On Native Grounds

On Native Grounds

Alan Taylor’s Divided Ground examines how land-grabbing settlers destroyed Indian society and how postrevolutionary politicians speeded their demise.


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.

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.

Land-use differences also reflected different forms of technology. Indians had long since entered the Iron Age and were expert in the use of knives and guns. But they were nearly helpless before the dual threat of the sawmill and the tavern. One robbed them of their forests while the other robbed them of their wits. “Drink no strong water,” one Oneida advised his fellow tribesmen. “It makes you mice for white men, who are cats. Many a meal have they eaten of you.” But the Indians would not, or could not, resist, which is why state politicians were careful to bring along a barrel of rum when negotiating land sales. Land-use practices also shaped notions of law and justice. As a consensus society, Indians were less concerned with holding individuals to account than with smoothing over differences in the interests of social cohesion. If one Indian killed another, it was up to the victim’s family to exact revenge or the other side to make amends by offering gifts and “covering the grave.” Both processes were highly ritualized. One missionary, according to Taylor, recalled seeing “a confronted Iroquois murderer calmly sit down to sing his death song while the avenger smoked a pipe for twenty minutes before plunging a tomahawk into the singer’s skull.” This was strange, certainly, but white notions of justice were in some ways even stranger. In 1791 the Iroquois leader Joseph Brant complained, in reference to an earlier murder, that “if a white man kills an Indian, the Crime is passed by with impunity, but if an Indian kills a white man, he is to be instantly delivered up to Justice.” Federal Indian Commissioner Timothy Pickering noted that it was a maxim along the frontier “never to hang a white man for killing an Indian” and declared that the settlers were “far more savage & revengeful” than the so-called savages themselves. In western Pennsylvania, murders of Native Americans “became so frequent,” according to Taylor, “that, in 1796, the secretary of war established $200 as the standard price for an Indian life.”

While professing Christianity, settlers thus flouted the Golden Rule. As shocking as this was, Taylor notes, Indians would not have liked the criminal justice system any better had it been a model of evenhandedness. Whereas whites believed in a system that was formal and adversarial, Indians preferred one that was up close and personal. Harmony, social reinforcement and traditionalism were the goals, not justice in the modern sense of the word. But however attractive it may now seem, traditionalism had its dark side. Devastated by land losses and alcoholism, Indians in western New York increasingly returned to traditional religious practices after 1800 in an effort to restore a semblance of the old social balance. An Indian prophet named Handsome Lake gained a following by blaming witchcraft for many of the Indians’ woes, and in 1804 an Indian council convicted two local women of dealing in poisonous potions and magic fetishes. The local chief promptly dispatched both by tomahawk. Taylor does not say what happened to the executioner, but it is difficult to know whether prosecuting him would have made things better or worse. Obviously, local officials could not stand by while a self-proclaimed prophet imposed a reign of terror. But preventing him meant interfering with the few remaining structures propping up Indian society. In the name of justice, the result would have been to plunge Indians all the more deeply into alcoholism, superstition and despair.

But there was a way out of this predicament via the construction of a sovereign authority over both settlers and Indians, an authority capable of holding the first group back while easing the second along the path to modernity. The task would not be easy. White racism was ferocious, while the Indians, especially the young males, were hostile to the slightest suggestion of change. They saw agriculture as women’s work and viewed hiring themselves out to work for wages on neighboring farms as the deepest humiliation. Not unlike the European warrior class, they were aristocrats who viewed labor with disdain and believed that hunting and fighting were the only fit occupations for men of their ilk. Attitudes like these may have worked when the Indians had the forest all to themselves, but now that this was no longer the case, they were leading to catastrophe.

The new federal government set out to establish such an authority following ratification of the Constitution in 1788. Pickering, a rock-ribbed Federalist from Massachusetts, was Washington’s choice to head up negotiations with the Iroquois. Among Pickering’s first acts was to prohibit land sales without federal approval. Secretary of War Henry Knox, the prime mover behind the new Indian policy–and who once summed up his attitude toward rapacious state politicians with the words “Smite them, smite them, in the name of God and the people”–moved to place Indians under federal jurisdiction. In 1790 a Federalist-controlled Congress invalidated land purchases without federal approval. In 1793 it passed another law, imposing criminal penalties of $1,000 in fines or a year’s imprisonment for violations.

