Indigenous Diplomacy

“A Peace which shall be lasting”? Analyzing Early American Diplomacy with Indigenous Peoples


One of the most important functions of the War Department in its first years was managing relationships with the native peoples and nations that abutted America’s ever-expanding borders. White Americans’ unceasing appetite for land constantly brought them into contact with the indigenous peoples who had inhabited the land for thousands of years before the arrival of European colonists.

As those populations came into increasing contact, native populations suffered, struggled, negotiated, attacked, retreated, and sometimes collaborated with whites as they attempted to preserve parts of their culture and society from the steady encroachment of a new and often threatening country.

In the United States’ first decades, the War Department served as the primary government office mediating relations between white Americans and indigenous peoples. Its files contain a wealth of reports, letters, and observations about the character and nature of those interactions. The documents in the early War Department collection reflect a distinctly white, American perspective, a product of the function of the early War Office within the new Federal government. But the archive nevertheless offers a unique and fascinating window into these important efforts at early diplomacy, before the confrontational and punitive policies of the nineteenth century became settled. These documents reflect a moment when that outcome was only one of a range of possibilities, from a time when the deliberately weak standing army established by the Constitution required the central government to use tools beyond brute force in its dealings.

This lesson explores some of the ways that the early War Department attempted to manage what it termed “Indian Affairs” during the 1790s using letters, speeches, and reports from the last years of the eighteenth century. It is suitable for classes in early American history, in human geography, and some cultural anthropology courses. (It is also appropriate for teachers and students looking for a more complex view of the early frontier than the one presented in David McCullough’s 2019 book The Pioneers.)

Historical Background

Winning their independence in the war against Great Britain did not end all the threats facing the new American nation. In the two decades following the War of Independence, the young United States faced a variety of challenges to their security. Some of those threats came from European great powers: the ongoing rivalry with Great Britain would erupt into war again in 1812, and conflict with former ally France nearly broke into naval warfare during the Quasi-War from 1798 to 1800. Other threats were internal challenges to the central government: the uprising known as Shays’ Rebellion in western Massachusetts tested the authority of the Articles of Confederation in 1786 and 1787, while the Whiskey Rebellion challenged the sovereignty and determination of the government under the new Constitution from 1791 to 1794.

The framers of the Constitution intended it to create a government that could, in part, “insure domestic Tranquility” and “provide for the common defense,” though they adamantly opposed supporting a standing professional army in peacetime. The military that would help provide for the new nation’s security would, by design, be small and relatively weak compared to the grand professional armies of Europe.

In America’s first decades, a critical part of providing for the common defense was managing relationships with the indigenous nations near the ever-expanding white settlements. For white Americans, the most persistent and most immediate threat to their security came not from the great European powers across the Atlantic but from the native peoples on the immediate frontier.

For the indigenous peoples of North America, of course, the situation looked vastly different. They faced simultaneous threats from white Americans moving westward and, often, from rival neighboring indigenous populations. For them, the formation of the United States between 1775 and 1789 marked only the newest chapter in a long and fraught history that had begun nearly two hundred years earlier with the arrival of the first European settlers on the Atlantic seaboard.

The U.S. government’s history with the indigenous nations of North America is a long and complex one, and the treatment of Native American peoples at the hands of the federal government constitutes a protracted and shameful chapter in American history. That history includes the 1830 Indian Removal Act under Andrew Jackson’s administration; the lengthy series of brutal military actions against the Plains Indians spanning decades in the mid- to late-nineteenth century; seizure of tribal lands and the forced relocation to reservations; and the establishment of the Carlisle Indian School in 1879, with its professed aim of stripping indigenous children of their tribal heritage and, in so doing, “Kill the Indian: Save the man.”  

Conflict between whites and native populations began with the first arrival of Europeans in North America in the seventeenth century, and flowed in often violent cycles for the next two centuries. Indigenous nations were not passive during this process: in an effort to preserve their families, lands, and culture, they would act as vigorous agents in their own right, using diplomacy, force, and negotiation to carve out accommodations alongside the expanding white population. Those interactions entered a new phase following the United States’ victory in the War of Independence.

One of the most important tasks assigned to the new War Department was the management of what it termed “Indian Affairs.” Using a variety of means, agents of the modest office attempted to shape relations between white Americans and indigenous nations. Given the staggering persecution that characterized white Americans’ relations with indigenous nations in the nineteenth century, it is easy to imagine that the power dynamic was always one-sided, exploitive, adversarial, and violent. But while the earliest federal efforts to accommodate the interests of both whites and indigenous people would hardly be characterized as benign, the documentary record suggests that those relationships were complex, multifaceted, and frequently changing.

This lesson explores some of the ways that the early War Department tried to manage those relationships, using documents and reports from the last years of the eighteenth century. Those documents tell a distinctly white, American story (that perspective is, in fact, one of the defining features of the archive), but offers a unique look into the early efforts to accommodate competing interests and cultures on the evolving and often violent frontier.

Lesson Objective 

To explore the evolving relationships between native peoples and the government of the newly-independent United States in the 1790s by examining correspondence from the files of the early War Department. 

Lesson Materials