Jeff W. Dennis. Patriots and Indians: Shaping Identity in Eighteenth-Century South Carolina. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2017. Illustrations. 240 pp. $29.99 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61117-756-5.
Reviewed by Sean P. Harvey (Seton Hall University)
Published on H-AmIndian (December, 2017)
Commissioned by F. Evan Nooe (University of North Carolina, Charlotte)
Colonial Independence and American Colonialism
In Patriots and Indians: Shaping Identity in Eighteenth-Century South Carolina, Jeff W. Dennis explains that one cannot understand the American Revolution in the South Carolina colony and later state without coming to terms with its relations with Native peoples, especially Cherokees. The argument is welcome, though not wholly novel. David Ramsay, in The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina (1785), claimed that “several who called themselves tories in 1775 became active whigs in 1776, and cheerfully took up arms in the first instance against Indians, and in the second against Great-Britain.” This interpretation receded from view for two centuries, resurfacing in the 1990s. Dennis demonstrates that a combination of colonial desire for land, various schemes and invasions toward that end, and Cherokee and Creek actions were linked to the emergence, progress, and eventual resolution of the Revolution in the Lower South. Ancillary arguments about a correlation between the degree of radicalism among the state’s leading patriots and their degree of “tolerance” toward Indians, and the corresponding importance of Indians as “an ‘anvil’ against which they [the radicals] pounded out their new collective self” (p. 8), are more suggestive than conclusive.
Dennis frames his book as an examination of “relationships between Indians and the founding fathers of the Lower South, particularly South Carolina” (p. 2). Chapter 1 uses Thomas Sumter’s role in the Timberlake diplomatic expedition into Cherokee country to introduce aspects of Cherokee culture and to sketch Sumter’s close interactions with certain Cherokees, particularly Ostenaco (or Outacite). Chapter 2 examines the episodes of trespassing, poaching, rape, and murder that motivated Cherokee raids on peripheral colonial settlements, and the colonial incursions into Cherokee country that followed. It highlights the roles of several elite Carolinians in the conflict, including Henry Laurens and Christoper Gadsen, who openly debated the conduct of the war in its aftermath. Writing under the pen name Philopatrios in the South Carolina Gazette, Gadsen, whose wealth stemmed from his trading ties in the interior, denounced Britain’s ineffectiveness in killing Cherokees and the insufficiently punitive peace. Laurens, whose wealth stemmed from his mercantile ties across the sea, praised the British destruction of Cherokee towns and fields, which defeated an enemy and left a people now desiring peace as a buffer on the colony’s frontier, as a better mode of war than killing men. While some might highlight the callousness of Laurens’s calculation, Dennis unconvincingly casts Laurens as one who rejected the “aggressive patriotism” of Gadsen and most small planters and artisans (p. 51). In providing colonials military experience and knowledge of Cherokee towns, and in occasioning friction with the empire, the Cherokee War “served as a rehearsal for the American Revolution in the Lower South” (p. 31).
Chapters 3 and 4 are the strongest of the book. To use the respective chapter titles, they detail the process of colonial “alienation” from the empire and the resulting “British and Indian War.” In the aftermath of the Cherokee War, white settlers swarmed into the backcountry, establishing farms and eschewing intercultural trade, which increased the social distance of Native and colonial communities while intensifying colonial ambitions for prosperity and the autonomy to pursue it. Dennis argues, “It was probably desire for land as much as anything else that eventually helped convert many conservative South Carolinians into Revolutionaries,” tempting them “to exploit Indians and to ignore British officials” (p. 51). Landholding, and support for institutions that would protect whites’ property, bound together Lowcountry and Piedmont elites, as in the South Carolina Regulation Movement (also known as the Regulator Movement). Dennis effectively illustrates the dynamics of land hunger and colonial-imperial conflict through the rivalry of William Henry Drayton and John Stuart, the empire’s superintendent of Indian Affairs for the southern district, who sought to enforce the Proclamation of 1763 and maintain the boundaries of eastern Native enclaves. Only after Stuart blocked his leasing of Catawba land and then arranged his ouster from the Colonial Council did Drayton become a patriot. On the colony’s Committee of Intelligence, Drayton then targeted Stuart as an embodiment of British support for Indians at colonists’ expense and he spread rumors about Stuart’s inciting of the southern Indian nations to war, forcing Stuart to flee the colony.
