Wednesday, 30 November 2016

The Second Front of the Revolutionary War

If you read military histories of the revolutionary war, the focus tends to be on the campaigns against the British, and you might conclude that most tribes took the British side but that their contribution was limited to the Great Lakes region.

However, Ray Raphael’s The American Revolution. A People’s History opened my eyes to the varied reaction of Native Americans to the war. Difficult choices were made from New England down to Florida. And fundamentally, most tribes were trying to stay out of the war, which they didn’t consider as their own.

Yet, few tribes managed to avoid the conflict. The Abenakis along the border with Canada managed to keep both sides at arms length by taking it slow and occasionally switching allegiance. Although this gave them a reputation for unreliability on both sides of the border, in this way they kept losses low.

Likewise the Chickasaw, although friendly to the British, managed to stay out of the fray because they weren’t in the front line. Only when the Americans built a fortress on their borders did they take action and drove off the garrison.

The fate of the Iroquois, the once mighty confederacy, was possibly the most tragic. Bound to the British after 1763 they accepted an American offer of neutrality in 1775 and avoided conflict until 1777. But then the confederacy fell apart with the Oneidas and Tuscaroras siding with the rebels and the other tribes with the British.

They fought each other as auxiliaries of their allies at the bloody battles of Oriskany and Wyoming. The punitive expedition by general Sullivan’s continentals through the Iroquois heartlands in 1779 destroyed the fabric of the tribes which then became totally dependent on British support. At the end of the war, they retreated to Canada.

The Ohio tribes, such as the Delaware, Mingo and Shawnee, also inexorably got drawn into the conflict. In 1777 violent incidents escalated and by 1778 raiding terrorised the settlements in the region. In 1781 a large punitive expedition laid the Native American towns to waste, bringing the tribes to heel.

The Cherokee honoured their ties to British and attacked in 1776. However, as there was no British threat in the southern states at the time, the militias from four states were available to stage a punitive expedition, destroying many Cherokee towns and crops. Although the majority of the tribe, forced by hunger, accepted a humiliating peace, part of the tribe split off and migrated west.

There were a few tribes that sided with the rebels from the start, most notably the Catawbas in the Carolinas. Their contribution to the cause was fully recognised by the Americans but they became marginalised nevertheless and seem to have disappeared by the middle of the 19th century.

The Seminoles even seem to have prospered as a result of the war. Living in Spanish territory, they were not being targeted directly themselves. But more importantly, they welcomed many new members of the tribe by accepting black runaway slaves.

This gives me the impression that there was in fact an active second front on the western border of the United States, tying up valuable manpower. You might imagine that if the British had been able to coordinate their actions better with those of the Native Americans, it could have had better results than it did now. On the other hand, it is unlikely to have swung the war in British favour, thus leaving the loyal tribes as high and dry after the war as they were historically.

Given the desperate state of the British cause and the long standing distrust between Native Americans and settlers, no tribe in the east could escape from the conflict and although some managed to limit the damage, most lost many warriors and were forced to cede land in the end.


  1. I think you would find "George Washington's America: A Biography Through His Maps" by Barnet Schecter enlightening. George was seeking to own Indian lands, which by treaty with the British was not allowed. By breaking with Britain, he could legalize his land claims (made by survey) and enrich himself and his friends. Today we might call this "insider trading" or worse.

    1. You may guess from my enthusiasm for Raphael's book that I'm not a great fan of Dead White Males On Horseback. But maps sound cool. George was a land surveyor which probably gave him even more insider knowledge. That link between land speculation and conquest was widespread among colonial elites. Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia, had speculated on Indian land before his expedition in 1774.


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