Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 14
by Robert S. Allen
The Indian Department and the Frontier in the American Revolution (1775-84)
The outbreak of hostilities at Lexington in 1775 created a new set of problems for the British Indian Department. Its role was no longer one of controlling and appeasing discontented tribes: now the department was instructed to conduct a planned and careful crusade to win the allegiance of the Indians to the royal interest. As has been noted, between 1763 and 1775, the British government attempted to discourage westward migration, but in the colonies "it was the passion of every Man to be a Landholder, and the People had a Natural Disposition to rove in Search of good Lands, however distant."1 The limitless stretches of unoccupied western territory inhabited by only a few roving Indians had created an opportunity for quick acquisition of land by immigrants. With imperial troops concentrated initially along the eastern seaboard, Americans in considerable numbers pursued their wishes unhindered by the irritating restraints of British colonial policy.
A summary and explanation of the philosophy of these frontier people in 1775 was provided by the governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, who had failed to enforce British regulations.
Thus the American Revolution became in the West, as had other white confrontations there, an Indian war.
In 1775 both the British and the Americans endeavoured to secure Indian assistance. In Boston, General Gage urged such a policy; and Colonel Guy Johnson, nephew and son-in-law of Sir William and the newly appointed British Indian Department superintendent, perceived that other colonies were about to follow the example of Massachusetts, and found that various measures were being taken by "New England Missionaries and others to alienate the affections of the Indians and Spirit them up to bad purposes."3 Lord Dartmouth, Secretary of State for the Colonies, reacted quickly. Writing to Johnson he advised that
Although both the British and the Americans had begun to recruit Indian allies, most of the tribes gravitated toward Great Britain rather than the colonies. The king, as represented by the British Indian Department, had a history of just dealings with the natives. Gage astutely observed that "the Indians well know that in all their landed disputes the crown has a ways been their friend."5 Indeed, the main duty of the British Indian agent had been to protect the various tribes from acts of aggression or depredation by the American settlers.6 Therefore in the autumn of 1775, realizing the futility of attempting to gain Indian aid, the Americans adopted a policy of seeking their neutrality. At Fort Pitt a treaty of peace was negotiated with the Six Nations, Delaware and Shawnee.7 The commissioners gave assurances that Americans would not settle north of the Ohio River, and Congress voted its consent. Virginia passed a law forbidding settlement beyond the river, and for a while the natives seemed content with the arrangement. But the promises of white non-expansion were not fulfilled and the British soon gained the active support of most of the tribes.
The value of the alliance with the Indians was soon appreciated by the British when, in early September, 1775, an American expedition of 1,000 soldiers landed in a swamp about a mile below the British fort of Saint-Jean on Lake Champlain. The southwest curtain of the fort was not completed and the much smaller force under Major Charles Preston could not have withstood a strong assault. As the Americans pressed through the woods sensing an easy victory before falling on an ill-prepared Montreal, about 100 Caughnawaga surprised them and forced them to retire. The Indian attack not only delayed the American advance on Saint-Jean but, more importantly on Montreal for over two weeks, a respite which gave the British time to attend to the defence of the fort (which eventually fell) as well as the rest of the province. In large measure, the Indian victory in the woods near Saint-Jean, by delaying the American advance on Montreal and Quebec, contributed to the complete defeat of the Americans before the prepared British defences at Sault-au-Matelot and Près-de-Ville on the last day of 1775.8
For the British Indian Department, collecting, organizing, feeding and keeping their native allies in a happy and warlike mood was tedious and continuous work. At Fort Ontario, Guy Johnson "assembled 1458 Indians and adjusted matters with them in such a manner that they agreed to defend the communications, and assist His Majesty's troops in their operations."9 The Indians were to be used principally as raiders, their favourite targets being the fertile western valleys which supplied the continental army with grain; thus the tribes were employed in making "a diversion and exciting an alarm on the frontiers of New York, Pennsylvania, and Virginia."10 At the three major Indian Department western posts the tribes rallied to the British standard. At Niagara John Butler, a veteran of the William Johnson regime, met with the Six Nation Indians who expressed their satisfaction at having an opportunity to show their friendship; Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton reported that he could muster 1,000 Indians at Detroit in three weeks; and at Michilimackinac, Arent De Peyster, soon to be commandant at Detroit, assured Carleton of the support of the upper lakes tribes and noted with pleasure that the Sauk and Fox had recently arrived to declare their loyalty to the British.11
By the summer of 1777, Congress was frustrated in its attempt to draw the Six Nations to conferences at Fort Pitt and Albany. By refusing the American overtures the Indians had shown a deep "resolution and determination to continue firm in their fidelity" to the British crown.12 Indeed, at the Oswego council, the Iroquois officially announced their intention of fighting the Americans. Later in the year during the Fort Stanwix campaign, Indian loyalty was again tested severely, and their contribution and fighting skills at the battle of Oriskany enabled the British to check the American relief force under General Herkimer. Although Mary Jemison, a white woman living among the Seneca along the Genesee, noted that "our town exhibited a scene of real sorrow and distress, when our warriors returned and recounted their misfortunes,"13 the Iroquois nonetheless were determined to resist the Americans. For the Indians, the Revolution appeared to be an opportunity to protect their land from the advance of white settlement.
