The early republic’s policies toward Indians and African-Americans illustrate the conflicting principles that shaped American nationality. American leaders agreed that the West should not be left in Indian hands, but they disagreed about the Indians’ ultimate fate. The government hoped to encourage the westward expansion of white settlement, which implied one of three things: the removal of the Indian population to lands even farther west, their total disappearance, or their incorporation into white “civilization” with the expectation that they might one day become part of American society.
Many white Americans, probably most, deemed Indians savages unfit for citizenship. Indian tribes had no representation in the new government, and the Constitution excluded Indians “not taxed” from being counted in determining each state’s number of congressmen. The treaty system gave them a unique status within the American political system. But despite this recognition of their sovereignty, treaties were essentially ways of transferring land from Indians to the federal government or the states. Often, a treaty was agreed to by only a small portion of a tribe, but the whole tribe was then forced to accept its legitimacy.
By 1790, the Indian population had declined significantly from the early colonial era, but the area west of the Appalachian Mountains was still known as “Indian country.”
During Washington’s administration, Secretary of War Henry Knox hoped to deal with Indians with a minimum of warfare and without undermining the new nation’s honor. He recognized, he said in 1794, that American treatment of the continent’s native inhabitants had been even “more destructive to the Indian” than Spain’s conduct in Mexico and Peru. His conciliatory policy had mixed results. Congress forbade the transfer of Indian land without federal approval. But several states ignored this directive and continued to negotiate their own agreements.
Open warfare continued in the Ohio Valley. In 1791, Little Turtle, leader of the Miami Confederacy, inflicted a humiliating defeat on American forces led by Arthur St. Clair, the American governor of the Northwest Territory. With 630 dead, this was the costliest loss ever suffered by the United States Army at the hands of Indians. In 1794, 3,000 American troops under Anthony Wayne defeated Little Turtle’s forces at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. This led directly to the Treaty of Greenville of 1795, in which twelve Indian tribes ceded most of Ohio and Indiana to the federal government. The treaty also established the “annuity” system—yearly grants of federal money to Indian tribes that institutionalized continuing government influence in tribal affairs and gave outsiders considerable control over Indian life.
Many prominent figures, however, rejected the idea that Indians were innately inferior to white Americans. Thomas Jefferson believed that Indians merely lived at a less advanced stage of civilization. Indians could become full-fledged members of the republic by abandoning communal landholding and hunting in favor of small-scale farming. Once they “possessed property,” Jefferson told one Indian group, they could “join us in our government” and, indeed, “mix your blood with ours.”
To pursue the goal of assimilation, Congress in the 1790s authorized President Washington to distribute agricultural tools and livestock to Indian men and spinning wheels and looms to Indian women. To whites, the adoption of American gender norms, with men working the land and women tending to their homes, would be a crucial sign that the Indians were becoming “civilized.” But the American notion of civilization required so great a transformation of Indian life that most tribes rejected it. One missionary was told, “If we want to work, we know how to do it according to our own way and as it pleases us.” To Indians, freedom meant retaining tribal autonomy and identity, including the ability to travel widely in search of game. “Since our acquaintance with our brother white people,” declared a Mohawk speaker at a 1796 treaty council, “that which we call freedom and liberty, becomes an entire stranger to us.” There was no room for Indians who desired to retain their traditional way of life in the American empire of liberty.