Experience had taught George Washington a great many things. His father had passed away at a young age, denying him the chance for the college education in England that he had been promised. Instead of lecture halls and libraries, his factories of learning were to be the wildernesses of the Virginia frontier, the battlefields of the War for Independence, and the unforgiving campgrounds of Valley Forge. As Joseph J. Ellis succinctly puts it, “Instead of going to college, Washington went to war.”
His was an education not in abstract theories, but in gritty realities. Chief among these was Washington’s personal experience fighting Native Americans during his first regular military command as colonel of the “Virginia Regiment” from 1755 to 1759. The regiment was a colonial unit tasked with defending the colony’s frontier from the French and, more immediately, their Native American allies during the Seven Years’ War. At only twenty-three years-old, he had accepted the commission outwardly confident of his prospects for success. “I doubt not but you have heard of the Ravages committed by our inhuman Foes, on the back inhabitants,” he boasted to a friend, “I am now upon my march against them, with full hopes, that I shall be able to get Satisfaction for their cruel Barbarities.”
Youthful arrogance soon gave way to chastened experience. “I have been posted … upon our cold and Barren Frontiers to perform I think I may say impossibilities,” he would eventually lament, “that is, to protect from the Cruel Incursions of a Crafty Savage Enemy a line of Inhabitants of more than 350 Miles extent with a force inadequate to the task.” All too soon and all too often, the young colonel suffered through a painful curricula in the realities of Indian warfare. These lessons would become seared into his memory, to be summoned over thirty years later when he became the United States of America’s first chief executive and responsible for its Native American policies.
First among these lessons was that indigenous warriors had a “home field advantage” fighting in the wilderness terrain of the American hinterlands. They were highly mobile and thus notoriously difficult to track, managing to appear as if out of the trees themselves, strike, and disappear as suddenly. “I cannot conceive the best white men to be equal to them in the Woods,” Washington asserted to one correspondent. To another, he declared that no “troops in the universe can guard against the cunning and wiles of Indians. No one can tell where they will fall, ‘till the mischief is done, and ‘tis in vain to pursue.” In Washington’s mind, they were analogous to wolves: striking in small packs with stealth, quickness, and remorseless tenacity.
Support from European powers complicated matters further, and Washington was not on the job long before he became convinced that fighting was futile so long as the French were present on the frontier to incite and supply the Natives against the Virginia settlements. To his brother he warned, “we must bid adieu to peace and safety whilst the French are allowed to possess the Ohio, and to practice their hellish Arts among the numerous Tribes of Indian Nations that Inhabit those Regions.”
Still another lesson was that peace and order on a settled frontier were hopeless daydreams so long as white settlers lived in constant fear of Native American massacre. Seeing a blood-thirsty Indian lurking behind every tree, little was needed to send an entire village into a rage of mass hysteria. Washington informed Virginia governor Robert Dinwiddie in one dispatch that “we are told, from all parts, that the woods appear to be alive with Indians, who feast upon the Fat of the Land.” Desperate claims of Indian atrocities routinely sent the regiment scurrying back and forth across the countryside in response. On one of these occasions Washington was provided with information that Indian raiders had arrived at a nearby town “and were killing and destroying all before them.” Regular firing had been heard, as well as “the Shrieks of the unhappy Murdered.” Washington immediately gathered the forces he had and rushed to the troubled spot, “but when we got there, who should we find occasioning all this disturbance, but 3 drunken Soldiers of the Light Horse carousing, firing their Pistols, and uttering the most unheard off Imprecations.” Washington used this anecdote to convey to Governor Dinwiddie “what a panic prevails among the People, how much they are alarmed at the most usual and customary Cry’s – and yet how impossible it is to get to act in any respect for their common safeties.”
After four years, his hopes and overt requests for a regular commission in the British Army had been met with mute indifference, and the futility of fighting against a Native American foe without support or recognition no longer seemed worth it to the ambitious colonel. Having resigned his post and taken his leave, little could he have known what history had in store for him – or that he would have occasion to summon all the agonizing lessons he had learned combating Native American foes.
