Henry Knox And American Indian Policy History Essay
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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016
How is it that we should treat the Native American claims to land we as Americans have owned for so many years. This is a question that has perplexed Americans of European decent since the foundations of the colonies and of the United States of America itself. This land form that we call North America, as well as land forms around the world, has and could potentially change “ownership” again. It may not necessarily be taken by force, but may be peacefully negotiated by treaty, which was not unlike the situation that Native Americans found themselves in during the late 18th century through the early 20th Century. Treaties were common means to attain Native American land. Secretary of War, Henry Knox was influential in the propagation of policies that eventually stripped Native Americans of their land. Knox’s policies revealed a two pronged policy implementation that simultaneously coerced Indian populations and secured their lands for national defensive interests.
Shortly after the ending of hostilities with the British Empire and the signing of the Treaty of Paris that ended the Revolutionary War in 1783. The new treaty defined the boundary of the United States westward to the Mississippi River, Americans naturally looked to expand towards the new lands. Of course, it was not virgin and uninhabited land. It was well occupied by various tribes of Native American peoples who readily used the land to hunt and fish in support of their cultures and families.
Before we look at the writings of Henry Knox it may be prudent to look at some backround information and ask a few simple questions about him such as, who was Henry Knox the man? Where did he come from? What might have influenced his thinking? Born in Boston in 1750, to very much a middling sort, Knox did receive the majority of an excellent education of Boston Latin Grammar School. Upon leaving school Knox went to apprentice as a bookbinder where he became proficient at his trade. According to sources, Knox took the apprenticeship to support his mother and family as his father had past away.
Knox opened his own bookstore in Boston at the age of 21. While running his establishment a young woman named Lucy Flucker frequented the book shop. It was not long before they were married in 1774 ironically Lucy’s father, Thomas Flucker was the Royal Secretary for the Province of Massachusetts. Once tensions rose between the American colonies and the British crown, Flucker was openly opposed to the marriage of his own daughter and Knox as his now son-in-law had sided with the rebellious forces outside of Boston in 1775  .
Knox was discovered in a serendipitous way by General George Washington during an inspection of the artillery ramparts on Roxbury Heights during the siege of Boston. Washington observed a rampart designed by Knox and was impressed by the design. He (Washington) put Knox to better use as he sent a detachment of men under Knox’s command to fetch the nearly 60 heavy cannon from the recently conquered Fort Ticonderoga, in New York, to aid in the siege of the Massachusetts provincial capital of Boston  .
Knox was highly regarded by Washington following the war as he named him (Knox) to his first cabinet as the secretary following the ratification of the U.S. Constitution of 1787. Faced with the challenge of creating a new nation both Washington and Knox were faced with new dilemmas from the outset. With continuing tensions along the frontier Knox is faced with a series of situations as Americans wished to possess land west of the mountains that the newly formed United States now controlled. It is at this point that the question seems appropriate as to the solution the previous overseers of the territories, the British, employed. To answer this question we must understand what the nature of that policies was as it pertains to the management of the Native American populations and the colonial British the increasingly dominated the eastern North American seaboard prior to the Revolutionary War.
Within the context of settlement of the North American continent we can look back as far as the Puritans who settled their colony in Plymouth in 1620 to understand the basis of the British policy towards the Native American peoples. Upon their arrival at Duxbury Harbor and consequential settlement of Pauxet, which we now call Plymouth, the colonists quickly assessed their threats. Within four months of the Puritans arrival they had forged an alliance with the Pokanoket tribe of southeastern Massachusetts  .
The alliance placed the Pokanoket tribe between Plymouth and two powerful Native American tribes to the west and north in the Narragansetts and the Massachusetts. Albeit the Pokanoket lands were arranged in that fashion regardless of treaty arrangements, but did however prove to be one of the factors for the successful emerging of Plymouth Colony.
While the British Crown had little to no influence on the agreements between Plymouth colony and native tribes it is not out of line to take a logical step and state that it may have created an active model from which Whitehall’s policies could evolve. While speculative as to the specific connection between this particular event and the formation of North American native policies, it certainly maintains consistencies with the model used within the context of Knox’s lifetime. It is at this point when one brings into question where the impetus of Knox’s approach? Prior to and after the French and Indian War the British Government implemented a territorial policy involving boundary treaties that served as both frontier protection for colonial settlers, but also the concentration of provincial powers along the eastern seaboard of the North American continent.
