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Notes on Indians

     I have used the word "Indian" as the most dignified and honorable name for the aboriginal people of North America in the above. The term Native American is modern, condescending, inaccurate and too long. It refers to modern-day people, not to their ancestors. Terms like redskin or red man were certainly used historically, by Indians as well as Europeans, but lack dignity and may retain a pejorative odor at the present day. Any association with India is, of course, completely absent, however it arose from an initial error, so Indian is simply an arbitrary word that correctly specifies the people named to all readers. The ugly word "aborigine" is an incorrect singular of "aborigines" at best, so I avoid it. What follows is simply my best understanding of the subject, as a basis for studying the War of 1812 and its era, not an authoritative account. Only the area east of the Mississippi is considered. My study has fostered a great respect for these misunderstood and vanished people.

     Practically all studies of Indians demonstrate the projection of the prejudices and superstitions of the investigators onto the subjects. Many histories were written by missionaries, who had destroyed the cultures. The point of view of the observer must also be taken into consideration. Cotton Mather preached that Indians were the instruments of the Devil, and that Christian love could best be expressed by robbing and killing them. The usual hypocrisy is everywhere evident. It was quite generally thought that Indians were descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel, and there was much learned discussion about just which tribes were represented. The Mandans were suspected of being Welsh, suggested by language and what looked very much like coracles for boats. Indian religion was utterly misunderstood, and not regarded with any respect. Europeans made much of a Great Spirit, which played hardly any role at all in Indian religion. Smallpox, whiskey and the Bible destroyed Indian society as surely as rifles. There appears to have been little change in this picture over a century or two: today's scholars see themselves and their beliefs reflected in their subjects as much as those of the past.

     The most useless of all archaeological concepts (and that is saying something) is the concept of progress through stages of development from the savage to the civilized. One speaks of "progress," but there is no goal or direction. The Indian, as a palaeolithic savage, was presumed to be a case of retarded development who had little complexity or value, and was therefore an object of "improvement" at best to the advanced, Christian European. That this was untrue was obvious to many at the time, though the general belief was used to justify, or at least render inevitable, the extermination of the Indian. It was demonstrated over and over that even the "improved" Indian had no place in white society, and no rights that were protected by law.

     Indians, like all or most New World people, had no writing, no metals (except native metals, copper and gold, used for decoration), no domesticated animals except the dog, which was good eating--and there were always women to do the work anyway--no woven fabrics, no fired pottery, and no wheels (which would have been useless in the absence of roads). There are exceptions to these general statements, but they are particular ones and mainly prove the rule. Excellent use was made of the materials provided by nature, however, and there was no lack of ingenuity when a need arose. The birchbark canoe, fragile but light, perhaps invented by the Ojibwa, was a great improvement on the dugout pirogue introduced by the French, especially for warfare. The skin tipi, easily movable, was another excellent invention made when the need arose. Most northeastern Indians lived in houses made of logs and bark, and the conical lodges ("wigwams") were sheathed in bark. The Iroquois, and others, built palisaded forts, quickly changing the original round style to rectangular when firearms made this tactically better. At one siege in the Northwest, Indians bored out logs and fitted reinforcing iron bands to make improvised cannon. There was no lack of ingenuity and enterprise.

     Trade goods, introduced by the French and Spanish in the 16th century, were instantly accepted and made life much easier. The steel knife, steel needle and brass pot became indispensable. The tomahawk with a metal blade replaced the less-effective war club, except as a ceremonial object. Firearms and powder were provided to the Iroquois by the Dutch, and to the Algonquins by the French, almost immediately on arrival. The musket was quickly mastered, and proved much more efficient than the bow and arrow, or the lance, tipped with flint. Trade goods, however, required something in trade, and this consisted of skins and fur. Indians were such good hunters that the beavers, martens, and bison were driven to extinction. The fur trade caused wars as the tribes in the depleted areas fought to seize, control or retain the traffic, but it was by no means the primary cause of war. The trade also brought with it disease and spirits--originally rum and brandy. Americans added whiskey.

