Guest Post: “Natives of the Woods of America”: Hunting Shirts, Backcountry Culture, and “Playing Indian” in the American Revolution

Photograph in Charles Knowles Bolton, The Private Soldier Under Washington, New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902, p. 162 and detail from The Surrender of General Burgoyne at Saratoga, October 16, 1777, Yale University Art Gallery.

The following post is a guest post from Marta Olmos. Marta Olmos received her BA in History from Cornell University and her MLitt in Scottish History from the University of Glasgow. She works in public history and interpretation at Minute Man National Historic Park in Concord, MA. She is on Twitter @almostmartita

In her 1988 article Rayna Green said that “one of the oldest and most pervasive forms of American cultural expression… is a ‘performance’ I call ‘playing Indian.’” The Indian, in this context, is an amalgamation of white stereotypes of Native people, and the performance of “playing Indian” is carried out by white bodies, using the Indian to explore their own identities, fears, and cultures.[1] As the American Revolution dawned, the Indian was everywhere. Hunting shirts, the makeshift uniform of the Continental Army, were at the center of a movement around “playing Indian.” By exploring the discourse around the hunting shirt, and the performance of “playing Indian” that accompanied it, we can better understand the role of the Indian, and backcountry culture, in forging an early American military identity during the early 1770s.[2]

The fringed hunting shirt, often worn with leather leggings, was part of a long tradition of Native-British hybrid fashions in the American backcountry, the land beyond formal colonial town and city boundaries where Native and non-Native people worked and traded alongside each other.[3] Native people and white traders often adopted elements of each other’s dress to signal their openness for trade. This was known as Indian dress, and its history in the Mohawk valley has been well-researched.[4] The hunting shirt was the Virginian version, combining European construction and materials with the fringed decorations common in the dress of Eastern Woodland tribes in the early eighteenth century.[5]

George Washington, a Virginian with significant backcountry experience, repeatedly advocated for Indian dress as a military uniform. In July 1758, he wrote, “I wou’d not only order my Men to adopt the Indian dress, but cause the Officers to wear it also, and be the first to set the example myself . . . leaving my regimentals at this place, and preceding as light as any Indian in the woods.”[6] Alongside other frontiersmen, he advocated for hunting shirts as a uniform for the Virginia militia, which adopted them in March 1775. When he was put in command of the Continental Army in July 1775, Washington ordered that hunting shirts be given out as provisions.[7]

Washington did not merely prescribe Indian dress as a uniform; he also adopted the images and performances that accompanied Native American military practices. He wrote that the hunting shirt was “a dress justly supposed to carry no small terror in the enemy.”[8] During the French and Indian War, Washington openly criticized formal European battle techniques, urging his commanders to utilize the guerrilla tactics of the Shawnee, Abenaki, and Lenape.[9] As the leader of the Continental Army, he was able to put his Indian fantasy into practice. In June 1777, Washington instructed Colonel Daniel Morgan to “dress a Company or two of true Woods Men in the right Indian Style and let them make the Attack accompanied with screaming and yelling as the Indians do.”[10]

The hunting shirt and the Indian became widespread cultural symbols as Continental soldiers filled the countryside. Esther Reed of Philadelphia wrote about the riflemen who “dress[ed] themselves like Indians.”[11] Eyewitnesses in Virginia on June 29th 1775 described soldiers marching “from the mountains and backwoods, painted like Indians, armed with tomahawks and rifles, dressed in hunting shirts and moccasins.”[12] In 1776, to celebrate the British surrender of Boston, Congress released a commemorative medal with the image of a rifleman wearing a hunting shirt and holding a tomahawk.[13] The new American man was made one with the Indian, bonded to him by the wild backcountry they both inhabited. The forests and valleys long claimed and cultivated by Native people were mythologized as an untamed wilderness. The realities of Native culture and history were irrelevant in the quest for American identity.[14] “Every Man has a hunting shirt, which is the uniform for each company. Almost all have a cockade & Bucks Tale in their Hats to represent that they are hardy, resolute, & invincible Natives of the Woods of America,” wrote Philip Vickers Fithian in 1775.[15]

