By Collin G. Calloway
The Declaration of Independence accused King George III of unleashing “merciless Indian Savages” against innocent men, women, and children. The image of ferocious warriors propelled into action by a tyrannical monarch fixed in memory and imagination the Indians‘ role in the American Revolution and justified their subsequent treatment. But, many Indian nations tried to stay out of the conflict, some sided with the Americans, and those who fought with the British were not the king’s pawns: they allied with the Crown as the best hope of protecting their homelands from the encroachments of American colonists and land speculators. The British government had afforded Indian lands a measure of protection by the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which had attempted to restrict colonial expansion beyond the Appalachian Mountains and had alienated many American colonists. Indians knew that the Revolution was a contest for Indian land and liberty.
Some Indian tribes went to war early. Cherokee warriors, frustrated by recurrent land losses, defied the authority of older chiefs and attacked frontier settlements, only to be soundly defeated by expeditions from Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. On the other hand, Indians from the mission town at Stockbridge in western Massachusetts, like most New England Indians, supported their colonial neighbors. They volunteered as minutemen even before the outbreak of the fighting, joined Washington’s at the siege of Boston, and served in New York, New Jersey, and Canada.
The Revolution split the Iroquois Confederacy. The Mohawk, led by Joseph Brant, adhered to their long-standing allegiance to the British, and eventually, most Cayuga, Onondaga, and Seneca joined them. But, the Oneida and Tuscarora sided with the Americans, owing in large measure to the efforts of their Presbyterian missionary Samuel Kirkland. The Revolution became a civil war for the Iroquois, as Oneida clashed with Seneca at the Battle of Oriskany in 1777. Iroquois sufferings were compounded in 1779 when General John Sullivan led an American army through their country, burning forty towns and destroying crops.
In the Ohio country, Guyashuta of the Seneca, Cornstalk of the Shawnee, and White Eyes of the Delaware worked hard to steer a neutral course in the early years of the war. At the Treaty of Fort Pitt in 1778, Delaware and Americans pledged “perpetual peace and friendship.” But, after Americans killed White Eyes and Cornstalk and slaughtered noncombatant Moravian Delaware at the mission town of Gnadenhutten, Ohio Indians made common cause with the British. They won victories in the West long after Cornwallis had surrendered in the East and continued to resist American expansion for a dozen years after the Revolution.
In 1783, under the terms of the Peace of Paris, without regard to its Indian allies, Britain handed over all its territory to the new United States east of the Mississippi River, south of the Great Lakes, and north of Florida. The United States proceeded to expand westward, acquiring Indian lands by treaty and by force. The Stockbridge and Oneida, who had supported the Americans, lost lands, and Seneca and Shawnee, who had fought against them.
Indians fought in the Revolution for Indian liberties and Indian homelands, not for the British empire. But the image of Indian participation presented in the Declaration of Independence prevailed: most Americans believed that Indians had backed monarchy and tyranny. A nation conceived in liberty need feel no remorse about dispossessing and expelling those who had fought against its birth.
Compiled and edited by Kathy Alexander/Legends of America, updated January 2023.
By Collin G. Calloway, National Park Service
African Americans In The Revolutionary Period
Causes of the American Revolution
Initial Battles for Independence