- Red Gentlemen and White Savages: Indians, Federalists, and the Search for Order on the American Frontier
From the moment of reading the title, the reader is jolted awake and forced to reevaluate many misconceptions about the early development of the United States. Nichols reinvigorates the detailed historiography of early United States policies toward Native Americans with a discussion of a complicated web of government, settler and Indian characters, each with their own self-interests and human motivations. More broadly, Nichols analyzes the political culture of the United States from the point-of-view of three divergent groups: elected federal officials in the east, white settlers in the backcountry, and various Indian groups in the west. In many ways, the narrative focuses on the odd and frequently unstable alliances between eighteenth century Indians and the fledgling United States government and the problems [End Page 355] both had dealing with white settlers in the west. The contradictions and mixed messages sent by Native Americans, government officials and so many other people suggest a political landscape devoid of cooperation as each faction fought for dominance. As David Nichols points out, the story is even messier, as it “illustrates the political and social divisions within both white and Indian communities, and the challenges facing leaders within each” (2).
The federal government initiated early political influence by supporting the dominant party in each region, largely in an attempt to gain a political foothold in the frontier. In the Southeast, they supported Creek and Cherokee negotiations against the problematic states of Georgia and North Carolina. In the Old Northwest, they took a much harder line against the weaker federationist Indians of the Ohio region. The overall effects of federal efforts throughout the western frontier were the weakening of Native American resistance, limitations of state control, and increased political control of the new federal government elite in the east. Their actions, though, rarely won them favor among westerners, Indian or European. In the Old Northwest, pan-Indian federations attempted to push back against faulty treaties like Fort Stanwix, and sought both military and political resolution while self-interested federal representatives attempted to codify beneficial treaties. The Southeast was characterized by much stronger Indian political and military intervention against both the Federal government and the settlers of the attempted state of Franklin. Nichols’ narrative explains the slow decline of Native American power and the rise of federal control over both Indians and whites along the frontier by the beginning of the nineteenth century. As populations of whites overtook those of Indian groups, and the federal government became better able to control both groups with military and political power, the balance of power shifted entirely in the favor of European descendants.
Though Native Americans play a primary role in Nichols’ text, the author is clearly focused on the development of the United States’ Indian policies and their implementation. The egocentric motivations and interests of historical characters play a major part in Nichols’ understanding of the constantly shifting political landscape of the trans-Appalachian frontier, including George Washington, Timothy Pickering, Joseph Brant, and John Sevier. The narrative ambitiously encompasses a large geographic region and a diverse body of actors. Yet the author manages to treat each region and cultural group with sensitivity to the internal factions that complicated and steered intercultural political interactions. This is most noticeable in the detailed explanations of the condolence ceremonies performed at treaty conferences. Far from taking [End Page 356] the ceremonies at cultural face-value, the author shows the theatrical nature of the displays and interprets the intentions of the actors, both Indian and white. As in the case of the Treaty at Greenville of 1795, the United States paternal political relationship with Northwestern Indians “was to be a provider and mediator, not a punisher of wrongdoers” (176). Equally as important, Nichols recognizes the mutual misunderstandings stemming from such conferences and the bloody conflicts that ensued. Rather than using indigenous people as passive critiques of western society...