In September of 1783, nearly twenty-eight years later, Washington was preparing to resign the second independent command of his life: commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. At peace in the naïve belief that his time serving the public was nearing a permanent end, he reflected on the policies the new republic should adopt towards western lands and the indigenous peoples who inhabited them. In so doing, he tapped the deep reservoir of his own experiences fighting them in the Virginia Regiment three decades earlier.
He envisioned a pacific approach, with clearly-delineated boundary lines between tribal territories and white settlements, “beyond which we will endeavor to restrain our People from Hunting or Settling, and within which they shall not come, but for the purposes of Trading, Treating, or other business unexceptionable in its nature.” Any and all territory acquired should only be done through negotiation and for fair compensation.
The alternative was perpetual conflict, and Washington’s harsh experience in Indian warfare strongly dissuaded him from a bellicose approach. “That it is the cheapest as well as the least distressing way of dealing with them, none who are acquainted with the Nature of Indian warfare, and has ever been at the trouble of estimating the expense of one … will hesitate to acknowledge.” Negotiation and fair treatment, as befitting one sovereign people treating another, would be the easiest and cheapest way to settle the frontier and profit from its boundless resources. The alternate course would be akin to “driving the Wild Beasts [out] of the Forest which will return [to] us [as] soon as the pursuit is at an end and fall … on those that are left there …”
Washington would have a chance to put these words into action by the end of the decade, when his dreams of retirement from “the great theatre of Action” were dashed and he was unanimously elected the country’s first president. In that office he would have the opportunity to share the wisdom of his experience with his country and adopt the pacific course he had recommended in September of 1783.
Immediately on Washington’s Indian agenda was finding some sort of accommodation with the southwestern tribes, where the potential for bloodshed between Natives and whites seemed most acute. In August of 1789 he proposed a commission designed to settle the differences between the two parties. At the same time, he sought to call the U.S. Senate’s attention to the disorder the poor conduct of American settlers there was causing.
Congress as a whole responded by passing a series of statutes regulating American intercourse with the Native Americans. These laws set up a system of licensing to trade with the tribes and declared that the purchase of Indian lands could only be done by a public treaty between them and the United States. They also set up a regime of punishment for homicide and other crimes committed by Americans against the Indians. These laws codified the type of policies Washington had argued for since the end of the Revolution.
Nevertheless, the administration’s efforts were almost immediately frustrated. The Southwest Indians were understandably unimpressed by the federal government’s promises to protect their lands, or by its promises to make war if necessary. The American army then existed much more in theory than it did in reality, whereas their own military prowess, buttressed by support from Spain, was quite formidable. Accordingly, early negotiations between the two sides got nowhere.
Trouble was also brewing up north, where military force had to be used to defend American settlers from hostile strikes by tribes of the Six Nations. Though not personally involved in the operations, Washington once again found himself defending panicked settlers from Indian aggression in western borderlands. In his message to Congress in December of 1790, Washington lamented that “frequent incursions have been made on our frontier settlements by a certain banditti of Indians from the North West side of the Ohio.” Undeterred by “the humane overtures made on the part of the United States,” these rogue elements had “renewed their violence with fresh alacrity and greater effect.”
Washington kept up his efforts. In a written address to a group of chiefs within the Six Nations, he expressed his hope that in the future “the United States and the six Nations should be truly brothers, promoting each other’s prosperity by acts of mutual friendship and justice.” He tried to reassure the tribal heads that, “No state nor person can purchase your lands, unless at some public treaty held under the authority of the United States. The general government will never consent to your being defrauded. But it will protect you in all your just rights.”
The Washington administration also raised the stakes on relations with the southwestern tribes, seeking to achieve a diplomatic agreement by hosting the tribal leaders at a summit full of pomp, ceremony, and lavish dinners in New York City in the summer of 1790. As Joseph J. Ellis explains, Washington and his subordinates hoped that a breakthrough treaty “that recognized [the southwestern tribes’] legitimate claim to a large slice of land east of the Mississippi … would serve as a model for all subsequent negotiations with the eastern tribes.”
