The revered, late Harvard educated Wilcomb E. Washburn, one of America’s most versatile and accomplished historians, brilliantly summarized the British-Tribal-Colonial issue of the American Revolutionary War period this way. (Edited for brevity)
“The role of the American Indian during the American Revolution was a shadowy and tragic one … It was a shadowy role, but an important one. It was shadowy not only because the Indian operated physically from the interior forests of North America and made his presence felt suddenly and violently on the seaboard settlements, but because the Indian was present also in the subconscious mind of the colonists as a central ingredient in the conflict with the Mother Country.
After a century and a half of [nerve-wracking] exploration and settlement, the English colonists, in 1763, were finally masters of the coastal areas of North America. With rapidly growing populations they now turned inward away from the sea to a larger destiny. The Great War for Empire in the 1750s and 1760s had resulted in the expulsion of the French political and military presence from the interior. The powerful Indian nations who lived in the region were now unable to play one European power off against the other. Their conflicts with the English would now be conducted without benefit of European allies.
The need to coordinate British power in North America in the face of the French threat had led, in 1755, to the appointment of a superintendent of Indian affairs for the northern department, an office to which Sir William Johnson was appointed. In 1756 a similar superintendency for the southern colonies was established, with Sir Edmond Atkin as superintendent. The superintendents operated in subordination to the commander-in-chief of British forces in America. While not taking the conduct of Indian relations entirely out of the hands of the colonial governors and assemblies, the existence of these new colonial officers marked a significant diminution of the powers inherited and assumed by the individual English colonies [during the laissez-faire period between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in England and the French and Indian War of the 1750s when the North American colonies were essentially ignored].
With the conclusion of the Great War for Empire, the English government applied further controls over colonial freedom to act, particularly in restricting settlement westward within the chartered limits of the colonies. By the Proclamation of 1763, [shortly after the ascension of George III to the English throne,] the lands beyond the Appalachian mountain chain were declared off limits to colonial governments, the lands being “reserved” to the Indians under the cognizance of the British Crown which reasserted its sovereignty and control over the area. [British claimed sovereignty over North American lands will be critical later on when the Americans defeat the British in North America.] Although the anger of the colonies was tempered by the knowledge that the freeze was a temporary measure and not necessarily permanent, it marked another example of the tightening noose placed by the home government over colonial freedom of action.
The status of the Indian nations of the interior is not easy to describe. Certainly they attributed to themselves independent status which they felt able to maintain by force of arms. The English government, on the other hand, asserted ultimate sovereignty over Indian lands by virtue of the ancient charters which former kings of England had granted to those undertaking to plant colonies in the New World. Though speculative in origin and based on ignorance of the geography of the New World and of the power of the Indian nations in the interior, the charters were brought forth in legal arguments whenever the possibility of their full realization was possible.
In their dealings with the Indian nations, the English authorities utilized the treaty form of negotiation in which solemn covenants were entered into as between equals. During the period 1763 to 1775, a series of boundaries between the colonists and the Indians of the interior were created from Lake Ontario to Florida, confirming in the minds of Indians (and of many colonists) the belief that the Indian country was closed [importantly, by the British] to speculation and settlement by the increasingly aggressive colonists.”
“Lord Dunmore’s War of 1774 marked the beginning of the breakdown of the arrangements by which the seaboard colonies and the Indian nations of the interior were to be kept apart. Lord Dunmore, royal governor of Virginia, appointed by King George III himself, sought to seize the abandoned Fort Pitt, captured from the French during the Great War for Empire, in support of Virginia’s charter claims. Dunmore’s move into the trans-Allegheny areas of western Pennsylvania (Virginia’s charter claims were to the west and northwest where West Virginia now sits) led to war with the Delawares and Shawnees. The conflict triggered a response from the Iroquois to the north [standing in for] the Shawnees and Delawares.
“Superintendent Johnson worked diligently to keep the Iroquois out of war. He pointed out that the Six Nations (who comprised the Iroquois Confederacy) had renewed and confirmed the “Covenant Chain subsusting between us” at the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, in October 1768. But the Iroquois demanded to know why whites were not honoring the former treaties and boundary lines and were moving beyond the mountains into the Ohio River valley.
