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George Washington Lived in an Indian

World, But His Biographies Have
Erased Native People
Telling Washington’s story without erasing the people and lands that preoccupied him leads
to important new questions; like, just how consequential for American history was the first
president’s addiction to land speculation?

Etching of the original silver medal presented by George Washington to Red Jacket. Library of Congress.

Colin G. Calloway | an excerpt adapted from The Indian World of George
Washington | Oxford University Press | 23 minutes (6,057 words)

On Monday Afternoon, February 4, 1793, President George
Washington sat down to dinner at his official home on Market Street in
Philadelphia. Washington’s dinners were often elaborate affairs, with
numerous guests, liveried servants, and plenty of food and wine. On
this occasion Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of War
Henry Knox, A orney General Edmund Randolph, Governor of the
Northwest Territory Arthur St. Clair, and “the Gentlemen of the
President’s family” dined with him because they were hosting an
official delegation. Six Indian men, two Indian women (see Author’s
Note on use of the word “Indian”), and two interpreters, representing
the Kaskaskia, Peoria, Piankashaw, Potawatomi, and Mascouten
Nations, had traveled more than eight hundred miles from the Wabash
and Illinois country to see the president. Before dining, they made
speeches and presented Washington with a calumet pipe of peace and
strings of wampum. Thomas Jefferson took notes.

Just one week later, Monday, February 11, Washington’s dinner guests
included several chiefs from the Six Nations — the Haudenosaunee or
Iroquois — a Christian Mahican named Hendrick Aupaumut, and
Akiatonharónkwen or Atiatoharongwen, the son of an Abenaki mother
and an African American father, who had been adopted by Mohawks
but now lived in Oneida country, and who was usually called “Colonel
Louis Cook” after Washington approved his commission for services
during the Revolution. Before dinner the president thanked his Indian
guests for their diplomatic efforts in carrying messages to tribes in the

Indian visits halted when yellow fever broke out in Philadelphia in the
summer of 1793. Five thousand people died, and twenty thousand fled
the city, including, for a time, Washington, Jefferson, Knox, and
Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who survived a bout of
the fever. A Chickasaw delegation on its way to see the president
turned back on hearing of the epidemic in the fall. But the visits
resumed the next year. On Saturday afternoon, June 14, 1794,
Washington welcomed a delegation of thirteen Cherokee chiefs to his
Market Street home in Philadelphia. They were in the city to conduct
treaty negotiations, and the members of Washington’s cabinet,
Jefferson, Hamilton, Knox, and Colonel Timothy Pickering — were also
present. In accordance with Native American diplomatic protocol,
everyone present smoked and passed around the long-stemmed pipe,
in ritual preparation for good talks and in a sacred commitment to
speak truth and honor pledges made. The president delivered a speech
that had been wri en in advance. Several of the Cherokee chiefs spoke.
Everyone ate and drank “plentifully of Cake & wine,” and the chiefs
left “seemingly well pleased.” Four weeks later, Washington met with
a delegation of Chickasaws he had invited to Philadelphia. He
delivered a short speech, expressing his love for the Chickasaws and
his gratitude for their assistance as scouts on American campaigns
against the tribes north of the Ohio, and referred them to Henry Knox
for other business. As usual, he puffed on the pipe, ate, and drank with
“The most powerful man in the United States
followed the custom of his Indian visitors.”

The image of Washington smoking and dining with Indian chiefs does
not mesh with depictions of the Father of the Nation as stiff, formal,
and aloof, but it reminds us that in Washington’s day the government
dealt with Indians as foreign nations rather than domestic subjects. The
still-precarious republic dared not ignore the still-powerful Indian
nations on its frontiers. In dealing with the Indians, Henry Knox
advised the new president, “every proper expedient that can be
devised to gain their affections, and a ach them to the interest of the
Union, should be adopted.” Deeply conscious of how he performed in
his role as the first president, and an accomplished political actor,
Washington engaged in the performative aspects of Indian diplomacy,
sharing the calumet pipe and exchanging strings and belts of wampum
— purple and white beads made from marine shells and woven into
geometric pa erns that reinforced and recorded the speaker’s words.
New York Indian commissioners explained it was Indian custom when
meeting in council to “smoke their Pipes together, and to open their
Minds to each other.” The most powerful man in the United States
followed the custom of his Indian visitors.

