In Revolutionary America, colonists surged across the Appalachians, Indians fought to preserve their land, and a bloodbath ensued—but why? Breaking with previous interpretations, Unsettling the West tells the story of a frontier where government initiatives, rather than pioneer independence, drove violence and colonization.
Jan 2018 | 272 pages | Cloth $45.00
American History | Native American Studies
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Table of Contents
Note on Naming
List of Abbreviations
Chapter 1. Containment, 1765-72
Chapter 2. Patronage, 1773-74
Chapter 3. Opportunity, 1775-76
Chapter 4. Reluctance, 1777-79
Chapter 5. Horrors, 1780-82
Chapter 6. Failures, 1783-95
In the summer of 1772, a recent Dartmouth graduate, David McClure, set out to bring Christianity to the Indians of the Ohio Valley. As he trudged across the Alleghenies, he met fifteen packhorses headed eastward, hauling cannonballs. The British empire, McClure learned, could no longer afford its garrison at Fort Pitt, and so the imperial ordnance now marched away from the frontier he hoped to civilize. As he watched the horses pass, the young missionary likely wondered what he had gotten himself into. British influence over the Ohio Valley—tenuous to begin with—was waning further, leaving the region's peoples free from imperial oversight. The West was becoming wilder—or so it seemed.
Like McClure, many histories of the Ohio Valley maintain that imperial weakness bred frontier wildness. The region's ensuing colonization, one suggests, unfolded "from the bottom up," driven by the dreams of ordinary colonists who hungered for land and bristled at government meddling. An array of medical and aquatic metaphors conveys the organic force of this migration: tens of thousands succumbed to a "land fever" that made them pour, flood, and surge across the Appalachians. Attitude and impulse also seem to explain intercultural violence: Indians and colonists hated one another, and with no state to restrain them they slaughtered at will. But a closer look calls these explanations into question. Colonists coveted Indian land, but they colonized new areas only where they had some hope of gaining legal title. Horrific violence ensued, but its scale varied sharply over time. When governments ignored the region, relative peace prevailed. When they tried to control it, hostilities escalated. Intercultural hatred persisted throughout but led to war only when government initiatives empowered the region's inhabitants to fight. Rather than springing from state absence, the horrors of the period stemmed from governments' intrusive presence.
A gaggle of polities contended for power in the revolutionary Ohio Valley. The Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee in the north and the Cherokee nation in the south claimed large and overlapping territories, while Wyandots, Delawares, and Shawnees insisted they owned much of the same land. A series of legally dubious treaties with Europeans complicated matters further. The proprietary government of Pennsylvania and the royal government of Virginia bickered over ill-defined borders, even as imperial officials vetted proposals for new western colonies. In 1774, Britain declared Ohio to be part of Canada. In 1775 and 1776, the colonists of the Atlantic seaboard toppled their old regimes and declared themselves "free and independent states," while a Continental Congress struggled to coordinate a united struggle against the empire. In 1783, Britain surrendered all territory south of the lakes to the newly independent United States, but the region's Indian nations pointed out that they had never ceded the land to anyone. The British at least intermittently encouraged native claims, and refused to hand over their Great Lakes forts until 1796. Meanwhile, the late 1780s and early 1790s brought a new "Northwest Territory" north of the Ohio, new constitutions for Pennsylvania and the United States, and the separation of Kentucky's government from Virginia. Throughout, agents of different governments argued and sometimes fought over their competing claims to authority.
These ubiquitous disputes suggest Hobbesian chaos, but they can be better understood as part of a process of state building that transcended the rise and fall of specific governments. Rather than clearly defined institutions set apart from civil society, governments in the Ohio Valley comprised "extensive, fluid networks of people" pursuing a wide range of dissimilar and even contradictory goals. In this world, modern distinctions between state and nonstate actors, or between government and civil society, had little meaning. Policies approved in London, Williamsburg, or Philadelphia had little effect without the cooperation and influence of local allies, creating ample room to resist, negotiate, or reshape state authority. Specific governments came and went, but their diverse constituents usually continued their work under the aegis of a different government, in hopes of building a more advantageous political order. Ohio Valley inhabitants' visions for that future varied immensely but generally involved some sort of composite polity that balanced local self-rule with the protections of a larger empire. Rather than either resisting or submitting to state authority, Indians and colonists pursued "advantageous interdependence." They cherished local autonomy, yet wanted to participate in a political system strong enough to effectively regulate trade, resolve disputes, enforce boundaries, and guard against attack. Though they decried unwelcome government meddling, few Indians or colonists savored the thought of pursuing these goals independently. Far from "car[ing] little for states," they sought to shape the emerging state to suit their own ends.
Understanding state building in the Ohio Valley requires close attention to both intracultural divisions and intercultural alliances. Both Indian and colonial societies comprised a mosaic of distinct geographic and cultural communities, in which individuals responded to conflicts in myriad ways. Though Ohio Indians broadly shared a commitment to some kind of territorial sovereignty, individuals adopted diverse and often conflicting strategies in order to secure it. Most colonists in the region aspired to own land, but when, where, and how they tried to do so varied substantially, and their ambitions fueled internecine conflict at least as often as unity. Lacking either strong coercive institutions or broad political consensus, Ohio Valley inhabitants could wage war, make peace, and pursue their various goals only by building coalitions. As in modern states, coalition politics often made strange bedfellows, as individuals and communities with different and even contradictory long-term goals joined to pursue common short-term objectives. It entailed searching for allies with overlapping interests, articulating those interests effectively, and continually finessing divergent aims. To unify amid so much diversity, the coalition builders, or brokers, often manipulated or distorted information in order to obscure or downplay differences among allies—at least enough to permit cooperation, for a time.
