In 1795 the United States struck a landmark peace agreement with Native Americans in the Northwest territory. While proving advantageous for the United States, just how did the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 affect the Native Americans?
Peace in the Ohio River Valley was a primary goal of the Washington administration. The young nation could not afford to have endless wars with Native Americans along the frontier while attempting to establish itself amongst Western nations.
Unfortunately, land-hungry settlers made Washington’s job extremely difficult. Federal authorities had little control over the settlers and did not express a desire to stem the westward momentum.
Conflict was inevitable and after five years of warfare, the two sides agreed to the monumental Treaty of Greenville in 1795 that forever changed the landscape of the Ohio River Valley. Although peace was achieved as a result, it would prove temporary when the United States failed to uphold its treaty obligations.
What Caused the Treaty of Greenville?
The primary cause of the 1795 Treaty of Greenville was conflict between US settlers and Native Americans along the frontier, particularly in the Northwest Territory. The treaty culminated nearly a decade of war between the two parties and helped lead to a temporary peace in the region.
The origin of the conflict in the Ohio River Valley dated back decades. Following the conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763, the British obtained French lands in the region.
The violence from Pontiac’s Rebellion of 1763 helped convince the British to announce the Royal Proclamation of 1763, hoping to stem the flow of settlers into the region and thus avoid future conflict. Soon after the land changed hands once again after the colonies rebelled in the American Revolution.
The United States organized the land into the Northwest Territory under the Northwest Ordinance Act of 1787.
Despite promises made in the 1783 Treaty of Paris, the British did not evacuate many of their frontier forts in this territory. Instead, they aided native attacks against American settlers forcing their way into the region.1
Organized violence erupted in 1786 with the formation of the Northwest Confederacy of Native American nations to oppose United States aggression. The Confederacy scored major victories in 1790 and 1791, leading the United States to reconsider its approach.
President Washington appointed General “Mad” Anthony Wayne to lead the army amid the disastrous defeats. Wayne took two years to train his troops in native-style combat, and re-emerged in 1794 with a critical victory at the important Battle of Fallen Timbers.
The Native American defeat and abandonment of British support convinced the natives to meet for peace talks. In 1795 Wayne met with chiefs and warriors from over a dozen Native American nations and eventually came to an agreement now called the Treaty of Greenville.
How did the Treaty of Greenville Affect Native Americans?
The Treaty of Greenville was important as it affected Native Americans by requiring them to cede lands in the Northwest Territory, it guaranteed peaceful relations, promised goods and annuities in perpetuity, and established a boundary line between natives and settlers.
As with most treaties between the United States and Native American nations, the Treaty of Greenville was not destined to last.
While Native Americans hoped it would be a permanent agreement, United States leaders knew it to only be a temporary fixture while they worked to obtain the rest of native territory in the region.
US leaders did not have the political clout, nor the willpower, to defend Native Americans against the thirst of land-hungry settlers. Despite the obligations noted in the treaty, the United States failed to live up to its end of the bargain.
Ceded Land in Northwest Territory
Perhaps the most important method that the Treaty of Greenville affected Native Americans was how it required them to cede a large amount of their land in the Northwest Territory. The land cession included major tracts in Ohio, as well as other territory in modern-day Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan.
In total the native land cession amounted to about 25,000 sq. miles, primarily in southern and eastern Ohio. All land in Ohio to the south and east of the Cuyahoga river was now open for settlement as Native tribes were forced to relocate west.1
Though the land in Ohio composed the majority, the treaty also specifically listed a total of sixteen other tracts of land scattered along the frontier to be ceded to the United States. Some of these tracts of land were as small as two square miles and seemingly inconsequential.1
In reality the treaty formalized United States possession of the tracts of land that already held existing forts or trading posts. These trading posts were critical for frontier trade, particularly the lucrative fur trade.
Some of these tracts of land would later go on to form major cities we know of today. The cities of Detroit and Chicago were included amongst these tiny parcels.2
“One piece of land six miles square, at the mouth of Chikago river, emptying into the southwest end of lake Michigan, where a fort formerly stood.”
Another important provision in the treaty was Article V which guaranteed the right of pre-emption to the United States. In effect, if the Native Americans ever wished to sell their existing lands in the future, the United States had the first right to purchase.3
Even at treaty signing US leaders were already planning for the day where they could obtain more native lands.
Guaranteed Peaceful Relations
Another aspect of the Treaty of Greenville was how it guaranteed peaceful relations between the United States and the Native American nations. The treaty itself was unique in how it began:
“To put an end to a destructive war, to settle all controversies, and to restore harmony and friendly intercourse between the said United States and Indian tribes…”1
Both the United States and the Native American nations truly wanted peace. The United States desired peace over warfare as peace and diplomacy on the frontier consumed far fewer resources than perpetual war for the young nation.
As for the Native Americans, their leaders and people were tired of the near-constant warfare over the prior several decades. For some of the older leaders, such as Chief Blue Jacket of the Shawnee and Little Turtle of the Miami, war was all they had known.
