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Race in The French & Indian War

The Indians' Parchment Victory

On paper, there were actually two victors in the French and Indian War. The Treaty of Paris had conferred all land east of the Mississippi River, as well as Canada, to Great Britain. Britain's hold on North America was now secure. But the Delaware Indians of the Ohio Valley had also secured an important territorial concession. In the Treaty of Easton, signed in 1758, Great Britain had promised to renegotiate the Walking Purchase of 1737 through which 750,000 acres of Delaware land had been deeded to Pennsylvania by the Iroquois. In addition, the British had pledged to forbid white settlement west of the Allegheny Mountains, preserving the Ohio Valley as an Indian homeland.

But the Delawares' parchment victory was quickly proven worthless by events. White settlers poured into the Ohio Valley almost as soon as the French were driven from Fort Duquesne. And contrary to wartime promises, the British rebuilt and occupied the forts in the region that had been recently abandoned by the French. On the Forks of the Ohio River, Fort Pitt was built on the ruins of Fort Duquesne, a statement of British ambitions that infuriated the Indians, who believed they had been promised regional independence.

Individual acts of violence soon compounded the Indians' sense of betrayal. In April 1763, Teedyuscung, the chief who had negotiated for the Delawares at Easton in 1758, was killed when his cabin was burned by arsonists; many believed that thugs from the Connecticut-based Susquehanna Company, busily selling lands to white settlers along the Susquehanna River, were responsible. In the same month, an Indian woman was publicly hanged by white authorities after being charged with complicity in the murder of a white man.

A growing sense of injustice found religious and ideological direction in the preaching of the Delaware mystic Neolin. He relayed a message from the Master of Life, preaching that prosperity would return only when the Indians cut off all ties to the white man. And Pontiac, an Ottawa chief, placed this message at the center of his call for a united Indian assault against British occupation in the spring of 1763.

Pontiac's Rebellion

The British fort at Detroit was the first to be attacked. But the rebellion spread quickly. Led by the Ottawas and Ojibwas in the north, and the Delaware and Shawnee in the Ohio Valley, Indians attacked virtually every British fort west of the Appalachians. By the fall of 1763, only Forts Detroit, Pitt, and Niagara were still in British hands.

The scope and speed of the Indian success was striking. Some of the Indians' victories came because the British forts were not heavily manned after the end of the French and Indian War. But the British also badly underestimated the depth of Indian discontent, and in some locations even believed that they were on good relations with their neighbors. At Fort Michilimackinac, a band of Ottawa and Ojibwa warriors was admitted to the fort to retrieve the ball they lost while playing lacrosse outside the walls. Once inside, they drew guns hidden beneath their clothing and killed or captured the entire British garrison.

But Pontiac's Rebellion collapsed almost as quickly as it began. Disease took its toll on some tribes. At Fort Pitt, British officers deliberately distributed smallpox-infested blankets to a party of Delawares, and within weeks an epidemic was racing through the surrounding Indian villages. Other tribes abandoned the rebellion after being pressured by the Seven Nations of Canada. This confederation of Mohawks, Hurons, Onondagas, Abenakis, and Algonquins argued that continuing the war would only bring worse problems—a cessation of all trade and the permanent hostility of the British. Pontiac called off his siege of Fort Detroit at the end of October, after failing to convince the French—the Ottawas' old ally—to renew their war against the British.

Britain's New Indian Policy

Still, Pontiac's Rebellion—what one historian has provocatively labeled America's "first war of independence"—was far from a failure.9 For while the British eventually recovered their forts, they learned that Indian needs and power had to be respected if the British wanted to avoid costly future conflicts.

Britain's Proclamation of 1763 was the first expression of this new understanding. It forbade American migration past the Appalachians, allowed only government-licensed traders to trade with the Indians in the backcountry, and prohibited private land sales between Indians and white settlers; in other words, future land transactions could only be negotiated by the government with recognized Indian authorities. The idea of the proclamation was to stop the westward migration of colonial settlers in its tracks.