In July 1774, while arguing in council to forestall Iroquois involvement in Dunmore’s War, Johnson suddenly died and was succeeded by his nephew and son-in-law, Guy Johnson. Guy Johnson was relieved when, in a series of conferences culminating in a great meeting at Onondaga, New York in October 1774, the Iroquois decided to ratify the pledge to remain at peace with the English and to persuade the Shawnees to settle their differences with the Virginians. Joseph Brant, a Mohawk graduate of Eleazar Wheelock’s Indian School at Lebanon, Connecticut [later moved to Hanover, New Hampshire, where it became known as Dartmouth College], was particularly persuasive in these conferences.”
The English government, meanwhile, continued its policy of restraining colonial expansion into the territory reserved to the tribes. By the Quebec Act of 1774, the seaboard colonies were seemingly shut off from expansion into the northwestern lands they claimed by charter, those lands now being incorporated into the new British province of Quebec. The fact that this restriction was in the form of an Act of Parliament and not an administrative decree, made it all the more damaging to the pretensions of the colonies. By the act, the province of Quebec was extended as far south as the Ohio River. Control was placed in the hands of a royal governor with a standing army under his command to support him and with no [colonial] representative assembly to bother him.
“While the Quebec Act is usually interpreted in terms of its religious significance (its provisions for religious toleration of Catholicism outraged good [colonial] Protestants), in fact, as historian Francis Jennings has pointed out, the act was more significant in putting a brake on the land speculation of the seaboard colonists, and fixing sovereignty and control of the areas of potential expansion in England and in Parliament, rather than in America and in colonial legislatures.
Whether one seeks to explain the subsequent break as a direct consequence of the British government’s attempt to stymie colonial land speculation and expansion, or merely indirectly related to it, there is no doubt that British restrictions on colonial freedom of action in this, as in other fields, helped to convince the colonists that violent reaction might be the preferable alternative. Violence was not long in coming. When the citizens of Boston threw overboard English tea [while, interestingly, dressed as tribal members] the English government responded by closing the Port of Boston. In explaining the growing crisis to the Iroquois at a conference in January 1775, Guy Johnson asserted that:
‘This dispute was solely occasioned by some people, who notwithstanding a law of the King and his wise Men, would not let some Tea land, but destroyed it, on which he was angry, and sent some Troops with the General [Thomas Gage], whom you have long known, to see the Laws executed and bring the people to their sences, and as he is proceeding with great wisdom, to shew them their great mistake, I expect it will soon be over.’
[It was also in 1775 that, despite some resistance from tribes such as the Shawnee, Daniel Boone blazed his Wilderness Trail through the Cumberland Gap in the Appalachian Mountains from North Carolina and Tennessee into Kentucky. There he founded the village of Boonesborough, Kentucky, one of the first American settlements west of the Appalachians. Before the end of the 18th century, more than 200,000 European immigrants, mostly Scots-Irish, migrated to Kentucky and beyond by following the route marked by Boone. Boone lost two sons to tribal attacks during this effort.]
Neither the loyalists nor the patriots sought to enlist tribal support at this time. Indeed, both sides urged the tribes to remain neutral on the grounds that the disputes were a family quarrel in which the tribes were not concerned. Yet, informally, the line was not so clearly drawn.
Colonial planter George Washington, in the winter of 1774 -1775, recruited some gunmen from among the minor Eastern tribes, the Stockbridge, Passamaquoddy, St. John’s and Penobscot Indians. By the fall of 1775, General Gage, the British commander, would use Washington’s actions to justify his orders to Guy Johnson and John Stuart (who had succeeded Atkin as superintendent of Indian affairs for the Southern Department) to bring the tribes into the war when opportunity offered.”
In July 1775, the Continental Congress proposed a plan similar to the superintendencies created by the Crown for managing tribal affairs except that three geographical departments instead of two were created. Commissioners were appointed for each department. The Congress also drafted a talk which could be delivered by the commissioners to any tribes in their district. The talk asserted that:
‘This is a family quarrel between us and Old England. You Indians are not concerned in it. We don’t wish you to take up the hatchet against the king’s troops. We desire you to remain at home, and not join either side, but keep the hatchet buried deep.’
