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George Washington Letter Describes Killing of Natives as ‘Villainy’

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A letter from George Washington recently acquired by the Dolph Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin describes the killing of three Mingo Indians by white settlers as “villainy” and “mischief.”

The letter “sheds light on Washington’s views on Indian relations” said Don Carleton, the Briscoe Center’s executive director.

The letter, which was written to John Armstrong on August 24, 1769 before the Revolutionary War, describes the killing of the three Indians on the south bank of the Potomac River as murder, “for it deserves no other name.” Washington also demands “justice” in the letter.

“Washington’s indignation over the unprovoked killing of the Indians is clearly genuine,” notes Carleton in a university release. “He also evidences concern over ‘the evils that otherwise must follow’ if similar incidents were to go unchecked. Both Washington and Armstrong had a vested interest in any developments in that region that might indicate serious trouble with the Indians and therefore inhibit western expansion by colonists.”

Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

George Washington's signature on the letter.

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At the time the letter was written, Armstrong—an Irish immigrant—was a land surveyor in Pennsylvania and a justice of the peace, but he would later serve as a major general under Washington in the Revolutionary War.

Washington’s views at the time were in line with those of his peers. An August 8, 1769 meeting of the Council of Colonial Virginia resolved that, “no injury or violence be offer’d to the Indians; and if hereafter it should become a serious business proper measures may be taken for the defence of the Inhabitants, who should be caution’d that if they wantonly draw on a quarrel with the Indians, they will not be supported by Government.”

As an ambitious landowner, Washington did not want to upset Indian relations, and so also notes that, “It is lucky however that … none escapd to carry the Intelligence, and we, in consequence, may represent it in as favourable a light, as the thing will admit of, having the knowledge of it confined to our selves.”

Let’s also keep in mind that Washington’s views on Indian relations changed over time. Just 10 years after this letter to Armstrong—in 1779—he instructed Major General John Sullivan to attack Iroquois people. He said, “lay waste all the settlements around... that the country may not be merely overrun, but destroyed.” In the course of the carnage and annihilation of Indian people, Washington also instructed his general not to “listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected.”

His anti-Indian sentiments were again made clear in 1783 when he compared Indians with wolves, saying “Both being beast of prey, tho’ they differ in shape.” After a defeat, Washington’s troops would skin the bodies of Iroquois from the hips down to make boot tops or leggings. Those who survived called the first president, “Town Destroyer.” Within a five-year period, 28 of 30 Seneca towns had been destroyed. (Related story: “Happy Presidents’ Day)

Dolph Briscoe Center for American History

The second page of the letter George Washington wrote to John Armstrong.