Book: The American West: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)

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Next: Chapter 4: Taking the farther West

Three hundred years after Columbus’s discovery, a new nation, the United States, had recently gained its independence, but its prospects, particularly for expansion across the North American continent, did not look promising. True, the treaty that had granted the United States its independence had deeded it a vast territory from the Atlantic coast to the Mississippi River. Beyond the Appalachian Mountains stretched the “First West” of the United States. Yet this West, like so many colonial claims, was initially more a projection than a reality. Its fictional status became harder to deny after a confederation of Ohio Indians routed armies of the United States, first in 1790 and then even more decisively in 1791. In the wake of the second defeat, American diplomats tried in 1793 to purchase a piece of the West from its Indian claimants. That bid was categorically rejected. “Money to us is of no value,” a leader of the Indian confederacy lectured, “and no consideration whatever can induce us to sell the lands on which we get sustenance for our women and children.” For the moment, the United States lacked the unity or the power to make this West entirely its own, to make it truly an American West.

In the decades before and after the Revolution, what Americans mapped as their West remained the focus of intense rivalries between French, Spanish, and British empire-builders. Their expansionist schemes were entangled with the counter-colonial aspirations and determined occupations of diverse Indian inhabitants. Native resistance took a variety of paths, each of which proved successful for a time. But in the wake of the Louisiana Purchase, which gave the United States a farther West, and the War of 1812, which brought a further withdrawal of imperial rivals, Indians’ options narrowed. By the 1820s, the inclusive relations that had characterized the lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi had largely given way to exclusive American occupations.

Imperial rivalries

In the third quarter of the eighteenth century, the Ohio Valley emerged as the focal point of imperial competition in North America. There, in the middle of the 1750s, began a war whose battlefields spread across oceans and into Europe and Asia. In the wake of this world war, imperial mapmakers redrew boundaries across North America. France surrendered its holdings on the North American mainland; England and Spain acquired vast new claims to respective “Wests” and “Norths.” During the 1760s, within the territory transferred from France to Britain, Indians launched an insurgency that showed the limits of colonial authority in the “western country.” By the middle of the 1770s, the fragile political and economic détente that had been worked out between British officials and native leaders came under renewed pressure as an increasing flow of colonists from east of the Appalachians breached the borders of Indian countries to the west of the mountains.

Americans remember the global struggle of the 1750s as the “French and Indian War”; elsewhere it is referred to as the “Seven Years’ War.” Both names are misleading. The American designation implies that all Indians sided with the French and that French and Indian interests exactly coincided. “Seven Years’ War” suggests a conflict of that duration. In fact, Indians fought on both sides and for their own reasons, and their war for control of the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes continued, on and off, for sixty years.

In the Ohio Valley, many Indians, especially those who had migrated from Pennsylvania, shared the French fear of British expansion. At the same time, they resented French attempts to monopolize trade. In addition, British leaders worked to win over natives by promising to create a fixed boundary between colonial settlements and Indian lands. Whether aligned with the French or the British, Indians fought (or chose not to fight) for their own interests, which were best served not by total victory of one or the other colonial regime but by a stalemate between imperial rivals and continuing competition between their traders.

Unfortunately for the Indians, the war dealt the French out of North America. By the 1763 Treaty of Paris, Britain gained control of Canada and of French claims below the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi River (with the exception of New Orleans, which was transferred to Spain along with French possessions west of the Mississippi). Flush with victory and freed of competition with the French, British officials hatched plans to erect a much less accommodating regime. The British commander, Lord Jeffery Amherst, did not propose to negotiate with defeated peoples; he intended to dictate the terms of intercultural relations. The practice of making presents to Indians, which Amherst viewed as “bribes,” was to be eliminated. Henceforth, British traders would pay market prices for the pelts they obtained, and misbehaving natives would be punished by cutting off their access to imported goods.

Incensed Indian war parties from dozens of villages around the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley attacked British posts in the western country and raided settlements on the eastern side of the Appalachians. British authorities saw in these attacks evidence of a vast conspiracy, but the Indians’ uprising was not the work of a centrally coordinated confederation. The insurgents did, however, draw inspiration from a number of prophets, who offered similar visions of Indian renaissance through rituals of cultural purification.

