USA History

The American Revolution: A Complex Decision for Indigenous Nations

Colonist conflict during the American Revolution obscures the difficult choices forced upon Native Americans regarding alliances.

Native American in Revolution

European colonialism brought immense disruption to the lives of North America’s Indigenous peoples. During the American Revolution, these nations faced a pivotal choice: align with the British, the Patriots, or attempt to remain neutral. This decision held profound implications for their future.

The Backstory

The American Revolution stemmed from growing colonial resentment toward British taxation and lack of political representation. Tensions had been rising since the end of the French and Indian War (1754-1763), which limited colonial westward expansion. Corrupt colonial governors further fueled the rift. In 1776, spurred by revolutionary fervor, the colonies declared independence. However, fighting erupted over a year earlier in Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts.

Colonists themselves were divided. Roughly one-third remained loyal to the British crown (Loyalists), while the rest supported the Patriot cause for independence.

Indigenous Peoples: Complex Considerations

The conflict forced Indigenous nations to make difficult choices that would shape their destiny. Centuries of conflict and strategic alliances with Europeans had dramatically altered the continent’s power dynamics. Many tribes were already displaced, their populations decimated. Others, like the powerful Iroquois Confederacy, maintained strong ties to the British.

Some Indigenous people had assimilated into colonial societies, while some maintained trade relations. Still, others clung to traditional lifeways, periodically clashing with colonists over land. With over 250,000 Indigenous people from more than 80 distinct nations living east of the Mississippi River, responses to the war were inevitably diverse.

Both the British and the Patriots sought Indigenous support, promising a better future under their rule. Yet, tribes knew this war would determine control over their ancestral lands, regardless of who won. Internal conflicts arose as nations wrestled with their alliances.

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy

The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, also known as the Iroquois Confederacy, is one of the world’s oldest democracies. The original five nations (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca) were joined by the Tuscarora in 1722. The symbol of the White Pine, or the Tree of Peace, represents the Confederacy’s ideals of unity and strength.

When the American Revolution erupted, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy initially maintained neutrality. However, the conflict soon drove a wedge into the Confederacy, forcing its members to take sides. Some felt compelled to uphold historical alliances with the British, forged during the fur trade and the French and Indian War. The British offered protection of tribal lands in exchange for support.

Others sought to remain neutral, while some nations, swayed by personal relationships with colonists, chose to join the Patriot cause. Ultimately, the American Revolution shattered the internal unity of the Haudenosaunee, permanently weakening its power.

The Oneida, influenced by missionary Samuel Kirkland and their relationships with neighboring colonists, were the first nation to break from neutrality and support the Americans. They supplied troops and resources throughout the war, even clashing with their former allies—the Seneca, Cayuga, and Mohawk—who had sided with the British.

The Mohawk, driven by strong trade ties with Britain and the ongoing encroachment of colonists on their land, readily joined the British cause. Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), a prominent Mohawk leader, played a pivotal role in solidifying the alliance. His sister’s marriage to Sir William Johnson, the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs, provided early exposure to British culture. Brant led combined Loyalist and Mohawk forces in devastating raids against American settlements, earning a commission as a British Army captain.

The Stockbridge-Mohicans: Patriot Allies

The Mohawk raids brought severe retaliation from George Washington. In 1779, Washington ordered the Sullivan Expedition, a scorched-earth campaign led by General John Sullivan. This well-organized operation aimed to destroy Haudenosaunee villages and resources with the intent of crippling the Mohawk’s ability to continue the raids. The campaign’s brutality earned Washington the Haudenosaunee name “Town Destroyer.”

The Stockbridge-Mohicans, a multi-Indigenous group already integrated with colonists in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, readily joined the fight for American independence. Having adopted many European customs and some converting to Christianity, they saw their cause intertwined with the Patriots. Stockbridge-Mohicans were among the Minutemen at the battles of Lexington and Concord and their service as scouts and soldiers for Washington’s army proved invaluable.

The Cherokee Nation: From Allies to Adversaries

During the American Revolutionary War, the Cherokee Nation initially sided with the British. This decision was driven by the increasing encroachment of settlers on their lands in the Carolinas and neighboring states. Cherokee forces, supported by the British, launched attacks on these settlements, particularly along the frontiers of North Carolina and Virginia.

Seeking retribution, the Continental Army mounted the punitive Cherokee Campaign of 1776. This devastating campaign destroyed over fifty Cherokee towns, leaving the people demoralized and open to peace negotiations. The resulting treaty marked the first instance of the Cherokee Nation being forced to cede their ancestral territories to the nascent United States.

These were not merely unsettled lands; they were sites the Cherokee had inhabited for centuries. The treaty not only weakened the Cherokee people but also sowed discord within the tribe. Older, war-weary leaders favored peace, clashing with younger warriors who desired continued resistance. Ultimately, some Cherokee groups relocated to Tennessee and Northern Alabama, maintaining their fight against the colonists until the war’s conclusion.

No winner

The Revolutionary War brought no victory for America’s Indigenous nations, regardless of the side they chose. While the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781 is seen as a pivotal moment, conflict on the frontiers raged on. In fact, 1782 became known as the “Bloody Year” west of the Appalachians.

The Treaty of Paris (1783) supposedly ended the war, but bloodshed between Native Americans and settlers continued for decades. Tribes faced devastation—the Revolution had shattered alliances, destroyed homes, and extinguished countless lives.

The Treaty of Paris, the cornerstone of American independence, utterly ignored the Indigenous nations who had fought on both sides of the conflict. The British, eager to end hostilities, ceded vast territories to the new United States. This betrayal left tribes like the Mohawk, who had been loyal British allies, dispossessed and forced onto reservations.

Indigenous nations who had supported the British now found themselves exposed; their former allies gone and a hostile fledgling nation hungry for land poised to strike. Eventually, even tribes who had fought for the revolutionaries would be forced to surrender their ancestral lands to accommodate America’s relentless expansion.

The role of Indigenous peoples in the Revolutionary War reveals an often-overlooked chapter in America’s founding – a chapter marked by broken promises, violence, and a tragic struggle for survival.

History Affairs
Kim Luu is a writer specializing in Chinese history and civilization. Born and raised in Vietnam, a country with a shared cultural heritage with China, he developed an early fascination and conducted in-depth studies on the greatest civilization in East Asia.

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