“Not until the summer of 1776 did either the Americans or British formally and officially attempt to involve the Iroquois, the most powerful northern nation, on their side. Informal approaches, however, were made with increasing frequency. In July 1775, colonial firebrand Ethan Allen of Vermont sent a message to the Iroquois urging them to shun the King’s side. Allen asserted:
‘I know how to shute and ambush just like the Indian and want your Warriors to come and see me and help me fight Regulars. You know they Stand all along close Together Rank and file and my men fight so as Indians Do. I want your Warriors to Join with me and my Warriors like Brothers and Ambush the Regulars, if you will I will Give you Money Blankets Tomehawks, Knives and Paint and the Like as much as you say because they first killed our men when it was Peace time.’
Meanwhile, the British were similarly exciting the Six Nations. The Indians were invited “to feast on a Bostonian and drink his Blood.” With good anthropological understanding the British provided a roast ox and a pipe of wine as the symbolic substitute for the rebels.
The Iroquois at first resisted the blandishments of both sides. As a Seneca warrior put it, in reply to the warnings against the Americans made by Colonel John Butler, who acted for Colonel Johnson in the latter’s absence:
‘We have now lived in Peace with them a long time and we resolve to continue to do so as long as we can – when they hurt us it is time enough to strike them. It is true they have encroach’d on our Lands, but of this we shall speak to them. If you are so strong Brother, and they but as a weak Boy, why ask our assistance. It is true I am tall and strong but I will reserve my strength to strike those who injure me. If you have so great plenty of Warriors, Powder, Lead and Goods, and they are so few and little of either, be strong and make good use of them. You say their Powder is rotten – We have found it good. You say they are all mad, foolish, wicked, and deceitful – I say you are so and they are wise for you want us to destroy ourselves in your War and they advise us to live in Peace. Their advice we intend to follow.’
Although the tribes refused to be swayed by either side at this time, uncertainty as to how they might be affected by the struggle caused bitter divisions to be formed among them.
Meanwhile, in July 1776, Colonel Guy Johnson and Joseph Brant, the Mohawk Chief, had returned to New York from a visit to England. While in London, Brant had been warmly received and highly honored. George Romney [a distant relative of the 2012 Republican presidential candidate of the same name] had painted his portrait. Brant had become more than ever convinced that the Indian future lay with the British Crown and not with the American colonists.
After distinguishing himself at the British victory in the Battle of Long Island on August 27, 1776 [which forced Washington back into New York City; eventually up the Hudson River to White Plains where he lost again and then across the Hudson into far northern New Jersey and then a fighting retreat into Pennsylvania at Trenton], Brant slipped through the patriot lines in order to return to Iroquoia and bring his countrymen into the fight against the Americans. In conjunction with Colonel Butler, the British commander at Fort Niagara, Brant succeeded in getting four of the six Iroquois nations to take up the hatchet against the Americans. Only the Oneida and the Tuscarora refused. The decision for war was made at a great congress at Irondequoit in July 1777, at which the tribes were finally overwhelmed by massive gifts of rum, provisions and useful goods.
The bloody seal to the fateful decision made by the Iroquois to break their traditional unity (as well as their neutrality) was the Battle of Oriskany [New York] in August 1777, which occurred when American General Nicholas Herkimer was on his way to relieve the beleaguered Fort Stanwix. Herkimer failed, but the Seneca allies of the British in particular, suffered heavy losses. Seventeen of the thirty-three warriors killed were Seneca as were sixteen of the twenty-nine wounded — a horrendous 53% casualty rate.
In tribal terms, where success in battle was measured by the smallness of one’s own losses, the battle was a disaster. Even more galling than the men lost, was the fact that the Great Peace established by the Iroquois Confederacy was now dissolved. Brother was fighting brother. Oneidas and Tuscaroras had fought with Herkimer against their fellow Iroquois on the King’s side.
