We Can Retreat No Farther Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“Look back, and review the lands from whence we have been driven to this spot. We can retreat no farther, because the country behind hardly affords food for its present inhabitants; and we have therefore resolved to leave our bones in this small space to which we are now confined.”

Summary Overview

Although the American Revolution officially ended in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris, fighting between the newly established United States and some of Great Britain’s former American Indian allies continued. Because the treaty did not mention Indians, they had to seek a separate peace with the Americans. The major area of contention involved land, as Indians did not recognize Britain’s right to cede native lands to the Americans in the treaty. The selection below is an address given to representatives of the United States by members of the Western Indian Confederacy. The document lists several grievances against the new nation, particularly calling attention to the coercive tactics used by American delegates to acquire new territory. As the document makes clear, war remained a viable possibility well into the 1790s; unlike before, however, Indians lacked diplomatic allies to help them shift the balance of power.

Defining Moment

American Indians’ relations with the colonists declined steadily during the eighteenth century. France’s loss in the Seven Years’ War crushed their political and diplomatic power in North America. As a result, Indians lost a powerful ally and could no longer use their friendship with the French monarch as a negotiating tool when dealing with the British.

In addition, a clear definition of race emerged in the eighteenth century, adding to the increasing hostilities. The ethnic backgrounds of the colonists became lost in notions of “white,” while they in turn categorized American Indians as “red.” In order to further circumscribe the other’s humanity, colonists and Indians both assigned derogatory attributes to skin color, catalyzing each group’s preference for a racially bifurcated society. Historians note that by 1763, both Indians and white colonists (mostly Scots Irish, German, and British) had set in motion ethnic-cleansing programs to remove the “other” from their territories. Pontiac’s rebellion and the Paxton Boys’ attack on the Susquehannocks at Conestoga reflect these efforts. Each side sought to rid itself of the vestiges of the other’s culture. The practices of accommodation slowly deteriorated as intricate negotiation ceremonies, gift giving, and diplomacy faltered to make way for aggressive onslaughts.

During the American Revolution, many Indians negotiated an alliance with Great Britain and agreed to fight against the rebels. The Iroquois under Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, for instance, subverted the American war effort in parts of Pennsylvania and New York by destroying farms that grew food for the Continental army. Cherokees in the South joined the war against the Americans and retaliated against rebels who had previously squatted on their land. Tribes who tried to stay neutral at the outset of the war found themselves drawn into the conflict on one side or the other.

Regardless of their position during the war, many Indian tribes lost land at its close. The treaties conducted at Forts Stanwix and McIntosh in 1784 and 1785, respectively, required Indians to cede substantial tracts of land, which the newly established government would in turn sell to pay off debts and help run the country.

Author Biography

The document below is not attributed to any particular author; rather, it derives from a united effort of the Western Indian Confederacy. The nations involved in penning this response to the United States government include the Wyandottes, Potawatomis (Pattawatamies), Conoys, Delawares, Shawnees (Shawanese), Munsees, Nanticokes (Nantekokies), Mohicans, Miamis, Ottawas, Missisaugas (Messasagoes), Chippewas, Creeks, Cherokees, the Seven Nations of Canada, and the Senecas of the Glaize.

The Western Confederacy crystallized after the conclusion of the American Revolution in 1783, when King George III ceded the Northwest Territory—a sizeable territory stretching northwest from the Ohio River to what is now eastern Minnesota—to the United States in the Treaty of Paris, thus weakening Indian claims of ownership to the land. Some British officials who remained in North America after the war continued to assist Indians, however. Joseph Brant, also known as Thayendanegea, helped establish the confederacy after receiving a tract of land from the British; the land functioned as a meeting ground for leaders of various tribes. During the revolution, Brant was known for leading military campaigns against American forces. He continued to engage in political affairs in the 1780s to gain support for the confederacy.

The major point of contention for the Western Confederacy was the boundary of the Ohio River. They refused to acknowledge a different geographical marker to delineate their lands from the onslaught of white settlers and continued to press for the removal of the settlers from their side of the river. Politically, they met staunch resistance from the Americans, who asserted that the revolution had shifted the border further west. Land cessions, the Indians argued, could not be made without the acquiescence of the delegates of the Western Confederacy. They declared the treaties of Stanwix and McIntosh void, since Indian representatives had signed under duress. This led to what is sometimes called the Northwest Indian War, in which the confederacy experienced at least initial military success, quelling Josiah Harmar’s (1790) and Arthur St. Clair’s (1791) attempts to defeat their forces. The confederacy’s loss in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 ultimately ended the war, however, forcing them to reconsider and retrace the western boundary between Indian country and the United States. The 1795 Treaty of Greenville cemented the United States’ new position of power over the confederacy, which would continue with full force into the next century.

