The American Revolution: The 13 British colonies rebelled because they resented the taxation without representation. They won the Revolutionary War — America’s new government was the envy of the world. The westward move of the pioneers and the loss of the Native Americans’ way of life was inevitable. Right? Kathleen DuVal sets the record straight in Independence Lost.
(2-8-2019) It wasn’t nearly as clear-cut as American history textbooks would have you believe. To begin with, there were many more than just “the” thirteen colonies in 1775, at the start of the American Revolution. In 1774 the General Congress of Deputies sent every British colony — from Nova Scotia to Jamaica — an invitation to join them in their opposition to the British empire. These colonies had to determine their most useful short-term and long-term allegiances. They RSVP’ed with a Thanks, but no thanks. For various reasons, they didn’t feel the need to get rid of the British.
In Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution, Kathleen Duval looks at all the players in the Revolutionary War along the Gulf Coast: in the two British colonies there — East and West Florida — and Louisiana, which had been French, and was Spanish and then French again during the Revolutionary War. The book follows several historical figures to make it real.
Not only were there more than thirteen British colonies, there were also more players than just the British versus the rebels, aided by the French. To begin with, of course, the Native Americans: Louisiana and the Floridas were inhabited by the Seminole, Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Kickapoo nations. In 1763 France ceded all its North-American colonies to Britain, which in turn gave Louisiana to Spain. Both the British and French armies had hired additional soldiers from other countries. So by 1775 Louisiana and the Floridas were home to all the above-mentioned tribes, plus Brits, French, Spaniards, Germans, Acadians, Irish, Scots. They were hunters, farmers, traders, planters, etc. And there were black slaves, runaway slaves and free people of color.
In 1763 the British had drawn two borders they promised not to cross: they wouldn’t go west of the Appalachians and they wouldn’t go further than fifteen miles north of the gulf coast in West Florida. The Creek and tribes further north found that the British largely kept to this promised Proclamation Line. Colonists regularly crossed the Appalachians and clashed with the tribes there, but when the latter complained to the British, they sent the colonists back over the line. It was generally in their interest that the British stay, to keep the settlers in check.
The Brits, Scots, Irish, etc. who had settled in the Floridas definitely wanted the British navy to stay. Many of them were loyalists and former soldiers who had fought on the British side in Georgia or the Carolinas. They were refugees; this was their safe haven. Also, the Spanish were eying the Floridas. The rebels in the Northeast were too far away and too busy fighting the British to also protect the settlers on the Gulf Coast from the Spanish and French.
The thirteen rebelling colonies’ beef with Britain was the unreasonable taxation without representation, and they resented the Proclamation Line. The white settlers in the Floridas didn’t have this issue. They got their money’s worth: protection of the British navy; new and enforced forts; trade with Europe and Africa; and peaceful interdependence with the Creek, Chickasaw and Choctaw, whose trade they welcomed, and who welcomed their goods in return.
Both the rebels and the British promised slaves their freedom if they fought on their side, but the rebels retracted that promise when they needed more men. East Florida, when it was under Spanish rule, had encouraged runaway slaves from Georgia to settle as freedmen in St. Augustine, as a buffer between the Spanish and the British colonies. When the British took over, they also acknowledged their freedom, and let them be. If the rebels won the Revolutionary War and kicked the British off the continent, these blacks would be enslaved again.
Louisiana was different, of course, because it was under Spanish rule, with many French who had stayed after the transition. It also had a large Acadian community (Cajuns) — refugees from French Canada once the British took over. Many had lost farms when they fled. They hated the British and sided with the rebels, who promised lots of land.
The French system of slavery was different from the British. Manumission was more common in Louisiana; slaves could buy themselves free; they were considered part of a plantation, not chattel that could be sold away, so families were more often able to stay closer together; old and sick slaves had to be cared for, rather than sold off; and many white planters around New Orleans had placées — black slave women they had freed and set up as their mistresses in little houses in New Orleans. Sons resulting from these arrangements were often sent to France to get an education, and they usually got their freedom, if not immediately, then after a number of years as an apprentice. Daughters often became placées as well. Though their freedom was limited, these free people of color definitely didn’t want the rebels to take over. Rebels coming down the Mississippi caught any blacks they could and sold them in Natchez or New Orleans to fund their revolution.
