The Economic Revolution in Indian Country

This post is a part of our “Native American Revolutions” Series.

By David Andrew Nichols

All revolutions contain within them both destructive and creative impulses. For much of the twentieth century, historians of the American Revolution tended to emphasize the creative side of the balance—the new republican institutions that the American revolutionaries constructed, not the certainties and lives they destroyed. Most preferred to ignore the people whom the Revolution harmed: the thousands of Loyalists who lost their homes in the turmoil, and the tens of thousands of Native Americans who suffered irrespective of which side they took.

To the extent that scholars considered the impact of the Revolution on Indians, they found its results only destructive. American rebel forces invaded and sacked the homelands of the Six Nations Iroquois and the Cherokees, and massacred pacifist and non-combatant Delaware Indians. Beyond the Mississippi River, the chaos of war loosed another dire horseman, pestilence, into the homelands of the Pueblo and Plains Indians. A smallpox outbreak in the war zone came by ship to Mexico, and thence spread to the Great Plains. 30,000 western Native Americans died before the epidemic burnt itself out in 1782. Even on the Pacific coast Indian communities experienced upheaval, in this case from the arrival of European colonial powers who introduced Aleuts and California Indians to exploitation and a coercive mission regime. [1]

The eastern American Indians had already endured the first shocks of European contact. Most developed strategies to survive the violence of the Revolutionary War and the political shock of its aftermath: temporary migration, pan-Indian alliance, and diplomatic manipulation of the Americans and their European rivals. Many had also created a long-term strategy to ensure their economic independence, an asset threatened by white colonists’ seizure of Native lands and by Indians’ growing reliance on European goods (particularly textiles and gunpowder), and the volatile trade in animal pelts with which they paid for them. White Americans called this economic strategy “civilization.” [2]

The new strategy centered on import substitution and the development of new exports—more specifically, on diversified commercial agriculture and what the Chickasaw diplomat George Colbert called “domestic manufactures.” Agriculture was nothing new to Native North Americans. Most had farmed for centuries before the Revolution, and some had exchanged surplus food with their trading partners. In the eighteenth century, Indian families began increasing their production of marketable farm produce, adopting in the process European practices and domesticates. Livestock-raising was the most radically new of these practices, as North America had almost no domesticable animal species before 1600. In the eighteenth century, many Native Americans in the Spanish borderlands acquired horses, and eastern Indians learned from traders and missionaries how to raise swine and cattle. Native stock-raisers incorporated new sources of animal protein into their diet—butter and beef began appearing on the tables of the Delawares, for example, in the 1760s—and sold hides and meat as well as live animals. [3]

New crops also began growing in eastern Indians’ fields. The most commercially important was cotton, a versatile fiber not found east of the Rio Grande Valley until the eighteenth century. Southeastern Indians turned short-staple cotton into a high-volume trade good, once the introduction of the cotton gin made its cleaning economical. The Creeks and Chickasaws became some of the earliest cotton planters in the Deep South, and the Choctaws sold hundreds of bales to the federal trading factory at Fort Confederation, in modern Alabama. Cotton, grown by women or by their male relatives’ African-American slaves, became both a trade good and the feedstock for an import substitute. Eastern Indian women learned in the early nineteenth century to spin their own thread and to weave their own homespun cloth, which substituted for some of the cloth Indians had previously only been able to obtain as gifts or through fur-trading. [4]

White travelers commented on Indians’ growing herds of livestock, neat fields of maize and cotton, and, perhaps most impressive, the fences they raised around their crops. These simple wooden barriers, beloved of the missionaries who wanted to introduce Indians to Anglo-American “civilization,” persuaded white observers that Indians were making a transition from collective to individual ownership of property. Anglos associated the former with indolence, the latter with industrious and orderly habits. Indians themselves, however, used fences not to announce their adoption of American property laws but for a more prosaic purpose: to keep free-range animals out of their crops. Some also used fences and plowed fields and Anglo-American-style cabins as a kind of collective boundary marker, informing white officials that lands they might not otherwise consider occupied actually belonged to a “civilized” Indian nation. Such “improvements” shored up Native Americans’ collective claim to their territory. Seneca leader Cornplanter made this point in 1790, when he informed President George Washington that his people would gladly take up “improved,” plow-oriented agriculture, provided the Americans “leave us and our children any land to till.” [5]

