Trade Space, and the Formation of the Texas-Louisiana Border, 1779-1819,” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 33 (no. 1, 2009), 65-87; and F. Todd Smith, The Caddos, the Wichitas, and the United States, 1846-1901, (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1996).

For the Crows, two books are especially valuable: Frederick Hoxie, Parading Through History: The Making of the Crow Nation in America, 1805-1935, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) and Joseph Medicine Crow, From the Heart of Crow Country: The Crow Indians’ Own Stories, (New York: Orion Books, 1992).

There is a large literature treating the history of the Chumash from the founding of the Spanish missions through to the uprising of 1824.  For some of the best of this literature, see Deana Dartt-Newton and Jon M. Erlandson, “Little Choice for the Chumash: Colonialism, Cattle, and Coercion in Mission Period California,” American Indian Quarterly, 30 (2006), 416-430; Robert F. Heizer, The Natural World of the California Indians, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980); The Destruction of the California Indians, (Santa Barbara: Peregrine Smith, 1974); and “A California Messianic Movement of 1801 Among the Chumash,” American Anthropologist, 43 (1941), 128-129; Daniel O. Larsen, et. al., “Missionization among Coastal Chumash of Central California: A Study of Risk Minimization Strategies,” American Anthropologist, 96 (1994), 263-99; and two pieces by James A. Sandos: Converting California: Indians and Franciscans in the Missions, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004) and “‘Levantamiento!’ The 1824 Chumash Uprising,” The Californians, 5 (1987), 8-20.  For useful general overviews, students should see two books written by Steven Hackel, Junipero Serra: California’s Founding Father, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2013) and Children of Coyote, Missionaries of St. Francis: Indian-Spanish Relations in Colonial California, 1769-1850, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).

For the Coast Salish peoples who lived along the waters draining into the Puget Sound, see Alexandra Harmon, Indians in the Making: Ethnic Relations and Indian Identities Around Puget Sound, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998); Vi Hilbert, Haboo: Native American Stories from Puget Sound (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1985).

There is a large literature exploring the Indians’ American Revolution, but the experience of native peoples living behind the frontier, remains relatively under-studied.  Some of this deficiency is being remedied for New England, where records are especially abundant. See Ruth Wallis Herndon and Ella Wilcox Sekatau, “The Right to a Name: The Narragansett People and Rhode Island Officials in the Revolutionary Era,” Ethnohistory, 44 (Fall 1997), 433-462, an important and underrated article.  Also valuable is Daniel Mandell, Tribe, Race, History: Native Americans in Southern New England, 1780-1880, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008) and “Shifting Boundaries of race and Ethnicity: Indian-Black Intermarriage in Southern New England, 1760-1880,” Journal of American History, 85 (September 1998), 466-501. Daniel Vickers has looked at the struggle by native peoples to retain their autonomy in “The First Whalemen of Nantucket,” William and Mary Quarterly, 40 (1983), 560-583 and Nancy Shoemaker has looked at the roles played by New England Indians aboard whaling crews in “Mr. Tashtego: Native American Whalemen in Antebellum New England,” Journal of the Early Republic 33 (Spring 2013), 109-132.  For the Powhatans, Helen Rountree’s Pocahontas’s People: The Powhatan Indians of Virginia Through Four Centuries, (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990) remains the most important single volume.

There are a number of works that look at Samson Occom’s missionary career and the famous sermon he delivered at the execution of Moses Paul.  See Ava Chamberlain, “The Execution of Moses Paul: A Story of Crime and Contact in   Eighteenth Century Connecticut,” New England Quarterly, 77 (September 2004), 414-450; Kristina Bross, Dry Bones and Indian Sermons: Praying Indians in Colonial America, (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004); and Laura Stevens, The Poor Indians: British Missionaries, Native Americans, and Colonial Sensibility, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004).

For the experience of the Senecas and the Haudenosaunee in general, see several of the chapters in Colin D. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity In Native American Communities, (London: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Joseph R. Fischer, A Well-Executed Failure: The Sullivan Campaign Against the Iroquois, July-September 1779, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997); Barbara Graymont, The Iroquois and the American Revolution, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1972); Alan Taylor, The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution, (New York: Knopf, 2006); and Karim Tiro,  The People of the Standing Stone: The Oneida Nation from the Revolution Through the Era of Removal, (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011) and “A ‘Civil’ War?  Rethinking Iroquois Participation in the American Revolution,” Perspectives in Early American Culture, 4 (2000), 148-165.

