Imperial Entanglements

Rescuing the Seven Years' War era from the shadows of the American Revolution and moving away from the political focus that dominates Iroquois studies, this work offers something substantially new by exploring Iroquois experience in largely economic and cultural terms.

Imperial Entanglements
Iroquois Change and Persistence on the Frontiers of Empire

Gail D. MacLeitch

2011 | 344 pages | Cloth $47.50
American History / Native American Studies
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Chapter 1. Maintaining Their Ground
Chapter 2. The Ascension of Empire
Chapter 3. Trade, Land, and Labor
Chapter 4. Gendered Encounters
Chapter 5. Indian and Other
Chapter 6. Economic Adversity and Adjustment
Chapter 7. The Iroquois in British North America


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


During an Anglo-Iroquois conference an Iroquois headman approached the British superintendent for Indian affairs, William Johnson, with a special request. The headman relayed to him a dream he had had in which Johnson had given him "a fine laced coat" much like the one that Johnson now wore. Johnson asked the headman if he had really dreamed this, to which the latter affirmed that he had. "Well then," the superintendent remarked, "you must have it." Understanding the significance of dreaming and appreciative of Indian etiquette, Johnson removed his coat and presented it as a gift. Delighted, the Iroquois chief left the council "crying out, who-ah! which is an expression of great satisfaction." At the next council held with the Six Nations, however, it was Johnson who approached the headman. He informed him that although "he was not accustomed to dream," since he had last met the headman in council "he had dreamed a very surprising dream." The headman was keen to learn more. "Sir William, with some hesitation, told him he had dreamed that he had given him a track of land on the Mohawk River to build a house on, and make a settlement, extending about nine miles in length along the banks." The headman had little choice but to reply to Johnson that "if he really dreamed it he should have it." But noting the discrepancy in gifts, "for he had only got a laced coat, whereas Sir William was now entitled to a large bed, on which his ancestors had frequently slept," the headman told Johnson that "he would never dream again with him."

Although there is no evidential basis to this tale, which was recorded in the journal of Indian interpreter John Lang in the 1790s, it nonetheless has much to tell us about the nature of British-Iroquois relations in the late colonial period. There are in fact several versions of this story, in some of which Johnson is replaced by other colonial figures. But even if this specific exchange between an Iroquois headman and imperial officer did not occur, the type of interaction it represents certainly did. During the eighteenth century, the Iroquois Indians and British Empire converged and collaborated, and in the process one side enriched themselves at the expense of the other. Asymmetrical forms of cultural borrowing and exchange facilitated the aggrandizement of British imperial and colonial forces in North America at the same time that they weakened the position of the Iroquois. How and why this happened is a central theme of this book.

But the story this book tells is much more complex than a straightforward narrative of European triumph over native peoples. Throughout the colonial period, the Iroquois—also known as the Haudenosaunee or Six Nations—who inhabited what is now New York State were critical actors in an imperial drama unfolding in North America. As colonists and empires fought over the land and resources of the continent, they had to contend with the impressive Iroquois Confederacy. As trading partners, military allies, physical neighbors, and claimants of much-desired western lands, the Iroquois were simply too important to be ignored. Consequently, the Haudenosaunee enjoyed substantial room to ensure that their cultural preferences informed imperial-Iroquois relations. Building on recent scholarship that demonstrates that empire was not a rigid structure imposed from above but a series of processes and negotiations shaped by various interest groups, Imperial Entanglements demonstrates how native peoples participated in the construction of empire. Europeans adopted Iroquois diplomatic protocol, employed native methods of warfare, and engaged in the costly Indian custom of gift-giving. As a sovereign people, the Haudenosaunee refused to acquiesce to imperial directives and instead found ways to chart their own path even as their options diminished. Although Euro-Americans would eventually dominate British North America, this result should not influence how we recount the history of Anglo-Iroquois relations. For much of the century, imperial forms emanating from the core were renegotiated on the frontiers of empire with the Iroquois playing a deciding role.

Given their powerful standing for much of the eighteenth century, how and why the Iroquois became entangled in progressively unequal forms of exchange becomes even more intriguing. The Haudenosaunee are already the subject of a large and impressive literature, but it is one that has been dominated by such traditional themes as politics, diplomacy, and military history. These topics are certainly of considerable interest because the original five nations of the Iroquois were a mighty political and military presence in North America. During the seventeenth century, they engaged in a series of deadly wars with their Indian neighbors, earning a reputation as a fierce, warlike people. Jockeying themselves to the center of colonial Indian affairs, in the eighteenth century they participated in a succession of treaty conferences with the French and British. Loosely organized in a political confederacy, they possessed a set of diplomatic rituals and forms that impressed contemporary Europeans and modern-day scholars alike. Yet to view the Iroquois in strictly political and military terms obscures other arguably more important dimensions and veils significant shifts in their historical experience.