     The names of tribes (as used by Europeans) have largely been taken by me as they appear in the different sources. There is little consistency of spelling, simply an attempt to reproduce the sound. Recently, the spelling Algonquian has been replaced by Algonkian, apparently for the benefit of poor readers, and similar modern changes have been made in other names, mainly reflecting a lack of knowledge, not its abundance. Most tribes had at least three names, one that they called themselves, one that their enemies or Europeans (French or British, usually different) called them, and one coming from (or given to) the area they inhabited. Iroquois is a French name, while they called themselves Ongwehonwe, "the best men." The Delawares (after the river, from de la Warre, an early proprietor) called themselves Lenni Lenape, "the first men." The Navajo, a name given by their Apache relatives and enemies, call themselves Dineh. The Cheyenne, so named by Shoshone enemies, call themselves Tsististas. In many cases, a tribe has given its name to a river or area, as Susquehanna, Erie, Mohawk, Maumee (Miami), Illinois, Iowa, Missouri or Omaha. There is little hope of sorting out the names logically, or knowing exactly to which people they refer.

     The Indians east of the Mississippi fell into three large groups by language. Algonquin (Algonkin) was the largest. The Iroquoians were surrounded by Algonquins, living south of Lakes Ontario and Erie, with isolated groups of Tuscaroras and Cherokees left to the south, as if they all had invaded from that direction. Finally, from the Gulf to the Cumberland River were the Mobilian or Gulf people, apparently the last to arrive from the south. Each great division was divided into independent tribes, bands and villages "vertically" and into clans with animal totems "horizontally." There was sometimes a moiety organization by opposites, such as red and black. One did not marry into one's own clan. Heredity was in the female line, except for the Algonquians, who had heredity in the male line. All concerted tribal actions were taken only by consensus. The civil chief, or sachem, exercised only the power of persuasion. There was no civil authority among Indians; each man was free to do as he wished. Transgressions of custom were punished by individual feuds, and outrages were never forgotten. War chiefs were created, again by agreement, as conditions demanded, each at the head of a small, fluid band of supporters. Some tribes were organized into large confederations, which acted together according to the decisions of councils of the important men. Examples of these confederations are the Five Nations (later Six) among the Iroquois, and the Creek Confederacy in the south.

     The Five Nations (Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca) had long been confederated when they first met the French under de Champlain and their Algonquian allies in May 1609 near Lake George. A period of warfare then followed that some authorities attribute to the fur trade, and others to the pride of the Iroquois. The Eries and Mingos were Iroquoian peoples between Lake Erie and the Ohio River, while the Hurons and the "Neutrals," also Iroquoian, were north of Lakes Erie and Ontario. In 1649 the Five Nations fell upon the Hurons and dispersed them. The "Neutrals" followed after a bitter resistance. The Delawares, Algonquians, were subdued in 1650. The Five Nations then destroyed the Eries, Andastes (Susquehannas) and Mingos around 1655. The usual cruel tortures by fire and knife followed in each case, but when these desires were satisfied, captives were distributed among the Iroquois to recruit their numbers. The conquered tribes disappeared. Enough of the Hurons escaped to carry on their tribe, which became known as Wyandot and inhabited the western end of Lakes Erie and Huron. Hurons were indeed the bravest of the brave, the best warriors known. In all this, the numerical strength of the Iroquois did not exceed 4000 warriors. The Iroquois also raided far west into the Algonquians, reducing many tribes to pitful remnants by the early 18th century. The Tuscaroras, driven from their southern mountains by settlers, joined the Iroquois Confederation in 1714-15, after which it was known as the Six Nations. The Cherokees, from still further south, never joined the rest of the Iroquois family, and drew closer to the Mobilian people in their culture.

     Indian warfare, and its effect on European tactics, are treated in detail in the page on William Henry Harrison, with actual examples. Eastern Indians were extremely skilled warriors with excellent and effective tactics, characterized by surprise and avoidance of casualties. They were much superior, in their environment of endless forest, to the plains Indians of later and more familiar days. Only in exceptional cases could a victory be won over them unless they were outnumbered. Indian casualties in an action were always much fewer than white casualties. They never made mass charges; these were a European specialty. A whole American folklore grew up of white men who fought Indians alone and lived to tell about it (Mike Fink, Daniel Boone). Such men were very few. A white man could perhaps become the equal of an Indian warrior, but not his superior. The torture of captives, usually by fire, was all but universal, and was stoically endured. It was a great incentive to fight well. An Indian never forgot a friend--or an enemy.

