Native Americans, individually and collectively, played a key role in the American Revolution. In particular, Native alliances, especially with the powerful Haudenosaunee (Iroquois or Six Nations) Confederacy, helped shape the outcome of the war. The war also was crucial for the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, which split for the first time in several hundred years over the issue of whether to support Great Britain or the new United States of America. The Oneidas allied with the Americans and assisted George Washing-ton's army with crucial food supplies during its most difficult winter at Valley Forge. On the other hand, most of the Mohawks and, after initial neutrality, the Senecas sided with the British; the Senecas suffered from brutal raids principally by troops under the command of General John Sullivan. In the words of historian Richard Aquila, "The American revolution became an Iroquois civil war" (1983, 241).
The Seneca Cornplanter advocated neutrality, while Joseph Brant, a Mohawk leader, advocated alliance with the British, as did the Seneca Red Jacket. Indeed, the name "Red Jacket" was a reference to a scarlet coat given to him by the British for fighting with them during the war. Cornplanter insisted that the quarrel was among the whites and that to interfere in something that the Haudenosaunee did not fully understand would be a mistake. Brant contended that neutrality might cause the Senecas to be attacked by one side without allies on the other. Brant had visited England, acquired a taste for English food and clothes, and had been told that land would be returned to the Mohawks by the British in exchange for alliance.
As one meeting broke up in a furor, Brant called Cornplanter a coward. Brant was influential in recruiting most of the Mohawks, Senecas, Cayugas, and Onondagas to support the British. Brant's ferocity as a warrior was legendary; many settlers who supported the Americans called him Monster Brant. His sister, Molly Brant, had married Sir William Johnson, Britain's chief Indian agent in the Northeast, a lifelong friend of such Mohawk leaders as Hendrick, with whom he had fought side by side in the war with France two decades before his death in 1774.
Although the Oneida Skenandoah asserted his people's official neutrality at the beginning of the American Revolution, he supplied warriors and intelligence to the patriots, as did the Tuscaroras.
As Washington's army shivered in the snow at Valley Forge, Skenandoah's Oneidas carried corn to the starving troops. Washington later named the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia after the Oneida chief in appreciation of his support. During September of 1778, the Oneidas supplied a key warning to residents of German Flats, near Herkimer, New York, that their settlements were about to be raided by the British and their Iroquois allies under Joseph Brant. The settlers were thus able to get out of the area in time, after which their homes and farms were burned and their livestock captured.
Revolutionary forces often adopted a scorched-earth policy against the Haudenosaunee, who supported the British. George Washington's forces ended the battle for the Mohawk Valley by defeating the British and their Iroquois allies at the Battle of Johnstown. Following the war, the Brant family and many of the other Mohawks who supported the British in the Revolution moved to Canada to escape retribution by the victorious patriots. They founded the town of Brantford, Ontario, and established a new Haudenosaunee council fire there.
The Iroquois figured importantly in the Battle of Oriskany in 1777, the battle at Wyoming Valley in 1778, and the Battle of Newtown in 1779. The war often was very brutal on both sides; Brant's forces torched farms owned by patriots as patriot armies, particularly (but not exclusively) those under Sullivan, systematically ransacked Iroquois villages and fields, meanwhile expressing astonishment at the size of Iroquois (especially Seneca) food stores. The Iroquois often found themselves fighting each other as the confederacy split its allegiance between the British and patriots.
General Charles Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown in 1781, but war parties continued to clash along the frontier for months after the British defeat became obvious. The Iroquois allies of the British sent out war parties as late as the early summer of 1782. They wanted to continue fighting, but their sponsors had given up. After the war, the efforts of the Iroquois went unrewarded by both sides. The British discarded their Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, and Seneca allies at the earliest convenience.
The Americans did the same to their own allies, the Tuscaroras and Oneidas. At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, the border between the new United States and Canada (which remained under British control) was drawn through Iroquois country in the Treaty of Paris (1783), without consultation with the Indians. In 1784, during two treaty councils held at Fort Stanwix, New York, many Iroquois realized that the new U.S. government was ignoring most of their land claims. Most of the negotiations were held at gunpoint, as the Iroquois were forced to give up claims to much of their ancestral territory.
Despite his reluctance to ally with the patriots, Cornplanter became a close friend of George Washington after the war. He was given a strip of land in western New York for his people, whose descendents lived on the land until the midtwentieth century, when it was inundated by floodwaters behind the Kinzua Dam, despite a pledge by President Washington that the land would be protected.
In addition to their role as combatants in the American Revolution, American Indians played a key role in the contest of ideas that spurred the revolt. As early as 1744, the Onondaga sachem Canassatego, Tadadaho (speaker) of the Iroquois Confederacy at the time, urged the British colonists to unite on a federal model similar to the Iroquois political system. Benjamin Franklin printed Canassatego's advice at the 1744 Lancaster Treaty Council and later proposed an early plan for union at the Albany Congress of 1754. This plan, which included elements of both British and Iroquois political structures, was rejected by the colonies but served as a model for Franklin's later Articles of Confederation.
During the early 1770s, before the American Revolution led to armed revolt, colonists adopted Mohawk disguises to dump British tea into Boston Harbor and at several other cities along the eastern seaboard. The American Indian, often portrayed as a woman, was used as a symbol of an emerging American nation long before Uncle Sam was adopted in that role.
Bruce E. Johansen
Aquila, Richard. 1983. The Iroquois Restoration: Iroquois Diplomacy on the Colonial Frontier, 1701–1754. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press.; Armstrong, Virginia Irving, comp. 1971. I Have Spoken: American History Through the Voices of the Indians. Chicago: Swallow Books.; Edmunds, R. David. 1980. American Indian Leaders: Studies in Diversity. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Graymont, Barbara. 1972. The Iroquois in the American Revolution. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.; Grinde, Donald A., Jr. 1977. The Iroquois and the Founding of the American Nation. San Francisco: Indian Historian Press.; Kelsay, Isabel Thompson. 1984. Joseph Brant. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.; Mann, Barbara Alice. 2005. George Washington's War on Native America. Westport, CT: Praeger.; Stone, William L. 1866. The Life and Times of Say-goye-wat-ha, or Red Jacket. Albany, NY: Munsell.; Waters, Frank. 1992. Brave Are My People. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers.