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Native American History

Native American History

 Table of Contents

Diplomacy in Native American History

What Might Have Been

Henry Knox sat on one side of the table. Alexander McGillivray sat on the other. For almost a month, Knox, George Washington's Secretary of War, and McGillivray, the Chief of the Creek Nation, hammered out the details. Earlier negotiations at Rock Landing (in what is today central Georgia) had failed. That is why Washington urged McGillivray to come to New York for a summit of principals. Washington personally greeted the Creek chief before turning over negotiations to his most trusted advisor. And soon they reached an agreement. The Treaty of New York was ratified by the Senate on 7 August 1790. Had it been successfully implemented, American history might have turned out quite different.

We often assume a certain inevitability in the way we think about American-Indian relations; we assume that relationships between the two peoples were unvaried and that the course of events was more or less fixed. Americans, driven by greed and racism and notions of "manifest destiny," marched inexorably westward towards annihilation of Native Americans. And Indians, decimated by disease and overwhelmed by American power, were forced into unbroken retreat from the day Europeans set foot on their continent.

But the truth of the matter is that in 1790, the course of future events was not fixed; history's path had not been set. In fact, while Native Americans had been largely driven from the eastern seaboard, they still retained firm control over territories in the interior. Moreover, the relationship between Anglo-Americans and American Indians was complex and fluid; US policymakers had not yet established a consensus about how to move forward, and Indians were also debating what strategies to employ in defending their lands.

McGillivray and Knox: Unlikely Diplomats

McGillivray and Knox personified the complexity of Indian-American affairs. The Creek chief was of mixed blood; his father was a Scot and his mother was half French. This meant that the powerful Creek leader was really only one-quarter Indian. But since his grandmother was Creek, and according to Indian custom, identity was passed matrilineally, McGillivray was considered Creek.

McGillivray's atypical bloodlines were echoed by his unusual upbringing and wealth. He was educated at British schools in Charleston and spoke five languages. As a young man he used his skills and connections to build a thriving commercial empire among the southern tribes. By the time he was 30, he lived in a large home, owned more than fifty slaves, and was recognized as the Creeks' power-to-be-reckoned-with by the British, Spanish, and Americans.

But McGillivray was also a physical mess. Alcoholism, rheumatism, and syphilis wracked his body. While shrewd, and wealthy, he was the physical opposite of the giant he faced during treaty negotiations. Henry Knox weighed more than 300 pounds. (As did his wife—collectively the quarter-ton duo was known politely as the "largest couple in the city."13) But sheer mass aside, Knox was in many respects as unlikely a secretary of war as McGillivray was an Indian chief. Born in Boston, he left school at age eleven to clerk in a bookstore. He owned his own shop by the time the first fighting of the Revolutionary War broke out in 1775. All that Knox knew about warfare was what he'd learned in books, but he impressed General Washington and over the course of the war rose to become one of the general's most trusted officers.

McGillivray and Knox, therefore, although physically quite different, shared atypical paths to power. More importantly, they agreed that the earlier policies of the federal government had been horribly misguided.

The Treaty of Paris: Off to a Bad Start

In the Treaty of Paris, which ended the American Revolution, Great Britain ceded to the United States all of its territories south of Canada and east of the Mississippi River. For Native Americans, the treaty was a colossal catastrophe.

For starters, it represented a huge betrayal of their interests by the British. Many tribes had formed alliances with the British, but now they saw their lands signed away with a scratch of the pen. Nor did this simply mean that one white nation had replaced another. American Indians had managed to carve out a relatively balanced relationship with the British. By the end of the French and Indian War, the British had conceded that the Indians possessed "the right of the soil" as prior occupants. This meant that the British could not simply take Indian lands; they could only be acquired through treaty and purchase.

But now this legal status was signed away by the defeated British. Americans were granted Indian lands through "conquest" and Indians were reduced to a defeated, "subject" people. This was bad enough for those tribes who had allied with the British, but the treaty failed to differentiate between these and other tribes. Many had carefully carved out neutral positions during the war, and many had actually sided with the Americans, in the war's aftermath these profound differences proved meaningless; all Indians and their lands were lumped into the same category of the "conquered."

