Colin G. Calloway | an excerpt adapted from The Indian World of George Washington | Oxford University Press | 23 minutes (6,057 words)

On Monday Afternoon, February 4, 1793, President George Washington sat down to dinner at his official home on Market Street in Philadelphia. Washington’s dinners were often elaborate affairs, with numerous guests, liveried servants, and plenty of food and wine. On this occasion Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of War Henry Knox, Attorney General Edmund Randolph, Governor of the Northwest Territory Arthur St. Clair, and “the Gentlemen of the President’s family” dined with him because they were hosting an official delegation. Six Indian men, two Indian women (see Author’s Note on use of the word “Indian”), and two interpreters, representing the Kaskaskia, Peoria, Piankashaw, Potawatomi, and Mascouten Nations, had traveled more than eight hundred miles from the Wabash and Illinois country to see the president. Before dining, they made speeches and presented Washington with a calumet pipe of peace and strings of wampum. Thomas Jefferson took notes.

Just one week later, Monday, February 11, Washington’s dinner guests included several chiefs from the Six Nations — the Haudenosaunee or Iroquois — a Christian Mahican named Hendrick Aupaumut, and Akiatonharónkwen or Atiatoharongwen, the son of an Abenaki mother and an African American father, who had been adopted by Mohawks but now lived in Oneida country, and who was usually called “Colonel Louis Cook” after Washington approved his commission for services during the Revolution. Before dinner the president thanked his Indian guests for their diplomatic efforts in carrying messages to tribes in the West.

Indian visits halted when yellow fever broke out in Philadelphia in the summer of 1793. Five thousand people died, and twenty thousand fled the city, including, for a time, Washington, Jefferson, Knox, and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who survived a bout of the fever. A Chickasaw delegation on its way to see the president turned back on hearing of the epidemic in the fall. But the visits resumed the next year. On Saturday afternoon, June 14, 1794, Washington welcomed a delegation of thirteen Cherokee chiefs to his Market Street home in Philadelphia. They were in the city to conduct treaty negotiations, and the members of Washington’s cabinet, Jefferson, Hamilton, Knox, and Colonel Timothy Pickering — were also present. In accordance with Native American diplomatic protocol, everyone present smoked and passed around the long-stemmed pipe, in ritual preparation for good talks and in a sacred commitment to speak truth and honor pledges made. The president delivered a speech that had been written in advance. Several of the Cherokee chiefs spoke. Everyone ate and drank “plentifully of Cake & wine,” and the chiefs left “seemingly well pleased.” Four weeks later, Washington met with a delegation of Chickasaws he had invited to Philadelphia. He delivered a short speech, expressing his love for the Chickasaws and his gratitude for their assistance as scouts on American campaigns against the tribes north of the Ohio, and referred them to Henry Knox for other business. As usual, he puffed on the pipe, ate, and drank with them.

The most powerful man in the United States followed the custom of his Indian visitors.

The image of Washington smoking and dining with Indian chiefs does not mesh with depictions of the Father of the Nation as stiff, formal, and aloof, but it reminds us that in Washington’s day the government dealt with Indians as foreign nations rather than domestic subjects. The still-precarious republic dared not ignore the still-powerful Indian nations on its frontiers. In dealing with the Indians, Henry Knox advised the new president, “every proper expedient that can be devised to gain their affections, and attach them to the interest of the Union, should be adopted.” Deeply conscious of how he performed in his role as the first president, and an accomplished political actor, Washington engaged in the performative aspects of Indian diplomacy, sharing the calumet pipe and exchanging strings and belts of wampum — purple and white beads made from marine shells and woven into geometric patterns that reinforced and recorded the speaker’s words. New York Indian commissioners explained it was Indian custom when meeting in council to “smoke their Pipes together, and to open their Minds to each other.” The most powerful man in the United States followed the custom of his Indian visitors.