In Jack Sosin’s book Whitehall and the Wilderness, Sosin illustrates nicely British policy and purpose in 18 Century North America. The war with the French in the “Seven Years’ War” awakened British officials as to the security weaknesses present as a result of that conflict. Through the course of the war agreements of alliance had been made with many native tribes. These alliances had some immediate effects on the war, the colonies, and ultimately the outcome of the war.
In brief, the war, brought to the forefront, a range of issues along American provincial frontiers during the course of the conflict with France. In one instance Imperial authorities met with a range of Native American leaders from the central New York region and along the Ohio River valley region. Imperial officials assured native leaders that the British government did not wish to infringe upon the natives right to land, and, in fact, return possession of a portion of land Imperial authorities felt was unethically purchased from tribal authorities  . The sentiment was best expressed by General Robert Monckton with this statement, “all the Indian Nations, that His Majesty has not sent me to deprive…you of your lands and property….”  Sosin points out that this idea is supported and brought forward at the completion of the war. He states:
The Board of Trade under the Earl of Halifax upheld theses commitments, and following the war it incorporated the principle of an Indian reservation into the Proclamation of 1763  .
This policy seems only to be a blueprint for both Knox and eventually Thomas Jefferson. Whether or not British policy makers felt similarly as to the nature of “ownership” is irrelevant to the discussion being held here, but does serve as the backround for security issues along the frontier area between Indians and whites. These two men were witness first hand to British policies in North America as both were born as British subjects before the Revolution. Being so close to those conditions at the time that they may very well have seemed a logical continuation. The continuation of the policy would certainly have been familiar with the Native peoples as well. Making a transition to American negotiators would be the only be a slight difference for the Indians, yet an important one as that will play out later.
In this light with previous policy implementation established, and the completion of the Revolutionary War plus the formation of a new nation, trouble abounded in lieu of the rising native tensions Secretary of War Henry Knox is faced with the same dilemma as the British. As a result he enters into an investigation that would shed light onto the growing frustrations between American frontier settlers and the Indian tribes along the banks of the Wabash River.  It is well documented that Europeans, colonial settlers and at that point Americans fully believed that Indian culture and society was far inferior to their own. Yet, it did not necessarily create an idea that they were incapable of claiming their rights to territory on that point  . There was a sense among American government officials, including Knox, who believed that the Indian peoples claimed the right of “ownership” of the land based on the prior residence of the land. Ownership is not explicitly tied to the idea of culture or even military prowess. This raised a moral eye on the part of Knox in his report. He states
The Indians being the prior occupants, possess the right of the soil. It cannot be taken from them unless by their free consent, or by the right of conquest in case of a just war. To dispossess them on any other principle, would be a gross violation of the fundamental laws of nature, and of that distributive justice which is the glory of a nation. 
Within the context of this thought Knox does reference the idea of “Just War.” Knox does elaborate on the idea of war, but only relates the extreme and impracticality of sending a regiment of well supplied soldiers to help quell the tensions along the border land. One might question whether Knox was looking for an excuse for said war, but through this particular piece of writing it is doubtful that it was thought of much in those terms. Knox is acutely aware of the feelings of the white settlers in the area, and speculates as to the legitimate reason they might feel in such a manner. He states:
Were the representatives of the people of the frontiers (who have imbibed the strongest prejudices against the Indians, perhaps in consequence of the murders of their dearest friends and connexions) only to be regarded, the circumstances before stated, would not appear conclusive-an expedition, however inadequate, must be undertaken. 
Knox strangely makes reference to what he feels the Wabash Indians have a right to. He believes that they have the right to be heard in front of a judicial body. The fact that he views them as ignorant  is secondary in nature to the fact that hearing the complaints of the Native Americans clearly indicates he is taking into account what we would now call human rights. “But when the impartial mind of the great public sits in judgment, it is necessary that the cause of the ignorant Indian should be heard as well as those who are more fortunately circumstanced. It well becomes the public to inquire before it punishes; to be influenced by reason, and the nature of things, and not by resentments”  were Knox’s comments directly following the previous quotation.