The difficult task of the Indian Department in maintaining and encouraging tribal allegiance to the British was made easier following the escape of three Loyalist sympathizers from Pittsburgh in the spring of 1778Alexander McKee, Matthew Elliott and Simon Girty. These three able and experienced men had lived among the Indians for many years, and they had considerable influence with the various tribes of the Northwest. McKee was appointed a captain, and Girty an interpreter, and although Elliott was initially mistrusted by Henry Hamilton at Detroit, he, too, soon became a prominent figure in the department. In later years the direction and decision-making of the Indian Department was to a large extent shouldered by these individuals but particularly by McKee and Elliott.
In the summer of 1778, the Iroquois, supported by the newly formed corps of Butler's Rangers, raided and burned several American frontier settlements including the prosperous communities of Wyoming Valley and Cherry Valley in New York. "It is in the highest degree distressing," wrote General Washington, "to have our frontier so continually harrassed by this collection of Banditti under Brant and Butler."14 But the frontier people of America, "a wild ungovernable race, little less savage than their tawny neighbours," possessed a dogged determination and bitter hatred of the Indian and refused to be intimidated or pushed out of their settlements.15 The persistence of these back settlers was to be rewarded.
Washington authorized a relief expedition to the frontier under Major General John Sullivan in 1779. The campaign was aimed at the Iroquois towns along the Finger Lakes. It was hoped that by defeating the Indians the valuable western grain supplies would be secured for the continental army. The effort was a success,16 but Sullivan failed to capture Fort Niagara, the major British supply base in the region. The Indians and Butler's Rangers had managed to maintain this military installation, and although the Indian towns and crops were destroyed, the Iroquois still remained intact as a viable fighting force. Gratefully, Frederick Haldimand, governor of Quebec, acknowledged that "the fidelity of these Indians has alone preserved the Upper Country."17 Native resilience was clearly evidenced during the following year when, campaigning under Sir John Johnson, they "took 14 rebel officers and 316 men, and destroyed 714 houses and granaries full of grain, 6 small forts and several mills, which afforded the rebels the most convenient supplies."18
By 1781, the Indians, weakly supported by the Indian Department and the British garrisons at the western posts, were firm in their determination to preserve their territory. "We mean to defend ourselves to the last man, before we give up our Lands and we will spare none, if they [Americans] begin with us."19 The military successes of Joseph Brant over George Rogers Clark along the Ohio River in the autumn of 1781 gave the Indians a feeling of victory and optimism. But the continual exchange of atrocities on the frontier fanned the deep-seated bitterness and contempt.
Persistent raids from the American settlements in Kentucky plagued the tribes of the Ohio valley. One such raid was to make 1782 the bloodiest year of the Revolution in the West. In March a contingent under Colonel David Williamson butchered 90 innocent and pacifistic Moravian Indians at Gnadenhutten.20 The heartless murder of these Christian Indians was even more unforgivable because they were Delaware, and in 1778 Congress had negotiated a treaty of "perpetual peace and friendship" with them.21 The Indians never forgot the cold-blooded barbarity of Gnadenhutten and aroused to a fierce retaliation, the tribesmen hunted Americans and tortured those they caught with brutal delight.
