Independence created governments democratically accountable to voters who coveted Indian land. Indeed, to many patriots, access to Indian land was one of the fruits of American victory. Driving the Indians from the Ohio Valley, wrote Jefferson, would “add to the Empire of Liberty an extensive and fertile country.” But liberty for whites meant loss of liberty for Indians. “The whites were no sooner free themselves,” a Pequot, William Apess, would later write, than they turned on “the poor Indians.” Independence offered the opportunity to complete the process of dispossessing Indians of their rich lands in upstate New York, the Ohio Valley, and the southern backcountry. The only hope for the Indians, Jefferson wrote, lay in their “removal beyond the Mississippi.” Even as the war raged, Americans forced defeated tribes like the Cherokee to cede most of their land.

American independence, a group of visiting Indians told the Spanish governor at St. Louis, was “the greatest blow that could have been dealt us.” The Treaty of Paris marked the culmination of a century in which the balance of power in eastern North America shifted away from the Indians and toward white Americans. The displacement of British power to Canada, coming twenty years after the departure of the French, left Indians with seriously diminished white support. Some Indian leaders, like Joseph Brant, a young Mohawk in upstate New York, hoped to create an Indian confederacy lying between Canada and the new United States. He sided with the British to try to achieve this goal. But in the Treaty of Paris, the British abandoned their Indian allies, agreeing to recognize American sovereignty over the entire region east of the Mississippi River, completely ignoring the Indian presence.

To Indians, freedom meant defending their own independence and retaining possession of their land. Like other Americans, they appropriated the language of the Revolution and interpreted it according to their own experiences and for their own purposes. The Iroquois, declared one spokesman, were “a free people subject to no power on earth.” Creeks and Choctaws denied having done anything to forfeit their “independence and natural rights.” When Massachusetts established a system of state “guardianship” over previously self-governing tribes, a group of Mashpees petitioned the legislature, claiming for themselves “the rights of man” and complaining of this “infringement of freedom.”

“Freedom” had not played a major part in Indians’ vocabulary before the Revolution. By the early nineteenth century, dictionaries of Indian languages for the first time began to include the word. In a sense, Indians’ definition of their rights was becoming Americanized. But there seemed to be no permanent place for the descendants of the continent’s native population in a new nation bent on creating an empire in the West.

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