Adding to the confusion was the simple fact that even among those tribes siding with the British, few had experienced any sort of massive military defeat, any sort of battlefield failure that would make understandable their new status as a defeated and thus subject people. In other words, for Native Americans, the world had changed enormously on paper, but nothing in their own experience confirmed this parchment defeat.

Thus, American attempts to implement the Treaty of Paris were met with confusion. Representatives were dispatched to the major tribes of the south and west to secure treaties acknowledging the Indians loss of land and status. At Fort Stanwix in 1784 and Fort McIntosh in 1785, the tribes of the Ohio Valley, or at least some tribal members, were bullied into land cessions based on these premises. As an American negotiator explained when Indians balked at the terms being offered, "You are mistaken in supposing you are a free and independent nation. . . . You are a subdued people, you have been overcome in war in which you entered into with us."14

But the impossibility of securing lasting treaties founded on such unreal premises was quickly proven. Tribes immediately denounced the bogus treaties and launched attacks against the equally deluded white pioneers entering their territories to settle on theoretically empty lands.

A Fresh Start: The 1790 Treaty of New York

This was the situation that McGillivray and Knox set out to correct. They approached these events of the 1780s from different angles, but they both recognized that the approach taken by the United States after 1783 was badly flawed. For McGillivray, American policies simply did not square with realties on the ground. In the vast Creek territories, he led a nation of 25,000 people. If it came to war, he could deliver 5000 Creek warriors to the field and an equal number of Cherokee, Choctaw, and Chickasaw allies.15 Moreover, he had cultivated a strong relationship with the Spanish, who were willing to provide any Indian alliance with the materials it needed to keep the Americans away from their own holdings to the southwest.

Knox also recognized the strength of the Creeks in the southeast. He was a military man and realized that controlling the southern tribes by force would be costly. He calculated that war against a southeastern Indian alliance would cost close to $15 million.16 But Knox's position was philosophical as well as pragmatic. He believed that the principles of the revolution for which he had fought were being tested. Republics did not impose their will on people through brute force; they respected human rights and followed natural law. American policy, therefore, should be guided by a different set of principles. Indian rights of soil should be acknowledged; their legitimate claims as first occupants should be recognized. Indian lands should be protected from white encroachment, with federal troops if necessary.

The Treaty negotiated by McGillivray and Knox incorporated these principles. The Creek chief tempered his original demand and accepted an eastern border of the Oconee, rather than the Ogeechee River. But in return, Knox acknowledged that vast lands to the west (present day Alabama and parts of Georgia, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Florida) belonged to the Creeks and guaranteed that their border would be policed by federal troops. The United States also promised to provide the tools and livestock needed to turn the Creeks from hunters into farmers. In this way, they would advance toward a "greater degree of civilization."17

Implicit within this clause was Knox's belief that as the Creeks progressed, their territorial needs would diminish. Excess lands could then be sold to the federal government for resale to white settlers. With the proceeds, the Creeks would be able to build roads and schools, and progress still further on the path toward "civilized life."

The Failure of the Treaty . . . and Knox's Policy

It's easy to be cynical about this final clause, and tempting to find in Knox's civilizing scenario a thinly veiled scheme to deprive Indians of their lands. And indeed, in the years following the treaty, Anglo-American settlers poured into the Creek territories and the federal government did not do nearly enough to stop them. Urged on by more overt expansionists like William Blount, governor of the Southwest Territory, settlers ignored the barriers defined by the 1790 agreement. Knox and President Washington were unequivocal in identifying who was at fault. "A lawless set of unprincipled wretches" were running roughshod over the "most solemn treaties," Washington complained. But in sending only a scanty force of federal troops to police the border, the administration's actions failed to match its rhetoric.

Certainly, McGillivray lost faith in Knox and the integrity of the administration's commitments. Angered by the government's failure to enforce the treaty terms, he reached out to his old Spanish allies. In 1792, he signed a treaty with Spain that pledged both the Creeks and the Spanish to resist American encroachment on Creek territories.