With that being said it seems to be a fair statement that Knox’s intent and recommendation was to deal with the Indian peoples through treaty. Within the context of his report this idea is moved to the forefront very early in the writing to a point were he seems anxious to make his aforementioned recommendation. He also makes a surprising recommendation in terms of maintaining the treaties. The surprise is his belief that white violators of such treaties should be dealt with harshly by impartial courts that will levy a decision that is in the best interest of both parties.  Perhaps Knox’s thoughts were simply for the U.S. to hold up its end of the bargain to a point that which they could justify sending an armed force against the Indians if they were to violate the treaty in any way.
Knox perceived that a precedent had been set by Congress in the fact that they had agreed to several treaties with Indian peoples over the prior three years. A trait he attributes to the British by way of policies they had established prior to the American revolt. He seemed intent on bargaining for territory through treaty and out-right purchase of the land.  . It is not clearly evident in the language of the report, but one might speculate if it is not stated, if Knox wished for a rapid easing of the tensions or whether he had a defined purpose in thought that carried him past the immediate reality that existed in the Northwest territory.
Knox is more precise in his words in his report regarding the Creek Indian nation in July of 1789. The situation in the State of Georgia at this time is also one of conflict. According to Knox’s report the Creek Indians have been raiding across the border.  Knox once again interjects the idea of sending troops, this time, a more significant force of 5000 men. It is evident in the writing that the troops are there to enforce legitimacy of the negotiation and the eventual treaty, as well as the American position. Knox states the following in relation to this situation:
But the critical situation of affairs between the State of Georgia and the Creek Nation require a more particular consideration – In discussing this subject it will appear that the interest of all the indian nations South of the Ohio as far as the same may relate to the whites, is so blend’d together, as to render the circumstance highly probable, that in case of a War, they may make it one common cause  .
The Secretary of War also expounds on the second prong of the policy toward the Native Americans in more specific terms in his July report. While Knox’s first intention seems to be focused on treaty and negotiation of boundaries it is evident from the July report that the treaty process will allow further incursion into native lands. This further incursion would relate to the causes of basic human interaction in the area of the border. Both the American frontier settlers and the Native Americans will likely deplete the natural resources in the area where this arrangement may exist. Once this scenario takes place, according to Knox, it will necessitate further treaties and outright land purchases as the native peoples will no longer be able to subsist off of the land. He goes so far as the state that this situation has preceded them in the fact that the states themselves were formerly populated by Native American tribes, but since the period of colonization they had become extinct in that land. It is also a good example of what we might now call “assimilation.” He states:
As population shall increase, and approach the Indian boundaries, Game will be diminished, and new purchasses may be made for small considerations – This has been and probably will be the inevitable consequence of cultivation. It is however painful to consider that all the Indian Tribes once existing in those States, now the best cultivated and most populous, have become extinct. If the same causes continue, the same effects will happen, and in a Short period the Idea of an Indian on this side of the Mississippi will only be found in the page of the historian  .
This is statement by Knox, in itself is an interesting one. As previously mentioned Knox is from Massachusetts. Being born in 1750 there were either no or very limited native peoples in Massachusetts in general, and certainly none in the area of the city of Boston. Perhaps his lack of contact and interaction with Native Americans, in a similar way to the peoples of the American frontier, allowed him to express this idealistic view of policies. Albeit he is not averse to calling for troops to implement these policies, or in any case “rattle the saber.”
In this light it may difficult to judge Knox directly as to his intentions of the policies he was ascribing to while writing these reports. What we can judge is the implementation of the policies by those who were chiefly negotiating the treaties. While it may not be fair to state that all negotiators of treaties did so with impunity, but instead make a case that surroundings and biases of the people of the frontier twisted the ideals of men like Knox into documents and arrangements that better reflect the sentiment of the peoples of the frontier regions.
We see a good case study of this concept in Alan Taylor’s book, The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution. This book details the story of two men; Samuel Kirkland and Joseph Bryant. Bryant was, in fact, born of the Mohawk tribe of the Six Nations as Thayendenegea. He was eventually baptized as a Christian and took an English name.
