Ah, the Fourth of July – the grand occasion to display the American flag outside my front door, and to join the crowds at our neighborhood fireworks party. The grand day to celebrate what’s been called our nation’s birth certificate: The hallowed Declaration of Independence.
But wait. What’s that ugly sentence embedded midway through it? Tucked into Thomas Jefferson’s angry brief against King George, in a long litany of grievances, appears this charge:
"He has excited domestic Insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the Inhabitants of our Frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known Rule of Warfare, is an undistinguished Destruction of all Ages, Sexes and Conditions."
Yes, our very founding document encodes the American Indians as “Savages” – capital S as if it were their proper name. Did you ever learn that in history class? You, like me, may have been clueless, but be assured that many Indians still know and resent the enshrined libel all too well. Just as, in their parallel history, they know George Washington not as the father of the country but as “Town Destroyer” because of his scorched-earth campaign against the Iroquois. Just as they loathe Andrew Jackson for his brutal removal policies – and refuse to traffic in twenty-dollar bills because they bear his portrait. Just as they remember Jefferson for instigating those removal policies, and for sending Lewis and Clark west to chart the course of expansionism.
I am launching my blog to point out these troubled truths for two reasons: The nation’s birthday is upon us, and – a big personal and -- I have a new book coming out very soon that delves into Colonial-Indian history. Visions of Teaoga (being published by Sunbury Press) is a historical novel that recounts Washington’s 1779 destruction of the Seneca heartland, but also the earlier land grabs and encroachments across the Eastern woodlands. Told by a real-life Shawnee matriarch – a tragic figure known to history as Queen Esther – it tells how smaller “remnant bands” such as the Shawnees, Munsee Delawares, Conoys and Tutelos were hemmed in and deceived not only by the Europeans but by the mighty Iroquois Confederacy as well. The resulting Indian raids on settler homesteads – often land squatters – clearly could be vicious. Accounts of scalpings and other atrocities circulated widely, leading to brutal counterattacks. Settlers never forgot the natives’ violence but overlooked similar crimes committed by whites (one of Queen Esther’s many complaints). By July 1776, this cycle of attacks and reprisals had produced a race hatred on both sides that curdled into mutual desires for what we, today, would term ethnic cleansing.
That is the context in which Jefferson penned his propagandistic invective. He was correct in a sense. Most “Indian Savages” were tilting toward the British as the lesser of two evils. Where the Colonials had proven land-hungry and duplicitous, the Brits had at least tried to set up a demarcation line that set aside a huge territory as Indian land. When war came, many tribes across the East made alliances of convenience and fought alongside the Redcoats. Queen Esther and her people were swept up in the warfare, culminating for her in the tragic Bloody Rock incident.
Years earlier, in the 1750s, Esther's war-chief husband had tried to make nice with the settlers. In reluctantly ceding a slice of territory to New Jersey, he expressed the earlier outlook that land and its bounty could be shared. His eloquent plea, as recorded in Colonial records and repeated in Visions of Teaoga, was this: “We desire that if we should come into your province to see our old friends, and should have occasion for the bark of a tree to cover a cabin, or a little refreshment, that we should not be denied, but be treated as brethren! And that your people may not look on the wild beasts of the forests or the fish of the waters as their sole property, but that we may be admitted to an equal use of them.”
As history also records, this outlook failed. The British abandoned their Indian allies, the demarcation line was extinguished, and a wave of westward expansion began.
Jefferson had prevailed.