These Indian visits were not isolated events, and the Indians were not
unwelcome dinner guests. Tribal delegations were a regular sight on
the streets of Philadelphia and other colonial cities before the
Revolution, and they continued to visit the new nation’s new capital in
order to conduct diplomacy or just, as the missionary Rev. Samuel
Kirkland put it, “to get a peep at the great American Chief.” Formal
dinners were not just an occasion to share a meal but a form of political
theater essential to establishing relationships between hosts and guests,
providing an opportunity for the host to demonstrate hospitality,
display wealth, and assert status through food and wine, seating
arrangements and manners, and the meanings a ached to all those
things. In his first term in office, Washington dined, often more than
once, with Mohawks, Senecas, Oneidas, Cherokees, Chickasaws, and
Creeks. In some cases, they came to Philadelphia because he had
personally invited them. In later years, Washington occasionally hosted
Indian dinner guests at Mount Vernon, and he continued to dine with
Indian delegates to the very end of his presidency: in the last week of
November 1796, he dined with four groups of Indians on four different

Washington’s entire Indian policy and his vision for the nation
depended on the acquisition of Indian territory, but in 1793-94 he
insisted that no one talk to the visiting Indians about buying their
lands. These were perilous years for the young nation: hostile foreign
powers, Britain in the North and Spain in the South, threatened
American borders and interests; a powerful Indian confederacy north
of the Ohio River had defeated one American army, destroyed another,
and remained defiant; and what Washington called “the momentous
occurrences in Europe” threatened to embroil the United States in
conflict between Britain and Revolutionary France. Washington knew
that Indian lands were vital to the future growth of the United States,
but, as his gag order on talk of buying land illustrates, he also knew
that Indians were vital to the national security, and on occasion the
very survival, of the fragile republic.
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American history has largely forgo en what Washington knew.
Narratives of national expansion and Indian conquest often neglect the
complexity of Indian relations and ignore the reality of Indian power in
the very formative years of the nation. Historians of the early Republic
who focus on creating a new nation, the rivalry between Hamilton and
Jefferson, and the challenges posed by relations with Britain and
Revolutionary France often treat Indian affairs as tangential or even
irrelevant. In fact, federal officials devoted much time, a ention, and
ink to conducting diplomatic relations with Indian politicians who, as
the Moravian Rev. John Heckewelder observed, “display[ed] as much
skill and dexterity, perhaps, as any people upon earth” in “the
management of their national affairs.” Indian nations figured alongside
European nations in the founding fathers’ thinking about the current
and future state of the union. Indian leaders were adept at playing on
American fears of British and Spanish backing for Indian resistance.
Debates over the sovereignty of the United States and struggles over
the extent and limits of federal authority and states’ rights centered on
Indian treaties, and Indian issues, wars, and land policies were critical
in developing a strong central government.

Multiple books tell us how Washington forged the nation, and how he
handled partnerships and rivalries between various founding fathers,
but nothing was more central than the relationship between the first
president and the first Americans. From cradle to grave Washington
inhabited a world built on the labor of African people and on the land
of dispossessed Indian people. Indian people were not as ubiquitous in
his daily life as the enslaved men, women, and children who planted,
tended, and harvested his crops, cut his wood, prepared and served his
food, washed his laundry, cleaned his house, and a ended to his every
need. Nevertheless, Indian people and Indian country loomed large in
Washington’s world. His life intersected constantly with them, and
events in Native America shaped the direction his life took, even if they
occurred “offstage.” Indian land dominated his thinking and his vision
for the future. Indian nations challenged the growth of his nation. A
thick Indian strand runs through the life of George Washington as
surely as it runs through the history of early America.
Probably more books have been wri en about Washington than about
any other American, but few of them pay much a ention to Indians, let
alone consider the role they played in his life. Certainly none of
Washington’s biographers have shown any particular interest or
expertise in Indian history. It would command more a ention if
biographers recounting Washington’s schemes to acquire and develop
territory beyond the Appalachians replaced the term “western land” —
which implies that it was an unclaimed resource — with “Indian land”
— which acknowledges that it was someone’s homeland. Washington
spent much of his adult life surveying and speculating in Indian lands.
The Virginia of his youth was very much a British colony — linked to
the mother country across the Atlantic by ties of loyalty, taste, and
economy — but Virginians who ventured a hundred miles or so into
the interior of the continent quickly found themselves in Indian
territory. Virginia was at the forefront of colonial expansion westward,
and Washington was at the forefront of Virginian expansion.
Washington was ambitious, for himself and for his nation. His
ambition led him down many paths, but it always led him back to
Indian country.

