“To Extirpate the Indians”: An Indigenous Consciousness of Genocide in the Ohio Valley and Lower Great Lakes, 1750s–1810
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“To Extirpate the Indians”:
An Indigenous Consciousness of Genocide in the Ohio Valley and Lower Great Lakes, 1750s–1810

IN September 1778 at Fort Pitt, U.S. commissioners met with Delaware leaders and negotiated the first written Indian treaty in U.S. history. In so doing, they felt compelled to counter the charge that their government and its people intended “to extirpate the Indians and take possession of their country.”1 The allegation was a serious one. We would today call it genocide in the strongest sense of the term: the physical extermination of a group. The word extirpate did not mean simply to drive away or remove. In [End Page 587] the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, it was synonymous with extermination and meant to root out, to eradicate, to destroy.2

According to the commissioners, this “false suggestion” had been spread by “enemies of the United States” using “every artifice in their power.” The commissioners were gesturing at the same George III whom the Declaration of Independence had indicted for “endeavour[ing] to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages.”3 Yet, although British agents sought to stir up Indians’ fears of colonial malevolence, Indians who perceived that Americans intended to extirpate them were not the dupes of British agitation. They had reached this conclusion through their own observations and reasoning. Indeed, for at least twenty years, they had made similar allegations against the British.

The U.S. commissioners hoped to refute the charge of an intent to extirpate by guaranteeing Delaware lands and raising the possibility that the Delawares and other Indian nations might form a state with representation in Congress.4 This offer may have countered the allegation among [End Page 588] some Delawares, but it did not put it to rest. For another four decades, as the United States fought for control over the Ohio Valley and lower Great Lakes, Delawares and other Indians in this region continued to believe that the United States and its people intended to destroy them. Not all Indians adopted this perspective, but many did, especially within movements that sought to halt or roll back colonial expansion, for which the allegation was an important generator of support. Some who advocated accommodation with Americans also held this perspective; for them, accommodation was the best way to avoid genocide.

Native perceptions that colonists, or some portion of them, had genocidal intentions toward Indians may have been grounded in allegations and discourses that arose much earlier. In New England on the eve of the Pequot War, for example, Pequots appealed to Narragansetts by arguing that “the English were minded to destroy all the Indians.” Though Narragansetts rejected this appeal, their witness of the colonists’ slaughter of Pequots in the Mystic River massacre contributed to a Narragansett critique of the colonists for destroying resources, rejecting an ethic of reciprocity expressed in the metaphor of the “common pot,” and turning the world upside down. Around the same time, in New France, Wendats observed that because of disease “whole villages of those who had received [missionaries] now appeared utterly exterminated,” a fate that would be shared by “all the others” unless “stopped by the massacre of those who were the cause of it.” Perhaps these and similar unrecorded critiques were transmitted as “hidden transcripts” (hidden less because oppressed authors feared open avowal than because pens did not record them) and so remained available to guide native evaluations of colonists’ intentions and actions during later times of violence and destruction.5

Whatever the case, evidence from a variety of sources—reports from traders, surveyors, missionaries, non-Indian captives, and government officials—documents a critical discourse that included allegations of genocide circulating in the Ohio Valley and lower Great Lakes from the 1750s into the 1810s. Historians of this time and place have examined several issues that provided the context for this discourse, but they have consistently missed [End Page 589] the discourse itself. Scholarship on American violence and “extirpative war” against Indians, for example, has explored its historical, ideological, political, and psychological grounding, but little attention has been given to native perceptions of violent and otherwise destructive Americans.6...