After nearly a month of intensive negotiations, a treaty was finally produced and ratified by the Senate in August. It stipulated that the United States would preserve and defend an Indian territory encompassing portions of modern-day Georgia, Tennessee, Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi. It was exactly the type of territorial arrangement Washington had envisioned since September of 1783 – a separate and extensive Indian territory delineated from American settlements, and any and all trading between Natives and whites could only occur with the approbation of the federal government.
This apparent breakthrough on paper was soon undermined by the reality on the ground. As Ellis writes, “The unmanageable problem was demographic. Settlers on the Georgia frontier kept pouring across the newly established Creek borders by the thousands, blissfully oblivious to any geographic line drawn on the maps by some faraway government.” Washington and the federal government could make promises, but they had little ability to fulfill them, and the federal government was powerless to thwart, or even manage, western settlement.
In July of 1791 Washington despaired that he could not “see much prospect of living in tranquility with [the Indians] so long as a spirit of land jobbing prevails, and our frontier Settlers entertain the opinion that there is not the same crime (or indeed no crime at all) in killing an Indian as in killing a white man.” Later that year he told Congress that “the mode of alienating [Indian] lands [is] the main source of discontent and war.” He declared that “commerce with them should be promoted under regulations tending to secure an equitable deportment towards them.” Finally, he insisted that “efficacious provision should be made for inflicting adequate penalties upon all those who, by violating their rights, shall infringe the Treaties, and endanger the peace of the Union.”
Pretty soon a sense of helplessness gave way to despair. All attempts to preserve the integrity of Indian lands by that date had failed, forcing Washington to conclude that “scarcely anything short of a Chinese wall will restrain the Land jobbers and the encroachment of settlers upon the Indian Country.” This was rapidly taking the United States in a direction he had expressly wanted to avoid. Over the coming months and years, unrestrained settlement on treaty-protected Indian lands would lead to a perpetual state of asymmetrical warfare between Indians and whites, staining the land with the blood of both. The fecklessness of the federal government, despite the best intentions of its chief executive, was the genesis of a cycle of violence that was spinning out of control.
Impotently watching this cycle unfold, Washington mastered the art of understatement in declaring to Congress in 1792 that he was not able to provide the assembled legislators with “information that the Indian hostilities … have terminated.” Instead he painted a picture of conflict up and down the western frontier, with fighting occurring with the Iroquois up north and the Cherokee down south, and many locales in between. Washington reiterated once again that it was absolutely necessary that “more adequate provision [be made] for giving energy to the laws throughout our interior frontier, and for restraining the commission of outrages upon the Indians; without which all pacific plans must prove nugatory.” What he had not fully realized yet was that no amount of energetic laws could stem the surge of settlement.
He also misunderstood the role foreign powers were playing in his and the United States’ frontier troubles. To Thomas Jefferson he claimed that there was “a very clear understanding in all this business between the Courts of London and Madrid; and that it is calculated to check, as far as they can, the rapid increase, extension, and consequence of this country; for there cannot be a doubt of the wishes of the former … to impede any eclaircissment [sic] of ours with the Western Indians, and to embarrass our negotiations with them.”
Washington was missing the point. The entente between the tribes and European powers was not one of manipulation, but transaction. The United States’ inability to prevent the invasion of indigenous lands was driving the Indians into cooperation with the British in the North and Spanish in the south. Foreign interference was not a cause of the problem, it was a symptom. The irrepressible mass of white migration westward was pushing the tribes into the arms of Britain and Spain. Nothing else.
With the cycle of violence rapidly escalating, Washington soon felt compelled to settle matters by force. Thousands of American troops were sent to Iroquoia in 1794 under the command of Revolutionary veteran Anthony Wayne, and in August of that year his forces achieved a conclusive American victory at Fallen Timbers. This triumph not only crushed the Iroquois resistance, but discredited the British, who had failed to follow through on their promise of military support.
