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Native Peoples: The First Forgotten Founders
"The Indians, in the little which they have done, have unquestionably displayed as much natural genius as peoples of Europe in their greatest undertakings."
—Alexis de Tocqueville
America's truly first settlers were, of course, native inhabitants, not just in the West but also in the East. Much of what various Indian groups did has disappeared from history as they were displaced, killed off, or confined by the encroaching Europeans. Even so, native peoples developed some settlements that have persisted to the present day. And evidence indicates that their influence on the patterns and success of European settlement, even on some of its institutions, though often belittled or ignored, was substantial. The first colonists who landed in Massachusetts and Virginia in the sixteenth century, for example, survived harsh winters because their Indian hosts shared the grains and foodstuffs they had stored. The history of the Mayflower Pilgrims suggests that the natives in the vicinity of Plymouth Rock not only provided fresh food but also taught the newcomers to raise corn and to fertilize their gardens with alewives harvested in nearby tidal creeks. A similar pageant of salvation took place nearly a century earlier, when Francisco Vásquez de Coronado's starving 1,000-man expedition entered the American Southwest and was fed lifesaving corn that thrifty Pueblo Indian farmers had stored in large granaries.
Although native peoples have conventionally been relegated to the margins of settlement accounts, they are woven deep into the fabric of American history. European settlement of both the East and the West would have been different indeed if Indians had not been there to begin with. Early interactions between Indians and invading Europeans in the Southwest and then, quite independently, in the East set many of the patterns that would be carried over to later encounters in the American West. The first extensive contacts between Europeans and Indians occurred between 1539 and 1542 when two separate Spanish exploring parties, one led by Hernando de Soto and the other by Coronado, conducted far-ranging inland investigations that stretched from Florida north to the Carolinas, along the Mississippi River, into Arkansas, and through eastern California. The treks gave these Europeans an initial look at the geography of the southern sector of what is now the United States and made it possible for them to bring back knowledge about the primitive—and not-so-primitive—societies the aboriginal peoples who populated this region had developed.
Some of the natives encountered by the exploring parties were nomadic, but others lived a pastoral life in villages, hunting game and harvesting a wide variety of crops. Some, the explorers noticed, such as the Pueblo Indians in the Southwest, lived in cohesive communities centered on religious rituals and beliefs. In these communities, native craftsmen erected durable houses and farmers grew grains, fruits, and other crops, practices that yielded living conditions comparable to those of many people in western Europe.
The story of East Coast colonization, at least as presented by the incoming Europeans, can be divided into two distinct phases of interaction with native peoples. The first phase is a positive account of Indians who were peaceful and helpful—the names of Squanto and Pocahontas come up routinely. The second phase is dominated by stories of warriors who refused to submit to the colonists' demands and were driven from their homelands. In Virginia, for example, the peaceful initial period was short-lived because Captain John Smith organized armed food raids. A swashbuckler who viewed the natives as savages who had no rights, Smith pursued an Indian policy that produced unrelenting conflict and that, within forty years of Jamestown's founding, left the remnants of the once-powerful Powhatan Indians scrambling to eke out a living on the fringes of the region the tribe once had dominated.
In New England, the initial phase of European settlement followed a somewhat different path largely because the colonists there were refugees who had experienced religious persecution, and they put a premium on personal freedom and peace. The outlook that governed the first decades of Puritan settlement—and helped produce a "treaty" of peace with the Wampanoag Indians that lasted forty years—was articulated in these directives issued by the officers of the Massachusetts Bay Company:
Above all, we pray you to be careful that there be none in our precincts permitted to do any injury, in the least kind, to the heathen people [and] if any of the savages pretend right of inheritance to all or any part of the lands granted in our patent, we pray you endeavor to purchase their title.
No New England leader did more to fulfill the letter and the spirit of these injunctions than Roger Williams. A fiery advocate of religious freedom, Williams was a friend of poet John Milton and had known Oliver Cromwell. On being banished from Massachusetts in 1635, he founded Providence, the first settlement of Rhode Island, as a haven for Quakers and other dissenters. He subsequently won the trust of Narragansett Indians by treating them as equals and by insisting that they be paid for title to their land.
