Teaching the Declension Narrative

This semester I’m teaching Revolutionary America, a class which has allowed me to ease into teaching because my dissertation (ahem: book manuscript) focused on the more narrow topic of Native and enslaved foodways during and after the war.

I’ve framed the class around the question of how ordinary people experienced the Revolution. Lately I’ve been talking with students about the declension narrative pervasive in Native American history, because it’s one of the things I’m contemplating as I begin to think about revisions.[1]

The declension narrative goes something like this: In 1777 the Iroquois Confederacy shattered when Mohawks, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas allied with the British, and Oneidas and many Tuscaroras decided to fight for the Americans.[2] As a result of disease and violence, the population of the Six Nations (AKA the Iroquois, or Haudenosaunee [pronounced “Ho-do-no-show-nee”]) decreased by a third, and Indians thereafter become economically dependent on British support (and after the war, on reluctantly-proffered American aid).[3] In a fairly recent review essay, however, Edward Countryman challenges this narrative, pointing to new literature that tends to move declension to a later time period.

I was curious to see how my students would perceive the American Revolution in Indian country, and the period immediately following the war.[4] The point of the lesson, I should stress, was not to deny the existence of the declension narrative, but to get students thinking about changing interpretations of Native American history. These are first year students—the American equivalent of freshmen—and I’m trying to teach about historians’ methodologies as much as I teach content.

The class is organized as a twice-weekly meeting. On Tuesdays I lecture, and on Thursday night and Friday morning I meet with the separate discussion sections of the class in seminar. I’ve been asking my students to undertake preparatory readings for lecture as well as seminar; this week I asked them to look at Francis Jennings’s “The Indians’ Revolution” in Alfred Young’s The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism to drive home Colin Calloway’s point that Native experiences of violence began long before 1774 and continued for a period that extended well beyond the Treaty of Paris.[5]

Before getting into the details in class, I talked about representations of Indians in the war (tipping the hat to Philip Deloria’s idea of “playing Indian”).[6] Then, drawing inspiration from Michael Hattem’s post on Assassin’s Creed, I showed a clip from the trailer to that video game to discuss representations of Indians today. Talking about the video game was easier than trying to discuss the Washington Redskins controversy because that would have involved further probing into distinctions between American football and British “football.” The Assassin’s Creed trailer is also a particularly useful clip because it depicts a Mohawk named Connor who fights for the Americans against the British. Almost half of the students in lecture had played the game, and could explain to the class why he does so. Their explanations provided a perfect transition to my mapping of what actually happened: how most Mohawks sided with the British—not the Americans—and why.

After going into the diplomatic relations between Sir William Johnson and the Mohawks, as encapsulated by Johnson’s relationship with Molly (and thus Joseph) Brant, I zoomed out to try to provide a sweeping overview of how the Revolution spurred declarations of Indian allegiance and neutrality. I covered the generational split among the Cherokees, proclaimed neutrality and then violence among the Creeks, and the travels of the Shawnees and the forging of an inter-Indian alliance in the 1780s and 1790s.[7] In so doing I tried to present both iterations of the declension narrative: the first, which assumes the standard view that the Revolution was a pretty unmitigated disaster for Natives, and the second, which suggests a later start to the narrative and a series of rises and falls up until removal in the 1830s.

In preparation for seminar, students read James Merrell’s “Declarations of Independence: Indian-White Relations in the New Nation,” in Jack Greene’s The American Revolution: Its Character and Limits.[8] I’ve arranged the class so that we read primary sources one week and secondary sources the next, and I chose to make this week a secondary source reading week because I assumed that British students wouldn’t have the background to tackle primary sources in Indian history. I sent them to their reading with the instruction to ask whether or not Merrell was offering a declension narrative.

To my pleasant surprise, students seemed to get that Native American history does not come across as a straight declension line from 1777 onward (among Iroquois Indians as well as Creeks and Cherokees), but I was equally surprised by the questions they seemed interested in talking about. The first class wanted an extensive discussion of whether or not Britons would have ended up treating Indians in a similar manner if they had won the Revolution. Having spent a year hobnobbing with security studies historians, I’m currently taking a brief hiatus from counterfactuals, but I encouraged the discussion until we reached the conclusion that it was too hard to say, what with the many prevailing factors of the Indians’ behavior, the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the existence of British forts in Canada, and the actions of American colonists living on the frontier.

As we talked, I realized that students were expending a lot of energy trying to verbally describe the declension narrative—at which point I decided (likely inspired by Alyssa Reichardt’s post on timelines) that we were going to try to draw it on the board.

My replication of the first class's attempt to draw the declension narrative

My replication of the first class’s attempt to draw the declension narrative

This worked very well with the first class. One student volunteered (in blue), offering what might be construed as a typical representation of the declension narrative. The next student who went (in pink), altered the narrative to represent Arthur St. Clair’s defeat in 1791, coupled with rising cooperation between different Native tribes. The good years, if you want to call them that, spike again in the 1810s with the emergence of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa.

The second class on Friday morning was a good lesson for me in driving home the point that what works for one class does not work for the other. All of the dry erase markers in that second room had run out of juice, it was 9 a.m., and my students had likely been out the night before drinking socializing with their friends. They were less enthusiastic about huddling around my desk as I improvised a mini-timeline in my notebook, but I shamed persuaded them into participating. In spite of their sleepiness, they too came up with some interesting suggestions for talking declension.

