No Useless Mouth: Periodizing Native Americans’ War for Independence

By Rachel Herrmann 

When does your American Revolution class begin and where does it end? Relatedly, do you include Native American histories of the conflict in your syllabus? If you don’t teach, but enjoy reading histories of the American Revolution, what dates or events would you use to bound this era if you were describing it to someone unfamiliar with it?

It’s not like historians have agreed where the Revolution begins and ends, but I also think that the periodization of Native American history significantly expands our chronological bounding of that tumultuous era. A good place to start on the periodization of the American Revolution writ large is the “Writing to and From the Revolution” forum in the Journal of the Early Republic and the William and Mary Quarterly.[1] For Native American history, I take as my beginning point the fact that several decades ago, Colin Calloway argued that the “Indians’ war of independence” concluded at least as late as 1795, if not 1815 and beyond.[2] Native Americans had been wrestling with colonial authorities long before Lexington and Concord. Calloway also suggested that we need to look forward, even to the first rumblings of removal, to fully appreciate the continuities and changes that characterized Native Americans’ experiences with that event. If we move from Calloway to other tribal or multi-tribal histories, it becomes clear that the period of Anglo-American military conflict from 1775 to 1783 is just one chapter out of several.[3] In short, the periodization of the American Revolution is largely irrelevant for Native American history.

This disconnect between histories of the American Revolution and histories of Native Americans are most readily apparent in the history on American Foreign Relations. As late as 1993, the Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations opened with a discussion of George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson and the post-revolutionary foreign policy they envisioned while facing east across the Atlantic. That volume refers to thirteen treaties that the U.S. signed with European powers between 1789 and 1815, overlooking at least sixteen additional treaties between Native Americans and the U.S. or state governments between 1784 and 1814.[4] Things had improved by 2013, when the newest volume incorporated Native Americans. This book discussed Native Americans’ involvement in the War of 1812 and their meeting with Andrew Jackson in 1814, but largely passed over the period between 1795 and the 1820s.[5]

Herrmann cover finalDeciding to begin histories of foreign relations with the creation of the United States, or even with the imperial crisis in the 1750s, is a problem because it overemphasizes the importance of this event compared to previous conflicts with non-Natives. Beginning with U.S. approaches to negotiating with Native Americans also makes it harder to notice the continuities between British (French, Dutch) and American policies. My book, No Useless Mouth (Cornell University Press, 2019) shows that U.S. officials persuaded Cherokees, Creeks, Delawares, Iroquois, Miamis, and Shawnees to attend treaties by working hard to replicate the colonial-era diplomacy that European officials created under the direction of Native leaders. But they did so during a time when most diplomatic practices were in flux. On the eve of revolution, trade goods and fur scarcities meant that the gift-giving practices that had characterized the colonial era had become unworkable. In the 1760s, officials like Sir Jeffery Amherst tried to cut gift-giving entirely. Key negotiators, like Sir William Johnson, died just before the war began. Without appreciating the longer histories behind gift-giving and exchange practices, it is difficult to understand the ramifications of these decisions and events.

In No Useless Mouth, I argue that during the war, food diplomacy became indispensable; during the postwar period, mistakes in practicing it invited major consequences. Under the Articles of Confederation, Congress was allowed to manage only the Indian affairs of Native Americans who were not “members” of the thirteen states. Native Americans would have disputed the idea of belonging to a state—it would be more accurate to say that the states were members of Native American territory—but because of this proviso, state Indian officials tried to compete with each other to overfeed Native American allies; they wrongly believed that generous hospitality translated to land cessions. Under the Constitution, when federal agents gained more power over the states, U.S. Indian agents agonized about the violent insecurity that arose during times of famine in Indian towns and villages. For instance, Timothy Pickering—U.S. Indian official and future Secretary of State (and, briefly, Secretary of War)—was so bad at diplomacy early on that he had to be told what was expected of him at treaties, and failed to adequately provision Oneidas who came to meet with him. Pickering belonged to a coterie of U.S. officials who warned that if the federal government could not provide food aid, it needed to prepare for war.

Readers are probably familiar with the trilogy of Marshall decisions that ultimately concluded that Native Americans were “domestic dependent” nations.[6] No Useless Mouth addresses an earlier period in colonial and post-revolutionary Indian affairs—at least until the 1810s—to argue that they should be viewed as foreign affairs. During this time, and especially during the 1790s, U.S. diplomats treated Native Americans as sovereign, foreign nations. Officials’ efforts to address Native hunger informed daily interactions between Natives and non-Natives after the war, and did so only by learning to draw on several centuries of European foreign relations. It’s worth considering this history when teaching and thinking about the long history of the War for Independence.


