The State and the Frontier: America Inherits the Imperial Burden 1787-1800

The State and the Frontier

It’s popular today to picture the American Indians tribes as though they were all 19th century, nomadic Plains Indians. However, at the time of 17th and 18th century colonial settlement the native inhabitants, particularly east of the Mississippi, were far from our caricature of migrating hunter-gatherers. Instead, North America was a complicated political network of Indian states and kingdoms. The continent was dotted with large fortified settlements, whose inhabitants had such a way with agriculture that they shaped the American landscape into a cultivated breadbasket.[1] As settlers arrived in the New World, the English government, and later the U.S. government, adopted a foreign policy that recognized the Indians as landowners of the North American continent and that required settlers to purchase property if they desired to live on it.[2] However, both governments also desired to spread western civilization over the continent. And so they had to find a way to balance this desire with a foreign policy that recognized the diverse and independent nature of the Indian nations.[3]

At the time of America’s founding the U.S. government and the American people commonly held that individual Indians were their equals in the sight of God and United States law. But as American political power expanded, their cultural rhetoric increasingly became condescending towards the Indian tribes.[4] Although the term “manifest destiny” wasn’t coined until the 19th century, Americans had always believed that their nation was destined to expand from sea to sea. For the early Americans, this was less about military conquest and more of a desire to remake Indian society based on Anglo-Protestant culture.[5] Much like Darwin’s theory of genetic evolution, political theorists and philosophers believed that cultural evolution, or “culturalism,” was both natural and necessary to human progression. Later the theory of culturalism became combined with Darwinism, eventually leading to racist ideas of the “white man’s burden.” But in the late 18th century the claims of cultural superiority were not based around racial studies in skin tones and genetics, but around anthropological studies of the products of human society.[6]




The American claim to a cultural destiny was not a new theory invented by Americans. They had inherited it from England’s own sense of purpose and identity. England’s belief in their own exceptionalism really came to fruition during the reign of Elizabeth I, and helped drive the English to establish the first American colonies and spread their culture beyond the known world.[7] The English believed it was all part of a long and natural progression of human history. Just as the Romans had civilized the ancient inhabitants of Britain, so now the English would bring to the New World barbarian tribes the modern fruits of Protestant, Anglo-Saxon culture.[8]

As high minded as this all sounded at the time, conquered people very rarely responded favorably towards cultural re-education. The English therefore concluded that these uncivilized people were incapable of recognizing what was in their best interest, and so they required English leadership to help instruct them in the ways of self-governance.[9] Despite claims made by  the Irish, the Scots, the Welsh, and Cornish to the contrary, the English believed that conquest and domination of lesser developed tribes was actually beneficial, and an act of kindness.[10] Civilization and education would bring a truer form of freedom than that brought by political independence. And by the time England reached the shores of the New World, the Indians had merely become the next in a long line of “barbarous” people visited with England’s manifest destiny.

While implementing manifest destiny often required violence, the English and Americans did not embrace the bloodshed; in fact, they did not see themselves as the aggressors.[11] When English settlers first came to the American shore they were outnumbered by potentially threatening natives, who in turn often saw the newcomers as an invasive species. And so ironically both sides understood their actions as defensive.[12] The frightened settlers appealed to their government to send troops to defend them from Indian harassment and attacks, which in turn caused further expansion into Indian lands, requiring further defensive actions to secure an ever-growing border. Thus began a vicious cycle of defensive advancement. In the words of Catherine the Great of Russia: “I have no way to defend my borders but to extend them.” Unfortunately, pursuing security through expansion inevitably came at the expense and destruction of neighboring people.

In addition to the casualties of such a policy, defending an ever expanding border was an expensive affair. Realizing this, the British government attempted to halt colonial frontier settlement by establishing the Royal Proclamation Line of 1763. This line delineated what was to be permanent Indian land from west of the Appalachians to the Mississippi. While the Proclamation greatly strengthened Britain’s relations with the Indian tribes and secured Britain’s fur trade, it had the opposite effect on their relationship with the colonists. Royal charters had promised the colonies the legal right to expand into the lands west of the Appalachians, and the colonies were upset that the British government felt they could revoke their contract whenever financial and political concerns back in Britain took precedence. Rising tension over management of the frontier served as one more item in a long list of grievances against Parliament and the Crown that eventually resulted in the American War for Independence, and it’s not surprising that most of the Indian tribes sided with Britain.[13]


Proclamation Line of 1763


When the war ended, Britain agreed to cede the land beyond the Royal Proclamation Line to the newly confederated American states. For the Indians, however, this was a complicated affair, as the transfer of sovereignty of the land from Britain to America was not a transfer of actual property rights, but merely a transfer of political authority.[14] So individual Indians and even entire Indian tribes retained legal possession of their own lands, and the American government agreed Indian property could not be taken or purchased without voluntary consent.[15] However, despite being allowed to retain ownership of their lands, the Indian tribes that had fought alongside the British in the war refused to accept that they could simply be passed off from Britain to America. Furthermore, now that the American government had lifted the Proclamation Line, settlers began to flock to the frontier, often times either purposefully or accidentally squatting on Indian property.[16]

