A Collision of Cultures
THE AMERICAN FRONTIER IN THE 1780S WAS NOT SO MUCH A BORDER with white settlers on one side and Native Americans on the other as a shifting region of multiethnic villages in which whites and Indians lived in a world of cultural intermingling. In parts of this frontier region, Indians had been in contact with whites for nearly two hundred years and already had a long history of economic partnership, social ties, and political alliance or conflict. The frontier was thus a product of the evolutionary process of this cultural mix. Native Americans had long been key players in the European competition for political and commercial hegemony in North America and had proved to be a pivotal force in influencing the success of the imperial rivals. As the United States took its first faltering steps as a sovereign nation, the native people on its borders continued to demonstrate that power. Attempts to subdue the Indians revealed them as a confusing array of autonomous groups whose social and political relationships were determined by stringent cultural imperatives.
The Native American population comprised a myriad of villages whose affiliations were complex and difficult to discern. Each village was only loosely linked to others; the Indians had no conception of the term nation as we understand it, for each tribe and indeed village was a distinct entity usually bound by clan or kinship ties only. There is no accurate record of the numbers of Indians living within the United States when it came into existence, for most of the estimates were drawn from the reports of travelers and traders. In 1764, Sir William Johnson, superintendent of Indian affairs in the Iroquois valley, produced an enumeration for the Lords of Trade that is probably the most accurate estimate of the period. He reports the known Indian population of the territory north and west of the Ohio River as 38,150, 20 percent of these being warriors. An estimated 36,000 Indians lived south of the river in the same period. 1
The major linguistic groups on the U.S. border in 1783 were Algonquian, Iroquois, and Muskogee. No rigid boundaries separated