How the French Indian War and American War for Independence shaped the fate of American and Indian relationships
The relationship between native peoples and those exploring new territories has never been a Nora Ephron story. Rare are the cases where the two sides are able to co-exist in the long term as good friends. Most of these stories end in one side dominating the other, ending in subjugation and exploitation, but what are the reasons that relationships sour? Is it totally out of greed on the exploring party’s side, a pure desire for acquisition or are there other, basic human needs that drive the violence? War is never a one sided event, but the driving factors and outcomes shape nations and relationships for centuries to come. Though many examples of this situation exist in history, one of the most poignant examples is that of the Native American and the English colonists as they became Americans.
English settlers, not explorers mind you, people coming to stay, landed in the latter part of the 17th century in northern North America. They were greeted by a number of different native tribes, some with curiosity, some with reluctance and some with outright violence as could be expected from a native people protecting their lands. As the settlements grew, they required more land, more land that was owned by the native tribes. The relationship with the natives had been one of necessity, trading for food that the colonists didn’t know how to grow, by trading manufactured goods, firearms, tools, clothing and blankets. However, the settlers needed something that the Indians were unwilling to give; land.
Skirmishes and raids become common as settlers living on the fringe of what they considered civilization became the targets of harassing attacks by native tribes. Why would they be attacked though? The answer is simple enough if we apply another era of history that may be a little easier to understand for modern history students. Simply think of how the modern US citizenry would respond to Russians, Chinese, Cubans or any other communist country, making permanent settlements along the California cost without US permission. How would the people react if on top of our churches, our temples and cemeteries, they began to build houses, factories and shopping malls? It isn’t hard to see how the idea for the movie ‘Red Dawn’ came about. The natives were trying to stop the erosion of their rights, the destruction of their homes and the defilement of their holy places as the European settlers moved further west.
According to Historical Statistics of the United States, colonial population grew from roughly seventeen thousand in 1690 to an estimated 240 thousand in 1750. To say that there were border disputes in the colonies would be a gross understatement. Couple with those disputes the colonists desire to expand into the fertile and very navigable region of the Ohio River valley, firmly a French colonial holding, and a great hatred from the French and the British had the makings of a reason to expand their global empire. Americans call it the French Indian War, Europeans call it the Seven Years War and Indians call it abuse.
Both the French and the British employed Native troops during the war, however it was the way the French paid the natives that would cause the conflict to stick out in American pop culture. The native tribes sided with either the French or the English and colonists based on who they thought would win the war and who would give them a better chance for peace after the war. Not surprisingly, those Indian tribes most completely within the British and colonial lines of territory aligned with the English, and those outside it, allied with the French whose native policy had been much more of integration and comingling than separation and segregation as it had been with the British. As in all war, it was not simply the killing that mattered, but the perception of the enemy, and what better way to frighten your opponent than by desecrating the bodies of the fallen? The French instituted the practice of Scalping as a way to measure the Indian’s involvement in raiding, attacks and other harassing maneuvers against the encroaching colonists and redcoats. The French paid by the scalp and the Indians saw it as a way to both dishonor the enemy as well as drive a spike of fear into those that would chance upon the spectacle. However, this violence was also engaged in by the colonials who, out of spite began trading in death as well, trading in Indian scalps for “12 pounds per Indian scalp”. The brutality would serve to poison already poor relationships as both sides began to view the other as savage and barbaric as the practice was not only visited upon fallen warriors, but also on any person, man, woman or child felled in any attack or raid.
After the war, the French were forced to cede most of their North American holdings to the British. This allowed the colonists to expand into the Ohio Valley, but also brought up the question of who should pay for the English blood and money spilled during the seven year conflict. The answer would spark a history altering conflict – The American War of Independence. An empire was divided and again so were the native peoples. In the Great War that would decide the fate of a budding nation, those tribes not already destroyed by the previous war, were forced to side with the lying English, the brutal Rebels or leave their ancestral homes in search of a quieter place. Again, most tribes sided with the group that made the best promises. The English promised that the Indians would have claim to any and all lands they captured back from the colonists in the Ohio and that regular trade would resume upon completion of the war ("Quebec Act of 1774"). The Americans promised lands west of the Ohio and south of Georgia would be left untouched and would be Indian Territory. Not surprisingly, the natives tended to side with the European power, Britain.
Soon, British supplied Natives would against the colonists in the same old ways. The native elements were used to scout enemy positions, harass supply lines, run orders from commander to commander and were used most devastatingly to harass unprotected colonies along the frontier. Again, the Indians were a shock value against the enemy and though British commanders didn’t order the scalping of dead enemies, they did not discourage it. In Christopher Hibbert’s book Redcoats and Rebels, he quotes British Lt. Thomas Anburey who recorded his account of a scalping in grizzly detail:
“They seize the head of the disabled or dead enemy and placing one of their feet on the neck, twist their left hand in the hair, by which means they extend the skin that covers the top of the head, and with the other hand draw the scalping knife…If the hair is too short, and they have no purchase with their hand, they stoop and with their teeth strip it off…They then tie their trophies in a small hoop with bark or deer’s sinews to preserve it from putrefaction, painting part of the scalp and the hoop all around with red.”
Indians were used constantly and viciously during the British campaign in Canada and the Hudson Valley. Their use inspired some of the United State’s first propaganda as documents detailing attacks on settlements began to circulate. The painting The Death of Jane McCrea by John Vanderlyn, though it was not painted till after the end of the war, would certainly have been right at home with the editorials and articles that immediately began circulating after General John Burgoyne’s Saratoga campaign in the summer of 1777, in which native troops were used extensively, ruthlessly and without restraint. Though the orders for unrestricted warfare came from a British officer, all the American colonists witnessed was the Native brutality.
When the war finally ended in 1783, the American victors set to control their spoils. Independence was won and treaties were drawn up between the US, Britain and Native tribes. Though the tribes would be at peace with the new American government, resentment over the war would stay fresh and soon after the end of the war, tribes were drawn into open conflict again during the War of 1812. Long term effects of Indian involvement would lead to many of the Anti-Indian policies of the mid 1800’s including the Indian Removal act of 1830, leading to the dissolution of Native sovereignty, relocation of tribes and the eventual cultural delusion and diffusion into American culture. As is the case with most countries on the side of a losing war, the Indians fell victim to marginalization and relegation to the annals of history as their culture slowly slipped from prominence into obscurity.