These two men attended a unique school in Connecticut run by the Reverend Eleazar Wheelock. While at the school these men trained to be missionaries and school teachers that would eventually be assigned to the borderland frontiers. Initially these two men worked closely together taking assignments in what is now called Central New York. Both men found the native peoples the opposite of what they had been taught at Wheelock’s school. They were expecting the Indians to be poor and ignorant to their own situation when in fact they were actively trying to stem the tide of settlers and land speculators through legally binding means  . In fact, the Oneida tribe pursued the federal governments assistance to regain some of their lost land.
This process did not happen over night and, in fact, took some time to implement as the Oneidas concerns were addressed as part of their own larger association with regional tribes. Within five years of Knox’s report the United States government entered into an treaty with the powerful Northeast Indian tribe in the Iroquois Confederacy who were, in fact, eager to negotiate with the Americans as they were so heavily outnumbered. It was estimated that the total population the United States1775 was 2.5 million, while to estimated population of the six nations of the Iroquois was roughly 10,000  . Eventually, the treaty opened up, what we now call the central New York area, an area that includes present day Syracuse as well as Binghamton and Ithaca to name a few recognizable communities. Officially known as the Treaty of Canandaigua of 1794 it is also known as the “Pickering Treaty” after Timothy Pickering who was the lead negotiator during the proceedings. Pickering could be said to be one of the negotiators who’s intentions match the apparent ideals posed by Knox during the formation of this treaty.
In the time shortly before the negotiation of the Treaty of Canandaigua, Pickering, actually met with Samuel Kirkland as Kirkland himself was advocating on behalf of the Oneida peoples. Pickering assured Kirkland of his intentions. Pickering stated, “Something more must be done than has yet been done for the Oneidas; and tho’ their concerns have been delayed, I will not forget them. Their affairs are not on a footing satisfactory to me.  “
Kirkland and Bryant eventually parted company as they began to disagree on the moralities of policies toward the Indian, which entailed dealings with both the State of New York and the federal government of the United States. Kirkland continued to advocate for the fair treatment of the Iroquois, in general, while Bryant became disenfranchised and withdrew back to his native roots eventually moving into Canada  .
Although the treaty making process seems to make sense to the common observer these days although this is where a critical reading of the treaties may shed light on inconsistencies and the fairness of the documents. Article #3 of the treaty seemingly and clearly defines in great detail the land that is to be the property of the Seneca Nation of the Iroquoia. It is a vast swath of land that today would contain both the cities of Rochester and Buffalo, NY, and all land in between. The boundaries also include the description of a settler who had purchased a plot of land from the Seneca. When consulting a map of the State of New York it looks like and is a large portion of land form. It also includes an abundance of natural resources that includes access to navigable rivers and large lakes including two of the Great Lakes as well as the very western Finger Lakes.
The definition of the Iroquois land form is in Article #3 of the treaty. In straight-forward language the treaty goes on to elaborate on the sovereignty of the Indians new territory. However, Article #5 of the treaty begins to make stipulations on the Iroquois by working into the treaty the creation and free and uninhibited access and travel through the entire breadth of Indian territory.
…and the people of the United States shall have the free and undisturbed use of this road for the purposes of traveling and transportation. And the Six Nations and each of them, will forever allow to the people of the United States, a free passage through their lands. 
This position taken by Pickering during the negotiation process does seemingly put the United States in a position of advantage. One might add that while reading through the entire treaty that American attitude and ambitions were evident in this treaty with the Indians. Does this fit with the intent of Henry Knox? It seems to be completely inconsistent with the words spoken by Pickering to those who would have been their advocates prior to the treaties drafting. It is hard to argue intent when reading these sources especially in light of the contradictions between statements made and actions put into place through the negotiations. It is worthy of note to point out that treaties and official documents are not necessarily records of personal thought as would have been the case with Pickering, but it does work to serve as a comparison of a person’s character.
While Knox’s statement in his report on the Northwest Indians as well as his earlier report on Native American policy issues indicated that he intended to deal with these matters in an enlightened manner, an admirable goal. Knox’s inability to negotiate every single treaty left room for the ambition and conviction of others to carry out policy.