The message of Indian revitalization through de-Europeanization resonated with tremendous force, but, as with the revolt staged by Pueblo Indians eighty years earlier, a complete detachment was impractical, if not unimaginable. Generations of cross-cultural exchange had woven items and ideas of European origin into the fabric of woodland Indian life. The Indians’ incorporation of foreign elements included not only the adaptation of colonial things and colonial thinking but also the adoption of colonists. From their raids against backcountry settlements, Ohio Valley Indians brought back scores of captives, who, in keeping with long-standing practices, were sometimes adopted. Not all of the adopted adapted to Indian life successfully. Enough did that when the British demanded the return of prisoners as a condition of restoring peace and trade, a significant portion resisted repatriation.

Although the British put down the Indians’ insurgency, the cost of fighting and the loss of fur trade revenues prompted a reversal of Amherst’s vindictive policies. British officials embraced a more accommodating stance. Like the French, they acceded to certain Indian protocols. Gift-giving came back as the basis of trade, and with a royal proclamation in 1763, British leaders promised to prevent settlers from trespassing across the Appalachians.

Did the king really intend to ban colonization of the western country? Not according to George Washington, who saw the proclamation’s boundary as but “a temporary expedient.” Speculators on both sides of the Atlantic had schemed for decades about acquiring vast tracts of trans-Appalachian land; many anticipated an unprecedented windfall once the Crown approved enormous grants to the wealthy and well-connected. Gentlemen who missed the “present opportunity of hunting out good lands,” warned Washington, “will never regain it.”

The Proclamation Line also displeased humbler backcountry settlers, who harbored land acquisition dreams of their own and were contemptuous of imperial officials and their injunctions. During the 1760s, hundreds of squatters pushed into Appalachian valleys. Poaching and penetrating even deeper into Indian country were scores of white hunters, who began to make regular fall and winter hunts in what are now Kentucky and Tennessee. These “long hunters” challenged the monopoly that Indian hunters had previously held as suppliers of skins and furs. Worse still from the perspective of Ohio Valley Indians, many long hunters engaged in land hunting on the side, scouting tracts for future settlements for themselves or sometimes for wealthy speculators.

Colonial authorities could do little in the face of long hunters’ brazen defiance; they had neither the money nor the manpower to police thousands of square miles of Appalachian frontier. The problem, it seemed to many gentry authorities, was that backcountry settlers in general and long hunters in particular too closely resembled the Indian peoples whose lands they invaded and whose role in the fur trade they usurped. Residents of western Pennsylvania, reported Thomas Gage, the British military commander for North America in 1772, “differ[ed] little from Indians in their manner of life.”

Admitting that backcountry people “are not to be confined by any boundaries or limits,” Sir William Johnson attempted to defuse conflict by convincing Indians to withdraw from contested territory. At Fort Stanwix in November 1768, he persuaded an assembly of more than three thousand Indians, principally members of the Iroquois Confederacy, to cede their claims to lands south of the Ohio River and east of the mouth of the Kanawha River. Almost completely absent from the conclave were representatives of the Shawnees and Delawares, whose villages lay closest to the lands in question and whose councils deliberated taking up arms against the British.

War came in 1774 after a group of backcountry ruffians murdered thirteen Shawnee and Mingo Indians that spring. As was customary, relatives of the victims demanded revenge. Retaliation soon escalated. Matters came to a head in October, when Virginia militiamen defeated Shawnee warriors at the Battle of Point Pleasant.

In the treaty conference that followed, Shawnee headmen yielded hunting rights south of the Ohio River but were guaranteed that the waterway would now serve as a firm boundary between Indian country and British settlements. Sensing that this line, too, would not last long, hundreds of Shawnees embarked on another westward migration. This one took them across the Mississippi River into territory that France had ceded to Spain in 1763. West of what was now Britain’s “western country,” they sought a new and more permanent refuge.