More durable alliances linked such brokers with influential patrons: investors, military commanders, or political authorities, usually based outside the region. Brokers provided patrons with information and promoted their interests in exchange for credit, influence peddling, and official appointments. Rather than a zero-sum game, in which state institutions gained power at the expense of their subjects, such relationships tended to be symbiotic, with both patrons and brokers gaining advantages through collaboration. Thanks to patronage, brokers gained influence in their communities, enabling them to both better serve patrons and cultivate clients of their own. Representatives of colonial governments were especially attractive patrons, despite their lack of effective authority, because they could offer a wide array of resources: trade goods, food, weapons, teachers, soldiers, and land titles. Patronage networks tended to be more stable and durable than other coalitions, but as interests, strategies, and opportunities shifted, brokers might switch patrons or cultivate competing patrons simultaneously. Patrons, too, might abandon brokers when they found other, more useful allies. But during the Revolutionary War, as British- and American-allied coalitions spawned mounting intercultural violence, Ohio Valley communities grew more dependent on government patronage, limiting their ability to resist state demands.
Scholarly explanations of those horrors understandably emphasize cultural and ideological factors. Competition for land, as well as the traumas of recent wars, fueled hatred between Indians and colonists, offering ample motive for murder. Contrasting beliefs about violence deepened the antagonism. For many Ohio Indians, permissibility of killing hinged on collective identity. They broadly accepted violence against communities with whom the perpetrator's own people were at war, while condemning the killing of those with whom one's people were at peace. In the latter case, the killer's extended family and nation were expected to atone for the injury or face collective retaliation. Captured enemies could be ritually adopted—absorbing their physical being into the captors' community—or ritually killed to secure their spiritual power. By contrast, European and colonial ideas about violence depended—at least in theory—on the attributes of the specific victim and perpetrator. Individuals who appeared dangerous—enemy combatants, rebellious slaves, or other threatening figures—could be killed, but noncombatants, especially women and children, were ordinarily to be spared. Wrongdoers were subject to personal punishment; their families and communities, generally speaking, were not. By the late eighteenth century, Indians and Europeans in the Great Lakes region and Ohio Valley understood these differences and accommodated them out of necessity, but few recognized the other's value system as legitimate. Above all, many colonists denied that their prohibitions of murder applied to Indians at all. Citing the Israelites' extirpation of Old Testament foes, some described the indiscriminate killing of native people as a holy calling. Because of such attitudes, colonial courts almost invariably failed to convict murderers of Indians.
But while cultural differences and hatreds help explain violence, they do not account for the full range of intercultural bloodshed, or its ebbs and flows. Violence often sprang from everyday interactions like tavern bickering or haggling over trade, circumstances that jar with the presumption of ubiquitous intercultural hostility. Motives for premeditated killing varied: many acted on hatred and vengeance, but some also aimed to impress an audience, to serve a spiritual purpose, to comply with orders, or to facilitate theft. Equally important, the scale of violence shifted dramatically over time, ranging from sporadic and isolated murders to wars of attrition. Noting these ambiguities and variations does not deny that categorical hatred made everything worse. But hatred alone does not suffice to explain how, when, and why Ohio Valley inhabitants killed one another. The story of these atrocities hinges on what happened between "acquisition of a violence-promoting idea and direct participation in mayhem." In this case, the escalation and de-escalation of hostilities correlates closely with the ever-shifting influence of governments. When those disposed to violence enjoyed access to government patronage, or had reason to expect official backing, bloodshed escalated. When government support diminished, violence lessened apace.
Unstable and ineffective governments exerted so much influence because both Indians and colonists sought to use government resources for their own ends. Competition for state patronage magnified the influence of government officials, while conflicts between rival governments forced officials to collaborate with the region's inhabitants. The results of such collaborations often disappointed most or all of those involved. Ohio Indians found that formal relationships with the Anglo-American state could facilitate dispossession, rather than prevent it. Many colonists failed to obtain the legal land title they sought, or they soon lost it through litigation or bankruptcy. For their part, government officials incessantly complained about the unruly willfulness of even nominal friends and allies. But if such partnerships often failed to yield desired results, they also profoundly unsettled the Ohio Valley, ultimately subjecting its peoples to the authority of an increasingly potent federal state.
These findings point to a new and more nuanced understanding of revolutionary Anglo-American colonialism. Scholars of the nineteenth- and twentieth-century trans-Mississippi West have long emphasized the centrality of state power in that region's transformations, calling into question deep-seated popular myths of an individualistic frontier. The eighteenth-century state, fragmented and unstable as it was, lacked the resources and technologies that made its successors such effective tools of conquest and dispossession. Nonetheless, the story of rugged frontier independence, of colonists marching west with no regard for political authority, proves as fallacious for the revolutionary Ohio Valley as it is for Montana or California. At the same time, the eventual colonial regime, like emerging states around the world, grew through a nonlinear and often unplanned process, driven by internecine rivalries as much as by intercultural antagonism. Politically influential speculators pressed governments for western lands. Official initiatives—land grants, road and fort building, treaties, and wars—as well as competition between rival claimants, spurred colonists to move west. Indian communities, often at odds with one another, angled to preserve their territory and sovereignty by cultivating both native and colonial allies. The resulting pattern of coalition building alternately facilitated both peacemaking and violence. Governments, meanwhile, pressed their competing territorial claims by arming the region's inhabitants, and militant Indians and colonists exploited such support to mobilize for war. The ensuing devastation deepened dependence on government patronage and bolstered the influence of leaders who could obtain it. All told, this brand of colonialism reflected the interplay of state influence and state weakness, of intracultural divisions and intercultural violence, of individual agency and community dependence. This is a story of negotiation, accommodation, and coalition building, as well as a story of the emerging power of a colonial state.