A second American expedition under Colonel William Crawford crossed the Ohio River in June and followed Williamson's route. The Indians, eager for revenge, surprised the American force at Sandusky and routed it, but not before killing 100: Indian losses were 4.22 Unfortunately Crawford was captured by Delaware warriors under Captain Pipe, and suffered the worst agonies that the Indian mind could conceive. Simon Girty witnessed the grisly affair in Pipe's village but dared not intervene. The news of the death of Crawford prompted the publication of Hugh H. Brackenridge's Indian Atrocities (1782) in which the author, by referring to the Indians as "the animals, Vulgarly Called Indians," exemplified the American attitude toward the Indian during the American Revolution and the later struggle for the Ohio valley.23 Haldimand was shocked by the Indian conduct, but the exasperation of the Indians for the cruelties practised on them by the rebels in the upper country made the natives lose all restraint.24
Another Indian victory took place in August at Blue Licks. Two hundred mounted men from Kentucky, among them such notables as John Todd and Daniel Boone, were totally defeated by Wyandot and upper lakes Indians.25
With the American Revolution nearing its completion, the Indians in 1782 had won two successive and decisive battles against the Americans at Sandusky and Blue Licks. These victories seemingly assured the preservation of Indian security in the Ohio valley. But in Europe, Britain was terminating a costly and unpopular war, and the boundary provisions of the Treaty of Paris gave to the United States this entire region which the Indians had just successfully defended. The tribes had no intention of giving up their traditional hunting grounds to their enemies, the Americans. A new phase in the struggle for possesion of the Ohio valley was to open.
The proposals of peace reached Frederick Haldimand, governor of Quebec, in September 1782. The news caused a general alarm and discontent among the tribes who feared the loss of their lands and American retaliation. Throughout the war the Indians were most attached and serviceable to the royal cause, and suffered greatly "by the shameful encroachments of the Virginians upon their valuable Hunting Grounds."26 Prior to 1775, the tribes were settled in ease and affluence, but only because the British exercised great pains and bestowed immense capital to effect that settlement. Consequently the rumour of an Anglo-American peace and possible loss of their lands to the Americans shocked and angered the natives. Haldimand wrote,
What was really behind Haldimand's concern was his realization that if the British wished to secure the safety of the upper Province of Quebec, the affections of the Indians must be preserved. Therefore, the governor instructed Sir John Johnson, Superintendent General of Indian Affairs (1782-1828), to devote a great portion of his time to the cultivation of "the Private Friendship and confidence of the Chiefs of greatest note."28 Public councils would be held with the greatest decorum, formality and military pomp.29 The British in North America as represented by Governor Haldimand, as early as February, 1783, had no intention of deserting the tribes because it would mean (a) the probable restriction of the expansion of British imperial suzerainty; (b) an added impetus to the westward rush of American settlers which would certainly result in a flood of republican tendencies in the sparsely settled upper Province of Quebec which had had no time, as yet, to establish firm British monarchical institutions; (c) the loss of the fur trade, and (d) the destruction of the Indians.
Nevertheless, as a result of the peace negotiations, Haldimand advised Colonel Arent De Peyster, commandant at Detroit, to inform the Indians that England would no longer assist them or "approve of their carrying war into the Enemy's country," but every possible aid would be given to "secure and defend their own against every Incursion of the Enemy."30 After the cessation of British offensive operations, American parties continued to raid across the Ohio River, and one of these contingents massacred a band of Shawnee at Standing Stone village. Haldimand insisted, however, that members of the British Indian Department should discourage the Indians from seeking further revenge. Policy became a matter of watching for any extension of the American frontier and trying to assist the Indians in securing the upper country.31
The first "official news" of the peace treatyalthough only a printed copy of the preliminariesreached Haldimand on 26 April 1783 via New York. The settlement of the international boundary, by which England surrendered to the new republic great tracts of land including the entire Ohio valley, placed the governor in a serious dilemma. He immediately sent despatches to Brigadier General Allan Maclean, commandant at Fort Niagara, and to the officers in charge of the other western posts, giving them the details of the treaty and advising them to avoid publishing the terms for fear of the Indian reaction.32
In spite of the endeavours of the British officials at the posts, the news of the treaty spread rapidly through out the western country and the Indians by "entire villages" came clamouring to the British seeking explanations and begging for supplies.33 The state of Indian feelings was reported in detail by an alarmed but sympathetic Maclean at Niagara.
