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352 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 16 illus., 1 table, 6 maps, 3 genealogical charts, appends., notes, index

$39.95 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2789-4

$19.95 paper
ISBN 0-8078-5462-X

Published: Spring 2003

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At the Crossroads
Indians and Empires on a Mid-Atlantic Frontier, 1700-1763

by Jane T. Merritt

Copyright (c) 2003 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.


At the Crossroads

In October 1736, during a treaty council outside Philadelphia at Stenton, Pennsylvania, the Seneca chief Kanickhungo, representing the Six Nations, explained to the proprietor Thomas Penn that, soon after his father William Penn "came into this Country, he and we treated together." "He opened and cleared the Road between this Place and our Nations, which was very much to our good Liking, and it gave us great Pleasure. We now desire that this Road, for the mutual Accommodation and Conveniency of you and us, who travel therein to see each other, may be kept clear and open, free from all Stops or Incumbrances." In a few words, the Iroquois leader invoked a simple element of the landscape, "the Road," as a metaphor for communication, diplomacy, and cultural exchange between Indians and whites. Yet the road also referred to a physical space, a passage that connected national territories, communities, and people, a space used by many parties. Experience had taught Kanickhungo that shared roads often suffered from "Stops or Incumbrances"—like brambles, competition for resources and political power stood in the way of cooperation. He thus invoked the memory of the first colonial peacemaker who had advocated tolerance toward native peoples, and he gently reprimanded the son for his apparent deficiencies. Kanickhungo, like many eighteenth-century Americans, tried to articulate ways that coexistence could work. As representative of one imperial power addressing another, he drew on metaphors that implored native Americans and Euramericans to be equally responsible for keeping the route between their communities clear, to share that frontier as they negotiated a better understanding.[1]

Employing the image of the road to visualize Indian-white relations is useful, partly because the metaphor was integral to eighteenth-century cultural encounters and diplomacy. But roads can also provide an apt metaphor for historians, proffering new paths of inquiry through the tangled landscape of the past. As we construct a more complete picture of native peoples in contact, we can no longer think in terms of two roads meeting, where American Indians are offered few choices: assimilate Euramerican worldviews or resist change. Modern scholarship has explored new and complex relationships within native cultures and between Indians and whites during the first two centuries of contact, discovering roads less traveled. Historians have picked apart the evolution of native American cultural practices, their reactions to the Euramerican presence in North America, and the impact of new technologies on Indian societies. Some have demonstrated the intricate political developments within Indian nations, some the adaptations to a Euramerican market economy and an increasingly white-dominated social landscape, some the various effects of religious revivalism and pan-Indian political activities during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and some the social and gender reordering of native communities. Indeed, the Indian experience of a colonial New World begins to look more like a crossroads, a place where many paths converged, providing divers possibilities and directions to those who passed through.[2]

This book examines the interactions at one such cultural crossroads in Pennsylvania between the late seventeenth century and the 1760s. From the first meeting of the Lenni Lenapes with William Penn, purported to have taken place under an old elm tree at Shackamaxon in October 1682, Indians in the mid-Atlantic region negotiated a common space with European settlers along a shifting frontier where roads both literally and figuratively passed through and between communities, connecting their lives and histories. Here, well-established Indian paths and newly laid colonial roads crisscrossed the landscape, often overlapping. These roads brought travelers along valley floors nestled between the ridges of what Delawares called the Kittatinny, or Endless, Mountains, which linked Iroquoia in the north with the gateway to the Chesapeake Bay. Eventually white inhabitants of New York would use these same paths to reach central Maryland and Virginia. The waterways that connected the Susquehanna and Delaware Rivers to each other and to more distant passages of the Great Lakes region snaked through narrow ravines in the mountain ridges, thus providing all who lived in the mid-Atlantic with commercial networks for trade and travel. Indian trails, with names such as the Tulpehocken Path, Nanticoke Path, Allegheny Path, and the Warriors' Path, which passed through wind and water gaps in the mountains, connected communities or provided specific people with access across the frontier. During this period, roads brought together many groups of immigrant peoples who tried, if somewhat imperfectly, to understand each other.[3]