“Washington’s first trips westward were as a
surveyor, and he looked on Indian lands with a
surveyor’s eye for the rest of his life.”

Washington’s first trips westward were as a surveyor, and he looked
on Indian lands with a surveyor’s eye for the rest of his life. Surveyors
transformed “wilderness” that disoriented and threatened se ler
colonists into an ordered landscape they could understand and utilize.
In colonial Virginia surveyors enjoyed status; in Indian country they
met with suspicion if not outright hostility. Armed with compass,
chains, and logbooks, surveyors were the outriders of an advancing
se ler society intent on turning Indian homelands and hunting
territories into a commodity that could be measured and bounded,
bought and sold, and Indians knew it. When the frontier trader
Christopher Gist did some surveying near the Delaware town of
Shannopin, on the southeast side of the Allegheny River, in the fall of
1750, he did so on the quiet: “I… set my Compass privately, & took the
Distance across the River, for I understood it was dangerous to let a
Compass be seen among these Indians.”
Washington and his fellow Virginians speculated, surveyed, and
encroached upon western lands on the assumption that permission
from a king, governor, or council gave them the right to do so, and
they often acted as though any Indians could cede the land of all
Indians. But Indian people had something to say about it, and were
intent on defending their rights and the territory that colonial
governments and land companies carved up so cavalierly. “That it is a
difficult ma er to discover the true owner of any lands among the
Indians is a gross error, which must arise from ignorance of the ma er
or from a cause which does not require explanation,” Sir William
Johnson, the British superintendent of Indian affairs in the North,
observed to the Lords of Trade in 1764. “Each nation is perfectly well
acquainted with its exact original bounds.” Indian country was a
mosaic of tribal homelands and hunting territories, where individual
nations guarding their own interests created a complicated landscape
of multiple foreign policies, competing agendas, and shifting
strategies. Speculating, surveying, and making land deals in Indian
country required knowledge, quick learning, and fast footwork. It was
no place for a novice.

As a novice in Indian country, Washington misread situations and
mishandled Indian allies, and in the process sparked a war that in turn
set in motion developments that led directly to the American
Revolution. Blessed and blinkered by hindsight and Washington’s
future role, historians of earlier generations often put the best face on
his diplomatic and military expeditions into the Ohio country in 1753
and 1754, respectively. One described Washington’s journal of the first
expedition, which he hurriedly wrote on his return and which was
widely published, as “a testimonial to his maturity and capacity for
leadership.” Another, glossing over the debacle of the second
expedition, pronounced: “It is thus obvious that Washington was
already demonstrating those qualities of courage and leadership
indicative of his future greatness.” In reality, young Washington found
himself out of his depth in a complex world of rumors, wampum belts,
and tribal agendas. As events spiraled out of his control, he received a
crash course in Indian diplomacy, intertribal politics, and frontier
conflict under the tutelage of a formidable Seneca named

During the French and Indian War, Washington participated in two
British military campaigns to take the strategically crucial Forks of the
Ohio from the French. The first, in which he gave General Edward
Braddock bad advice, was a disaster; the second, in which he predicted
failure and tried to undermine General John Forbes, succeeded.
Indians determined the outcome of both.