The British garrison commanders did their utmost to prove to their former allies that England had not forsaken them, and as well pleaded with the Indians to end further atrocities on the frontier and to adjust their differences with the Americans. But there was a general fear that the Indians, embittered by the treaty would retaliate by attacking the western posts. The horrible memories of the Pontiac Rebellion just 20 years earlier kept the commanders alert and cautious.35 Haldimand instructed Sir John Johnson to detain Joseph Brant at Montreal to prevent him from inciting the Indians to acts of violence against the Americans and British alike, and to inform the Indian leader that lands for his Mohawks would be provided in Canada.36
In a further effort to placate the Indian fear that the British were abandoning them, Johnson attended a number of councils in the summer of 1783. At Detroit on 28 June, the superintendent told the chiefs that the terms of the peace which had made them uneasy on account of the boundary line did not mean to deprive the tribes of an extent of country of which the right of soil belonged exclusively to them.37 The difficulty of pacifying the Indians was complicated by the summer peace mission of Major Ephraim Douglas who was despatched by the Continental Congress to Detroit and Niagara for the purpose of reconciling the tribes to the treaty.38 The American party arrived at Detroit during the Johnson conference, but fearing that the life of Douglas was threatened and not wishing any outside interference which might alienate the tribes from their fidelity to the crown, the British refused his plea to speak to the Indians.39
At Niagara Maclean was incensed at the American for sending messages and private emissaries among "our Indians."
Thus Douglas received the same answer at Niagara and was unable to assemble the Indians for a council.41 Johnson, however, distributed several barrels of rum and succeeded in mollifying the irate Six Nations. His speech to the Indian conference at Niagara sidestepped the real issues of the boundary line and British military assistance to the Indians. But, as at Detroit, there was an impression that England was prepared to guarantee to the Indians the Fort Stanwix line of 1768.42
In August, 1783, Washington directed Major General Baron von Steuben to arrange with Haldimand the method by which the British wished to give up the western posts upon the signing of the final peace treaty.43 Haldimand, however, refused to discuss arrangements for the evacuation of the posts with Von Steuben or to allow him to make a tour of the Indian country. His excuse to the American representative was that he had received no instructions from the British crown. Writing to Lord North, Secretary of State of the Home Department, Haldimand expressed his real motives.
The news of the Treaty of Paris, signed 13 September 1783, placed the governor in a most precarious position. By the terms of the treaty the British had totally abandoned their Indian allies. This was a crushing blow for the preservation of tribal lands in the Ohio valley.45 Indian resentment was at a high pitch on the frontier. In spite of the constant efforts of British officers and Indian agents to establish amicable relations between Americans and Indians, outrages continued. But on 27 November 1783, Haldimand devised a binding policy for the frontier which was to continue until the defeat of the tribes a decade later. The governor explained his policy to Lord North.
This was the crucial proposal to retain the posts indefinitely and preserve the Ohio valley as an Indian buffer state, not because of the fur trade but to maintain British imperial and territorial jurisdiction in the Northwest to allow the firm establishment of settlement and British political institutions to develop in the upper province, and to save human lives.
The traditional argument of many American historians is that Britain continued to hold the posts for the sake of preserving the British fur-trade monopoly. Yet the Northwest fur trade yielded an annual revenue of only £200,000. of which two-thirds came from the American side of the line.47 From the British standpoint, the financial loss would be minimal as it did not matter whether the furs were gathered by British or American traders because the pelts would still find their way to London, the great world marketplace for the trade. Thus British manufacturers would still profit, and the only sufferers would be the British traders in Canada. But again, the loss to the traders in Canada would not be drastic because the larger portion of the furs gathered in the American territory would pass through Montreal, which possessed natural advantages over American ports in the east because of its easy access by lake and river. The total cost of retaining the posts, by contrast, was estimated at £800,000 per year.48 From a purely financial or economic standpoint it was in the interest of Britain to deliver the posts to the Americans as soon as possible, if the fur trade alone were taken into account; therefore, one must seek other reasons for Britain's violation of the treaty.
The retention of the posts was owed primarily to a British blunder and secondarily to an American weakness.49 The blunder was the utter neglect of the Indians in the peace negotiations with the United States. Amid the distractions of a falling empire, the British forgot the Indian completely, one of the most striking oversights in the whole history of British imperial policy. When news of the proposed boundary provisions of the treaty reached British North America in April, 1783, the violent reaction of the merchants, army officers and especially the Indians caused a reappraisal of western policy in Whitehall.
Although committed to the treaty, the British devised a new policy based on two objectives. One was to persuade the Indians that their interest lay in coming to terms with the Americans. The second objective was to restore the shattered confidence of the Indians in the British. Herein lay the dilemma of British policy, since to achieve one goal was to destroy the other.