Dennis’s attention to the timing of events during the war is illuminating. As the British shelled Charles Town, Cherokees raided the backcountry in the summer of 1776. In response, South Carolina authorized a seventy-five-pound scalp bounty and directed its militia to destroy Cherokee fields and towns, just as the colony had done during the Cherokee War. Drayton wrote, “It is expected ... that every Indian taken shall be the slave and property of the taker; that the nation be extirpated, and the lands become the property of the public” (p. 83). While most Cherokees resigned themselves to peace after the militia wiped out more than forty towns, separatist Chickamauga Cherokees joined with Upper Creeks to drive out white trespassers. Further patriot invasions followed in 1781-82, as the legislature passed laws punishing Loyalists. Throughout the period, “hyper-patriots,” such as Gadsen and Drayton, successfully conflated anti-Indian and anti-British attitudes (p. 83). In all, “By the end of 1782, American armies had invaded and savaged the Cherokee homelands on at least seven different occasions” (p. 103). Those invasions, either directly or indirectly killed two thousand Cherokees, about 20 percent of the nation’s population, and forced Cherokees to cede half their land between 1776 and 1794 (pp. 109-110).
The book’s final chapter and conclusion examine the early national period. As Dennis argues, “Indian policy debate after the Revolution followed patterns which had been evident since at least the opening of the 1760s. Radical Revolutionaries, appealing to a more popular constituency, aimed to exclude Indians from citizenship or residency. Conservative Revolutionaries, representing a more elite following, sought to provide a physical and cultural place for Native Americans in the new republic. While both groups planned for the acquisition of Indian lands, they differed markedly as to the means for and consequences of such cessions” (p. 104). Chapter 5 examines the postwar career of Andrew Pickens, a revolutionary officer and frequent Indian commissioner from the 1780s to the first decade of the 1800s. Dennis stresses the efforts of this “backcountry George Washington” to secure Native boundaries at the Treaty of Hopewell in 1785 and to promote the Washington administration’s “civilization” policy. He retired rather than aid the deception and manipulation of the Jefferson administration’s efforts to extinguish Indian land title. The “career of Andrew Pickens,” Dennis writes, “demonstrates that members of the early American southern elite could imagine alternative futures for their Indian neighbors,” and that the Trail of Tears was “by no means inevitable” (p. 141). The conclusion even speculates that with proper leadership South Carolina “might have accepted federal programs to gradually manumit slaves and to maintain Indians in the East” (p. 140). That conjecture dodges whether Indians would have enjoyed sovereignty, citizenship, or mere presence, and it flies in the face of his own well-supported claim that “Indian-hating amplified during the era of the American Revolution.” It was, Dennis says, “the ugly face of American radicalism” (p. 134).
This book has weaknesses. While most of it is clearly and engagingly written, there are some groan-inducing passages. Among the worst is a quip about Cherokee matrilineality involving “Who’s your daddy?” (p. 17). There are also some odd choices among the illustrations, including one of a Green Corn Dance among Hidatsas (villagers on the upper Missouri). More fundamentally, the book would have benefited from greater archival evidence. It is legitimate to focus on a small number of elites in a single colony and state, but there are costs. To take one example, Dennis argues that the “Catawba crisis” and the resulting conflict with Stuart was “very likely ... the single most decisive” factor in transforming the previously Loyalist Drayton into a radical patriot, but Dennis concedes that the “greatest outrage of 1774 ... centered upon events far to the north in Boston” (pp. 68-69). A wider range of sources could have yielded evidence that would aid the reader in drawing broader conclusions about Indian affairs in the transformation of resistance into revolution. More details on ground-level relations in borderlands communities, such as Pickens’s Long Cane community, would also have been welcome. Even the focus on the colonial elite is narrower than it might have been. Although Dennis wants his reader to appreciate the cultural distance separating cosmopolitan moderates from populist and racist radicals, he neglects to consider the significance of philosophical theories, even when discussing Laurens sending Cherokee artifacts to a savant in Leyden or when considering Pickens’s faith in “civilization” policy.