The proclamation was hardly inspired by altruism; the British were no more sympathetic to Indian territorial claims than they had ever been. But Pontiac's Rebellion had forced upon them a more realistic appreciation of the costs attached to the unregulated migration of white settlers into these contested territories. Moreover, it introduced a more bilateral spirit to the conduct of British-Indian diplomacy. The proclamation was not merely issued in London; it was formally presented at a conference of 2000 Indians, representing 24 tribes, at Niagara in July of 1764. At this conference, the terms of the proclamation were discussed, gifts were exchanged, and peace between all parties was pledged—all contributing to the sense that these new regulations concerning migration and trade were part of a bilateral agreement, not a unilateral edict.

The Indians' Temporary Victory

If we could freeze the story right here, we might conclude that Native Americans did ultimately achieve their objectives in the French and Indian War. This would seem particularly true for the Delaware, Shawnee and Mingo. By aligning themselves first with the French, and after 1758 with the British, the Ohio Indians had won both political and territorial independence by 1763. The British had made good on the promises made at Easton by declaring the Ohio Valley off limits to white expansion, and they had agreed to deal directly with these nations, rather than with Iroquois overlords, in future discussions.

The Iroquois also seem to have achieved much of what they sought. When Tanaghrisson killed Jumonville, the French officer captured by Washington near the Great Meadows in 1754, he did forge an alliance between the British and the Iroquois, and he did force Britain and France into war. Moreover, in the war that resulted, one of the main threats to Iroquois power, the French, was removed from the continent. Of course the British were still there. And the upstart Indians of the Ohio Valley had actually increased their autonomy. But with the hands-off approach announced by the British in 1763, the Iroquois might have easily imagined rebuilding the sort of regional hegemony they had enjoyed prior to 1750. In fact, in 1768 they seemed to be up to their old tricks. In the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, they accepted a westward shift of the proclamation line established in 1763. Contrary to the interests and the will of the Ohio Indians, the Iroquois agreed that the new edge of white settlement would be the Ohio River, not the crest of the Appalachians.

A New Kid in the Ohio Valley

If the story over the next several decades had only spun around these three participants—the Iroquois, the Ohio Indians, and the British government—its plotlines might have been quite different. But during these decades a new and increasingly important player entered the story. The American settlers that poured over the Appalachian Mountains in increasing numbers during the 1760s were no longer quite as British as they once had been. The French and Indian War had shattered some of the mystique surrounding British power, and Britain's postwar colonial policies led Americans to question the intentions of the government they had formerly respected. The new taxes, the new restrictions on trade, and the closing off of the frontier that Americans believed they had just fought a war to secure, left them wondering whose interests the government in London really served.

These feelings would not crystallize immediately. In the years just following the French and Indian War, Americans joined their fellow British citizens across the Atlantic in toasting William Pitt and mourning General Wolfe. And in New York City they erected a statue of their new king, George III. But as the arguments over taxes and trade developed, wartime memories added texture to their growing dissatisfaction. Americans recalled the mocking disrespect paid their provincial militia by the British regulars and the humiliation suffered when one of their officers was ordered about by a lowly British ensign. They remembered the arrogance of Edward Braddock, whose blundering tactics almost cost them the Ohio Valley. And they recalled the heroics of their own, such as George Washington, whose superior performance not only advanced the collective cause but demonstrated the ability of American fighting men to distinguish themselves alongside the supposedly superior British forces. Eventually these memories would help Americans shape a new sense of identity—one that would reassure them that as Americans they could be more than just British colonists—one that gave them confidence as they protested British policies. These protests would climax in 1775 when they faced off against British guns at Lexington and Concord. By that time, the sense of shared enterprise that allowed British and American soldiers to drive the French from the continent seemed like ancient history. Americans' redcoated former comrades-in-arms were now their hated enemy and King George was now seen as a petty tyrant, not a glorious sovereign. Everything had changed. But for the Iroquois, the Delaware, the Shawnee, and the Mingo, it all probably looked very familiar. It was just another battle between white men—a battle that would force them to make another series of difficult choices about which side to support, and what battles they must fight if they were to hang on to any portion of the continent east of the Mississippi River.

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