Students prepping for the AP US History exam can study up on terms with flashcards that remind them we refer to “natives in the way of westward expansion and [who] were working with [the B]ritish” as “the Indian Menace.” While this handy phrase neatly packages three hundred years of conquest into shorthand that is sure to please the Oklahoma legislature and Texas textbook approvers, it fails completely at recognizing the violence and cruelty that white settlers and leaders embraced to eradicate the presence of Native Americans in the pursuit of land. What’s more, it obfuscates the ways that white Americans exacerbated tensions with the original inhabitants and the illogicality of making war out of fear, when diplomacy and cooperation were available options.
In 1808, brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatwa founded Prophetstown (IN), soon to become the capital of a far-flung Indian confederacy. Tenskwatwa preached a return to traditional ways and rejection of white culture, while Tecumseh built military alliances between various nations in hope of creating a united defense that could effect what individual tribes could not. The new league was a kind of large-scale successor to the Iroquois Confederacy, which, after serving as pre-eminent military power on the continent for a good century, split when the members took opposing sides in the American Revolution. By that time, the Indian nations had nearly two hundred years of experience with fighting colonists.
When English settlers began moving into western Pennsylvania and what would later become Ohio and the Old Northwest, they ran into French forts built to serve as commercial stations as well as military outposts, in order to facilitate trade with their Indian partners. Dueling land claims would lead to the French and Indian War, pitting the English and their Native American allies against the residents and friends of New France. When the French abandoned their claim after the war, Pontiac, an Ottawa leader, continued the fight with a modest coalition mostly comprised of former French allies. The British bested them, but the Crown issued the Proclamation of 1763 to ease hostilities and lessen the need for armed conflict (and commitment of resources) in the future. Under this order, English colonists were prohibited from moving further west into Indian-held lands.
Of course, this restriction helped fuel the coming revolution. Settlers continued to move west, perpetuating clashes with Indian inhabitants. The “Indian Menace” (really, Native Americans’ armed resistance to settlers overtaking their homelands) then became a primary concern in western communities — as did British refusal to take up for the colonial drive to expand into the continent. Although the subsequent revolution broke the Iroquois Confederacy apart, in addition to ties with Great Britain, that didn’t mean peace, especially with other Native American tribes. Ongoing conflict was part of frontier life, and the Indian nations often got the upper hand — as when the Shawnee won the Battle of Fallen Timber in 1794. Land concessions and migration further west to avoid further engagements made Native Americans bitter but still no safer from Anglo encroachment.
By the early years of the 19th century, then, Tecumseh and Tenskwatwa found willing listeners when they urged the Indian nations to cooperate in order to present a united military front against the new American republic. Indeed, they were so successful that white settlers feared the nation’s survival (at least the western portion), if the pan-Indian alliance was fully realized. Acting preemptively, Governor William Henry Harrison of the Indiana Territory led an attack on the brothers’ base in 1811. Harrison and his men destroyed it in Tecumseh’s absence, but rather than break the confederacy in its youth, the attack only led to increasing violence and bloodshed thereafter.
During this time, many Indian groups remained trading partners with the British, who supplied them guns and ammunition. Sentiment in the US laid much of the blame for the ongoing fighting with the British then. A Congress slow to respond to public feeling witnessed a purge, as voters replaced a number of incumbents with representatives more willing to escalate the governmental response. Shortly, the country was at war with the Indians and their British allies again with the War of 1812, the resolution of which brought a final end to hostilities with the old country but did nothing to stop Indian resistance to the never-ending Staters’ encroachment.
Rather than focus on mutually-beneficial trade alliances and forgo further expansion of settlements as a way of avoiding more bloodshed and building cooperative commercial networks as the French and then British did with the various Native American nations, the US opted to pursue another century of war instead. By the 1830’s, the US controlled the lands east of the Mississippi, removing the Indian nations to less desirable and foreign places west. The costs — in money, lives, and betrayal of the principles enshrined in the Constitution — were great. As the country continued to sprawl west and removal was no longer physically possible, extermination, eradication, and then assimilation became official policy. Staters’ fear of the threat to their presence and sense of entitlement to the lands of the continent by an Indian “menace” became an unrelentingly cruel, violent peril to the Native Americans’ lives and culture. Of course, we still describe this in terms of white fear instead of aggression, even today.