As impressive as such initiatives were, Federalist policies eventually petered out. In 1795 the Washington Administration backed away from a showdown with New York over land purchases, which were somehow still continuing. The Administration had hoped for greater state cooperation when Federalist John Jay replaced George Clinton as governor in 1795, but Jay deferred to the land grabbers in the state legislature. While a supporter of the new federal government, Jay was also “the proud author,” in Taylor’s words, of New York’s new state Constitution, which provided no authority for blocking an act of the state legislature once it had survived a veto by a special “Council of Revision.” The coup de grâce came when Jefferson and his fellow “Republicans” (soon to be known as Democrats) swept the Federalists from office in the election of 1800. Although historian Sean Wilentz lauds Jefferson’s triumph as a “democratic revolution” in his massive new study The Rise of American Democracy, it was something very different: a victory for states’ rights advocates, Southern slaveholders and their racist-populist allies in the North and West. Taylor notes that the Federalists, despite their faults, were at least “willing (in the short term) to treat Indian sovereignty with some respect.” The Jeffersonians, by contrast, “were eager, wherever possible, to dissolve diplomatic relations and to subject natives to the laws of particular states.” The new President made his views known in 1803: “We presume that our strength and their weakness is now so visible, that they must see we have only to shut our hand to crush them.” The message to his ally Clinton, back in the governorship after a brief Federalist interregnum, was unmistakable: New York could proceed with its expropriatory land policy with federal blessings.

The Divided Ground nicely complements Taylor’s 1995 study William Cooper’s Town, which received both a Pulitzer Prize and a Bancroft. Whereas the first exhaustively examined settler politics and society in frontier New York from the Revolutionary period on, the second turns its gaze on the Indians, whose demise allowed the settlers to flourish. William Cooper’s Town was successful because it was structured as a portrait of Cooper and his family, including his son, James Fenimore Cooper, whose novels helped create the myth of the noble but doomed Indian. The Divided Ground, perhaps because it lacks an equally dramatic focus, seems excessively microcosmic. While presenting us with a wealth of data about Indian land sales, it tells us less of what we would like to know about policy debates at the federal level or of Indian-settler relations elsewhere in the new republic or, indeed, elsewhere in the world. After all, this was not the only spot in which Europeans and aboriginal peoples were encountering one another. The eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries would see many such collisions, in Central and South America, in Australia and the Pacific islands, in Siberia under both the czars and the Soviets, and so on. It would be nice to know if the experience in western New York was exceptionally bad or more or less the rule, but Taylor offers little in the way of context or comparison.

Still, what he does tell us is damning enough. Following their victory over France in the Seven Years’ War (known in these parts as the French and Indian War of 1754-63), the British found themselves masters of what Taylor describes as a “composite” empire in North America consisting of British colonists along the Atlantic seaboard, French settlers along the St. Lawrence, Africans in southern coastal areas and various Indian tribes deeper in the interior. London regarded all of them as so many pawns to be moved about the imperial chessboard. In order to soothe ruffled feathers in Quebec, for instance, the British awarded it control over the entire Ohio Valley in 1774 with little thought as to the effect on neighboring New England. New Englanders were aghast. They coveted the territory themselves and were now astonished to see it in the hands of French Papists. In moving to the New World, they, like other English colonists, had assumed that they retained all the rights of freeborn Englishmen back home. But even though they had been on the winning side of the Seven Years’ War, they now found themselves being treated in the same way as the losers, or even a bit worse.

We are required to recalibrate our view of the revolution that erupted a short time later as a consequence. Rather than a revolt against imperialism, it was a revolt against being denied the full fruits of imperialist victory. Rather than a struggle for equality, it was a struggle by British North Americans for primacy among the various New World elements contending for control. Thus, the Continental Congress maintained immediately after the war that the Indians, having for the most part sided with the British, would have to bow to the dictates of their American conquerors and accept their fate as a defeated people. Siding with the Patriots was no guarantee of fair treatment, as the Oneidas were to discover. The Anglos were in control, which meant that all others would be reduced to drawers of water, hewers of wood. The Federalists strove for something a bit more equitable and civilized, but following Jefferson’s “Revolution of 1800,” the old “conquest theory,” as Taylor calls it, was back in force. Although Taylor does not follow the story line beyond the 1810s, the conquest theory continued right up to the Civil War and, one way or another, has been with us ever since (the war in Iraq being merely the latest example of its externalization). Not only did the Indians pay a terrible price as a result, but so did blacks and other minorities. It is a legacy that no one wants to talk about, at least none of the oligarchs currently in control of the attenuated American Republic, which is why the old myths about freedom-loving patriots continue to hold sway.

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