The arrival of Europeans in North America heralded a dark period for the indigenous population of the continent. In the space of a few centuries, the patchwork of vibrant, independent tribal societies that littered the modern-day United States was systematically destroyed; their people scattered and often subjected to brutal acts of violence.
In 2017, Native Americans are among the most economically disenfranchised ethnic groups in the United States. There are over 567 tribes recognised by the US Government, and each tribe maintains a certain degree of autonomy. This system of self-governance appears on the surface to be the ideal situation through which to maintain ancient tribal traditions and keep government out of indigenous affairs.
However, Native Americans today are plagued by woes. Mass incarceration, poverty, unemployment and the exploitation of tribal communities for profit are but a few of the ills that affect Native Americans in 2017.
The Indian Barrier State
What if I were to tell you that in the 18th century, however, there was a plan set in motion to create an independent Native American state? One that, if it had come to fruition, would have likely changed the face of North America and the course of world history. Well, let’s delve into the tale that nearly was; a Native America.
During the War of 1812 Britain put forward a proposal to establish what would be known as the ‘Indian Barrier State’ – A nation that would span between the Great Lakes region in the north, and the Mississippi River to the south.
The concept was first conceived in the 1750’s in an attempt to reconcile relations between the British and Natives in the wake of the Seven Years War. By organising tribes into a confederation of sorts, Britain would be able to establish such a state and thus create a buffer between the fledgling United States and their own holdings in North America.
The fur trade was of paramount importance to the British economy, and any effort to protect it was worth consideration as far as Britain was concerned; The Indian Barrier State could, potentially, act as an insurance policy against any American excursions into British held territory.
Central to this endeavour was the charismatic and legendary Native American leader, Tecumseh. Allied with the British, Tecumseh and a host of Native American tribes believed that in supporting British efforts during the War of 1812, they would find an ally willing to consider indigenous rights to a sovereign state.
This confederation of tribes, known as ‘Tecumseh’s Confederacy” had grown in size and stature in the years preceding the War of 1812, and in 1811 the United States had launched a preemptive strike against its troublesome neighbour.
Defeat at the Battle of Tippecanoe to the American Army in 1811 did not diminish the resolve of Tecumseh and his confederation of tribes, however, and joining forces with the British in the following year would prove valuable to both sides in their struggle against American advances.
Tecumseh was killed in 1813 at the Battle of the Thames, Upper Canada, and with him, it seems that the dream of a Native American state fell.
The issue of the Indian Barrier State was raised during negotiations between the United States and Great Britain in Ghent in 1814. The United States, however, based on previous treaty agreements, were unwilling to consider such a proposal. By this point in Britain, the lucrative potential of trade with the United States far outweighed the political power that any indigenous nation may have provided.
The entire proposal was based on the protection of the fur trade, and by engaging in trade with the United States – which would control large parts of the proposed area of Native control – British merchants would still profit.
With British demands for a barrier state dropped, the United States would adhere to the boundaries established before the War of 1812 – boundaries that exist to this very day. The issue of Native Americans, however, was addressed in the years following.
The Ghent Treaty guaranteed rights to Native Americans and the following years would see treaties signed with indigenous tribes to prevent further upheaval and discord.
Cordial relations would not last though and in the 1830’s we see the Indian Removal Act under President Andrew Jackson which allowed for the buying of native lands and their migration west of the Mississippi boundary. In the coming decades, these policies resulted in the mass-migration of Native American tribes westward; the Trail of Tears is a prime example of this.
With American settlers continually moving westward in the 19th century, relations continue to deteriorate between the indigenous populations of North America and American settlers, with violence and atrocities being carried out by both sides on a number of occasions.
Today, Native Americans experience societal woes almost unparalleled in the United States, and they are among the most disenfranchised cultural groups in the western world.
Statistics in education, living conditions and health are a damning indictment of the treatment of America’s indigenous population.
One can only speculate the effect that the proposed Indian Barrier State may have had on 19th-century history. Supported by the world’s strongest superpower of the time, this nation may have proved a thorn in the side of American westward expansion.
It may even have grown to become an economic powerhouse itself.