Indians and the American Revolution

            For nearly three centuries, Amerindians watched as succeeding waves of Europeans arrived in North America. The native peoples became witnesses of and very often participants in violent struggles for control over the “New World.” During those years, many tribes simply disappeared under the seemingly endless stream of European settlers who planted a cross or a flag for their homeland and grabbed up as much land as they could. Those native peoples who survived found ways to adapt, and some, such as the Iroquois Confederacy, actually found ways to thrive in the new political and economic systems. When the American Revolution began, the Amerindians were once again faced with choices: pick a side, or remain neutral? If not neutral, which side? As had almost always been the case in the past, the choices the native peoples made reflected their desire to weather yet another storm, to emerge from this latest war relatively unscathed. And as had almost always been the case, the Amerindians were rarely allowed to remain neutral; in the minds of most Europeans, an Indian who professed neutrality was in fact professing loyalty to the enemy.

            The American Revolution was different for the Amerindians, though. For the first time, a large-scale war had broken out between peoples who spoke the same language. The British regulars still stationed in North America who had fought with and died alongside the colonial militiamen (and some of the Amerindians) just a few years earlier against the French were now fighting each other. Tribes all along the Atlantic coast were confused, and many, weary of war, simply wished to be left out of this English family quarrel.[1] Most of the tribes, however, soon found that remaining neutral was impossible. The Amerindians had become so dependent on the colonists for trade goods, particularly arms and ammunition, that refusing to choose a side meant choosing to starve.[2] The native peoples also had to concern themselves with who had the best chance of winning the war. After all, if they chose to support the losing side, how would they be treated by the victors? In the end, even those who chose to support the colonists fared little better than those who supported the English, as the Indians of Stockbridge came to realize.[3]

            Most tribes supported the British for a few primary reasons. First, the English crown simply had more wealth and resources to continue trading with the Amerindians on a larger scale than the Americans could afford. Second, for the trans-Appalachian tribes at least, the Royal Proclamation of 1763 afforded the Amerindians the greatest chance of keeping European settlers out of their lands. Support for the British meant, hopefully, support for the proclamation. Finally, the Indians recognized that most of the direct acts of land grabbing and treachery had been committed by the colonists, so it only made sense to fight for the crown.[4]

            There were a few native peoples who fought with the Americans, and their reasons varied. The fortunes of the Indians of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, for example, had become so intertwined with the those of the Americans who lived, worked, and traded among them that it was natural for them to fight for the same cause. The native peoples of Stockbridge had seen their lands shrink along with their voice in local politics as more white settlers arrived in western Massachusetts, but despite this, and with the hope that a show of loyalty might cause the Americans to restore their lands to them, the Stockbridge Indians chose to fight for the Americans. It was tragic and disgraceful that their sacrifices “did not earn [them] a place in the nation they helped to create.”[5]

          The American Revolution splintered the Six Nations of the Iroquois, with most choosing to fight for the British, who were their traditional trading partners in Albany. A few, however, chose to support their Americans, and at least part of the reason for this schism was religious in nature. Anglican missionaries, who were primarily Loyalists, competed with American Presbyterians for the souls of Iroquois in the upper Susquehanna Valley, and the religious divide that resulted evolved into a political one that largely determined for whom the competing sects would fight.[6]

[1] Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 26-28.

[2] Ibid., 31.

[3] Ibid., 107.

[4] Carl Waldman, Atlas of the North American Indian, 3rd ed. (New York: Checkmark Books, 2009), 144; Calloway, American Revolution in Indian Country, 31.

[5] Calloway, American Revolution in Indian Country, 107.

[6] Ibid., 108-28.

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