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In this post, I briefly explore the ways in which settler colonialism shaped relations between tribes and how relations between American colonizers and Indigenous communities changed during the American Revolution. This short case study also exposes Indigenous dispossession and the establishment of hierarchical relations between imperial agents and those they sought to conquer as the heart of the American settler colonial project.

In late September 1778, a letter arrived at British-controlled Fort Detroit containing an unexpected message from a regular sender: the tribe of the Chicksaw. While such communication between tribes was not unusual, both the message and the relationship between these tribes demonstrate the gravity of its contents. The Chickasaw lived primarily in present-day northeastern Mississippi and were almost continually at war with the Miami, the recipients of their message. Nevertheless, they charged Charles Beaubien, a British agent and interpreter, to deliver the message to the Miami and “all the people of the Ouabach [Wabash River Valley].” In the early years of the American Revolution, conflict intensified between the Chickasaw and the Miami and Wabash tribes as communities chose opposing sides in the war between the Americans and British. At about the same time that the Chickasaw message was conveyed and delivered, small bands of Wabash Indians moved to Spanish territory on the west side of the Mississippi River.  These bands, comprised of Kickapoo and Mascouten, agreed to act as Spain’s mercenaries, raiding the Chickasaw and Osage.[1] Perhaps the Spanish shared the same opinion as American Lieutenant Colonel George Rogers Clark, who viewed the Chickasaw as “the most potent nation” south of the Ohio River and wanted to pre-empt attacks from that quarter. Thus, the Spanish exploited the conflict between the Chickasaw and Wabash tribes even as the former sought Indigenous unity to oppose American colonization

Lt. Col. Clark, on the other hand, worked to keep the Chickasaw and Illinois tribes neutral and sent emissaries to procure peace agreements. The Chickasaw response was “cool and answered no great purpose,” at least not to the Americans: “Take care that we dont [sic] serve you as we have served the French before with all their Indians, [and] send you back without your heads.”[2] To the Miami and Wabash Nations, however, the Chickasaw sent a very different message and a plea:

My Beloved brothers!

We have long desired to see you but the Virginians have occupied us, & we know that they intend to go to you.  We pray you not to receive them but tell them to withdraw from your lands, &c. If you would defend yourselves we will help you — we are worthy of pity, we are not in the enjoyment of an inch of ground for hunting, and if you give them your hand you will be also like us obliged to work the land for a living.  We tell you in the name of all the nations our neighbors,

You know that for a long time we have worked, that all the brown skins should act as a single man to preserve our lands.  We have made peace with all the nations; you are the only ones who will be deaf, you see now, however, that we only work for a good thing; we hope my brothers that you will listen to us.[3]

According to historian Colin Calloway, the Chickasaw were a fearless and independent nation, but  by 1778,  even Chickasaw chiefs were effected by American encroachment and feared for their homelands as well as their people’s safety.[4] The above message may also indicate the state of nearby nations who had not been able to hold out as successfully against the settlers. Despite the tensions between them, the Chickasaw emphasized their unity of purpose with the Miami and Wabash tribes and their common objective to safeguard Indian lands against American incursions. In fact, they pled with these tribes to hear and receive their warning in a spirit of Indigenous unity. Yet, the Chickasaw message fell on deaf ears, and various factions within the Kickapoo, Miami, Piankeshaw, Wea, and Illinois supported the American cause between 1778 and 1781. Their alliance with the Americans did not pay off. In just a few years, white settlements began to grow and became more difficult to rebuff. In the wake of Clark’s conquest of British forts in southern Indiana and Illinois in 1778 and 1779, settler attacks on their Indigenous neighbors increased.

By 1781, the alliance between these nations and the United States began to disintegrate and dissolved almost completely by 1783 after the Treaty of Paris revealed the United States’ intention to take over Indian lands in the Old Northwest Territory.  Between 1781 and 1783, the Americans attempted to dominate the Illinois and Wabash tribes to pacify and settle these contested lands. In November 1781, Lieutenant Valentine Thomas Dalton, artillery commander at Vincennes, Indiana sent a letter to Lt. Col. Clark concerning American-Indian relations in the region.  He reported that he had promised to

take the Kickapoes [sic] by the h[and] upon Conditions of their delivering me their [w]ar ax Belt &c. Rec’d from the English and assurance of their future fidelity to Us, and for their true performance I expect the Piankeshaws to be answerable to me for their Conduct hereafter &c.[5]

Dalton’s paternalistic stance toward the Kickapoo and Piankeshaw is representative of the American position toward Indians in the Old Northwest Territory in the early 1780s.  Even though he was only a local commandant in charge of the artillery brigade, Dalton felt empowered to dictate the terms of US – Indian relations and expected these nations to acknowledge his perceived authority and his demands.

The core traits of settler colonialism are exposed in the fears expressed in the Chickasaw message and the arrogance of a low-ranking military commander: Indigenous dispossession, settlers’ perception of their own superiority, and how settler colonial structures flattened settler social hierarchies by raising male settlers’ social position in relation to Indigenous inhabitants. This story does not end here, however, and one should not think the Illinois and Wabash Valley tribes ignorant or naïve. Indeed, tribal leaders were making calculated judgments about their alliances, while navigating conflicting movements and sentiments within their own communities and hedging their bets by remaining in dialogue with both the British and Americans.

This case study highlights the essential features of settler colonialism I explore in my dissertation and foreshadows later American actions to obtain Indigenous land. Moreover, it offers a window into Indigenous resistance and showcases Native American leaders’ perceptiveness and flexibility in their response to the threat American settlement posed. In the larger work, this case study is woven into the first chapter, which examines the American conquest of British forts in present-day Indiana and Illinois during the American Revolution. Additionally, this chapter compares American and Indian perceptions of the overthrow’s meaning and reveals how Indigenous peoples of the Wabash Valley and Illinois Country navigated alliances during the war to place themselves in the best position to maintain their homeland and life-ways.

___________________________

[1] Helen Hornbeck Tanner, ed., Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, published for the Newberry Library, 1987), 92.

[2] James Alton James, ed., George Rogers Clark Papers, 1781-1784 (Springfield: Illinois Historical Society, 1926), 136; Draper Mss 47J1; “Chickasaw Talk to the Rebels,” May 22, 1779, Library of Congress transcriptions form Public Record Office, Kew, England, Colonial Office Records, 5/81: 139-41; also in Papers of the Continental Congress, reel 65, item 51, vol. 2: 41-2 in Colin Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 226.

[3] “Speeches Brought to Detroit by Mr. Beaubien,” September 27, 1778.  Haldimand Papers [B122 p 196] in Michigan Historical Collections, vol. 10, pp. 297-98.  Ohio Valley-Great Lakes Ethnohistory Archive, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

[4] Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 225.

[5] V. T. Dalton to George Rogers Clark, St. Vincents, 3 November 1781. Clark Papers. Missouri Historical Society. Ohio Valley-Great Lakes Ethnohistory Archive, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

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