How Washington Wound Up Screwing Over Native Americans
The first president was more enlightened about Indian affairs than most of his countrymen, but even Washington was a firm believer in ‘what’s good for us is good for them.’
It took eight long years of war to establish the 13 American colonies as an independent nation. Whether the American experiment would flourish in its early years depended far more than we commonly recognize on the new republic’s ability to establish viable relationships with several powerful Indian confederacies west of the Allegheny Mountains that formed the great frontier. These polities stood directly in the path of American civilization’s inexorable march westward across the continent that the founding fathers understood to be the new nation’s destiny.
The future of America, President George Washington believed deep in his bones, lay in the west, not in its transatlantic relationships. Diplomacy with the Indians probably occupied more of the first president’s time and energy than any other issue during his first term. Indian chiefs and their retinues were frequent dinner guests at the president’s residence. Washington assiduously respected Native American diplomatic protocol by engaging in gift exchange and smoking a long-stemmed pipe with his guests in a sacred commitment to speak truth in conference negotiations, and to honor pledges made.
As Colin G. Calloway makes clear in his provocative and deeply researched new book, The Indian World of George Washington, the task of negotiating these arrangements was exceedingly complicated. Many of these tribes had fought with the British during the Revolution. The Brits had ceded the enormous territory between the Alleghenies and the Mississippi River to the United States in the Treaty of Paris (1783), but the Indians were not about to relinquish vast swaths of their homelands to the victors just because London had thrown in the towel. The Indians west of the frontier had not suffered military defeat; nor did the Treaty of Paris reflect the realities of military strength beyond the Ohio River.