Shortly after the battle of Oriskany, the patriot cause seemed vulnerable to destruction at the hands of General John Burgoyne who had moved south from Canada into the New York colony in June 1777 in order to cut off the middle and southern colonies from those in New England. On the way, tribal auxiliaries in his command murdered a young lady, Miss Jane McCrea, in a celebrated incident which fed the fuel of patriot propaganda that (as Jefferson put it in the Declaration of Independence) the King had;
“…endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontier the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare are an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”
When [colonial] General Philip Schuyler received word, during a conference with the Oneidas and Tuscaroras at Albany in September, that the American army had engaged Burgoyne’s at Freeman’s Farm, near present day Saratoga, NY, he immediately asked for their assistance and received it. The warriors, fresh from their participation in Herkimer’s campaign, joined General Horatio Gates’ army and rendered invaluable assistance against the British in the most important battle of the American Revolution. “On September 13, 1777, British Major General John Burgoyne led his army across the northern Hudson River to the west bank, where he intended to follow a road southward to his ultimate destination – Albany, New York. He was aware that an American army was in the area, but his inability to retain the services of tribal scouts made it impossible to judge the size and exact location of the enemy. [Burgoyne made so many strategic errors and tactical mistakes – a ten-wagon train of his personal possessions – that he literally guaranteed his own defeat.]
The American Northern Command under Horatio Gates, a recent replacement for Philip Schuyler, had installed itself on nearby Bemis Heights, a 300-foot-high outcropping above the Hudson, nine miles south of Saratoga. Fortifications had been erected there under the supervision of a volunteer, Polish engineer, Colonel Thaddeus Kosciuszko.
Following a chance encounter on the 18th, the armies prepared to do battle on the following day. Burgoyne followed a risky strategy of dividing his force into three columns; two were to proceed through the woods toward Bemis Heights and the other was to follow the main road that paralleled the Hudson. The willingness to split his force and imperil communications underscored Burgoyne’s continuing contempt of the Americans’ military abilities.
Gates was usually content to keep his forces behind their fortifications, but he yielded to Colonel Benedict Arnold’s pleas for a bold offensive move. Daniel Morgan and his expert riflemen were dispatched to intercept the British right flank under Simon Fraser.
Protracted fighting occurred in a clearing known as Freeman’s Farm – Freeman was a Loyalist who had earlier departed for Canada. It appeared that the superior American numbers were going to deliver a decisive victory, but the arrival of German mercenary forces under Riedesel on the left flank strengthened British resistance.
After more than three hours of battle, the Americans ran low on ammunition and withdrew. The British had suffered in excess of 500 casualties, while the Americans had sustained more than 280. Though his troop strength had been weakened, after fortifying his camp and waiting in vain for reinforcements from General Clinton in New York, Burgoyne attempted another assault on October 7. [Clinton, for unknown reasons, had sent his army south to Philadelphia.]
Ignoring orders from the jealous Gates to remain in his quarters, Arnold impulsively joined the fighting and led an attack that captured key strong points, forcing the British to retreat to Saratoga (modern Schuylerville). There, surrounded by a belated outpouring of local militia, Burgoyne surrendered ten days later. The American victory changed the course of history, as it convinced the French government to formally recognize the colonist’s cause and enter the war as their ally.
The ambitious Benedict Arnold, who was seriously wounded in the leg during the battle – a wound that derailed his rise in the American Army – felt that he was never given the proper credit by Washington for his exploits at the Battle of Saratoga – and he was probably right – but Washington – correctly, as it turned out – felt that he did not have the right temperament to be appointed to field grade at that time. This stalemate would lead to one of the most fascinating episodes of the Revolutionary War – Arnold and André.
John André was a young British Army officer hanged as a spy by the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War for assisting Benedict Arnold’s attempted surrender of the fort at West Point, New York to the British.
In 1779, André became Adjutant general of the British Army in America with the rank of major. In April of that year, he took charge, in New York, of British secret intelligence. By the next year (1780), he had begun to plot with American General Benedict Arnold.
Arnold’s Loyalist wife, Peggy Shippen, had been a close friend of André, and possibly a paramour; the two had courted in Philadelphia prior to Shippen’s marriage to Arnold. She was born in 1760 into a prominent and wealthy Philadelphia family which included two Philadelphia mayors and the founder of Shippensburg, Pennsylvania, Edward Shippen.