For Washington the so-called French and Indian War was primarily a
war against Indians. As commander of the Virginia Regiment
defending western areas of the colony against Indian raids, he learned
much about frontier warfare, and about fighting with limited means.
Indian diplomacy helped end the fighting in Washington’s theater of
operations. Indian actions at the close of the war shaped Crown
policies that set the American colonies on the road to revolution and
helped push Washington’s personal break with Britain. The Anglo-
Cherokee War and the multitribal resistance movement known as
Pontiac’s War prompted the British government to take two crucial
steps: impose a limit on westward expansion, which threatened
Washington’s investments in Indian land, and keep a standing army in
America, which required taxing the colonies to pay for it. For
Americans the Revolution was a war for independence, and it was also
a war for Indian land; for Indians, the Revolution was a war for their
land, and it was also a war for their independence. The Indians’ fight,
which for many tribes meant allegiance to the British, provided
patriots with an important unifying cause.

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Washington never moved west himself, but the West beckoned him
and the nation he led. His long association with the region as surveyor,
speculator, soldier, landowner, and politician shaped his career and his
vision of America’s future tied to western development. As a young
man, he pursued wealth in land and a military reputation in the West;
in his later years, the West became a key to building national unity. By
the end of his life, according to one of the editors of the monumental
Papers of George Washington, he probably knew more than any other
man in America about the frontier and its significance to the future of
his country. He had also accumulated more than 45,000 acres of prime
real estate in present-day Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, the
Shenandoah Valley, and West Virginia. It was the West, says another of
his editors, that “made the Virginia farmer lift his eyes to prospects
beyond his own fields and his native Virginia”; the West that
“stretched his mind” to embrace an expansive vision of a republican
empire; the West that, more than anything else except the
Revolutionary War, prepared him for his role as nation builder.

“Washington himself was given or assumed an
Indian name, Conotocarious, meaning ‘Town
Destroyer’ or ‘Devourer of Villages.’”

Washington knew that the frontier was Indian country and that the
future he envisioned would be realized at the expense of the people
who lived there. He presided over and participated in their
dispossession. He dispatched armies into Indian country; he lost an
army in Indian country. The bulk of the federal budget during his
presidency was spent in wars against Indians, and their affairs figured
regularly and prominently in the president’s conferences with his
heads of departments. He promoted policies that divested Indians of
millions of acres; he sent treaty commissioners into Indian country and
signed the treaties they made, even as he sometimes studiously
avoided conversations about purchasing land with Indian delegates
who came to the capital. His conduct of Indian affairs shaped the
authority of the president in war and diplomacy. He participated in,
indeed insisted on, the transformation of Indian life and culture. In the
course of his life, he met many of the most prominent Native
Americans of his day: Shingas, Tanaghrisson, Scarouady, Guyasuta,
A akullakulla, Bloody Fellow, Joseph Brant, Cornplanter, Red Jacket,
Jean Baptiste DuCoigne, Alexander McGillivray, Li le Turtle, Blue
Jacket, Piominko. He also met many lesser-known individuals, who
cropped up time and again in dealings between Indians and colonists,
men like the Seneca messenger Aroas or Silver Heels, the Oneida-
French intermediary Andrew Montour, and the Seneca Kanuksusy,
who appeared in colonial negotiations under his English name,
Newcastle. Having more than one name was not uncommon.
Washington himself was given or assumed an Indian name,
Conotocarious, meaning “Town Destroyer” or “Devourer of Villages,”
and an Indian messenger who arrived at Fort Harmar in July 1788 was
identified as “George Washington, a Delaware.” He was not the only
Indian to bear Washington’s name.