Document Analysis

This letter from the Western Confederacy to the United States Indian commissioners offers a window into US-Indian diplomatic exchanges and relations in the early 1790s, providing a fascinating look at how elements of Indian and Euro-American political negotiations were fused to accommodate both parties. In it, the Indians decry the treatment they received from American peacemakers at the conclusion of the war, asserting that US delegates coerced Indians into signing away land, and explain that cessions made to the United States failed to meet the necessary requirements laid out by the confederacy, thus making any sales or land grants void. The address also outlines important cultural differences between Indians and those of European descent. Eschewing money, the Indians indicate that in order to achieve peace, the settlers who encroached on Indian land must leave. Collectively, these themes reveal the efforts made by American Indians to achieve political autonomy from their white neighbors.

Diplomacy and Ceremony

The structure and ceremonial aspects present in the correspondence from the Western Confederacy deserve further attention. Because American Indians’ speeches likely required translation for US delegates, historians must use caution when interpreting documents. Often Indian words underwent one or two separate translations, thus blurring their actual words (and sometimes meaning). Translators likewise followed a formulaic protocol when deciding which words to preserve and which to excise from the final document; treaties with Indians were likely not copied verbatim. The translation process could obscure meaning, however, and lead to difficulties. The letter from the commissioners dated July 31, 1793, referred to in the document above, was translated from English into the Seneca language and then interpreted by a Wyandotte chief; indeed, the confederacy assures the American commissioners that the letter “has been interpreted to all the different nations.” Oftentimes, a group would repeat in their response what the other party wrote in order to confirm their understanding. This document reflects a process that crystallized as a result of cultural exchanges throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The structure and layout of the Indians’ response follow a methodical sequence that reflects a strict adherence to diplomatic protocol. They begin by confirming receipt of the previous correspondence given to them by the commissioners and end by dating the document and naming the place where it was written. They preface each statement by referring to the commissioners as brothers—a sentiment that conveys a desire for peace but also asserts their autonomy and standing as equals. In this role, they bluntly assess the United States’ past dealings with Indians and call particular attention to the belligerent tactics used by the Americans to extract favorable treaty terms. They refute US claims to land beyond the Ohio River and even offer advice to the commissioners on how to appease the white settlers. In doing so, they undermine the authority of the US Indian commissioners.

The ceremonial aspects of the treaty process likewise reflect the cultural transmission of diplomatic practices. While the letter does not capture the visual components of the gathering at the Miami rapids where it was written, it does offer some idea of the size and importance of the meeting. No fewer than sixteen Indian nations appeared at the gathering to contribute their opinions and confirm their willingness to continue waging war with the Americans if their demands were not met. This reflects a shift in Indian thought that took root in the eighteenth century, as the different tribes realized that the most effective route for keeping Americans out of their territory would be to unite rather than negotiate separately.

In addition, the peace ceremony continued the tradition of exchanging wampum belts, one of which was included by the US commissioners in their July 31 correspondence. Wampum beads, or shell beads, were used throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries during treaty negotiations. Highly treasured by American Indians as sacred objects, they added symbolic meaning to the ceremonies, and they also signified that the party distributing the belts had formulated their message after long periods of discussion and contemplation. Thus, it should not be surprising that the Western Confederacy waited thirteen days before penning a response to the US commissioners and explaining that they had “given it all the consideration in [their] power.”

Immediate Legacy of the American Revolution

The American Revolution had catastrophic consequences for American Indians, regardless of the side on which they fought. The imperial landscape that had defined relations between American colonists and Indians had ended abruptly with the end of the Seven Years’ War. Before 1763, Indians kept colonial ambitions of expansion in check by allying themselves with one imperial party or another; once the French were expelled from North America, Indians lost a powerful ally. When tensions mounted between the British Crown and the colonists, Indians could once again use diplomacy, this time with the British king, to keep land-thirsty colonists at bay. While it lasted, the relationship benefited both parties: Indians received royal recognition of their territories and Britain maintained profitable trade relations. The balance of power existing in the father-child relationship between the Crown and the Indians, however, became hotly contested at the close of the revolution. In their address to the commissioners, the Indians contend that the king had no power whatsoever to disburse their territory in the Treaty of Paris and that any land ceded to the Americans in the peace treaties following the war resulted from violent coercion on the part of the commissioners. By questioning the legality of those treaties, the confederacy refutes all US claims to land beyond the Ohio River and asserts its political autonomy.