As the third quarter of the eighteenth century drew to a close, Spain had not yet established much of a presence on the lands it had gained from France. On paper, Spain had dramatically expanded its holdings in North America during the 1760s and 1770s. In addition to acquiring France’s claims on the west side of the Mississippi River, Spain had planted a few missions in California. But across the Spanish “North,” older colonies in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Florida were sparsely colonized, and the islands of Spanish settlement remained surrounded by oceans of Indian countries. In Spain’s newly acquired Louisiana colony, only a handful of Spanish officials actually inhabited the former French possession, and these authorities made no attempt to Hispanicize the customs, manners, or language of habitants. For most French colonists, the change in colonial regimes made little difference. For many Indians as well, life went on as before. Just as the British in the 1760s learned to emulate French accommodations, so, too, the Spanish in the Mississippi Valley assured Indians that trade would be encouraged and gifts would be given. Such promises attracted Shawnee migrants and inspired hope among natives who stayed east of the Mississippi that Anglo-Spanish competition might prevent a mixed but primarily still Indian country from becoming a mere western country.

The American Revolution and its aftermath

During the final quarter of the eighteenth century, Indians vigorously contested the redefinition of lands between the Appalachians and the Mississippi as a western country. As in the past, they followed a variety of strategies, including migrations, accommodations, incorporations, revitalizations, and confederations. They did so, however, in a geopolitical context that was dramatically transformed by the American Revolution. The war and resulting American independence reshuffled relations across North America, especially in the fervently disputed country between the Appalachians and the Mississippi. Into the 1790s, the disposition of these lands remained unsettled.

The sustained colonization of trans-Appalachia coincided with the beginning of the Revolutionary War. In the same month that Massachusetts minutemen engaged British soldiers at Lexington and Concord, Daniel Boone led thirty men to the Kentucky River. The Transylvania Company, the partnership of North Carolina speculators for whom Boone worked, had acquired their claim to hundreds of thousands of acres of Kentucky lands through a purchase from the Cherokees. News of that purchase disturbed rival speculators who feared being shut out. “There is something in that affair which I neither understand, nor like, and wish I may not have cause to dislike it worse as the mystery unfolds,” wrote George Washington. With their own plans for engrossing Kentucky threatened, colonial governors in Virginia and North Carolina also condemned the illegal purchase and settlement made by the Transylvania Company. The call to command the Continental Army soon diverted Washington’s attentions, and the outbreak of revolution unseated the colonial governors of Virginia and North Carolina, who had voided the claims of the Transylvania Company. Still, the Transylvania enterprise had plenty of enemies among patriot elites, and among other parties of trans-Appalachian pioneers as well.

As before the Revolution, Indians divided about the best means to protect the integrity of their countries and their cultures. Among Cherokees, the decision to sell hunting lands to the Transylvania partners aggravated those divisions. In general, older headmen saw the deal as an unwelcome necessity. Younger men accused these leaders of betraying their people. Two years later, after accommodation-minded leaders agreed to cede additional lands to the revolutionary governments of Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, militants moved out, establishing new towns further west. From this new location, which afforded better access to British supplies, these secessionists vowed to fight pioneer expansion.

Similar generational and strategic splits afflicted Indian villages north of the Ohio River. Advocates of accommodation wished to remain neutral in the war between Britain and some of her colonists. If necessary they were willing to concede Kentucky to settlers but wished to see the Ohio River accepted as a permanent boundary. More militant factions rekindled the idea of a pan-Indian alliance. They also rallied to the British cause.

Or, more accurately, they rallied to their own cause with British supplies. The Indians’ unwillingness to act as mere surrogates, to follow the orders of British officers and prosecute the war as the British desired, created fractures in the alliance. So did the failings of the British to provide essential supplies and gifts. Some warriors talked of severing their ties with the British and aligning with the Americans. Yet Americans repeatedly undermined these efforts by launching indiscriminate raids that killed Indians regardless of their political allegiances. Dissatisfied with the British and at odds with the Americans, many Ohio Indians joined the Delaware headman Captain Pipe in wishing openly for the return of the French. We have “never known of any other Father,” Pipe told British officials, whom he downgraded as mere “brothers.” In fact, though, what Ohio Indians wanted was not to exchange the French for the British but to restore an imperial competition that prevented any European empire from asserting dominance.

During the Revolution, Indians had failed to dislodge pioneers from their trans-Appalachian settlements, but they had not lost ground either. Through seven years of bloody raids and retaliations, they inflicted heavy casualties on Kentucky settlers—far higher per capita than those suffered by Americans east of the Appalachians. Nonetheless, when the terms of the peace between Great Britain and the United States reached the western country, Indians discovered to their dismay that all of the lands below the Great Lakes had been ceded to the new nation. By the 1783 Treaty of Paris, some 230 million acres of trans-Appalachian lands, all of which had supposedly been permanently guaranteed to Indians by royal decree, had now become the First West of the United States.