He was a judge and member of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania; the Shippen family was politically divided and the judge was considered either a “Neutralist” or a covert “Tory” with allegiance to the British crown.
In September 1777, the British captured Philadelphia. The Shippen family, in keeping with their political interests and stations, held social gatherings at their home. A frequent guest was John André, then an officer in General William Howe’s command. André paid particular attention to Peggy, known as a great beauty. In June 1778, following France’s entry into the war after the Battle of Saratoga, the British withdrew from the city. André left Philadelphia with his fellow troops, but the two of them remained in contact. Andre gave Peggy a keepsake, a lock of his hair. She kept it throughout her life.
In late summer of 1778, Shippen met Arnold, the commandant, or Continental military commander of Philadelphia. Regardless of differences between Arnold and Judge Shippen, the general began courting Peggy. Shortly after Shippen’s oldest sister, Elizabeth Shippen, became engaged to her first cousin Edward Burd, Arnold sent Shippen’s father a letter asking for her hand. Edward Shippen, however, was skeptical of Arnold due to the latter’s legal problems.
In 1779, the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania had brought eight formal charges against Arnold of corruption and malfeasance with the money of the federal and state governments, and Arnold was subsequently convicted on two relatively minor counts. Despite this, Edward Shippen eventually granted permission for Arnold and Peggy to marry. On April 8, 1779, Benedict Arnold (age 38) and Peggy Shippen (age 18) were married.
Even as a newlywed, the headstrong Peggy continued her contact with her “dear friend,” Major André, who had become General Clinton’s spy chief. She and Arnold also had close friends who were either actively Loyalist or sympathetic to that cause. Some historians believed Peggy Shippen instigated the correspondence between Arnold and André and sent military secrets to the British before her wedding.
In May 1779, not long after Peggy and Benedict married, the disgruntled Arnold [he felt Washington had disrespected his contributions] hired Joseph Stansbury to initiate communications offering his services to the British. General Clinton gave Major André orders to pursue the possibility, and secret communications began between André and Arnold. The messages they exchanged were sometimes transmitted through Peggy’s actions; [existing] letters written in her hand also include coded communications written by Benedict Arnold in invisible ink.
General Arnold resigned his Philadelphia command in March 1779. Pursuant to the secret communications with the British, he sought and obtained the command of West Point, a critical American defense post in the highlands of the Hudson River. Peggy and their infant son, Edward Shippen Arnold (born March 19, 1780) joined him there in a home on the Hudson two miles south of West Point.
She continued to be one of the go-betweens in the secret conspiracy. Arnold, who now commanded West Point, had agreed to surrender it to the British for £20,000 (approximately $1.25 million in today’s dollars) — a move that would have enabled the British to cut New England off from the rest of the rebellious colonies. The two met secretly near West Point in mid-September, 1780.
To aid André’s escape through American lines after the meeting, Arnold provided him with civilian clothes and a passport where he traveled under the name John Anderson. Hidden in his stocking, he bore six papers written in Arnold’s hand that showed the British how to take the fort. This was unnecessary, since Clinton already knew the fort’s layout. In another unwise move, Joshua Hett Smith, who was accompanying him, left him just before he was captured.
André rode on in safety until 9 a.m. on September 23, when he came near Tarrytown, New York, where armed militiamen John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart and David Williams stopped him. Paulding however realized he was a spy and took him to Continental Army headquarters in Sands Hill. The papers were discovered and forwarded to General Washington.
At first, all went well for André since the post commandant Lieutenant Colonel John Jameson decided to send him to Arnold, never suspecting that a high-ranking hero of the Revolution could be a turncoat, but Major Benjamin Tallmadge, head of Continental Army Intelligence, arrived and persuaded Jameson to bring the prisoner back. He offered intelligence from Washington’s own spy ring, the Culper Ring in New York City [among whom was the still mysterious female spy – Agent 355] showing that a high-ranking officer was planning to defect to the British but was unaware of who it was.
But, Jameson insisted on sending a note to Arnold informing him of the entire situation. Jameson did not want his army career to be wrecked later for having wrongly believed his general was a traitor. Arnold received Jameson’s note while at breakfast with his officers, made an excuse to leave the room and was not seen again.
