The Indian World of George Washington

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Book Review: The Indian World of George Washington by Colin G. Calloway (Oxford University Press, 2018)

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In writing The Indian World of George Washington Colin Calloway set off to rectify a shortcoming in American history. According to him, “American history has largely forgotten what Washington knew. Narratives of national expansion and Indian conquest often neglect the complexity of Indian relations and ignore the reality of Indian power in the very formative years of the nation.” Thus, “The purpose [of this book] is to show how Washington’s life, like the lives of so many of his contemporaries, was inextricably linked to Native America, a reality we have forgotten as our historical hindsight has separated Indians and early Americans so sharply, and prematurely, into winners and losers. . . . Restoring Indian people and Indian lands to the story of Washington goes a long way toward restoring them to their proper place in America’s story.” It’s an ambitious goal, but Calloway is one of the preeminent historians working in the field of Native American history, particularly during this time period, so he’s well equipped to handle the task.

Calloway breaks his study into three main sections. Part one tells the story of young Washington’s early experiences on the frontier, from his days as a surveyor and would-be land speculator to his role as a militia officer during the French and Indian War. The tale is much deeper and wider than a simple biography, however. Calloway manages to cover the core of the colonial story on the frontier by adding two chapters on colonial-Cherokee interactions in the south and brings greater depth to it by examining the relationships and conflicting interests among the Indian tribes. For Washington, land acquisition was at the heart of the story; the people who lived on the land were incidental, part of the landscape to be dealt with rather than free people with their own cultures, interests, goals, and agendas.

Part two tackles Washington’s relationship to Native Americans during the Revolutionary War, but it really turns out to be a survey of the new revolutionary government’s Indian policies. Washington was a major contributor to those policies but not the most dominant voice. During the war, his interests as well as those of the new nation largely rested with securing either Indian neutrality or strategic alliances. With that, Washington’s role changed. While the earlier Washington had sought to shift the frontier westward to support his land speculation, the revolutionary Washington needed to restrain settlers from moving westward and earning the enmity of the various Indian tribes that lay along the frontier. When that failed, punitive expeditions were the result, one of which Washington embraced with gusto when he ordered Maj. Gen. John Sullivan to wage war against the Six Nations Confederation in upstate New York. Calloway argues, convincingly, that Washington still viewed the Indian nations as simply part of the environment.

By the time of his presidency, Washington’s views of Indians had not changed significantly, nor had his interest in securing and exploiting western lands waned. But his role had changed, and he more clearly identified the young United States’ future with western expansion. The dilemma was how to make it an orderly process rather than chaotic. For all intents and purposes, the Washington administration’s policies vis-à-vis the frontier mirrored the British policies of restraint that Washington had railed against earlier. He needed to restrain settlers from advancing on the frontier in order to maintain peace with local tribes, strengthen the central government at the expense of state or local government to bring order and consistency to the process, and prevent outside forces, such as the British or Spanish, from advancing their own interests on the frontier. To that end, he advanced a policy of peaceful acquisition of Indian territory through purchase while providing the “benefits” of “civilized” life to the Native Americans. The latter meant turning them away from hunting on communal lands to adopting American concepts of private property and agriculture. Calloway summarizes the transformational, and destructive, impact this had on the Native American way of life.

The Indian World of George Washington purports to be a biography of George Washington. In that, it succeeds; but it is rather conventional, primarily offering greater detail on an aspect of Washington’s life only touched upon by other biographers. Where it really excels, however, is in giving the reader a single-volume overview of the relations between white colonists moving westward and the Native Americans who already occupied the land during Washington’s life. It ends up being much more than a biography; Washington’s life serves as a framework for organizing a bigger story. Calloway tackles culture, politics, governance, military operations, and diplomacy in all their complexity. He succeeds in his goal of demonstrating the many ways in which Indian history is an important part of the American story during the country’s early years. Anyone seeking a better understanding of the American frontier in the latter half of the eighteenth century would do well to start here.

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1 Comment

  • I agree with your high rating for this book!

    Colin Calloway’s unique contribution is describe the history of Native Americans through the prism of Washington’ life. He explores under researched aspects of how Washington as a land speculator, general and a President intersected with Native Americans and the development of their societies.

    Calloway’s central thesis is that Washington sought to assimilate Native Americans into his culture and Native Americans resisted seeking to create their own cultures. He concludes that only by combining and recounting all these cultures can you tell the American story.

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