According to the official mythology, the American Revolution was a struggle between plain, homespun-clad patriots and arrogant redcoats determined to keep them under the heel of George III. The reality was, of course, more complicated. There were well-to-do whites who supported independence and a surprising number of lower-class ones who did not. There were free blacks who fought in the Continental Army and slaves who were royalist nearly to the man (or woman), running away to British lines at the first opportunity. There were also the Indians, some of whom supported the Patriot cause but most of whom sided with the British in the belief that they were the only force capable of restraining the tidal wave of settlers engulfing Indian land.
Alan Taylor’s The Divided Ground is a comprehensive account of this last group from the Revolutionary period to the first years of the nineteenth century in what is now western New York, Pennsylvania and Ontario. The story is an unremittingly dreary one. During the war, the Indians were a valuable commodity, thanks to their superb fighting skills. Their faces painted red, blue and black, their heads completely shaven except for a central ridge of hair known as a scalp lock, they would creep silently through the forest only to erupt in terrifying screams at the moment of attack. British commanders considered 300 Indian warriors “in the Woods” to be worth 1,000 ordinary soldiers, which is why both sides bid so vigorously for their services.
Once the fighting was over, however, their presence became suddenly inconvenient for British colonial officers in Canada and American politicians alike. The Indians were frightening, and they were an impediment to economic progress. “I am confident that sooner or later…no men will be suffered to live by hunting on lands capable of improvement, and which would support more people under a state of cultivation,” a US general named Benjamin Lincoln remarked after visiting New York’s western frontier in 1792. The insufferable hunters in question were of course the Indians, who Lincoln said would “dwindle and moulder away…until the whole race shall become extinct” unless they changed their ways.
General Lincoln’s prediction proved all too accurate: The Indians did not change and so fell by the wayside. But this, too, is part of the official mythology, which holds that the demise of Indian society was the product of a cultural clash that nobody could prevent and, consequently, was nobody’s fault. But The Divided Ground takes apart this myth, showing in relentless detail how official bad faith and ill will helped undermine the Indians’ position and speed their demise. “It seems natural to Whites,” one Indian leader observed, “to look on lands in the possession of Indians with an aching heart, and never to rest ’till they have planned them out of them.” This was true of British officials in what was then known as Upper Canada, but even more so of New York Governor George Clinton and his cronies in Albany, who at one point pressured the Oneida Indians to part with more than 500 square miles of land that, over the next two years, they succeeded in reselling at a 1,000 percent markup. Land was the Oneidas’ one bankable asset, yet Taylor shows how by 1802 state politicians had managed to relieve them of two-thirds of their holdings from just seven years earlier, a massive expropriation–there is no other word for it–that sent them into a tailspin. The Oneidas tried to control their fate by leasing their land rather than selling it outright or by demanding a fair-market price. But they found themselves blocked or outmaneuvered at every turn. Like the rest of the Iroquois tribes, they didn’t just fall off a cliff–they were pushed.