It is even easier to be suspicious of the Washington-Knox Indian policy as it was applied in the Northwest Territory. Initially, they introduced the same philosophical principles in their dealings with the Indians of the Ohio Valley. In 1789, at Fort Harmer, American ambassadors signed new agreements providing compensation for the lands bullied away from the Indians at Forts Stanwix and McIntosh a few years earlier. American commissioners followed up with offers to buy "surplus" Indian lands to absorb the flow of western migrants. But when the Indians of the Ohio Valley rebuffed these offers––at least in part because British forces occupying Canadian forts near the Great Lakes encouraged them to do so––Knox authorized territorial governor Arthur St. Clair to launch a small punitive expedition.

The St. Clair expedition backfired horribly. Caught completely by surprise in a pre-dawn raid, St. Clair's force of 1400 suffered more than 900 casualties. Only 580 men eventually made their way back to Fort Washington.18 Aimed at making the Ohio Indians more compliant treaty partners, the St. Clair expedition instead served to stiffen Indian resistance. The Ohio Valley Indians now drew an even harder line on white expansion and insisted that the line of settlement be pushed back several hundred miles to the Ohio River.

Facing entrenched opposition, and simply unwilling to surrender lands already surveyed and sold at auction to land speculators and farmers, Knox and Washington sent an army of more than 5000 soldiers under General Anthony Wayne to the Ohio Valley. At Fallen Timbers, Wayne routed the coalition of Shawnee, Miami, Delaware, Ottawa, and Ojibwa Indians who gathered to fight him. The following spring, the defeated tribes were forced to sign the Treaty of Greenville, surrendering most of present-day Ohio to the United States.

A Philosophical Failure

In both the Northwest and the Southeast, Knox's rights-based approach to the nation's "prior occupants" ultimately failed. Treaty agreements were violated, borders were not policed, and military power was used to force land cessions. If Knox and Washington were sincere in hoping to place US-Indian relations on a more just footing, why did they fail?

Part of the problem for Washington and Knox was practical. The Creek border, for example, was more than 500 miles long. Policing it effectively would require 10,000 troops and a new string of federal posts. But the entire US Army at the time totaled just over 1000 men and, given Americans' preference for militias over standing armies, it is doubtful that the public would have tolerated a ten-fold increase in its size.

Another part of the problem was political. The relationship between the federal and state governments was still being worked out. In the Southeast, Georgia was anxious to reduce the autonomy of the Indians living within its boundaries, and the state was also interested in acquiring and selling the lands protected by the federal government. A clash with Georgia at this particular time, on this particular issue, would be risky for the new government.

And finally, the problem was also philosophical. The revolutionary principles that guided Knox and Washington ultimately proved a poor basis for a more progressive Indian policy. Knox and Washington were committed to human rights and natural law, but they also were committed to the enlightenment-based understanding of progress that went hand-in-hand with these principles. Within this broader philosophical construct, "civilization" assumed only one form. It was characterized by farming, not hunting; by the extension of commerce, not the preservation of a wilderness existence. Washington and Knox wanted to preserve Indian rights, but this goal could not be separated from the advancement of a European-based understanding of progress—of the movement westward of roads and bridges, churches and schools. They believed that the Indians possessed rights to the soil, but they also believed that history followed a specific course.

As offensive and unruly as the white settlers could be, in the eyes of Knox and Washington, they were advancing the frontier of civilization; they were extending farming and commerce into the interior. Moreover, they too were living out principles of the Revolution. They were exploring the liberty and unfettered opportunity made possible by independence. On the other hand, when Indians rebuffed American advances or conspired with America's enemies, they simply failed to fit into the optimistic scenario laid out by Knox. When they rejected his generous overtures and turned instead to the Spanish or British, they fell outside his too-optimistic sense of the historical process. When they refused to sell the "surplus" land that he predicted would become available as civilization advanced, their claims under natural law became tenuous.

In the final analysis, the diplomatic route to a different course of events was doomed by the very principles that inspired it. In 1790, Knox believed that all the parts of his vision could be neatly reconciled. A child of the Enlightenment, he believed that there was a grand symmetry to the great ideals and truths of the universe. Rights, Liberty, and Progress were all part of a beautifully crafted fabric; Indian rights, American liberty, and the advance of "Civilization" could be simultaneously pursued.

He was wrong.

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