These Indian visits were not isolated events, and the Indians were not unwelcome dinner guests. Tribal delegations were a regular sight on the streets of Philadelphia and other colonial cities before the Revolution, and they continued to visit the new nation’s new capital in order to conduct diplomacy or just, as the missionary Rev. Samuel Kirkland put it, “to get a peep at the great American Chief.” Formal dinners were not just an occasion to share a meal but a form of political theater essential to establishing relationships between hosts and guests, providing an opportunity for the host to demonstrate hospitality, display wealth, and assert status through food and wine, seating arrangements and manners, and the meanings attached to all those things. In his first term in office, Washington dined, often more than once, with Mohawks, Senecas, Oneidas, Cherokees, Chickasaws, and Creeks. In some cases, they came to Philadelphia because he had personally invited them. In later years, Washington occasionally hosted Indian dinner guests at Mount Vernon, and he continued to dine with Indian delegates to the very end of his presidency: in the last week of November 1796, he dined with four groups of Indians on four different days.

Washington’s entire Indian policy and his vision for the nation depended on the acquisition of Indian territory, but in 1793-94 he insisted that no one talk to the visiting Indians about buying their lands. These were perilous years for the young nation: hostile foreign powers, Britain in the North and Spain in the South, threatened American borders and interests; a powerful Indian confederacy north of the Ohio River had defeated one American army, destroyed another, and remained defiant; and what Washington called “the momentous occurrences in Europe” threatened to embroil the United States in conflict between Britain and Revolutionary France. Washington knew that Indian lands were vital to the future growth of the United States, but, as his gag order on talk of buying land illustrates, he also knew that Indians were vital to the national security, and on occasion the very survival, of the fragile republic.

American history has largely forgotten what Washington knew. Narratives of national expansion and Indian conquest often neglect the complexity of Indian relations and ignore the reality of Indian power in the very formative years of the nation. Historians of the early Republic who focus on creating a new nation, the rivalry between Hamilton and Jefferson, and the challenges posed by relations with Britain and Revolutionary France often treat Indian affairs as tangential or even irrelevant. In fact, federal officials devoted much time, attention, and ink to conducting diplomatic relations with Indian politicians who, as the Moravian Rev. John Heckewelder observed, “display[ed] as much skill and dexterity, perhaps, as any people upon earth” in “the management of their national affairs.” Indian nations figured alongside European nations in the founding fathers’ thinking about the current and future state of the union. Indian leaders were adept at playing on American fears of British and Spanish backing for Indian resistance. Debates over the sovereignty of the United States and struggles over the extent and limits of federal authority and states’ rights centered on Indian treaties, and Indian issues, wars, and land policies were critical in developing a strong central government.

Multiple books tell us how Washington forged the nation, and how he handled partnerships and rivalries between various founding fathers, but nothing was more central than the relationship between the first president and the first Americans. From cradle to grave Washington inhabited a world built on the labor of African people and on the land of dispossessed Indian people. Indian people were not as ubiquitous in his daily life as the enslaved men, women, and children who planted, tended, and harvested his crops, cut his wood, prepared and served his food, washed his laundry, cleaned his house, and attended to his every need. Nevertheless, Indian people and Indian country loomed large in Washington’s world. His life intersected constantly with them, and events in Native America shaped the direction his life took, even if they occurred “offstage.” Indian land dominated his thinking and his vision for the future. Indian nations challenged the growth of his nation. A thick Indian strand runs through the life of George Washington as surely as it runs through the history of early America.

