Native Participation in the American Revolution

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

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

Most American Indians east of the Mississippi River defined the American Revolution as little more than another in a long series of European wars for empire. And West of the Mississippi River, the American Revolution wasn’t at all considered eventful—at least, not immediately so. Then, how did the Natives get involved in it?

White man's finger pushing a Domino against the background of the US flag.
The American Revolution brought destruction to most Native communities. (Image: Dmitriy Prayzel/Shutterstock)

At the time of the American Revolution, Native people were in the position of having to make unenviable decisions—to ally with the colonists, or with the Crown, or to seek neutrality.

Catawbas Ally with Colonists For Survival

The Catawba were located in the fertile stretch of land called the Piedmont, which stretches through the Carolinas. They were a diverse group of some 15 separate peoples.

The separate groups within the Catawba nation remade their identities in the wake of disease, war, enslavement, and dependency on trade as they coalesced in the early 18th century. But the smallpox epidemics that followed in the wake of the Seven Years War further weakened them.

By the time of the American Revolution, the Catawba were in a difficult spot. Surrounded by hostile South Carolinians, they turned to renting their reservation lands as a means of economic survival.

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

Catawbas Serve Colonial Army

A photo of a Catawba family in South Carolina.
After the war, part of the Catawba strategy to carve out their own niche in the new nation was to promote their patriotic service and sacrifice to the revolutionaries. (Image: The Columbia Photography Studio/Public domain)

In early July 1775, two Catawba representatives met with members of the provisional government to learn more about the unnatural quarrel between the colony and the crown. They were sent home with a letter that spoke volumes.

In it, the provisional government assured the Catawba “that your case and our case is just the same.” And the Catawba were even offered trade and pay for serving in the army.

But these carrots were followed by a big stick. “If you do not mind what we say,” the provisional government’s letter warned, “you will be sorry for it by and by.”

Catawbas did serve with colonial forces in military engagements against the British throughout the region. They also provided food and aid to colonists after the British captured Charleston, South Carolina, in 1780.

Catawba Reservation Destroyed

When the colonial army fled the region and sought refuge on their reservation, the reservation itself became the center of ongoing resistance to the Crown. And the Catawba were sorry for it, by and by.

For when the British advanced, the Catawba were forced to flee. The homes and crops they abandoned were burned to the ground. Their cattle and hogs were driven off. After the war, part of the Catawba strategy to carve out their own niche in the new nation was to promote their patriotic service and sacrifice to the revolutionaries.

Learn more about the American Revolution and a fight over Enlightenment ideas.

Colonists, the Source of Trouble for Cherokee

For decades leading up to the Revolution, the Cherokee had found themselves in increasingly dire straits. During the 1730s and 1750s, smallpox took its toll. And the Seven Years’ War—in which the Cherokees fought on the side of the British—brought hardship and land loss.

Indeed, the Cherokee land base nearly collapsed during the late 1760s and early part of the 1770s. This included cessions of land in present-day South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, West Virginia, and huge swaths of land in Tennessee and Kentucky. Some of the cessions were made through the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs; others, in violation of the Royal Proclamation Line of 1763, were made with the colonial governments.

Cherokee Turn to the Crown

The Cherokee clearly identified the cause of their troubles to be the colonists, rather than the Crown. This was especially true after a group of land speculators from North Carolina secured a huge land cession—virtually all the remaining Cherokee land in Kentucky—from three Cherokee chiefs in the spring of 1775.

By the time the American Revolution began, then, tensions within the Cherokee nation were high. Younger, more militant leaders pressed for direct action against the colonists, and they rejected the idea that Cherokees should cede any more land.

American Revolution Brings Devastation to Cherokee Land

The American Revolution brought disaster to the Cherokee. Colonial forces marched into—and destroyed—Cherokee towns and cornfields. And this, in turn, opened the door once more for the accommodationists. In a series of treaties in the late 1770s and early 1780s, the Cherokee ceded even more land—some five million acres of it—to Georgia, Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

And when all was said and done, the American Revolution cost the Cherokee about 10,000 lives, 75 percent of their territory, and more than half of their towns.

Learn more about the Seven Years’ War in Indian country.

Iroquoia and the American Revolution

An illustration Mohawk leader Joseph Brant.
Joseph Brant, a Mohawk, became an ardent supporter of aiding the British. (Image: Charles Bird King/Public domain)

When the  Revolution  began, both the Americans and the British appealed to the Six Nations of the Iroquois Confederacy for, at the very least, a non-intervention pledge. The Seneca chief, known as Cornplanter, counseled neutrality. After initially following suit, the Oneida and Tuscarora advocated for an alliance with the revolutionaries.

Meanwhile, Joseph Brant, a Mohawk, and Red Jacket, a Seneca, became the most ardent supporters of aiding the British. They urged the Iroquois, in Joseph Brant’s words, “to defend their Lands and Liberty against the Rebels, who in a great measure began this Rebellion to be sole Masters of this Continent.” The Cayuga and Onondaga listened.

In 1777, the Iroquois decided to ritually extinguish the Council Fire at Onondaga. For the duration of the war, the Six Nations would not again meet collectively, in council, to make decisions.

George Washington, the Town Destroyer

Iroquois land became a battleground once more. In 1779, for instance, Major General John Sullivan launched a campaign of terror against Britain’s Iroquois allies that earned his commanding officer, George Washington, the Seneca name Town Destroyer.

In this war, however, Iroquoia was also a battleground that saw British-allied Mohawks and Senecas and American-allied Tuscaroras and Oneidas killing each other, as at the Battle of Oriskany in 1777. In the end, the pro-British faction of the Confederacy fled to Canada.

Thus, the Native people experienced the war in at least three different ways, as allies, as participants in their own civil wars, and as neutral parties. However, in each instance, the Revolution brought destruction.

Common questions about Native Participation in the American Revolution

Q: How did the Catawbas aid colonial forces?

During the American Revolution, the Catawbas served with colonial forces in military engagements against the British. They also provided food and aid to colonists after the British captured Charleston, South Carolina, in 1780.

Q: Who was the ‘Town Destroyer’?

During the American Revolution, George Washington was given the name Town Destroyer by the Seneca people.

Q: Whom did the Cherokee ally with during the American Revolution?

During the American Revolution, the Cherokee allied with the Crown.

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