Native Americans in the Northeastern United States

Although many people think of Native Americans primarily as riding horseback on the Great Plains or living in the desert Southwest, the entire continent was populated when Europeans arrived.

Dec 19, 2021By Owen Rust, MA Economics in progress w/ MPA
indian treaty greenville map north america 1700s
A map of the east coast of North America circa 1771, via the Library of Congress; with the Painting of Indian Treaty of Greenville, 1795


English colonization in North America, the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, and the early United States westward expansion all prominently feature one societal group that is often overlooked: Native Americans. While many Americans primarily think of Native American tribes as riding horseback on the Great Plains or the arid Southwest, the Northeastern United States had many tribes as well. These tribes were permanently settled and thus frequently came into conflict with European settlers who tried to claim “new” territory. From the settlement of Jamestown in 1607 to the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, here is a look at the history of Native American tribes in the Northeast and how they impacted what is now the United States.


Native Americans In the Pre-Columbian Era

A map of pre-Columbian native tribes superimposed over present-day US and Canadian borders, via National Public Radio


The study of American history often begins with the arrival of explorer Christopher Columbus, an Italian sailing for Spain, in the Caribbean in 1492. Europeans sought a westward sea route to Asia and India, as the overland spice trade was very expensive. One popular misconception is that Europeans at the time thought the Earth was flat. However, educated persons in Europe had long known the Earth to be round, but few thought ships could successfully sail west from Europe and reach India. Columbus, who secured financial backing from the Spanish crown after being rejected by Britain and Portugal, thought he could make it.


When Columbus arrived in the Caribbean, he assumed that he had landed in India – his desired destination – and thus the misleading term “Indians” for Native Americans was created. Despite rapid Spanish and Portuguese exploration soon afterward that revealed a previously unknown continent, Columbus died in 1506, still believing that he had landed in or near India. The two Western Hemisphere continents, North and South America, received their names shortly thereafter thanks to fellow Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci, who sailed for both Spain and Portugal.


A map showing the traditional theory of Native American migration from northeast Asia to Alaska across an ancient Bering Land Bridge, via the National Geographic Society


Although many 20th-century history textbooks begin American history with Columbus, North America had long already been settled by Native Americans. The most accepted theory is that ancestors of pre-Columbian Native Americans crossed a Bering Land Bridge, today the underwater Bering Strait, some 20,000 years ago. Thousands of years before the arrival of Europeans in the New World, these Native Americans had long been settled in what is now the northeastern United States. In recent decades, new theories have emerged regarding Viking exploration of eastern Canada, potentially changing the story regarding which Europeans first came into contact with Native Americans in what is now the northeastern United States. However, none of these theories has amassed much solid evidence, leaving the historical legacy of Christopher Columbus largely intact.

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The Powhatan Indians and Jamestown

The first English settlers at Jamestown, Virginia meeting with the Powhatans in 1607, via Virginia Places


While the Spanish explored the present-day Deep South and Southwest of the United States, moving inland in the early 1500s, the northeastern United States remained largely untouched by Europeans prior to the first permanent settlement at Jamestown, Virginia. After a failed attempt at Roanoke, the English established a new colony, Jamestown, under the Virginia Company in 1607. The tribes in the area, the Powhatan Indians, had been settled for thousands of years. Under Chief Powhatan, these Native Americans first encountered Europeans. In late 1607, English leader John Smith was captured by Chief Powhatan, though he was released in early 1608 after reaching an understanding.


After a brief period of generosity between the Powhatans and the English, conflict erupted. In the northeastern United States, the permanent settlements of Native American tribes would often be encroached upon by European settlers, resulting in hostilities. Between 1609 and 1614, the first Anglo-Powhatan War raged until Englishman John Rolfe – not John Smith – married Powhatan’s daughter, Pocahontas. Unfortunately, conflict re-erupted in the 1620s and 1640s, with the Powhatan population “decimated” down to only some 2,000 individuals by the 1660s. As with the Spanish, the English destruction of Native American tribes was done more through diseases like smallpox rather than firearms and metal weapons.


17th Century New England

Dutch traders under Henry Hudson trading with Native Americans in New England, via the National Geographic Society


Soon after Jamestown, further English settlements were created in northeastern America. The Plymouth Colony in present-day Massachusetts, along with Jamestown, soon became financially independent of England. Colonists traded with Native Americans, introducing the concept of modern currency in exchange for physical goods like food and animal skins. However, as in Virginia, New England also saw violent wars between colonists and Native Americans. In the 1670s, a war in Massachusetts resulted in the defeat of the Wampanoag tribe, with European diseases again extracting a far greater toll than weaponry.


In the northeastern US, the Dutch also arrived to explore. Dutch explorer Henry Hudson landed in present-day New York in 1609, with Native Americans marveling at the giant sea-going ship and its massive sails. Hudson sailed up the river that bears his name before returning to Europe. Unlike the English and Spanish, the Dutch and French, who came in smaller numbers, sought to maintain good relations with Native American tribes. The English, in particular, focused on mercantilism and exporting cash crops like tobacco and cotton for profit rather than developing comprehensive trade and relations with Native Americans.


The French and Indian War

Native Americans and British soldiers fight at Fort William McHenry during the French and Indian War, via Encyclopedia of North Carolina


The English mistreatment of Native Americans resulted in most tribes supporting the French during the French and Indian War (1754-63), which was part of the continent-spanning Seven Years’ War (1756-63). After almost 150 years of colonization, the British colonies in North America were encroaching on New France, which occupied the territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River in the present-day United States. The British wanted desirable lands in the Ohio River Valley, and young Virginia militia officer George Washington was sent to attack French forts in 1754.