With the passage of time and the shifting of Presidential administrations, how would Knox’s ideas and policy concepts translate to later executives. Should the Executive in some way mirror the policies of Knox and Presidential predecessors it would lend credence to the validity of these policies. The contrary would, obviously, diminish the overall historical impact of these reports and focus in a different direction all together.
Thomas Jefferson enters into his administration and does, in fact, mirror to a large extent the policies and actions suggested in Knox’s reports. His (Jefferson’s) now well-known “secret” letter to Congress in 1803 he addresses some of the same concerns that Knox had raised in his reports of 1789. Jefferson was looking at the southern and west Appalachian Indians in this case. He was aware of the growing tensions. It has been fourteen years since Henry Knox issued his report on Northwest Indians and his report on the Creek Indians in July of 1789. They both acknowledge that the growing unrest was from the increased amount of new western settlement by whites. One of Jefferson’s initial ideas was to influence the Indians to give up hunting and raise crops and cattle. It is not stated here, but it sounds like assimilation. “Turn these hunter/warriors into farmers.”  They may be more apt to sell land that they are not cultivating. Jefferson seems to imply that the land does belong to the Indians. Yet, was not sure how to address rightful ownership and westward expansion.
Jefferson himself more than implies that he is very much in favor of engaging in a non-violent activity in the expansion and procurement of western lands. However, he is cognizant of the growing trepidation of the Native Americans willingness to give up further lands in this fashion. He states:
the policy has long been gaining strength with them, of refusing absolutely all further sale, on any conditions; insomuch that, at this time, it hazards their friendship, and excites dangerous jealousies and perturbations in their minds to make any overture for the purchase of the smallest portions of their land. 
Jefferson’s letter at this juncture takes a bit of a left turn, and when considering the Presidents words carefully we begin to hear the sounds of a policy we come to know as assimilation.
At this point it would be prudent to step back and make note of the fact that while it may seem that these documents are in response to each other. In fact, the Knox documents were composed in 1789 and the Jefferson letter was penned in 1803. Which, in this case, does not dilute the meaning, message and importance of the nature of the dilemma faced by this nation and Native American peoples. On the contrary, it serves to show the dedication of the men that led the United States as well as their commitment to appropriately adjudicate a precarious situation with native peoples.
Although it is an assumption, it is likely a fair claim, Jefferson had read the letters and reports put forth roughly a decade prior. It is not out of line to imaging that he would not have access to such documents as he was the President of the United States at the time he wrote this letter to Congress. Therefore, it may be an indirect response to the issue that was playing out since before the inception of the United States. And further, it seems to reinforce the positions taken by Knox as Jefferson himself urges the Congress of the United States to take action along the lines of Knox’s two pronged approach, especially in the area of the aforementioned “assimilation.” He states:
Secondly: to multiply trading houses among them, and place within their reach those things which will contribute more to their domestic comfort, than the possession of extensive, but uncultivated wilds. Experience and reflection will develop to them the wisdom of exchanging what they can spare and we want, for what we can spare and they want. 
In Conclusion, American policies towards Native Americans as we can see from the examples here were evolutions of ideas over a long process. From his writings Knox has interjected his own “brand” as to how relations and conflict should be resolved. We can look at the differences in tone between the June report regarding the Northwest Indians and the July 1789 report on the Creek Indians. In each case the policy concept remains consistent, yet each has its own tone. The June report has a for more peaceful tone. While the rasing of troops is mentioned the language is far more passive. While the language strengthens in the July report as there were open hostilities evident. Knox appears willing to raise a considerable number of troops to implement a more peaceful and honorable solution in negotiating a treaty.
This does not mean that the policies were practiced in perfect accordance to the ideals of these reports as we can see through the Treaty of Canandaigua 1794. It was clear that this particular treaty put the United States in a distinct advantage over the Iroquois, over and above their numerical advantages. We can also see that individuals were affected such was the case with Joseph Bryant. A man who became so disillusioned with the process he left the country. This should not necessarily lead to the conclusion that these policies were inherently disingenuous in the ideal setting either. It does however, in some way, clarify that the concept behind the legacy of negative consequences of the implementation cannot be judged solely.
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