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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Washington and the Indians

By the time Washington became president, Indian tribes had already lost a good portion of their lands as more and more settlers pushed west. According to Joseph Ellis in His Excellency: George Washington, the new president respected his former adversaries and wanted to find a way to protect them from further losses.

His policy was to try to create several Indian “homelands.” He agreed with his Secretary of War, Henry Knox, who believed the independent tribes should be treated as foreign nations: “Indians being the prior occupants possess the right of the Soil … To dispossess them … would be a gross violation of the fundamental Laws of Nature and of the distributive Justice which is the glory of a nation.” (p.212)

Washington wanted to avoid the removal of Indians that occurred 40 years later — the famous "Trail of Tears." In 1790, Washington hosted a charismatic Creek chief named Alexander McGillivray and 26 other chiefs for several weeks treating them to “official dinners, parades and diplomatic ceremonies.” The result was the Proclamation of 1790, an executive order that banned private or state encroachment on land reserved for the Indians.

But, Washington finally had to give up his vision. The Georgia legislature defied the treaty and sold 15 million acres to speculators known as the Yahoo Companies. Washington was forced to send military expeditions to quell Indian uprisings even though he complained “They, poor wretches, have no press thro’ which their grievances are related; and it is well known, that when one side only of a Story is heard, and often repeated, the human mind becomes impressed with it insensibly.” (p. 213-214)

His words would ring true for more than a century.

For more on American Indians during Washington’s era, see:

The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1608 – 1814
by John Grenier

The Scratch of a Pen: 1763 and the Transformation of North America
by Colin Calloway

Chronicle of the Indian Wars: From Colonial Times to Wounded Kneeby Alan Axelrod

A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745 – 1815 by Gregory Dowd

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