Most of the Ohio Valley's Indian peoples had entered or reentered the region less than half a century before McClure's encounter with the cannonballs. A series of seventeenth-century wars had temporarily driven the region's inhabitants, including Shawnees, to other areas. In the first half of the eighteenth century, many of their descendants moved back to the rich farmland of the Scioto Valley. Around the same time, Haudenosaunee and Delaware migrants from the east made new homes in the Allegheny and Muskingum valleys, while peoples from the north and west, including Wyandots, Odawas, and Miamis, repopulated the Maumee and Sandusky valleys. Many of these nations—to whom I refer collectively as Ohio Indians—had interacted regularly with European colonists since the early 1600s. Now they came to Ohio for its fertile soil, burgeoning deer population, and distance from the growing seaboard colonies. But distance did not mean disconnection. Though some spiritual leaders called on their people to reject colonial trade, such preaching did little to slow the exchange of beaver pelts and deerskins for European-manufactured textiles, tools, weapons, and rum. Living between French and British colonies allowed Indian peoples to leverage imperial rivalry for commercial and diplomatic advantage. To many, moving west and trading for European goods were complementary tactics that promoted both autonomy and prosperity.
After bidding the packhorses farewell, David McClure pressed on with his journey, eager to see the peoples he called "those distant & savage tribes beyond the Ohio." A few days later, he learned that Ohio Indians were neither as distant nor as savage as he had imagined. As he traveled west to Pittsburgh, an Allegheny Seneca leader named Guyasuta was journeying east to visit imperial officials in Philadelphia and New York. The Seneca impressed the missionary with his "martial appearance," but rather than paint and a breechclout he wore scarlet and lace. His head likely bore a long, braided scalp lock, but it was hidden under a "high gold laced hat." McClure also praised his "very sensible countenance & dignity of manners," as well as his thoughtful comments on religion and politics. The missionary was not alone in his admiration. Colonial newspapers fawningly reported Guyasuta's tours of the eastern port cities, noting that while pursuing business "of the greatest importance" he also made time to observe public "electrical experiments."
This scientifically curious, scarlet-dressed diplomat had followed a long and circuitous political and military career. In 1753, he had guided a young George Washington into the upper Ohio Valley. The Virginians wanted to drive the French from the region; they failed but, in doing so, started a world war. For most of the following decade, in a conflict misnamed the Seven Years' War, the forces of Britain, France, and their respective allies clashed repeatedly around the globe, from Saxony to Senegal, Madras, and Havana. Back in North America, Guyasuta switched sides, joining a large Franco-Indian alliance that ambushed and destroyed General Edward Braddock's army in the Battle of the Monongahela, just upstream from present-day Pittsburgh. Their victory, and the alliance, proved short-lived. French-allied Indians, eager to reverse British colonial expansion, terrorized the outer reaches of Pennsylvania and Virginia, but British and colonial forces retaliated by burning Indian towns and crops. Both sides slaughtered noncombatants in raids that had more to do with territorial dispossession than imperial alliances. By the late 1750s many nations, including most of Guyasuta's Senecas, had abandoned the French in exchange for concessions from the British, who subsequently captured the Forks of the Ohio, Niagara, and all of French Canada. In the eventual treaty, France surrendered all its claims to North America. At Detroit and elsewhere, French colonists and trading networks remained, but Great Lakes and Ohio Valley Indians could no longer leverage interimperial conflict for diplomatic and commercial advantage.
These momentous changes soon exhausted Guyasuta's hopes for peace. Victorious British commanders quickly forgot their promises. They abandoned long-standing diplomatic protocols, refused to remove forts and soldiers from native land, and showed little interest in curbing colonization. In 1761, Guyasuta urged Great Lakes nations to strike back, likely hoping that their erstwhile French allies would support them. Few heeded his call, but two years later a far-flung alliance of Great Lakes Indians captured nine British forts, spread hundreds of miles apart. Guyasuta personally helped capture the Allegheny Valley outpost of Venango and later joined an ultimately unsuccessful siege of Fort Pitt. The region plunged into a conflict known as Pontiac's War, after the Odawa leader who led the assault on Detroit. The reciprocal raids, town burning, and killing of noncombatants resumed, setting a pattern that became all too familiar in years to come. After two years of fighting, Guyasuta led a peace delegation to Fort Pitt, where the heavily indebted British empire welcomed him. He and his allies, having destroyed most of the region's forts, pledged to stop attacking the ones that remained. The empire, in turn, banned colonization west of the Appalachians, though the Six Nations tentatively agreed to a future cession of lands south and east of Pittsburgh. Many colonists and Indians had little use, or respect, for these concessions, but large-scale fighting nonetheless ground to a halt. On both sides, the human and economic costs of war had proven too much to bear.
Guyasuta, accordingly, reinvented himself as an Anglophile. A few years after besieging Fort Pitt, he publicly defended the British army's right to stay there. In championing first the French and then Pontiac's alliance, he had defied the more moderate Six Nations council, including many of his fellow Senecas. Now he insisted on the Six Nations' political supremacy over his erstwhile western allies and welcomed the anticipated land cession. During an autumn 1770 hunting trip, Guyasuta learned that his old friend—and sometime enemy—Washington was journeying down the Ohio. He welcomed the Virginian with open arms, presented him with "a Quarter of very fine Buffalo," and insisted that his party join the Seneca camp. In their ensuing conversations, Guyasuta vividly described the rich bottomland west of the Kanawha River. Washington took copious notes. Guyasuta had spent the better part of ten years trying to drive the British out of the Ohio Valley. Now he encouraged them to move in.
