Historian Alan Taylor chronicles native peoples' attempts to retain land and power at the time of the American Revolution
By Sally Baker
Published November 6, 2006 | Issue: Fall 2006
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as the American Revolution and its aftermath played out, another struggle for independence was being waged in what is now New York and southern Ontario. That struggle, among native peoples, European colonizers, and American settlers, is the subject of The Divided Ground
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2006), by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Alan S. Taylor '77.
"The central character in this book is the border between Canada, the U.S., and the Indian lands," Taylor said. It is the story of the ways in which the native peoples of Iroquoia (the "Six Nations," including the Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora) tried to retain control of their ancestral lands in the face of inexorable pressure from Britain and the United States. And ultimately, it is the story of millions of acres of Indian lands along the border transferred for a pittance to rich white landowners and sold to poor settlers.
Researching an essay on the meaning of liberty in the early American republic and its relation to frontier expansion, Taylor came across elaborate, first-hand accounts of councils held in the 1780s and '90s and into the 1800s among Indians and British and American government officials. "I hadn't seen these before and hadn't understood the perspective of the native peoples," he said. "That was a revelation." Later, when he began research for the book he is working on currently, titled The Civil War of 1812
and involving Americans living in Ontario during that war, he again encountered records of the councils. He was intrigued enough to write The Divided Ground
For those who are familiar with the wholesale dispossession of Indians across America, the actions described in The Divided Land
feel inevitable: the Six Nations were always going to lose their lands, the whites were always going to prevail. And Taylor notes that, "Government officials, both British and American, were convinced that the native peoples were doomed, that they must give up their lands, and that their only hope of survival lay in moving to small pockets of land we now call reservations. The question was to what degree this should be done by negotiation and compensation or by more violent means."
Next, Taylor Looks at Another Civil WarAlan Taylor "77, L.H.D. "97 switched from his current project in order to research and write The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution. He has returned to work on The Civil War of 1812 and says it is, in effect, a sequel to The Divided Ground, since it explores a historical period two decades after the Revolution. Both books, Taylor said, involve "what difference it makes in people"s lives when a new boundary is put through their world.—
The Civil War of 1812 will examine what Taylor calls the "complex pattern— of migration from the United States to Upper Canada between the Revolution and 1812 and the divided loyalties of the former U.S. Colonists and citizens. He notes that the majority of Americans who settled in what is now Ontario during that period were motivated by economic reasons—good, inexpensive land available in Canada. Others were Loyalists forced to leave, and still others, especially Quakers, Dunkers, and Mennonites, felt they would be freer to practice their religion within the British Empire. All three groups were put in harm"s way when the United States invaded Upper Canada, and each was compelled to decide whether to take part in the hostilities and, if so, on which side.
Taylor is researching the new book now, with publication planned for 2009 or 2010.
But approaching the story with a sense of doom-by-hindsight robs the reader of an opportunity to break away from a stereotype"which Taylor carefully refutes. The people of the Six Nations, he points out, were far removed from those who "sold" Manhattan Island for a few dollars and far removed from native peoples who might not have understood European notions of private property.
"There's a tendency to freeze Indians in time, as if they were always the same way," Taylor said. "But the Indians had more than one hundred and fifty years of commercial dealings with Colonial peoples. They were not stupid. They had noticed that, unlike their earlier belief that only a few settlers would come to their lands, an immense number had come in. They knew what lands sold for to settlers. They concluded that they should try to become landlords, renting their lands to settlers and retaining ultimate ownership of the land."
The leaders of the Six Nations suggested alternatives to the outright purchase (for far less than market value) of their lands by governments. They preferred to lease lands to settlers. At a wide-ranging council held in 1793, American representatives offered a confederacy of Indian leaders $50,000 in goods and a $10,000 annuity if they would agree to certain land cessions. The confederacy, whose goal was to keep American settlement behind the Ohio River, countered:
As no consideration whatsoever can induce us to sell the lands on which we get sustenance for our women and children, we hope we may be allowed to point out a mode by which your settlers may be easily removed and peace thereby obtained. Brothers: We know that these settlers are poor, or they would never have ventured to live in a country which has been in continual trouble ever since they crossed the Ohio. Divide, therefore, this large sum of money, which you have offered to us, among these people."
That, Taylor says, the Colonial, federal, and state governments could not do. Frontier expansion was an American imperative for more than jingoistic reasons, he writes, noting that "only continued public land sales could generate the revenue needed to sustain the nation's government and to fund its Revolutionary War debt."
The people of Iroquoia were increasingly surrounded by a white population reared on hearthside tales of Indian atrocities and convinced of its cultural superiority. Indians suffered as governments found it "very useful to nurture, construct, and perpetuate the stereotype of native peoples as primitive, unchanging, and violent," Taylor says. "Only the continued consumption of Indian land to make private property could sustain the American social order that combined inequality with opportunity."