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Historians have typically described the Fort Stanwix Treaty of 1768 as a land swindle. Although not as infamous as Peter Minuit’s purchase of Manhattan, it was more consequential, for it involved much more territory (parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and Virginia) and left a far bloodier legacy. The British Crown had expected the Stanwix treaty to cement and pacify the boundary line established between colonial and native populations by the Proclamation of 1763. Instead, the treaty accelerated a frenzy of land speculation and alienated powerful Indian nations in the Ohio country who had been locked out of the proceedings.
In Speculators in Empire, William J. Campbell sets out to rehabilitate the reputation of the Stanwix treaty. He describes Sir William Johnson, the royal Indian superintendent charged with conducting the negotiations, as a loyal imperial official who did his best to balance Crown interests with those of the Iroquois Confederacy. Likewise, Campbell depicts the Iroquois chiefs who were Johnson’s counterparts as canny, independent diplomats, not powerless dupes preyed upon by colonial land speculators. As Campbell tells the story, the British Crown and the Iroquois Confederacy worked as partners at Fort Stanwix in 1768: “Both parties knew that where Iroquois authority could be established so too might a British colonial system be extended—and eventually an effective trade network established and land sold, settled, and improved” (p. 69).
Campbell is right to emphasize the partnership that Johnson and his allied chiefs forged to bolster each other’s power, but his analysis falls short of ushering the Stanwix treaty into the light of respectability. [End Page 235] As the book title indicates, land speculators played an important role in the treaty, creating a union between private interests and public policy that caused many Native Americans and even the British ministry to question the legitimacy of the treaty land cessions. The question is: who should take the blame? Previous historians have assigned it to Johnson. He purposefully departed from his royal instructions to extend the boundary line in ways that benefited his own speculative interests and those of his well-connected friends. Campbell is more generous to Johnson, describing his manipulations of the boundary line as well-intentioned improvisations meant to strengthen his office and protect Iroquoian homelands. Campbell blames the more sordid elements of the treaty on George Croghan, Johnson’s deputy commissioner, who pursued speculative schemes with a brazen chicanery that makes one wish he were alive to share a jail cell with Bernie Madoff. Campbell, however, lets Johnson off too easily. Johnson may have exhibited more concern for Indians than Croghan, but when it came to using their public roles to acquire native land, the difference between the two men was one of degree, not kind.
Although he does a good job of explaining Iroquoian motives for participating in the Stanwix treaty, Campbell misses the opportunity to present other important native perspectives on it. He never fully explains why so few Ohio Indians (Delawares, Shawnees, Miamis, Wyandots) attended a treaty negotiation that sold away so much of their land. Likewise, he tends to speak of the six Iroquois nations collectively, slighting the local perspective of the Oneidas and Mohawks. Campbell claims that when Johnson extended the boundary line from the Susquehanna River to the Oneida Carry (the portage between the Mohawk River and Wood Creek guarded by Fort Stanwix), he was trying to protect eastern Iroquois homelands. Yet this extension left the Mohawks and many of the Oneidas east of the new boundary, rendering their territory less, not more, secure from speculators and squatters. In this case, Johnson appears to have been more concerned with protecting Croghan’s and his own land claims in the region rather than those of his Indian neighbors. [End Page 236]
Among the strengths of the book, Campbell provides an excellent summary of the geopolitical significance of the Oneida Carry and the way in which its fate was intertwined with that of the Ohio country. He also does...