At first glance, this reversal might look like cynical opportunism, and perhaps, in some measure, it was. But in shifting between pro- and anti-British strategies, Guyasuta adhered to a broader goal that guided his long political and military career: the security and sovereignty of Allegheny Senecas. In 1753, collaborating with the Virginians promised to bolster his people's power against the increasingly aggressive French and their western allies. Over the next two years, Washington's and Braddock's defeats shattered British credibility. Allegheny Senecas rationally embraced the seemingly victorious French, then abandoned them as the fortunes of war turned: a series of maneuvers that echoed the ever-shifting alliances of eighteenth-century Europe. After the war, a string of British outposts directly threatened Guyasuta's people. When Britain refused to evacuate them, he helped build a new alliance that leveled all but Fort Pitt. That garrison's survival, however, dictated a new approach. By befriending Britain—for the third time—Guyasuta ensured Seneca access to Pittsburgh trade and imperial patronage. In 1771, when his people faced food shortages, he persuaded British agent George Croghan to give them "two hundred Bushels of Corn." Meanwhile, he seized the opportunity to divert colonists westward down the Ohio, away from the Seneca towns on the Allegheny.
Along the way, Guyasuta crafted the genteel persona that so impressed McClure. The patronage of prominent colonists, he recognized, could help win commercial and political concessions: hence his courtship of Washington. Colonists and imperial officials came to see him as the "head" of the western Haudenosaunee, an essential intermediary who wielded "great Influence" over the troublingly independent Ohio Indians. By the time of his meeting with McClure, he had won the confidence of William Johnson, Britain's top frontier diplomat, who shared his eagerness to strengthen Six Nations authority. During his trip east, Guyasuta insisted on meeting personally with Commander-in-Chief Thomas Gage, to assure him that "the true situation of Affairs" in Ohio was "quiet and peaceable." As he cultivated these connections, Guyasuta increasingly emulated the appearance, demeanor, and language of British officers. In his meetings with McClure and Gage, he still spoke through an interpreter, but by 1775 he translated for colonial emissaries himself.
Guyasuta was an outlier: few traveled, or hobnobbed, so widely. But his cultural flexibility, his penchant for coalition building, and his shifting political strategies exemplified common characteristics of the Ohio Valley's diverse native peoples. These were nations in flux, adapting to new and often changing external pressures, most notably colonial demands for land, while also constantly negotiating political divisions among and within their communities. Europeans and colonists who knew of Indians only slightly, including McClure himself, tended to categorize them either as friendly or antagonistic, and behave accordingly, but many, like Guyasuta, moved back and forth between peacemaking and militancy, and any number of points in between, as ever-shifting circumstances warranted.
When he crossed the Ohio, McClure found a forest "clear from underbrush," contrasting sharply with the dense thickets east of the river. In this open woodland, he found it easier to hunt and gather food: deer, turkeys, geese, pigeons, fruit, nuts, and berries. Ohio Indians had created this cornucopia. McClure described how they periodically burned the ground cover, "that they may have the advantage of seeing game at a distance among the trees." In doing so, the burners also controlled insect pests, promoted the growth of edible plants, and created a favorable environment for deer and turkey. A similar landscape had once flourished east of the river, but it had reverted to an overgrown tangle after Indians fled west during the midcentury wars. Now, as eastern game populations fell, colonial hunters from Pennsylvania to the Carolinas ventured farther into Indian lands. By the early 1770s, Delawares complained that "game grew scarce"; in Gekelemukpechünk, a visiting missionary noted that "no meat could be had here for love or money." Not long after singing the praises of the managed open woodland, McClure feared for his safety because of Delaware hunters' "extreme resentment at the encroachments of the white people." The region's growing human population took a heavy toll on its deer and bison, setting the stage for greater subsistence crises to come.
As the missionary moved west, the upper Ohio Valley's steep ridges gave way to rolling terrain and lush farmland. At Gekelemukpechünk, McClure found hundreds of Delaware people living in a mix of bark wigwams, log cabins, and English-style homes made of "hewed logs, with stone chimnies." Across the river, Delaware women planted "a large corn field, in rich low ground," in which each matrilineal household worked its own plot. Other Ohio Indians lived in similar towns, clustered in the region's sinuous river valleys, surrounded by fields, orchards, and managed forests. In contrast to scattered colonial homesteads, they generally lived in larger communities and farmed collectively. Many colonists overlooked or denigrated Indian agriculture, partly because they discounted the labor of Indian women, but even the most chauvinistic visitors praised their prolific harvests. By the 1770s, many Ohio Indians had diversified their economies further. Gekelemukpechünk impressed McClure with its "regular & thrifty peach orchard." The Shawnee town of Wockachaali raised fine herds of horses and cattle. The prosperity of Anipassicowa, a Shawnee woman, impressed visiting colonists, who noted that she kept and milked cattle to complement traditional maize-based agriculture. Once or twice in each generation, as soils grew depleted, Ohio Indians moved their towns and fields to new sites, but they continued using the surrounding woodlands and streams for hunting, fishing, and other subsistence activities.
