The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation by Colin G. Calloway
Those of us who study Native America often remark on something that appears obvious to us but seems lost on others—centering Indians within the narrative of America changes the American story entirely. One only has to read Colin G. Calloway’s recent sweeping history (and 2018 finalist for the National Book Award), The Indian World of George Washington, to understand the sort of reconfiguration we have been talking about. His book, part of a growing body of literature highlighting the role of Native Americans in early American history, forces us to rethink what we know about George Washington, American Indians, and indeed the birth of the United States.
Calloway, a masterful historian who has documented much about historic Native life across much of what is now the United States, knows that the persistent sidestepping, diminishing, and ignoring of American Indians has been a result of historians separating Indians and European Americans “sharply, and prematurely, into winners and losers” (13). Calloway understands this compartmentalization to be fundamentally flawed because it simplifies a history of complex interactions into a binary that misconstrues American history. His objective in The Indian World of George Washington, accordingly, is to tell a fuller story of America by restoring Native Americans “to their proper place” (14) within it. Calloway recognizes that a biography of Washington is the perfect vehicle for doing so both because of the first president’s symbolic value and because “Washington’s life, like the lives of so many of his contemporaries, was inextricably linked to Native America” (13). Sources from this period readily demonstrate that Indians were ever on the minds of the founding fathers, as well as almost every other colonist in the late eighteenth century. Despite this, volumes on Washington and his times mostly allot Indian nations and leaders secondary and fleeting roles. Calloway’s decision to cast a gaze on Washington’s iconic, indeed mythic, story from the Native perspective is certainly novel. But it is equally risky business and a daring stroke of genius because from this view Washington is not a heroic, or even a pleasant, man, and the American story takes on a somber tone.
Calloway divides his lengthy book into three sections that roughly correspond to major phases in Washington’s life. Part 1 opens with him as an elite young man taking his privileged place in colonial Virginian society. [End Page 327] In these formative years, Washington developed his lifelong goal of founding his fortune on the acquisition of Indian lands. As a surveyor for Virginia, he gained intimate knowledge of the territory beyond colonial settlements, while his subsequent military expeditions in the Seven Years’ War set his sights on the bounty of Indian territories through the Ohio River valley and beyond. He soon became heavily involved in land speculation, and over his lifetime he amassed large holdings in what is now Kentucky, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia.
Through his roles as surveyor, military leader, and landowner, Washington came into close contact with many Indian nations, and these interactions hardened his ungenerous attitudes toward them. Calloway states that it is not his intention to demonize Washington, and it is true that others have noted some of the future president’s unsavory and unheroic personality quirks—Washington could be whiny, quick to blame others, petulant, inattentive, overly ambitious, conceited, and even corrupt. But all of these character traits are more evident in this book because Washington’s relationships and dealings with Indians were fraught with the man’s contempt, condescension, and disregard for Native American life, rights, and sovereignty. These attitudes permeated all his Indian affairs.
Part 2 segues into Washington’s role in the American Revolution. In this telling, Calloway shifts the traditional emphasis from Washington’s courage and leadership in the Continental army to the general’s concerns about Indian foes and allies and, above all, his continuing passion for acquiring Indian land. In fact, the author argues that for both Natives and colonists, issues surrounding Indian territories played an underappreciated role in shaping responses to the stirrings of revolution. On the one hand, the colonists chafed at British efforts to regulate Indian land acquisitions and control the type of speculation pursued by Washington. On the other, the patriots’ fervent commitment to land speculation stirred much Native animosity, distrust, and hostility. The Iroquois, Calloway notes, always believed that Washington’s order for the genocidal reprisal against them for siding with the British was itself opportunistic rather than aggrieved, motivated predominantly by the desire to appropriate their territory. After reading The Indian World of George Washington, it is difficult to think otherwise.
