Professor Colin Calloway's new book, The Victory With No Name, chronicles how a confederation of Native nations defeated the U.S. Army when it invaded Indian lands across the Ohio River in 1791. Calloway, as usual, tells the story well, with lucid prose and thorough documentation.
The invasion, by the first army organized by the United States, under the command of Major Gen. Arthur St. Clair, aimed at the destruction of Indian villages along the Maumee River to open the way for "settlers" (as if the land were not already settled—an example of the way language can obscure reality) and land speculators. The success of the Indians thwarted the invasion, scattered the "settlers," and discouraged the speculators.
The Indians' successful expulsion of American soldiers made front-page news and dashed plans for the Westward Expansion of the "American empire." Today, few people have heard of the event. History books skip over this battle to focus on the later successful invasion into Indian lands beyond the Ohio by a rebuilt army under Gen. Anthony Wayne.
Calloway writes, "The battle deserves to be remembered…. It was the biggest victory Native Americans ever won and proportionately the biggest military disaster the United States ever suffered." His book aims at filling "a blank spot in the national memory."
St. Clair's defeat was not the first time Indian nations demonstrated an ability to field sizable bodies of warriors in a coordinated response to white aggression. In 1755, Indians defeated the largest British army ever sent to North America, routing troops led by Gen. Braddock and Lt. Col. Gage. Braddock's aide-de-camp, George Washington, escaped, but the general was killed.
Indian military success deeply startled the Americans. "Indians fielding a multinational army, executing a carefully coordinated battle plan worked out by their chiefs, and winning a pitched battle—[were] all things Indians were not supposed to be capable of doing," Calloway asserts. The story of the battle "must explain how the Indians won…as well as how St. Clair lost…."
American political leaders and commercial interests responded to their defeat by focusing on the failures of the U.S. Army rather than on the achievements of the Indians. Complaints targeted inadequate training of soldiers, missteps of officers, and failures and corruption of the entire supply effort.
The shock of defeat produced major responses in American government, including the first congressional investigation in American history, the birth of presidential executive privilege, and an expansion of the federal government's power to raise and maintain an army as "the federal government's most visible agent of empire." Calloway adds that the political divisions produced by the defeat "eventually led to the creation of the first political parties."
These responses fit a historical pattern: Wars against Indians aimed at seizing Indian lands provided the raw material for creating a strong federal government, which could prevail not only against Indians but also against the member states of the United States. The development of what we call "federal-state relations" proceeded in large part in the context of "Indian policy" and the "Indian problem."
The "Indian problem" was that the Indians existed. "Indian policy" went through (and still goes through) changes and variations aimed at subjugating Indians and dominating Indian lands. As Calloway puts it, "The Indian policy of the new nation was essentially land policy… turning Indian homelands and hunting territories over to commercial agriculture and economic development."
The "Indian problem" was foremost in the minds of those who engineered the formation of the federal constitution: how to coerce Indians into "obedience" (i.e., how to stop them from resisting the colonizing invasions) and how to "organize" Indian trade (i.e., how to maximize American profit and Indian debts).
The question in practical terms for the Americans was which power was most capable of accomplishing these goals: the states or the federal government? Ultimately, the creation of a federal power to deal with Indians also created a federal power to subordinate the states and citizens alike.
In this sense, "federal Indian law" is at the core of federal power generally. In a relatively short time, the land claims of the various states became the "public lands" of the United States, to be parceled out under federal rules that would assure a flow of cash for the federal government to pay its own debts accrued in the American Revolution (and to compensate veterans of the Continental Army). The policy was self-sustaining. As Calloway writes, the United States "would spend $5 million, almost five-sixths of the total federal expenditures for the period 1790-96, fighting the Indian confederation, and it needed land sales to foot the bill."
He adds that the full story reveals how "the George Washington of popular history [was also] the man who speculated in Indian lands, burned Indian towns, and, as commander in chief, was ultimately responsible for losing the nation's first army." Calloway calls Washington "a seasoned speculator" in the lands across the Ohio, who "took a decided interest" in pushing the Indians out.
Washington's first annual message to Congress focused on "the common defense," with the now timeworn notion that "to be prepared for war is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace." He said "the pacifick measures" aimed at "hostile tribes of Indians" had not been effective.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 is often cited for the fact that it says the United States will observe "utmost good faith" in dealing with the Indians across the Ohio, even as it authorized American expansion into those Indian lands. The ordinance says Indians will not be attacked except in "just and lawful wars." It became immediately obvious—as in Washington's speech—that Indians who resisted American invasions would be deemed "aggressors" and wars against them would be deemed "just and lawful."
Ultimately, the history of American wars against Indians and the development of a powerful federal government to carry out these wars demonstrates that America has, from the beginning, been a warring nation, built on a war economy. Calloway illuminates the origins of that history, starting with its initial failure.
Peter d’Errico graduated from Yale Law School in 1968. He was staff attorney in Dinebeiina Nahiilna Be Agaditahe Navajo Legal Services, 1968-1970, in Shiprock. He taught Legal Studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, 1970-2002. He is a consulting attorney on indigenous issues.