The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution

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In 1761, at a boarding school in New England, a young Mohawk Indian named Joseph Brant first met Samuel Kirkland, the son of a colonial clergyman. They began a long and intense relationship that would redefine North America. For nearly fifty years, their lives intertwined, at first as close friends but later as bitter foes. Kirkland served American expansion as a missionary and agent, promoting Indian conversion and dispossession. Brant pursued an alternative future for the continent by defending an Indian borderland nestled between the British in Canada and the Americans, rather than divided by them.

By telling their dramatic story, Alan Taylor illuminates the dual borders that consolidated the new American nation after the Revolution. By constricting Indians within reservation lines, the Americans sought to control their northern boundary with the British Empire, which lingered in Canada. The border became firm as thousands of settlers established farms, held as private property, all around the new reservations. This struggle also pitted the federal government against the leaders of New York, competing to control the lands and the Indians of the border country. They contended for the highest of stakes because the transformation of Indian land constructed the wealth and the power of states, nations, and empires in North America.

In addition to land, the frontier contest pivoted on murders, which repeatedly tested who had legal jurisdiction: Indians or newcomers. To assert power, the contending regimes sought to try and execute Indians or settlers who killed one another. To defend native autonomy, however, the Indians asserted an alternative by “covering the graves” of victims with presents to console their kin. When the gallows replaced covered graves, the Indians lost their middle position as free peoples.

Taylor breaks with the stereotype of Indians as defiant but doomed traditionalists, as noble but futile defenders of ancient ways. In fact, the borderland Indians demonstrated remarkable adaptability and creativity in coping with the contending powers and with the growing numbers of invading settlers. Led by Joseph Brant, the natives tried to manage, rather than entirely to block, the process of settlement. Taylor shows that they did so in ways meant to preserve Indian autonomy and prosperity. Rather than sell lands for a song to governments, the Indians sought greater control and revenue by leasing lands directly to settler tenants. But neither the British nor the American leaders could accept Indians as landlords, as competitors in the construction of power from land in North America. Once a “middle ground,” the borderland became a divided ground, partitioned between the British Empire and the American republic. 

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About the Author:

Alan Taylor is a professor of history at the University of California at Davis and a contributing editor at The New Republic. He is the author of Liberty Men and Great Proprietors, American Colonies, and William Cooper’s Town which won the Bancroft and Pulitzer prizes for American history.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Property

In July 1761, as Joseph Brant traveled east to join Wheelock’s school, Sir William Johnson headed west, ascending the Mohawk River into the country of the Six Nations. his five boats hauled thirty-eight soldiers, their equipment, and presents for the Indians. The traveling party also included his nineteen-year-old son, John, and their cousin and secretary, Guy Johnson. In high spirits, the Johnsons anticipated a victory tour in Indian country to consolidate the recent British conquest of French Canada. With the French banished from North America, British officials expected easily to control the Indians.

Instead, Johnson found pervasive Indian dread and disgust, even among the nearby Mohawks, who had so long cooperated with him. As British allies, the Mohawks had lost about 100 warriors, half of their men, during the recent war with the French. In return for that heavy sacrifice, the Mohawks expected Johnson to protect their villages against conniving land speculators and encroaching settlers. Frustrated in that expectation, the Mohawks complained bitterly to Johnson, who reported that they felt in “danger of being made slaves, and having their lands taken from them at pleasure, which they added would confirm what the French have often told the Six Nations.”

Preaching patience, Johnson promised justice to the Mohawks—but New York’s leaders and settlers kept breaking his every promise. Fed up, the Mohawks threatened to move away deeper within Indian country. That possibility delighted settlers and speculators who lusted after Mohawk land, but alarmed Johnson, who relied on his special Mohawk connection to influence the Six Nations. Without nearby and content Mohawks as allies, his superintendency would become impotent.

Proceeding upriver beyond the Mohawk country, Johnson reached German Flats, colonial New York’s westernmost settlement. There, Johnson met Oneidas, who also bitterly complained of encroaching settlers. The chief Conoghquieson warned Johnson that the Oneida settlers would fight rather than lose their lands. Instead of consolidating British power over the Indians, the conquest of Canada threatened to unravel the alliance with the Six Nations that was essential to frontier security.

In helping the British to attack Canada, the Iroquois had miscalculated, for they had never expected such a rapid and complete collapse by the French forces. No longer could the Indians play off the French against the British to maintain Iroquois independence, to maximize their presents, and to ensure trade competition. A British general explained, “They saw us sole Masters of the Country, the Balance of Power broke, and their own Consequence at an End. Instead of being courted by two Nations, a Profusion of Presents made by both, and two Markets to trade at, they now depend upon one Power.” That dependence exposed Iroquoia to land-hungry colonists.

