THE SURRENDER OF CORNWALLIS AT YORKTOWN IN 1781 SIGNIFIED American victory over Great Britain, but not over the Native Americans. The new Republic was surrounded by powerful—and potentially hostile—European nations, but a threat also lay within its borders among the native inhabitants who separated the white protagonists. In the north, Britain had given a vast swath of territory to the United States without reference to its occupants, who did not consider themselves a conquered people. Similarly, in the South, the United States faced a native population that would not submit to boundaries and authorities imposed on them. The frontier was inhabited and controlled by a disparate mix of Native American groups who acted independent of any authority beyond their own village. These groups resisted attempts to occupy their lands, formed alliances with whichever white party they saw fit, waged war on white trespassers, and successfully obstructed the physical and political consolidation of the American nation for twelve years.
The manifestation of Native American power was ubiquitous. Physical aggression was the most tangible expression of that power, but this offers an incomplete picture of its diverse significance. The Indians occupied land from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Competition for that land raged at all levels, from individual settlers to national governments. The issue of how to acquire it from the Indians, either by force or negotiation, and the contest for their alliance fueled antagonism between opposing social and political groups and brought the Republic to the brink of fragmentation. It provided an early platform for debates about the federal-state division of power and the role and responsibility of central government and its institutions. Indeed, the implications of Native American power reached beyond the nation's borders to exacerbate and prolong tensions between the United States and its European neighbors. In determining a policy toward the native population, the international reputation of the new nation, so important to its gentlemen leaders, was also at stake. The Native Americans thus confronted the emerging nation with fundamental questions about both the political and the moral character of the new Republic.