Kanickhungo's open road and the subsequent convergence of peoples had far-reaching consequences, however, that even diplomats could not foresee. At this crossroads, Indians and whites arrived with a certain willingness to cooperate, but, in negotiating their differences, they redefined themselves and each other. In the following pages, I argue that the differences among Pennsylvania immigrants—whether political, economic, social, religious, ethnic, or racial—once negotiable and often tolerated at a local level, became increasingly characterized by race ("Indianness") by the 1760s. The construction of race as a category is not a new supposition; humans have divided themselves into different groups based on cultural, social, or economic factors throughout history. Less clear, however, is why prolonged intercultural contact often produces deep and long-lasting animosities that are cast in racial terms. In eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, racial divisiveness was not a foregone conclusion, especially in light of the colony's initial policies of tolerance. Yet, by the 1760s, the hybrid nature of frontier life, the competition for resources, and the tensions of an imperial war had engendered a nationalist sentiment among both white and Indian populations. Rather than roads connecting communities, Pennsylvanians called for new territorial and political boundaries to separate and control people. In turn, race became a tool for placing individuals on one side or the other of those national boundaries. Instead of community-based strategies for negotiating alliances and coexistence, as suggested by Kanickhungo in the 1730s, native Americans and Euramerican settlers turned to once-distrusted confederations or empires for protection and support.

Many forces triggered the deterioration of personal relations between Indians and whites in the eighteenth century. Both the frontier as a point of contact and the dynamics of colonial power within that frontier zone affected how Indians and whites reacted to each other. The first part of the book looks at migration and community building in Pennsylvania during the first half of the eighteenth century and the tensions between local autonomy and colonial authority. Before 1750, the frontier was relatively open—akin to what Marvin Mikesell and later John Mack Faragher have called "frontiers of inclusion." It was a region on the fringes of empire, between but not yet dominated by the imperial influences of Great Britain and France. The Indian and white populations were nearly equal outside Philadelphia, and their relations were relatively fluid. From 1700, a variety of ethnic groups moved into the region north and west of Philadelphia between the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers. Delawares, Germans, Mahicans, Scots-Irish, English, Tutelos, Shawnees, and Iroquois came together to form new communities, sometimes overlapping and sometimes defiantly separate but invariably connected by interdependent social, economic, and political networks that drew Indians and non-Indians together.[4]

Kinship and clan affiliations often guided the actions of these local communities. As white traders, political agents, and missionaries became more visible on the frontier, Indians attempted to incorporate them into their regional support networks. Whites, in turn, sometimes accepted the responsibilities of reciprocity entailed in these kinlike relationships and shared in the material and emotional lives of Indians. Moravian missionaries, for example, participated in Indian alliances, as did many individual fur traders or political go-betweens. Although whites sometimes vied for use of the same land and resources, they also negotiated social and economic relations that brought relative stability to the frontier. Although Indians increasingly depended on a market economy, which changed the nature of reciprocal alliances, they also used economic exchange to their own advantage, whether to gain access to needed goods and services or as a means of political leverage and to critique white society. As long as the penetration of colonial infrastructures on the frontier was minimal, Indians and whites had to rely on each other for a modicum of support. As long as Euramerican settlement on the frontier did not outpace the ability of Indians to incorporate them into their communities, roads and metaphors of the road would act as bridges between their cultures.

Imperial infrastructures might have been weak on the frontier before the Seven Years' War, but internal colonialism—that control imposed by local governing bodies over subject populations—still helped to shape the course of Indian-white relations in Pennsylvania. During the first half of the eighteenth century, Great Britain was creating an empire in North America, with varying degrees of success. In Pennsylvania, empire building entailed continual negotiations between the proprietors and the Six Nations, who competed with each other for local political power and attempted to dominate those who lived on the inclusive frontier of Pennsylvania. Although the two groups sometimes disagreed over specific issues, they cooperated more often than not to regulate the disposition of land and direct the settlement and development of frontier communities in their respective suzerainties. At times, leaders pitted Indian and white inhabitants against each other to make a larger point to their colonial rivals. For the proprietors and the Six Nations, frontier inhabitants provided a protective buffer from each other but also established broader claims to territory.[5]

Yet internal factionalism also hampered internal colonialism. Instead of a unified, omnipotent colonial authority conquering or subduing a homogeneous population, marginal and often antagonistic parties within these political structures competed over who would control the frontier. Religious groups exerted power within and outside normal political channels, for instance, but were mostly at odds with provincial leaders and the proprietors. To enhance their own position in Pennsylvania, Quakers and Moravians established separate alliances with local Indian groups, who, in turn, were disaffected with the Six Nations. Delawares and other independent Indian communities, having gained the support of Quakers and Moravians, paid metaphoric lip service to their "uncles," the Iroquois, but denounced any concrete obligations to them as a political authority. White settlers also worked outside existing political systems. Profiting from the animosities between Quaker assembly members and the proprietors, they avoided paying quitrents, squatted on western lands, and freely used available natural resources. Before the 1750s, Indian and white frontier communities as far west as the Ohio Valley were able to manipulate colonial factions or use militant resistance to render colonial authorities ineffective and maintain relative autonomy.

