Who Lost the War of 1812? Indigenous Peoples

Authored by Allison Lang

Peter Stuart Hay, Secretary of the General Society of the War of 1812, declares his right to membership by providing evidence that his father, Peter Hay, fought in the war. This is the first page of the very first application to the General Society, dated July 4, 1876.

The General Society of the War of 1812 is a gentlemen’s organization exclusive to those who can trace their ancestry back to veterans of the conflict. Their website, steeped in patriotism, proudly displays a photograph from their 2019 meeting in Washington D.C., complete with 56 smiling, white faces. The General Society’s stated purpose is to “perpetuate [the War’s] memories and victories” (General Society of the War of 1812, n.d.). What is glaringly absent from the memories they preserve are the indigenous perspectives of this time period that make the story much richer and more complex.

            A common narrative of the War of 1812, one that the General Society embraces, is that it was a glorious “Second War for Independence” (Ostler 2019, 151). The fact that the “Star Spangled Banner” was written about the Battle of Fort McHenry definitely adds to this romanticization (179). This narrative fails to address the intense racial hostility between the American settlers and Native peoples that culminated in this conflict (Cleves et al. 2012). A horrific manifestation of this hostility was when American soldiers flayed and tanned the corpse of a man thought to be Tecumseh, a Native American war hero and leader, and kept strands of his skin as mementos. The War was indeed a vicious struggle to take more land from indigenous peoples and to remove Great Britain as their ally (Cleves et al. 2012).

Evidence for this motivation can even be found in President James Madison’s (1812) address to Congress to declare war. Initially he emphasizes Great Britain’s threats to American freedom and independence. But Madison (1812) goes on to focus on another, darker motivation for waging war: Great Britain’s alliance with “savages.”

            Of all parties involved in the War of 1812, the Native peoples suffered the most devastating consequences. When Great Britain and its Native allies were conquered in the Battle of Thames, it paved the way for U.S. expansion into Native territory (Tiro 2015). The defeat of Native nations allowed the U.S. government to negotiate treaties that forced them off their land (Fixico, n.d.). These exploitative treaties established reservations west of the Mississippi, and although the U.S. did not formally adopt a policy of outright Native removal until 1830, the momentum to force these indigenous peoples off their lands strengthened during the War of 1812 (Bowes 2012). 

            Although it is appealing to frame this conflict as a glorious victory over Great Britain, fought by brave patriots as a second push for independence, this view ignores the racial context this war existed in. It is important to remember the unimaginable suffering, starvation, and death that resulted from the policies this conflict inspired, including the Trail of Tears (Ostler 2019). While the ancestors of The General Society of the War of 1812 won new lands to raise their families on and lived the true American dream, indigenous peoples were forced to suffer on unfamiliar and desolate landscapes, far from the sacred lands of their ancestors. 

References

Bowes, John P. 2012. “Transformation and Transition: American Indians and the War of 1812 in the Lower Great Lakes.” Journal of Military History 76, no. 4 (October): 1129-1146. https://search-ebscohost-com.jerome.stjohns.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=aph&AN=80001379&site=ehost-live

Cleves, Rachel Hope, Nicole Eustace, Paul Gilje, Matthew Rainbow Hale, Cecilia Morgan, Jason M. Opal, Lawrence A. Peskin, and Alan Taylor. 2012. “Interchange: The War of 1812.” The Journal of American History 99, no. 2 (September): 520-555. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44306807

Fixico, Donald L. 2017. “Native Nations Contend With the Legacy of the War of 1812.” National Parks Service. Updated August 14, 2017. https://www.nps.gov/articles/the-legacy-of-the-war-of-1812-in-tribal-communities.htm

General Society of the War of 1812. n.d. “Preamble.” Accessed October 10, 2021. https://gswar1812.org/

Madison, James. 1812. “Special Message to Congress on the Foreign Policy Crisis: War Message.” Transcript of speech delivered in Washington, D.C., June 1, 1812. https://millercenter.org/the-presidency/presidential-speeches/june-1-1812-special-message-congress-foreign-policy-crisis-war

Ostler, Jeffrey. 2019. Surviving Genocide: Native Nations and the United States from the American Revolution to Bleeding Kansas. New Haven: Yale University Press. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvgc629z.12

Tiro, Karim M. 2015. “The View from Piqua Agency: The War of 1812, the White River Delawares and the Origins of Indian Removal.” Journal of the Early Republic 35, no. 1 (Spring): 24-54. https://doi.org/10.1353/jer.2015.0006

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