Ohio Indian women also played a pivotal role in intercultural trade. Since the mid-seventeenth century, indigenous peoples across North America had exchanged animal skins and other commodities for European manufactures like tools, weapons, fabrics, and liquor. To facilitate this commerce, Indian women often partnered with male colonists in relationships that were both commercial and sexual. In 1775, a young Ohio Mohawk woman took a neophyte trader, Nicholas Cresswell, under her wing, despite knowing only a little of his language. When he lodged with her family in the town of Old Hundy, she slept with him and, the following morning, persuaded him to bring her along on his journey. Their relationship brought tangible benefits to both. He needed someone to guide him to customers, cook his food, nurse him when he got sick, and keep track of his horse, which he had a habit of losing. For her part, she brought his business to her kin. Real affection developed between them, culminating in a teary-eyed goodbye. Over decades, countless similar partnerships created elaborate trading networks, in which Indian women and colonial traders linked indigenous kinship groups to merchants in Philadelphia, Montreal, and London. Trade with colonists was not always beneficial: liquor brought a host of problems, and male elders sometimes complained about young women selling rum in their communities. But for good or ill, such entrepreneurship reflected a long-standing pattern of exchange that forged lasting commercial and familial relationships.
Some Ohio Indians' distant ancestors had lived in large and relatively centralized city-states, but centuries of climatic cooling, together with the more recent ravages of European pathogens, had encouraged political and social dispersal, creating a landscape of politically autonomous towns. By the mid-eighteenth century, it became clear that small and scattered communities were all the more vulnerable to land-hungry British colonists. Many Ohio Indian leaders thus began promoting consolidation: clustering towns near one another, inviting distant friends and allies to become neighbors, and leveraging demographic density for political advantage. The Wyandots invited the Delawares to settle on their land in eastern Ohio, and the Delawares in turn recruited other easterners to join them, including Delawares and Mohicans who had embraced the German-led Moravian Church. The Six Nations urged Ohio Indians to move closer to the Haudenosaunee homeland, while Shawnee leaders invited western Haudenosaunee to move to the Scioto Valley. These efforts garnered mixed results. Many Shawnees opted instead for an older strategy of mobility and dispersal. Even so, the migration of far-flung Indians to a shared Ohio homeland added still more diversity to an already complex mix of peoples. The Muskingum Valley became home to both traditionalists who decried European influence and Christians who played a spinet piano during Sunday services.
Widespread intermarriage, adoption, and migration ensured that many towns were multiethnic and multilingual. Native families commonly adopted wartime captives to replace deceased loved ones; demand for such adoptees constituted a major motive for going to war. A Cherokee captive was adopted into one Delaware family, married into another, and subsequently joined the Moravian Church. Somewhere along the way, he learned to "speak the Wyandot language pretty well." When Cherokee and Wyandot emissaries visited the Muskingum Valley, he volunteered his services as interpreter. Anipassicowa's town was home to Shawnees, Delawares, and descendants of both Africans and Europeans. In the early 1770s, nearly twenty light-skinned people, most of them childhood captives adopted into Shawnee families, lived in the Shawnee town of Chillicothe. Shawnee and other Indian women commonly married resident white traders. Some captives eventually returned to colonial society but remained close to their adoptive families. During a trip through Ohio, a colonist named Joseph Nickels went out of his way to visit "his indian acquaintance, for whom he had a friendship, from his early days of captivity among them."
Adoptees entered complex social and political systems that defy popular stereotypes of "tribes" and "chiefs." The šaawanwaki, or Shawnee people, for example, includes five major patrilineal divisions or "society clans": the Chalaakaatha (or Chillicothe), Mekoche, Kishpoko, Pekowi, and Thawikila. Though these groups share a common language and culture, they traditionally lived in separate towns with distinct sets of female and male leaders. The Delaware include two major ethnolinguistic divisions, the Munsee and Unami, as well as three matrilineal phratries associated with the turtle, the wolf, and the turkey. They also enjoy close historic, geographic, and linguistic ties to the Mohican nation, evident today in the Stockbridge-Munsee community of Wisconsin. The Wyandot originated as a confederacy of several nations, similarly divided among three phratries. The Six Nations of the Haudenosaunee, commonly known as Iroquois, include the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk, and Tuscarora. To the north, the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi nations share a common identity and cultural heritage as the Three Fires of the Anishinaabeg. To the south, the Cherokee nation was historically divided among several regions, each of which possessed, to some degree, a distinct political identity. The nature and significance of these unions and divisions varied, and varies, a good deal. In eighteenth-century politics such extranational or subnational affinities often mattered at least as much as one's identification with a specific tribe or nation.
These divisions and confederacies often paled in importance compared to kinship systems that Shawnees call m'shoma, Anishinaabeg call doodem, Wyandots call ,entiok8ten, German missionaries called Freundschaften, and modern English speakers call clans. Clan membership stemmed from descent, either matrilineal (for the Delaware, Wyandot, Haudenosaunee, and Cherokee) or patrilineal (in the case of the Shawnee and Anishinaabeg). Clans (and sometimes phratries) were traditionally exogamous, so while individuals inherited clan membership from one parent, they enjoyed kinship ties with the clans of both. Such ties played a critical role in both daily life and regional politics. When Joseph Peepy, a Christian Delaware from New Jersey, escorted McClure to the Muskingum Valley town of Kighalampegha, they found a warm welcome from Peepy's kin despite widespread distaste for their religious message. Israel Welapachtschiechen, a prominent leader of the Delaware turkey phratry, exerted considerable influence across the region in part because his clan was "very widespread." When he adopted Christianity, many fellow clan members followed his example. Others protested his decision, but bonds of kinship continued to link them and facilitate coalition building despite their religious differences.
Political leadership reflected these ethnic and kinship relationships. Among Shawnees, male hokimas, or civil leaders, derived their authority in part through their patrilineal clan inheritance, as well as from personal virtues and accomplishments. Hokimas of different clans had distinct responsibilities, according to the spiritual attributes of each lineage. Their mothers, known as hokima wiikwes, oversaw agriculture, the adoption of captives, and other traditionally female responsibilities while also advising hokimas on political and military matters. Similarly, the Six Nations' ancient Great Law of Peace specifies that clan mothers choose and advise male civil leaders. Among all Ohio Indians, civil leaders usually deferred military authority to war captains. Many of the region's peoples chose still other individuals as spiritual guides.