For the Cherokees and the Chickamaugas during the era of the American Revolution, important books have been produced by Tyler Boulware, Deconstructing the Cherokee Nation: Town, Region and Nation Among Eighteenth-Century Cherokees (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2011); Cynthia Cunfer, Separate Peoples, One Land: The Minds of Cherokees, Blacks and Whites on the Tennessee Frontier, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007); Gregory Evans Dowd, A Spirited Resistance: The Indians Great Awakening, 1745-1815, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); and Tom Hatley, The Dividing Paths: Cherokees and South Carolinians Through the Era Of Revolution, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).  For the Southeastern Indians generally during the Revolution, see Greg O’Brien, The Choctaws in a Revolutionary Age, 1750-1830, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001); Daniel H. Usner, Jr., Indians, Settlers and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Economy: The Lower Mississippi Valley Before 1783, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1992).  For the Creeks, Kathleen Holland Braund, Deerskins and Duffels: The Creek Indian Trade with Anglo-America, 1685-1815, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993); Robbie Ethridge, Creek Country: The Creek Indians and Their World, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Andrew K. Frank, Creeks and Southerners: Biculturalism on the Early American Frontier, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2005); Michael D. Green, The Politics of Indian Removal: Creek Government and Society in Crisis, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1982); Bryan Rindfleisch, “’Our Lands are Our Life and Breath’: Coweta, Cusseta, and the Struggle for Creek Territory and Sovereignty during the American Revolution,” Ethnohistory, 60 (Fall 2013), 581-603; Claudio Saunt, A New Order of Things: Property, Power and the Transformation of the Creek Indians, 1733-1816 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999)

Many of the works listed above treat the Confederation era as well. In terms of federal policy, the work of Francis Paul Prucha is still valuable.  See The Great Father, 2 vols., (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press,1984) and Colin Calloway, Pen and Ink Witchcraft: Treaties and Treaty-Making in American Indian History, (New York: Oxford, 2013).

The rush to dispossess the Senecas and their Haudenosaunee neighbors in the aftermath of the American Revolution is covered by many of the books on the Iroquois listed above, as well as Laurence M. Hauptman, Conspiracy of Interests: Iroquois Dispossession and the Rise of New York State, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999); J. David Lehman, “The End of the Iroquois Mystique: The Oneida Land Cession Treaties of the 1780s,” William and Mary Quarterly, 47 (October 1990); and Michael Leroy Oberg, “Good Neighbors: The Onondagas and the Fort Schuyler Treaty of September 1788,” New York History 88 (Fall 2007), 391-418. Thomas Abler, in Cornplanter: Chief Warrior of the Allegany Senecas. (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2007) and Christopher Densmore, in Red Jacket: Iroquois Diplomat and Orator, (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1999) offer accessible biographies of important Seneca leaders.  Also important for this era of Seneca history, and so many others, are Matthew Dennis, Seneca Possessed: Indians, Witchcraft, and Power in the Early American Republic. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010) and Anthony F. C. Wallace, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, (New York: Knopf, 1970). Undergraduates may find both of these books daunting reads.

There is a large literature exploring British-Indian relations in the “Old Northwest.”  Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) is an important work that covers the region the French called the pays d’en haut over  many decades, as do works by Michael Witgen, An Infinity of Nations: How the Native World Shaped Early North America, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); Timothy D. Willig, Restoring the Chain of Friendship: British Policy and the Indians of the Great Lakes, 1783-1815, (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008);  Robert S. Allen, His Majesty’s Indian Allies: British Indian Policy in the Defense of Canada, 1774-1815, (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992); Colin Calloway, Crown and Calumet: British-Indian Relations, 1783-1815, (Norman, OK, University of Oklahoma Press, 1987) and Michael McDonnell, Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America, (New York: Hill and Wang, 2016).  Reginald Horsman’s The Frontier in the Formative Years, 1783-1815, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1975) is still of value, as is Dowd’s Spirited Resistance.  Helen Hornbeck Tanner’s “The Glaize in 1792: A Composite Indian Community.” Ethnohistory, 25 (1978) 15-39 is a classic.  Jeffrey Ostler’s essay, “’To Extirpate the Indians’: An Indigenous Consciousness of Genocide in the Ohio Valley and Lower Great Lakes, 1750s-1810,” William and Mary Quarterly, 72 (October 2015), 587-622, will be extremely useful to students interested in this period.  Eric Hinderaker, Elusive Empires: Constructing Colonialism in the Ohio Valley, 1673-1800, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997) is worth looking at as well.

