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George Washington's 'Founding War of Conquest'

The standing army, Native American opposition, and the high cost of territorial expansion

Autumn of the Black Snake: The Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion that Opened the West, by William Hogeland, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 448 pages, $28

Farrar, Straus and GirouxFarrar, Straus and GirouxThe Battle of Little Big Horn may loom larger in popular consciousness, but it is the fray now known as St. Clair's Defeat that marks Native Americans' single largest victory over U.S. forces. In 1791, in what today is Ohio, a pan-tribal force under the direction of Shawnee, Miami, and Delaware leaders served notice to the fledgling American republic that continued incursion into Native lands would come at a dear price. In this case, that price was at least half the soldiers on the U.S. side killed—some sources suggest the number dead was far larger—and nearly 20 percent more badly wounded.

News of the rout caused President George Washington temporarily to lose his legendary cool. (More than one source reportedly heard from Washington's personal secretary, Tobias Lear, how the president raged about General Arthur St. Clair: "To suffer that army to be cut to pieces, hacked, butchered, tomahawked—by a surprise! The very thing I guarded him against! Oh God, oh God, he's worse than a murderer!") Once Washington simmered down, he embarked on a path that would define both his administration and his country: the creation of a standing national army and the pursuit of a war to secure the West for U.S. expansion.

In Autumn of the Black Snake, the independent historian William Hogeland tells the story of that war. His aim, he writes, is to fill in a "vacancy in American memory when it comes to what is perhaps the longest-lasting legacy of George Washington's career, and to the political, moral, and existential burden his career, and its national indispensability, will forever carry." The result is an imperfect but nevertheless compelling work of history.

Hogeland rescues some colorful key players from obscurity and restores them to the main narrative of the early American republic. The Black Snake himself is a case in point.

Anthony Wayne began as a Pennsylvania boy enthralled with all things military and became a war hero during the Revolution, rising to the rank of major general. But "after 1776," Hogeland writes, "Wayne never really went home." Returning to civilian life in his late 30s, he proved unfit to manage anything competently: not marriage, not fatherhood, not property, not politics.

Wayne was estranged from his family, barely one step ahead of his creditors, freshly relieved of his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives (after a House committee found fraud in his election), and in a downward spiral when Washington unexpectedly placed him in command of the country's new standing army, the Legion of the United States. In that position, Wayne turned his obsessive focus toward preparing, supplying, and supporting his troops. He built forts, he instituted the first basic training for U.S. soldiers, and his tireless emphasis on discipline and preparedness earned him the nickname Mad Anthony from his men.

His "preternatural vigilance"—the man could not be surprised and seemed never to sleep—also earned Wayne the title Black Snake from his enemies in the pan-tribal Western Confederacy. Wayne ultimately vindicated Washington's trust and accomplished what the president wanted, breaking the back of Native resistance at the August 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers, and securing both Native and British retreat from the Northwest Territory in the Treaty of Greenville a year later. And he did it all while his second in command both actively undermined him and served as a spy for Spain.

Hogeland also devotes attention to the impressive leaders of "the only confederation that had a chance of obstructing the westward expansion of the United States and came close to damaging the American project in its fragile infancy." One was the charismatic and flamboyant Blue Jacket, who dreamed of reuniting his fellow Shawnees in their ancient homeland. The other was the forthright and practical Little Turtle of the Miami Nation, whose wish to halt U.S. expansion at the Ohio River was far more modest but equally unattainable. As Hogeland makes clear, these and other Native leaders have been left out of mainstream histories in much the same way that many U.S. founders chose to write them out of their visions for the future.

Alexander Hamilton's goal of creating a commercial imperial power to rival Great Britain had no place for indigenous Americans. Thomas Jefferson, pursuing his "empire of liberty," drew the borders of potential new states onto a blank map of the Northwest Territory and called the lands uninhabited, though he knew very well that they were not. It was left to Henry Knox, after resigning his position as the first U.S. secretary of war in 1795, to object. In his final report on Indian affairs before leaving office, Hogeland writes, Knox "described the years leading up to Wayne's victory at Fallen Timbers as a series of unethical incursions by whites onto sovereign Indian land.…This war against Indians, doing more harm to the Native people, he said, than anything ever perpetuated by the Spanish in Mexico or Peru, could only degrade the American people themselves."

