By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
There are few events in the history of the United States more mythologized than the American Revolution. It’s often understood as being driven by what James Madison called the sacred fire of liberty. And yet, we often forget there are other perspectives to be had on it, like, what did the Natives think of it and of those who were ‘fighting’ for this liberty. Let’s explore.
The ‘Glorious’ Fight for Freedom
The mere mention of American Revolution evokes images of freedom-loving patriots and tyrannical monarchs. When we think of the Revolution, we immediately think of the Founding Fathers. The nobility of George Washington and his daring military maneuvers.
And, we think of the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, whose words express the principles that enliven the nation even today.
In the end, we imagine the American Revolution as the beginning, if not the end, of the triumph of liberty, equality, and fraternity.
This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North America. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Was American Revolution a Success?
Let’s take a moment to think about what constitutes an event and gives it meaning. The anthropologist, Ray Fogelson, puts it best. Basically, he describes an event as a happening. It’s one thing for people to agree that something happened. It’s quite another to determine what it meant.
“Events,” Fogelson argues, “are often assigned variable valorizations and differential recognitions.” This is important because it reminds us of the contingent nature of what we consider eventful.
How do we know when something eventful happens, anyway? Who gets to decide? And on what grounds? Is it possible for something as revolutionary as the American Revolution not to be seen that way?
Native View on American Revolution
To answer the question above, yes, well, at least for most American Indians east of the Mississippi River. They defined the American Revolution as little more than another in a long series of European wars for empire. And West of the Mississippi River, the American Revolution wasn’t considered at all eventful—at least, not immediately so.
Let’s push the ideas of variable valorization and differential recognition a little further. What about those freedom-loving Founding Fathers? Well, the colonists who burned with the sacred fire of liberty often left little more than scorched earth in Native America.
Native places were often the battlegrounds. Most Native people east of the Mississippi—having already been caught between imperial contests—initially sought neutrality in what one Oneida called an unnatural quarrel between two brothers of one blood.
American Revolution or Pursuit of Land?
American Indians—including the Lenape warrior Shingas—surmised that these unnatural quarrels were intended ultimately to waste Native peoples, and allow the whites to divide the land among themselves.
From many Native perspectives—and there were many—the Revolution simply represented a war between a British father and his land-hungry children. And what is more, it was the so-called patriots who were most responsible for the encroaching, exploiting, and killing.
Learn more about the people and politics of American Revolution.
Limiting Colonial Expansion
Taking the opposite view for a moment, it was the so-called tyrannical British monarchy that had drawn and sought to uphold the Proclamation Line of 1763, which tried to limit colonial expansion to the area east of the Appalachian Mountains.
And, it was the tyrannical monarch who, because of his land-hungry children, had to renegotiate that line in 1768, at the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, moving the boundary westward from the Appalachian Mountains to the Ohio River.
This land cession happened to the great dismay of the Lenape and Shawnee, who believed it had been their land bartered away—yet again—by the Iroquois without their consent.
Native View of the Founding Fathers
George Washington became known as Town Destroyer in the Seneca language. And the Seneca had the decimated cornfields and razed villages to attest to it. The Shawnee, on the other hand, knew Thomas Jefferson as the Governor of Virginia who ordered a war of extermination against them.
And what of the Declaration of Independence? How often do we read past the first few lines of that document? If we did, we would find that yes, all men are created equal, except, of course, “the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”
Learn more about George Washington’s doubts over the American experiment.
Declaration of Independence Not for Natives?
For whom, then, were the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity intended? And at what cost?
From the perspective of many Native people, there would be no liberty for them under the rule of the colonists or the Crown. Not from colonists who had no fraternal love for them, and who appeared incapable of looking upon them as human beings, much less as equals. And not from a King who preferred to look at tribes not as sovereign nations but as subjects.
And, also, on whose land would opportunity’s seed be planted? Some of you may be familiar with the historian Edmund Morgan’s classic study entitled American Slavery, American Freedom. He intended the title to get at the paradox that white American freedom was predicated on the lack of freedom for black Americans. Independence and slavery were inextricably bound.
American Dispossession, American Freedom
With regard to the American Revolution’s legacy in Native America, we should recast Morgan’s insight, and think of it in terms of American Dispossession, American Freedom. For the yeoman farmer or independent producer—who represented the very essence of the 18th-century ideal of liberty—there was nothing more important than land. And everyone understood that the freedom of these yeoman farmers could only be realized by taking Indian land, through purchase or through war.
What all of this amounts to is that Native people were in the position of having to make unenviable decisions—to ally with the colonists, or with the Crown, or to seek neutrality. And these were, indeed, difficult choices to make.
Common Questions about American Revolution and the Native View
On event, anthropologist Ray Fogelson said: “Events are often assigned variable valorizations and differential recognitions.”
Edmund Morgan wrote American Slavery, American Freedom.
One of America’s Founding Fathers, George Washington, became known as Town Destroyer in the Seneca language. On the other hand, the Shawnee knew Thomas Jefferson as the Governor of Virginia who ordered a war of extermination against them.