Imperial Entanglements reconceptualizes the Iroquois experience in economic and cultural terms and highlights the Seven Years' War (1756-63) as a crucial period in their history. During the mid-eighteenth century, the Haudenosaunee became entangled within a burgeoning mercantile British Empire intent on securing commodities, markets, and territories in North America. A commercially expansive empire generated considerable demands on Iroquois land, labor, and resources, hastening their enmeshment within a market economy. Furthermore, British efforts to enlarge their economic empire gave rise to new and revised understandings of gender, race, and ethnicity. The Seven Years' War, which epitomized Britain's new commitment to a territorial empire, intensified the attunement of Iroquois economies along commercial lines. Shifting material conditions generated new pressures on Iroquois gender roles and relations and encouraged them to experiment with new and revised ethnic and racial identities. Their loss of status following the war exposed them as never before to strong ideological currents as colonial settlers, traders, soldiers, and imperial officials reformulated gendered and racial discourses of difference to legitimize their acts of conquest and expropriation. Although Iroquois ability to mediate the material and ideological structures of empire waned as the eighteenth century progressed, they continued to develop economic practices and cultural identities that preserved a degree of power. While remaining mindful of the larger imperial world that increasingly shaped the contours of Iroquois existence, this study explores the imaginative ways in which Iroquois men and women adapted to the forces of imperial and colonial expansion.

John Lang's sketch at the beginning of the chapter hints at the importance of economic themes underlying Iroquois eighteenth-century experience. Although the Indian headman in this story received a much-desired coat, he was disgruntled by his dreaming exchange with Johnson because he understood that he had lost something far more precious. Whereas the value of a coat would diminish over time, the price of land would continue to rise. Therefore the dreaming exchange had been inherently unequal. Land provided the bedrock of indigenous economic and cultural autonomy and underpinned the Iroquois' status as a sovereign people. Yet a defining theme of the eighteenth century was the steady erosion of the Iroquois land base and the growing absorption of their labor and resources into a market economy. Dispersed across a large region of southern, central, and western New York and located at varying distances from colonial centers of commerce, the five Iroquois nations confronted differing degrees of market orientation and land loss, but for all of them economic processes and phenomena, just as much as political events and relationships, defined their historical experience.

Iroquois men and women were collaborators in the creation of a new economic order in the New York hinterland. Prior to European contact, the Iroquois subsistence economy revolved around agriculture and hunting. The production, exchange, and consumption of goods occurred primarily within the extended lineage, and small-scale trade took place in the noncommercial context of gift-giving. The arrival of Europeans provoked colossal economic change, which the Iroquois could not circumvent but could at least arbitrate. By their own volition they adapted preexisting hunting patterns to join in a transatlantic fur trade. They also made choices about loaning, renting, and selling land to colonists, and they took advantage of new opportunities in paid forms of labor. The Iroquois proved resourceful, finding ways to maintain and modify indigenous economic practices as they met the demands of a developing commercial world.

But economic adjustment was not without cost or compromise. The partial commercial reorganization of village economies induced tangible benefits in the lives of the Iroquois, but it also enhanced their dependence on foreign markets. European wares offered luxury and convenience, but when the fur market declined the Iroquois had to find alternative means to access trade networks. By selling martial skills, physical toil, and handicrafts, the Iroquois entered a cash economy, but growing exposure to cash drew them more deeply into a commercial marketplace. Many Indians prospered, enjoying new forms of status and wealth, but economic stratification emerged in some communities by the 1770s. Thus, the story of Iroquois involvement in a market economy is a complex one that involves both loss and gain. The Iroquois were not unwitting victims of a new economic order, nor were they absolute agents of their own destiny. Rather, they were ordinary and resilient human beings who made the best of trying situations.

Furthermore, economic transition did not signify cultural degeneration or a loss of an "authentic" indigenous culture. Rather, as Iroquois Indians adjusted to commercial pressures they shared important parallels with their colonial neighbors, who also pursued a mishmash of "traditional" and "modern" economic practices. The rise of Atlantic capitalism transformed the lives of all early Americans whether they were bound, free, black, white, or Indian. In the Mohawk Valley of colonial New York, local Indians and colonial settlers produced crops, furs, and other goods for home consumption, local exchange, and overseas export. By purchasing textiles, crockery, and ironware, they tapped into a burgeoning transatlantic consumer revolution and in the process became "dependent" on foreign-made goods. Both groups progressively relied on cash as a form of currency to obtain desired articles; thus their economic existence became partially monetized. The Iroquois and their colonial neighbors maintained a foothold in both the commercial and noncommercial worlds.

