Native Americans in the Revolutionary War: Who Did They Side With?

Everyone knows there was a clear split between colonists during the American Revolution. What’s often overlooked is the turmoil Indigenous Americans faced in choosing which side to support.

Apr 5, 2024By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History

native americans revolutionary war side


Indigenous people of the American continent faced severe disruption from the moment European colonists stepped onto it. With them, colonists brought irrevocable changes that forever altered the lives of the Native Americans. Though decisions were oftentimes made for them through firepower, Indigenous tribes were able to occasionally make decisions about their path for the future. One of the most significant was deciding whether to support the British or the Patriots during the American Revolution. Indigenous people had to gamble on which side would have their best interests at heart.


A Brief History

Negotiations between British soldiers and Indigenous allies. Source: American Battlefield Trust


Most people, or at least most Americans, know the basic backstory of the American Revolution. The British colonists living in the future United States grew frustrated with the British government’s excessive taxation and their lack of representation in Parliament and in other government matters. These troubles had been brewing since the end of the French and Indian War and the Proclamation of 1763, which many colonists felt placed unfair restrictions on their expansion.


Corrupt colonial governors further divided the people from their king across the Atlantic Ocean, and in 1776, the Americans declared independence from Britain. However, by this time, the actual fighting of the Revolution had already begun, with the first shots being fired at Lexington, then Concord, Massachusetts on April 19, 1775. The colonists living in the Americas were divided on the issue of loyalty, with approximately one-third of the population choosing to stay in support of the British crown. These people were known as Loyalists, while those who supported the colonial cause were known as Patriots.


Indigenous Status

indigenous british soldiers
A painting of British soldiers with an Indigenous ally by J. Redondo, Source: Pinterest


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However, the colonists were not the only ones who had to choose a side, nor were they the only ones who had a stake in the outcome of the Revolutionary War. The Indigenous peoples who lived in the Eastern part of the continent had already had their lives disrupted by the influx of colonialism, and the outcome of this war would affect their future.


Due to conflicts such as King Philip’s War, Many tribes had already been pushed westward or largely decimated. Others, such as the Iroquois, or Haudenosaunee, Confederacy, had expanded their territory through warfare in order to maintain economic and military alliances with British colonists during the preceding centuries.


Other Native peoples had chosen or were forced to give up their traditional ways of life and had assimilated into colonial society. Still others lived near colonial towns and maintained trade relationships with the colonists. Some tribes continued to fight with colonists intermittently over land and resources.


native american revolutionary war saratoga
A painting of the Battle of Saratoga, which continued a turning point of the Revolutionary War, with Indigenous fighters featured prominently. Source: Brewminate


The types of interactions between Indigenous peoples and British colonists varied widely and played a role in how this war would affect them all. There were more than 250,000 Native Americans east of the Mississippi River when the war began, and they were members of more than 80 distinct nations, further adding to the variability in their decision-making regarding alliances. Regardless of their affiliation, Indigenous people recognized that their land and future were at stake in relation to the outcome of the Revolutionary War. As both the British and Patriots began to call on Native tribes for support, intertribal conflict arose.


The Haudenosaunee

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The Tree of Peace is a traditional Haudenosaunee symbol. Source: Tuscarora Woodworks


The Haudenosaunee Confederacy, one of the oldest working democracies in the world, was originally made up of five tribes, with a sixth added in 1722. The Oneida, Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora originally decided to remain neutral in the Revolutionary War.


However, as the war progressed, the Confederacy became divided. Some wished to side with the British, as they had in the past during the fur trade and the French and Indian War. The British attempted to sweeten the deal by promising to protect tribal lands in exchange for Haudenosaunee support. Some nations in the Confederacy had close relationships with local colonists and wished to side with their neighbors, while others wanted to remain neutral in a conflict they felt was none of their business. This led to a divide in the Confederacy that would weaken it internally and permanently.


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Thayendanegea portrait by Gilbert Stuart, 1785. Source: New Yorker


Due to closer relationships with the colonists, including influence from a missionary named Samuel Kirkland, the Oneida would break and become the first allies of the colonial cause. They provided America with troops and supplies throughout the war, even fighting against their own former allies, the Seneca, Cayuga, and Mohawk, who chose to side with the British.


The Mohawk had a strong trading relationship with the British and were suffering from colonial influx into their lands, which made their decision to support England an easy one. Thayendanegea, also known by his English-given name Joseph Brant, was incredibly influential in this decision and played a large role in Mohawk-British relations. Thayendanegea’s sister, Molly, was the wife of Sir William Johnson, the British Superintendent of Indian Affairs, which exposed him to British culture from an early age. He helped organize concerted raids with combined parties of Loyalists and Mohawk warriors on American settlements in New York and Pennsylvania and was eventually made a captain in the British army.