Among the book’s most frustrating flaws is that it fails to grapple with relevant historiography. In the introduction, instead of addressing neo-Whig or neo-Progressive interpretations of the revolution, or the insights of the booming literature on Native communities and variegated Native-white interactions in the late eighteenth century, the author juxtaposes the work of James Axtell, Gordon Wood, and Jim Piecuch without ever really connecting the dots, and he fails to discuss either the meaning of identity in the eighteenth century or a historical method to examine it. The neglect of pertinent scholarship continues throughout the book. Most egregiously, Dennis discusses Cherokee regional diversity without reference to Tyler Boulware (Deconstructing the Cherokee Nation: Town, Region, and Nation among Eighteenth-Century Cherokees ), the reality and reporting of “savage” warfare in the mid-eighteenth century without a nod to Patrick Griffin (American Leviathan: Empire, Nation, and Revolutionary Frontier ) or Peter Silver (Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America ), and Federalists’ post-revolutionary diplomacy and “civilization” policy while ignoring Leonard Sadosky (Revolutionary Negotiations: Indians, Empires, and Diplomats in the Founding of America ) and David Andrew Nichols (Red Gentlemen and White Savages: Indians, Federalists, and the Search for Order on the American Frontier ). Given Dennis’s association of Jefferson with the “radical,” Indian-hating tradition, I would have liked Dennis to consider the argument of Seth Cotlar (Tom Paine’s America: The Rise and Fall of Transatlantic Radicalism ) that the “Revolution of 1800” was actually a victory for moderates that marginalized the radicalism of the 1790s. The total absence of consideration of recent scholarship may be explained, though not excused, by the fact that the book represents a minimally revised publication of his 2002 doctoral dissertation.
These criticisms do not nullify the book’s contributions. While readers of H-AmIndian may be frustrated by the degree to which Cherokees, Catawbas, and Creeks recede into the background of Dennis’s account, scholars of South Carolina and of the US revolutionary era will benefit from the way this book complements existing scholarship on South Carolina’s relations with its indigenous neighbors and the state’s social and political development. Patriots and Indians provides a cogent and compelling account of the significance of Native people and of whites’ interest in Native lands for the revolution in South Carolina among some of the state’s leading revolutionaries. Its coverage of the periods before and after the War for Independence, in tight focus and slim size (less than 150 pages of text), could make it a good book for classroom use.
. David Ramsay, The History of the Revolution of South-Carolina, from a British Province to an Independent State (Trenton: Isaac Collins, 1785), 1:160.
. Eric Hinderaker, Elusive Empires: Constructing Colonialism in the Ohio Valley, 1673-1800 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997); and Woody Holton, Forced Founders: Indians, Debtors, Slaves, and the Making of the American Revolution in Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999). Though less concerned with revolutionary motivations, studies by Richard White and Gregory Evans Dowd were also crucial to the development of this scholarship. See Richard White, Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991); and Gregory Evans Dowd, A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992).
. Jeffrey William Dennis, “American Revolutionaries and Native Americans: The South Carolina Experience” (PhD diss., University of Notre Dame, 2002).
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Sean P. Harvey. Review of Dennis, Jeff W., Patriots and Indians: Shaping Identity in Eighteenth-Century South Carolina.
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