Some tribes, such as the Iroquois Confederacy, felt torn between the two rivals. As the French won several victories in the early years of the war, the Iroquois remained neutral toward their traditional English allies. However, English victories beginning in 1758 turned the tide and convinced the Iroquois to ally against the French. The Catawba and Cherokee maintained their traditional ties with the English throughout the war, while the Huron, Shawnee, Ojibwe, and Ottawa maintained their traditional alliances with the French. Other tribes, such as the Mohawk, split and maintained separate alliances based on which European power controlled the area at the time.


The Proclamation Line of 1763

Territorial result of the Treaty of Paris (1763), via


After 1759, Britain had positive momentum in the war, particularly in North America. In 1763, the French and Indian War, as part of the Seven Years’ War, formally ended with the Treaty of Paris. New France ceased to exist. However, the excitement of the colonists in England’s thirteen colonies was tempered by the creation of the Proclamation Line of 1763. The line, to the west of the Appalachian Mountains, was meant to prevent colonists from settling land still heavily populated by Native Americans and the French.


The Proclamation Line angered colonists, who felt that they were being unfairly prevented from accessing lands they had won in the war. Disregarding the directive from London, many settlers began occupying western territory, encroaching on Native American lands. In retaliation, several tribes united in Pontiac’s Rebellion (1763-65) and attacked British forts. However, without their French allies from a few years before, the tribes could not resupply with ammunition and were forced to surrender to the British. The violent disputes foreshadowed the struggles to come as colonists looked increasingly westward to expand into the continent’s rich interior.


Native Americans and the Revolutionary War

A political cartoon showing the British Redcoats allied with Native Americans during the American Revolutionary War, via Baylor University, Waco


Only a decade after the unexpectedly violent and unified Pontiac’s Rebellion, another war had broken out in the Northeastern United States: the American Revolutionary War. After years of back-and-forth political struggles between Parliament instituting new taxes to pay for the French and Indian War and the thirteen colonies resisting, shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. By 1776, the colonies had declared their independence from Britain and proclaimed themselves the new United States of America.


Although some tribes supported the rebelling colonists, a majority supported the British, who had instituted the Proclamation Line of 1763 in an attempt to stop settlers’ encroaching on Native American land. The Mohawk and some Iroquois supported the British and conducted raids on towns that supported American independence. These raids typically resulted in harsh retaliation from the Continental Army under General George Washington. Fighting between the new United States and pro-British Native Americans continued even after the famous 1781 British defeat at Yorktown. In addition to occasional military operations, some Native Americans provided surveillance and intelligence to each side by reporting maneuvers.


The Northwest Ordinance

A painting of American settlers and Native Americans in the Northwest Territory added to the United States soon after the Revolutionary War, via the Constitutional Rights Foundation


In 1787, only four years after the Treaty of Paris (1783) officially ended the American Revolutionary War, a large piece of new territory was added to the United States. The Northwest Territory was composed of land south of the Great Lakes, encompassing the present-day states of Ohio, West Virginia, and Michigan. The new US Congress was worried about conflicts with Native Americans in this territory, as it lacked the funds to raise a military force to defend settlers. The Shawnee and Miami tribes were the most powerful in the area, and the Northwest Ordinance became the first US government recognition of Native American rights.


President George Washington wanted to establish the precedent of buying land from Native Americans rather than taking it through force to prove that the new United States was a fair and just nation. However, there was much political resistance to this generous treatment, especially since many Native Americans had been allied with the British during the Revolutionary War. In the early 1790s, hostilities in the Northwest Territory erupted when the British, who were still in possession of Canada, began supplying tribes with weaponry to help fend off settlers. President Washington was forced to send in the army to pacify the region in 1794.


Thomas Jefferson and Northeast Native Americans

A painting of Meriwether Lewis and James Clark with Native American guide Sacagawea during the Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Pacific Ocean, via Indiana University Southeast, New Albany


The era of Native American independence in the Northeastern United States drew to a close during the early decades of the republic. When Thomas Jefferson was the nation’s third President, his administration purchased the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon Bonaparte’s France, which had regained it from Spain in 1800. The Louisiana Purchase, which gave the United States land west to the Mississippi and north to Canada for $15 million, opened up a tremendous new area to settle. However, as in two previous centuries, this land was already home to many Native American tribes, setting the stage for decades of conflict.


Jefferson did not advocate “Indian removal” as did controversial future President Andrew Jackson in 1830 but did want to assimilate Native Americans into white culture. Although he personally praised Native Americans as brave and rugged, Jefferson believed that they needed European-style agriculture to become fully civilized. When Jefferson’s Lewis and Clark Expedition to the Pacific Ocean revealed the bounty of America’s new Louisiana Territory, he became focused on finding ways to access that land for settlement. His goal was to get tribes to sign treaties ceding their lands to the United States, which eventually resulted in roughly 200,000 square miles of land in nine present-day US states.

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By Owen RustMA Economics in progress w/ MPAOwen is a high school teacher and college adjunct in West Texas. He has an MPA degree from the University of Wyoming and is close to completing a Master’s in Finance and Economics from West Texas A&M. He has taught World History, U.S. History, and freshman and sophomore English at the high school level, and Economics, Government, and Sociology at the college level as a dual-credit instructor and adjunct. His interests include Government and Politics, Economics, and Sociology.