But such endeavors came to naught as the flow of immigrants into southern New England swelled and the desire for Indian lands became more compelling than the commitment to maintain good relations. The Puritan perspective soon changed to accommodate the new situation, and native homelands were seized on the pretext that "civilized" men had a God-given right to displace a culture deemed inferior. Welcome of the peace that had prevailed for three decades was replaced among Puritans by a conviction that there was an unbridgeable gulf between the two societies. This hubris in turn extinguished earlier hopes that a policy of tolerance would allow Puritans and natives to live harmoniously in the same valleys.
The hopelessness and despair these events generated in the minds of New England's natives led to a bloody uprising in 1675. The year-long, region-wide conflict (misnamed King Philip's War by the Puritans) had tragic consequences for both sides. The casualties were severe. When the killing ended, all hopes for peace were extinguished and the scattered natives of southern New England were left landless.
Historians who argue that such an outcome was inevitable have failed to reckon with the contrasting peace policy initiated six years later along the Delaware River by Quaker proprietor William Penn. By the time of Penn's first visit to his new colony in 1682, he had already made history in England by writings and speeches that distinguished him as a fearless advocate for religious tolerance. In Pennsylvania he put flesh on his words by making the colony a haven for Mennonites, Amish, Dunkers, Moravians, and members of other religious sects suffering persecution in Europe.
A friendly Indian policy was the centerpiece of the "holy experiment" in democracy Penn sponsored with his Society of Friends. In negotiating to purchase land from the Delaware Indians, Penn informed them, "I desire to enjoy it with your consent, that we may always live together as neighbors and friends." His handpicked Quaker successors made fair dealing a cornerstone of public life, providing a foundation of mutual respect that enabled Penn's colony to avoid Indian hostilities for eighty years.
This history is informative. However, we can gain a more intimate sense of the varied and important contributions of native groups to American settlement if we look at three Indian tribes—the Iroquois, the Cherokees, and the Pueblos—each located progressively farther west geographically and each with quite different fates in their encounters with the Europeans and their descendants who crossed the sea.
In the eighteenth century, the Iroquois League—known to the British as the Six Nations—was among the most impressive indigenous civilizations in the Americas. The homeland of these tribes stretched across what is now upstate New York from Amsterdam to Rochester, in effect forming a buffer zone between British and French settlements in the lower Great Lakes region. The cohesion of their confederacy conferred power, and the skills the Iroquois mastered as town builders, farmers, hunters, and warriors made them a force to be feared and respected.
Governed by a council that operated by consensus, each well-kept village was a self-sustaining unit. Bark-covered longhouses more than 100 feet in length provided shelter for ten to twelve families, and the surrounding farms and orchards furnished a variety of foods. In season, the natives of the Six Nations ranged widely and excelled as hunters, fishermen, traders, and fur trappers.
In the 1750s, as the British and French vied for military dominance in the area, both sides sought to forge alliances with tribes who could augment the strength of their modest armies. After a French force that included only 254 regular soldiers but 600 Ottawa Indians decimated General Edward Braddock's army near present-day Pittsburgh in July 1755, the British redoubled their efforts to win over native tribes that lived along the route of likely French encroachments.
Two "Indian superintendents" were appointed to implement this strategy. William Johnson, who had maintained a trading post in the Mohawk Valley for many years, was chosen to represent England's interests in the north country. Edmond Atkin was selected to fulfill this function on the southward frontier. While the bulk of the colonists along the Atlantic seaboard took stock in the myth that the Indians they had driven out were cruel and subhuman, Atkin discovered that British officials engaged in face-to-face dealings with backcountry natives had a high regard for their qualities, and he came to share these views:
No people in the world understand and pursue their true national interests better than the Indians. [H]ow sanguinary so ever they are towards their enemies, from a misguided passion of heroism, and a love of their country; yet they are in other ways truly humane, hospitable and equitable.... In their public treaties, no people on earth are more open, explicit, and direct, nor are they excelled by any in the observance of them.
