American Indians, American Revolution

Joseph Ellis stated that, “[n]ext to the failure to end slavery…the inability to reach a just accommodation with the Native Americans was the greatest failure of the revolutionary generation,”[1] and it is difficult to argue with his assertion. Moreover, this failure was tragically compounded by the fact that the freedoms won in the American Revolution did not apply to the original inhabitants of this continent. White Americans were the sole heirs to the legacy of the spirit of ’76, not the Africans transported here against their will or the Amerindians who had called this land home for countless generations. Indeed, it took another hundred years for Indians to be considered persons before the law, and it was not until 1924 that Congress passed legislation that made citizens of all Native Americans born in the United States.[2]

The American Revolution had a profound impact on the Native Americans, but “our national mythology accords a minimal and negative role in the story of the Revolution: they chose the wrong side and they lost.”[3] Even scholarly general narratives of the Revolution tend to minimize the role played by, and the impact on, Amerindians in the war. Ferling, for example, devoted very few pages of Almost a Miracle in discussing Sullivan’s brutal campaign against the Iroquois, this despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that American forces waged total war against the Indians in New York in accordance with “Washington’s orders: ‘lay waste all the settlements around…that the country may not be merely overrun but destroyed.’”[4]

While it was true that more Indians allied themselves with the British than with the Americans, even those tribes who rallied to the rebel cause have been largely ignored by historians of the period. How many Americans know about the Stockbridge Indians, for example? This small community of Mahicans in western Massachusetts fought alongside British colonists during the Seven Years’ War, and despite ill-treatment at the hands of their colonial neighbors volunteered for militia service with Washington’s army in 1775. The Stockbridges subsequently served admirably in various capacities throughout the war, suffering disproportional casualties and hardships as a result, but their service went unappreciated. Relentless pressure from white settlers forced them farther and farther west until, by 1830, the remnants of this proud tribe had settled in Wisconsin.[5]


[1] Joseph J. Ellis, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), 129.

[2] Thomas Henry Tibbles, ed. by Kay Graber, Standing Bear and the Ponca Chiefs (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1972); Dee Brown, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (New York: Picador, 1970), 360-62; NebraskaStudies.Org, “Native American Citizenship: 1924 Indian Citizenship Act,”  http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0700/frameset_reset.html?http://www.nebraskastudies.org/0700/stories/0701_0146.html.

[3] Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), xii.

[4] John Ferling, Almost a Miracle: The American Victory in the War of Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 353.

[5] Calloway, American Revolution in Indian Country, 85-107.

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