Probably more books have been written about Washington than about any other American, but few of them pay much attention to Indians, let alone consider the role they played in his life. Certainly none of Washington’s biographers have shown any particular interest or expertise in Indian history. It would command more attention if biographers recounting Washington’s schemes to acquire and develop territory beyond the Appalachians replaced the term “western land” — which implies that it was an unclaimed resource — with “Indian land” — which acknowledges that it was someone’s homeland. Washington spent much of his adult life surveying and speculating in Indian lands. The Virginia of his youth was very much a British colony — linked to the mother country across the Atlantic by ties of loyalty, taste, and economy — but Virginians who ventured a hundred miles or so into the interior of the continent quickly found themselves in Indian territory. Virginia was at the forefront of colonial expansion westward, and Washington was at the forefront of Virginian expansion. Washington was ambitious, for himself and for his nation. His ambition led him down many paths, but it always led him back to Indian country.

Washington’s first trips westward were as a surveyor, and he looked on Indian lands with a surveyor’s eye for the rest of his life.

Washington’s first trips westward were as a surveyor, and he looked on Indian lands with a surveyor’s eye for the rest of his life. Surveyors transformed “wilderness” that disoriented and threatened settler colonists into an ordered landscape they could understand and utilize. In colonial Virginia surveyors enjoyed status; in Indian country they met with suspicion if not outright hostility. Armed with compass, chains, and logbooks, surveyors were the outriders of an advancing settler society intent on turning Indian homelands and hunting territories into a commodity that could be measured and bounded, bought and sold, and Indians knew it. When the frontier trader Christopher Gist did some surveying near the Delaware town of Shannopin, on the southeast side of the Allegheny River, in the fall of 1750, he did so on the quiet: “I… set my Compass privately, & took the Distance across the River, for I understood it was dangerous to let a Compass be seen among these Indians.”

Washington and his fellow Virginians speculated, surveyed, and encroached upon western lands on the assumption that permission from a king, governor, or council gave them the right to do so, and they often acted as though any Indians could cede the land of all Indians. But Indian people had something to say about it, and were intent on defending their rights and the territory that colonial governments and land companies carved up so cavalierly. “That it is a difficult matter to discover the true owner of any lands among the Indians is a gross error, which must arise from ignorance of the matter or from a cause which does not require explanation,” Sir William Johnson, the British superintendent of Indian affairs in the North, observed to the Lords of Trade in 1764. “Each nation is perfectly well acquainted with its exact original bounds.” Indian country was a mosaic of tribal homelands and hunting territories, where individual nations guarding their own interests created a complicated landscape of multiple foreign policies, competing agendas, and shifting strategies. Speculating, surveying, and making land deals in Indian country required knowledge, quick learning, and fast footwork. It was no place for a novice.

As a novice in Indian country, Washington misread situations and mishandled Indian allies, and in the process sparked a war that in turn set in motion developments that led directly to the American Revolution. Blessed and blinkered by hindsight and Washington’s future role, historians of earlier generations often put the best face on his diplomatic and military expeditions into the Ohio country in 1753 and 1754, respectively. One described Washington’s journal of the first expedition, which he hurriedly wrote on his return and which was widely published, as “a testimonial to his maturity and capacity for leadership.” Another, glossing over the debacle of the second expedition, pronounced: “It is thus obvious that Washington was already demonstrating those qualities of courage and leadership indicative of his future greatness.” In reality, young Washington found himself out of his depth in a complex world of rumors, wampum belts, and tribal agendas. As events spiraled out of his control, he received a crash course in Indian diplomacy, intertribal politics, and frontier conflict under the tutelage of a formidable Seneca named Tanaghrisson.

During the French and Indian War, Washington participated in two British military campaigns to take the strategically crucial Forks of the Ohio from the French. The first, in which he gave General Edward Braddock bad advice, was a disaster; the second, in which he predicted failure and tried to undermine General John Forbes, succeeded. Indians determined the outcome of both.