Plowing, like fence-building, was clearly something Indians did for their own purposes, not to follow a Euro-American script of acculturation. Their other “new” economic practices they also adapted to older, deeper habits. Cherokee men raised livestock but allowed the animals free range in the woods and hills, where they shot them like game animals. Chickasaw and Creek families adopted European textiles but fashioned them into garments they felt comfortable wearing, like breech cloths and turbans. Wyandots and Choctaws obtained some of their plow bits, wood-working tools, and hoes from the United States’ Indian factories, where they bought the apparatus of “civilized” agriculture with peltries acquired through “uncivilized” hunting. [6]

Native Americans, in short, proved willing to embrace dramatic economic change, so long as they could retain distinctive more traditional material identities. The negative, destructive consequences of the revolutionary era had been imposed on Indians by outsiders. This more creative revolution they would undertake on their own terms.

David Andrew Nichols is a professor of history at Indiana State University, author most recently of Engines of Diplomacy: Indian Trading Factories and the Negotiation of American Empire, and the North American book review editor for Ethnohistory. You can tweet him @DrNick0770.

Title image: Cotton Plant, Ware County, GA


[1]Colin Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Elizabeth Fenn, Pox Americana: The Great Smallpox Epidemic of 1776-82 (New York: Hill and Wang, 2001); Claudio Saunt, West of the Revolution: An Uncommon History of 1776 (New York: Norton, 2014).

[2] Gregory Dowd, A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); Sami Lakomäki, Gathering Together: The Shawnee People through Diaspora and Nationhood, 1600-1870 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014); Kathryn Braund, Deerskins and Duffels: The Creek Indian Trade with Anglo-America, 1685-1815 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), 121-138.

[3] Virginia Anderson, Creatures of Empire: How Domestic Animals Transformed Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Michael McConnell, A Country Between: The Upper Ohio Valley and Its Peoples, 1724-1774 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), 211-214; David Silverman, “‘We Choose to Be Bounded:’ Native American Animal Husbandry in Colonial New England,” William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, 60 (2003): 511-548. The Colbert quote appears in his letter to Henry Dearborn, 24 Feb. 1806, Records of the Office of the Secretary of War, Letters Sent, Indian Affairs (microfilm, National Archives, Washington), 2: 174.

[4] Daniel Usner, Jr., “American Indians on the Cotton Frontier,” Journal of American History 72 (Sept. 1985): 297-317; Theda Perdue, Cherokee Women: Gender and Culture Change, 1700-1835 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1998), 129-131. The Fort Confederation factory had eight tons of unginned cotton in its 1822-23 inventory. (David Nichols, Engines of Diplomacy: Indian Trading Factories and the Negotiation of American Empire (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 134.)

[5] David Nichols, “Farmers, Traders, Hunters: The Chickasaws’ Economic Revolution,” Journal of Chickasaw History and Culture, (Spring/Summer 2017): 18-27; Kathleen DuVal, The Native Ground: Indians and Colonists in the Heart of the Continent (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), 217-220; Cornplanter et al. to President Washington, 1 Dec. 1790, American State Papers, “Indian Affairs,” ed. by Walter Lowrie and Walter Franklin (2 vols., Washington: Gales and Seaton, 1834), 1: 142.

[6] Theda Perdue, Cherokee Women, 122-123; Francis Baily, Journal of a Tour in Unsettled Parts of North America in 1796 and 1797 (London, 1856), 272; David Nichols, Engines of Diplomacy, 94-95, 106.

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