Hogeland argues that both this war of conquest and the standing army that made it possible were inevitable as long as George Washington played a leading role in guiding the growth of the infant United States. Herein lie both the greatest strength and the core weakness of the book.

On one hand, Hogeland sheds much-needed light on the troubling tactics that Washington and Co. used to persuade Congress to create the military, despite some lawmakers' deep-seated concern that a standing army posed a danger to liberty. Among these were sham efforts at peace talks with the Western Confederacy—pure political theater, set up to fail, meant to convince Congress that every option but armed conflict had been exhausted. Hogeland notes the "enviable narrative discipline" with which the administration devised its public story and kept the details straight.

Such behavior didn't merely ignore opportunities for compromise and better outcomes. These actors set precedents for consolidation of power in the executive branch and for manipulation of both the American Indian nations and Congress, manifesting the same troubling "territorial and military" urges that characterized Andrew Jackson's later policy. The system didn't break, Hogeland argues; it was broken from the start.

On the other hand, he puts too much emphasis on Washington and what he claims were the president's "two oldest precepts—nationhood needed the West; nationhood needed a regular army." He traces these convictions back to Washington's youth, working as a surveyor in the West to make an independent life for himself, learning early to blend the personal and the political, aligning his own vision for governmental policy to fit neatly with his private financial interests in land speculation. Hogeland's older Washington-as-Cincinnatus "hadn't returned to his farm, because in a sense he'd never left it: farms were commercial endeavors, and the farm of Washington's imagination and ambition was so big that it embraced the American West."

The narrow focus on Washington's and others' economic self-interest—perhaps unsurprising from the author of Founding Finance: How Debt, Speculation, Foreclosures, Protests, and Crackdowns Made Us a Nation—leaves less room for the influence of ideas, and thus gives short shrift to those contemporaries motivated by more disinterested or at least abstract convictions. Patrick Henry, for example, was a land speculator, like Washington was. Yet he fiercely opposed the idea of a standing army.

Hogeland's approach also adds an unsatisfyingly deterministic note to the narrative. It was not, in fact, a foregone conclusion that "American independence without the American West wouldn't be independence at all," or that dreams of pushing westward would lead inevitably to a standing army. The fact that Washington and his allies had to campaign and maneuver as robustly as they did to get what they wanted argues against the notion there was a national consensus on the issue. Much of the tragedy of what Hogeland calls the U.S. "founding war of conquest"—and he clearly perceives it as tragic—is that there were several points where compromise was genuinely possible. His details, in other words, argue against the tidiness of his framing theme. This story resists easy answers, including the author's.

Hogeland ends his study in the same land whose history he has traced, considering the county war memorial outside the Defiance County Courthouse in Ohio. There he contemplates the smooth expanse waiting for new names of fallen soldiers under the catch-all contemporary heading of "Global War." The empire of both Hamilton's and Jefferson's disparate dreams has come to pass, and much of the world has been remade in the image of the United States. This, Hogeland implies, is far less a triumph than a burden.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress

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  • Episteme||

    On the other hand, General Anthony Wayne is also canonically the ancestor of Batman, who knows folks with time machines. So watch out.

  • Lily Bulero||

    So he is, thank you for the education.

  • Longtobefree||

    " . . a series of unethical incursions by whites onto sovereign Indian land"

    Well, that is what all wars are, isn't it. Except that the ethics involved are usually two different sets of ethics.
    (And sovereign only applies until you lose it.)

    In the case of the 'native americans', as some like to call them, they obtained the land by conquest, held it by military might (or lost it by military failure), and then lost it to a group of non-indians.
    Why is it only 'evil' when the USA does it? Just answer that without using racist designations for either side in the battle for territorial conquest.

  • Rebel Scum||

    In the case of the 'native americans', as some like to call them, they obtained the land by conquest, held it by military might (or lost it by military failure), and then lost it to a group of non-indians.

    I try to stress this to people. The "natives" were as violent as anyone else in the world and warred with each other constantly. They conquered, they pillaged, the enslaved. The "noble savage" is a fantasy.

  • IceTrey||

    I don't think you can call what they did before the introduction of the horse "war". Small groups of males would skirmish over boundry lines but few were killed.

  • Paloma||

    Gang Wars.

  • creech||

    Russell Means once told me, with a straight face, that this was a white man's lie,,,that the North American Indians learned to conquer and pillage other tribes only at the urging of Spanish and French explorers and colonialists.
    He did agree "maybe the Aztecs, not so much."

  • Ariki||

    I'm Maori (Native New Zealander), my ancestors cooked and ate their defeated enemy and lost the subsequent war of colonisation to the British Empire.

    I personally hate the myth of the noble savage living in harmony with mother nature. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    The Maori hunted species to extinction, set out on raids to avenge long forgotten generational grievances, murdered and subjugated people of different tribes and races, all the fun stuff humans do.

    Mother nature requires balance not harmony, a lion will eat the last gazelle, not try to save the species for future generations.

  • colorblindkid||

    The British actually had to ban all musket and weapon imports to New Zealand at one point, because the first thing the Maori did after getting them was wage vicious inter-tribal wars (the Musket Wars) that killed up to 40,000 people and led to 30,000 Maori being enslaved by their foes.

    The Spanish could have never conquered South and Central America without allying with native tribes who had been enslaved and slaughtered for centuries. The Inca Empire fell easily because there was a civil war between two brothers vying for power.

  • Calidissident||

    Do you have to believe the Native Americans were morally pure angels to think colonial wars of conquest were wrong? This is essentially "whataboutism" from people who usually claim to despise it when communists use it to distract and apologize for their crimes. By this logic, no war of aggression or conquest is ever wrong or a big deal, which isn't something libertarians should believe for obvious reasons. But for some reason, some feel compelled to defend or downplay it just because it's a part of their country's history.

  • flyfishnevada||

    I don't think pointing out the "Native Americans" weren't morally pure as they communed with nature as, so many would have us believe, necessarily implies that the actions of the U.S. were any better. Demonizing one side while canonizing the other falsely is revisionist at best.

    That's where your logic fails you. Assuming the truth about the "Native Americans" says anything about the U.S. or her policies is like assuming I'm calling you stupid when I remark about another person's intelligence. It doesn't. It's a delicate balance and one you've failed to maintain in your argument.

  • Paloma||

    Did Native Americans have written languages where they could put their boundaries down on paper where everyone could see and understand? That lack of clarity could lead to problems.

  • Dan S.||

    They had other ways of specifying them, I'm pretty sure. Perhaps marks on trees or other features of the land, and they were very good at keeping oral histories. For major agreements, wampum belts encoded the details somehow. I don't know all the ways, but to assume that the lack of written records meant that there was no clarity about boundaries and agreements just isn't accurate.

  • Paloma||

    Nobody is that good at keeping oral histories, that's why written languages were developed. Writing things down always trumps oral histories. He said- She said is a good example of "oral history".

  • ||

    Marks on trees might work in heavily forested areas in east and south east, but what about the Great Plains? There you would have hundreds of thousands of square miles of land nearly devoid of land marks.

  • Episteme||

    One of the great ironies of history is that, in the century before Europeans arrived in the Americas, a series of massive plagues spread across North and Central America, wiping out the Mississippian Mound Builder Culture entirely and otherwise causing between 40% and 80% of settled tribes to suddenly migrate to escape illness. As such, they found themselves with depleted health, insecure borders and property rights, and reduced populations just as the white man was about to arrive (hence the historical oddity of Europeans seeing an empty landscape full of trees where a generation before it had been cultivated and populated).

  • Bubba Jones||

    I think the point is one of unreasonable expectations.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I know genocide and racism on both sides was a large part of the Indian-White conflict. But I have also read of differences in property that make me wonder how much that changed things. My understanding is that Indians did believe in property rights, but they didn't settle like Europeans did; whole tribes moved at will and made new temporary property divisions. Families owned plots, had their own farms, and maybe had their own hunting areas. Part of the lack of permanent parcel boundaries was due to the low population density making it possible to move around at will without trampling on each other, although that did happen. Indians had plenty of wars -- tribe vs tribe, confederacy against confederacy. Also contributing to their fluid property boundaries was the lack of mining operations or other industry such as water-powered mills. They simply had little reason to settle in permanent locations, and every incentive to move with the weather, farm fertility, and game. Europeans had no such concept, and much of their land purchases were misunderstood by both sides.

    Suppose the Europeans had had the same attitude once they came to America; would they have respected the Indians enough to co-exist in the same manner?

    Suppose the Indians had developed mining and industrial operations, and subsequent permanent settlements and property boundaries? Would fair trades have reduced friction?

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I've often wondered if there is any way to have communal property rights, such as by tribe or confederacy. I don't think there is, because it's like everything collective -- there is no responsibility or accountability. Every so often, I'll read of some tribal member being kicked off the rolls of those who share in casino profits or jobs, due to personal conflict with the tribe rulers. Maybe a tribe member marries outside the tribe; the offspring's membership depends entirely on personalities. Or a tribe members moves away to join the military, for college, for employment, or any number of reasons, and only comes back later when a casino starts raking in the dough.

    Every one of those disputes is just another example of the corruption inherent in collectivism.

    I don't see any way the Indian concept of fluid collective property ownership could survive contact with the strong property rights of Europeans. Europeans misunderstood vacant (due to disease) villages as abandoned land, misunderstood temporarily unused land as abandoned. Indians sold its temporary use and Europeans bought it permanently, and the wars were inevitable; each thought the other was untrustworthy liars and thieves.

    And mutual racism made all of them uninterested in dealing with savages. War was inevitable.

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    It goes to this day. The communalism muddies up all interactions with the natives. We should just put up or shut up with the reservations. Distribute the land to them and then say you're normal citizens now. You own your land, do what you want with it.

    They can continue to cloister, or they can sell their land and integrate, whatever. But I feel like every issue with land disputes is just based on many people not really truly owning their land in the case of Indian Law.

  • Scarecrow Repair & Chippering||

    I've often thought the same thing. I wonder how much resistance to this is based on bureaucrats not wanting to give up their power, and how much is based on treaty inertia. Are there treaties controlling this which the US has decided to honor for once? Do the Indians not want to change things for the same reason? Most of them got stuck with crap land, and maybe it just isn't worth a lot.

    Maybe the treaty reservation land is owned by the Indian tribe, and they don't want to give up control to individuals. How many reservation Indians would rather have individual ownership?

  • L.G. Balzac||

    You could start by recognizing that you are not in India.

  • Robert||

    It's too bad there's no non-arbitrary way to do it, because certain things that might as well be considered property are best kept in a state that's left to economic uses which would be less than those available were they parceled out privately. I have in mind for instance portions of radio spectrum that ought to be kept for amateur use, and certain natural features of land & water. It would be nice if they could be maintained similarly to, say, Gramercy Park (a private park in Manhattan), but I don't know if many could be. I have a feeling that the total value of such things held collectively exceeds the sum of the marginal values that individuals could make of every piece of them.

  • Juice||

    I don't think there is, because it's like everything collective -- there is no responsibility or accountability.

    With small groups of people, it's possible. Everyone knows everyone intimately. I'm not saying it'll always work out, but I'm just saying when you live in intimate contact with all involved, communal living can work out quite well. But, it would probably be kind of like a bunch of roommates all in one house.

  • Juice||

    Officer, am I free to gambol?

  • BestUsedCarSales||

    Amy H. Sturgis holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history and specializes in science fiction/fantasy and Native American studies.

    We should all strive to be intellectual historians. That is quite a title.

  • GILMORE™||

    You too can get your certificate of Super Smart Stuff if you buy some really-expensive boxes of cereal.

  • Longtobefree||

    No need to buy carbohydrate laded cereal products; just go online, pay your money, and have a degree. Simple, and no fears of the Title IX thought police.

  • GILMORE™||

    imagine my chagrin when i learned that she got her dubious sheepskin the same place i got mine.

  • GILMORE™||

    science fiction/fantasy and Native American studies.

    Synergies!

  • GILMORE™||

    unethical incursions by whites onto sovereign Indian land

    I have been informed by very-moral sources that this "Sovereignty" shit is stuff only racist xenophobes talk about, and that diverse immigration always produces best outcomes. These damn redneckskins need to stop worrying about their imaginary 'borders' and learn to adapt to a multicultural world

  • Lily Bulero||

    I was going to give a link to a cartoon on the subject, but all the "Native Americans for strict immigration enforcement" cartoons are kind of lame.

  • Telcontar the (Obama) Birther||

    Non-consensual military seizure of land

    =/=

    Consensual purchase of land or board by private individuals

  • GILMORE™||

    the point was about the selective assertion of the importance of "Sovereignty" and "Borders" by people who occasionally argue that neither are particularly important in the modern day.

    no one said a word about land-titles. If i'd been talking about how the US occasionally "bought" whole swaths of the west with offers of tobacco + firewater, your point would be more-relevant

    side note - this may be the most horrifying thing i've ever seen: a one-man rapping-musical-and-modern-dance show about How White People Fucked Over The Indians

    it is soul-rending.

  • Telcontar the (Obama) Birther||

    If "Sovereignty" here means "the right of a collective to declare overriding ownership over private property", then the modern Left is indeed being hypocritical. However, the US military was not, in the instance detailed in the article, attempting to make a voluntary transaction with NA landowners that the Western Confederacy was trying to stop; it was just outright seizing land by violence. That is in no way comparable to modern immigrants purchasing, renting or staying at land with the consent of the private and legitimate landowners.

    As it happens, if the US military purchased land from public or private NA sellers- with dollars, tobacco, firewater, or anything else- I wouldn't necessarily classify that as illegitimate, assuming the sellers understood that the sale was permanent at the time of the transaction. "Let The Seller Beware".

    Meanwhile, I think seven Horcruxes are enough for me, so I won't rend my soul any further, I think.

  • Paloma||

    Another problem with not writing things down because no written language. Someone could be selling you something he or she or they don't own. And Nomads have a sketchy idea of land ownership.

  • Azathoth!!||

    How did the "Western Confederacy" acquire this land?

    If the article is correct, they were, in no small part, made up of many who'd been forced from their land further east.

    By what right did they get a say in what happened to the land?

  • Telcontar the Wanderer||

    I don't think the "Western Confederacy" *as a government* did.

    The exchange should have been private Native-American landowner to private European-American purchaser. If such private NA landowners did not exist or weren't allowed to sell to Europeans, that is the basal problem.

  • JeremyR||

    So Reason finally agrees with the idea that open borders is bad for the people already living there? That non-citizens will eventually come in and take over?

    The thing is though, history in the Americas was pretty dynamic and things were changing before anyone from the West showed up. Tribes waxed and waned, lost territory and conquered it. Chahokia went from being a large city to deserted in 1400.

    There was no "sovereignty" Hell, there really is. That's being able and willing to defend your territory. A bronze age (at best) culture is never going to win against someone with firearms

  • Telcontar the (Obama) Birther||

    "Able"?

    To take this principle to its logical extreme: if a woman is not "able" to defend her body from a rapist, does she lose her sovereignty over it?

    I am certain you did not MEAN to imply that, but it *sounded* like you were implying that.

  • Paloma||

    When the Spanish first started fighting with the Natives, the firearms were blunderbusses and they didn't have the same firepower as a rifle. The Spanish also had horses, which were more useful militarily and also freaked the natives out, but there were not that many of them. They had a lot of help from other Indian tribes who hated the Aztecs. The idea that less than 600 soldiers could conquer a million Aztecs just because they had guns is ludicrous.

  • Paloma||

    And George Washington was more than two centuries later.

  • jm15xy||

    Land should belong to the people who can make the most valueble use of it. If you have a country that is largely undeveloped it is the same as if it were abandoned and up for grabs.

  • Telcontar the (Obama) Birther||

    Jm15xy, it has been decided that you are not making adequate or competent use of your swimming pool.

    -BAYONET TO THE FACE-

  • GILMORE™||

    Land should belong to the people who can make the most valueble use of it

    This is basically socialism. with misspellings.

  • Alan Vanneman||

    An interesting review and a lot of interesting comments as well. In Latin America and the Caribbean, Europeans came largely to rule over oppressed slave populations, both indigenous and imported from Africa. In the "temperate zone", the area, that, more or less, became the U.S., Europeans came, in much larger numbers, to replicate European communities. Given the disparity in power between the Europeans and the "Indians", a European victory was inevitable. However, Europeans, if they had not been, to a man (and woman) deeply racist, could have allowed the defeated Indians to be absorbed into the larger culture. That was not allowed to happen. Indians were quite as capable as Europeans to make a living as commercial farmers, but up until the 1960s, white Americans were infuriated by the sight of non-whites owning real property. The Indians were not only defeated, they were constantly pushed back into less and less desirable land. It took almost 400 years before white Americans began to get comfortable with racial integration. And, by the way, free markets did not promote racial integration, because white racists wouldn't allow it to happen.

  • Telcontar the (Obama) Birther||

    "free markets did not promote racial integration, because white racists wouldn't allow it to happen"

    Yeah, they wouldn't allow a free market to happen.

  • Bubba Jones||

    Fascinating.

    Are there any national borders in the world that were not defined through war?

  • loveconstitution1789||

    Antarctica. It belongs to nobody.

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