Washington knew and associated with men who knew and associated
with Indians: soldiers who fought against Indians; merchants who
traded with Indians; interpreters who moved back and forth to Indian
country; agents who implemented his policies there; missionaries who
lived and prayed with Indians; men who hunted, traveled, ate, and
drank with Indians; men who shared lodges, beds, and relatives with
Indians; western politicians who built their political reputations
fighting and dealing with Indians; speculators who, like Washington
himself, acquired large amounts of Indian land as a way of elevating
their status in society. Washington’s world was one where eastern
elites as well as frontier folk were steeped in Indian affairs. Charles
Thomson, secretary of the Continental and Confederation Congresses
from 1774 to 1789, brought Washington word of his election to the
presidency and traveled with him to the inauguration. Thomson was
an adopted Delaware. As a young man, before he shifted his a ention
to business and politics, he had immersed himself in Indian affairs: a
Latin tutor at the Quaker school in Philadelphia, he served as a clerk
and copyist for the Delaware chief Teedyuscung, acted as secretary at
the Treaty of Easton in 1757, and wrote a tract blaming Indian support
for the French on Pennsylvania’s record of unscrupulous treaty
practices in which he also criticized Washington’s conduct in dealing
with the Indians in the Ohio country. Charles Lee, one of Washington’s
generals in the Revolution, claimed to have married an Iroquois
woman, was adopted by the Iroquois, and had an Iroquois son. (The
child inherited his clan and tribal identity from his mother). Benjamin
Hawkins, whom Washington appointed superintendent of the
southern Indians, spoke Muskogee, was adopted by the Creeks, and
had seven children with his common-law wife, Lavinia Downs, said by
some to be a Creek woman. The Irishman Richard Butler, appointed
superintendent of Indian affairs after the Revolution, traded with the
Shawnees, had a Shawnee wife, sent Washington a Shawnee
vocabulary when Catherine the Great of Russia asked the president for
information on Indian languages, and died with a Shawnee tomahawk
in his skull. Washington moved among networks of men who were
deeply interested in Indian affairs and were sometimes intimately
acquainted with individual Indians. For many of these men, acquiring
Indian lands seemed as natural as breathing. Some swindled each
other out of land with as few qualms as they swindled Indians out of
Indians were of central importance in Washington’s world, but for
most of his life he operated on the peripheries of theirs. When he
speculated in Indian lands, fought Indian enemies, and exchanged
wampum belts with Indian chiefs, he touched the edges of an
indigenous continent crisscrossed by networks of kinship, exchange,
and alliance among multiple nations. For most of his life, several
colonial powers competed for that continent but none controlled it, and
indigenous power in the interior affected and limited imperial
ambitions. In Washington’s administration, the process of creating the
“United States” occurred “in dialogue with other nations,” including
Native nations. Establishing the sovereignty of the United States
required wrestling with the sovereignty of Indian nations and their
place in American society. By the time Washington died, Indian power
remained formidable in many areas of the continent, and American
sovereignty remained contested in many spaces, but the United States
had become a central presence in the world of all Indian peoples east of
the Mississippi, and American expansion into Indian country was well
under way. Washington, in association with men like Henry Knox,
developed and articulated policies designed to divest Indians of their
cultures as well as their lands and that would shape US-Indian
relations for more than a century.

Washington’s paths through Indian country connected his story to
indigenous peoples who told their own stories, organized and lived
their lives in distinct ways, and had different visions of America and its
possibilities. But theirs was not the Indian world Washington saw and
knew; the Indian world he saw was the world most Americans saw. He
found li le to admire in Indian life. Few of its ways of living or
thinking rubbed off on him. No gallery of Native American artifacts
graced Mount Vernon as it did Monticello. When Washington looked
at Indian country, he saw colonial space temporarily inhabited by
Indian people. What he regarded as new lands were in fact quite
ancient, but he showed li le awareness that the ancestors of Shawnees
and Cherokees had walked those lands for thousands of years before
he set foot or his surveyor’s gaze on them. Jefferson was interested in
the ancient petroglyphs on the banks of the Kanawha River;
Washington was more interested in the extent and fertility of his lands
on those riverbanks. When he looked at Indian people, he saw either
actual or potential enemies or allies. They and their lands feature
recurrently and prominently in Washington’s correspondence, and on
occasion he expressed sympathy for Indian people. But his writings tell
us li le or nothing about Indians’ family life, clan affiliations, kinship
networks, gender relations, languages, subsistence strategies, changing
economic pa erns, consensus politics, traditional religious beliefs and
ceremonial cycles, distinctive Christianity, or social ethics. There was
much he did not see or understand. He did not — could not —
comprehend how mythic stories, clan histories, and spiritual forces
shaped how Indian people perceived their world. He did not
understand many of the words and sounds he heard in Indian country.
Rarely if ever did he show any appreciation that the societies there
functioned according to their own rules, rhythms, beliefs, and values.
He demonstrated no understanding of the roles of women in Native
society, beyond being farmers, and he wished to see Indian men take
over that role. In all of that, he was not much different from most of his