Of course, the remapping stipulated by the 1783 Treaty of Paris did not really alter the situation on the ground. As had been the case twenty years earlier, when a previous agreement in Paris had attached the western country to the British Empire, the 1783 accord could not alone make the West American. Just as British officers pretended that western Indians had surrendered along with the French, so Americans prepared to dictate to, not negotiate with, those whom they dismissed as defeated peoples. Indians, needless to say, did not consider themselves conquered in the 1760s or the 1780s. True, in the 1780s more than a thousand Shawnees and Delawares joined several hundred Cherokees in relocating to Spanish territory across the Mississippi. There they reunited with earlier migrants. Those who stayed behind resigned themselves to the loss of Kentucky, but a growing majority determined to contest any American occupations on the north side of the river. For ten years after the end of the Revolution, their confederated resistance effectively limited the advance of American colonization north of the Ohio River and frustrated the efforts of the national government of the United States to consolidate its control over the “Northwest Territory.”

Various factors contributed to the good fortunes of the Indian confederacy. First, the British betrayal was not as complete as the latest Treaty of Paris suggested. Making peace did not mean that King George III and his ministers had reconciled themselves to the loss of the American colonies. Because the Crown’s agents viewed western Indians as crucial to recovering His Majesty’s possessions, they rushed to reassure their wartime partners that the alliance continued. Reneging on the treaty provision that stipulated the evacuation of British posts south of the Great Lakes, British officials promised Indians that these forts would be maintained and would dispense the gifts, trade goods, and arms that natives needed to defend their homelands. To further weaken the hold of the United States over its West, Britain returned west Florida to its Spanish enemy. This put Spain in control of the Gulf Coast and the mouth of the Mississippi. It left the western country isolated by mountains on the east and bordered by imperial rivals on the north, west, and south. For Indians, it meant that many still enjoyed the advantages of being in between.

The arrogance, incompetence, and divisions among American adversaries bolstered the Indian confederacy, too. By treating natives as conquered peoples, by allowing murderers of Indians to go unpunished, and by failing to keep squatters from trespassing across the Ohio, Americans left Indians with little choice but to unite and fight. By contrast, the new nation lacked such common purpose or concerted power. Its own confederation of states assigned the national government too few resources to quell Indian resistance or assert control over the settlement of western lands. The ratification of a national constitution strengthened the federal government, but the army of the United States initially proved unable to break Indian defiance. Convinced of their military and spiritual superiority, Indian negotiators not only rebuffed the American bid to buy lands but also insisted that the United States remove all the trespassers from the territory north of the Ohio River.

Recognizing the growing discontent of western Americans with a national government that could not defeat Indians and would not offer land to would-be settlers on sufficiently generous terms, both the Spanish and the British attempted to detach westerners (and the western country) from the United States. To that end, Spanish and British officials entered into not very secret talks with western leaders and introduced attractive land policies. For the Spanish, this resulted during the 1790s in the resettlement of several hundred Kentuckians and Tennesseans, including Daniel Boone, in the Louisiana colony. For the British, the promise of nearly free land and almost no taxation, if not parliamentary representation, persuaded similar numbers from New England and New York to relocate in Upper Canada (Ontario).

Yet the United States possessed a great and growing advantage over its imperial rivals and its Indian antagonists: numbers. In the 1790s, the American population topped four million, having doubled every twenty-five years during the eighteenth century. The trans-Appalachian segment was expanding even more quickly. By 1790, the first national census registered more than seventy thousand people in Kentucky, with another thirty thousand scattered in other western country settlements. By comparison, the population of Indians north of the Ohio River numbered only about twenty thousand, and this figure was declining as a result of wars, diseases, and migrations.

In 1794, the United States sent another army to crack the power and unity of the Indian confederacy. Its commander, General Anthony Wayne, proved much abler than his predecessors. At Fallen Timbers in what is now northwestern Ohio, Wayne’s troops defeated the Indian forces. It was an important triumph, though it alone was not decisive. What turned Fallen Timbers into a catastrophic defeat for confederated Indians were changes in the international scene. Locked in conflict with revolutionary France, the monarchies of Spain and Britain decided to avoid a confrontation with the American republic. Consequently, the Spanish temporarily opened the Mississippi to American navigation, and the British betrayed their Indian allies once more. They closed their forts to retreating Indians and cut them off from resupply. Without this assistance, Indians could not stop Wayne from systematically destroying villages and burning cornfields. Surviving warriors scattered back to defend their homes. At the treaty session that followed, Indians surrendered much of what soon became the state of Ohio.