In 1787 the federal government responded to the increasing tension by passing the Northwest Ordinance, which delineated the frontier land around the Great Lakes as the Northwest Territory. Up until this time the states had been unofficially in charge of regulating frontier settlement, but with the passing of the Ordinance it was specifically declared that the federal government, not the states, had sovereignty over the land. From now on the federal government would have complete control of westward expansion, as well as all future Indian policy.[17]


Lands claims ceded by the states to the Northwest Territory in the Ordinance


In the Ordinance, the U.S. government promised that:


The utmost good faith shall always be observed towards the Indians; their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent; and, in their property, rights, and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity, shall from time to time be made for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them.[18]


However, the Ordinance also encouraged settlers to move into lands that the U.S. government had officially declared unoccupied by the Indians, regardless of the fact that in many cases Indians already owned the land. As settlers and squatters eagerly poured into the newly opened territories, conflict with the Indians naturally continued to increase. Settlers pressured the American government to protect them, and in response the government built a series of forts along the border of the Northwest Territory. However, this only fed Indian concerns that the federal government was planning to eventually confiscate their property.

The Indians decided to strengthen their own defenses by renewing an old tribal alliance called the Western Indian Confederacy.[19] They hoped that by presenting a united defense from the Great Lakes to Georgia they would be able to stop the migration of settlers from squatting on Indian land, as well as provide a confident military response if the U.S. government intervened.[20]


For several years the settlers and Indians raided and retaliated against each other in random and isolated acts of violence. But the violence and frequency of these attacks increased each year until it reached a point where the U.S. government could no longer ignore it. Finally, in 1790 President Washington ordered federal troops to launch an offensive campaign against the Western Indian Confederacy. The resulting war was the largest and bloodiest conflict ever be fought between the U.S. government and the American Indians, and resulted in five years of warfare and thousands of dead on both sides.[21]

The Indian alliance managed to militarily defy the U.S. government, and they soundly defeated U.S. troops in several vicious battles.[22] But despite heavy losses, the U.S. finally delivered a crippling blow to the Indian alliance at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, and in 1795 forced the northwest Indians to agree to the Treaty of Greenville, which effectively ended both the Western Confederacy and the war.[23]


Lands added during and after the American War for Independence


Under the Treaty of Greenville the U.S. government managed to establish a new border between Indian and U.S. lands, carving out for themselves the  additional territories of Ohio and Indiana. These lands were then opened up to a new wave of settlers, which in turn would eventually lead to new conflicts with the Indians, resulting in further U.S. expansion.[24]

The American government sealed their control over the Indian territory with the Treaty of Greenville. The defeat of the Western Confederacy meant that the Indians would never again be able to negotiate a halt to western expansion from a position of power, and the cultural expansion that America had inherited from the British would begin again with a renewed vigor. Regardless of the federal government’s promise to respect the rights of Indian private property, the Indian tribes had now been firmly reduced to a colonial status. And as the tribes would find out many times over the next hundred years, in imperial relationships, if economics or power politics demands it, the mother country can and will confiscate colonial property.[25]






[1] For pre-Columbian American history see Charles C. Mann, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011), 41-49. For more regarding the “Native New World” following colonial expansion, see Michael Witgen’s An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

[2] This is not to say that this official policy was followed by the settlers, nor that land was purchased honestly (Stuart Banner, How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier [Cambridge, Massachusetts: Belknap Press, 2007], 10ff).p

[3] Throughout this story it is essential to always remember that the Indian tribes and city-states were as much a cultural and political kaleidoscope as the nations of Europe. Concerning the decision by Indians to sell their lands,  Banner writes:  “Whites were never a single bloc with uniform interests, and neither were Indians. At all times there have been Indians with good reasons to sell land and others with good reasons not to sell. Many Indians opposed policies like removal and allotment, but many others supported them as the least bad of the available options, and those were not unreasonable positions at the time Indians were no more monolithic in their views than whites” (Ibid., 6). And while it is true that the westward expansion was often brutal, and characterized more by conquest than negotiation, the transferal of land from Indian ownership to the U.S. was a complex affair in which Indians asserted their independence in political negotiations. Referring to the Anishinaabeg Chief, Flat Mouth, Witgen writes: “Flat Mouth was not a simple son of the forest. Neither was he a conquered Indian chief, nor the leader of a dying people dependent on American handouts” (Witgen, An Infinity of Nations, 6).  