Johnson, a staunch Tory, won the trust and friendship of the Iroquois by deeds. His estate was a center of Indian trade and a shelter for Mohawk people. His wife was a Mohawk, and his understanding of Indian values encouraged natives to let him mediate their disputes. Historians give Johnson credit for serving England's interests by keeping the Iroquois neutral during the war with the French that ended in 1763.
The tragic destruction of the Six Nations came about when the League's neutrality policy was ignored and outside pressures sucked the Iroquois into the vortex of the military struggle known as the American Revolution. Having no visible stake in the outcome, the confederation's Grand Council wisely voted in 1776 not to take sides in the conflict. However, Joseph Brant, a charismatic Mohawk who had recently returned from England, defied the authority of the Council and launched an impassioned campaign to recruit natives to serve as attack soldiers for the Crown. It would be the undoing of the Iroquois.
For all practical purposes, Brant was a British agent. Schooled at Dartmouth College and in England, he had served as an official in the Tory government. The arguments he used to enlist Iroquois warriors were, in effect, those of a British patriot's war speech. And the wedge Brant drove divided the Six Nations. The Oneidas and the Tuscaroras sided with George Washington's armies while Mohawk and Cayuga warriors, led by Brant and equipped by British officers, conducted scorched earth raids against forts and settlements on the New York frontier.
Brant's bloody victories provoked a draconian response in 1779 when General George Washington sent a 3,000-man army to burn Iroquois villages and destroy their crops. Even the soldiers sent to carry out this pitiless mission were impressed with the civilization these natives had built over a period of two centuries. "The Indians live much better than most of the Mohawk Valley farmers," one wrote, "their houses very well furnished with all of the necessary household utensils, great plenty of grain, several horses, cows and waggons." The 1779 raid ended the dominance of the Six Nations in their upstate New York homeland. A diaspora followed that saw vanquished Iroquois fleeing to Canada and as far away as Wisconsin while a remnant population was allowed to remain in restricted enclaves.
Even though their culture was decimated, the Six Nations played a vital role in U.S. constitutional history. In formulating its charter, the fledgling United States of America had no European precedent to follow. However, leaders such as Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Charles Thompson, and Thomas Jefferson were impressed by the structure of the Iroquois confederacy, and it was on their minds when they devised a constitution based on principles of federalism.
The Iroquois League left another legacy as well—the concept of tribal sovereignty, which became the Magna Carta for native people in the United States. From the beginning, British administrators acknowledged the self-governance of the Iroquois and other tribes and conducted relations with them as separate governments through formal treaties. The Iroquois culture symbolized the reality that Indian groups had the capacity to govern their internal affairs.
After the Revolution, the new nation continued the practice of recognizing tribes as sovereign governments, and the United States Supreme Court, in a magisterial opinion written in 1832 by Chief Justice John Marshall, put a constitutional cloak over tribal sovereignty and the rights of native peoples. Citing "the settled doctrine of the law of nations," Justice Marshall declared that "the Indian nations [of the United States] had always been considered as distinct, independent political communities, retaining their original natural rights." Thus, though the Six Nations lost most of their land, one brilliant concept of governance they developed continues to burn brightly even today.
Two decades after the Iroquois tragedy drew to a close, in the mountains of northern Georgia the Cherokee Indians were engaged in a remarkable process of cultural self-transformation. The process commenced in 1801 when Moravian missionaries convinced the Cherokees that their chances of retaining their homelands would be improved if they made adaptations white men had to respect.
The Cherokees took up this challenge, and in just one generation they made revolutionary advances. Their Moravian friends convinced them that an important emblem of respectability was a written language. In short order, a gifted young Cherokee, Sequoya (a soldier who had fought in one of Andrew Jackson's armies), invented a syllabary alphabet for the Cherokee language, which was soon mastered by the entire tribe. The Cherokees celebrated this newly won literacy with another accomplishment: publication of a newspaper, the Cherokee Phoenix.
The creative achievements of the Cherokees were substantial in many technological and material spheres as well. An 1826 report to the congregation of the First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia presented this summary of their efforts:
At this time there are 22,000 cattle, 7,600 horses, 46,000 swine, 2,500 sheep, 762 looms, 1,400 spinning wheels, 172 wagons, 2,048 plows, 10 saw mills, 31 grist mills, 62 blacksmith shops, 8 cotton machines, 18 schools, 18 ferries ... and [a library] with upward of 1,000 volumes of good books.
