Courtesy The American Revolution Center
General George Washington’s Continental Army’s march in to Valley Forge as painted by William T. Trego, 1883.

What Gen. Washington Learned from Native Warriors: Indians and the Colonial Army

Steve Russell

The United States Army celebrates its 240th birthday on June 14, dating the beginning of organized American arms from that date in 1775, when the Second Continental Congress declared the mobilized militias of the colonies to be the “Continental Army.” That declaration was at the time a mere paper shuffle that put no more warriors in the field than were already there, the same warriors who had humiliated the British Redcoats at Concord.

The following day, Congress turned over command of the newly christened forces to George Washington, a veteran of the French and Indian War. During that American branch of what Europeans called the Seven Years’ War, Washington served as an officer in the Virginia Militia, fighting against Indian adversaries and with Indian allies.

While Indians picked sides according to perceived tribal interests, they had more impact allied with the French, who had always been more willing than the British to transfer firearms, gunpowder, and shot. In addition, the French were more often trappers who needed Indian guides and therefore were more likely to learn indigenous languages and to marry in. The British were more likely to clear land and evict the former occupants.

The British were also more likely to view Indian battle tactics as not the way gentlemen should fight. Indians would take cover when reloading rather than stand in the open and take fire. Some British military men perceived this as cowardice, while the Indian tendency to resort to knives and hatchets at close quarters was viewed, somewhat inconsistently, as barbaric fearlessness. Major Washington watched and learned and, when he fought the British in the revolution, used what he had learned.

The colonial wars for North America continued through the Revolutionary War and afterward as the British, French, and Spanish disputed various borders on inaccurate maps. Indians continued to ally themselves with this or that European power or the young United States, depending on what appeared to serve tribal interests.

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson bought Louisiana Territory from Napoleon, who had gotten it from the Spanish. Under international law at the time, what the U.S. bought was the first right to purchase what land the indigenous occupants were willing to abandon for money or trade goods.

The Great Plains was, at the time, an obstacle to uniting the U.S. holdings under one government. Tall prairie grasses inhabited soil no plow had broken as far as the eye could see and moved with the wind like an ocean. Only the great bison herds and the “horse Indians” who made their living from the bison could cross excepting ancient trade routes along the rivers.

With the borders of U.S. influence greatly expanded on paper, the Plains Indians had their first major military conflicts with the colonists when the colonists attempted to make the paper reflect reality. Since First Contact, the Spanish had proved unable to keep track of their livestock and the Plains Indians had become splendid and skilled cavalry. Indians, however, were still fighting on both sides.

The Great Sioux Nation dominated the northern plains. The Northern Cheyenne were Sioux allies, but at the Greasy Grass Fight, the Indian fighter George Armstrong Custer would have survived had he taken the advice of his Crow and Arikara scouts.

After Greasy Grass, the voices of the scouts were ignored as much as those of the victorious tribes because their opinions of Custer did not jibe with the heroic spin being placed on the “Last Stand.” The scouts considered the newly deceased hero to be vainglorious, reckless, and even a poor shot.

The southern plains were up for grabs among Natives until the Comanche entered into a long-term alliance with the Kiowa. That alliance dominated for many years, playing off Americans, Mexicans, and Texians (as they were called then) against each other. Still, enemies of the Comanche and Kiowa rode with the colonial armies, most famously the Tonkawa, who were nearly wiped out in 1862 in a mass killing some Comanches claim was retribution for their scouting service but the colonial history books claim was an importation of the Civil War to Indian Territory.

It was during the U.S. Civil War that the Plains Indians enjoyed their last years of unquestioned hegemony. The U.S. Army was too busy in fratricidal struggle with the Confederacy to concentrate on clearing the Plains for settlement. When the Civil War ended in 1865, service in the U.S. Army became identified with Indian fighting.

