War of 1812 holds key to Native Americans' "banishment"

The War of 1812 is often called "The Forgotten War," but to Native Americans, it marked an indelible turning point in their history. Native Americans sided with the British in their conflict against the Americans, and this alliance "made clear what every Indian and colonist already knew, that there would be no peace until one side or the other was completely destroyed," said David Koch, an associate professor of history at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport. Mr. Koch is presenting a talk on the subject of Native Americans in the war on Sunday, Nov. 4, at the Wilton Historical Society, the second in a series about the war, entitled "A Star-Spangled Nation." The series is co-sponsored by the Wilton Library and moderated by Bulletin columnist Steve Hudspeth.

When the U.S. emerged victorious from the war, with westward expansion as one of the stakes, it resulted in "the Indians' destruction," said Mr. Koch, who has also lectured for historical organizations across the country and in Europe. "There is no question, the alliance with the English destroyed any slim chance the natives might have had to retain any lands in the east."

Why did the Native Americans side with the British?

"They sided with the British because the Americans were dangerous to them," Mr. Koch said, in an interview with The Bulletin. "The Natives already knew that Americans were land-hungry, and they saw the opportunity of a strong ally, one that might conceivably hold back the raging tide of settlement that was encroaching on their traditional lands. That being said, some tribes sided with the Americans, too."

Mr. Koch said no tribes in Connecticut were involved in the war. "The last Indian war we had was King Philip's War, in 1675-76."

As for how many Native American warriors fought the Americans, Mr. Koch said, "There's no way of knowing exactly how many warriors were there — they came and went, and participation was not universal in the tribes. It numbers in the thousands, certainly. Americans were terrified of the Natives, who fought hard and from cover, with the intent of frightening the Americans from coming west."

Essentially, Mr. Koch said, "The War of 1812 gave the Americans every excuse to kill everyone who stood in their way among the Natives."

Among the more famous Native American warriors were "Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa," according to Mr. Koch. "They were brothers and leaders of a religious-military combination that created a broad coalition of native tribes against the Americans. Tecumseh is considered one of the greatest Indian leaders of that or any time ... What is amazing is the fact that he was able to band Natives together at all."

Mr. Koch said "most native tribes lived in a state of perpetual prejudice and warfare with each other. This made it easier for the Americans to divide and conquer in the 16 and 1700s. But this was no different, and to a point, continues to this day."

To the Native Americans, it was a battle "to prevent Americans from coming into their land," said Mr. Koch. "Therefore, they fought to terrorize — men, women, and children were targets, and the battles were vicious — babies being killed horribly, scalping, torture and mutilation. They also helped by scouting and providing intimidation. The British found that just by invoking the names of the Natives, they could get Americans to talk and at times, surrender, without much fighting."

However, the Americans successfully defeated the alliance of the Native Americans and the British, which led to tragic consequences for the Native Americans, including the final banishing of all tribes beyond the Mississippi. As a result of the War of 1812, President Andrew Jackson passed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, and "this decreed that the largest and most challenging of the tribes had to be removed, mainly to Oklahoma," said Mr. Koch. "The tribes out west were crowded by the refugees and displacements, but by now, disease had ravaged them, too. They were not so much affected by the wars, as by the sight of the people fleeing from the path of the Americans."

The Star Spangled Series takes its name from the fact that Francis Scott Key wrote the Star Spangled Banner during the War of 1812, while watching the battle of Fort McHenry.

The next lecture in this series will take place on Jan. 27 at the Wilton Library, with Walter Woodward, entitled "The War Connecticut Hated."

Information: 203-762-3950.