For Washington the so-called French and Indian War was primarily a war against Indians. As commander of the Virginia Regiment defending western areas of the colony against Indian raids, he learned much about frontier warfare, and about fighting with limited means. Indian diplomacy helped end the fighting in Washington’s theater of operations. Indian actions at the close of the war shaped Crown policies that set the American colonies on the road to revolution and helped push Washington’s personal break with Britain. The Anglo-Cherokee War and the multitribal resistance movement known as Pontiac’s War prompted the British government to take two crucial steps: impose a limit on westward expansion, which threatened Washington’s investments in Indian land, and keep a standing army in America, which required taxing the colonies to pay for it. For Americans the Revolution was a war for independence, and it was also a war for Indian land; for Indians, the Revolution was a war for their land, and it was also a war for their independence. The Indians’ fight, which for many tribes meant allegiance to the British, provided patriots with an important unifying cause.

Kickstart your weekend reading by getting the week’s best Longreads delivered to your inbox every Friday afternoon.

Sign up

Washington never moved west himself, but the West beckoned him and the nation he led. His long association with the region as surveyor, speculator, soldier, landowner, and politician shaped his career and his vision of America’s future tied to western development. As a young man, he pursued wealth in land and a military reputation in the West; in his later years, the West became a key to building national unity. By the end of his life, according to one of the editors of the monumental Papers of George Washington, he probably knew more than any other man in America about the frontier and its significance to the future of his country. He had also accumulated more than 45,000 acres of prime real estate in present-day Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, the Shenandoah Valley, and West Virginia. It was the West, says another of his editors, that “made the Virginia farmer lift his eyes to prospects beyond his own fields and his native Virginia”; the West that “stretched his mind” to embrace an expansive vision of a republican empire; the West that, more than anything else except the Revolutionary War, prepared him for his role as nation builder.

Washington himself was given or assumed an Indian name, Conotocarious, meaning ‘Town Destroyer’ or ‘Devourer of Villages.’

Washington knew that the frontier was Indian country and that the future he envisioned would be realized at the expense of the people who lived there. He presided over and participated in their dispossession. He dispatched armies into Indian country; he lost an army in Indian country. The bulk of the federal budget during his presidency was spent in wars against Indians, and their affairs figured regularly and prominently in the president’s conferences with his heads of departments. He promoted policies that divested Indians of millions of acres; he sent treaty commissioners into Indian country and signed the treaties they made, even as he sometimes studiously avoided conversations about purchasing land with Indian delegates who came to the capital. His conduct of Indian affairs shaped the authority of the president in war and diplomacy. He participated in, indeed insisted on, the transformation of Indian life and culture. In the course of his life, he met many of the most prominent Native Americans of his day: Shingas, Tanaghrisson, Scarouady, Guyasuta, Attakullakulla, Bloody Fellow, Joseph Brant, Cornplanter, Red Jacket, Jean Baptiste DuCoigne, Alexander McGillivray, Little Turtle, Blue Jacket, Piominko. He also met many lesser-known individuals, who cropped up time and again in dealings between Indians and colonists, men like the Seneca messenger Aroas or Silver Heels, the Oneida-French intermediary Andrew Montour, and the Seneca Kanuksusy, who appeared in colonial negotiations under his English name, Newcastle. Having more than one name was not uncommon. Washington himself was given or assumed an Indian name, Conotocarious, meaning “Town Destroyer” or “Devourer of Villages,” and an Indian messenger who arrived at Fort Harmar in July 1788 was identified as “George Washington, a Delaware.” He was not the only Indian to bear Washington’s name.

