The War Department Papers include an exceptionally rich collection of documents detailing violent conflicts between white Americans and American Indians on the frontier, particularly those in the Southwest Territory. Both sides in these conflicts defended their actions as just, and each side engaged in both offensive and defensive action. Sometimes the white settlers initiated the violence by illegally encroaching on Indian lands; other times, various Indian tribes initiated the violence by attacking legal settlements. This put the War Department in a precarious position, as it had to balance the complaints of both the Indians and frontier settlers (many of whom were lower-class, subsistence-level farmers). President Washington and Henry Knox in particular were perplexed about what to do in this situation.
A prime example of offensive violence by frontiersmen against American Indians in the Southwest Territory occurred in the year 1794, when Captain James Ore led a force of 550 men – without instructions from Washington – to retaliate the deaths of several white Americans in the Mero District of Tennessee. Ore and his force invaded the Lower Cherokee towns of Nickajack and Running Water and murdered upwards of 50 Indian men, taking 19 women and children as prisoners. For a detailed account from Captain Ore himself, read here. President Washington and Secretary Knox were outraged with this impulsive attack, not only because it came without orders from Washington, but because the Lower Cherokee were allies of the United States. Needless to say, the United States government had much explaining to do to the Cherokees. William Blount, Governor of Southwest Territory, also disapproved of this action, calling it an “illegal and unauthorized enterprise” and insisting that the military ought to exhibit “feelings of humanity” before conducting such a rash act of violence.
On the other hand, some of the American Indians were the ones to initiate violence, oftentimes against relatively defenseless, lower-class white families settled legally on the frontier. In Georgia near the Oconee River, some Indians reportedly killed and scalped a white woman and black woman on the frontier. The Creek Indians in particular were known to scalp various men and women on the Georgian frontier, as illuminated in this report on the murder and scalping of seven individuals. One small yeoman farmer was found outside his home with a tomahawk sticking out of his skull. Another report in 1794 described a “barbarous massacre” by a group of 12 to 15 Indians where several women and “small children” were killed: “Some scalped and barbarously cut to pieces; some tomahawked very inhumanly, and the poor helpless infants committed to the torturing flames.”
Both sides in these conflicts had just causes for complaint: the Indians, of course, for encroachments upon their land, and for violence initiated by some of the Americans; the frontier families, for acts of violence by some of the Indians against legal settlements.
In an interesting letter from Secretary Knox to President Washington, Knox was particularly harsh toward the whites who illegally attacked friendly Indians, explaining that many of the Indians had just reason to be angry: “The desires of too many frontier white people, to seize, by force or fraud, upon the neighboring Indian lands, has been, and still continues to be, an unceasing cause of jealousy and hatred on the part of the Indians,” Knox wrote.
According to Knox, this led to a vicious circle of violence, as Indians retaliated against white violence, with whites then retaliating against Indian violence: “The encroachment of white people is incessantly watched [by the Indians], and in unguarded moments, they are murdered by the Indians. Revenge is sought, and the innocent frontier people are too frequently involved as victims in the cruel contest. This appears to be a principal cause of Indian wars.”
Knox was afraid that this cycle of violence would contribute to an “inability of both parties to keep the peace.” Think of the conflict like that between Israel and Palestine – an attack by one causing a revenge attack by the other, which in turn spawns another revenge attack, until both sides are embroiled in endless conflict.
Knox’s solution was for the United States government, to the best of its ability, to pursue a policy of peace with the Indians in the Southwest Territory, which included the Creeks, Cherokees, and Chickasaws:
“It seems that our own experience would demonstrate the propriety of endeavoring to preserve a pacific conduct, in preference to a hostile one, with the Indian tribes. The United States can get nothing by an Indian war; but they risk men, money, and reputation. As we are more powerful, and more enlightened than they are, there is a responsibility of national character, that we should treat them with kindness, and even liberality. It is a melancholy reflection, that our modes of population have been more destructive to the Indian natives than the conduct of the conquerors of Mexico and Peru. The evidence of this is the utter extirpation of nearly all the Indians in most populous parts of the Union. A future historian may mark the causes of this destruction of the human race in sable colors.”
This latter statement from Knox to Washington was quite prophetic – for historians have indeed been justly critical of the destructive policies towards the Indians by certain portions of the white American population. Knox perceived this, and so wished to walk a thin line between satisfying the complaints of both the settlers and the American Indians, while maintaining peace to the best of his ability. In the end this strategy proved to be quite difficult, and American leaders in the first half of the nineteenth century were undoubtedly less interested in peace with the Southwestern Indians than the Washington administration was in the 1790s. By the 1830s, many of these same Indians had been forcibly removed to the territory west of the Mississippi River, leaving behind land that had belonged to their people for an untold number of generations.