Thursday, April 21, 2011

"The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution"

I just read The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern
 Borderland of the American Revolution by Alan Taylor. I recommend the book to those with serious interest in North American history, but it may be too detailed in its treatment of land deals for the casual reader. Taylor, who previously won both the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes for his book William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the 
Early American Republic is an important historian with great knowledge of the history of the region described in these books.

Taylor focuses on the Confederation of the six Iroquois nations, which together numbered about 10,000 people at the time of the American Revolution. His book goes back to the Seven Year War (and its North American element, the French and Indian War) which ended in 1763, but we know that Eurasian diseases were spreading through the Indian populations of North America for hundreds of years before that time. We can assume that the Iroquois population had been considerably larger, peaking at a time before that covered by Taylor’s book. We can also assume that the pre-Columbian Indians had been a powerful “keystone species” dramatically changing the balance of flora and fauna in their environment. When their population was quickly reduced, their impact on the environment must also have been reduced, and that environment must have changed accordingly. Thus the Iroquois that Taylor finds in 1763 may well have been a remnant population living in an environment degraded (in terms of Iroquois livability) from that of the past.

During the French and Indian War, troops from the British American colonies traveled to attack French Canada, using waterways and portages in Iroquois territory. Both sides recruited Indians to their cause, not only as scouts and auxiliaries, but also to attack settlers. Remember, that the colonies were economically and militarily weak, and the supply lines from the metropolitan countries long and expensive. While the Indian warriors were few by today’s standards, so too were the professional troops from Europe and the colonial militias. Moreover, the Indians knew the terrain, were skilled warriors, and fought in a style well suited to the “wilderness”. They were critically important allies.

1763 set the stage. The treaty ending the Seven Year War transferred the Canadian colony from French to English control. The English Royal Proclamation of 1763, recognizing the promises made to Indian allies, reserved lands west of the continental divide of the Allegheny Mountains for the Indians and barred colonial settlement therein. Settlement took place anyway, and the process of dispossessing the Iroquois from their lands began.

The American Revolution again saw the British and the Americans seeking to recruit Indians against the other. Both made promises to the Iroquois. The Iroquois nations divided their loyalty. The Americans, in retaliation against those of the Indians allied with the British, invaded Indian territory – the first example of scorched earth warfare in North America.

The aftermath of the war was ugly. The British refused to give up forts promised to the United States in the peace treaty, as the Americans failed to pay the war debts. The newly created states bickered among themselves for control of the western lands and both bickered with the national government. The states or the United States and the national government both sought to dispossess the Iroquois from their lands at low prices in order to raise revenue for their empty treasuries by land sales at higher prices. Rich and powerful speculators sought to acquire large tracts of land, using both their wealth and their political power to do so. Settlers, who tended to believe they had the right to the land by purchase or divine order, moved in in numbers. In both treaty and land dealings with the Iroquois, people of the United States tended to be devious and to supply huge amounts of alcohol to the Iroquois negotiators and warriors to weaken their bargaining power - a process that created and supported alcoholism. Agreements were often broken by the U.S. parties.

The book also treats the relations between the British governors of its Canada territories and the Iroquois, describing double-dealing, racist, governors with class prejudice generally awaiting orders that took months to arrive from a government in England with little understanding of Canadian reality. Their agreements too were often broken to the detriment of the Iroquois.

Taylor devotes a considerable portion of the book to Joseph Brandt, an Iroquois, and Samuel Kirkland, a white, who together attended a religious school which later became Dartmouth University. Each of these played an important role over decades in relations between the Iroquois and the white communities and political systems. Brandt especially was a man who managed to navigate the two cultures with marked success for much of his life.

The Iroquois culture was very different from that of the British, French or Americans. In political dealings, the perceptions of the various sides were often quite different. So too, in land transactions the perceptions of the various sides as to what was occurring were often quite different (although the Iroquois frequently understood that they were being reamed). Euro-Americans must have been very confused by Iroquois matriarchal society and the different roles of sachem spokespersons and war chiefs; the Iroquois by the patriarchal and class-ridden European society with its ideas of monarchy and sovereignty. There were few intermediaries who could and would interpret each side for the other well, and Taylor shows those interpreters often to be bribed, partial to one interest or the other, or incompetent. Moreover, each side tended to be prejudiced against the other. Euro-Americans tended to see the Indian men as lazy and violent, unwilling to till the soil; Iroquois thought the American settlers did women’s work of growing crops. Each saw the other as unreliable and untrustworthy.

The Iroquois had impressive leaders, who spoke well in public and who made a great impression in Albany, Philadelphia (then the capitol of the United States) and London. The six nations managed to remain linked even when taking different sides in war, and maintained a political culture that valued consensus and reasoned debate. They valued individual liberty, indeed finding the subservience of Euro-Americans difficult to fathom.

Some of our founding fathers come off less well in the story. Washington and Franklin were land speculators, and Robert Morris (the second most important man in the United States) dwarfed their speculations until his financial empire fell apart and he went bankrupt. All of those founding fathers seemed convinced that the Indians east of the Mississippi either had to agree to live like “white men” or get out of the way by moving west if they were not to be exterminated. The best of them made promises in the name of government that their successors would not keep; the worst simply dissimulated or lied.

It is difficult not to judge these people by the standards of our time, even realizing that their culture and beliefs were very different than our own. Still, it is hard to see how a few thousand Iroquois could have withstood the pressure of hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens hungry for a better life and willing to fight for the land that would make that better life possible.

The book told me more about land dealings than I really wanted to know, but the accumulation of detail was probably necessary to convince the reader of the accuracy of the revisionist history. It changed my ideas about the founding of the United States and taught me a lot about the Iroquois.

The tribes in the purple area spoke Iroquoian

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