“A British officer traveling in the Wabash
country in the 1760s was called a ‘D—d son of
a b—ch’ by one Indian and given a copy of
Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ by

Indian country was not exclusively Indian, and had not been for a long
time. It was a porous world undergoing profound and far-reaching
changes. Imported diseases had scythed through populations and
continued to wreak demographic havoc; imported animals, crops, and
plants had altered the environment; new religions, ideas, and
influences had infiltrated and sometimes divided Indian societies;
imperial rivalries intruded into tribal politics; goods manufactured in
European mills tied Indian communities to an Atlantic world and an
emerging global trade system. By the time Washington encountered
Cherokees, Iroquois, or Delawares, he met men who wore deerskin
leggings and moccasins and displayed body and facial ta oos but who
also often wore linen shirts and wool coats, and even the occasional
three-cornered hat. He spoke with chiefs who wore armbands of trade
silver and displayed European symbols of distinction like the officer’s
crescent-shaped silver gorget he himself wore around his neck when
he posed for his portrait by Charles Willson Peale in 1772. He would
have seen women who wore calico blouses and kept their children
warm with blankets of red-and-blue stroud, a durable woolen cloth
produced in England’s Cotswolds. Some of the Catholic Indians
Washington encountered from the St. Lawrence or the Great Lakes
wore crucifixes, spoke French, and had French names. Like anyone else
who spent much time on the eighteenth-century frontier, he would
also have met white men who wore breechcloths, moccasins, and
hunting shirts and bore facial ta oos. Constantly pressing the edges of
Indian country were Scots-Irish, Anglo-American, and German se lers,
the kind of people that Washington and his kind of people —
Tidewater planters and gentlemen — characterized as more savage
than savages. He might have seen black faces; at a time when buying
and selling people was as common as buying and selling land, traders,
Indian agents, army officers, and se ler colonists took African slaves
with them when they crossed the Appalachians. Indians also
sometimes owned and trafficked in African slaves and harbored
runaways. Some of the chiefs who ate dinner with Washington in New
York or Philadelphia would not have been surprised to be waited on by
black slaves; like Washington, they were slaveholders.

Washington sometimes spent days at a time in Indian villages. He
would have seen cows, pigs, and chickens: Indians got pigs from
Swedish se lers in the Delaware Valley in the seventeenth century, and
Delaware people called chickens tipas, mimicking the sound Swedish
se lers used to call poultry. If he entered Indian lodges he would have
seen many familiar objects: brass ke les, copper pots, candles, looking
glasses, awls, needles, and threads. If he shared a meal, he would have
eaten indigenous food — corn, beans, squash, pumpkin, venison, elk,
bear’s meat, fish, hominy cakes, berries, nuts, acorns, wild onions,
maple sugar — perhaps supplemented by beef, chicken, pork, milk,
apples, peaches, watermelon, turnips, peas, potatoes, honey, and many
European imports that Indians had added to their diets. He might have
met Indian people who had developed a taste for tea and sugar; he
certainly met people with a taste for rum. He would have spoken with
Native people who could speak English and who, their own languages
lacking profanity, had learned to swear in it. (A British officer traveling
in the Wabash country in the 1760s was called a “D—d son of a b—ch”
by one Indian and given a copy of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra
by another.) Washington also saw people whose faces, like his own,
were marked by smallpox. Even the landscape Washington coveted
bore evidence of change. Invasive weeds and grasses from Europe
altered the meadows he found so a ractive. By the time Virginians
crossed the Appalachian Mountains into Kentucky, bluegrass and
white clover, initially brought from England as fodder and in the dung
of the animals that ate them, had spread ahead of them and taken root
as “Kentucky bluegrass.” European birds, bugs, seeds, and weeds had
transformed the lands Washington viewed as “wilderness.”