Within this context of negotiated power relations, individual communities struggled to position themselves in a rapidly changing world. Native Americans, in particular, confronted new cultural choices, or roads, that veered from older practices, responses, and beliefs. Yet they approached these challenges with a keen ability to adapt. Chapters 3 and 4 examine how Indians, particularly those living in and around German Moravian mission towns, adjusted to the growing presence of white settlers before 1755 and the effects these interactions had on the dynamics within Indian communities and their relationship to colonial authorities. Their societies in a state of flux, native Americans found that adapting to some Euramerican practices, such as Christianity, and participating in a larger market economy provided new strategies for survival. Euramerican social systems and economic practices did not replace customary native habits, however; instead, many Indians, contending with shifting circumstances, created new identities from the cultural material at hand.[6]

Adaptation to Euramerican culture also came at a price. By 1754, Christian mission communities began to unravel, even as they succeeded economically. Partially jealous of the success of the Christian Indians and their independent alliance with the Moravians, the Six Nations reasserted pressure on Christian Indians to move north into the Six Nations' sphere of influence. Adaptation also brought Christian Indians into direct economic competition with white settlers, who increasingly encroached on Indian lands. These external forces exacerbated internal conflicts, and the subsequent social fractures within the mission communities further eroded Indian autonomy in Pennsylvania. Delawares and Mahicans, for instance, although nominally united as Christians, still harbored deep-seated ethnic animosities toward each other and, by the early 1750s, began to make separate decisions accordingly. Gender and generational conflict also divided native families, prompting individual members to question the efficacy of cultural accommodation and rethink where their loyalties lay.

In essence, by 1755, Pennsylvania Indians had reached another crossroads, where they would revisit their past, account for their present, and make choices about their future. The third part of the book deals with this transition, a period occupied with war and attempts at peace but dominated by the consolidation of colonial powers over an intensified frontier. By the late 1740s, white settlers flocked to sparsely populated frontier regions not yet ceded by Indians. The proprietors and provincial governors complained that immigrants acted illegally, yet these colonial leaders also used white settlers as a toehold for their own claims to western lands. The imperial conflict between Britain and France over North America opened the way for colonial expansion into the frontier as well. Both nations vied for domination of the lucrative fur trade in the Ohio Valley, which required the cooperation of Indians. Inadvertently, or perhaps intentionally, they invited fierce competition between local Indian and white communities for land and resources. The Seven Years' War, an outgrowth of these imperial conflicts, further undermined the negotiated interactions between Indians and whites and became a litmus test of their loyalties. As Britain and its Iroquois allies consolidated power over frontier regions, Indian and white communities were pressed to clarify their relationship with those nations and, consequently, with each other. Indians living between the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers and in the Ohio Valley attacked white settlements along the Pennsylvania frontier during 1755 and 1756 and launched the colony into wider war. They committed very specific acts of violence on very specific people, especially those inhabiting contested land. In return, white settlers exacted a bloody revenge on Delawares, in particular, but soon indiscriminately on Indians as a whole.[7]

The savage frontier war in Pennsylvania did not necessarily come to pass because of racial divisions between Indians and whites. The violence that broke out in 1755 and 1756 was not between strangers; it was between people who had become neighbors, if not kin. Rather than a sign of essential differences between communities, the conflict, instead, was born of their familiarity, even similarity. By the 1750s, both physical and cultural boundaries between Indian and white communities on the Pennsylvania frontier had been blurred. Indians and whites grappled with common social, economic, and political concerns. Peoples across Pennsylvania experienced a noticeable revitalization of religious activity, they wrestled with shifting gender and social relations within the household, they struggled to subsist in an expanding transatlantic market economy, and they hoped to create alliances with more powerful political forces without losing the integrity of their own communities. Still, Indians and whites who had been able to share common ground felt a deep sense of betrayal by the other during the war. White settlers, driven from their farms by hostile Delawares, concluded that outward signs of a common humanity and a willingness to adapt elements of English civilization did not reflect Indians' allegiances. Indians, too, realized that the ritualized alliances that had affirmed their relationships with white neighbors had lost shared meaning.[8]