But if common economic forces shaped the lives of the inhabitants of early America, they also led to striking differences. The contest over natural resources—principally land—brought the Iroquois and their colonial neighbors into mounting conflict with one another. In 1768 the Iroquois Confederacy ceded thousands of acres of western and southern hunting grounds to the British, much to the chagrin of the Indian groups who inhabited these territories. By doing so they had hoped to stem the tide of settlers and violence on the frontier, but in reality they relinquished a valuable bargaining tool and brought Europeans closer to their own hunting grounds and settlements. The eastern Iroquois nations sustained the greatest incursions onto their territory. By the mid-1770s, surrounded on all sides by colonial settlements, the situation of the Mohawks—the easternmost nation—was akin to that of reservation dwellers. Land loss not only eroded economic autonomy but also had political consequences. No longer sole owners of the New York hinterland or lorded overseers of vast western hunting grounds, the Iroquois Confederacy experienced a diminished status and power vis-à-vis the British. While never becoming fully subjugated or dispossessed, entanglement in an imperial system underpinned their transformation from a sovereign people to de facto clients of the British Empire.

Entanglement with an expansive British Empire had profound cultural consequences for the Iroquois as much as it did economic. The British Empire, although economic at root, was also an ideological construct. As Eric Hinderaker has observed, "Empire is a cultural artifact as well as a geopolitical entity; it belongs to a geography of the mind, as well as a geography of power." Material needs conditioned the ideological content of empire. The British desire to extract the labor of Indians as hunters and warriors or to win their political allegiance encouraged them to compose cultural identities that emphasized themes of commonality and parity; Indians were "esteemed allies," "noble savages," and "kings." Alternatively, the act of expropriating land and of instituting relations based on hierarchy and domination required the British to articulate cultural discourses that insisted on difference and inferiority. However, constructing an ideological empire was a messy and uneven process over which the British never held a monopoly. As Philip Morgan asserts, "identities are, above all, invented and imagined in a complex and ever changing process of interaction." Indians refused, altered, and subverted gendered and racialized categories imposed upon them as they engaged in their own efforts to construct cultural discourses of difference. The formation of multiethnic refugee communities, familiarity with the teachings of Christian missionaries and Indian prophets, and protracted participation in a market economy that gave rise to commercialized outlooks led Indians to reformulate cultural identities in quite diverse and ingenious ways. They also created and imposed identities onto Europeans.

Imperial Entanglements explores how the Iroquois and British interacted along a "gender frontier." "Gender" refers to socially constructed ideas about appropriate roles and behaviors for men and women, ideas that vary across cultures and time. "Gender" is also a relational concept that denotes the allocation of power between, but not exclusive to, men and women. The Iroquois and British embraced overlapping—but nonetheless distinct—gender systems. Both recognized warfare as an intrinsically masculine vocation premised on assumed sexual differences. In both cultures as well men monopolized positions of political leadership. But there were also notable differences. Iroquois women dominated agriculture, and clan matrons exercised a level of political influence unheard of for ordinary contemporary English women. Iroquois culture was matrilineal, and relations between men and women, although not free from friction, were generally egalitarian. Hierarchy was structured along generational rather than gendered lines, but still, elder men could not impose their rule on younger males. Power remained diffused and based on skills of persuasion rather than coercion. By contrast, in early modern England, the meaning of gender was embedded within a patriarchal ideology, which, supported by biblical doctrine and political theory, upheld male dominance over women and younger men. Through the judicious exercise of power, political theorists contended, men in their roles as fathers, husbands, and masters were responsible for ensuring orderly households and, by extension, contributing to the social and political stability of the state. Power relations were gendered not just between men and women but between older and younger men as well.

Gender provided a powerful lens through which the Iroquois and British made sense of one another. At times gendered identities provided the basis for cooperation and comradeship: rangers and warriors bonded through a common language of martial masculinity, borrowing and enacting each other's masculine codes of conduct and martial rituals to fight the French. But gender constructs could also reinforce a sense of difference or be used to justify unequal power relations. British officials sought to place the Haudenosaunee within a gendered hierarchy by assigning them the status of submissive dependents. William Johnson was particularly keen to assume the role of patriarch supreme by attempting to control the labor and behavior of his Indian neighbors.

