American Revolution (1775-1781) American Indians

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American Revolution 1775 1781 American Indians

American war for independence against Great Britain Participation of American Indians in the Revolutionary War differed from that of previous colonial conflicts. In earlier wars-KING WILLIAM’S WAR (1689-97), QUEEN ANNE’S WAR (1702-13), KING GEORGE’S WAR (1744-48), and the FRENCH AND INDIAN WAR (1754-63)-the Indians often outnumbered the Europeans on whose side they were fighting. In the Revolutionary War, however, Indian warriors serving with American, British, and Canadian troops were a minority. Their battles were more often directed against frontier settlements rather than the enemy’s conventional armies.

In the north, Indian-white conflicts centered on New York and Pennsylvania. This was the homeland of the Iroquois, longtime allies of the British. The Revolutionary War, however, split the Six Nations. The ONEIDA and the TUSCARORA sided with the American rebels, thanks to the influence of Samuel Kirkland, a Presbyterian minister and teacher, and James Dean, agent to the Tuscarora. On June 12, 1775, the MOHAWK, SENECA, CAYUGA, and ONONDAGA all decided to join the British cause. In turn, traditional rivalries with the Mohawk drove the Mahican into the American camp.

In part this adherence to the British resulted from that nation’s promise to enforce the PROCLAMATION OF 1763, which banned further white expansion into Indian lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. The efforts of the Mohawk chief JOSEPH BRANT, brother-in-law of the British Indian agent Sir WILLIAM JOHNSON, also proved crucial. In the fall of 1775, Brant and his Mohawk warriors helped check two American assaults on Montreal. In 1776 General Burgoyne arrived in Quebec, Canada. His command included 9,000 soldiers, which included an Indian auxiliary force composed mainly of Algonquin-speaking men from Canada. The next year the force moved southward to Lake Champlain in an attempt to isolate New England from the other colonies. In 1777 Brant gathered Indian forces to serve as auxiliaries in Major General John Burgoyne’s Hudson valley campaign. Burgoyne used the Indians’s ferocious reputation to terrorize the Americans, threatening to unleash the Indians on them if they resisted. Unfortunately for Burgoyne, the Indians proved just as uncontrollable as he had advertised, and in the end they helped unify his colonial enemies by killing several Loyalist settlers, including Jane McCrea, a woman engaged to one of Burgoyne’s soldiers. Burgoyne reprimanded the Indians and many of them deserted in response.

Most of the action on the northern frontier after Burgoyne’s defeat at Saratoga in September 1777 took the form of the hit-and-run raids in which the Indians excelled. From 1777 through 1779, Brant and Loyalist militia leaders led raids on Patriot settlements in New York’s Mohawk River valley, in Pennsylvania’s Wyoming valley, and in Cherry Valley (1778). One of the major battles was at ORISKANY CREEK (1777), where an American force that had tried to lift the siege of Fort Stanwix (1777) lost more than half their number in an ambush led by Brant. The Wyoming valley came under assault in late June 1778, when a force of 1,200 Canadian militia and DELAWARE and Seneca Indians killed and mutilated 300 of the 450 American defenders. The assault on Cherry Valley in November 1778 destroyed the entire settlement and brought retaliation from the American forces. In 1779 General George Washington sent a force of 2,500 men under John Sullivan in a raid through Iroquois territory that destroyed about 50 of their villages. This was a particularly brutal campaign-some claim planned as extermination-in which villages of sleeping women and children were burned in the middle of the night, prisoners were tortured, and bodies mutilated. The campaign ended in September, leaving many survivors to starve over the winter because their stores of grain and fruit trees had intentionally been destroyed.

General Sullivan’s brutal campaign left the Indians of New York desperate and looking for vengeance. General raiding continued throughout spring and summer 1780. On May 21, 1780, Sir John Johnson organized 400 Tories and 200 Indians to attack Johnstown and then Caughnawaga. Joseph Brant led 500 Indians and Tories in the attack on Canajoharie on August 1 and 2. Johnson, Brant, and Seneca chief Cornplanter joined to descend on the Scoharie Valley on October 15, then continued up the Mohawk Valley, burning everything in their path.

Things turned around that month, however, when Colonel Marius Willett’s small force of American militia held out fiercely against a Tory-Indian force under Captain Walter N. Butler. Willett followed Butler’s forces as winter began to fall. Low on provisions, a week from Oswego, with winter weather worsening, Willett claimed victory. The defeat of Butler meant the end of major assaults in this area. By the winter of 1781, the Iroquois and Loyalist threat in upstate New York had been largely quelled.

