Iroquois, Native Americans, Treaty of Fort Stanwix, Borderlands, Settlers
Sovereignty at its margins is a confidence game. On the edges of the competing empires in eighteenth-century North America, each polity negotiated its jurisdiction in fluid interactions between shifting groups of actors over many decades. Yet some encounters stand out. One of the most striking, yet half-forgotten, scenes in the history of Britain’s North American empire came in the autumn of 1768 at Fort Stanwix, a military outpost erected at the end of the Seven Years’ War but, due to metropolitan economizing, already in decay. The fort lay next to a centuries-old Indian carrying place linking the Hudson and Mohawk Valleys, a commercial linchpin between the Atlantic and the Great Lakes. There, Superintendent of Indian Affairs Sir William Johnson brought together imperial officials, representatives of several colonial governments, and over 3,000 Native Americans, most of whom were members of the Iroquois Confederacy, to fix the boundary line between colonial settlement and Indian country. The goal was to maximize trade and minimize illegal migration, all the while leaving ambiguous the political meaning of a Euro–Indian border.
William J. Campbell’s monograph is the first book-length analysis of the intricate diplomacy leading up to the Fort Stanwix Treaty. The starting point for compromise was the line atop the Appalachian Mountains, which the crown had declared, in the Proclamation of 1763, would hold back British settlers and speculators. It did not. The Stanwix Treaty shifted the line slightly east in New York, thus protecting strategic Iroquois lands, and then swept it west to open a huge chunk of the Ohio [End Page 774] Valley for colonial settlement. That land was occupied by Indian nations supposedly under the control of the Iroquois but increasingly populated by colonial squatters and checkered with the claims of British land speculators. The last group plays a large role in Campbell’s story. He details how the interest of the empire and that of land speculators got entangled over the 1760s, and how imperial agents often conflated the two for their own benefit. Notably underrepresented at Fort Stanwix, however, were the major western Indian nations like the Delaware, Shawnee, and Miami, who saw themselves as owners, and indeed sovereigns, of that land. In the words of one Shawnee chief on the eve of the Stanwix conference, his people were “uneasy to see that you think yourselves Masters of this Country, because you have taken it from the French, who you know had no right to it, as it is the Property of us Indians” (131). More was at stake than several degrees of longitude on a map.
But the imperial agents were more than willing to support the inflated claims of their Iroquois friends and allies; and for their part, the Iroquois trusted that the new land cession would finally enable the British to stanch the flow of colonial settlers into Indian country. It was diplomacy for a world that did not exist and that could only, if ever, come into being with an enormous British commitment to restructure its political relationship with the Indians. Given metropolitan austerity, compelled in no small part by colonial tax resistance, that commitment never came. Within a decade Johnson was dead, settlers were rebelling against the British empire, and Indian nations across the eastern half of the continent were launched on a decades-long war for survival that began but did not end with the American Revolution and its Treaty of Peace of 1783, which purported to transfer the entire Ohio Valley to the new republic. Could it have turned out any other way?
Despite its contingent twists, Campbell’s narrative leaves the reader doubting that the formidable Johnson, even if given all the resources he desired, could have stifled the clash between settlers, speculators, and Indians. The complex story is not always well served by knotty prose, but the author offers the reader many sharp insights and illuminating vignettes. Particularly illustrative is...