8.4-8.5.1 Western Indians: Message to the Commissioners of the United States (1793)
During the 1780s and ’90s, the newly independent United States asserted its rights to Native American land in the vast territory west of the Appalachians and north of the Ohio River. Indians used force to resist US claims on their territory. In 1790 and 1791, a confederation of tribes in the “Old Northwest” (the present states of Ohio, Indiana, and more), led by the Shawnees, won two major military victories against the United States. They also refused to sell or surrender any more Indian land east of the Mississippi River. This source from 1793 was written by a confederation of “Western Indians” who met with three US commissioners to discuss land ownership. It came after two weeks of unsuccessful negotiations. At the same time, the US was preparing for war by leading forces into Indian territory in present-day Ohio.
In this document, what defense(s) did the Native American leaders give for keeping all of their territory north of the Ohio River?
What did they propose be done with white settlers who were already in the area?
Do you think Native leaders would have made the bold claims they did, if they had not just won military victories against the US just 2 or 3 years before this? Why or why not?
The 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War and granted US independence, had at least one major omission: It did not mention Native Americans — who had fought on both sides of the war, but were more prevalent on the British side. To acquire land west of the Appalachians, the United States preferred treaty negotiations over outright warfare, but Americans operated under the general assumption that the vast territory running west to the Mississippi River would eventually be claimed by right of conquest. At the same time, the 1787 Northwest Ordinance (passed by the Articles of Confederation Congress, prior to the US Constitution) created the Northwest Territory. This law planned for the eventual division of the region into five new states, which would be added to the national body politic as white settlement proceeded. During the 1790s, the George Washington administration pursued contradictory Indian policies: It continued these expansionist aims while also trying to make western settlement more orderly and allowing only Congress the power to negotiate treaties with Native Americans.
In the early 1790s, a confederation of tribes in the so-called Old Northwest won several important military victories against US forces. However, in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in northwestern Ohio in 1794, US General “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s 3,000 troops defeated Indian forces led by Little Turtle (a Miami chief) and Blue Jacket (Shawnee) and their British allies. This resounding American victory broke the confederation of western Indians, resulting in the Treaty of Greenville (1795). Twelve tribes ceded most of Ohio and Indiana to the US government.
This document was written in the summer of 1793, one year before the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The statement excerpted here — by the confederation of western Indians to the US commissioners — came after two weeks of fruitless negotiations. The Indians seemed to be negotiating from a position of strength. In 1791, their forces imposed the costliest-ever Indian victory against the US Army in Ohio, defeating the forces of General Arthur St. Clair. Yet as these negotiations took place, the United States was sending its newly strengthened forces into the region.
Encourage students to analyze the language and tone of the document. It argues quite boldly that American settlers already in the area should be compensated for leaving, saving the US money in the long term compared to the cost of raising armies. The Native Americans’ declaration also plays on the idea of “improvements” at the end of the second paragraph. Enlightenment thinking and American values held that improvements — such as clearing the land for farming and building homes — gave white settlers a stronger claim to the land than Indians who used it only for hunting or less-intensive horticulture.
By contrast, Indians had deliberately managed the natural landscape for centuries, even if this was often invisible to Euro-American eyes. Native people used many techniques — often subtle — to manipulate natural processes and foster the plant and animal resources upon which they depended. These included setting fires to cause desirable plants to regenerate and irrigating, pruning, and selectively harvesting certain plants — not to mention highly adapted hunting and fishing techniques. In the case of this document, the western Indians probably used the term “improvements” in reference to white settlers’ houses, which in their view were certainly not an “improvement” to the landscape. They may have viewed Euro-Americans’ intensive farming and fencing of the landscape as short-sighted or even wasteful.
More generally, Indian treaties with whites (the US government, in the case of these negotiations) were often fraught with ambiguity or legal problems. Since the early nineteenth century, the “canons of construction” has been a key concept in Indian law. These hold, in part, that treaties and other agreements between Indians and the federal government should be interpreted broadly, and as Indians at the time might have understood them. Nonetheless, since then the canons of construction have been endlessly debated by the US court system.
...Money to us is of no value, and to most of us unknown; and as no consideration whatever can induce us to sell our lands, on which we get sustenance for our women and children, we hope we may be allowed to point out a mode by which your settlers may be easily removed, and peace thereby obtained.
Brothers, We know that these settlers are poor, or they would never have ventured to live in a country which has been in continual trouble ever since they crossed the Ohio. Divide therefore this large sum of money, which you have offered to us, among these people; give to each also a portion of what you say you would give us annually… and we are persuaded they would most readily accept of it in lieu of the lands you sold to them. If you add also the great sums you must expend in raising and paying armies with a view to force us to yield you our country, you will certainly have more than sufficient for the purposes of repaying these settlers for all their labor and improvements.
Brothers, You have talked to us about concessions. It appears strange that you should expect any from us, who have only been defending our just rights against your invasions. We want peace. Restore to us our country, and we shall be enemies no longer.
…We desire you to consider, brothers, that our only demand is the peaceable possession of a small part of our once great country. Look back and view the lands from whence we have been driven to this spot. We can retreat no farther, because the country behind hardly affords food for its present inhabitants, and we have therefore resolved to leave our bones in this small space, to which we are now confined.
Brothers, We shall be persuaded that you mean to do us justice, if you agree that the Ohio [River] shall remain the boundary line between us. If you will not consent thereto, our meeting will be altogether unnecessary.
Done in general council at the foot of the Miami Rapids, the 13th day of August, 1793.
Wyandots, ............................. A Bear.
Seven Nations of Canada, .... A Turtle.
Delawares, ............................ A Turtle.
Miamis,................................. A Turtle.
Ottawas, ................................ A Fish.
Chippeways, ......................... A Crane.
Senecas of the Glaise, .......... A Turtle.
Potawatamies, ....................... A Fish.
Connoys, ............................... A Turkey.
Nantikokes, ........................... A Turtle.
Mohegans [Mohicans], ............. A Turkey.