This post is a part of our “Native American Revolutions” Series.
By Michael A. McDonnell
Most Americans think of their revolution as a contest between Britain and its colonists. If Native Americans feature at all, it is only as puppets of the King, in the role inscribed for them in the Declaration of Independence: as “merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” With a few exceptions, even more recent historical narratives of the Revolution emphasize a subsidiary role for Native nations on the periphery of the real action taking place along the eastern seaboard (even while scholars increasingly acknowledge the critical role Native politics played in the coming of the Revolution). Studies that do encompass the war in the west usually look no further than the contests over the Ohio Valley, and particularly George Rogers Clark’s foray into the Illinois country. Scholars of Native American history have seen this period as one in which Indians could only make the best of a bad situation. Standard narratives emphasize the inevitable drift of most nations toward the British, and the price paid for this decision in the years after the patriot victory at Yorktown.
Yet for the Anishinaabeg of the Great Lakes, the Revolution was also an opportunity. Anishinaabe is the term many people across the Great Lakes region—from the St. Lawrence River to the headwaters of the Mississippi—use to refer to themselves, meaning the real, or original, peoples. Europeans called them the Ottawa, Chippewa, Potawatomi, Nipissing, Algonquin, and Mississauga. But they all spoke Anishinaabemowin, and they were all, as they put it, “Allies to each other and as one People.” One of the most powerful Anishinaabe settlements was Waganakazee, located at the Michilimackinac—a narrow strait that connected Lakes Huron and Michigan (at present day Mackinaw City, Michigan). Here, a large—and growing—group of Ottawa (or Odawa) managed to use their extensive kinship ties, mastery of the canoe, and strategic location to carve out an important role for themselves even in the midst of European imperialism. For over a century, they had exploited French imperial weaknesses and thwarted their territorial ambitions. When the British inherited French claims in 1763, they also ran headlong into a complicated but powerful set of Native claims over the pays d’en haut, resulting in a disastrous conflict now called Pontiac’s War. The Odawa seized the occasion to demonstrate their influence and leadership in the region.
When war broke out between Britain and its colonies in 1775, the Odawa sensed another opportunity to strengthen their hand vis-à-vis imperial officials. They knew the British needed their help. When General Burgoyne hatched a plan for a major expedition through the Champlain Valley-Hudson River corridor in 1777, it included the use of a 1000 Indians from the pays d’en haut. He might have recalled the success of the French and Indians along the same route in 1757. Lord Germain in London believed that Burgoyne’s plan “cannot be advantageously executed without the assistance of Canadians and Indians.” But the Odawa and others defied British expectations. They debated their options, sent delegates out to talk with other native nations and representatives of the rebellious colonists, and sometimes threatened the British themselves. In 1778, the post commander at Michilimackinac secretly requested an armed vessel to help defend the fort against the Indians in case they attacked. As British fortunes waned in the Revolution, their apparent weakness concerned and emboldened Native people, who ultimately raised the price of their would-be alliance with the British. This included a major increase in the twice yearly transfers of substantial amounts of trade goods and provisions. We often call these presents “hand-outs,” but we should call it the “rent” paid by the British for posts in the Great Lakes.
Even after George Rogers Clark invaded the Ohio Valley, many Native nations beyond the immediate area were still uncertain about the rebels’ intentions and continued to keep the door open to the possibility of different alliances. As they did, British costs mounted. While early in the conflict the British spent enormous sums to try to bring the western nations into an alliance, from about 1778 onward, they had to spend that same money to keep the Indians from turning against them. The post commander at Michilimackinac worried that if the Anishinaabeg allied with the rebels, the British would lose control of the entire west, so he did his best to appease them, or “run the risk of forfeiting all that we have ever done” in the region. But the so-called “Doctrine of Neutrality” of the Anishinaabeg and others in the region was costly. One officer at Niagara thought that the price of keeping the Indians “in good temper (as it is called), has cost England much more than all the Posts are worth.” General Frederick Haldimand also chafed at the “vast Treasure lavished upon these People,” for so little return. “It evidently appears,” he concluded, “that the Indians in general, wish to protract the War.” Yet he could do little in the circumstances but rage about the cost. As he subsequently told Whitehall officials, “Retaining the Indians in our Interests has been attended with a very heavy expense to Government, but their attachment, has, alone, hitherto preserved the Upper Country.” In “these critical Times,” he told post commanders, “you should be extremely careful to avoid giving any grounds of offence to the Indians.”
