Category: Blog Posts

George Washington Sends Nathaniel Gist – Peace with Cherokee


In the summer and fall of 1776, the Cherokee had attacked the backwoods settlements of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The settlers had been creeping further and further into Cherokee lands and the Cherokee were fed up. The situation had been aggravated by the fact that the patriots of the area had stopped British trade goods entering through the traditional trading routes into Cherokee country at the beginning of the American Revolutionary War (ARW). However, the patriots had not yet been able to raise enough trade goods themselves to provide for the Cherokee needs. The British had been trying to help the Cherokee and keep them on the King’s side in preparation for war with backcountry Loyalists against the patriots. However, with trade slim and frustrations high, the Cherokee had struck in the early summer of 1776.

The too early strike without coordinated British help was disastrous. The new American states had responded with a ferocity that the Cherokee had not seen seen the British had cut a swath through the Cherokee towns not quite twenty years earlier in the French and Indian War. After the Cherokee strikes, the patriots organized from several approaches and destroyed town after town and all of the crops they found during the harvest season in the autumn of 1776. By the end of 1976, the Cherokee had given up everything and were nearly destitute. The calmer heads on each side had begun to make peace overtures by early 1777. The patriot states saw an opening and began the negotiations, but the progress was slow. Their goal was primarily security for their backcountry patriot settlers and a free area to operate in to control the backcountry Loyalists which the British were also actively encouraging and supplying.

George Washington Sends Nathaniel Gist

General George Washington sent Nathaniel Gist to seek peace with the Cherokee for another reason. Washington knew that he would need those backcountry patriots to keep the Loyalists at bay, but he also knew that he would eventually need them to confront the coming British extension of the war into the southern states.

Nathaniel Gist was the son of Washington’s old friend Christopher Gist who had navigated the Virginia and Pennsylvania Indian frontier with Washington in the lead up to the French and Indian War and thereafter. Nathaniel had his father’s way with frontier folk, white and Indian. He was known by the Cherokee (some said he was the father of Sequoyah, the father of the Cherokee syllabary) due to his trading activities in the Cherokee country prior to the ARW, so his approach would be especially welcomed by the Cherokee as an honest broker. Nathaniel had been recently commissioned by Washington to raise a regiment that he would command for the Continental Army. Gist probably did not want his first action to be trying to quell an ongoing Cherokee rebellion in the south, so he had personal incentive to make peace as well.

Washington wanted Nathaniel Gist  to recruit rangers and scouts from the Cherokee in return for peace. This was probably designed to have the Cherokee warriors act as allied working hostages. Having them in patriot control during the war would be a great help in keeping the area at peace, but also to make the most of their local knowledge to keep the British agents and Loyalists at bay. When Gist arrived in the Overhill Cherokee country, he made it clear to the Cherokee that the patriots would continue their war in Cherokee country if the Cherokee did not make some concessions and agree to rebuff British and Loyalist approaches for help.

Although the British Agent Alexander Cameron tried to convince the Overhill Cherokee that the peace overtures by Nathaniel Gist were a trick, the Cherokee eventually made it to the peace conference with the Virginians. The Carloinians were holding peace conferences further south with the Lower and Middle town Cherokee at roughly the same time. By the summer of 1777, the Cherokee had gained few concessions from the patriots, but had secured peace by giving up some land, turning in known Loyalists, and breaking contact with the British. In return, they received assurances that no more Cherokee land would be sought and that the patriots would keep the frontier settlers in order. Of course, in such a fractious time, both sides reneged on particulars through the rest of the ARW. However, the patriots had secured what mattered most to them — a secure backcountry south of Kentucky. This was especially helpful to the irregular patriot forces that harried the British in the Carolinas and eventually forced the British to move north to Yorktown. The rest is history, as they say, but so was this little vignette about Nathaniel Gist.