A key component of the Indians’ claim to the land rests in their articulation of their relationship to King George III, whom they refer to as “our father.” Correspondence between allies often included some form of reference to kinship ties. Familial references underscored both the blood ties, including alliances made through intermarriage, and the power relationship. The term child denoted an inferior position in relation to the father, who commanded deference. The father-child relationship did not necessarily mean, however, that the possessions of the child were, by extension, property of the father, and the confederacy makes this clear in their response: “the King of England never did, nor ever had a right to give you our country, by the treaty of peace.” Nor did this relationship give George III the exclusive right to purchase their lands. The Indians maintain that they will not recognize any treaty made between white people concerning Indian affairs if it does not also have the blessing of Indians, thereby nullifying US attempts to monopolize the purchase and sale of Indian land. Moreover, they refuse to acknowledge any obligation to pay war reparations.

Just as forcefully, the Indians decry the bullying tactics used by American delegates during the Fort Stanwix and Fort McIntosh treaties. When James Duane became the head of the Committee on Indian Affairs, he dispensed with the traditional ceremonial processes that had defined Indian diplomacy for centuries and began to employ draconian measures. Threats of physical violence replaced gifts of wampum belts. Duane ultimately wanted to assert American hegemony over Indian affairs and subdue Indians to a peripheral position. Nearly a decade later, the Western Confederacy drew on these experiences in their address, questioning the sincerity of American desires for peace and explaining that previously, Indians “went to meet your commissioners to make peace, but, through fear, were obliged to sign any paper that was laid before them; and it has since appeared that deeds of cession were signed by them, instead of treaties of peace.” Moreover, they define American encroachments on their land as “invasions,” undergirding their position as “defending [their] just rights” to protect their property.

The letter chips away further at US claims to lands beyond the Ohio River, referencing a 1788 meeting with Northwest Territory governor Arthur St. Clair in which Indians not only refuted the land cessions made at Stanwix and McIntosh but also set forth a new requirement regarding the trading or purchasing of Indian land. Accordingly, the confederacy explains, the United States had no right to sell lands west of the Ohio River to American settlers.

By 1793, the nascent and economically unstable United States had to contend with the united confederacy, which explains the commissioners’ departure from Duane’s earlier methods of dealing with Indians and reintroduction of gift giving. Unlike in 1783, the confederacy successfully circumvented American military advances. After receiving acknowledgement of “[their] independence” from the Americans, the Western Confederacy had no desire to “surrender . . . [their] country.”

Methods for Peace

The Indians and the US commissioners brought different ideas of peace to the discussion at the Miami rapids. Americans promised monetary compensation and material goods in return for acquiescence, in the process underlining American disregard for understanding Indian culture. American Indian nations with societies structured around hunting promoted different social structures than their white neighbors, requiring large tracts of land for their sociopolitical structures to function effectively. By contrast, white males typically worked on farms, while white women cared for children and performed other domestic duties; Euro-Americans thus considered the hunting lifestyle of Indian males to be lethargic and grossly unfair to native women, based on the European tradition in which hunting remained a pastime of the elite. The response from the confederacy eschews offers of money, stipulating that the United States should redistribute those funds to the settlers currently residing on Indian lands. Peace, the letter explains, can only occur with the removal of white settlers from beyond the western border of the Ohio River.

The exchange of land for money did not register with Indians as an appropriate or desirable trade, as they functioned on relationships of reciprocity, trading in kind rather than through money. Chiefs, for instance, gained prestige and power through their ability to disperse goods among their people. The “large sum of money” promised by Americans, then, held little appeal or value to Indians; the land, on the other hand, fed and clothed Indian families. The July 31 letter offered to supply Indians with furs and other material goods annually. If the confederacy had agreed to this stipulation, they would have ceded their autonomy along with substantial amounts of land. Instead, they responded by saying that “no consideration whatever can induce us to sell the lands on which we get sustenance for our women and children.”

