Category: Blog Posts

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; http://www.in.gov/history/3010.htm 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

Billy Caldwell or Sagaunash

Billy Caldwell was an interesting character to say the least. Son of a British man and a Mohawk woman, he led a unique life that brought him into contact with most of the key players in the British/Indian community around Amherstburg during the War of 1812.
See his biography in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.