Dreams of the Past: The Indian Barrier State

Indian Barrier State

The arrival of Europeans in North America heralded a dark period for indigenous populations the length and breadth of the continent.

Within the space of a few centuries, the patchwork of varied, independent tribal societies that littered the modern-day mainland United States was gradually destroyed; with peoples scattered and often subjected to brutal acts of violence.

To this day, Native Americans are among the most economically disenfranchised ethnic groups in the United States. There are nearly 600 tribes recognised by the US Government, and each maintains a certain degree of autonomy. On the surface, this system of self-governance appears to be an ideal setup through which to train tribal traditions and restrict government interference in indigenous affairs.

However, Native Americans today are plagued by woes. High incarceration rates, poverty, unemployment and the exploitation of tribal communities for profit are but a few of the ills at play.

The Indian Barrier State

In the 19th century, a plan was 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.

During the War of 1812, Great 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 1750s in an attempt to reconcile relations between British colonists and natives in the wake of the Seven Years War. By the early 19th century, the proposal to organise tribes into a confederation would enable Great Britain to create a buffer between the fledgeling United States and its own holdings in North America.

Indian Barrier State
This graphic shows the general distribution of Native American tribes in the Northwest Territory during the early 1790s. Source: Wikipedia

The fur trade was of huge economic value to the British at the time and any effort to protect it was worth consideration as far as Britain was concerned. In essence, the Indian Barrier State could have acted as an insurance policy against American expansion westward or incursions into British-held territory.

Central to this endeavour was the charismatic Native American leader, Tecumseh. He and a host of Native American tribes believed that by supporting British efforts during the War of 1812 they would find an ally willing to consider proposals of an independent 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 launched a preemptive strike.

At the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, defeat at the hands of the American Army did not diminish the resolve of Tecumseh and his confederation of tribes. Joining forces with the British in the following year, they would prove to be a major disruption to American advances.

Tecumseh was killed in 1813 at the Battle of the Thames, Upper Canada, and with him, it appears that the dream of a Native American state fell.

Money Talks

The issue of the Indian Barrier State was raised during negotiations between the United States and Great Britain in Ghent in 1814. Based on previous treaty agreements, however, the United States was unwilling to consider such a proposal. By this point in 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 disruption.

However, relations would deteriorate in the years following and in the 1830’s we see the Indian Removal Act implemented under President Andrew Jackson.

This permitted the purchase of native lands as well as 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 one of the worst examples of this.

With American settlers continually moving westward in the 19th-century, relations continued to deteriorate between the indigenous populations of North America and American settlers. Violent encounters and atrocities were carried out by both sides on countless occasions.

Indian Barrier State
Thousands of Native Americans were removed from their holdings and forced west.

Today’s Reality

Today, Native Americans experience societal woes almost unparalleled in the United States and they are among some of the most disenfranchised cultural groups in the western world.

Statistics in education, living conditions and health are a damning indictment of the treatment of the US’ 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 premier contemporary superpower, 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.


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