The Effects of the War of 1812 on Native American Peoples

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Treaty of Ghent

The War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain ended in 1815; neither nation won, but the Native Americans on both sides lost decisively.

The Treaty of Ghent ending the War of 1812 imposed no major concessions on either the United States or Great Britain. One of the American negotiators, John Quincy Adams, wrote: “Nothing in substance but an indefinite suspension of hostilities was agreed to.” But if there were no winners in the three-year war, there were definitely losers – the Native American tribes who had allied with one or the other of the combatants.

The Last Chance for Indian Unity

From the beginning of the European conquest of North America, the natives had, with varying degrees of success, been able to play off the colonists – English, French, Spanish, and Americans – against each other in a complex strategy of shifting alliances. During the War of 1812, the Shawnee brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa (called “the Prophet”) had issued a call for tribal unity against the whites, but without any lasting success. Now, in 1815, the Americans were in at least nominal control of virtually all the lands east of the Mississippi River.

Andrew Jackson and the Indians

The British negotiators at Ghent proposed the establishment of an independent Indian nation in the Great Lakes area; the American negotiators, not surprisingly, did not agree to this proposal. What the Americans did agree to, however, was to restore to the Indians “the possessions, rights, and privileges” which were theirs in 1811, prior to the War. Accordingly, President James Madison ordered General Andrew Jackson to return to the Creek Indians the lands in present-day Alabama and Georgia, making up nearly half of their tribal holdings, which they had been forced to relinquish by Jackson himself. The general ignored the order, and the president, well aware of Jackson’s heroic status among the white population, did the same.

Andrew Jackson and His Treaties

In the years following 1815, Jackson forced many other treaties (some blatantly fraudulent) on the Indians in what was then the American southwest. All had the effect of opening Indian lands to white settlement, and all were duly ratified by the United States Senate. By such means, one historian has estimated, Jackson acquired three-quarters of Alabama and Florida, one-third of Tennessee, one-fifth of Georgia and Mississippi, and smaller portions of Kentucky and North Carolina. A few years later, as President Jackson, he introduced into Congress the Indian Removal Act, completing the ethnic cleansing of the eastern half of the United States.

The War of 1812 thus marked the beginning of a process that led in a direct line to the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Along the way, in 1823, the United States Supreme Court provided legal cover for the process when it ruled that although Indians might legally occupy land, they could not legally own it. By the end of the century, the process had been extended to the lands west of the Mississippi as well.

Source:

  1. Howe, Daniel Walker. What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815–1848. Oxford University Press, 2007.