Washington knew and associated with men who knew and associated with Indians: soldiers who fought against Indians; merchants who traded with Indians; interpreters who moved back and forth to Indian country; agents who implemented his policies there; missionaries who lived and prayed with Indians; men who hunted, traveled, ate, and drank with Indians; men who shared lodges, beds, and relatives with Indians; western politicians who built their political reputations fighting and dealing with Indians; speculators who, like Washington himself, acquired large amounts of Indian land as a way of elevating their status in society. Washington’s world was one where eastern elites as well as frontier folk were steeped in Indian affairs. Charles Thomson, secretary of the Continental and Confederation Congresses from 1774 to 1789, brought Washington word of his election to the presidency and traveled with him to the inauguration. Thomson was an adopted Delaware. As a young man, before he shifted his attention to business and politics, he had immersed himself in Indian affairs: a Latin tutor at the Quaker school in Philadelphia, he served as a clerk and copyist for the Delaware chief Teedyuscung, acted as secretary at the Treaty of Easton in 1757, and wrote a tract blaming Indian support for the French on Pennsylvania’s record of unscrupulous treaty practices in which he also criticized Washington’s conduct in dealing with the Indians in the Ohio country. Charles Lee, one of Washington’s generals in the Revolution, claimed to have married an Iroquois woman, was adopted by the Iroquois, and had an Iroquois son. (The child inherited his clan and tribal identity from his mother). Benjamin Hawkins, whom Washington appointed superintendent of the southern Indians, spoke Muskogee, was adopted by the Creeks, and had seven children with his common-law wife, Lavinia Downs, said by some to be a Creek woman. The Irishman Richard Butler, appointed superintendent of Indian affairs after the Revolution, traded with the Shawnees, had a Shawnee wife, sent Washington a Shawnee vocabulary when Catherine the Great of Russia asked the president for information on Indian languages, and died with a Shawnee tomahawk in his skull. Washington moved among networks of men who were deeply interested in Indian affairs and were sometimes intimately acquainted with individual Indians. For many of these men, acquiring Indian lands seemed as natural as breathing. Some swindled each other out of land with as few qualms as they swindled Indians out of land.

Indians were of central importance in Washington’s world, but for most of his life he operated on the peripheries of theirs. When he speculated in Indian lands, fought Indian enemies, and exchanged wampum belts with Indian chiefs, he touched the edges of an indigenous continent crisscrossed by networks of kinship, exchange, and alliance among multiple nations. For most of his life, several colonial powers competed for that continent but none controlled it, and indigenous power in the interior affected and limited imperial ambitions. In Washington’s administration, the process of creating the “United States” occurred “in dialogue with other nations,” including Native nations. Establishing the sovereignty of the United States required wrestling with the sovereignty of Indian nations and their place in American society. By the time Washington died, Indian power remained formidable in many areas of the continent, and American sovereignty remained contested in many spaces, but the United States had become a central presence in the world of all Indian peoples east of the Mississippi, and American expansion into Indian country was well under way. Washington, in association with men like Henry Knox, developed and articulated policies designed to divest Indians of their cultures as well as their lands and that would shape US-Indian relations for more than a century.

Washington’s paths through Indian country connected his story to indigenous peoples who told their own stories, organized and lived their lives in distinct ways, and had different visions of America and its possibilities. But theirs was not the Indian world Washington saw and knew; the Indian world he saw was the world most Americans saw. He found little to admire in Indian life. Few of its ways of living or thinking rubbed off on him. No gallery of Native American artifacts graced Mount Vernon as it did Monticello. When Washington looked at Indian country, he saw colonial space temporarily inhabited by Indian people. What he regarded as new lands were in fact quite ancient, but he showed little awareness that the ancestors of Shawnees and Cherokees had walked those lands for thousands of years before he set foot or his surveyor’s gaze on them. Jefferson was interested in the ancient petroglyphs on the banks of the Kanawha River; Washington was more interested in the extent and fertility of his lands on those riverbanks. When he looked at Indian people, he saw either actual or potential enemies or allies. They and their lands feature recurrently and prominently in Washington’s correspondence, and on occasion he expressed sympathy for Indian people. But his writings tell us little or nothing about Indians’ family life, clan affiliations, kinship networks, gender relations, languages, subsistence strategies, changing economic patterns, consensus politics, traditional religious beliefs and ceremonial cycles, distinctive Christianity, or social ethics. There was much he did not see or understand. He did not — could not — comprehend how mythic stories, clan histories, and spiritual forces shaped how Indian people perceived their world. He did not understand many of the words and sounds he heard in Indian country. Rarely if ever did he show any appreciation that the societies there functioned according to their own rules, rhythms, beliefs, and values. He demonstrated no understanding of the roles of women in Native society, beyond being farmers, and he wished to see Indian men take over that role. In all of that, he was not much different from most of his contemporaries.