With authority so decentralized, leaders of all kinds had to seek consensus rather than impose their will. One missionary wrote that Shawnees were "strangers to civil power and authority," believing that "one man has no natural right to rule over another." Formal leaders spoke first in meetings but otherwise had "no more honor or respect payed them than another man." Political prestige depended less on wealth or status than on generosity. Netawatwees, the preeminent civil leader of the Delaware turtle phratry, lived in "a poor house" and bore "no emblem of Royalty or Magesty about him." Rather than accumulating personal wealth and tangible markers of authority, he maintained his influence by redistributing resources around the community. Ohio Indian communities could "Never Suffer for want," one Irish trader observed, because their "hospitality is so grate." When McClure offered his spiritual guidance to the Delaware council, he expected a prompt and decisive reply. Instead, they spent two full weeks debating his proposals and soliciting input from other towns before Netawatwees rejected his proposals. Rather than introducing European customs to his hosts, McClure had to accept a Delaware process of discussion and consensus building.
McClure's impatience with Delaware politics reflected how much the Muskingum Valley towns remained a "native ground" where Indian customs prevailed and European visitors had to adapt accordingly. But at the same time, proximity to the British colonies and the benefits of intercultural trade challenged Ohio Indians to build relationships with Anglo-American governments. To do so, some sought to centralize decision making. Six Nations leaders, including Guyasuta, increasingly, albeit ineffectually, claimed authority over Ohio Indians. Delaware leaders answered by asserting their independence. Colonial officials, meanwhile, increasingly demanded that Indian emissaries sign binding agreements prior to building consensus among the affected peoples. To maintain hard-won agreements with colonists, Indian leaders had to claim and somehow uphold a kind of central authority that their peoples had never permitted before. Doing so brought civil leaders and diplomats into repeated conflict with members of their own nations, threatening to undercut the national unity they sought to create. But the alternative was daunting. To maintain prosperity and sovereignty, Ohio Indian leaders had to protect their peoples against colonial violence, secure their territory against colonial land grabbing, and maintain a reliable trade for European imports. Many concluded that they could achieve these goals only by winning both respect and formal recognition from colonial governments.
Both before and after the American Revolution, Anglo-American officialdom delegated relations with Indians to two distinct sets of people: "Indian agents" and army officers. Though their specific titles, responsibilities, and influence varied considerably over time, Indian agents were broadly charged with diplomacy: hearing Indians' grievances, distributing gifts, regulating trade, and, at times, mobilizing them for war. Armies were charged variously with protecting colonists from Indians, protecting Indians from colonists, enlisting Indians as allies, evicting colonists from Indian land, and burning Indians' towns and crops. Indian agents typically had extensive experience in western trade, politics, and land speculation. They did not necessarily know Indians well, but they understood the protocols of regional diplomacy. Army officers typically knew far less about a region and its peoples. British military culture prized hierarchy, uniformity, and harsh discipline: values antithetical to those of both Indians and many Ohio Valley colonists. Nearly all of Fort Pitt's commanders detested the region's inhabitants, though some concealed their contempt better than others. Imperial and United States officials repeatedly reorganized the relationship between the "Indian department" and the army, muddying the chain of command. The governments of Pennsylvania and Virginia, meanwhile, sometimes appointed agents of their own. The colonies' war for independence then threw all such arrangements into disarray.
Notwithstanding such upheavals, the friendship and support of officers and agents brought tangible benefits. They controlled trading centers at Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Niagara, making them gatekeepers between Ohio Indians and transatlantic commerce. They periodically received funds to hold treaty councils, enabling them to pay colonial contractors to feed and supply hundreds or thousands of Indians. Equally important, agents and officers could present Indian grievances to their superiors, or not, enabling Indians to win, or lose, military protection, favorable terms of trade, or recognition of territorial sovereignty. To win agents' and officers' sympathies, Ohio Indians used familiar diplomatic tactics, such as ritual adoption and gift giving. But revolutionary upheaval made it difficult to forge enduring relationships, and both agents and officers coveted Indian land. Meanwhile, shrinking deer and bison herds, and colonial armies' destruction of towns and crops, created serial subsistence crises that deepened native dependency on government patronage. Rather than pulling government officials into native systems of kinship and reciprocity, Indian leaders' efforts tended to draw their own peoples more fully into the emerging Anglo-American state.
On a cold December day in 1772, McClure made his way to a large log house to join two Virginians in holy matrimony. On entering, the staid New Englander found a raucous scene. Wedding guests packed the building, their attention fixed on a fiddle player and a crowd of dancing couples. No one noticed the minister's arrival, so he sat next to the fire and seethed in sullen disapproval. When he had seen all he could endure, McClure called a halt to the dancing and began the ceremony. The happy couple stepped forward, "snickering and very merry," and the spectators laughed until McClure urged them all "to attend with becoming seriousness, the solemnity." As soon as "the solemnity" ended, the fiddler struck up a new tune and the party resumed. One of the women repeatedly invited the minister to join her for a dance, but he steadfastly refused, and instead sat quietly, marveling at the Virginians' "wild merriment."