Slavery under the Spanish was more lenient again than the French Code Noir. So when Louisiana went to the Spanish Crown, and after the Revolutionary War, when the Floridas were Spanish again, slaves there had one day a week off, which they could use to make money to buy their freedom. Also, after the war, any slaves who had fought on the Spanish side were paid, so that money also went toward buying their freedom.
The Mississippi River was of major strategic importance to all sides. The Spanish only allowed trade by Spanish subjects from New Orleans, and only with the Spanish Empire. Traders and merchants found all sorts of loopholes, or they just smuggled goods across the Mississippi to trade them from Mobile in West Florida. Some rich New Orleans merchants opted to finance the rebels in the North, seeing the benefit of trade via the river with the farms and plantations in the Ohio Valley and beyond.
The British were ambivalent about their alliances with the Native Americans. The Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw sided with the British because they wanted the rebels to stay on their side of the Proclamation Line. The British aimed to quash the rebellion, not attack settlers. Creeks tended to attack encroaching settlers at night, killing those who fought back and running the rest off. The British Army thought they could channel that to create a diversion from the back, and tell the tribes to attack when and where it was most useful to them, but the Creeks continued to do their own thing. The British began to worry that these attacks would drive more settlers to the rebel side.
Cultural misunderstandings didn’t help matters. When the British asked for help, the tribes expected to be lavishly hosted and given many gifts. The British didn’t understand this, or felt that gifts given in the past were enough. A request for help could also take months to be answered, as the towns within the nations were quite autonomous, and the request had to go from town to town, each one debating whether to join the fight or not. Then, when they decided to join, and they went to the arranged location, which was an enormous logistical undertaking, the British were long gone, thinking months ago that they weren’t going to show up. And there was constant confusion about who represented whom. So, though the British and the indigenous nations lived in relative peace and interdependence, neither felt they could completely count on the other side to have their back.
For the nations along the Mississippi the Proclamation Line wasn’t that relevant, or so they thought. The colonies along the Atlantic coast seemed far away. The Spanish and the British both made deals with the tribes along the river — the British wanted them to keep the rebels away, and the Spanish wanted to keep an eye on the British. But none of the tribes wanted to fight a European empire or other nations. The Chickasaw lived along the Mississippi on the British side, but wanted peace above all else, and the Alabama were historically focused more on the Spanish, even though they were part of the Creek nation. So it was complicated.
Payamataha, lead foreign policy negotiator for the Chickasaw, wanted to keep the peace with all around. The Creek and the British wanted him to fight any rebels coming down the Mississippi. He promised he would, but didn’t. The Northern Confederacy wanted him to fight the rebels and the French, but Payamataha didn’t want the bloodshed. When the Viriginians asked him to side with the rebels and the French, however, he put his foot down and told them that anyone encroaching on Chickasaw land would be killed.
So those were all the different interests in a nutshell. In any conflict, strong unity among allies with similar interests is key, and such strngth can only be achieved if some independence is sacrificed for the greater good. Here was the rub.
When the French joined the rebels, and began to get pally with the Spanish next door in Louisiana, the British sent troops to protect the loyalists in the Floridas, but since they were stretched thin, they sent the least experienced and disciplined. The colonists would also need their own militias, but most of these folks were done fighting, and the peace with the surrounding tribes worked, so promises of land by the governor of West Florida only resulted in a few hundred men. The Creek, Chickasaw and Choctaw promised to support them in any fighting against the Spanish, but that was iffy.
The lead negotiator for the Creek, Alexander McGillivray (Scottish father) wanted a Creek Confederacy, but he couldn’t keep the tribes united. They were divided in Lower Creek and Upper Creek, and the Alabama were Creek but also saw themselves as independent Alabamas. Traditionally each Creek town exercised its own foreign policy with colonists and surrounding tribes and nations; now McGillivray wanted a central foreign policy — no decisions that didn’t go through him first. The fiercely independent Creek didn’t like this — towns near Georgia occasionally compromised with the settlers when they felt it was in their interest.
