In the 1750s, the area west of the Allegheny Mountains was a vast forest. American Indians primarily from three nations – the Seneca, the Lenape or Delaware, and the Shawnee – inhabited the upper Ohio River Valley.
About 3,000 to 4,000 American Indians were living there. The population of all the Indian nations in northeastern North America was about 175,000.
A few French and British traders traveled through the area.
New France had three colonies: Canada (along the St. Lawrence River), the Illinois country (the mid-Mississippi Valley), and Louisiana (New Orleans and west of the Mississippi). There were about 70,000 colonists throughout the French settlements. Their economy was based on trade with the American Indians. It was a weak economic system, and the colonies were not self-sustaining.
To the east of the Allegheny Mountains lived more than 1 million colonists in the 13 British colonies. They had a strong economy based on farming. Their population was expanding rapidly, both through immigration and population growth. Although they had no settlers in the Ohio River Valley in 1750, the British colonies claimed the land.
The border between French and British possessions was not well defined, and one disputed territory was the upper Ohio River valley. The French had constructed a number of forts in this region in an attempt to strengthen their claim on the territory.
The American Revolution
The relationship between native peoples and the emerging United States during the era of the American Revolution was a complicated one. From the onset of Lord Dunmore’s War in 1774 to the Treaty of Paris in 1783, Indians in North America faced a dilemma on whether they would fight, for whom they would fight, and why they would fight.
Most Native Americans initially thought that the Revolution was an isolated disagreement between white colonists and their mother country. However, the Revolutionary War evolved into a continent-wide struggle that the Indians could not avoid.
Individual Indians joined both the Continental and British armies as regular soldiers or as scouts, guides, mariners, and diplomats. History shows that Native Americans not only participated in the American Revolution, but also survived the long-term changes it produced. (Merritt)
Native Americans in the Revolutionary War
Many Native American tribes fought in the Revolutionary War. The majority of these tribes fought for the British but a few fought for the Americans. Many of these tribes tried to remain neutral in the early phase of the war but when some of them came under attack by American militia, they decided to join the British.
Other tribes joined the British in the hopes that if the British won, they would put a stop to colonial expansion in the west, as they had done with the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Rebecca Beatrice Brooks provides a list of the various tribes who fought in the Revolutionary War:
The Wabanaki Confederacy was an alliance of five northern tribes: the Penobscot, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Abenaki and Micmac. They were situated generally in Maine and New Brunswick.
The Stockbridge-Mohican, a tribe who lived in Western Massachusetts, sided with the Americans in the Revolutionary War, even though they had been long-standing allies of the British and even served in militia units during King George’s War, the French and Indian War and Pontiac’s Uprising.
The Shawnee, a tribe who lived in the Ohio River Valley sided with the British during the Revolutionary War. When the Revolutionary War first broke out, most Shawnee tried to remain neutral. American encroachment on Shawnee land persisted though and the tribe soon became divided on the issue.
Many Delaware chiefs argued that an alliance with the Americans was an opportunity to assert the tribe’s independence from the Six Nations and to challenge the Six Nations’ claims to lands west of the Ohio. In 1778, the United States signed its first treaty, the Treaty of Fort Pitt, with the Delaware tribe. The treaty allowed American troops to pass through Delaware territory. In addition, the Delaware agreed to sell meat, corn, horses and other supplies to the United States and allow their men to enlist in the United States army.
The Miami, a tribe in the Great Lakes region, sided with the British during the Revolutionary War. After the British lost the war, the Miami tribe continued to fight the Americans who began pouring into the Ohio country. Between the years 1783 and 1790, the Miami tribe killed 1,500 settlers. This sparked a war between the Americans and the Miami tribe, the Miami War, which is also known as Little Turtle’s War, from 1790-1794. The Miami tribe were defeated. Throughout the 19th century, the Miami continued to sign more treaties and ceded more land and the tribe eventually emigrated to Kansas in 1846 and were then removed to Oklahoma in 1867.
