Relations between Native Americans and British colonists
Published 15 May 2017
In the latter half of the eighteenth century, relations between Native Americans and British colonists (and later Americans) steadily worsened due to a variety of factors. Not only did white settlers increasingly encroach upon Indian lands after the Seven Years War, but the legacy of that war and Indians’ desire to retain their territory and sovereignty made peace impossible and long-term conflict inevitable.
Before the American Revolution began in 1775, relations between the two groups were at times peaceful, though the growing white population’s demands for more land west of the Appalachian Mountains brought conflict. The British established both the Proclamation Line (1763) and the Stanwix line (1768) but did not enforce either, letting whites settle on fertile lands in the Ohio River valley. According to Delaware chief John Killbuck, whites and Indians “lived in great friendship together and often met to strengthen the chain of [their] friendship,” but as white settlement accelerated, tensions mounted and he warned white leaders that “unless you can fall upon some method of governing your people . . . it will be out of the Indians’ power to govern their young men” (Calloway, 1994, p. 111).
The British and French had spent a century competing for the Indians’ allegiance, mainly in order to gain political and commercial advantages over their rivals; Indians were more or less pawns in this situation. White-Indian relations had long been affected by competition between the major European empires, who cultivated relations with Indians as a means of gaining allies and leverage against their rivals. The Seven Years War of 1756-63 worsened relations between Indians and British colonists. Indians were divided between Britain and France, and when the latter lost the war and its North American possessions, “the British felt little need to conciliate the allies of their defeated foe . . . [and] ignored longstanding traditions of dealing with Indian nations” (Calloway, 1994, p. 116). The British behaved in a heavy-handed, disdainful manner toward Indians in general, regarding them universally as “savages” and causing Pontiac’s War almost immediately after the Seven Years War ended. After 1763, white-Indian relations deteriorated steadily and whites encroached in even greater numbers on Indian lands to the west.
When the Revolution began in 1775, Native Americans became as divided as whites, whose loyalties were split between the ruling British and the uprising American colonists. Indians’ allegiances were split according to what they believed they could gain, particularly where trade and political advantages were concerned. Indeed, Calloway writes that not only did alliances like the Iroquois Confederation dissolve over the question, but also individual tribes themselves divided among themselves. As he claims, “Even in tribes that allied with the British, there were pro-American factions and plenty of people who just wanted to keep out of it” (Calloway, 1994, p. 147).
Some Indian nations sided with the British rather than the Americans, mainly because the British were much richer commercially and could better provide the goods Indians needed; also, the British had their own bureaucracy designed to handle Indian relations and make an effort to halt white encroachment. In addition, white Americans tended to use violence more frequently against Indians, even murdering peacemakers like White Eyes and Cornstalk (Calloway, 1994, p. 148). This, in addition to the hope they could regain some of their lands, drove this Indian faction tended to help British troops raid frontier settlements.
Others, especially in New England and the Deep South, sided with the Americans. To a degree, they believed that the Americans could bring peace and friendship if they won the war; also, some reacted to the poor treatment they received from the British in the wake of the French defeat in 1763. Some members of these divided nations even enlisted in the Continental Army, hoping for vengeance against the British. (However, Americans took advantage of their Indian allies and often betrayed them after using Indians to their advantage. For example, Delaware leader White Eyes was murdered in 1779 while leading American troops through hostile territory.) Despite this, Americans during the Revolution waged war almost as fervently against Native Americans as they did against their former colonial rulers. Calloway points out that the Declaration of Independence labels all Native peoples “merciless Indian savages” who indiscriminately murdered and pillaged frontier whites as directed by the British. Though this was grossly incorrect, it struck the proper chord among white Patriots, and both Washington and Jefferson ordered militias to destroy Indian settlements and even exterminate as many Indians as possible.
After the United States came into existence, Native Peoples found themselves even more under siege as even nominal barriers to white settlement disappeared. The Stanwix line had been a British creation, which Americans quickly disregarded by migrating west in increasing numbers. In addition, Native nations suddenly found themselves without allies and in the midst of a hostile, newly independent people eager to punish Indian “savagery.” Very quickly, they found themselves without leverage or defenses against white hostility, which has only increased during the Revolution and would continue to accelerate. Very quickly, they found themselves without leverage or defenses against white hostility, which has only increased during the Revolution and would continue to accelerate.
Native Americans were forced to make peace as a last hope of freedom. For example, the Chickasaw lost much-needed trade relations with the British and had to make friendly gestures toward the American government in order to salvage their own precarious political and economic status. Also, the Cherokees, who had sided with the British, found themselves in equally uncertain straits. Despite the fact that many Indians were loyal to Britain, the Treaty of Paris (1783) contained no provisions pertaining to Native Americans’ sovereignty or well-being; essentially, they were abandoned.
In the first years of American independence, Indians found themselves increasingly isolated and besieged by American demands for their territory, and they had nothing with which to bargain. Native peoples lost their hunting grounds to white farmers and were forced to sign away much of their land without fair compensation. The American government also freely broke the treaties it signed; Creek leader Alexander McGillivray complained that “while [whites] are addressing us by the flattering appellations of Friends and Brothers they are Stripping us of our natural rights” (Calloway, 1994, p. 173). They also found their culture under attack as well. Some, like the Cherokees, adopted farming and Christianity, but even these gestures meant little as the pace of Indian dispossession increased. Others unified and resisted, fighting frontier wars that extended into the early nineteenth century, but these ended in defeat.
Indian-white relations between the Seven Years War and the end of the eighteenth century worsened as land hunger drove white Americans westward into lands that Native Americans considered rightly theirs. The British had a bureaucracy devoted to Indian relations and made some effort at preserving Indian sovereignty west of Appalachia, though they enforced it poorly and treated Indian nations who had sided with the French unjustly. When the Revolution arrived, white Americans (who had chafed at the prohibitions against western settlement) branded all Indians as savages and tools of the British, using these claims as justification for appropriating their lands and dispossessing Native Americans in general. Though independence was a boon for white Americans, it was a disaster for the Indians.
- Calloway, C.G. (1994). The World Turned Upside Down. Boston: Bedford.