THE SIX NATIONS

The Iroquois pursued a mixed subsistence strategy combining horticulture, gathering, fishing, and hunting. In fields of fertile, alluvial soil, they cultivated mounds of maize topped by climbing beans and surrounded by low-lying squashes and pumpkins. After the fall harvest, the natives dispersed into the hills, occupying many small camps, tended by women, while the men pursued bear, deer, and beaver for meat and pelts. Returning to their villages, they spent the early spring collecting maple sap to make a brown sugar. After planting their crops in May, the Iroquois spent June and July in fishing camps strung along the lakes and streams. Having exhausted the previous year’s harvest, the people sought relief by catching eels, salmon, trout, and whitefish. During that hungry season, the women and children also gathered wild onions, followed by strawberries, raspberries, whortleberries, and blackberries. From the forest floor, they also harvested ginseng for sale to colonial merchants.

This mobile, but seasonally patterned, way of life conserved most of the forest and streams—and their wild things—over the generations. Native use contrasted with the colonists’ drive to clear most of the forest to provide pastures for cattle and fields for grain. Compared to the colonists, the Iroquois used land extensively rather than intensively. The natives did clear and cultivate compact fields near their villages, but they kept most of their domain as a forest to sustain wild plants and animals. To colonial eyes, the Iroquois peoples wasted their land by keeping a wilderness; but the Indians exploited their domain in ways that the colonists did not understand.

Most colonists disdained the Iroquois as improvident, living from hand to mouth for want of incentives for accumulating private property. Indeed, the Iroquois considered it foolish and demeaning to labor beyond what they needed to subsist. Sir William noted, “The Indians are a Lazy people, & naturally Enemies to Labour.” But colonial charges of Indian indolence focused on men seen during the warm months in their villages or on visits to colonial towns: periods and places of male inactivity and heavy drinking. Colonial observers rarely saw Indian men during their strenuous winter hunts, when they endured severe hardships pursuing game for miles over rugged terrain in bitter weather. The colonial view also discounted the evident industry of native women in cultivating and gathering, which the colonists treated as exploitation by lazy husbands and fathers.

John Heckewelder, a missionary, noted that the Indians disliked the competitive and acquisitive values of the colonists: “They wonder that the white people are striving so much to get rich, and to heap up treasures in this world which they cannot carry with them to the next.”

They cherished the collective security maintained by expecting generosity from the fortunate to the needy. Instead of storing up wealth, prospering chiefs accumulated prestige by gifts to their kin and to the hungry and ragged. These values of hospitality and reciprocity spread resources through the seasons and across a village, sustaining a rough equality. No one starved in an Iroquois village unless all did so.

If paltry by colonial standards, the material wants of the Iroquois exceeded those of their ancestors. The eighteenth-century Iroquois relied upon traders to provide European manufactured goods that exceeded the Indian technology to make. In return for furs, the Iroquois procured metal knives, hatchets, axes, hoes, and kettles—all vastly better than their stone and wood predecessors. And with cloth, mirrors, glass and silver jewelry, and alcohol, the traders provided new luxuries to the Indians. Above all, they needed guns, gunpowder, and metal shot for hunting and war. Dependence on that imported technology also entailed an Indian reliance on colonial blacksmiths and gunsmiths to repair metal tools and weapons.

In personal appearance, the Iroquois conveyed a mix of tradition and adaptation, of America and Europe, of subsistence and commerce, and of ease and pride. Except for moccasins on their feet, the Iroquois donned more British cloth than traditional buckskin. In warm weather, men wore little more than a loose, linen shirt over their shoulders and a loincloth held by a leather belt. Women’s attire consisted of a linen shirt and a cotton petticoat. In colder weather, both men and women wrapped themselves in woolen blankets, while men covered their lower limbs with leather leggings. Both genders delighted in abundant jewelry, especially silver worn as bracelets, gorgets, rings, and earrings. Women and older men wore their hair long, but warriors shaved the sides of their head to leave a scalp lock on top. The young men also plucked their facial hair out by the roots.

Gender and age, rather than social class, structured Iroquois labor. Assisted by children, women tended the crops and gathered the wild plants, while men fished, hunted, waged war, and conducted diplomacy. Men’s activities took them deep into the forest and far from the villages. Consequently, those villages and their fields belonged to the women, the enduring people of the community. They controlled the harvest and determined the location of their village.

No land could be forsaken without their consent. In 1763, the Mohawks explained to Johnson that women were “the Truest Owners, being the persons who labour on the Lands.” The Mohawk matrons then assured Johnson that “they would keep their Land, and did not chuse to part with the same to be reduced to make Brooms.” The Mohawks well knew the Algonquian Indians of the Hudson Valley and New England as negative reference points: as native peoples who had lost most of their lands and become the impoverished makers of brooms and baskets for colonial consumers.

Chiefs

The Iroquois dispersed and divided political power from a dread of coercion. They understood the world as constantly embroiled in a struggle between the forces of good and evil, of life and death, of peace and war. Because those conflicts raged within every nation, village, and person, all forms of power had to be dispersed and closely watched to preserve the freedom of a people.

An Iroquois nation was an ethnic and linguistic group divided into several jealous villages and subdivided by internal factions led by rival chiefs. Although one village usually was a bit larger and more prestigious, hosting the council fire of the nation, the chiefs there could only admonish and advise, but never command, their fellow people in other, smaller villages. No nation was united under the rule of a single headman, although one chief might enjoy more honor as the keeper...

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