Aftereffects of the American Revolutionary War and the Natives

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The Treaty of Paris of 1783 settled the American Revolutionary War between England and the colonists. But, it brought no peace to Native peoples. Instead, it served as a catalyst for resistance and revitalization movements. Let’s explore.

High view of the bend in Ohio River.
The Natives affirmed the Ohio River as the dividing line. (Image: Corey B Stevens/Shutterstock)

Northwest Ordinance

In the wake of the American Revolution, the future of the United States was uncertain. Moreover, the British to the north and the Spanish to the south made for unfriendly neighbors. These realities shaped the policies that the United States adopted toward indigenous nations. 

The new American nation’s zeal to expand by taking Indian land gave rise to a critically important document called the Northwest Ordinance. Adopted in 1787 by the Confederation Congress, it established a mechanism for governing territories and a process for admitting them into the Union as states.

US Postage Stamp showing Ordinance of 1787. Issued in 1937.
The Northwest Ordinance established a process for admitting governing territories into the Union as states. (Image: Bureau of Engraving and Printing/Public domain)

The intent of the Northwest Ordinance was the orderly assimilation of land formerly claimed by the British. Congress called it the Northwest Territory, or the Territory Northwest of the River Ohio. This was the Ohio Country. And it was still very much Native ground.

Good Intentions for the Natives?

Here’s what the Confederation Congress had to say:

The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians. Their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress.

Portrait of Henry Knox.
Secretary of War Henry Knox called the Ordinance expansion with honor. (Image: Charles Willson Peale/Public domain)

We should understand this as an earnest statement of good intentions that included a liberally applied escape clause. The principle of utmost good faith informed the entire Indian policy crafted by the Secretary of War, Henry Knox.

Knox called it expansion with honor. At the heart of expansion with honor was the continuation of the British policy of treaty-making, or the forging of nation-to-nation agreements. Indeed, in Article I, sections 8 and 10, the U.S. Constitution established that the federal government alone had the authority to regulate commerce with Indian tribes and make treaties. That meant that tribal nations had a pretty exalted status—one higher than the states.

Learn more about the three ways Natives experienced the American Revolution.

Purpose of Treaties

The problem was that the United States—like Britain—tended to think of treaties as expedient tools, rather than as longstanding covenants.

They were vehicles for the United States to clear title to Indian land, as much as they were, but, to Native Americans, vehicles for establishing kinship ties and reciprocal obligations.

A common myth has Indians being given land and handouts. Not true.

In exchange for land cessions, tribes were to receive payment from the federal government. Usually, this payment took the form of a mix of cash; food and clothing; schools; and livestock, farm implements, feed, and seed. With these things came a local agent of the government to provide technical assistance.

At the same time, tribal nations carefully reserved some land for their exclusive use, and retained hunting, fishing, gathering, and water rights on other lands they ceded. The lands that remained to them were called reservations. The key word in reservation is reserve. Sometimes, bilateral agreements involved exchanges. But rights, goods, and services were never simply given.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North AmericaWatch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

A Weak United States

And yet, the new and still-weak United States federal government was unable to prevent individual states from negotiating ad hoc agreements. Nor could it stop land-hungry settlers from squatting on Indian land, or greedy traders from taking advantage of Native people. The new U.S. government found itself, time and again, reacting to situations it couldn’t control.

The Native nations of the Ohio Country had no intention of yielding their sovereign claims. They held the Ohio River to be an inviolable border and could point to its recognition in the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768, the Treaty of Paris in 1783, and a second Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784. The last of these, however, was especially troublesome.

Learn more about the Columbian Exchange.

Treaty of Fort Stanwix

Treaty of Fort Stanwix was between the United States and the Iroquois, but had implications for the Ohio Country. Basically, Iroquois diplomats without the support even of their own people relinquished lands they claimed west of the Ohio River. This, in turn, emboldened non-Indian settlers to trespass on Native land and led to the signing of additional, but no less controversial, treaties with Indians in the Ohio Country over the next two years.

As Native people faced mounting pressure to cede land through what is today New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana, a confederacy of Native nations attempted to hold the line. The confederacy included Iroquois, Wyandot, Lenape, Shawnee, Odawa, Ojibwe, Cherokee, Myaamia, and others.

Natives Reject Treaties

In November and December 1786, delegates from this confederacy sent a message to the Congress in which they affirmed the Ohio River as the dividing line, and rejected the piecemeal treaties that had been signed in the past. Only treaties that enjoyed the unanimous support of all the tribal nations would be considered valid.

The United States, following in the tradition of the British, ignored their appeal and attempted to flex its muscle. And the results were catastrophic—for the United States.

Common Questions about Aftereffects of the American Revolutionary War and the Natives

Q: What was the Northwest Ordinance?

Adopted in 1787 by the Confederation Congress, the Northwest Ordinance established a mechanism for governing territories and a process for admitting them into the Union as states.

Q: What was the Treaty of Fort Stanwix?

The Treaty of Fort Stanwix was between the United States and the Iroquois, who relinquished lands they claimed west of the Ohio River.

Q: What was a reservation?

As part of several treaties after the American Revolution, Indian tribes ceded their lands in exchange of payment from the federal government. Some tribal nations carefully reserved some land for their exclusive use, which were called reservations.

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