     The Delawares had been subdued by the Iroquois when they encountered the first English settlers. The claim that the Iroquois had made them "women" is probably misunderstood. They were unwarlike and easily displaced in this state of existence, but retained their identity in their wanderings. They later became formidable warriors. The Shawano, or Shawnee, seem to have inhabited the Ohio valley in early times, but fled before the Iroquois terror. Returning later, they settled in Kentucky in time to be attacked by the Virginians, and were driven over the Ohio river. Remnants later settled in Kansas. The Miamis were a group of tribes inhabiting the Wabash valley and the land to the east of it into Ohio. The Weas occupied the upper Wabash valley, the Piankeshaws the lower Wabash, the Eel Rivers the valley of that name. The Piankeshaws gave land on the White River to the wandering Shawnees for their farms.

     The Ojibwa or Chippewa occupied the Lake Superior area and northern Michigan. Their vigorous expansion pushed other tribes southward. The Pottawatomies were east of Lake Michigan, and the Ottawa, who had fled from the Iroquois from some place in the east, were between the two. To the west of Lake Michigan were the Kickapoo, Winnebago and Menominee, from south to north. The Sac and Fox lived in the Wisconsin valley. The Pottawatomies are in northern Indiana at the time of Tippecanoe, later in Illinois, then in western Iowa, and finally in Oklahoma, leaving county names behind them. The five Illinois tribes, powerful in 1600--Peorias, Kaskaskias, Cahokias, Tamaroas and Michigans--gave their names to towns and rivers, but were nearly extinct by 1800, largely by warfare with the Iroquois. Tribes from the north, such as the Sac and Fox, and the Kickapoo, took their places.

     Maps showing areas occupied by different tribes can be misleading, and often different areas show the situation at different times. There is uncertainty as to names, and precise boundaries did not exist at all. As one proceeds from east to west, tribes are usually shown where they were first encountered, from the 17th century along the Atlantic coast, to the 19th century in the west, from early neglect in the east to detailed ethnography in the west. After the United States began Indian clearances in 1783, tribes were constantly on the move, often colliding with each other, amalgamating and dispersing.

     Indians had no writing, so their oral history was limited to a few generations before it became assimilated into myth. Wampum belts were a form of symbolic writing used in treaty and alliance relations to jog the memory of an interpreter. Therefore, we know only the most recent events, say those after 1600, and even those imperfectly. Language distribution and cultural matters seem to indicate that North America was settled from the south in waves. The earliest wave yet apparent is the Algonquin. Then the Iroquoian penetrated to the north, and finally the Gulf Indians arrived. The Gulf Indians were largely agricultural, growing the familiar crops of corn, beans, squash and tobacco. The Iroquoians were less, but still importantly, agricultural. The Algonquians apparently adopted agriculture from their neighbors in the more southern regions, but the northern tribes of the Great Lakes depended largely on hunting and what grew naturally. Agriculture gave continual sustenance and supported a larger population. Hunting gave alternate feast and famine, famine predominating, and a very hard life, but a free one.

     Monuments of an earlier religion, the mounds of the Mississippi and Ohio valleys were, and still are, mysterious. The Natchez and Caddos in the southwest preserved traces of these religions, which were based on sun worship as in Mexico, into historical times. Perhaps people rebelled against these cruel priesthoods and rigid castes in other places, adopting a simpler organization of society founded on the individual. The Indians of Ohio and Illinois had no idea of what the mounds represented, and regarded them with awe or indifference.

     The density of population was remarkably low. Any estimates of population are only wild guesses, but a figure of 5 per square mile has been put forth. The reason for this thin population has been said to be warfare. However, I doubt that even endemic warfare is sufficient to limit the population to the observed degree. One could argue that warfare would encourage the production of babies, since a numerous tribe would be a powerful tribe. It seems more likely to me that high infant mortality, and the uncertainties of nutrition, would explain the small population better. When trade goods made life a little more secure, they also brought with them the diseases that counterbalanced any improvement. There is evidence for great plagues that have eliminated whole tribes, perhaps endemic ones not due to European contact. Whites seem always to have far outnumbered Indians in settled areas. General Harrison described his troops as being "numerous as Wabash musquitoes" when he threatened the Indians. This numerical superiority was the chief reason for White victory.

