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Native Americans in the Revolutionary War

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Native Americans in the Revolutionary War

For Native Americans, the American Revolution was a conflict between brothers. They didn't want to participate on either side but were forced to by both: the British and the Colonists sought to make alliances with the Native American tribes. Even though many Natives did not want to get involved in the war, ultimately, sides were chosen. The Revolution carried ruin both sides of the Atlantic, however, it had devastating consequences for Native peoples. This article will be your guide on Native Americans' involvement in the Thirteen Colonies' fight for independence.

Native American Involvement in the Revolutionary War

Native Americans in the American Revolution, Native american heroes in the revolutionary war, heroes, Study Smarter

Portrait of Native American Orator Red Jacket. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

The American Revolution severely impacted not only the colonists but Native Americans as well. Most Native Americans attempted to remain neutral during the war. However, some tribes were forced out of neutrality as the war continued. Some tribes continued to maintain their neutral stance, such as the Oneida nation who declared:

Brothers! Possess your minds in peace, respecting us Indians. We cannot intermeddle in this dispute between two brothers. The quarrel seems to be unnatural; you are two brothers of one blood. We are unwilling to join one other side in such a contest, for we bear an equal affection to both of you, Old and New England. Should the great King of England apply to us for our aid, we shall deny him." 1 –Chiefs of the Oneida, June 19th, 1775.

The Chiefs of the Oneida stated their concerns over neutrality between the British and her colonies and expressed their unwillingness to fight for either side if war occurred.

Native Americans in the American Revolution, Native american tribes in the revolutionary war, battlefield trust Study Smarter

Liberty Enlightened, 1781. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Many colonists disagreed with British interference between Native Americans and the colonists before the war. Parliament, concerned with the violence between the two groups, enacted the Proclamation of 1763, which maintained specified land for Native Americans. The act attempted to sustain the appropriate distance between the Native Americans and colonists, but it only raised tensions.

Did you know?

In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote about the Native Americans claiming they had essentially become "the vicious pawns of a tyrannical king."2

However, Native Americans fought against the British in Ohio in 1763. The local tribes in the Ohio River Valley and Great Lakes region pushed back the British, who were seen as tyrants by the Native Americans. Several chiefs rallied together and assaulted British forts destroying them. The British reaction was the Proclamation of 1763, which reserved land for Native Americans but alienated American colonists.

Native Americans in the American Revolution, Native american involvement in the revolutionary war, battlefield trust, StudySmarter

Declaration of Independence July 4th, 1776. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

While many Native Americans sided with the British, not all tribes allied themselves with the Crown. For example, Native Americans from Massachusetts, known as the Stockbridge tribe, joined American colonists against the British in 1776. Britain had made weak attempts at securing lands for Native Americans, but the tribes knew that their lands were at stake.

Did you know?

The Stockbridge Native Americans helped the Americans win the Battle of Saratoga in 1778! Like other tribes, the Stockbridge aided the Continental Army throughout the war.

While alliances were made on both sides by tribes and confederacies, not all Native Americans followed the decisions of their leaders. Tribes torn apart by opposing alliances caused upheaval amongst their people. For example, the Cherokee nation split when deciding on alliances. Due to the war, the Iroquois Confederacy also saw a split amongst its six Native American tribes.

Proclamation Act of 1763:

The British signed the Act in 1763 to stop colonists' encroachment on Native American lands.

Native Americans in the American Revolution, Native american involvement in the revolutionary war, Battlefield trust, Study Smarter

Map of the Five Indian Nations 1730. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Wabanaki Confederacy

The Wabanaki Confederacy consisted of five Native American tribes who hailed from the northern part of America. The confederacy included the Penobscot, Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Abenaki, and Micmac tribes. Colonists from the North pleaded with the Wabanaki Confederacy to aid in the American Revolution. For example, a delegation from Massachusetts wrote to them saying:

'Friends and good Brothers,' they wrote, 'We will do all for you we can & fight to save you any time and hope none of your men or the Indians in Canada will join with our enemies.’” 3

The quote above shows the desperation of the colonists to gain an alliance with the Wabanaki Confederacy during the war. Eventually, several tribes from the Wabanaki Confederacy agreed to fight alongside George Washington’s army in exchange for trading posts and promises of stopping encroachment on Native American lands.