On early Federal Indian policy, see Francis Paul Prucha’s American Indian Policy in the Formative Years: The Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts, 1790-1834, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1962) which remains the best treatment of this important piece of legislation.  Also valuable are Bernard Sheehan, Seeds of Extinction: Jeffersonian Philanthropy and the American Indian, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1973). The works by Taylor, Wallace, Clifton, and others, cited above, are valuable as well.

On the events of 1794, see Dowd’s Spirited Resistance; David Andrew Nichols, Red Gentlemen and White Savages: Indians, Federalists and the Search for Order on the American Frontier, (Charlottesville, 2008); and Michael Leroy Oberg, Peacemakers: The Iroquois, the United States, and the Treaty of Canandaigua, 1794, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).  Important context for the policies of these years is provided by Brian Dippie, The Vanishing American: White Attitudes and U.S. Indian Policy, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1982) and Reginald Horsman, Race and Manifest Destiny: The Origins of American Racial Anglo-Saxonism, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1981).



For Plains Indians winter counts, see the exhibition placed online by the Smithsonian Institution, featuring Lakota calendars.  For information on Kiowa winter counts, see this link.  James Mooney’s Calendar History of the Kiowa Indians is online via Google Books.

Good material is available on Grand Caddo on the Texas Beyond History website.  That material can be accessed here. Information on Antonio de Ulloa and Athanases de Mezieres are available online as well.  Herbert Bolton’s famous study is on Google Books.
For the California expedition of Portola, see this Google Map and this map placed online by the University of Southern California. Portola’s published diary is online and easily available as well. The Santa Barbara Natural History Museum has placed online a detailed map of Chumash settlement sites at the time of the Portola expedition. For the Santa Barbara Mission, click here and for La Purisima click here. The writings of Junipero Serra are available online through Hathitrust.

George Vancouver’s account of his Voyage of Discovery is available on Google Books. Coast Salish art and history can be explored by students at the Burke Museum. The online exhibition is available here.

The Seneca leaders Guyashuta and Blacksnake can be read about here and here. To read about Fort Niagara, click here. For those interested in reading Samson Occom’s Sermon at the Execution of Moses Paul, it is available here.

The Journals of the Continental Congress shed light on the new nation’s efforts to manage relations with the many Indian communities lining its borders. They are available at the Library of Congress “Century of Lawmaking” site. Students will find much to talk about in Benjamin West’s famous portrait of Guy Johnson. Joseph Brant sat for many portraits, a testament to his significance within the Anglo-American empire.  These can be viewed at his Wikipedia page.  For the Battle of Oriskany, 1777, see the National Park Service write-up on its history. For the 1779 Van Schaick expedition against the Onondagas, click here and here.  Van Schaick’s raid preceded the much larger invasion of Seneca country launched by Major General John Sullivan. It can be read about here.

For an overview of John Stuart’s career as Superintendent for Indian Affairs in the Southern Department, see this article on the NCPedia.  Stuart’s Memoir of the Indian Wars, which he wrote well before the American Revolution began, can be accessed here. For the Cherokees’ experience in general, in addition to the excellent work identified in the “To Learn More” section, have a look at this article. For information on the difficulties between John Sevier, the “State of Franklin,” and the Cherokees, follow the documentary trail through the American State Papers series, linked to below.

For the Confederation Era, you can read the 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix and the 1785 Treaty of Hopewell and Fort McIntosh.  For the Speech of the United Indian Nations, December 1786, click here.  The Continental Congress 1786 Ordinance on Indian policy runs counter to some of the trends present in states like North Carolina, New York, and Georgia. To see what Congress hoped to achieve, click here.  For Henry Knox’s Report on the failures of the Confederation to keep order on the frontier, see Volume 34 of the Journals of the Continental Congress, linked to above. The failure of the states to keep order along the frontier in part led to the replacement of the Articles of Confederation with the United States Constitution in 1787.  Both documents should be read for what they say about the place of native peoples under American systems of governance. The economical language of the Constitution was fleshed out in the first of several Indian Trade and Intercourse Acts passed in the summer of 1790.  The law is so central to understanding federal Indian policy that all students should read it.

Online sources treating early federal Indian policy are common.  There are specific collections, like the Papers of Jasper Parrish, the federal agent in New York, placed online by Vassar College, and important collections of more general primary source documents. The Papers of the War Department Online contains a wealth of material about the Indian policy of the early United States, and includes many Indian voices.  The site is searchable and easy to use.  Students can examine documents in manuscript, learning the intricacies and patience required to transcribe and interpret handwritten documents. The American Memory project sponsored by the Library of Congress is worth consulting as well.  Check out the American State Papers Series, which covers the first three decades of the nineteenth century thoroughly.  You can read here Henry Knox’s report on the continuing struggle to maintain order in the Northwest Territory (Volume 1, pp. 13-14). The new nation’s early treaties are included in the comprehensive collection of treaties and laws compiled by Charles Kappler.