McGillivray also attempted to unite the Creek, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Kickapoo, and Seminole into a Southern Confederacy, but here, too, he came up against each nation’s slightly varying interests. The Chickasaw and Kickapoo didn’t get along; the Choctaw, Chickasaw and Kickapoo were lived west and the Proclamation Line along the Appalachians seemed far away; Payamataha was reluctant to join the Creek in a war against the Georgians. The nations saw the weak British presence in the Gulf once the Revolution really got underway, so they hedged their bets, realizing they might have to negotiate a peace with the Spanish, French, or even the rebels in the near future. When McGillivray tried to get an army of Creeks and Choctaws together to help the British fight the Spanish and French at Pensacola during a siege, many refused, afraid they might come face to face with fellow Creeks and Choctaws who had joined the other side.
The war was over in 1783; the Americans had won their independence. However, even though they had run off the British, most people believed that the United States wouldn’t last more than a few years, tops.
As the indigenous nations predicted, as soon as the British were gone, white settlers began pouring over the Appalachians like never before. The Chickasaw fought them tooth and nail. When they wanted to meet with the American president about the issue, two Congressmen met them instead. To the Chickasaw, this conveyed that the United States wasn’t serious about a peace deal, and the fact that the settlers wanted to move further away from their political center made America look weak. The Chickasaw didn’t think the new country would last, and expected any negotiations to be temporary.
Meanwhile, McGillivray of the Creek nation sought a combined confederacy of Northern and Southern nations to fight the encroaching Americans. The Northern Confederacy was ready but the Chickasaw were still not willing to go to war. The Creek remained determined to drive all the Americans from their land, but some of the Chickasaw and Choctaw entered into peace treaties. This led to battles between the nations.
The Spanish, who now had Florida again, provided the Creek with weapons and ammunition to fight the Americans, but only to maintain the border between Florida and Georgia; once the Americans were driven beyond it, they considered their mission accomplished and stopped the arms supply.
Settlers west of the Proclamation Line seemed far removed from the politics east of the mountains. They felt that they weren’t really represented in their state governments; they were taxed without getting much in return. They weren’t protected against attacks from the tribes whose land they had taken, but they couldn’t negotiate their own peace either. The infrastructure to the east coast ports was terrible and to many it made more sense to ally themselves with the Spanish or French and export their goods from the Gulf Coast ports via the Mississippi.
So, for a short while in the 1780s, the present-day United States consisted of all the independent Indian nations; the thirteen United States; folks who tried to break off into more states (like the State of Franklin) or even countries (Cumberland, Kentucky, the Trans-Oconee Republic), though Thomas Jefferson wouldn’t hear of it; Spanish Florida and French Louisiana, with both the French and Spanish looking to expand; and for a while Britain hoped to get the Floridas back. In the end, Britain gave up and the French and Spanish ceded their territories to America because they were too busy fighting revolutions (Saint Domingue and French)and other wars (Napoleonic) in Europe and elsewhere.
In short (here I’m mixing metaphors like a boss): there were many moving pieces and for every party involved, trying to keep everyone on the same page was like herding cats. Independence Lost shows that the United States ended up in its present form because the Americans, of all the whites — British, Spanish, French, and Americans — had the least respect for the Proclamation Line. They were the least willing to live in peaceful interdependence with the Indian nations; they took land by brute force and — thanks to a growing flow of immigrants from Europe — by sheer numbers. Also, they weren’t fighting any wars elsewhere in the world, yet.
DuVal concludes that for many people, the American War of Independence brought anything but. Loyalists in the Floridas lost their land and businesses when the Americans took over; many fled to the Caribbean. The Indian nations lost their independence and most of their land (except for some limited autonomy on reservations). Women could have assets and money apart from their husbands under Spanish rule, and run businesses; after becoming American that was mostly over. The enslaved were worse off, with generally no more self-emancipations or manumissions. Being independent American citizens was reserved for white males, for the foreseeable future.
- Barbara Backer-Gray (Me!). “Free People of Color: Before Abolition It Was a Freedom with Qualifications.” The Big No-No: An Outsider on American Fascism, 2014, 2018, https://thebignono.com/free-people-of-color-before-abolition-it-was-a-freedom-with-qualifications/
- Historic regions of the United States, Wikipedia, https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Historic_regions_of_the_United_States
- Kathleen DuVal. Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution, Penguin / Random House, 2016.
- James W. Loewen. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. The New Press, 1995.
Header Image: mine