Between 1756 and 1758, a series of treaty conferences took place in Pennsylvania where frontier inhabitants addressed the deep hostilities that separated them. They tried to piece together the history of their common past and restore the roads that had connected their communities. Quakers gained political influence as engineers of Indian diplomacy and became arbitrators for the eastern Delawares who had attacked white frontier settlements. But Quakers and Delawares also had to contend with the political machinations of the Pennsylvania Assembly, the proprietors, and the Six Nations. Here, at least two different ways of recording events came into play and, sometimes, into conflict. For diplomatic purposes, native Americans drew on the oral traditions of their cultures and used wampum to record and remember key events. By contrast, Euramericans relied on written documents, such as deeds of purchase, private and public correspondence, and transcripts of legislative meetings. These two methods of commemorating and communicating events did not necessarily compete. In eighteenth-century political forums, Indians and whites recognized and used each other's methods to reach agreement. Common metaphors and diplomatic rituals brought warring factions together to negotiate, but the conferences also exposed the contested memories that each had of the past and its present meaning. No one could agree completely on the relationship between Indian nations and how those alliances might affect the terms of peace with Pennsylvania. Had the Iroquois conquered the Delawares in the seventeenth century, thus claiming power over their current political actions? Did Delawares, in turn, willingly sell land to the English? Who should be blamed for the recent war and the current diplomatic impasse? As they debated exactly how events had unfolded and who had made what promises, conflicting memories of the past took shape. Indeed, political representatives began to articulate different histories that reflected the diverging national interests of native inhabitants and the increasingly imperial aspirations of Euramericans.[9]

Instead of smoothing over cross-cultural conflict, the diplomatic war of words underlined some glaring differences between communities and contributed to those differences. Part 4 looks specifically at the ways that Pennsylvanians redrew physical and metaphysical boundaries between their communities and how racial rhetoric emerged by 1763 to displace the nuanced interactions that had previously characterized relations between native Americans and white settlers in Pennsylvania. Indians and whites used their increasingly dissimilar memories of the past to justify violent retaliation during the Seven Years' War and to assert their own group solidarity. In the late 1750s, leaders of frontier communities emphasized the need for new territorial boundaries, such as a line of forts manned by colonial militias, to control trade and diplomacy and to avoid further hostilities. The desire for physical separation also reverberated in new portrayals of the people that faced each other across those boundaries. Categories of difference were not new to the eighteenth century. Indians and whites in North America had always carved their social world into various groupings of us and them, sometimes predicated on religious, linguistic, or ethnic characteristics, sometimes on differences of rank and status. English writers in the early modern period had often depicted Indians as physically akin to Europeans, but at an earlier stage of cultural development. The environment had supposedly played an important role in their so-called primitive appearance and culture, their faces merely darkened by the sun and body paint. William Penn, and later the Moravians, believed that Indians were related to the Jews, "of the stock of the Ten Tribes," because of the resemblance of their "Countenance" and rituals. Native Americans, therefore, could be encouraged to rejoin the civilized peoples of Europe, eventually to become their cultural equals. But the eighteenth century brought the Enlightenment and a range of scientific categories that attached bodily differences—such as skin color, complexion, and facial features—to the temperament, social character, and national culture of different groups of people.[10]

Consequently, by the mid-eighteenth century, "Indianness" as a racial category had changed dramatically since initial contact between English and Indians. Early admiration for Indians' physical grandeur and their adaptability often gave way to suspicions of immutable differences that became a mirror for colonial fears. Environmentalism, after all, could work both ways. If Indians did not or could not become English, the English might find themselves transformed by the same dangerous effects of the American wilderness. Puritans in New England, pressed by pious urgency, had projected their inner demons onto Indians, thus alleviating the confusion or ambivalence of their own sinful natures. In eighteenth-century Pennsylvania, a struggle with saintliness did not necessarily dictate the contours of alien others. Instead, Euramericans in the mid-Atlantic region grappled with issues of loyalty to colonial authority, ethnic and religious rivalries, economic competition, and control over land and natural resources. By the 1750s, white frontier inhabitants had experienced a brutal war, restricted access to land, and the tightening grip of colonial control. In turn, they projected their anxieties onto Indian others to regain a sense of stability and to express their own place in the British empire.[11]

Colonial leaders had their own ideas about the place of white settlers. They often viewed Indians and whites on the margins as similarly uncontrollable, a threat to social order. They even pitted these communities against each other to weaken their resistance to authority. A language of "savagism" emerged that was used to describe frontier inhabitants as a whole but that was based on essentialized qualities supposedly peculiar to Indians. Images of the ideal Indian or good Indian encompassed an impossible set of expectations that rendered natives as stoic, wise, noble, articulate, but ultimately conciliatory. After the brutal frontier fighting of the Seven Years' War, the ideal's opposite, the savage or bad Indian, became a prevalent negative measure of behavior and a means for criticizing native American allies who had turned against the English as well as white frontier inhabitants who resisted authority. On one level, then, savagery was not necessarily racially bounded. White elites used the rhetoric to describe and control whites as much as Indians. White frontier inhabitants turned the label on Indians to redefine their own relationship with colonial leaders. By the 1760s, savagery was associated with Indianness, and those native Americans who displayed particular physical traits most often suffered the violent consequences evoked by a generalized fear and hatred of savages.[12]