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Engraving titled Washington and Fairfax and a War-Dance by John Rogers, 1857. Source: Mount Vernon


Mohawk raids often led to retaliatory attacks by the Continental Army. An example is a campaign that was initiated by General George Washington in 1779, who dispatched General John Sullivan into Haudenosaunee lands with the mission to destroy villages, crops, and other resources. It was a large, well-planned operation with the goal of stopping Mohawk raids. It was successful enough that it earned Washington the Haudenosaunee nickname “Town Destroyer.”


The Stockbridge-Mohicans

native american revolutionary war stockbridge mohican
The great seal of the Stockbridge-Munsee band of Mohican Indians, photo by Nancy Eve Cohen. Source: Connecticut Public


The Stockbridge-Mohicans were made up of a multi-Indigenous community of Mohican, Wappinger, and Housatonic peoples in the area of Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Many had converted to Christianity with the arrival of settlers in the 1730s and adopted European customs, living alongside the colonists.


Therefore, when war arrived, it was an easy decision for the Stockbridge-Mohicans to join the Patriots in their cause. Members of the Stockbridge-Mohicans were present when the “shot heard round the world” was fired at Lexington and volunteered as minutemen in Concord. General George Washington was authorized by Congress to actively recruit them in 1776, and they served throughout the war on the battlefield and in intelligence roles.


The Cherokee

seal cherokee nation
The current seal of the Cherokee Nation. Source: Cherokee Nation


The Cherokee were inspired to aid the British during the Revolutionary War due to frequent encroachment from settlers along the borders of the Carolinas and other states in the South. Cherokee forces, organized in part by John Stuart, the British superintendent of the south, began attacks on white settlements, particularly along the North Carolina and Virginia frontiers.


In retaliation for these attacks, the Continental Army went on a punitive expedition called the Cherokee Campaign of 1776. As a result of this campaign, more than fifty Cherokee towns were destroyed during the summer of 1776, devastating the people. This left the Cherokee ready to negotiate for peace. Treaties were signed between the Patriots and the Cherokee, and these would mark the first (but certainly not the last) instances of the Cherokee being forced to cede land to the future United States.


This was not unsettled land that was given up but sites that the Cherokee people had occupied for centuries. These negotiations not only left the Cherokee even weaker as a whole but caused internal conflict between generations, particularly older, tired leaders and young warriors who wanted to continue to fight. Some moved to Tennessee and parts of Northern Alabama, where they continued to fight the colonists until the end of the war.


No Winners

native american revolutionary war yorktown
The Surrender of Cornwallis by John Trumbull, 1787. The British surrender at Yorktown would not be the end of the fighting for Indigenous nations. Source: US History


The Revolutionary War would not end well for America’s Indigenous people, regardless of which side they fought on. Although the Battle of Yorktown in 1781 is largely considered the last major battle of the war, fights on the frontier were far from over. In fact, west of the Appalachian mountains, 1782 was known as the “Bloody Year.”


Even the Treaty of Paris in 1783 did not end the bloodshed that would continue to take place between Native Americans and European settlers well into the 19th century and even beyond. Many had lost their homes, croplands, hunting grounds, family members, and friends to the Revolution. Traditional tribal alliances had been shaken up, strained, and broken. Some tribes had been forever destroyed.


painting treaty of paris
The writing & signing of the Treaty of Paris 1783 included no Indigenous input. Source: American Battlefield Trust


The Treaty of Paris is the document that signified the conclusion of the American Revolution. However, it was written and signed without any input or consent from the Indigenous tribes that participated in the war on either side, even though it affected them greatly.


For example, as a result of the treaty, the British gave up their lands in the new United States as part of the treaty. As a result, the Mohawk, who had supported them diligently throughout the war, lost nearly all of their traditional homelands and were soon relegated to reservations.


The support that many Indigenous nations had given the British during the war was used as another excuse to displace them. The British had abandoned their Native allies and now left them weakened and without resources in the face of a new enemy nation that would rapidly grow in power.


Eventually, the groups that supported the revolutionaries would also lose their homelands as they were moved aside to make room for America’s expansion and new settlements. The role of Indigenous people in the Revolutionary War stands as another chapter of United States history that is often neglected yet crucial for honest discourse and understanding.

Author Image

By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”