Rachel Herrmann is a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in Modern American History at Cardiff University. Her work has appeared in Diplomatic History, Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas, Slavery & Abolition, and the William and Mary Quarterly. She has also edited a collection about cannibalism. You can follow her on Twitter @Raherrmann.

Title image: Alfred Boisseau, Louisiana Indians Walking Along a Bayou, 1847. 

Further Reading:

Edward Countryman, The American Revolution (New York: Hill and Wang, 1985).

Collin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in North American Communities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Colin G. Calloway, The Shawnees and the War for America (New York: Penguin Books, 2008).

Karim M. Tiro, The People of the Standing Stone: The Oneida Nation from Revolution through the Era of Removal (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011).

Emily Conroy-Krutz, “Empire and the Early Republic,” H-Diplo Essay No. 133, (10 September 2015), Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse, eds., https://networks.h-net.org/node/950/discussions/122655/state-field-empire-and-early-republic-x-h-diplo

Jessica Yirush Stern, The Lives in Objects: Native Americans, British Colonists, and Cultures of Labor and Exchange in the Southeast (Chapel Hill: University of North Caroline Press, 2017).

Endnotes:

[1] Alan Taylor, “Introduction: Expand or Die: The Revolution’s New Empire,” William and Mary Quarterly 74, no. 4 (October 2017): 619–632, esp. 619, 621; Serena R. Zabin, “Conclusion: Writing To and From the Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly 74, no. 4 (October 2017): 753–64; Michael A. McDonnell and David Waldstreicher, “Revolution in the Quarterly? A Historiographical Analysis,” William and Mary Quarterly 74, no. 4 (October 2017): 633–66, esp. 657; Alyssa Mt. Pleasant, Caroline Wigginton, and Kelly Wisecup, “Materials and Methods in Native American and Indigenous Studies: Completing the Turn,” William and Mary Quarterly 75, no. 2 (April 2018): 207–36, esp. 227. See also Shaun Tougher, “Periodization,” in A Practical Guide to Studying History: Skills and Approaches, ed. Tracey Loughran (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 31–45.

[2] Colin G. Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities (Cambridge, 1995), xiii.

[3] A few examples will suffice. For 1745–1815, see Gregory Evans Dowd, A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993). For 1765–1845, see Karim M. Tiro, The People of the Standing Stone: The Oneida Nation from Revolution through the Era of Removal (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2011). For 1715–1754, see Kurt A. Jordan, The Seneca Restoration, 1715-1754: An Iroquois Local Political Economy (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2008). For 1690–1792, see Susan Sleeper-Smith, Indigenous Prosperity and American Conquest: Indian Women of the Ohio River Valley, 1690-1792 (Chapel Hill: Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture and the University of North Carolina Press, 2018).

[4] Bradford Perkins, The Creation of a Republican Empire, 1776–1865, vol. 1, The Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, ed. Warren I. Cohen (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 1–6, 77 (for the thirteen treaties).

[5] William Earl Weeks, Dimensions of the Early American Empire, 1754–1865, vol. 1, The New Cambridge History of American Foreign Relations, ed. Warren I. Cohen (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), chap. 3. For two important works that do treat Native American affairs as foreign affairs, see Brian DeLay, “Indian Polities, Empire, and the History of American Foreign Relations,” Diplomatic History 39, no. 5 (November 2015): 927–42; Gilje, “Commerce and Conquest in Early American Foreign Relations.”

[6] In Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823), Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831), and Worcester v. Georgia (1832), the Supreme Court first claimed that Native Americans were “heathens” whose improper use of land legitimized the transfer of land title from Natives to non-Natives, then made Cherokees into a “domestic dependent nation,” and then definitively transferred control of Indian relations to the federal government. In Patrick Wolfe’s interpretation, this turn from the foreign and external to the domestic and internal began with the trilogy, but concluded much later, with the closing of the frontier in the late nineteenth century. Patrick Wolfe, “After the Frontier: Separation and Absorption in US Indian Policy,” Settler Colonial Studies 1, no. 1 (2011): 13–51, esp. 13, 15–16. On the Supreme Court, see Gilje, “Commerce and Conquest in Early American Foreign Relations,” 765.

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