A British officer traveling in the Wabash country in the 1760s was called a ‘D—d son of a b—ch’ by one Indian and given a copy of Shakespeare’s ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ by another.

Indian country was not exclusively Indian, and had not been for a long time. It was a porous world undergoing profound and far-reaching changes. Imported diseases had scythed through populations and continued to wreak demographic havoc; imported animals, crops, and plants had altered the environment; new religions, ideas, and influences had infiltrated and sometimes divided Indian societies; imperial rivalries intruded into tribal politics; goods manufactured in European mills tied Indian communities to an Atlantic world and an emerging global trade system. By the time Washington encountered Cherokees, Iroquois, or Delawares, he met men who wore deerskin leggings and moccasins and displayed body and facial tattoos but who also often wore linen shirts and wool coats, and even the occasional three-cornered hat. He spoke with chiefs who wore armbands of trade silver and displayed European symbols of distinction like the officer’s crescent-shaped silver gorget he himself wore around his neck when he posed for his portrait by Charles Willson Peale in 1772. He would have seen women who wore calico blouses and kept their children warm with blankets of red-and-blue stroud, a durable woolen cloth produced in England’s Cotswolds. Some of the Catholic Indians Washington encountered from the St. Lawrence or the Great Lakes wore crucifixes, spoke French, and had French names. Like anyone else who spent much time on the eighteenth-century frontier, he would also have met white men who wore breechcloths, moccasins, and hunting shirts and bore facial tattoos. Constantly pressing the edges of Indian country were Scots-Irish, Anglo-American, and German settlers, the kind of people that Washington and his kind of people — Tidewater planters and gentlemen — characterized as more savage than savages. He might have seen black faces; at a time when buying and selling people was as common as buying and selling land, traders, Indian agents, army officers, and settler colonists took African slaves with them when they crossed the Appalachians. Indians also sometimes owned and trafficked in African slaves and harbored runaways. Some of the chiefs who ate dinner with Washington in New York or Philadelphia would not have been surprised to be waited on by black slaves; like Washington, they were slaveholders.

Washington sometimes spent days at a time in Indian villages. He would have seen cows, pigs, and chickens: Indians got pigs from Swedish settlers in the Delaware Valley in the seventeenth century, and Delaware people called chickens tipas, mimicking the sound Swedish settlers used to call poultry. If he entered Indian lodges he would have seen many familiar objects: brass kettles, copper pots, candles, looking glasses, awls, needles, and threads. If he shared a meal, he would have eaten indigenous food — corn, beans, squash, pumpkin, venison, elk, bear’s meat, fish, hominy cakes, berries, nuts, acorns, wild onions, maple sugar — perhaps supplemented by beef, chicken, pork, milk, apples, peaches, watermelon, turnips, peas, potatoes, honey, and many European imports that Indians had added to their diets. He might have met Indian people who had developed a taste for tea and sugar; he certainly met people with a taste for rum. He would have spoken with Native people who could speak English and who, their own languages lacking profanity, had learned to swear in it. (A British officer traveling in the Wabash country in the 1760s was called a “D—d son of a b—ch” by one Indian and given a copy of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra by another.) Washington also saw people whose faces, like his own, were marked by smallpox. Even the landscape Washington coveted bore evidence of change. Invasive weeds and grasses from Europe altered the meadows he found so attractive. By the time Virginians crossed the Appalachian Mountains into Kentucky, bluegrass and white clover, initially brought from England as fodder and in the dung of the animals that ate them, had spread ahead of them and taken root as “Kentucky bluegrass.” European birds, bugs, seeds, and weeds had transformed the lands Washington viewed as “wilderness.”

