‘‘Our Line’’ The Shawnees, the United States, and Competing Borders on the Great Lakes ‘‘Borderlands,’’ 1795–1832
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‘‘Our Line’’
The Shawnees, the United States, and Competing Borders on the Great Lakes ‘‘Borderlands,’’ 1795–1832
Abstract

In the early nineteenth century the Great Lakes country was a contested territory. Both the United States and British Canada asserted power across the region by drawing borders that cut Native homelands. Indian communities with deep roots in the area responded with lines of their own. Squeezed between the local Natives and the expanding states, hundreds of Indian refugees from the south and east struggled to carve out spaces for themselves around the Great Lakes and likewise employed the language of borders to accomplish this. This paper explores the competing but entangled Indian and state projects of border-making from the perspective of one diasporic Native people, the Shawnees. It examines how the Shawnees and the Americans defined Shawnee boundaries in northern Ohio between the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 and the Shawnee removal in 1832. During this era some Shawnees sought federal support for a bordered Shawnee country, others advocated a common Indian homeland separated from the United States by a racial boundary, and a third group relied on mobility rather than borders to find autonomous spaces. While the Americans initially drew borders to create isolated Native nations, after the War of 1812 they became more concerned with establishing a racial Indian-White boundary. Focusing on competing Shawnee and American borders allows historians to discern how both sides used boundaries to construct the Native society. Borders not only defined land rights but also provided Shawnees and Americans with a symbolic language for debating how the Indians communities and their relationship with the republic should be organized.

Keywords

Shawnees, Native Americans, Borders, Borderlands, Great Lakes, Treaties, Land rights, Reservations, Race, Nationalism, Civilization program, Indian Removal, War of 1812, Catahecassa, Tecumseh, Tenskwatawa, Wapakoneta, Treaty of Greenville, Treaty of Fort Meigs, Treaty of St. Mary’s

In February 1807 a delegation of Shawnee Indians traveled from their town of Wapakoneta, in what is now northern Ohio, to Washington where they asked President Thomas Jefferson for a piece of land around their settlement to be ‘‘laid off separately’’ for their people. The headmen carefully detailed where they wished their borders—what they called ‘‘our line’’—to run and asked Jefferson to give them ‘‘a strong writing’’ that would prove their right to the territory these boundaries encompassed (see Figure 1). The Shawnees’ request is puzzling, for the land they asked for was located in the Indian Country, beyond the reach of American officials. Moreover, the chiefs’ desire for a bounded territory goes against the dominant scholarly image of the Shawnees as ‘‘the greatest Travellers in America.’’ Historians typically portray the Shawnees as a diasporic people whose survival in the colonial world ‘‘depended on geographic mobility.’’ Consequently, borders have played little role in narratives of Shawnee history, as they have more generally in Native American history. Breaking from this tradition, this essay explores how the diasporic Shawnees envisioned and drew borders to create a homeland for themselves in the Great Lakes country between the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 and the Shawnee removal in 1832 and how these boundaries intertwined and clashed with the lines drawn by the United [End Page 597] States to control this strategically important region. Examining Shawnee borders underlines the complexity and contingency of the transformation of the Great Lakes country from an intercolonial ‘‘borderland’’ into the ‘‘bordered lands’’ of the emerging nation–states during the early nineteenth century. Both diasporic Indians and Euro–American statebuilders contributed to this development, as they adopted borders as instruments for creating order in a world unsettled by displacement and violence.1

Figure 1. Shawnee homelands and borders in the early nineteenth century. The boundaries of the 1802 and 1807 land claims are approximate, as the documents are open to slightly differing interpretations. Although not marked in the map, both claims excluded small tracts already ceded to the United States around Fort Wayne and Vincennes. Map by Élise Lépy, on the basis of John Sugden, Tecumseh: A Life (New York, 1997), 186, and Helen Hornbeck Tanner, ed., Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History (Norman, OK, 1987), 100.
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Figure 1.

Shawnee homelands and borders in the early nineteenth century. The boundaries of the 1802 and 1807 land claims are approximate, as the documents are open to slightly differing interpretations. Although not marked in the map, both claims excluded small tracts already ceded to the United States around Fort Wayne and Vincennes. Map by Élise Lépy, on the basis of John Sugden, Tecumseh: A Life (New York, 1997), 186, and Helen Hornbeck Tanner, ed., Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History (Norman...


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