Part 3 takes us into Washington’s presidency and the years in which he and other founding figures forged a unified nation and central government. Calloway’s goal here is to examine the difficult and multifaceted process of nation building as it pertained to American Indians. We all know how it turned out—the Indians lost much of their land and international sovereignty, and all the Indian nations were seriously weakened over the next two hundred years. This was the product of the early and relentless focus of the United States on westward expansion at all costs in the effort to obtain [End Page 328] a territorial and resource base for the new nation. Washington embodied this project, and he coveted those lands for America (and for himself), never thinking that Indian people had the right to possess them. Even so, one of the main problems during his presidency was how to acquire Indian lands without further antagonizing an Indian population who, when combined, outnumbered the white Americans. In his view, the fledgling nation, equipped with a small army, would best be served by avoiding a large-scale Indian war. To this end, Washington was one of the key engineers of the “civilization plan,” which aimed to bring American Indians into American life as yeomen by teaching them to farm, raise livestock, engage in cottage industries, and so on. Of course, most Indian people had been farming for centuries, and many were already engaged in cattle and hog ranching and in cottage industries. The motive behind the plan, as was stated at the time, was to settle Indian families onto individual plots, after which any territorial claims beyond these farmsteads could be considered unused and therefore “excess.” The United States could then peacefully acquire these lands by offering to purchase them. This would achieve the dual objective of assimilating American Indians into the lower rungs of American society and of diminishing the territorial bases, and hence the sovereignty, of their nations. And it had the additional benefit of, ostensibly, avoiding antagonizing Indian groups. As Calloway shows, practicality rather than beneficence directed Washington’s assimilationist policy, and the goal was always to acquire Indian territory.
Calloway devises numerous other means to center Indians in Wash- ington’s world. Although organized around the milestones in Washington’s life, The Indian World of George Washington also delivers insights into the lives and communities inside Indian country east of the Mississippi River. Calloway offers sketches of the various Indian nations that preoccupied Washington—the Shawnees, the Iroquois, the Delawares, the Cherokees, and the Creeks, among others—and many of their leaders, such as Alexander McGillivray, Attakullakulla, Blue Jacket, Dragging Canoe, Guyasuta, Joseph Brant, and Tanaghrisson. He also dissects the intertribal politics, alliance building, and hostilities that structured Indian and American relations. As one would expect, Calloway’s view of Native America mostly stays within the geographic confines that were the site of Washington’s life and interests; although he does not ignore the larger, more powerful Indian nations further west, Calloway only manages a nod to the pressures they exerted on their Indian neighbors in the Ohio River valley and the Great Lakes region. Even so, this nod—along with his more detailed analysis of inter-Indian affairs east of the Mississippi—leads the reader to recognize that Native nations and leaders in the American Midwest not only considered the American colonies and subsequent new [End Page 329] nation while making their decisions about alliances, politics, trade, and more but were also engaged in westward-looking diplomacy.
Similarly, in the front matter of Calloway’s book, he lists more than 120 Indian men (and a few women) pertinent to Washington’s story. The catalog is a useful reading aid that also indexes Native centrality both to Washington’s life and the broader American story. Indeed, Calloway’s narrative reflects the themes of Indian agency and resistance that inform much current scholarship on Native America; Indian people are no longer portrayed as passive victims of American progress and exceptionalism but as people actively involved in a fierce struggle for their homelands and sovereignty. In Calloway’s telling, Indian people have agency, control, power, and self-determination; the multiple Indian leaders are decision makers and policy makers as important as Washington, always in the thick of things, manipulating, directing, and affecting the course of events. The Seven Years’ War, in Calloway’s hands, turns out the way it did not because of French and English efforts but because of Native ones. His American Revolution is more about Indian alliances, neutrality, and enemies than about British and American forces. And Washington’s presidency emerges as governed by Indian resistance to his efforts to acquire their territory.
The Indian World of George Washington thus presents Washington as seriously flawed and American Indians as meaningful historical actors. Both are important revisions to the standard historiography. However, what really changes the American narrative in this book is the thread that tied white Americans and Indians together throughout. This thread is land—the rapacious desire of the United States to acquire it and the equally strong Native resistance to the relentless efforts to push them off their homelands. Before the revolution, Washington well understood that his fortunes rested on landholdings; afterward he understood that the fortunes of the new nation rested on a strong territorial base. He spent his life and career determined to acquire both, no matter who had rights of ownership. Calloway makes crystal clear that land speculation permeated every aspect of Washington’s life and the founding of the United States and that the competition over Indian lands was foundational to the birth of our nation.
Washington’s disregard toward Indian people and their sovereign rights developed out of ideals of nation building that were not particular to him, for the larger historical forces and hegemonic ideals that molded the man also shaped the nation. Those who shared his ideals similarly assumed that Indians were not entitled to the same rights as whites. The United States undoubtedly was founded on democratic premises. But not all of its inhabitants had equal access to that democracy, and it was also founded on both an unabashed conviction that Indian lands were available for the taking and a [End Page 330] justification that rested on fundamentally racist doctrine, stark ethnocentrism, unquestioned privilege, and unbridled capitalism and profiteering. And these beliefs matured despite a massive and prolonged resistance by Native Americans. The Indian World of George Washington redirects us from a story of Americans as a moral success story to a dark cautionary tale. Indeed, placing American Indians into the narrative changes everything. [End Page 331]