     At the time of the War of 1812, the countryside of the Northwest was far different from what it has become today. Of course, there were no inland towns, settlement being along rivers, but the great difference was the presence of the virgin forest, which extended from the Atlantic to Illinois, where it merged into the tall-grass prairie. The trees, mainly hardwood, were 100 to 200 feet high and their branches blocked most of the sunlight from the ground, so that underbrush was rare, and one could see until tree trunks themselves blocked the view. This gloomy expanse was hated by the settlers, whose efforts to "improve" it by clearing and burning the trees was unceasing. They have been completely successful, so that there is no place where one can still experience the forest of the Old Northwest. A small area of somewhat different old forest has been preserved in northwestern Pennsylvania, the 7182-acre Cook Forest along the Clarion River, with old white pines and hemlock, that must present the same dark and gloomy atmosphere. There were occasional "openings" in the forest, where for some reason the trees did not grow or had been blown down, and these were highly prized, even by the Indians. In some cases, bison had kept routes clear, the "buffalo traces" that served as roads. Kentucky hunters had exterminated the bison, along with much of the other game. Bison, deer, bear, and wolves were present and plentiful everywhere east of the Mississippi, before the Europeans arrived. Father Hennepin left us a sketch of a buffalo he drew near Niagara, where Buffalo now spreads. A famous buffalo trace ran from opposite Louisville to Vincennes, the first part of the road to St. Louis. The river route via Cairo was much longer, and beset by bandits, but it still saw most of the traffic. Water travel was impossible in the winter, and overland travel impossible in the spring. The difficulty of overland travel in the Old Northwest cannot be overestimated, and greatly affected every enterprise, both of peace and war.


1.                  D. R. Hickey, The War of 1812 (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1989). A good, accurate modern history, concentrating on political events. I don't agree with some of his conclusions and analyses, but that is no criticism. As a tiny matter, Winfield Scott did not introduce the grey coat and white trousers that is the West Point uniform (p. 185). These were adopted from l'École Polytechnique, after which the United States Military Academy was patterned, in 1802. New York regiments often wore these uniforms up to the time of the Civil War, and the Confederates adopted the grey then.

2.                  Theodore Roosevelt, The Naval War of 1812 (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1900). A good account of the frigate and small-ship actions in which the United States did creditably, as well as the others. The United States did not really possess a navy at the time, of course, just a few Federal ships left over from the tensions with France during the Adams administration.

3.                  R. B. McAfee, History of the Late War in the Western Country (Lexington, KY: Worsley and Smith, 1816). Reprinted in the March of America Facsimile Series, No. 54 (Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms, 1966). Extremely valuable because written when the events were fresh, but for the same reason, allowance must be made for the passions of the writer, which were also fresh and Kentuckian. Captain Robert Breckinridge McAfee (1784-1849) commanded a company in the first battalion of R. M. Johnson's regiment of volunteer mounted infantry. Covers principally operations in the Old Northwest, with shorter accounts of the Creek war and New Orleans. Variable spelling of names, and no index, are defects; nevertheless, it is quite accurate and detailed.

4.                  F. Parkman, The Conspiracy of Pontiac and the Indian War after the Conquest of Canada (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1906. First edition, 1851). The best account of Indians and conditions in the west before the Indian wars of the United States.

5.                  W. C. Sturtevant, Early Indian Tribes, Culture Areas and Linguistic Stocks, (USGS Map 38077-AS-NA-07M-00, 1967). This map is vitiated by not being continued into neighboring regions of Canada and Mexicon, in addition the the impossiblity of drawing boundaries at all.

6.                  Ethan Smith, View of the Hebrews (Poulteney, VT: Smith and Shute, 1823) is a typical attempt of a religion-addled mind to make Indians the lost tribes of Israel.

7.                  H. Bird, War for the West 1790-1813 (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1971). For criticisms of this book, please see the page on Harrison.

8.                  Cook Forest. I am indebted to Mr Tony Burzio for this link.

1812 Map

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