“Bettering Our Circumstances”: Settler Colonialism in Ohio During the 1780s
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“Bettering Our Circumstances”
Settler Colonialism in Ohio During the 1780s

Through the Treaty of Paris after the conclusion of the American Revolution in 1783, Great Britain ceded vast tracts of land to the United States that extended from the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River. As a result of this munificence, the United States Confederation Congress, under the auspices of the Articles of Confederation, wanted to populate these regions, which included the Ohio Country, as quickly as possible with American settlers. Although the Confederation Congress worked diligently to open Ohio for legitimate settlement during the 1780s, the national government could neither control nor secure American expansion into the Ohio region during this decade.

The Confederation Congress faced two daunting problems as it attempted to gain firm control of the Ohio territory in the years after the conclusion of the American Revolution. First, many of the Native groups living in Ohio were upset that the British relinquished lands they believed was rightfully theirs to inhabit. To make matters worse, the United States government insisted that since the Natives sided with the British during the American Revolution, they had been on the losing side of the war and now had no right to try and claim any of the lands ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Paris. Not surprisingly, the Indians believed that they had won the majority of the battles they engaged in with the American army. Because of this these groups did not see themselves as a defeated entity. Over the course of the next decade, the Americans “constructed a national mythology that simplified what had been a complex contest in Indian country, blamed Indians for the bloodletting, and [End Page 22] justified subsequent assaults in Indian lands and cultures.”1 To address this issue, the American government engaged in a series of treaties with the Indian nations in order to gain firm title to their lands in Ohio. However, most of these agreements were dictated to smaller bands of Indian nations that had no right to agree on any contract without the consent of the larger Indian confederacy. Because of the dubious nature of these settlements many of these Indian groups, including the Miami and Shawnee nations, reacted violently toward American settlers who attempted to invade their space.

Second, Congress had very little control over the squatters, or illegal settlers, who came to Ohio during this decade before and after the negotiations of the treaties with the Indian nations in Ohio. These individuals were unwilling to give up their land claims to the federal government. Despite repeated attempts by the national military to remove these squatters, the trespassers remained in Ohio. Eventually, these squatters aligned with legitimate speculators from the Ohio Company of Associates to try and remove the Natives from Ohio. As the Indians counterattacked to protect their lands, the settlers and the investors from the Ohio Company pleaded with their federal government to protect them from repeated Indian attacks. Eventually, the new stronger federal government, under the leadership of President George Washington and Secretary of State Henry Knox, agreed to send federal troops to Ohio in order to engage the Natives in battle and remove them as a threat to American settlement in that region.

Despite the fundamental problems faced by the United States government during the 1780s, the American greed for Native lands in Ohio after the conclusion of the American Revolution reflected settler colonialism, a term that refers to a history in which settlers drove Native inhabitants from the land to construct their own ethnic and religious communities. At the heart of settler colonialism is the ability for the colonizing power to gain vast tracts of land at the expense of the indigenous populations. In addition, racial hierarchy—the depiction of Native peoples as savage and inferior—inhered in settler colonialism. Settler societies include Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Australia, South Africa, and the United States, among others.2

In Australia, they believed in the idea of terra nullius, which means “land [End Page 23] belonging to no one.” As a result of this, the Natives living within their domains were British subjects rather than sovereign individuals, which meant that...