White frontier inhabitants, such as the Scots-Irish who had been marginalized within the empire, even lumped together with Indians as savages, used violence and the language of savagism as a way to position themselves within the English colonial world, to distinguish themselves as loyal subjects of Great Britain and worthy of its economic and political benefits by denying that Indians had those same rights. The Paxton Boys, for example, redirected their anger over British control onto Indians as enemy others when they murdered a small group of peaceful Conestogas in late 1763. They accused those Indians who had adapted to English culture and subordinated themselves to colonial authority of deceptively hiding behind a mask of civility and breaking their promises of friendship. Like similar diatribes against Pennsylvania Indian communities, the Paxtons' narrative retold past Indian relations as one of brutal violence (on the part of Indians) and unappreciated sacrifice (on the part of whites). Other Euramericans, who condemned the Paxtons' attack, described a different Indian past of primitive innocence to condemn the less-than-ideal present. Yet, whether depicting them as "perfidious" enemies deserving death or once-noble and now-dependent children meriting protection, white settlers manipulated representations of Indians to subvert their claims to territory and equal participation in the 1760s. As competition for resources intensified, as new memories of incompatible pasts gained credence, the once-inclusive frontier changed, and Euramerican immigrants rhetorically usurped Indian nativity and their rights to native lands.[13]

Indians, too, struggled to assert their own identities in relation to competing empires and to respond to racial epithets, which had taken on a life of their own. They had to define themselves vis-à-vis the language of savagism, even deconstruct it. Christian Indians, in particular, did not recognize themselves in the pervasive racial stereotypes, and, hoping to protect the communities and kinship networks they had carefully built, they tried to strip off savage markers and to refashion themselves as model Indians, incapable of violence. Indians also struggled to relate their own versions of the history they had shared with white Pennsylvanians, denying culpability for relations gone awry. Instead, like some Euramericans, Indians drew on images of an ideal past, pointing to William Penn's seventeenth-century policies of tolerance as evidence that his heirs had failed to uphold his legacy of peace. In essence, native Americans and Euramericans blamed each other for undermining the potential peace embedded in an idealized past. Their narratives of a golden age of peaceful coexistence not only belied the brutal violence of the late 1750s and 1760s but created unrealistic expectations that further polarized relations and punctuated the essentialized racial differences found in savagism.

Race and racial rhetoric about Indianness, which had emerged from the complex entanglements of economic competition, the struggle for political power and autonomy, ethnic and religious conflict, and rising nationalist sentiment, increasingly set the tone for Indian-white relations in the late eighteenth century and beyond. Between the 1780s and the Era of Removal, a similar process of contact and conflict repeatedly played out as American settlers moved into frontier regions west of the Ohio River. Initial contact with native Americans led to tentative cooperation based on mutual needs. As the white population increased, however, disagreements over economic resources and ownership of land grew, leading to violent confrontations with Indian communities. Frontier settlers, although hoping to distance themselves from government interference, appealed to local or federal authorities and the military for protection. As happened in the 1750s and 1760s, nation building and internal colonialism intersected to create a dynamic tension between the United States and the Indian and white frontier inhabitants they hoped to manipulate. The United States needed the presence of its own citizens to claim territory that the British might otherwise take back in the Northwest or that the Spanish might resettle in the Southwest. From the 1790s to the War of 1812, the United States army suppressed Indian resistance with force. Still, government agents sought to protect western tribes by arresting white squatters on Indian lands, even as they contemplated plans for Indian removal. Their attempts to control frontier populations by law, persuasion, or military force further aggravated conflicts between Indian and white communities. By the early nineteenth century, even more than the eighteenth, white settlers marshaled the now-familiar tropes of good and bad Indian to justify the conquest of native Americans and to assert their own nationalist self-interests. Once wielded by angry Scots-Irish on the mid-Atlantic frontier in the midst of a brutal but intimate war, the language of savagism entered the daily parlance of white Americans to dispossess Indians of land and to excuse themselves from a role in that dispossession. Rhetorically, savage Indians eventually gave way to noble, dying Indians, but native Americans did not disappear. They might have been pushed to the margins, but they continued to draw us all back to the crossroads to reencounter ourselves.[14]

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