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On Native Grounds | The Nation

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On Native Grounds

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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.

About the Author

Daniel Lazare
Daniel Lazare is the author of, most recently, The Velvet Coup: The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and the Decline of...

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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.

Still, Lincoln's point is not easily dismissed. There was simply no way the Indians could continue in their old ways without courting disaster. As Taylor shows, they were victims of what was most fundamentally a revolution in land-use policies. Where the Indians used the forest to hunt, fish and engage in small-scale tillage, the settlers laid siege to it, chopping down the trees and shooting the deer to make room for livestock, crops, towns and mills. However much latter-day Greens may romanticize the Indian way of life, there is no doubt as to which was the more productive. It took a lot of land to support a small number of Indians but comparatively little land to produce a swarm of whites. The invaders cut roads, dug canals and transformed the countryside to the point where Indians were soon reduced to harmless curiosities to be gaped at by tourists on their way to the Niagara Falls some 200 miles to the west. They were rendered literally homeless. By 1810 whites outnumbered Oneidas in their own territory by 60 to 1.

Differing land-use policies both reflected and reinforced differing political practices that were no less crippling. The Yankees flooding into the Mohawk Valley during this period were descendants of English Puritans who, a century or two earlier, had all but invented the concept of the modern businessman. They adhered to a written culture of deeds, treaties and contracts, one in which time was money and the purpose of a meeting was not to engage in empty palaver but to get to the point in as short order as possible. That of the Indian was the opposite: an oral culture based on eloquence, consensus and the constant reaffirmation of common values. Where one was restless and dynamic, the other was traditional. Where one group had leaders empowered to represent the larger community, the other was leery of the very idea of leadership and representation. Instead of deferring to the majority, dissidents in an Indian community always had the option of heading off into the forest vastness and forming another band of their own. Rather than confronting their opponents, they simply melted away. This made for a more harmonious communal existence, particularly in contrast to the settlers, who were always competing and arguing among themselves. But it also meant that there was no "there" there from a Euro-American perspective, no duly constituted leaders with whom they could wheel and deal and get down to brass tacks. Indeed, the lack of what whites would regard as a firm political structure meant that there were numerous factions--warriors, elders, women agriculturalists and so on--that they could play off against one another, which made their policy of divide and conquer all the easier.

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