But the Iroquois engaged in their own careful manipulation of gendered practices and identities. At times they played up to Johnson's self-appointed role as generous father as a means to secure protection, presents, and provisions. At other times they complained to him of Britain's "unmanly" performance in battle in order to justify their own refusal to lend martial support. Iroquois women, largely absent in the historical literature, greatly influenced imperial-Iroquois relations. They interacted with an expanding British imperial presence as they traded at forts, accompanied male kin to army camps, attended conferences, and acted as hosts and consorts to traders, army deserters, captives, and deputy Indian agents residing in their villages. Women's vital activities on the imperial frontier forced colonial men, including Johnson, to contend with them, often on their terms. But involvement in a market economy and imperial wars occasioned difficulties in addition to opportunities for both men and women. Although they found ways to ensure that their gendered practices and values continued to influence martial, diplomatic, and social exchanges with the British, in the long run, relations with a patriarchal empire generated constraints on their gender system.

Along with gender, Iroquois involvement with the British Empire inevitably involved the renegotiation of ethnic and racial identities. Historically the Haudenosaunee had embraced a fluid concept of ethnicity that allowed them to adopt and assimilate outsiders. But extensive contact with Europeans and Euro-Americans who cheated them in trade and defrauded them of their land caused them to reassess their definition of group membership. Yet their attempts to redefine the other were more than matched by the uncompromising colonial project of racializing Native Americans. In the eighteenth century, Europeans were busily involved in efforts to articulate and apply a new concept of race in their relations with non-Europeans. Like gender, race is not a biological fact but a social and historical construct. Although there might be real physical differences between groups, the meanings attached to these differences are determined by specific socioeconomic contexts.

The evolution of race as a cultural ideology was uneven and haphazard. The antecedents of racialized thinking were evident in the seventeenth century when Virginian and Puritan colonists emphasized Indian savagery to justify their brutal wars against local tribes. But harsh language and physical violence did not demonstrate the existence of a crystallized racial doctrine. Violence was occasional and situational and not yet tied together by a broadly conceived model of race. As one astute scholar has observed, "the English gestured toward racial identification of the body without providing, yet, a theory that explained generational transmission of bodily variants; this was racial idiom, not a coherent ideology." By the mid-eighteenth century a new idea of race emerged that perceived human differences to be grounded in the body and not, as previously thought, as a product of the environment. Human difference, and by extension inferiority, was no longer deemed mutable and reversible but fixed and hereditary. This construction of race was a peculiarly Atlantic creation, intimately connected to the flourishing Atlantic slave trade. Race gained power as a concept because it served as an ideological justification for the enslavement of Africans. Lifelong servitude and brutal exploitation were legitimized and naturalized on the grounds that Africans were biologically and thus permanently inferior to Europeans.

In contrast to the experience of Africans, the racialization of Native Americans was far more protracted and inconsistent. The importance of the Iroquois to the British Empire as trading partners and military allies retarded the evolution of racist sentiment on the New York frontier. Daily and intimate contact between the eastern Iroquois and neighboring colonial settlers who prayed, traded, and killed together allowed for a sense of commonality rather than difference to dominate relations. Although pejorative attitudes were evident from the start, they existed alongside genuine amicable feelings. During this period, ethnicity rather than race provided the dominant prism through which both sides made sense of the other. If racial models defined differences as biological, permanent, and hereditary, ethnic models viewed human differences as cultural, temporary, and inconstant. By altering external factors, it was possible to alter the individual. Ethnic models of understanding meant both positive and negative representations of the other could coexist. The Seven Years' War heightened this twin discourse. Enemy Indians waging war on the frontiers of Pennsylvania and New England incited virulent denunciations of Indian savagery, while New York colonists, for the most part, continued to refer to the Iroquois as allies. But the tendency to emphasize themes of similarity and friendship declined in the postwar era. As colonists came to value land more than furs and to deem the absence of the Iroquois preferable to their labor, they began to formulate and assign racial categories with greater zeal.

By foregrounding economic and cultural themes, Imperial Entanglements brings the era of the Seven Years' War into sharper focus. Often sidelined, if not ignored, in Iroquois studies, this imperial conflict was a considerable catalyst of change, precipitating forces that would undercut the situation of the Iroquois in the late colonial period. The Seven Years' War was a significant event in its own right and not just as a prelude to the American Revolution. The war marked the emergence of a new British empire, one that demonstrated a novel commitment to overseas expansion, a willingness to employ military force on an unprecedented scale, and a readiness to administer and martially police overseas interests in the aftermath of battle.