The Jeffersonian persuasion

Fallen Timbers marked a critical turning point. Never again would Indians in the trans-Appalachian West, or for that matter in subsequent Wests, contest American conquest from so favorable a position. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, Indians resisted in familiar ways, but widening disparities in numbers and technology diminished their chances for all but the most ephemeral successes in what was ever more clearly an American West. That England, France, and Spain largely withdrew from competing with the United States also tilted the balance of power further away from the Indians, who had previously been able to play these imperial rivals off against each another.

The election of Thomas Jefferson to the presidency in 1800 and the control Jeffersonians assumed over the national government for the next generation contributed as well to the more rapid colonization of western lands and the speedier dispossession of Indian peoples. In contrast to the restraints that George Washington and like-minded Federalists sought to impose on western settlement, Jefferson insisted that “those who labour in the earth are the chosen people of God” and that agrarian expansion was the key to preserving the virtue of the American republic. For Jefferson and his followers, that conviction translated into laws that reduced the price and eased the terms of sale for public lands. As Jefferson hoped, these policies enabled more white men to acquire lands and tested Indians’ control over their holdings. While Jefferson professed faith that Indians could be incorporated into the United States, he also pressed them to cede their “surplus” lands and exchange their current territories for lands to the west. That possibility became more plausible with the completion of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803.

The Purchase itself was rather improbable. In the year of Jefferson’s election, Spain’s retrocession of the Louisiana Territory to France reestablished a French imperial presence in North America. Napoleon aimed to reclaim France’s former domain, a move that would have halted and perhaps even rolled back American expansion. Napoleon’s plans were altered, however, when his army was unable to subdue rebellious slaves in Saint-Domingue, soon to be renamed Haiti. Napoleon’s agents then surprised their American counterparts, who were negotiating only for New Orleans, with an offer to sell all of the Louisiana Territory. Although Jefferson worried about the constitutionality of the deal, pragmatism in pursuit of land led him to embrace the acquisition of Louisiana. The transfer, which at a cost of $15 million nearly doubled the territory of the United States, opened what Jefferson prophesied would be an “empire for liberty.” The purchase also cleared imperial competitors from the western borders of the first American West and deprived trans-Appalachian Indians of assistance from what was now the new West of the United States.

Within the First West, though, the British still meddled from Canada. American officials and settlers in the First West were quick to blame the British for all troubles with Indians south of the Great Lakes. That made western representatives particularly ready for another round of combat with Britain.


2. This map indicates the years in which the American nation acquired new territories. It does not, however, reflect the ways in which the new borders remained contested.

When that war came in 1812, its outbreak raised Indian hopes anew. Once more British supplies flowed to Indian allies. Once more a confederation of Indians from diverse tribes gathered to halt American expansion. But war’s end brought yet another betrayal by the British and, this time, fatally broke the possibilities of an Indian confederacy east of the Mississippi. After 1815, the British stopped encouraging and supplying Indians south of the Great Lakes. Spain, its empire crumbling at home and abroad, also pulled back, ceding Florida in 1819 to the American republic.

By 1820, the northern, southern, and western borders of the first American West had been secured. Inside the region, Indians found themselves ever more encircled by multiplying numbers of American settlers. No longer able to mount effective military resistance, most Indians in the territory north of the Ohio River were pushed out to lands west of the Mississippi in the decade after the War of 1812. South of Kentucky, more Indians hung on, but their future was increasingly jeopardized by a flood of white Americans, joined by their African-American slaves (approximately one million of whom were forcibly moved into the First West during the first half of the nineteenth century). This great migration of free and unfree laborers soon transformed the southern portions of this West into the “Cotton Kingdom.” In this empire for the liberty of slaveholders, the fate of Indians still resident rested increasingly on the purported mercy of the government of the United States.

Previous: Chapter 2: Empires and enclaves
Next: Chapter 4: Taking the farther West