[4] Ibid., 7. This paternalism was present in nearly all American interactions with less developed nations. Theodore Roosevelt once remarked that it was America’s job in the Caribbean to take “responsibility for all these little states,” a statement that defined his foreign policy and that of his successors (Robert Kagan, Dangerous Nation: America’s Place in the World, from it’s Earliest Days to the Dawn of the 20th Century [New York: Alfred A Knopf, 2006], 92-93). As Woodrow Wilson said on the eve of the invasion of Mexico in 1913: “I am going to teach the South American republics to elect good men!”

[5] Jill Lepore, The Name of War: King Philip’s War and the Origins of American Identity (New York: Knopf, 1998), 8-11.

[6] Kagan, Dangerous Nation, 131.

[7] A. L. Rowse, The Expansion of Elizabethan England (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2003) 158; Christopher Hodgkins, Reforming Empire (Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2002) 27, 55-57, 84-85.

[8] Edmund S. Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1975), 47; Banner, How the Indians Lost Their Land, 5.

[9] Jack P. Greene, “Empire and Identity from the Glorious Revolution to the American Revolution,” in The Oxford History of the British Empire, vol. 2: The Eighteenth Century, ed. P. J Marshall (Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 218; Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992), p. 15.

[10] The English did also recognize the personal profits to be gained from having a cultural destiny. The distant lands of the New World were covered in untapped resources, populated with uncivilized barbarians, and at risk of falling under “wicked,” Catholic, Spanish and French domination (Lepore, The Name of War, 8-11). English settlement was thus believed to be  mutually beneficial to both the mother country, and the distant inhabitants of America’s far shores (Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom, p. 47).

[11] Banner, How the Indians Lost Their Land, 6, 83-84.

[12] Kagan, Dangerous Nation, 11-12.

[13] Kevin Phillips, 1775: A Good Year for Revolution (New York: Viking, 2012), 167ff.

[14] Much as how an individual can own property within a nation’s borders without the nation owning it. In many cases a state or nation would take sovereignty over a large stretch of land for years before anyone declared private ownership of any of it, as was the case with the Louisiana Purchase.

[15] Banner, How the Indians Lost Their Land, 148-150.

[16] Bethel Saler, The Settlers’ Empire: Colonialism and State Formation in America’s Old Northwest (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 48.

[17] At this time land sales provided the main sources of revenue for the federal government, so it’s not surprising that the U.S. government  quickly became engaged in purchasing land through  treaties with the Indian tribes, and portioning it off and selling it to settlers. Finally, in the 1823 Supreme Court ruling, Johnson v. M’Intosh, it was made illegal for private citizens to purchase land from Native Americans, and the U.S. government became the sole seller of Indian lands.

[18] Northwest Ordinance (1787), An Ordinance for the Government of the Territory of the United States North-West of the River Ohio. Section 14, Article 3.

[19] The tribes that united included the Council of Three Fires, Iroquois Confederacy, Seven Nations of Canada, Wabash Confederacy, Illini Confederacy, Menominee, Wyandot, Mississaugas, Shawnee, Miami, Lenape, Kickapoo, Kaskaskia, Chickamauga Cherokee, and Upper Muscogee.

[20] Not all the Indians united together however. The Choctow and Chickasaw tribes, who had long been at war with the northwest tribes allied with the U.S.

[21] The war was the first major U.S. foreign war, and was a huge crises during the Washington administration.

[22] The U.S. suffered so many defeats in the Harmar Campaign that the entire campaign is often times simply referred to as Harmar’s Defeat.

[23] Alan D. Gaff, Bayonets in the Wilderness: Anthony Wayne’s Legion in the Old Northwest (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008); Wiley Sword, President Washington’s Indian War: The Struggle for the Old Northwest, 1790-1795 (Norman, University of Oklahoma Press, 1993).

[24] Despite the peace settlement at the Treaty of Greenville various tribes of the former Western Confederacy would continue to fight for several more years until they too were finally defeated and forced to accept new peace treaties. The last attempt was in1811 when Indian Chief Tecumseh allied himself to the British and attempted to reverse U.S. land settlement.

[25] The first step would occur in the 1820s when the U.S. would change the status of Indian landholding from being “owners” of the land, to merely “occupants” of the land, ownership now belonging to the U.S. government (Banner, How the Indians Lost their Land, 150ff).


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  1. You should take a look at the impact of this notion of “White Man’s Burden” on the country of India. I’ve always found it interesting how Britain took over North America and not India (although they definitely left their marks on India). What do you think is the fundamental differences between what Britain did in India and North America?

    • Probably the biggest difference is that America was actually populated by English settlers before the British military conquests of the Seven Years War began. The way the British used the penal colony system in Australia meant that a similar story of immigration and settling occurred there as well. You can see this again with the Dutch and South Africa. The British did not emigrate to India in numbers like they did in the Americas and Australia, and instead formed themselves as more of a ruling class in a foreign country, rather than immigrants making it their home.

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