The British violation of the treaty passed through several stages. Originally the retention of the posts was intended to be temporary and to cover the liquidation of British fur-trading interests south of the boundary line; then it was to prevent another Pontiac revolt which would have taken the lives of many British, Americans and Indians; and finally, a ready excuse was found to postpone the evacuation indefinitely when, in violation of articles of the treaty, Americans failed to pay their debts to British creditors and confiscated Loyalist properties.50
As well, the weakness of the central government of the new republic was a vital stimulant for the British retention of the western posts. Working under the Articles of Confederation, the federal government had neither the financial means nor the authority to stop the migration of American backwoodsmen or to devise a uniform land and Indian policy. The backwoodsmen, the natural enemies of the Indian, encroached on Indian lands and atrocities were exchanged. The British, by retaining the posts, aided the Loyalists trekking to the upper Province of Quebec, renewed the allegiance of the Indians, checked American westward expansion and, contrary to the boundary terms of the Treaty of Paris, maintained territory in the new republic.
During the summer and autumn of 1783, the Indians, actively encouraged and supported by British officials, attempted to form an Indian confederacy composed of Algonkian tribes and the Iroquois to oppose the territorial demands of the United States. In September, delegates from 35 tribes assembled at Sandusky to consider the common Indian danger and to plan a united defence.51 The leading Indian spokesman was Joseph Brant, who had distinguished himself as a Loyalist during the American Revolution. In his speech, Brant proclaimed the basic Indian right to survive as a people. Thus, he continued, a satisfactory peace settlement could only be realized by a general agreement between Congress, represented by all the American states, and the Indian confederation, represented by all the tribes.52 Although the need for a confederation was universally acclaimed, no definite steps were taken at this time.
The British dignitaries present were Sir John Johnson and Alexander McKee. The latter was not only an officer in the Indian Department but had family connections with the Shawnee which gave him great influence among the tribes. It was their task at the conference to soothe Indian resentment, stave off a general Indian war in which both England and the United States might become involved, and yet to maintain tribal allegiance to the British in order to secure an Indian barrier between the American settlements in the west and the struggling upper Province of Quebec.
At the council, Sir John delivered his "Tomahawk Speech" in which he assured the Indians that the peace treaty had in no sense extinguished their title to the lands northwest of the Ohio River. Johnson reminded the Indians that by the Proclamation of 1763, all land west of the mountains had been reserved for them. At the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768, the line had been adjusted with formal Indian consent to make the Ohio River a permanent eastern boundary for Indian lands. Finally, the line had been restated at a general conference with American representatives at Pittsburgh in 1775. Thus the superintendent general of Indian Affairs told the council that they should put the tomahawk aside, but to keep it in sight in case the Americans attempted to molest them.53 Johnson then informed the council that the British were most concerned with the fate of the Indians, and that the king would lend at least moral support to the tribes if the Americans in fringed on their lands.
Johnson's speech achieved a remarkable success with the tribes.
In the spring of the following year, Haldimand received a despatch from Lord Sydney, Secretary of State of the Home Department between the years 1783 and 1789, complimenting the governor on his conduct in retaining the western posts which "will have a good effect on the Indians."55 Sydney noted that "the interests of the people of America dictate that they should treat the Indians with kindness, but if America does not, the tribes may find refuge in His Majesty's dominions."56 Haldimand quickly accepted the advice of the secretary of state and in order to repay the Six Nations for their services in the king's cause, purchased for them a "fertile and happy retreat" on the Grand River as a substitute for the homelands they had lost in New York State.57 The governor hoped that "The Settlement will not only be a frontier to our Settlements in that quarter, but may be conducive to securing the Furr Trade to this Province."58
But increasing numbers of American migrants coming to Detroit and other western settlements through the Indian country kept the tribes in a state of alarm; "Their Savage Blood is not yet perfectly Cool."59 Joseph Brant, realizing that a satisfactory peace could only be attained by a general agreement between the Indian confederacy and Congress, managed to reassemble the tribes at Niagara in late August, 1784. The Indian leaders, however, soon became impatient when the American commissioners with whom they were to treat were delayed by various preliminaries. Therefore the Algonkian tribes drifted home to attend to their winter hunting and left the Six Nations waiting for the congressional representatives.60
By November there were more than 2,000 Indians lounging around the western posts depending on the British for presents, food and clothing. Yet it was the firm determination of the tribes to "uphold their rights which cannot but be approved of by every honest man, and their united action may secure from the Americans the justice they have a right to."61 If a rupture was to be averted on the frontier, the region between the Great Lakes and the Ohio River had to be preserved as a national home for the Indian. But by the winter of 1784, that dream was impossible unless Britain was prepared to assist the tribes actively in their struggle for national survival.