Far from having achieved two civilizations living peacefully in isolation from each other, as Washington had sought, Americans had drowned the northern Indians through a migratory flood of settlement consolidated by military conquest. Discussing the matter before Congress, all Washington could do was feebly affirm that “we shall not be unwilling to cement a lasting peace, upon terms of candor, equity, and good neighborhood.” This public sentiment aside, Washington finally realized that any relationship with the northern tribes based on “candor, equity, and good neighborhood” was nothing but a pretense by that point. After Fallen Timbers, the Iroquois were a conquered and dispossessed people.
To prevent something similar from happening to them, the Creeks down south made an alliance with Spain, agreeing to a treaty that recognized their shared desire to expel white Americans from Creek country, which would, in theory, protect Creek sovereignty and preserve a buffer between American and Spanish territories. This alliance (predictably) would be all for naught, as the Spanish and Creeks were no more suited to impede the wave of American settlement than the British and Iroquois had been. The American population was growing at the same rate that the Native one was declining, condemning the latter to being swallowed up by the former. The indigenous peoples of America and their allies could not stop this demographic equation any more than Washington’s administration could.
In 1795 Washington told Congress that conflict with the Indians had largely abated, neglecting to mention that this had occurred, not through his preferred route of diplomacy, but through demography and warfare. Still not letting the issue slide though, he declared again that to “enforce upon the Indians the observance of Justice, it is indispensable that there shall be competent means of rendering justice to them.” As he had nearly forty years earlier, Washington was pleading for more powers to instill discipline and peace on an unsettled frontier. Yet with the Indians up and down the western continent all but completely vanquished, this sentiment was more of a criticism of the settlers and states who had committed grave injustices against the Indians than it was a policy prescription. The Native Americans, along with Washington’s desire to preserve autonomous civilizations side-by-side with each other, were defeated.
History had left Washington and his original intentions behind. He had tried to implement the course of action his experience as a young Indian fighter had taught him was most practical – a course of diplomacy and equity instead of conquest. Much to his consternation, the unyielding momentum of Americans’ massive drive towards the West would not permit this, confounding any and all attempts to preserve autonomous lands for the indigenous tribes. As Ellis concludes, his administration had “inherited an Indian policy headed inexorably toward the extermination of Indian Country east of the Mississippi and [had] attempted to turn it around.” Washington had “made a heroic effort and had failed, though it is difficult to imagine what [he] might have done differently to change the outcome.”
The federal government might have had the military resources to fight a dwindling population of Indians, but it most certainly did not have the resources to stop a growing, determined wave of white Americans. Such an effort would have required multiple forts dotting the frontier with garrisons numbering in the thousands – a dedication of resources the embryonic federal government could not hope to muster for decades.
Washington’s inevitable failure was the end of his and the Natives’ hopes for extended Native American territories clearly delineated from white American land east of the Mississippi. Most of the Natives’ territorial holdings had been wrestled from them at a time when the policy of the federal government was to prevent any such thing from happening. This process would continue in the future, especially under the presidential administrations of Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson, who both instituted deliberate policies of removal to make even more room for American settlement.
The inability of Washington’s diplomatic policies to succeed would also lead to what he had predicted it would. Fighting to preserve their ancestral lands, Indian warriors were fierce and unyielding in combat. Defeating them conclusively required immense sums of money, men, and time. Accordingly, Washington would not have been surprised that, in its drive to the Pacific Ocean, the United States would be consumed in Indian Wars nearly a century after he left office. He had learned on the open expanses of the Virginia frontier that you could not try and coercively dispossess Indians of their lands without long, bloody wars. It was a choice of diplomacy and justice towards the Native Americans or year after year of bloody war. Experience had taught him this and so he had sought the former. The all-consuming westward mass of migration had opted for the latter – and paid the costs in treasure and blood.