In their address, the Indians suggest a plan to remove white squatters from their land, putting forth a strategy that would redistribute the money offered to the confederacy to the settlers instead. Deducing that the settlers lack economic means, the confederacy proposes that such a monetary settlement will fix the situation and ensure peace. They also imply that the continued presence of whites on Indian land will circumvent any chance at peace: “Restore to us our country, and we shall be enemies no longer.” White incursions on Indian territory altered Indian patterns of life, made scarce their resources, and chipped away at their autonomy. As part of their argument, the confederacy explains, “We can retreat no farther, because the country behind hardly affords food for its present inhabitants; and we have therefore resolved to leave our bones in this small space to which we are now confined.”

Though brief in content, the letter from the Western Confederacy to the US commissioners reveals much about US-Indian relations in the late eighteenth century. The structure and form of the document reflects a return to previous diplomatic ceremonies that involved large gatherings, long periods of contemplation, and gift exchanges. The joining of various Indian nations to form a united confederacy shifted the balance of power between the United States and Indians. The newly formed United States had little economic and military power, and the early military successes of the Western Confederacy required the fledgling nation to deal with them as equals. Thus, when corresponding with one another, Indians and the US commissioners referred to one another as “brothers” rather than father or child. The military successes also helped Indians undermine US claims to territory west of the Ohio River. Claiming that the treaties conducted at Fort Stanwix and McIntosh resulted from threats, the Indians demand in the letter that the United States require its settlers to leave Indian territory. The disparate proposals for peace underscore each side’s misunderstanding of their stark cultural differences.

Essential Themes

The Battle of Fallen Timbers sealed the fate of the Ohio River boundary, deciding the issue in favor of the United States. Despite earlier successes against the United States in 1790 and 1791, Indians failed to subdue US forces during this battle, which took place on August 20, 1794, at the Maumee River. Jay’s Treaty likewise hindered Indian efforts in Ohio; this new treaty between the United States and Great Britain, signed in 1794, required British troops to vacate forts in the western territories, from which they had previously supplied Indians with weaponry. These combined events forced the Western Confederacy to negotiate with Americans and put an end to the ongoing hostilities. The resulting Treaty of Greenville, signed in 1795, shifted the balance of power once more in favor of the Americans, requiring the confederacy to cede most of their landed possessions in Ohio.

Animosity between the United States and American Indians continued into the nineteenth century. Racial antipathy toward Indians inspired federal acts that further dispossessed them from their lands. In 1838, for instance, the Cherokees received orders from the US government to vacate their lands and move west. The Indian Removal Act, first passed in 1830, incited thousands of Cherokees to move from Georgia and nearby territories in Alabama, North Carolina, and southeastern Tennessee to the land later named Oklahoma. Even more detrimental, the United States implemented programs to subvert Indian culture. Starting in 1879, the Carlisle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania sought to reeducate Indians and inculcate them with American culture; students received Americanized names, donned American-style dress, and were taught writing, arithmetic, Christianity, and trade skills.

The Dawes Severalty Act of 1887 went further by redistributing communal tribal land to individual Indians, thereby reconfiguring the entire sociopolitical system of Indian life. The family unit of husband, wife, and children subverted tribal configurations, and tribal chiefs fell from power. The American government also sought to regulate the type of labor performed by Indian men and women, requiring men to farm and women to confine themselves to domestic chores. These endeavors resulted in a loss of Indian culture. The Dawes Act would not be overturned until the Roosevelt administration passed the Indian Reorganization Act in 1934, which returned local governing power to the tribes and reversed the requirement of individual letter property holding.

  • Calloway, Colin G. The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in Native American Communities. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. Print.
  • ---. New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the Remaking of Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1997. Print.
  • Nash, Gary B. “The Forgotten Experience: Indians, Blacks, and the American Revolution.” Major Problems in the Era of the American Revolution, 1760–1791. Ed. Richard D. Brown. Lexington: Heath, 1992. 277–82. Print.
  • Richter, Daniel K. Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2001. Print
  • ---. Before the Revolution: America’s Ancient Pasts. Cambridge: Belknap P of Harvard UP, 2011. Print.
Additional Reading
  • Axtell, James. Beyond 1492: Encounters in Colonial North America. New York: Oxford UP, 1992.
  • Jennings, Francis. Empire of Fortune: Crowns, Colonies, and Tribes in the Seven Years War in America. New York: Norton, 1988. Print.
  • Simonsen, Jane E. Making Home Work: Domesticity and Native American Assimilation in the American West, 1860–1919. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2006. Print.
  • Sugden, John. Tecumseh: A Life. New York: Holt, 1997. Print.
  • White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.

Categories: History