The desire for peace was widespread among the nations as evidenced by the fact that some leaders traveled from as far away as Illinois and Michigan to be included in the peace negotiations. The Pottawattamies traveled from as far away as Lake Michigan and had little in the way of direct involvement in the war, yet they sought peace and friendship nonetheless.2
Chief New-Corn of the Pottawattamie said as much to General Wayne and also issued a plea to the United States:
“My young men… henceforth will view the Americans as their only friends… Do not deceive us in the manner that the French, the British, and the Spaniards have done”2
Jay’s Treaty of 1794 also had a large influence over the peace talks. News that the British were now officially evacuating the frontier forts meant the Native Americans no longer had a key ally to supply them in their fight.
Promised Goods and Annuity in Perpetuity
One key aspect of the Treaty of Greenville was how the United States promised to deliver immediate goods to the nations, as well as an annuity in perpetuity.
This provision appealed to the tribes as recompense for the lands they were forced to give away. The nations received ~$20,000 worth of goods and supplies upon signing the treaty that could be dispersed among their people.
These goods were critical to the survival of the Native Americans as constant warfare had devastated their resources and ability to effectively survive. Furthermore, the nations received promises that the United States would deliver between $500-$1,000 worth of goods in annual annuities in perpetuity.
The inclusion of payment for land, as well as the annuities was an important shift for American policy regarding Native Americans. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in the early 1790s it allowed for the specific change from “war to bribery” when seeking native lands.3
The payment of goods and annuities would go on to be disastrous for Native Americans. The annuities in particular gave the United States a permanent lever to help control the Native American nations. Once given, the gifts could also be withheld as needed.
Each year that the United States delivered the annuities, the natives became more dependent upon them. Not only did the people become dependent upon the gifts for survival as their land continued to shrink, but native chiefs also depended upon distributing these goods among their people to maintain their own influence.4
The annuity system became an effective way for the United States to control the Native Americans on the frontier by making them more dependent upon the federal government.
Established Boundary Line between Natives and Settlers
A final way that the Treaty of Greenville affected the Native Americans was by establishing a boundary line between the native peoples and settlers.
The so-called Greenville Treaty Line split Ohio, leaving the southern and eastern portions open for settlement, while reserving the northwest portion for Native Americans. The Native American nations may have thought the new boundary lines to be permanent, but the United States planned otherwise.
In the years immediately following the treaty the United States proceeded to further reorganize the Northwest territory. These new parcels of territories included lands that still belonged to the Native Americans per the Treaty of Greenville.3
Another key component of the treaty’s boundary lines was how it allowed for free passage through native country between US forts and new scattered parcels of land throughout the frontier. Native Americans also granted free passage to the United States through harbors and rivers along the Great Lakes.1
Free passage was a critical component to help the United States control trade and transportation routes along the frontier and ultimately help settle them more quickly.
As for Native American rights to their lands, the treaty was filled with contradictions that were bound to lead to future conflict. Article VI of the treaty gave natives the right to “drive off the settler, or punish him in such manner as they shall think fit.”4
However, Article IX then stated that natives could take no revenge or retaliation against United States citizens for wrongs committed against them. The US was to be responsible for punishment to said citizens, though such oversight and punishment was rarely, if ever enforced.
Despite its intentions, the Treaty of Greenville was not meant to last.
To recap, the important 1795 Treaty of Greenville primarily affected Native Americans for the following reasons:
- Ceded Native American land in the Northwest Territory
- Guaranteed Peaceful Relations
- Promised Goods and Future Annuities
- Established Boundary Line between Natives and Settlers
While the treaty did indeed bring the peace so desired by the Native Americans, it would not last. The United States failed to stem the tide of settlers flooding the frontier and inevitably conflict once again arose as settlers crossed the Greenville Treaty Line.
The United States’ policy on the frontier also experienced a marked shift following the election of 1800 and the implementation of Jeffersonian beliefs and ideals.
Jefferson hoped to purchase as much land as possible, and “civilize” the Native Americans in the process by teaching them western culture. The encroachment into the Native American way of life gave rise to the Shawnee leader Tecumseh to once again form a Native American confederacy to combat settlers along the frontier.
The conflict eventually came to a head at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, and continued on into the War of 1812. Despite its good intentions, the Treaty of Greenville ultimately just delayed the complete removal of Native Americans east of the Mississippi River.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Grover, Frank E. “Indian Treaties Affecting Lands in the Present State of Illinois.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984), vol. 8, no. 3, 1915, pp. 379–419. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40193804.
2) Kent, Charles A., and A. M. “The Treaty of Greenville. August 3, 1795.” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society (1908-1984), vol. 10, no. 4, 1918, pp. 568–84. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40190685.
3) Horsman, Reginald. “American Indian Policy in the Old Northwest, 1783-1812.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 18, no. 1, 1961, pp. 35–53. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/1922806.
4) Owens, Robert M. “Jeffersonian Benevolence on the Ground: The Indian Land Cession Treaties of William Henry Harrison.” Journal of the Early Republic, vol. 22, no. 3, 2002, pp. 405–35. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3124810.