American Creation, Joseph J. Ellis, 2007
“Indians being the prior occupants of the rights of the soil. . . To dispossess them . . .would be a gross violation of the fundamental Laws of Nature and of that distributive Justice which is the glory of a nation.” Henry Knox, Secretary of War
A Boston bookseller, Henry Knox became principal aide to General Washington in the revolutionary war. As Secretary of War in the new nation, he faced open warfare with Ohio tribes and others throughout the lands westward to the Mississippi. The American victory ‘triggered a tidal wave of western migration” of white settlers across the Appalachian Mountains. Individual states were writing treaties, knowingly to be violated, with the intention of completely displacing all Indians to the west, beyond the Mississippi. American citizens overwhelmingly favored removal.
Knox and Washington resolved to honor the nation’s founding republican principles. To do otherwise, Washington said, would “stain the nation”. To this end, they declared the Indian tribes to be foreign nations, which placed Indian policy under the federal government. Their plan was to enter into treaties negotiated “on principles consistent with the national justice and dignity of the United States“. They envisioned protected enclaves, protected by American troops, which American settlers would bypass. The Indians would be trained and equipped to learn and practice farming, for an evolution to a more ‘civilized status’ and eventual assimilation as new states. This was a vision of humane coexistence and aid, bold and unprecedented for a new national power.
The first – and last – such treaty was accomplished with the Creek Nation, a very large confederacy of tribes in Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, and Mississippi. Their powerful chief, Alexander McGillivray, was a very successful Indian leader who was part Scotsman, part French, and part Creek, and he spoke Creek, English, and Spanish. He was treated, in New York, then the capital of the United States, to all the pomp and circumstance that would have greeted a royal European head of state. He was a guest in Henry Knox’s home.
McGillivray was a realist, he did not expect the United States to endure, and saw himself more powerful, in his lands, than the United States government, and he kept ties with the Spanish, with whom he traded in Florida. Much of his land had just been sold, however, to settlers by the Georgia legislature, a move he was eager to block, and Washington was also determined to stop. And so the Treaty of New York was signed and passed by the Senate in August of 1790. It gave sovereignty to the huge Creek Nation, and guaranteed federal troop protection of its borders.
It was not to hold. Settlers streamed into the Creek lands. The new nation did not have the federal troops or resources to protect the vast borders. Like elsewhere and throughout history, farmers overwhelmed hunters.
“Scarcely anything short of a Chinese wall will restrain the Land jobbers and the encroachment of settlers up on the Indian Country” George Washington.