Though Haldimand and others moaned about the “infidelity” of the Native nations in the pays d’en haut, the Anishinaabeg and others had greater concerns than simply serving British strategic interests. Above all, they were most concerned with maintaining a balance of power between themselves and other Indian groups in the region as much as between themselves, the British, the Spanish, and the rebels. And for the Anishinaabeg, making clear how dependent the British were on them in the region helped further all of these strategic goals. The American rebels were still only a distant threat. It would take another generation or two before the Anishinaabeg had to confront a new imperial nation. While the American Revolutionary war raged in the east, then, Native Americans at the straits of Michilimackinac continued to hold the upper hand in the west. In doing so, they not only helped shape the contours of the conflict to their east, but they also ensured the dependence of Britain on them through to the War of 1812.
Michael A. McDonnell is Associate Professor of History at the University of Sydney, Australia. He is the author of The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia, winner of the 2008 New South Wales Premier’s History Prize, and co-editor of Remembering the Revolution: Memory, History, and Nation-Making from Independence to the Civil War. His most recent book, Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2015), won the Robert M. Utley Award from the Western Historical Association, and a Michigan State History Award from the Historical Society of Michigan. Among other projects, he is currently editing a collection of essays with Kate Fullagar, Macquarie University, entitled: Facing Empire: Indigenous Experiences of Empire in a Revolutionary Age, 1760-1840 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming). You can find more about his work at: https://www.michaelamcdonnell.org/ or on Twitter @HstyMattersSyd.
Andrew J. Blackbird, History of the Ottawa and Chippewa Indians of Michigan; A Grammar of their Language, and Personal and Family History of the Author (Ypsilanti, MI: Ypsilantian Job Printing House, 1887).
Heidi Bohaker, “Nindoodemag: The Significance of Algonquian Kinship Networks in the Eastern Great Lakes Region, 1600–1701,” William and Mary Quarterly 63, no. 1 (Jan. 2006), 23-52.
James A. Clifton, George L. Cornell, and James M. McClurken, Peoples of the Three Fires: The Ottawa, Potawatomi, and Ojibway of Michigan (Grand Rapids: Michigan Indian Press, 1986)
Cary Miller, Ogimaag: Anishinaabeg Leadership, 1760–1845 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2010)
Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991)
Keith R. Widder, Beyond Pontiac’s Shadow: Michilimackinac and the Anglo-Indian War of 1763 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2013.
Michael J. Witgen, An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).
 See especially Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, and Slaves and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999); Colin Calloway, The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); Michael A. McDonnell, Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America (New York: Hill and Wang, 2015).
 Proceedings of an Indian Conference, Dec. 3–5, 1760, in James Sullivan, et al., eds., The Papers of Sir William Johnson 14 vols. (Albany: University of the State of New York, 1921-1962), 10:202
 Germain to Carleton, Mar. 26, 1777, John Burgoyne, A State of the Expedition . . . (London: J. Almon, 1780), Appendix, vii–viii; Germain to Carleton, Mar. 26, 1777, Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections (hereafter MPHC) 40 vols. (Lansing, Mich.: Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society, 1874-1929), 9:347.
 Arendt De Peyster to Frederick Haldimand, Sept. 16, 1778, Sept. 21, 1778, Oct. 7, 1778, MPHC 9:370, 371–74; Sinclair to Brehm, Oct. 7, 1779, Oct. 29, 1779, MPHC 9:526, 530-32; Sinclair to Haldimand, July 8, 1780, MPHC 9:558–60; Haldimand to Sinclair, Aug. 10, 1780, MPHC 9:568; Mason Bolton to Haldimand, Feb. 8, 1779, MPHC 19:371–72; Brehm to Sinclair, Apr. 17, 1780, MPHC 9:533–36; Haldimand to De Peyster, July 6, 1780, Aug. 10, 1780, MPHC 9:635–36, 638–39; Haldimand to Germain, Sept. 25, 1779, MPHC 9:362; Haldimand to De Peyster, Feb. 12, 1781, Oct. 8, 1781, Nov. 1, 1781, MPHC 10:377, 524, 534-35; Haldimand to Brig. Gen. Powell, June 24, 1781, MPHC 10:493.
 Haldimand to De Peyster, July 6, 1780, Aug. 10, 1780, MPHC 9: 638–39