Washington lived in, shaped, and eventually presided over a colonial world. At the same time, he lived his life in a world of Indian omnipresence, enduring power, and recurrent encounter, where Indian people acted as well as were acted upon and changed the societies that changed them. As happened elsewhere in the world, the colonized affected the colonizers, and cultural interactions produced new hybrid societies. Like slavery, some aspects of Native America were so commonplace in Washington’s world that they hardly merited mention in his writings: he does not tell us, but we know, that indigenous foods formed part of his — and his slaves — diet, that Native herbal medicines were part of the colonial medicine cabinet, and that when he traveled the country before the Revolution, which he did more often and more extensively than almost any other colonial American, he generally followed Indian trails.

Indian people and Indian lands affected key developments in Washington’s life and the emerging American nation he helped to create. Indian relations were interwoven with questions of empire (whether European or American). Indians’ actions contributed to the outbreak and course of the French and Indian War, and their reactions to its outcome prompted British policies that turned Washington and other Americans to revolution and independence. Indian lands furnished the territorial and philosophical foundations for the new expansionist republic that emerged. At the same time, the power Natives wielded, the resistance they mounted, and the diplomatic influence they exerted exposed the limits of federal power, aggravated tensions between federal and state governments, fueled divisions between East and West, and threatened to fragment the nation Washington was building. Washington and the new government interpreted and applied the Constitution to establish nation-to-nation relationships with Indians conducted through war and treaty, but Indians preexisted the United States and its Constitution and conducted their own relations in their own way, and for a long time the United States lacked the power to make them do otherwise. Fighting, fearing, and hating Indians had helped forge a common identity among white peoples before; now the shared experience of Scots, Irish, Germans, English, and others in fighting and dispossessing Indians helped forge a common bond as Americans. Washington disparaged unruly frontier folk as disturbers of order and tranquility, but by harnessing their aggressive expansionism the government created a new, racially defined empire and a nation of free white citizens that excluded Native Americans as it also excluded African Americans. It was the national identity of a nation built on Indian land.

Washington’s involvement with the West was lifelong, and he consistently looked to western land for his own personal fortune and for the nation’s future.

The Indian world Washington knew was very different when he died in December 1799 than it had been at his birth in 1732. His life spanned most of the eighteenth century, an era of momentous change in North America when, as the historian James Merrell puts it, “the balance tipped irrevocably away from the Indians.” Washington, more than most, had a hand on the scales and was instrumental in the dispossession, defeat, exploitation, and marginalization of Indian peoples. He rarely used the term “Indian country” — he called it “wilderness,” “the frontier,” “the Ohio country,” “the West” — but he lived his whole life with one eye on it and one foot in it. Neither his life nor that of his nation would have developed the way it did without his involvement and experiences in Indian country. Washington may not have been personally affected by his own interactions with its inhabitants, but the Indian world that he changed and his nation eventually displaced was also the world that, in many important and overlooked ways, shaped Washington and the nation he led.

Scholars of Washington’s life and times owe an incredible debt to the teams of editors who have collected, meticulously edited, published, and digitized the voluminous papers of the first president. Their endeavors provide an invaluable and accessible resource, and one that makes it impossible to deny that Indian America mattered in Washington’s day. The editors note, however, that some of the papers have been previously edited — by Washington himself. Washington kept letter books during his service on Braddock’s campaign in 1755 and three years subsequently as colonel of the Virginia Regiment. In the 1770s and probably later, he made major revisions to these manuscripts “not once but at least twice.” He made most of his revisions by striking out words, lines, or sentences and inserting new ones. But sometimes “he carefully scraped the original ink off the paper with a knife and then wrote his changes there.” For the most part, the alterations and insertions did not produce important differences, but they do reveal Washington as someone concerned with his reputation. In Indian country, he had good reason to be.

