Alan Taylor may be the best American historian working today. (We’re limiting the conversation to real historians, not cheerleaders like David McCullough.) Taylor’s latest, The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution, tells in meticulous detail how the several Iroquois tribes got snookered out of the land that is now western New York and parts of Pennsylvania and Ontario.
It’s not the story you think. Contrary to the stereotype of Indians befuddled by the very notion of private property, by the 1780s and 1790s, the Iroquois understood it perfectly well and wanted some for themselves. As the Oneida chief Good Peter told U.S. negotiator Timothy Pickering in 1792, “If we understand what is meant by a person’s being free and independent, as to his own property, he may either lend, or sell his property, or any portion of it as he pleases.”
Good Peter and others repeatedly proposed that they retain ownership of their land and lease parts of it to white settlers–roughly the way earlier Dutch landholders ran their Hudson Valley estates. New York governor George Clinton and others would have none of this idea. One reason: early American government was subsidized by purchasing Indian land for pennies on the acre and selling it for dollars.
The Indians did their best to claim this right; the settlers denied it to them through a clever combination of violence, chicanery, rum, and forced sales. Whether your standards are religious, humanitarian, libertarian, or all three, the settlers repeatedly wronged the Indians, and the Indians knew it. At no time in the crucial years Taylor covers did white Americans treat Indians as they would have wanted to be treated. Instead, might made right.