The community that so offended McClure was less than a decade old. Until the end of Pontiac's War, the upper Ohio Valley's white population amounted to a scattering of fur traders, but the midcentury wars spurred rapid change. Though a royal proclamation banned colonization west of the mountains, provincial and military policies—often unintentionally—sent the opposite message. Beginning in the mid-1760s, Marylanders and Virginians moved to the river valleys south and southeast of Fort Pitt, while others, like McClure, came west from Pennsylvania. By one estimate, within a decade the region's colonial population reached tens of thousands. The town next to the fort grew more slowly: in the early 1770s Pittsburgh boasted only thirty-odd houses, whose inhabitants had little to do with the farmers of nearby valleys. But the presence of both town and fort encouraged homesteading in the surrounding area. As one Shawnee noted, "wherever a Fort appeared in their Neighbourhood, they might depend there would soon be Towns & Settlements." The empire tried to halt colonists with one hand while waving them onward with the other.
Indians and imperial officials often described these colonists as an undifferentiated mass of troublemakers, but McClure's complaints about the wedding party reflected wide social and cultural divisions. One set of travelers included "two Englishmen, two Irishmen, one Welshman, two Dutchmen, two Virginians, two Marylanders, one Swede, one African Negro, and a Mulatto." Amid this diversity, McClure identified three major cultural groups: Scots-Irish Presbyterians, Germans, and Anglo-Virginians. The missionary found the Germans sullen and grasping, and he scorned the Virginians' penchant for "drinking parties, gambling, horse race[s] & fighting." By contrast, he praised the piety and hospitality of the Scots-Irish, though some of them doubted his New England credentials. They had little use for their non-Presbyterian neighbors. An English traveler found a cold welcome among them until he began "acting the Irishman." For his part, McClure dismissed the region's few Baptist clergy as "illiterate preachers." Steep and sinuous ridges discouraged communication and cooperation between inhabitants of neighboring valleys. Geographic isolation brought a vulnerable independence, fostering both antigovernment resistance and pleas for state protection.
Economic troubles divided colonists still further. The rugged Alleghenies cut off farmers from Anglo-American markets, while uncertain relations with Spanish Louisiana—as well as fluctuating river levels—hindered trade downriver to New Orleans. Many distilled their grain into whiskey, a more portable and profitable commodity, but most of the region's colonists remained chronically cash-poor. Colonial farmers largely neglected both the agricultural expertise of Indian women and recent European innovations like crop rotation. One son of England's landed gentry found it necessary to teach his hosts a modern method of stacking wheat. These deficits of skill and technology, combined with the region's frosts, floods, and pests, fostered widespread indebtedness, driving many into bankruptcy. Within a generation of colonization, landownership among upper Ohio colonists dropped sharply, as absentee landlords acquired an ever greater percentage of the region's farmland. Living conditions and disparities of wealth worsened throughout the revolutionary period. Colonists increasingly found themselves in economic straits as bad as or worse than those they had left behind.
Contemporary observers, including McClure, argued that Ohio Valley colonists despised state authority. The region's "Unruly Settlers," they alleged, sought to escape "from Justice & from Creditors" by moving "beyond the arm of any government." Colonists often resisted government policies, especially when they expected a competing government to treat them more favorably, but they largely lacked the resources and cohesion necessary to pursue self-rule. They looked to governments to resolve disputes, guard against attack, and build roads, jails, and arsenals. They fiercely opposed officials who favored competing land claims, but coveted validation of their own, so systems of land distribution attracted both resistance and customers. In 1769, Pennsylvania opened an office in Philadelphia to sell land within its still-undetermined western boundary. In 1773, Virginia appointed county surveyors for much of the same territory. In either case, prospective landowners had to locate and survey desired tracts, obtain paperwork from provincial officials, and pay either in cash or, in Virginia, by redeeming land certificates issued for wartime service. Those who could not afford the requisite time, travel, and expense often embraced speculative schemes that promised to circumvent formal procedures. Others sought title by preemptively occupying land shortly before a government began selling it, hoping that their physical presence would outweigh their relative poverty. But rather than rebelling against state authority as such, these quasi-legal colonists sought to manipulate the system in order to win legal title for themselves.
Disputed land claims magnified the influence of county courts and the individuals who presided over them. In 1773, Pennsylvania established Westmoreland County, the first seat of British government west of the Appalachians. Virginia countered by establishing an overlapping "District of West Augusta" and in 1776 added an immense "Kentucky County" farther west. Both governments subsequently subdivided these jurisdictions into smaller counties, each of which boasted appointed or elected judges, a sheriff and constables, various administrative officials, and militia commanders. Local courts provided a venue for dispute resolution and a means of dealing with refractory servants, impoverished orphans, and belligerent neighbors. County officials also raised the funds, labor, and supplies necessary to build public infrastructure, most notably roads. Rather than undertaking such projects independently, colonists petitioned the infant court of West Augusta, which vetted proposals, assigned individuals to oversee construction, and taxed nearby inhabitants to cover costs. The court records do not reveal how well or how quickly local inhabitants carried out the court's instructions, but nonetheless they demonstrate that communities looked to local government to undertake collective projects.
At least in theory, county militias similarly marshaled the time and energy of fighting-age men for the common good. Rather than independent, self-organized associations of neighbors, colonial and revolutionary militias were arms of the state, organized and funded through official regulations. Virginia had required militia service since its founding, while Pennsylvania enacted its first formal militia law in 1777. In both cases, the government appointed county commanders who chose or supervised the election of subordinate officers. According to law, militia companies had to periodically muster and drill, and militiamen could be drafted into active service at the governor's orders. When drafted, men were to be paid wages, fed, and supplied much like regular soldiers; delinquents faced stiff fines. In a cash-poor region, the resulting redistribution of funds profited both militiamen themselves and those who supplied them. For the emerging elite, serving as a militia officer brought control over official funds and signaled higher social and political status. But the system often failed to work as planned. Colonists routinely refused to serve or disregarded orders while on duty, and those who complied often had negligible military training. When threatened with attack, communities readily built and defended makeshift stockades, but they often declined to help defend neighboring valleys, let alone march farther afield. Even so, militia laws created an institutional structure necessary for mobilization. When armed colonists assembled in dozens or hundreds, they almost invariably did so through the formal militia system.
