American Revolution and the Native Land

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

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

The American Revolution almost always evokes images of freedom-loving patriots and tyrannical monarchs. It’s often understood as being driven by the ‘sacred fire of liberty’. But, how did the Natives view it? And, in perspective, why does their participation in the Revolution seems more like a loss than a win?

An 1899 chromolithograph of U.S. cavalry pursuing American Indians.
According to the Declaration of Independence, all Natives were ‘merciless Indian savages’. (Image: Unknown author/Public domain)

Lenape People in Gnadenhutten Settlement

Gnadenhutten was a settlement in Ohio Country founded by Moravian missionaries in 1772.

Having been pushed out of their ancestral homes in present-day New Jersey and Eastern Pennsylvania during the course of the 17th and 18th centuries, most of the Lenape had, by the 1770s, relocated around Fort Pitt, in the northern Ohio River Valley.

The Lenape were divided among three factions. Some supported the British, others the colonists, and still another group wanted to remain neutral. Among the neutrals were Lenape who had joined the Shawnee at the Moravian settlements of Gnadenhutten, Salem, and Schoenbrunn, along the Tuscarawas River in eastern Ohio.

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

Distrust for Natives

These agricultural missions promoted assimilation—that is, they endeavored to make yeoman farmers out of Native people. And the residents also embraced Christianity and, no less important, pacifism.

The war put the Lenape and Shawnee in a difficult spot. Those who chose to go to war looked at the residents of Gnaddenhutten, Salem, and Schoenbrunn with distrust.

But the colonists viewed them similarly, fearing that they were aiding and abetting the Indians who were carrying out raids along borderland settlements in Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Learn more about Native encounters with the Europeans in 1700-1750.

Settler Encroachments in Native Lands

Another factor that put the Indians in the Moravian towns in danger was the conflict over settler encroachments beyond the Royal Proclamation Line of 1763 and the Fort Stanwix Line established in 1768. The Crown intended for these boundaries to keep colonists out of Native lands, particularly in  the Ohio Country.

When settlers crossed the boundaries which they did with impunity, Native people responded by driving them out. The illegal settlers then tried to justify their own violent retribution against Indians by disingenuously claiming the Crown refused to protect them.

In doing so, the colonists didn’t distinguish between good and bad Indians. Instead, all Indians were, as the Declaration of Independence stated, “merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.” And that made all Indians, including the ones living in the Moravian towns, enemies.

Gnadenhutten Massacre

In March 1782, as war spread across the borders, Pennsylvania set its sights on the Christian Indians at Gnadenhutten and Salem. A 100-person strong detachment of militia set out to deliver a killing blow under the pretense that the residents were either supporting Indian raids or taking part in them.

Monument at the Gnadenhutten Massacre Site, located in the cemetery at Gnadenhutten, Ohio.
In March 1782, 29 men, 27 women, and 34 children from the Lenape and Shawnee Christian tribes were bludgeoned to death in Gnadenhutten. (Image: Kevin Myers/Public domain)

Militiamen gathered the Lenape and Shawnee Christians who resided there and locked them up for the night. The next morning, these prisoners were taken out in twos and threes and bludgeoned to death with mallets. The deceased numbered 29 men, 27 women, and 34 children, in all.

To finish the job, the militiamen proceeded to scalp the dead bodies, loot the town, and burn it to the ground. And when they returned to Fort Pitt, they murdered several more Lenapes who had sought refuge there.

Continued Assault on the Natives

In June 1782, a larger assault was launched. Some 488 colonial volunteers were sent to annihilate the Wyandot and Lenape in northern Ohio.

However, they met a combined Indian and British force on the tall grass plains of the upper Sandusky River. And this time, the Americans were routed, with more than 70 killed in battle.

Colonel William Crawford, the commander of the attack, was captured. And it was with his body that the Wyandot Half-King and the Lenape Captain Pipe renewed the ritual torture of captives—to vindicate the victims of Gnadenhutten.

Learn more about Native resistance in the Ohio Country.

Treaty of Fort Pitt

For many Lenape, the American Revolution signified that neutrality wasn’t an option. It signified that accommodation inevitably led to destruction.

Consider the fate of three principal figures in a treaty of peace between the Lenape and the Americans in 1778. Known as the Treaty of Fort Pitt, this was America’s first formal accord with Indians after becoming an independent nation.

An illustration of Colonel William Crawford's execution.
Colonel William Crawford, the commander of the June 1782 attack, was captured and tortured to vindicate the victims of Gnadenhutten. (Image: James Boroff/Public domain)

The Lenape chief White Eyes, who believed the treaty had established his people’s neutrality, was betrayed and murdered as he served as a guide for the Americans. John Killbuck, who survived the murderous rampage at Fort Pitt in the wake of Gnadenhutten, fled and went into exile in Ontario. And Captain Pipe was among those who took vengeance on Colonel Crawford. Clearly, the 1778 Treaty of Fort Pitt had established a peace that brought no peace.

American Revolution: A Non-event for Many

Meanwhile, across the Mississippi, the American Revolution was virtually a non-event during the 1770s and 1780s.

According to historian, Elizabeth Fenn, perhaps the defining event of the period for Native people was a smallpox pandemic that raced northward out of Mexico, through California and Pueblo country, onto the Plains, and into Canada between 1775 and 1782.

Long-lasting Effects of American Revolution on Natives

The Treaty of Paris of 1783 brought an end to the war between the British and the Americans. The British yielded to the United States all land east of the Mississippi River, and south of what would become the Canadian border.

But, as with the Treaty with the Lenape in 1778, it would be a peace that brought no peace to Indian Country. It also did not include any Native representation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was no recognition that much of the land being ceded was still Native ground.

Looking at the American Revolution from the perspective of Native America, then, we can see it as an unnatural quarrel between brothers of the same blood. We can see it as a catalyst for a civil war that caused deep divisions within Indian communities. We can also see it as a moment that involved perilous attempts to preserve neutrality.

Common Questions about American Revolution and the Native Land

Q: Where was Gnadenhutten?

Gnadenhutten was a settlement in Ohio Country.

Q: What happened at Gnadenhutten?

In March 1782, a detachment of militia from Pennsylvania gathered the Lenape and Shawnee Christians of Gnadenhutten and bludgeoned them to death with mallets. The deceased numbered 29 men, 27 women, and 34 children, in all. They also looted the town and burned it to the ground.

Q: What was the Treaty of Fort Pitt?

The Treaty of Fort Pitt of 1778 was America’s first formal accord with Natives after becoming an independent nation.

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