- Red Gentlemen and White Savages: Indians, Federalists, and the Search for Order on the American Frontier
The United States Congress sent Oliver Wolcott of Connecticut, Richard Butler of Pennsylvania, and Arthur Lee of Virginia to Fort Stanwix, New York, in the fall of 1784 to make a point. Accompanied by 150 soldiers of the U.S. Army, Lee stood before the Iroquois and other delegates and spoke in his best imitation of Indian rhetoric: "the great spirit who is at the same time the judge and avenger of perfidy, has given us victory over all our enemies. We are at peace with all but you; you now stand out alone against our whole force" (p. 30). The U.S. victory over the British in the American Revolution, Lee explained, was also a victory over Britain's Indian allies. Therefore, Congress was now sovereign over all these lands. But the Iroquois and other Indians assembled at Fort Stanwix knew the situation in 1784 was more complicated. In the preceding months, New York and Pennsylvania had sent commissioners to make similar claims of jurisdiction. British troops still occupied forts at Oswego, Niagara, and Detroit. The Marquis de Lafayette, whom the Congressional commissioners had brought along to impress the Iroquois, devoted his speech to the glory of France rather than the United States. Even the surroundings belied Lee's aggressive words. Fort Stanwix was a ruin, "overgrown with thorns and bushes" (p. 28). The commissioners were quartered in leaking huts, the troops were ragged and ill-provisioned, and local settlers insisted on violating the commissioners' prohibition on selling liquor to Indians.
As David Andrew Nichols's important and engaging book shows, U.S. power in 1784 was largely a bluff. Red Gentlemen and White Savages cuts through the bluster on all sides, providing a much-needed new history of Indian-white relations in the period between the American Revolution and Thomas Jefferson's election in 1800. Nichols's book is part of a dramatic historiographic shift. In the past, early American historians wrote mainly from the vantage point of white colonists and citizens, but in recent decades, a multi-perspectival approach has become dominant. Earlier histories of Nichols's subject focused on federal and sometimes state policies toward Indians, while here Indian men and women share the stage equally with Lee and his compatriots, and Nichols shows the diversity of both Indians and white Americans in this pivotal period. The history of the early republic becomes less an isolated story of American nation building (although that still has its role to play) and more a story of cross-cultural diplomacy and conflict [End Page 763] that is contiguous with colonial history rather than an abrupt break. Keeping all of these balls in the air is not easy, but fortunately they are in Nichols's capable hands. His sharp analysis, skillful writing, deep knowledge of primary and secondary sources, and dry wit combine into a tale both significant and fascinating.
The "red gentlemen" and "white savages" of the book's title shift traditional expectations but actually oversimplify the groups involved in Nichols's complicated story. Alexander Hamilton and Henry Knox were soldiers trying to be gentlemen. Chiefs possessed, as Jonathan Trumbull wrote of Creeks visiting New York City, "a dignity of manner, form, countenance and expression worthy of Roman senators" (p. 13). White settlers resented Indian and elite white obstruction of their attempts to work and own their own land, earned by service in the American Revolution or by natural right. Some Indians joined together across tribes and in opposition to their own chiefs and to whites, forming confederacies for pan-Indian solidarity and sovereignty. Federal leaders found themselves between the rock and hard place of, as George Washington put it, "lawless settlers and greedy speculators on one side" and "the jealousies of the Indian nations and their banditti on the other" (p. 158). One of Nichols's central arguments is that Congress and many Indian leaders to the...