The new national government under the Constitution did not achieve all that it wanted to in Indian Affairs, and the Trade and Intercourse Act did not bring order to the frontier.  Senecas, like Cornplanter, Red Jacket, and Handsome Lake, contended with expanding white settlements in New York State.  Efforts to keep the peace, like the 1789 Fort Harmar Treaty, failed owing to the land hunger of the United States. Warfare erupted in the Northwest Territory. Students can read about the defeat of Josiah Harmar in 1790 and Arthur St. Clair, one year later. Indian resistance was put down in 1794 at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the end of a campaign commanded by General Anthony Wayne.  Wayne extracted a huge cession of lands at the 1795 Treaty of Greenville. One of the government’s great fears was that the Six Nations, and especially the Senecas, would join with the northwestern Indians in attacks on American settlements. Intense diplomacy was required. The Treaty of Canandaigua helped secure peace between the Iroquois and the United States. Meanwhile a second Treaty at Holston ended the resistance by the Chickamauga Cherokees.  The excellent map created by Claudio Saunt, a historian at the University of Georgia, conveys the scale of land loss that accompanied America’s independence.


Assignments and Study Questions

  1. People, Peoples, Places and Things

Long Knives                                                   Comanche Empire

Winter Counts                                                 Paul Marin

Antonio de Ulloa                                            Athanases de Mézières

Tinhiouen                                                        Grand Caddo

Smallpox                                                         Gaspar de Portolá

Chumash                                                         Junipero Serra

Santa Barbara                                                  San Buenaventura

La Purisima                                                     Santa Ines

neophytes                                                        Felipe de Neve

Andrés Sagimomatsee                                    Santa Cruz Island

Chumash Revolt, 1824                                   Coast Salish

George Vancouver                                          Skagits

Snohomish                                                      Squaxin

Puget Sound                                                   Nisqually

Puyallup                                                          Snohomish

Stillaguamish                                                   Swinomish

Samish                                                             Makah

Klallam                                                            Quillayute

Nooksack                                                        Muckleshoots

Guyashuta                                                       Eleazar Wheelock

Samson Occom                                               Niantics

Moses Paul                                                      Sir William Johnson

Flying Crow                                                    John Butler

Battle of Oriskany                                          Blacksnake

Cherry Valley Massacre                                  Goose Van Schaick

Sullivan Campaign                                          Fort Niagara

Buffalo Creek                                                 Cattaraugus Creek

Lochaber treaty                                               Oconostota

Attakullakulla                                                 Dragging Canoe

DeWitt’s Corner                                             Chota

Old Tassel                                                       John Stuart

Continental Congress                                      Article IX (Articles of Confederation)

State of Franklin                                             John Sevier

Treaty of Hopewell                                         Sayenqueraghta

George Clinton                                               Hartford Compact, 1786

Phelps and Gorham                                         Cornplanter

Fort McIntosh Treaty                                      Speech of the United Indian Nations

US Constitution                                              Henry Knox

Trade and Intercourse Act, 1790                    Timothy Pickering

Town Destroyer                                              Arthur St. Clair

Harmar’s Defeat                                             Gnadenhutten

Glaize                                                              Painted Pole

Anthony Wayne                                              Battle of Fallen Timbers

Treaty of Greenville                                        Treaty of Canandaigua

Chickamaugas                                                 Tellico Blockhouse Treaty


  1. Discussion Questions and Writing Assignments


  1.  The anthropologist Raymond Fogleson once posed the question of whether the American Revolution was really an “event” for native peoples.  Was it, he suggested, merely the replacement of one George with another (George III of England, for George Washington of the United States)?  Just one more conflict in a long history of conflicts in New York, the American South, and the Ohio Country?  What did the American Revolution mean to native peoples?
  2. What would a history of the American Revolution written by a Mohegan or a Seneca, a Potawatomi or a Cherokee, look like?  Facing east from Indian country, what did native peoples see when they looked at the crisis years of the American Revolution?
  3. In what ways did the new United States pose challenges to native peoples that were different from those posed by the British Empire?  In what ways was there continuity?
  4. Describe the evolution of American policies towards native peoples from 1776 until 1794.  How does one best account for the shifts in American policy?



A Discussion Forum for Teaching and Writing Native American History