It was agreed and concluded that Peace and Friendship be now Established permanent & lasting between the United States and the Several Tribes... That they should be forever viewed as brothers and children, under the Protection and Fatherly care of the United States." 4

While several tribes of the confederacy fought with the colonists, at the end of the American Revolution, previous promises were not acknowledged or kept. As a result, sometime after the war, the Wabanakis slowly lost their power, land, and hunting areas. America's attitude and policies essentially ate away at their Native culture.

Native American Tribes in the American Revolution

Fought for the British
Fought for the Colonies
Penobscot (Panawahpskek)
Abenaki (fought for both the British and colonies)
Abenaki (fought for both the British and colonies)

Table showing Native American tribes who fought for the British and for the Colonies. StudySmarter Original.

Important Native Americans in the Revolutionary War

Native Americans in the American Revolution, Native american heroes in the revolutionary war, heroes, Study Smarter

Portrait of Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Many Native Americans fought valiantly on both sides during the American Revolution. Mohawk chief Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea) became one of the most well-known Iroquois leaders. Brant fought alongside the British and influenced several other tribes to join him. Brant believed that the British should remain head of the colonies to stop any further incursion on Mohawk lands. Leading an incursion into New York and Pennsylvania, Brant and his forces clashed with George Washington, who ultimately claimed victory. Later on, Washington attempted to include Brant in post-war negotiations.

Red Jacket, another prominent Native American from the Seneca tribe, became well known for his oratory skill. Red Jacket interceded before the war between 1775 to 1776:

“This quarrel does not belong to us, and it is best for us to take no part in it; we need not waste our blood to have it settled. If they fight us, we will fight them, but if they leave us alone, we better keep still.”5 -Red Jacket.

However, Red Jacket's tribe became engulfed in the war, eventually fighting for the British. At the war's end, the Seneca tribe, like many others, lost their homeland. Post-war negotiations with American leadership continued from the 1780s to the 1790s, with Red Jacket predominantly speaking on behalf of the Iroquois.

Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea):

Was a highly educated Mohawk leader. Sided with the British, he led forces against the American colonists during the war. He became well known during post-war negotiations.

Red Jacket:

Prominent Native American from the Seneca tribe. A skilled orator, he became a spokesperson for the Iroquois in post-war negotiations.

Native American Heroes in the Revolutionary War

Polly Cooper

Native Americans in the American Rovolution, Native american heroes in the revolutionary war, important natives, Study Smarter

Statue of Polly Cooper. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Many Native Americans showed heroism during the American Revolution though many of their stories are not recorded. However, one notable Oneida woman, Polly Cooper, actively participated in an expedition to help the Continental Army at Valley Forge. Hearing about George Washington's starving troops, the Oneida chief sent a group of warriors and Polly Cooper with food and supplies. Cooper stayed with the army and continued to help them by teaching the soldiers how to prepare food. Without the actions of the Oneida chief and Polly Cooper, Washington's army may have never made it out of Valley Forge.

Native Americans in the Revolutionary War American Battlefield Trust

The American Revolution had dire impacts on the Native Americans. It is estimated that roughly 70,000 people died during the American Revolution due to disease and battle injuries. However, the Native American casualties are not widely known. Many tribes lost more land during the war, like the Cherokees and Iroquois. Although many people from these tribes relocated, the Iroquois eventually settled in Canada. The tribes siding with Britain counted on a swift British victory. After the colonists' victory, Native Americans became collateral damage in America's rapid and cruel westward expansion.

Native Americans in the American Revolution, Native american tribes in the revolutionary war, battlefield trust, Study Smarter

Iroquois Six-Nations 1720. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

After the war, the taking of Native American land had never been a question. After the Treaty of Paris 1783, the British recognized America's independence and quickly forgot about their Native American allies. America began to build Jefferson's "empire of liberty with its independence in hand."6 The idea of complete equality sounded like a utopian society. However, in building the new nation, Native American lands became the foundation for the birth of America. The fledgling country also believed that Native American land was now public domain and that the Natives needed to undergo a civilizing process. Native Americans saw an all-out attack on their way of living and land. However, Native Americans did not back down and would continue to fight to keep their culture.

