Nineteenth-century History

Indians and the Imperial Powers of Europe

A Companion to the American WestAt the university library, I came across a book by the title A Companion to The American West, edited by William Deverell, and have been slowly working my way through it. The book is a series of essays that talk about what the American west is, how the west is defined and how the definition of the American west has changed throughout the course of American history, starting of course with the landing and settlement of the first colonists from Europe.

The first essay, “The Making of the First American West and the Unmaking of Other Realms” by Dr. Stephen Aron, professor at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), gives a basic overview of what the “first American west” was and the repercussions the settlement of the first American west had on the native Indian population. Dr. Aron discusses the breaking of the threshold that was the Appalachian Mountains into the wild countries of what is now Kentucky and Tennessee. The Native Americans were naturally opposed to this violation of their territory and to help fend off settlers and other men, such as Daniel Boone, the Indians turned to the competing European imperial powers for help.

After the American Revolution, Britain was a key ally for the Native Americans despite the dishonesty that plagued their relationship and the eventual abandonment of the Indians by the British. They not only supplied the Indians with resources and firearms, but they were a confidence booster for the Indians. Some of the more fortunate Indian groups, such as the Iroquois in northwestern New York, were able to take full advantage of competing European interests in the Americans. The Iroquois were situated between the French interests in the north (what is today Quebec) and English interests in the south. This strategic positioning meant that they were effectively immune from domination by one European power or the other. This “borderland geography”, as Dr. Aron calls it, gave the Iroquois a militaristic advantage as well as a natural economic advantage. The fur trading industry blossomed to the point that the population of animals that supplied the fur began to significantly dwindle to dangerously low levels.

Indeed, these were most certainly positives for the native peoples, but an unseen enemy wiped out nearly half of the Iroquois population by the seventeenth century. The exposure to so many of the Europeans left the Indians vulnerable to diseases and plagues that brought the Iroquois to their knees faster than any European power could have.

The French Revolution also had an impact on the Native Americans. Western tribes such as the displaced Shawnees who had come to reply on British and Spanish support for their cause against the ever-encroaching Americans were suddenly left to fend for themselves. Both the British and Spanish monarchies were engaged in conflict with the new French regime and consequently decided to abandon their position against the American government and concentrate their efforts closer to home in Europe. The Indians suddenly found themselves alone in their fight and, without a strong confederacy amongst the Indian groups, were quickly succumbed by American forces. Led by General Anthony Wayne, the Americans forced the Indians to give up much of what is Ohio today.

The European abandonment of the Native Americans was a crucial turning point in American history. The Indians would never again have such an advantage against the Americans.

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