Arnold first dashed upstairs to Peggy, then fled, eventually reaching the HMS Vulture (originally sent to transport André) on the Hudson River. The Jameson note had given Arnold time to escape to the British in New York City where he was commissioned into the British Army as a brigadier general.
Peggy Shippen Arnold was dressing in anticipation of hosting a breakfast for Washington and his party. Based on the brief discussion with her husband, she pretended hysteria in order to falsely convince General Washington and his staff that she had nothing to do with her husband’s betrayal. The delay caused by her histrionics allowed Arnold time to escape, leaving Peggy with their infant son.
A different fate had befallen Major André. On September 29, 1780, a military court had found André guilty of being behind American lines “under a feigned name and in a disguised habit” and ordered that “Major André, Adjutant-General to the British Army, ought to be considered as a Spy from the enemy, and that agreeable to the law and usage of nations, it is their opinion, he ought to suffer death.” Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in New York, did all he could to save André, his favorite aide, but refused to surrender Arnold in exchange for André even though he personally despised Arnold. André appealed to George Washington to be executed by firing squad but by the rules of war, he was hanged as a spy, although in uniform, at Tappan, New York on October 2, 1780.”
After sadly witnessing André’s execution and fearing for her safety, she traveled to Philadelphia to stay with her family. She also played the innocent when asked about her husband, even though she knew his whereabouts. Philadelphia authorities soon found a letter from André to Peggy written from British-occupied New York—the so-called “millinery letter”—and seized upon it as proof that Arnold’s wife had been complicit in the treason.
That led the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania to banish her from Philadelphia. In November 1780, her father escorted Peggy and her infant son to the shores of the Hudson where she boarded a boat to New York City to join Arnold. Arnold later led British forces on raids in Virginia, and against New London and Groton, Connecticut, before the war effectively ended with the American victory at Yorktown. In the winter of 1782, Arnold moved to London with his Loyalist wife. He was well received by King George III and the Tories, but frowned upon by the opposition Whigs.
In 1787, Arnold returned to the merchant business with his sons Richard and Henry in Saint John, New Brunswick, Canada. He returned to London to settle permanently in 1791, where he died ten years later.
In 1789 Peggy returned briefly to Philadelphia, accompanied by her infant son George and a maid to visit with her parents and family; she was treated coldly by Philadelphians in spite of her father’s considerable influence. She sailed back to New Brunswick with young George in the spring of 1790, and from there returned to England with Arnold, leaving there in late December 1791. Their departure was unhappy, with mobs gathering on their property to protest against them and calling them “traitors.”
After Arnold died in 1801, Peggy auctioned the contents of their home, the home itself and many of her personal possessions to pay off his debts. She died in London in 1804, reportedly of cancer, and was buried with her husband at St. Mary’s Church in Battersea on August 25, 1804 having borne Arnold five children who survived infancy.
Turning again to the war, once the British thrust was turned back at Saratoga, warfare in the northeast in 1778 and 1779 consisted of guerrilla raids by British supported Iroquois on interior colonial settlements such as that at Cherry Valley, Pennsylvania where 33 women and children were massacred, 79 women and children were kidnapped and forced into slavery, and 182 survivors were left to endure the winter with no supplies; and at other Pennsylvania settlements like Wyoming where tribes took 227 scalps and only 5 prisoners.
The raids led to a massive (for the time) counter-offensive planned by George Washington and commanded by New Hampshire General John Sullivan, which entered the Iroquois homeland and applied a scorched-earth policy to the villages and cornfields which the Indians had prudently abandoned, driving them back to the British garrison at Fort Niagara. Sullivan offered the tribes a treaty of supplies for support of the colonies but most declined and continued to terrorize, murder, scalp, rape, pillage and plunder on a lesser scale.
Years later, in 1790, when the Seneca leader, Cornplanter, was negotiating with President Washington, he recounted that; ‘When your army entered the country of the Six Nations we called you Town Destroyer; and to this day when that name is heard our women look behind them and turn pale, and our children cling close to the necks of their mothers.’
Next time: The Tribal-Colonial war in the South.