Washington lived in, shaped, and eventually presided over a colonial
world. At the same time, he lived his life in a world of Indian
omnipresence, enduring power, and recurrent encounter, where Indian
people acted as well as were acted upon and changed the societies that
changed them. As happened elsewhere in the world, the colonized
affected the colonizers, and cultural interactions produced new hybrid
societies. Like slavery, some aspects of Native America were so
commonplace in Washington’s world that they hardly merited mention
in his writings: he does not tell us, but we know, that indigenous foods
formed part of his — and his slaves — diet, that Native herbal
medicines were part of the colonial medicine cabinet, and that when he
traveled the country before the Revolution, which he did more often
and more extensively than almost any other colonial American, he
generally followed Indian trails.

Indian people and Indian lands affected key developments in
Washington’s life and the emerging American nation he helped to
create. Indian relations were interwoven with questions of empire
(whether European or American). Indians’ actions contributed to the
outbreak and course of the French and Indian War, and their reactions
to its outcome prompted British policies that turned Washington and
other Americans to revolution and independence. Indian lands
furnished the territorial and philosophical foundations for the new
expansionist republic that emerged. At the same time, the power
Natives wielded, the resistance they mounted, and the diplomatic
influence they exerted exposed the limits of federal power, aggravated
tensions between federal and state governments, fueled divisions
between East and West, and threatened to fragment the nation
Washington was building. Washington and the new government
interpreted and applied the Constitution to establish nation-to-nation
relationships with Indians conducted through war and treaty, but
Indians preexisted the United States and its Constitution and
conducted their own relations in their own way, and for a long time
the United States lacked the power to make them do otherwise.
Fighting, fearing, and hating Indians had helped forge a common
identity among white peoples before; now the shared experience of
Scots, Irish, Germans, English, and others in fighting and dispossessing
Indians helped forge a common bond as Americans. Washington
disparaged unruly frontier folk as disturbers of order and tranquility,
but by harnessing their aggressive expansionism the government
created a new, racially defined empire and a nation of free white
y p
citizens that excluded Native Americans as it also excluded African
Americans. It was the national identity of a nation built on Indian land.

“Washington’s involvement with the West was
lifelong, and he consistently looked to western
land for his own personal fortune and for the
nation’s future.”

The Indian world Washington knew was very different when he died
in December 1799 than it had been at his birth in 1732. His life spanned
most of the eighteenth century, an era of momentous change in North
America when, as the historian James Merrell puts it, “the balance
tipped irrevocably away from the Indians.” Washington, more than
most, had a hand on the scales and was instrumental in the
dispossession, defeat, exploitation, and marginalization of Indian
peoples. He rarely used the term “Indian country” — he called it
“wilderness,” “the frontier,” “the Ohio country,” “the West” — but he
lived his whole life with one eye on it and one foot in it. Neither his life
nor that of his nation would have developed the way it did without his
involvement and experiences in Indian country. Washington may not
have been personally affected by his own interactions with its
inhabitants, but the Indian world that he changed and his nation
eventually displaced was also the world that, in many important and
overlooked ways, shaped Washington and the nation he led.

Scholars of Washington’s life and times owe an incredible debt to the
teams of editors who have collected, meticulously edited, published,
and digitized the voluminous papers of the first president. Their
endeavors provide an invaluable and accessible resource, and one that
makes it impossible to deny that Indian America ma ered in
Washington’s day. The editors note, however, that some of the papers
have been previously edited — by Washington himself. Washington
kept le er books during his service on Braddock’s campaign in 1755
and three years subsequently as colonel of the Virginia Regiment. In
the 1770s and probably later, he made major revisions to these
manuscripts “not once but at least twice.” He made most of his
revisions by striking out words, lines, or sentences and inserting new
ones. But sometimes “he carefully scraped the original ink off the
paper with a knife and then wrote his changes there.” For the most
part, the alterations and insertions did not produce important
differences, but they do reveal Washington as someone concerned with
his reputation. In Indian country, he had good reason to be.

