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Albany and the Iroquois: 1689-1754

Representatives of the Iroquois League are present at a gathering in Albany in 1689 which is one of the first joint assemblies of English colonies. Delegates from New York, Massachusetts Bay, Plymouth and Connecticut discuss with the Iroquois a plan for mutual defence.

The Iroquois are again present at the much more significant Albany Congress of 1754. On this occasion the topic is a very specific threat of war. Even while they talk, George Washington is skirmishing with French troops in the Ohio valley. It is the opening engagement in what becomes known as the French and Indian War.


Each European side is eager to secure the support of its traditional Indian allies. The Iroquois are particularly important as they control the Appalachian mountains which separate the British colonies from the Ohio valley.

There are 150 Indian representatives at the congress, negotiating with twenty-five commissioners from the colonies of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and New Hampshire. The Iroquois are sent away with presents and with promises (later disregarded) that English settlers will not encroach on their lands. In the event Iroquois support for the English is not solid in the coming conflict, but this does not affect the outcome.


Pontiac: 1763-1766

The victory of the British in the French and Indian War is followed by the departure of the French from all their forts. This leaves their Indian allies at the mercy of the British, whose interests are very different from those of the French.

The French colonists, consisting mainly of soldiers and traders, have established an easy relationship with the tribes. There is no direct rivalry, and both sides benefit from the trade in fur. Indians have traditionally been welcome in French forts and have been given presents, including even guns and ammunition. By contrast the British, interested in settled agriculture, are a direct threat to the Indians' territory.


Pontiac, a chief of the Ottawa Indians, responds to the new situation by planning an uprising of the Indian tribes. Skilfully synchronized to begin in May 1763, with each tribe attacking a different fort, the campaign has an early and devastating success. Many garrisons are overwhelmed and massacred, in an attempt to drive the British back east of the Appalachians. But a ferocious counter-offensive is launched by the governor-general, Jeffrey Amherst.

Amherst lacks any form of moral scruple in his treatment of tribes whom he regards as contemptible savages. He even suggests spreading smallpox by gifts of infected blankets (and Indians given blankets by the British, in a peace conference at Pittsburgh in 1764, do develop the disease).


In the first flush of Pontiac's success, in 1763, the British government is so alarmed that a royal proclamation is issued; all land between the Appalachians and the Mississippi is to be reserved as hunting grounds for the Indians. But two years later the British army regains control of the situation. Pontiac makes formal peace in 1766, whereupon the royal proclamation is soon forgotten.

Settlers press west in increasing numbers into the Ohio valley. With the threat from both French and Indians removed in the recent wars, the colonists are now in buoyant mood. Soon they even feel sufficiently confident to confront the British crown.


The Northwest Territory: 1787-1795

When the American colonists win their war of independence against the British, the resulting treaty of Paris in 1783 transfers to the new state not only the thirteen colonies but also the territories west of the Appalachians to which various colonies lay claim. These regions around the Ohio river, the hunting territories of many Indian tribes, have already been the scene of violent conflict in the French and Indian War.

Now, in the 1790s, there is a desperate Indian attempt to resist the westward pressure of American settlers. The Indians are dangerously misled in their campaign by British encouragement, which is never transformed into any degree of practical help.


Before independence four colonies (Virginia, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts) have claims under their original charters to parts of the Ohio region. During the 1780s they cede these claims to the federal government. In 1787 Congress defines the region as the Northwest Territory. All land within it is to be sold in lots, either to individuals or companies.

It is expected that as many as five states will eventually emerge from this area. Meanwhile separate parts of it are to be administered as territories. Once a territory has a population of 60,000 free inhabitants, it will have the right to draw up a state constitution and to enter the union on equal terms with the original thirteen states.


These careful proposals pay scant attention to the interests of the Indians. They rely on disputed treaties, virtually imposed on the tribes by American delegates in 1784-5 and rapidly repudiated by the Indians themselves. In 1789 the government builds Fort Washington (the kernel of the future Cincinnati) on the north bank of the Ohio river. Meanwhile violent Kentucky frontiersmen have been creating mayhem in raids on Indian villages.

The result is equally violent reprisals, led by the chiefs of the Miami and Shawnee tribes who are determined to keep the American intruders south of the Ohio river.


Two expeditions sent by George Washington against the tribes are complete disasters. The second, in 1791, is led by a personal friend of Washington, Arthur St Clair. His 1400 men are surprised by the Indians at dawn in their camp beside the Maumee river. Three hours later more than 600 are dead and nearly 300 seriously wounded. Indian casualties are 21 killed and 40 wounded. It is one of the worst days in US military history.

The Americans have their revenge in 1794, once again in the region of the Maumee, when an army commanded by Anthony Wayne defeats a force of Shawnees and other tribes at a woodland location which becomes known as Fallen Timbers.


In the aftermath of Fallen Timbers, representatives of the defeated tribes assemble for peace talks in Fort Greenville in 1795. Their leaders accept a treaty which cedes to the United States much of present-day Ohio.

This concession, giving the green light to a surge of new land speculation and settlement, is only the first of many in the region. Eventually the Northwest Territory yields five states, joining the union between 1803 and 1848 (Ohio 1803, Indiana 1816, Illinois 1818, Michigan 1837, Wisconsin 1848). In the early years, until 1813, Indian resistance to this encroachment is gallantly continued by Tecumseh. But the beginning of the National Road in 1811 is a powerful sign of American determination to open up the region.


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