The Wyandot (Huron), a tribe in the Great Lakes region, sided with the British during the Revolutionary War. After the war, the Wyandot continued to fight the Americans who encroached on their land. There was a brief lull in the fighting from 1783-1785, and the United States, Wyandot, Delaware, Chippewa, and Ottawa tribes signed the Treaty of Fort McIntosh in 1785. In 1843, the Wyandots were forcibly removed from their remaining land and relocated to a reservation in Kansas. After the Civil War, the Ohio Wyandot were relocated to Oklahoma.
The Iroquois Confederacy, also known as the Six Nations, was an alliance of six tribes in New York and Canada: the Mohawks, Oneidas, Tuscaroras, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas. The Iroquois Confederacy had been long-standing allies of the British. Yet, when the Revolutionary War broke out, the confederacy split in two when the Onondagas, Cayugas, Senecas and Mohawks sided with the British, while the Tuscarora and the Oneida sided with the Americans.
The Potawami, a tribe in the Great Lakes region, tried to remain neutral in the Revolutionary War but eventually sided with the Americans in 1778. The Potawami had been long-standing trading partners and military allies with the French and fought alongside them in the French and Indian War but were reluctant to get involved in another war. They were later convinced to join the American’s side. The Potawatomi had ceded much of their lands to the United States by the mid-19th century and the tribe split up and relocated to various distant locations, such as Texas, Kansas, Iowa and Canada, although many stayed in Wisconsin.
The Catawaba, a tribe with a population of a few hundred that lived in the Piedmont area along the border of South Carolina and North Carolina, sided with the Americans in 1775. The Catawaba fought in numerous key battles in South and North Carolina. In 1782, after General Charles Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, the Catawaba returned home and the South Carolinians paid them for their service. The Catawbas also received a state-recognized reservation in South Carolina as a result of their support of the Americans, which they still occupy today.
The Chickasaw, a southern tribe with a population of 4,000 who lived in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Kentucky and Missouri, sided with the British during the Revolutionary War. The Chickasaw had been trading partners and staunch allies of the British throughout the 18th century and continued their support for the British in the Revolutionary War.
The Choctaw, a southern tribe with a population of 15,000 who inhabited about 50 villages in a key strategic position of the lower Mississippi, were coveted by both the Americans and the British during the Revolutionary War but the tribe sided with the British.
The Creek, a southern tribe with a population of 15,000 that lived in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, and North Carolina, never officially joined the war effort, preferring instead to engage in cautious participation. The Creek tribe never engaged in significant sustained fighting during the war.
The Cherokee, a southern tribe with a population of about 8,500 who lived in the interior hill country of the Carolinas and Georgia, sided with the British during the Revolutionary War. After initial successes in their attacks, the Cherokees soon witnessed four American armies from Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia invade nearly all their villages during the summer and fall of 1776.
Declaration of Independence and Native Americans
In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson clearly described the role of American Indians in the American Revolution. In addition to his other oppressive acts, King George III had,
“endeavoured 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.”
Inscribed in the founding document of the United States, Jefferson’s words placed Indians on the wrong side of the struggle for liberty and the wrong side of history from the very beginning of the Revolution. Thus while Americans fought for their rights and freedoms, Jefferson argued that Native Americans fought against them, the vicious pawns of a tyrannical king.
Subsequent Indian Relocation (Trail of Tears)
Then, during the 1830s, there was a forced relocation of Eastern Woodlands Indians of the Southeast region of the United States (including Cherokee, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Seminole, among other nations) to Indian Territory west of the Mississippi River – on the Trail of Tears.
Estimates based on tribal and military records suggest that approximately 100,000 indigenous people were forced from their homes during that period, which is sometimes known as the removal era, and that some 15,000 died during the journey west.
The term Trail of Tears reminds us of the collective suffering those people experienced, although it is most commonly used in reference to the removal experiences of the Southeast Indians generally and the Cherokee nation specifically.
The physical trail consisted of several overland routes and one main water route and, by passage of the Omnibus Public Lands Management Act in 2009, stretched some 5,045 miles across portions of nine states (Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee).
Click the following link to a general summary about Native Americans in the American Revolution: