Life During Wartime

Life During Wartime > American Indians

Technically the War of 1812 changed little. The Treaty of Ghent, which officially ended the war in 1815, returned to the status quo ante bellum—the state that existed before the war. The United States, Great Britain, and British North America (Canada) immediately started down their respective roads of recovery.

But for the nations of native peoples, particularly in the Midwest, there would be no recovery. How did American Indians become the big losers in the War of 1812?

Displacement Begins

At the time of European settlement, the North American continent was already populated with hundreds of diverse Indian tribes, perhaps as many as 10 million native people. Estimates vary, but it is likely that 50,000 or more people called the Chesapeake Bay region home when the English settlers arrived. By the time Captain John Smith and his fellow Englishmen began exploring the Chesapeake in 1607, the indigenous peoples were already well established in sophisticated communities developed over more than 10,000 years. Learn about early Indians in the Chesapeake Bay region.

Smith’s historic map and writings provided some of the earliest descriptions of these indigenous people and stimulated the first waves of European settlement. Over the next two centuries, more and more non-Indians moved in to settle the land. As they came, they displaced the native people, pushing them farther inland and decimating the population in part from diseases the natives had no immunity to. By the eve of the War of 1812, only about 250,000 Indians still remained within the borders of the United States.

War Cries

Long-standing grievances over disputed lands and the sovereign rights of Indian nations came to a head in the War of 1812. Territorial disputes sparked by American expansion into lands claimed by the United States, Great Britain, Spain, and American Indians, especially along the western frontier of the United States, were a factor leading to war with Britain. Many westerners believed that the British were inciting Indian warfare against Americans, and events in the Indiana Territory in late 1811 fueled the tensions.

St. Leonard Creek
“Tecumseh” statue on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD, is the only known monument in the Chesapeake region commemorating the role of American Indians in the War of 1812. Ironically, it is based on a likeness of Tamanend, a chief of the Delaware tribe, not its namesake Tecumseh who was a Shawnee leader. Photo by Ralph Eshelman

The Shawnee leader Tecumseh began organizing a confederacy of Indian tribes to resist Governor William Henry Harrison’s aggressive efforts to open that territory to white settlement. In the aftermath of the Battle of Tippecanoe and the burning of Tecumseh’s home village of Prophetstown in November 1811, American War Hawks called for retaliation against the British for perceived support of the Indians.

Tecumseh, also seeking retaliation, led his confederation of more than two dozen Indian nations into a strong alliance with the British. Although some Indian tribes sided with the Americans as the War of 1812 began, most sided with the British in the belief that British victory was the best hope for ending US encroachment on Indian lands.

The Indians fought fiercely alongside the British during the war, mostly in actions along the Great Lakes and often providing the margin for victory. But in 1813 Tecumseh was killed fighting his old nemesis William Henry Harrison at the Battle of Thames in Ontario, and the vision of a strong native confederacy died with him.

Territorial disputes in the South also factored into the War of 1812. What had begun as a civil war within a divided Creek nation became a war of American conquest. US troops led by General Andrew Jackson won a decisive victory against dissident Creeks in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in March 1814. The resulting treaty ended Indian military power in the region and ceded 23 million acres of land to the United States.

At War’s End

The War of 1812 removed the major obstacle to westward expansion. Without British help and a successor to Tecumseh to lead an organized resistance, the Indians could not match the power of a land-hungry nation. Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison were celebrated as American heroes. They had repulsed the British threat, secured America’s borders, and opened the way for settlement of vast tracks of Indian lands. Both men presided over continued expansion as the nation’s seventh and ninth presidents. While tensions along the frontiers continued over the next several decades, the weakened Indian nations could not stop the inexorable expansion of the United States.  

Did you know?
More than 1,000 American Indians served in the US military during the War of 1812. About half were Choctaws; the other half, mainly Creeks and Cherokees. Choctaws fought on the American side at the Battle of New Orleans.


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