Sovereignty, Slavery, and Civilization: Contested Allegiances in Indian Country, 1750–1860

AHA Session 185
Saturday, January 5, 2019: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Boulevard B (Hilton Chicago, Second Floor)
John P. Bowes, Eastern Kentucky University
John P. Bowes, Eastern Kentucky University

Session Abstract

Questions of allegiance vexed North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In an era of revolution, conflict, and imperial expansion, Americans fought over ideas of identity, as well as issues of slavery, freedom, land, and sovereignty. Traditionally, historians have explored these questions from the perspectives of the United States, and the settlers, policymakers, and enslaved peoples who inhabited it. Yet these same problems of allegiance, expansion, and contested belonging were also central to the ways indigenous peoples experienced the period and organized their societies. Ranging across the continent, this panel will explore the contested and often surprising ways that Native peoples negotiated shifting loyalties during a period of enormous geopolitical, racial, and economic change.

Alexis Smith’s paper explores slavery and allegiance in the Ohio Valley, integrating indigenous experiences into a fuller story of freedom and expansion in the region. She examines the narratives of various settlers and passers-by, including diplomats, missionaries, and other Native groups, to reveal the entrenchment of slavery in the Midwest. Alexis emphasizes how Midwestern Native peoples both provided the foundation for and enmeshed themselves within the ever-evolving system of slavery in the midcontinent. By highlighting these shifting systems and the complex allegiances at their heart, Alexis reconsiders many fundamental assumptions about slavery and belonging in this period.

Lauren Brand’s paper explores how Native people adapted to the new realities created by forced removal in the 1830s. It shows how the Cherokees and Choctaws engaged in diplomacy that placed them in a middleman position, as “civilized” Native people who could act as liaisons between the federal government and “wild” Native groups. These recently removed groups planned an 1834 expedition to visit the Natives who lived on the western Plains, arguing that the U.S. government should fund it because it would result in treaties that would allow the U.S. to continue westward expansion unhindered. By assisting in the expansion of U.S. empire, these removed Native leaders hoped to prove their loyalty and protect their sovereignty from being further impacted by the ongoing processes of removal and expansion.

Finally, Jane Dinwoodie’s paper turns to the Southeast, demonstrating that questions of national loyalty, citizenship, and civilization were vital to thousands of indigenous Southerners as they struggled to avoid removal to Indian Territory. By performing their civilization credentials and their allegiance to the United States, many members of the Five Tribes successfully gained exemption from deportation. Jane’s paper shows that these efforts allowed indigenous communities to remain within the South for generations and, in the process, negotiated a new definition of American citizenship which would set a precedent for later negotiations in the West.

By charting indigenous peoples’ long and contested interactions over allegiance in places as diverse as the South, the Ohio Valley, and Indian Territory, this panel broadens assumptions about indigenous peoples’ loyalties, negotiations, and legal statuses in a period of enormous transformations throughout the continent. In doing so, it challenges understandings of central themes of early American history, including citizenship, civilization, slavery, sovereignty, and expansion.

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