The second class's declension narrative

The second class’s declension narrative

Someone in the second class, likely influenced by the Jennings reading, proposed starting the timeline before the Revolution to chart William Johnson’s diplomacy among Indians. So, we began earlier, in 1765. Someone else pointed out that it would be useful to have a baseline for discussing states of being in the Early Republic, so he added that to the timeline (in yellow). Though the Friday class offered a more conventional declension line, they recognized that most Indians would have started off lower on my ill-defined Y-axis than other colonists, and still made allowances for rises and falls in Native communities.

In the end, the students got the point I was subtly(?) pushing all along: that there are multiple ways to tell this story, and that interpretations have changed over time. Still, I’m already thinking about how to tweak the lesson the next time I tackle it. I’d like to assign a short selection of treaty minutes, from say, debates about the 1768 Stanwix Line and the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, as a way of illustrating changing relationships between Britons and Indians and Indians and Americans. I’d like to come up with a better way of charting the baseline of non-Native Americans, as the current line implies a stasis that obviously did not exist. I’ll also squirrel away a supply of working dry erase markers in my office. And hope against hope that class doesn’t take place at 9 on a Friday.


[1] For the foundational works on Native involvement in the Northern theater of the Revolution, see Barbara Graymont, The Iroquois in the American Revolution (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1972); Colin G. Calloway, Crown and Calumet: British-Indian Relations, 1783-1815 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987); Robert S. Allen, His Majesty’s Indian Allies: British Indian Policy in the Defence of Canada, 1774-1815 (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1992); Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country: Crisis and Diversity in North American Communities (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995); Edward Countryman, “Indians, the Colonial Order, and the Social Significance of the American Revolution,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 53, no. 2 (April 1996): 354, 358. For this declension narrative, see Eric Hinderaker, Elusive Empires: Constructing Colonialism in the Ohio Valley, 1673-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 226, 267; Timothy J. Shannon, Iroquois Diplomacy on the Early American Frontier (New York: Viking, 2008), 192-93.

[2] Some historians use the singular when referring to groups of Indians of one tribe: Cherokee instead of Cherokees, for example. I have chosen to employ the plural when talking about Indians; I do so because in my mind using the singular obscures the fact that tribes were often divided.

[3] Edward Countryman, “Toward a Different Iroquois History,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series 69, no. 2 (April 2012): 347-60, esp. 349.

[4] In a nod to Colin Calloway, I called the week on the syllabus “The American Revolution in Indian Country,” Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country.

[5] Francis Jennings, “The Indians’ Revolution,” in The American Revolution: Explorations in the History of American Radicalism, ed. Alfred F. Young (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1976), 319-48; Calloway, The American Revolution in Indian Country, xiii. For a more recent articulation of this point, see John Grenier, The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 10.

[6] Philip J. Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

[7] This has the potential to be a very long footnote, but I’m not going to let it get too carried away with itself. Standard works on Indians in the Revolution include, but are not limited to James H. O’Donnell III, Southern Indians in the American Revolution (Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1973); Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011 [1991]); Joel W. Martin, Sacred Revolt: The Muskogees’ Struggle for a New World (Boston: Beacon Press, 1991); Gregory Evans Dowd, A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992); Claudio Saunt, A New Order of Things: Property, Power, and the Transformation of the Creek Indians, 1733-1816 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Robbie Ethridge, Creek Country: The Creek Indians and Their World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003); Alan Taylor, The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (New York: Vintage Books, 2006); Colin G. Calloway, The Shawnees and the War for America (New York: Viking, 2007); Jim Piecuch, Three Peoples, One King: Loyalists, Indians, and Slaves in the Revolutionary South, 1775-1782 (Columbia: The University of South Carolina Press, 2008); Angela Pulley Hudson, Creek Paths and Federal Roads: Indians, Settlers, and Slaves and the Making of the American South (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2010). For work on Shawnee travelers see Laura Keenan Spero, “‘Stout, Bold, Cunning, and the greatest Travellers in America’: The Colonial Shawnee Diaspora,” PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2010.

[8] James H. Merrell, “Declarations of Independence: Indian-White Relations in the New Nation,” in The American Revolution: Its Character and Limits, ed. Jack P. Greene (New York: New York University Press, 1987), 197-223.

6 comments on “Teaching the Declension Narrative

  1. Really enjoyed this post, and I too have become a fan of visualizations the more I’ve taught. They can be incredibly useful for bringing out a text or a point (or, even more importantly, multiple texts or points).

    As a suggestion for revision, you need not treat British dealings with Native Americans post-Revolution as a counterfactual — you could always talk about Canada! This came up in the 1763 round table last month as a way of thinking about the impact of the Proclamation, but there’s no reason you couldn’t extend that further consideration of Alan Taylor or other scholars (whom I do not know as a non-specialist) who’ve worked on Canada.

    • raherrmann says:

      That’s a great idea, Joe. I’ll have to think about how to do that next time without assigning a ton more reading

      • What I’ve started to do in precisely that situation (want to cover more, can’t add more reading) is to bring a brief document in as part of an in-class activity. So in this case, perhaps you bring in something like the Treaty of Niagara (1764) or a treaty negotiated between British Canada and natives during/after the War of 1812 (and probably an excerpt – something students could read in 5 minutes). That way you can introduce the comparison without burdening them with more reading.

  2. Greg Rogers says:

    Another way to introduce visual material as well contrast perceptions and realities of Indian power would be to compare some maps. Maybe one from the eve of the Revolution of the northern colonies and then show one from early republic. The imagined state/colonial lines would also be illustrative.


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