United States-Indian Relations After the Revolution

As Horsman points out, the dominant theme in United States-Indian relations in the decades immediately following the Revolution was the American hunger for more land.[1] A corresponding constant during this period was the belief that war with the Native Americans should be avoided, if at all possible, for both financial and humanitarian reasons. The initial approach to the issue was rather heavy-handed in that it involved American officials informing Indian tribes that the land they occupied was in fact American territory by right of conquest, and that the native peoples had forfeited any claims they may have had by supporting the British during the Revolution. Treaty terms were dictated to the tribes, and American officials presumed that the Indians would willingly recognize the authority and claims of the fledgling Confederation. Under the terms of the treaties, American ownership of all the land between the Ohio and the Mississippi was assumed, and the Indian tribes would be granted the right to occupy stipulated areas. It was also assumed that as settlers moved west toward lands granted to native peoples, the resulting pressures on the forests and game would induce the Indians to move farther west, thus opening up even more land to white settlers. The envisioned end state was for the Indian tribes either to remove beyond the Mississippi or to assimilate into the American culture that would eventually reach that river.[2]

There was understandable native opposition to this grand American plan, and as Indian hostilities seemed imminent, a new approach was inaugurated in 1787 in the form of the Northwest Ordinance. The acquisition of land for white settlement was still the ultimate goal, but the Americans ceased “acting from a position of superiority,” and “treat[ed] with the Indians on a basis of equality.”[3] Land would be purchased from the native peoples, rather than “giving lands to the Indians as though the land were already American.”[4] Two years later, as the new Constitutional republic took shape, “the element of national honor played an increasingly important part in determining the methods of land acquisition.”[5] Secretary of War Henry Knox recognized that the United States did not have the money or the military to remove native peoples by force, and at any rate, he felt that negotiation was preferable to war on humanitarian grounds.[6] Knox advocated the old idea that the very presence of white settlers would push the Indians westward, but he also began campaigning more forcefully for the assimilation of native peoples into “civilized” American society.[7] Despite the best intentions of Knox and other American officials, the Indians “did not want to yield any land beyond the Ohio either by war or purchase,”[8] and the United States was forced to fight the Native Americans until Wayne’s decisive victory at Fallen Timbers in 1794. Knox, speaking now more than ever about “national honor,” recognized that the native peoples must be treated fairly if the United States was not to be judged harshly by future generations, but he nor anyone else seemed to realize that American hunger for land, and native resistance to that hunger, ensured that there would be no solution to the problem.[9]

Throughout the rest of the 1790s, a cowed native populace, coupled with an aggressive American pursuit of pre-emption, allowed for an expansion of white settlement westward. When Thomas Jefferson ascended to the presidency in 1801, “he was able to combine an apparent genuine interest in the welfare of the Indian with a voracious appetite for Indian land.”[10] The plan that Jefferson consistently proposed was for native peoples to discard their old traditions and way of life and assimilate into white society, becoming the yeoman farmers of Jeffersonian ideal. He apparently felt that this was in the best interest of the Native Americans, and that only in this way could they improve their condition.[11] While it is impossible to know for certain whether or not Jefferson’s central motive was humanitarian in nature, it is quite obvious from his words that the result of such Americanization of the Indians would be that “they would need little land, and would exchange it for other necessaries.”[12] He also wished to see more trading houses established among the native peoples so that they might incur debts so substantial that they could only be paid by ceding their lands.[13] While Jefferson was telling Congress that these measures were meeting with success, and that the Native Americans were happily casting aside the old for the new, resistance was in fact building among the Indians.[14] By the time Madison took office, Tecumseh had secured the needed support to wage war on the Americans.[15]


[1] Reginald Horsman, “American Indian Policy in the Old Northwest, 1783-1812,” The William and Mary Quarterly 18, no. 1 (January 1961): 35. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1922806 .

[2] Ibid., 35-39.

[3] Ibid., 41.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 42.

[6] Ibid., 43.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 44.

[9] Ibid., 45.

[10] Ibid., 47.

[11] Ibid., 47-48.

[12] Ibid., 49.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 50.

[15] Ibid., 52.

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