The American Indian Wars Were Not Genocide

Photo credit – By Carptrash (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

In some of my reading on the laws of war, military honor, and the American Indian wars, I chanced upon Guenter Lewy’s article in Commentary, September 2004 entitled, “Were American Indians the Victims of Genocide?” In a logical step-by-step approach, Lewy lays out why the tragic displacement of the American Indian was not genocide. Fundamentally, the term “genocide” is a modern legal concept that was not enshrined in law during the time the American Indians were being attacked and dispossessed of their traditional homelands. It led Lewy to Gordon Leff’s quote,

[history] must always be contextual: it is no more reprehensible for an age to have lacked our values than to have lacked our forks.1

Which reminded me of the Clausewitz quote I used in my dissertation,

…[E]very age has its own kind of war, its own limiting conditions, and its own peculiar preconceptions. Each period, therefore, would have held to its own theory of war, even if the urge had always and universally existed to work things out on scientific principles. It follows that the events of every age must be judged in the light of its own peculiarities. One cannot, therefore, understand and appreciate the commanders of the past until one has placed oneself in the situation of their times, not so much by a painstaking study of all of its details as by an accurate appreciation of its major determining features.2

If we do apply modern legal, moral, ethical, and cultural concepts to past events, do we not need to do it across all cultural entities? Would it not apply to the destruction of the Erie and Neutral by the Iroquois? The Crow, Arikara, and Pawnee at the hands of the Sioux? The total annihilation of the “Red-Haired people” in the Great Basin by the Paiute?

If so, how far do we go back? Are we limited by those who kept plausible records of their deeds or would archaeological evidence count?

I am eternally thankful for being born in an age where genocide has been legally defined and applied to the laws of war, but I do not for a minute think we can apply it retroactively with any degree of justice.

1No reference made in the Lewy article, but I think it is from – Leff, Gordon. 1969. History and Social Theory. University, Ala: University of Alabama Press.

2p. 593, Clausewitz, Carl von, Michael Howard, and Peter Paret. 1976. On War. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Northern Indian View of Southern Indian Participation in American Revolutionary War – 26 January 1779

Whilst at the Newberry Library in Chicago, I read the following in Henry Hamilton’s journal of the Vincennes campaign, there is an interesting account of the links between the southern Indians, especially the Creeks, and the midwestern Indians, especially the Shawnees.

26th [ed. January, 1779]– The Chiefs of the following nations assembled at the fort this morning–Shawanese, Delawares, Wyandatts, Ottawas Chippoweys, Miamis, Ouiattanons, Quiquaboes, and Peankashaas–(239)
Egushewai rose up, and in the usual stile addressed the supreme being, thanking him for granting us this opportunity of assembling to speak our minds, expressed his good wishes to all present, to His Majesty, the great Chief at Quebec, all His Majesty’s Officers and Soldiers in the name of the chiefs present– then directed his speech to the Shawanese and Delawares, in particular, desiring them to be strong & to hold their Father by the hand as well as his Indian Children.
The master of life has no doubt taken compassion upon us since he has allowed us to assemble as friends in this place, let us then be sincere in our union, and act in concert for the defence of our lands. We see our father was foremost to rise up, and come thus far to frustrate the designs of the Virginians.
Brothers! You know there is a great tree under which we were used to confer peaceably and speak our minds, this tree grows at Detroit; let it be our study to keep that tree strait, that it may not bend to one side or another– The branches of this tree extend to a great distance and rise to the clouds, who is there capable of hurting even the bark of that tree? no one–
You may recollect that last spring some Chickasaas and Cherakees came to Detroit to water that Tree, I therefore recommend to you once more to be strong, & to defend your possessions, which your father is doing his best to preserve for us.
–The Shawanese Strangers then spoke– Father and you our brethren listen to us! five Moons are now passed since we left our Village to go to the Creek Country, from whence we are just arrived– When we last went from this place the Officer who commanded (Captn Helm) gave us a letter for the chief of the Creeks, but as we feared it might contain something contrary to the wellfare of the Indians, we have brought it back unopend, & now put it into your hands–
//This letter contained an exhortation to the Creeks, to discredit the reports of the English who always told them lies, to require them to remain quiet, assuring them that the Ouabache Indians had joined the Americans, and exulting the power and credit of the Americans.//
We have brought a Peoria Woman who was. a prisoner among the Creeks, and whom they deliverd to me, that I might bring her to her nation, but meeting Kissingua who told us he was allied to the Peoria nation, and who asked her of us saying he would deliver her to her friends, we gave her up to him–
There is a white man with him (Hazle)–
Kissingua desired us to tell his brethren of this river, to assemble any prisoners they may have among them belonging to the Creeks, as he designed bringing on his return any of their prisoners resident among the Creeks–
The Shawanese then produced a long white Belt from the great chief of the Creeks, which he desired might be forwarded to the Ouiattanons, and by them sent to the Lake Indians that all the nations might be acquainted with the friendly intentions of the Creeks towards them, and of their enmity to the Americans– that this belt opend a road of communication between them, which should always be kept dear, so as a child might walk with safety–
He then deliverd a twist of Tobacco for the same Indians, desiring they might smoke it, as the chief of the Creeks did, when he thought on good things, & had compassion on the Women and Children of his nation–
The Shawanese further said that the upper towns of the Creeks had not taken up the hatchet against the Americans until the last Spring, but that at present they were all engaged, and had made their way as far as to the Old Shawanese Villages, & had destroyed several small forts–
That the English had eight Forts on, and near the coast– that the Rebels had made an attempt on the greatest called the Stone fort, but that the Indians had met them on their March and repulsed them– That 800 of the inhabitants had come in to beg protection from His Majesty’s officers– That they were in the utmost distress for want of cloathing, and at variance among themselves– He added that the Southern Indians were never so well supplyed as at present, owing to the care of Mr. Stewart the Superintendant–