Some have argued that the hunting shirt was chosen merely out of necessity, unrelated to the Native cultures it evolved from.[16] But the language surrounding the garment shows that its power went much deeper than necessity or coincidence. Green argued that “playing Indian” represents “one of the ways in which we [Americans] can demarcate the boundaries of an American identity distinct from that which affiliates with Europe,” and that was true of the hunting shirt and the performances that accompanied it.[17] The British recognized the significance of the hunting shirt—as early as February 1776, courtiers were mocking Continentals by attending parties in hunting shirts, accompanied by women dressed as Indians.[18] “As England became a them for the colonists, Indians became an us,” wrote Philip Joseph Deloria.[19] Steeped in the anti-British sentiments of the early revolution, colonists’ attempts to “play Indian” embraced everything they thought that Britain was not: untamed wilderness, backcountry knowledge, and fierce independence. Men put on their hunting shirts and picked up their tomahawks to differentiate themselves from their enemies and project a new identity, symbolized by the Indian.[20]

Washington never truly left his regimentals behind, though. Despite the many hunting shirts given as provisions, Congress ordered that the official Continental soldier was to be dressed in a light blue tailored coat, white breeches, and a tricorne hat.[21] This uniform had always been there, among officers and others who could afford it. Washington brought a version of it with him to the Second Continental Congress to demonstrate Continental unity. He wore it when he was asked to lead the Continental Army.[22] The Indian symbols that had united the scrappy revolutionaries were replaced by strict European uniform codes, reflecting a desire to ultimately been seen on the same level as the major European powers. As early as late 1775, newspapers reported on soldiers in their blue uniforms, bragging that the Continental Army would be equal to any other in the word.[23] French support seems to have reinforced these desires, and French officers took care to dress their regiments in the European style, sometimes at their own expense.[24] John Adams tried to erase the Indian completely, arguing in August 1776 that the hunting shirt was actually inspired by Roman military dress.[25]

By the end of the war, Washington’s writings no longer discussed the merits of the hunting shirt—instead, he was focused on blue coats and formal cockades.[26] The Indian was discarded, and the regimental symbols of traditional European power resumed their place on the bodies of the victorious soldiers. Clothing allows the wearer to “re-invent themselves from one audience to the next,” and as the revolutionary audience changed so did the uniforms. In the early war, when the revolution was focused on building internal unity and identity, they dressed as Indians. But as the new United States gained legitimacy and began to present itself to the world, they dressed as Europeans.[27]

[1] Rayna Green, “The Tribe Called Wannabee: Playing Indian in America and Europe”, Folklore 99, no. 1 (1988): 30-55

[2] Note: Like Berkholder and others, I use the word “Native” to refer to real people and groups, and the term “Indian” to refer to the mythologized image of Native Americans. Where possible, I have tried to use tribal/confederation names. Robert F. Berkholder, The White Man’s Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (New York: Vintage, 1979), p. 1

[3] Linda Baumgarten, “Hunting Shirts and Leather Leggings,” in American Material Culture: the shape of the field ed. by Ann Smart Martin and J. Ritchie Garrison (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997)

[4] Timothy J Shannon, “Dressing for Success on the Mohawk Frontier: Hendrick, William Johnson, and the Indian Fashion”, The William and Mary Quarterly 53 no. 1 (1996): 13-42

[5] Neal Thomas Hurst, “kind of armour, being peculiar to America”? The American Hunting Shirt,” William and Mary Undergraduate Thesis (2013), p. 6-9

[6] George Washington, The writings of George Washington from the original manuscript sources, 1745-1799, eds. David Maydole Matteson and John Clement Fitzpatrick (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931), vol. 2, p. 229

[7] Washington, Writings, vol. 2, p. 207

[8] Washington, Writings, vol. 2, p. 207

[9] Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), pp. 41-44

[10] Washington, Writings, vol 8, pp. 236-237

[11] Halman, Politics of Fashion, p. 161

[12] Hurst, “kind of armour,” p. 24

[13] Haulman, Politics of Fashion, p. 161

[14] Green, “Wannabee,” pp. 33-34

[15] Hurst, “kind of armour,” p. 19. Emphasis mine

[16] Hurst, “kind of armour,” p. 24, 32.