Washington is the “father of the nation,” and he assumed the role of
“great father” to Indian people as well. Yet the Iroquois called him
“Town Destroyer,” and with justification. Washington’s dealings with
Indian people and their land do him li le credit, but on the other hand
his achievement in creating a nation from a fragile union of states is
more impressive when we appreciate the power and challenges his
Indian world presented. Washington’s life, like the lives of so many of
his contemporaries, was inextricably linked to Native America, a
reality we have forgo en as our historical hindsight has separated
Indians and early Americans so sharply, and prematurely, into
winners and losers.

George Washington dominates the formative events of American
nation-building like no one else. He commanded the Continental Army
that secured American independence, he presided over the convention
that framed the Constitution of the United States, and he was the
nation’s first president, serving two terms and se ing the bar by which
all subsequent presidents have been measured in terms of moral
character and political wisdom. Ignoring or excluding Native America
from Washington’s life, like excluding it from the early history of the
nation, contributes to the erasure of Indians from America’s past and
America’s memory. It also diminishes our understanding of
Washington and his world. Restoring Indian people and Indian lands
to the story of Washington goes a long way toward restoring them to
their proper place in America’s story.

With the exception of his expeditions in the Ohio Valley during the
French and Indian War, the key events of Washington’s life occur in the
East — Mount Vernon, Philadelphia, Yorktown. But Washington’s
involvement with the West was lifelong, and he consistently looked to
western land for his own personal fortune and for the nation’s future.
Securing Indian country as a national resource was essential to national
consolidation and expansion, and few people knew more about
securing Indian land than he did.

In one of the most iconic images in American history, Washington
stands resolutely in the prow of a boat facing east. Emanuel Leu e’s
epic 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, captures a pivotal
moment during the War of Independence. After a string of
demoralizing defeats and with the rebel army on the verge of
disintegration, the Revolution faced its darkest hour. Then, on
Christmas night 1776, Washington led what was left of his army in a
daring and desperate a ack. In the teeth of a storm, they crossed the
ice-clogged Delaware River from Pennsylvania to New Jersey and
roundly defeated a garrison of Hessian soldiers at Trenton. A week
later, they defeated a British force at Princeton. The Revolution, for the
moment, was saved, and the twin victories breathed life into a cause
that had seemed lost. After he died, Washington achieved almost
godlike status as the savior of the Revolution and the father of the

But the Revolution was not only a war for independence and a new
political order; it was also a war for the North American continent.
Washington and the emerging nation faced west as well as east. If
Washington did resemble a god, he perhaps most resembled the
Roman Janus. Depicted with two faces, looking in opposite directions,
Janus was not “two-faced” in the modern, negative sense of the term as
duplicitous. As the god of passages and transitions, beginnings and
endings, he looked simultaneously to the past and to the future. As
America’s god of the passage from colony to nation, Washington
looked east to the past and west to the future. And when he faced west,
he faced Indian country.

Note from the Author: There is no general agreement about the appropriate collective term to
apply to the indigenous peoples of North America. Although I occasionally, throughout my
book, use Native, Native American, indigenous, or, as in the title, First Americans, I most often
use Indians or Indian people, which was the term most commonly used at the time. In writing a
book aimed at a broad readership, I have used the names for Indian nations that seem to be the
most readily recognizable to the most people: Iroquois rather than Haudenosaunee; Mohawks
rather than Kanienkehaka; Delawares rather than Lenni Lenapee; and Cherokee, which derives
from other people’s name for them, rather than how Cherokees referred to themselves, Ani-
Yunwiya, “the principal people.” Applying the same criteria to individuals necessarily involves
some inconsistencies, such as Joseph Brant rather than Thayendanegea and White Eyes instead
of Quequedegatha or Koquethagechton, but A akullakulla rather than Li le Carpenter and
Piominko rather than Mountain Leader.


Colin G. Calloway is John Kimball Jr. 1943 Professor of History and Native
American Studies at Dartmouth College. His previous books include A
Scratch of the Pen and The Victory with No Name.
Longreads Editor: Dana Sni ky

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   Posted by Longreads on November 7, 2018