In addition to these developments, the Cherokees approved a written constitution, developed a republican form of government, and chose John Ross as their principal chief. Of mixed ancestry and tutored by the missionaries, Ross fit the Georgia mold: a proprietor of successful businesses, he owned a large plantation and slaves and dressed like a southern planter. Had Georgia's political leaders been open-minded, they would have realized that the Cherokees had the potential to contribute more to the general welfare than most of the semi-literate Europeans who were immigrating to that state.
The Cherokees desperately needed a leader of Ross' caliber when Andrew Jackson, a sworn enemy of Indian claims to land, was elected president in 1828. A former lawyer and land speculator on the frontier, Jackson viewed treaties with the Indians as "an absurdity not to be reconciled with the principles of our government." He favored an apartheid solution to the "Indian question" that involved the removal of all natives to a wilderness somewhere beyond the Mississippi River. This scheme became national policy when the United States Congress passed Jackson's Indian Removal Act in 1830.
John Ross mounted a forceful campaign to soften the views of the nation's leaders. He, too, had served as a soldier under General Jackson, and he made frequent trips to Washington, D.C., during which he presented appeals for justice to the president and members of Congress. When President Jackson refused to listen and the state of Georgia passed a law seizing the Cherokee homeland, Ross and his friends, as a last resort, filed cases with the Supreme Court. These lawsuits set a precedent by raising seminal legal issues regarding Indian rights. In a great victory for the Cherokees and other Indian tribes, Chief Justice John Marshall ruled that Georgia's landgrab violated the Constitution and laws of the United States.
Excerpted from The Forgotten Founders by Stewart L. Udall. Copyright © 2002 Island Press. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
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Posted April 20, 2014
Your understanding of 'how the west was won' until you read this version.
Although published in 2002, I chose Forgotten Founders: Rethinking the History of the Old West by Stewart Udall [Island Press; 1 edition, September 1, 2002] because it so closely parallels my own thinking regarding the settlement of both U.S.A. and Canada. Indeed, Udall could be speaking for me when he writes:
"A shortcoming of histories that concentrate on broad outlines of events is the absence of human faces and stories of ordinary folk that would reveal what animated individuals and families and indicate the experiences they had. Yet only by considering individual human experience can we begin to develop a sense of what these men and women faced and an idea of the magnitude of their achievements." p. 37.
And again at page 135 where he quotes Thomas Jefferson, probably one of the great populists of all time, i.e.
"Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interests, by the most lasting bonds."
He also credits religion as being one of the founding forces, a point on which I have some misgivings, but nonetheless it cannot be denied that in the 19th century it formed the spiritual heart of most communities, and in many cases the vanguard as well.
Most particularly, however, Udall downplays such historical stereotypes as Lewis and Clark and the fur traders, as well as the 49ers as having little enduring impact on frontier development. He also downplays the importance of mining, ranching and other large-scale activities after the needs of the Civil War were met. Moreover, he is critical of the U.S. Military's campaign to "pacifying" the Indians, pointing repeatedly to their unjust and callous treatment, as well as that of Chinese immigrants in the early history of the West. He also dismisses dime novel and Hollywood-created legends, such as “Butch” Cassidy and Billy the Kid, as “transitive outliers.”
Udall’s point is that we have replaced the true heroes of the West with straw men, the romanticized creations of pulp novels and Saturday-afternoon movies, and that this is what has prevailed to the detriment of those who might have benefited from emulating the pioneer work ethic.
All of this I agree with almost uncategorically. However, Udall’s thesis is not without its overreaching assumptions and journalistic hyperbole. For example, the 49ers may have been an influx of opportunists flocking to the most "hare-brained ventures" in history (132), but of these many stayed to homestead in California and elsewhere. Likewise, miners lured to the prosperous discoveries went on to establish towns and cities that exist today. Therefore, they too form part of the faceless heroes who collectively settled the West.
Nonetheless, it is one of those books that needs to be read to truly understand the ying and yang of North American settlement. Four bees.