[17] Green, “Wannabee,” p. 30

[18] Hurst, “kind of armour,” p. 31

[19] Philip Joseph Deloria, Playing Indian (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998), p. 22

[20] It is important to note that Native people suffered greatly in this period. Jonathan Israel described this period as “vast intensification of their struggle with the white settlers.” Jonathan Israel, The Expanding Blaze: How the American Revolution Ignited the World, 1775-1848 by Jonathan Israel (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017), pp. 159-162

[21] Fred Gilbert Blakealee, Army Uniforms of the World (Printed for the Author, 1919), p. 42

[22] Matthew Moten, Presidents and Their Generals (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), pp. 16-18

[23] Charles Royster, A Revolutionary People At War: The Continental Army and American Character, 1775-1783 (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2011), p. 17

[24] Arnold Whitridge, “The Marquis de la Rouërie, Brigadier General in the Continental Army,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 79 (1967), p. 53

[25] Haulman, Politics of Fashion, p. 161

[26] Washington, Writings, vol. 24 pp. 106, 254, 487

[27] Shannon, Dressing for Success, p. 19

4 responses

  1. I’m not sure how I feel about this. To my eye, the author is framing this as almost purely cultural appropriation, as opposed to a representation of what “frontier culture” became, particularly beyond the Blue Ridge. While at its base, “Indian dress” was appropriated by Europeans, I’d argue that by 1775, when Fithian is moving through the Valley of Virginia, it had become a measure of frontier identity for many. The quote from Fithian about being the “Natives of the woods of America” is concerning how the people of the Valley of Virginia saw themselves, and how they appeared to others; they were immigrants and sons of immigrants, who had fought, adapted, survived, and ultimately thrived in Virginia’s most challenging environment. They were “Natives”, not in reference to First People, but rather “natives” in the sense that they were molded by their environment. Virginia’s frontier became the confluence of many cultures, including Eastern Woodland Indian, German, Scots Irish, English, and West African. Interaction between these cultures, at times positive, through cooperation and exchange of knowledge, technology, and ideas, and at other times negative, through conflict, oppression, marginalization, and enslavement, never the less provoked the evolution of a unique and distinctive frontier culture within the Valley of Virginia, west of the Blue Ridge Mountains. That’s a frontier culture, not just “playing indian”.

  2. Sam, I think I’m in a similar place as you. From my own research studying Revolutionary War soldiers, the decision to use hunting shirts as uniforms in 1776 seems to have been driven by financial necessity and practicality. Hunting shirts were much cheaper than proper regimentals, and much easier to obtain the raw materials and finished product. It may have been that they hoped people already owned enough of them that the state wouldn’t have to provide them. As it happened, there are indications that plenty of soldiers in 1776 from the state I’ve studied (Maryland) never received any uniform, and just fought in the clothes they owned.

    The case of the riflemen sent to Boston from the backcountry of VA and MD in 1775 is more interesting. They were apparently “painted like Indians, armed with tomahawks and rifles, and dressed in hunting shirts and moccasins.” [source] When Washington referred to the “right Indian style,” I wonder if this is what he meant, rather than just a hunting shirt.

    But I’ve never seen any discussion in early-revolutionary documents of hunting shirts themselves being anything other than a practical choice. But I’d be very interested to learn otherwise–that would be an important revelation as we study the early years of the war.

    Otherwise, hunting shirts are a great place to talk about adaptation vs. appropriation, to go along with the republican symbolism that they may have taken on (and whether they really harbored lice, like Charles Royster says they did).

  3. Pingback: Guest Post: “Natives of the Woods of America”: Hunting Shirts, Backcountry Culture, and “Playing Indian” in the American Revolution « The Junto – The BIG ISMS

  4. Pingback: Hunting Shirts, Backcountry Culture, and “Playing Indian” in the American Revolution « The Junto – ColorMag Entertainment News


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