Treaty of Paris 1783:

A collection of treaties signed by representatives from Great Britain, France, Spain, and the American colonies that officially ended the American Revolution and recognized its independence.

Native American Diplomacy After the War

Native Americans in the American Revolution, Native americans in the revolutionary war american, important natives, Study Smarter

Portrait of The Shawnee Prophet, Tenskwatawa, Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain).

Though conflict became necessary when diplomacy failed, the primary remedy after the war was diplomatic relations. Native American diplomats negotiated with other Native tribes and the newly developed American leadership. While negotiations took place, the white attitudes about Native Americans foreshadowed any actual progress with America. However, multi-tribal alliances rose due to some Native Americans' visions of creating unions to stop the land grabs. For example, one such confederacy initiated by Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa brought together Natives who sought restoration of Native American lands and cultures.

Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa: Tecumseh was the Shawnee leader after the American Revolution; Tenskawatawa, known as the prophet, was Tecumseh's brother.

Native Americans in the Revolutionary War - Key takeaways

  • At the start of the American Revolution, most Native American tribes sought neutrality and did not choose to fight with the British or colonists.
  • As tensions rose Native Americans were forced to choose sides and tribes fought for both the British and the colonists.
  • Tribes were torn apart by choosing sides. For example, both the Cherokee Nation and the Iroquois Confederacy were split due to differences.
  • American Revolution impacts on the Native Americans:
    • Tribes lost their land.
    • After the war, Native American diplomats negotiated in an attempt to stop land grabs.
    • Native Americans ultimately became collateral damage in America's westward expansion.

3. Willard Walker, The Wabanaki Confederacy, 1998.

4. Willard Walker, The Wabanaki Confederacy, 1998.

5. Christopher Densmore, Red Jacket: Iroquois Diplomat and Orator, 1999.

6. Colin G. Calloway, "The Indians War of Independence," (n.d.).

Frequently Asked Questions about Native Americans in the Revolutionary War

Native Americans’ role in the American Revolution was split as many Natives wanted to stay neutral. However, most tribes were forced to pick a side once the armed conflict intensified.

Native Americans did serve in the war on both the British and the American sides. Some Natives were not allowed to formally enlist in the regular army. However, as the war went on this changed.

Natives sided with the British because they believed them to be more sympathetic to their cause. However, some tribes also fought for the American colonists. 

Native Americans did fight in the revolutionary war on both the British and the American sides. Although most Natives wished to stay neutral, they were forced to choose a side.

It has been estimated that more than  70,000 people died during the American Revolution due to diseases and battle injuries. Yet, the death toll for Native Americans is largely unknown.

Final Native Americans in the Revolutionary War Quiz


Which tribe sent aid to George Washington at Valley Forge? 

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“Friends and good Brothers,” they wrote, “We will do all for you we can & fight to save you any time and hope none of your men or the Indians in Canada will join with our enemies." 

Who declared the above quote and what does it indicate about tentative alliances before the American Revolution? 

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The colonists wanted an alliance with the Native Americans

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Name the Northern Native American Confederacy that primarily sided with the American colonists?

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Wabanaki Confederacy

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Before the American Revolution Native Americans fought the British in Ohio. The British responded by enacting what piece of legislation? 

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Proclamation of 1763

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Name the Native American from the Seneca tribe who was well known for his oratory skills? 

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Red Jacket 

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What collection of treaties ended the American Revolution and recognized the colonies' Independence? 

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Treaty of Paris 1783 

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How many casualties were estimated during the American Revolution?

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Up to 70,000

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Who believed that Native Americans were the “vicious pawns of a tyrannical king”? 

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Thomas Jefferson

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Which tribe was known for fighting for both the British and American colonists? 

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What two Native Americans were responsible for creating a tribal confederacy after the war? 

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Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa

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