In the west, the SHAWNEE, Wyandot, Mingo, and some CHEROKEE launched raids on white settlements in Kentucky as early as July of 1775. By 1777 the Shawnee chiefs Black Fish and CORNSTALK had unofficially allied themselves with the British and had driven many settlers out of the territory. In the spring of that year they attacked the outposts of Harrodsburg, Boonesboro, and Saint Asaph. GEORGE ROGERS CLARK organized the remaining settlers’ resistance. He planned a series of attacks on British forts that would relieve Indian pressure on the white frontier settlements. Cornstalk, learning of the plans, traveled to Fort Randolph on the Ohio River to warn the Americans that any invasion of the Ohio Country would lead to massive retaliation by the Shawnee and their allies. The American commander imprisoned Cornstalk, his son Silverheels, and a companion in violation of the flag of truce. The three Indians were later murdered by angry settlers.

Clark assembled a force by the spring of 1778, and during that summer he moved against the British frontier forts of Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes. Both Kaskaskia and Cahokia fell to Clark’s 175-man militia without a shot. Clark took Vincennes in the early months of 1779 through a trick, or ruse de guerre-he convinced the British commander Henry Hamilton that his force was much greater than it really was. So convincing was Clark’s acting that some of Hamilton’s KICKAPOO and Piankashaw Indian allies deserted him and helped the Americans. The capture of the British frontier forts crippled the Indians’ capacity to raid in Kentucky and Ohio. Some members of the LENNI LENAPE (Delaware) tribe left the Ohio Country for good, moving to Canada and to lands west of the Mississippi. Other Indians were spurred to fight more desperately.

By the spring of 1780, the Ohio Country Indians were again attacking American settlements. On June 22, 1780, a combined force of 1,200 Indians, British regulars, and Canadian militia raided the settlement of RUDDELL’s STATION (1780) on the South Licking River. Although John Ruddell surrendered on the promise that his people would be spared, the British were unable to control their Indian allies. The settlers were massacred. In retaliation, Clark launched a campaign against the Shawnee, Mingo, Wyandot, and Lenni Lenape. He cornered them at Piqua Town and inflicted significant casualties. However, the Indians quickly recovered their strength and began raiding the Kentucky settlements again by 1781.

Although Indians in the South outnumbered colonists by a large margin-one contemporary estimated that Cherokees, CREEK, CHOCTAW, and CHICKASAW could have brought 10,000 warriors to help the British-they were never a significant factor in the American Revolution because the British did not use them effectively. When the war broke out, some Cherokee, encouraged by the Shawnee, launched a series of raids on the southern frontier. In August and September 1776, southerners fielded 6,300 militia and drove the Cherokee almost to Florida. Overwhelmed, the Cherokee traded land concessions for peace, signing away most of their territory east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. The Creek and some Cherokee continued to raid frontier settlements until October 7, 1780, when southern soldiers under JOHN SEVIER and Isaac Shelby defeated a strong Tory contingent at Kings Mountain and burned the Indian villages.

Hostilities in the west continued even as the British scaled down the war effort. The Virginia and Kentucky militia, exhausted by the demands of the war, proved unable to cope with the pressure of constant raiding. When the Lenni Lenape launched a particularly brutal series of raids in western Pennsylvania, Colonel David Williamson was dispatched to deal with the situation. Early in 1782, Williamson and 100 troops surrounded a band of peaceful Christian (Moravian) Lenni Lenape Indians at the Ohio mission town of Gnaddenhutten. He took all 90 men, women, and children prisoner and had them executed. The GNADDENHUTTEN MASSACRE (1782) was condemned by the Pennsylvania legislature, but no one took any action against Williamson. When other Lenni Lenape renewed their raids, Colonel William Crawford was dispatched on a second punitive expedition. On June 4, 1782, near the modern town of Sandusky, Ohio, a large band of Shawnee and Lenni Lenape surrounded Crawford’s force. Most of the soldiers ran away, but between 40 and 50, including Crawford, were killed or captured. The Indians avenged Gnaddenhutten by torturing Crawford to death. There were several more conflicts in Kentucky, including an American defeat at BLUE LICKS (1782).

Thus the Indians were less of a decisive factor during the American Revolution than they had been during the earlier colonial wars. The British and the Americans were largely unable to organize their Native American allies into effective irregular forces. Also, the frontier had shifted westward, and most of the major American settlements were out of reach of Indian raids. Despite the signing of the TREATY OF PARIS (1783), which officially ended the Revolutionary War, fighting on the western borders continued for years. In the Ohio Valley, for example, conflicts continued through the signing of the TREATY OF GREENVILLE (1795), and, due to the efforts of the Shawnee leader TECUMSEH in the WAR OF 1812 (1812-15), into the early 19th century.

Further Reading Axelrod, Alan. Chronicle of the Indian Wars. New York: Prentice Hall, 1993. Josephy, Alvin M., Jr. 500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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