Substance of a Conference with the Indians, St. Vincennes, January 26, 1779, in I H C, I, 394-397. See also Hamilton to Haldimand, St. Vincennes, January 24, 1779, in ibid., 389-393.
I read in it in John D. Barnhart’s book Henry Hamilton and George Rogers Clark in the American Revolution with Unpublished Journal of Lieut. Gov. Henry Hamilton, edited by John D. Barnhart , (R. E. Banta, Crawfordsville, Indiana, 1951), but found it online here;
Source; Last accessed on 1 March 2011.

I think this is interesting to help make the case that the southern and midwestern Indians had more that just novel links. This seems to present the southern Indians, especially the Creeks, as fairly knowledgeable and supporting of the midwestern Indians attempts to keep the American settlers at bay. The Shawnees had familial links with the Muscogee [Creeks] people and they obviously used them to keep a communication channel open in the American Revolution.

Maps, Boundaries, Whites and Indians

One of the issues that quite often comes up when discussing Indians and the treaties they signed with the whites is whether they knew what they were signing. Obviously English written documents were a struggle for most Indians, but there is ample proof that this impediment did not extend to maps. In The Indian Boundary in the Southern Colonies 1763-1775, Louis De Vorsey, Jr. quotes Jean Baptiste Trudeau, a Frenchman, thus;

“Although the Indians have no more knowledge of geography than of the other sciences, they make delineations upon skins, as correctly as can be, of the countries with which they are acquainted. Nothing is wanting but the degrees of latitude and longitude. They mark the northern direction to the polar star, and conformably to that mark out the windings and turnings of the rivers, the lakes, marshes, mountains, woods, prairies and paths. They compute distances by day’s or half day’s journey.”1

De Vorsey goes on to add Thomas Pownall, a colonial governor, and William Bartram, a prominent diarist of the southern Indians, as confirming the extraordinary skill at maps and navigating of the Indians they encountered.

I believe this is a rich source of understanding of what was going on at treaty conferences and negotiations between land hungry whites and Indians. The Indians were not dupes who could be fooled by a few errant lines on a map. English words may have flummoxed them, but they knew the lay of the land in the midwest far better than the whites knew it. Rum and shady dealing may have weakened the Indians, but I have seen no evidence that the Indians did not understand the graphic representations of the land they were fighting for.

1 – De Vorsey, Jr., Louis (1966), THE INDIAN BOUNDARY IN THE SOUTHERN COLONIES, 1763-1775.
(The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill), pp. 46-47