The Conqueror Meets the Unconquered: Negotiating Cultural Boundaries on the Post-Revolutionary Southern Frontier

Article excerpt

ON DECEMBER 26, 1785, A GROUP OF 127 BEDRAGGLED CHOCTAW INDIANS arrived at Hopewell, Andrew Pickens's home on the Keowee River in South Carolina. They had trekked for over two months and traveled hundreds of miles from their central Mississippi homeland to represent the Choctaw people in a meeting with representatives of the United States government. Several days of negotiations resulted in the first treaty between these two powers. This encounter in the southern backcountry (which was the second in a series of three consecutive meetings at Hopewell during the winter of 1785-1786 between the U.S. and the Cherokees, Choctaws, and Chickasaws, respectively) reveals several issues vital to an understanding of intercultural relations in the post-Revolutionary War South.(1)

Since the extant transcripts of these negotiations have never been published, previous accounts of the Choctaw Hopewell Treaty have relied exclusively on the written and signed treaty as the basis for what each side agreed to and tried to accomplish.(2) Such accounts have told an accordingly simplistic story of Indian acquiescence to American demands.(3) A close examination of the talks and the rituals that accompanied them reveals a picture different from that presented by the treaty itself, including what each side tried to accomplish at Hopewell, their attempts to accommodate one another, and the diversity of diplomatic expression and language employed by American Indians and Euro-Americans in the post-Revolutionary South. An analysis of the Hopewell treaty negotiations from the perspectives of both participants exposes two societies acting in accordance with inherited tradition and utilizing new approaches arising from their Revolutionary War experience. Such reconsideration also calls into question whether the model of a "middle ground" of interaction between Native Americans and Europeans--which has been employed by some recent scholars to describe a zone where different peoples borrowed certain cultural practices from one another in the interest of civility and peace--can be applied uncritically.(4)

The years between the end of the Revolutionary War and the establishment of a new United States government under the Constitution were a crucial, albeit brief, period of transition during which many Indian groups east of the Mississippi River still operated according to centuries-old notions of proper behavior and the United States had not yet established hegemony over the lands supposedly under its jurisdiction. Scholars using 20/20 hindsight from a later time when Americans had militarily defeated most of the eastern Indians too easily forget that reality. In order to fully appreciate the diverse motivations, tactics, and happenings at play in the post-Revolutionary southern backcountry, the Indian side to the equation and a sense of uncertainty about the eventual outcome must be restored to the historical record.(5)

Choctaw relations with Europeans underwent several permutations in the years preceding the Hopewell Treaty. France supplied the bulk of trade goods and was the main European ally for the Choctaws living in present-day east-central Mississippi from the early eighteenth century until the end of the Seven Years War in 1763. Britain also made sporadic inroads into the Choctaw trade before 1763, often at the request of Choctaw chiefs, and served as the principal trade ally for the Choctaws from that year until 1781. Spain occupied New Orleans in 1766, holding occasional meetings with various Choctaws and allowing Choctaw deerskin traders to conduct business there, despite British wishes that the Choctaws trade with them alone. In June 1779, during the turmoil of the American Revolution, Spain declared war on Great Britain, and military forces under Governor Bernardo de Galvez promptly defeated British soldiers along the east bank of the Mississippi River at Manchac, Baton Rouge, and Natchez. Mobile fell to Spain in March 1780, and Pensacola followed in May 1781. …