Quanah Parker surrendered in 1875, Geronimo in 1886, and the shooting part of the Indian wars ended ignominiously for the Army at the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890, where Medals of Honor were awarded for the mass killing of noncombatants whose only crime had been decamping the reservation.

The U.S. government handed off the task of separating Indians from their property from the warriors to the lawyers, where it continues to this day. Indians, heirs of warrior cultures, found many customary rites of passage for young men no longer available. From the time the shooting part of the Indian wars ended, young men from all tribes voted with their bodies that an attack on the United States was an attack on the tribal nations within.

While Indians, not being U.S. citizens, were not supposed to be subject to conscription, many were in fact drafted in WWI, but most of the 10,000 or so Indian warriors were volunteers in a struggle that saw the first use of Indian “code talkers” to enable American units to communicate over open radio channels. Indian service to the U.S. in WWI, and particularly the stories of unlawful conscription, figured prominently in the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924.

While it’s unlikely that very many young Indians—or young Americans generally, for that matter—ever read Adolf Hitler’s blueprint for himself and Germany, Mein Kampf, it was plain in those pages that Indians had a dog in the fight in WWII far beyond their record of defending the U.S. Had the Nazis prevailed, Indians were marked for servitude at best and extermination at worst.

It was in the Pacific Theater of WWII that the Navajo Code Talkers earned a place in U.S. military history that they were almost denied because of the secrecy surrounding the program. Many of the code-talking Marines did live to see their exploits unclassified and commentators wonder over two ironies in the risks the Navajos took.

First, the government had done its best to beat the Navajo language out of Navajo children. Had that been successful, there would have been no code talkers.

Second, the Marine code talkers were trained on communication equipment that was state of the art for the times. Then, they returned to a reservation lacking electricity or telephone service in most areas.

In the various uses of military force since the last declared war ended, Indians have served in proportions much higher than their proportion of the U.S. population, and served with distinction from Cherokee citizen Pfc. Charles George awarded the Medal of Honor in the Korean police action for smothering a grenade with his body to save his fellow soldiers to Hopi Spec. Lori Piestewa becoming the first woman soldier KIA in the second invasion of Iraq.

While no look at Indian military service would be complete without a mention of the Marine code talkers, both George and Piestewa served in the Army that is celebrating 240 years of service this year.

After the defeat in Vietnam, which many saw as more a political defeat than a military one, the U.S. Army ended conscription and began to rely on an all-volunteer force, while keeping the Selective Service System in place in case of emergency.

“Selective Service” is a fine piece of military-speak. How many people do you know who, upon receiving greetings from their local draft board, shouted to friends and family, “Hey, I’ve been selected!” Even so, young Indians would still form lines around the recruiting offices but for the requirement of today’s Army that all the volunteers have a high school diploma.

My military service was greased by a recruiter who lied about my status as a high school drop-out, a lie I did not discover until the end of my four-year hitch. My son’s entry was delayed when he had to return to his hated high school long enough to collect a diploma. The difference in recruiting practices? I joined during a war, when it’s always easier to get in.

Indian youngsters drop out of high school in disproportionate numbers and this obstructs their modern efforts to continue military service in disproportionate numbers, but we have a long and complicated history with the U.S. Army. We still have to disagree with the government over our property and our political rights, but whenever the United States is attacked from the outside, Indian GIs will answer the call.

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alexjacobs's picture
Submitted by alexjacobs on
What George Washington learned at Valley Forge (the image heading the article) was that it takes a long time to cook white corn (onesteh, hominy, posole)...the American Army was freezing, starving & deserting at Valley Forge as the British were warmly quartered in the city of New York...Oneida Chief Shenandoah heard of the "plight of the Americans" and sent some of his men with white corn (onesteh) to feed the troops, the starving men attempted to rush the process and eat the uncooked hominy, which wouldve burst their bellies...Washington's personal bodyguard held the starving troops at bay with rifles & bayonets while the Oneidas (slowly) cooked the corn...Indians saved the American Army and maybe the Revolution...