In his travels, McClure repeatedly lodged with Arthur St. Clair, a Scottish army officer who had acquired "a good farm and Grist mill . . . & large tracts of wild lands" in western Pennsylvania. McClure found him a prosperous country gentleman, enjoying ample "ease, & good cheer," despite his chronic gout. As a landlord and mill owner, St. Clair belonged to the emerging frontier elite. Mills like St. Clair's hosted political meetings and religious services, giving their owners a measure of political as well as economic sway that made them valuable agents for eastern governments. St. Clair himself received a long series of local government appointments and commanded a small army outpost on the road to Fort Pitt. This fusion of economic, political, and military status typified the aspirations of the upper Ohio elite. Local judges and administrators could augment their wealth with fees and bribes, as well as secure their land against rival claimants. But such appointments also invited controversy: some in the region would continue defying Pennsylvanian jurisdiction, and St. Clair's authority, for over a decade to come.
Because of such conflicts, St. Clair and other members of the nascent frontier elite enjoyed only a tenuous grasp on the status they craved. Britain's North American colonies broadly replicated the home country's division between the gentry (who lived on the labor of tenants, servants, and slaves) and the "common folk" (who might own land but worked it themselves). Upper Ohio Valley landlords and mill owners considered themselves (and wanted others to consider them) gentlemen, and they thus set themselves above most of their neighbors. But their recent arrival in the region, as well as chronic jurisdictional uncertainty, deprived them of the social and political capital that protected the better-established eastern gentry. Their insecurity raised the stakes of factional disputes, as gaining or losing control of local government posts could make or break an individual's fortune. With so much hanging in the balance, Virginia's and Pennsylvania's dueling sets of magistrates, sheriffs, and militia commanders fiercely denounced one another's authority, even when the governments they represented urged calm. In the process, they competed for the loyalty and cooperation of ordinary colonists, many of whom resented policies the officials were expected to enforce. Gaining credibility as a local leader could even require denying one's aspirations to leadership. At a 1770 meeting with Haudenosaunee leaders, a Monongahela colonist, Van Swearingen, stressed that though his neighbors had chosen him as a spokesman, he claimed no formal authority: their community had "no head Man amongst them." In fact, Swearingen was a relatively affluent slaveholder who had formerly served as a Virginian official and subsequently became a magistrate and army officer in Pennsylvania. His social status qualified him for such posts, but maintaining his position required embracing his neighbors' relatively egalitarian political culture. The aspiring elite thus occupied an awkward intermediary position, from which they attempted to persuade both eastern officials and upper Ohio colonists to accept each other's demands.
The west that McClure visited in 1772 was considerably less wild than he imagined. The Indians and colonists who lived there had little love for one another, but neither did they kill each other as frequently or as indiscriminately as their detractors alleged. Ohio Valley inhabitants navigated regional politics by building tenuous coalitions and manipulating eastern and imperial patronage. The resulting networks, together with the containment of intercultural violence, enabled a naive and arrogant young missionary to traverse the region safely for months.
This troubled but stable order would soon collapse, but its demise resulted less from state absence than from exertions of government influence that accelerated colonization and encouraged intercultural conflict. Following Pontiac's War, peace prevailed for ten years, thanks in part to an imperial pledge to reserve Kentucky for Indians. In 1774, Virginia's royal governor tried to seize Kentucky for colonization, triggering a land rush and a brief war. The Virginians' victory spurred hundreds of colonists westward, even as revolution unfolded in the seaboard colonies. Rather than triggering bloodshed, the collapse of imperial authority brought two years of relative peace. But in 1777, both revolutionary and imperial governments began recruiting, organizing, and supplying fighting forces that ravaged one another's communities. In the ensuing years, British-allied Ohio Indians repeatedly pressed for peace with the newborn United States, but American commanders spurned their offers. Years of horror ensued, as militant Indians and colonists carried out atrocities with government-supplied weaponry, leaving their respective peoples desperate for state protection. The 1783 Treaty of Paris brought the fighting to a halt, for a time. Some Indian and colonial leaders tried to hammer out a durable peace, but their efforts could not overcome Congress's insistence on colonizing Ohio. Meanwhile, leaders among both Indians and colonists forged ever stronger ties to British and United States officials. Rather than preserving local autonomy, the emerging political order brought a new federal government determined to squash western resistance.
The case of the Ohio Valley thus illuminates how diverse groups of people attempted to attain, contest, and manipulate power in a place where competing governments wielded some influence but little actual authority. Instead of Hobbesian anarchy or a two-sided clash of opposing cultures, the region exhibited a complex pattern of coalition building, in which an array of political brokers pursued disparate aims through informal and often ephemeral collaborations. Individuals and communities built coalitions to reap profits, to gain diplomatic leverage, to acquire and dispense patronage, to defend or contest claims to land, to make peace, and to wage war. These efforts often brought unintended and unwelcome results, but even when coalition builders failed to achieve their goals, their work still shaped the region's transformation. Partnerships with colonial governments repeatedly spurred new waves of colonization and violence, which in turn deepened Indians' and colonists' reliance on government resources and the brokers who could deliver them. Rather than proceeding "from the bottom up," Anglo-American colonialism was joined at the hip with the unsettling process of state building.