Washington is the “father of the nation,” and he assumed the role of “great father” to Indian people as well. Yet the Iroquois called him “Town Destroyer,” and with justification. Washington’s dealings with Indian people and their land do him little credit, but on the other hand his achievement in creating a nation from a fragile union of states is more impressive when we appreciate the power and challenges his Indian world presented. Washington’s life, like the lives of so many of his contemporaries, was inextricably linked to Native America, a reality we have forgotten as our historical hindsight has separated Indians and early Americans so sharply, and prematurely, into winners and losers.

George Washington dominates the formative events of American nation-building like no one else. He commanded the Continental Army that secured American independence, he presided over the convention that framed the Constitution of the United States, and he was the nation’s first president, serving two terms and setting the bar by which all subsequent presidents have been measured in terms of moral character and political wisdom. Ignoring or excluding Native America from Washington’s life, like excluding it from the early history of the nation, contributes to the erasure of Indians from America’s past and America’s memory. It also diminishes our understanding of Washington and his world. Restoring Indian people and Indian lands to the story of Washington goes a long way toward restoring them to their proper place in America’s story.

With the exception of his expeditions in the Ohio Valley during the French and Indian War, the key events of Washington’s life occur in the East — Mount Vernon, Philadelphia, Yorktown. But Washington’s involvement with the West was lifelong, and he consistently looked to western land for his own personal fortune and for the nation’s future. Securing Indian country as a national resource was essential to national consolidation and expansion, and few people knew more about securing Indian land than he did.

In one of the most iconic images in American history, Washington stands resolutely in the prow of a boat facing east. Emanuel Leutze’s epic 1851 painting, Washington Crossing the Delaware, captures a pivotal moment during the War of Independence. After a string of demoralizing defeats and with the rebel army on the verge of disintegration, the Revolution faced its darkest hour. Then, on Christmas night 1776, Washington led what was left of his army in a daring and desperate attack. In the teeth of a storm, they crossed the ice-clogged Delaware River from Pennsylvania to New Jersey and roundly defeated a garrison of Hessian soldiers at Trenton. A week later, they defeated a British force at Princeton. The Revolution, for the moment, was saved, and the twin victories breathed life into a cause that had seemed lost. After he died, Washington achieved almost godlike status as the savior of the Revolution and the father of the Republic,

But the Revolution was not only a war for independence and a new political order; it was also a war for the North American continent. Washington and the emerging nation faced west as well as east. If Washington did resemble a god, he perhaps most resembled the Roman Janus. Depicted with two faces, looking in opposite directions, Janus was not “two-faced” in the modern, negative sense of the term as duplicitous. As the god of passages and transitions, beginnings and endings, he looked simultaneously to the past and to the future. As America’s god of the passage from colony to nation, Washington looked east to the past and west to the future. And when he faced west, he faced Indian country.


Note from the Author: There is no general agreement about the appropriate collective term to apply to the indigenous peoples of North America. Although I occasionally, throughout my book, use Native, Native American, indigenous, or, as in the title, First Americans, I most often use Indians or Indian people, which was the term most commonly used at the time. In writing a book aimed at a broad readership, I have used the names for Indian nations that seem to be the most readily recognizable to the most people: Iroquois rather than Haudenosaunee; Mohawks rather than Kanienkehaka; Delawares rather than Lenni Lenapee; and Cherokee, which derives from other people’s name for them, rather than how Cherokees referred to themselves, Ani-Yunwiya, “the principal people.” Applying the same criteria to individuals necessarily involves some inconsistencies, such as Joseph Brant rather than Thayendanegea and White Eyes instead of Quequedegatha or Koquethagechton, but Attakullakulla rather than Little Carpenter and Piominko rather than Mountain Leader.

* * *

Colin G. Calloway is John Kimball Jr. 1943 Professor of History and Native American Studies at Dartmouth College. His previous books include A Scratch of the Pen and The Victory with No Name.

Longreads Editor: Dana Snitzky