- Native American Roles in the War for Independence
Since the publication of Barbara Graymont’s 1972 work The Iroquois in the American Revolution, American historians have been familiar with the basic contours of the role that members of the Iroquois Confederacy, or Haudenosaunee, played in the War for Independence. Though the Iroquois tried to remain neutral at first, most of the Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, and Mohawk eventually sided with the British. Most of the Oneida and Tuscarora allied themselves with the Americans. In the ensuing years, [End Page 349] historians have been adding nuance to the narrative, focusing on different leaders or examining the causes behind the split in the confederacy. Two contributions to this literature, both focusing on the Oneida, are David J. Norton’s Rebellious Younger Brother: Oneida Leadership and Diplomacy, 1750–1800 and Joseph T. Glatthaar and James Kirby Martin’s Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Indians and the American Revolution. The former is a brief, but useful examination of the causes behind the rift between the Oneida and other Iroquois nations. The latter discusses causes of the split, but also provides a very thorough military history of Oneida participation in the conflict.
Rebellious Younger Brother and Forgotten Allies trace some of the same Oneida leaders, such as Good Peter (Agwrongdongwas), Han Yerry, and John Skenandoah, who played important roles throughout much of the Revolutionary era. They also use many of the same primary sources, including the Papers of the Continental Congress, British and American military records, and the writings of missionaries. Yet, these two works are quite different. Norton’s book is not terribly concerned with the military contributions of the Oneida—indeed, many of the major battles of the Revolution are covered in a page or less. Instead, Norton focuses on the very complicated set of causes behind the choices the Oneida made in trying to remain neutral and then, ultimately, in breaking from the rest of the confederacy in siding with the Americans. To answer the question of why the Oneida sided with the Americans Norton focuses on the period 1750–1776, which he sees as more important than the earlier colonial era in explaining the changes to internal Iroquois dynamics.
Like Glatthaar and Martin, Norton discusses the origins of the Iroquois Confederacy. In his introduction, he describes the “Oneida as a Nation Apart” and their importance to the confederacy “as receivers and conveyers of information” (6). They were also entrusted with the responsibility of accepting new nations into their territory. In the Iroquoian moiety and fictive kinship systems, the Seneca, Onondaga, and Mohawk sat as the older brothers at the council fire kept by the Onondaga. The Cayuga and Oneida were the younger brothers. While they lacked the special responsibility to protect the eastern and western frontiers like the Mohawk and Seneca did, the Oneida and Cayuga had the authority to communicate dissenting voices to the other nations. These responsibilities, coupled with their geographic proximity to the colonists, contributed to their gradual alienation from the others. Norton tackles the process in stages: Chapter One discusses the Oneida participation during the French and Indian War. The next three chapters describe their role at peace, as diplomats, and as neutrals in the years preceding the Revolution. [End Page 350] During this time, the Oneidas frequently ran into conflicts with the British Indian Agent William Johnson, an Anglican convert who became a mentor to the loyalist Mohawk warrior Joseph Brant. Brant became the most virulent supporter of the Loyalist cause and tried, unsuccessfully, to bring all of the Oneida to the side of the Crown. The Oneida’s own Presbyterian minister, Samuel Kirkland, helped link them to the patriots, but Norton makes a point of de-emphasizing Kirkland as a chief cause for their active support of the colonists.
Instead, Norton argues that...