The Great War for Empire signified Britain's new devotion to a territorial empire. In the seventeenth century, England's imperial designs had been limited to trade. Guided by the mercantilist belief that there was a finite amount of wealth in the world, early imperial initiatives were directed at establishing control of New World commodities suitable for transatlantic commerce. Military activities were confined to defending shipping lanes along the Atlantic, constituting what was essentially "an empire of the seas." Largely as a consequence of the natural maturation of capitalist forces and spurred on by the entrepreneurial efforts of her own colonists, Britain's interest in an increasingly territorial empire soared. More specifically, with Lord Halifax assuming control of the London Board of Trade in the 1740s, Britain began to place greater emphasis on an "empire of land." Halifax and others of his generation came to see territorial expansion as crucial to mercantilist interests. By midcentury, economic ambition focused on the Ohio country, a region valued for its fertile lands, profitable fur trade, and potential new markets. When the French threatened British interests by constructing a series of forts along the upper Ohio Valley, Whitehall demonstrated new resolve to preserve and extend her American empire. The Seven Years' War was, according to one scholar, "the fulfillment and ultimate expression of mercantilist imperial aspirations." The war not only promoted the growth of Britain's transatlantic trade but also greatly distended its territorial base, fueling ambitions for colonial settlement.

The war proved a double-edged sword for the Iroquois. On the one hand it enhanced their importance on the imperial stage, granting them political purchasing power, creating new economic opportunities, enabling men to augment their cherished role as virile warriors, and reinforcing their nonracialized status as prized allies. On the other hand, the war disrupted village economies, destabilized gendered power relations, began to harden racial attitudes, and ultimately gave rise to a more aggressively expansionist British Empire, which would have major material and cultural consequences for the Iroquois in the postwar period.

More specifically, the Seven Years' War marked an imperialization of British-Iroquois relations. Up until the 1740s, Whitehall remained aloof to matters related to Native Americans. The limited nature of imperial forms on the colonial frontier ensured vital maneuvering space for the Iroquois. But the Crown's widening concern in overseas land and resources instigated new exertions to transform the Six Nations from independent sovereign allies to integrated and subject members of the British Empire. As dependent subjects Iroquois people and their lands, including the Ohio country, came under British rule. Removing the management of Indian affairs from the separate colonial governments, Whitehall established a new centralized office under direct Crown supervision. Through the appointment of William Johnson as superintendent for the northern colonies, the Crown exerted new pressure on the Iroquois for their lands, labor, and resources, threatening to undermine their sovereignty.

But the Johnson-Iroquois alliance reveals much about how the empire worked on the periphery and not as conceived at the metropolis. Serving as the critical conduit between the British Empire and Iroquois Confederacy, Johnson was an extremely adept cultural mediator. As a Crown official with a Mohawk wife, an Irish immigrant who dressed in native clothing while hosting Iroquois guests at his Georgian-style manor house, Johnson moved comfortably between Indian and colonial worlds. Well versed in their political etiquette, approving of their martial rituals, and knowledgeable of their religious customs, he was extremely adroit at facilitating the exchange of cultural forms and values. An investigation of Johnson helps add to a burgeoning literature on cultural brokers in early America. Yet this study also revises that literature. Far from operating as an innocuous mediator, Johnson was first and foremost an agent of empire. He was proficient at employing intercultural skills to advance imperial needs, often blending European, Euro-American, and Native American forms in ways that were ultimately detrimental to the Iroquois. His home, which served as the center point for Indian-colonial diplomacy, was no equitable middle ground. Johnson's apparent cultural hybridity was his most effective political and economic tool for incorporating the Iroquois into the empire on British terms. But Johnson never wielded absolute power. The commercial and martial importance of the Iroquois required him to engage in substantial imperial accommodation. By their close proximity and familial ties, the neighboring Mohawks felt the full weight of Johnson's patriarchal pretensions, but the other nations continued to maintain some distance and by doing so were able—some more than others—to eschew the worst effects of Imperial Entanglements.

By the late colonial period, the Iroquois were not scattered, impoverished, or demoralized, nor were they wholly triumphant. Extended contact with an expansive British Empire precipitated significant material and cultural change, which through skillful mediation the Iroquois had been able to ameliorate but not evade. Imperial Entanglements posits the Haudenosaunee as dynamic participants in a story of empire building in mid-eighteenth-century North America while exploring the causes and consequences of their diminishing status. Although they never became entirely subjugated—as they continued to maintain a level of economic and thus political autonomy—the extent and potential of their power must be seen in relation to the rising strength of Euro-Americans. Despite their inventive efforts to carve out and preserve an economic and cultural space for themselves in British North America, the Iroquois confronted a colonial populace more and more committed to a racially exclusive vision of empire.