Foreign Adventures in the New Republic

This lesson was reported from:
A chapter of The United States: An Open Ended History, a free online textbook.  Adapted in part from open sources.

Growing Conflict with Britain

As Jefferson began his second term in 1805, he declared American neutrality in the struggle between Great Britain and France. Although both sides sought to restrict neutral shipping to the other, British control of the seas made its interdiction and seizure much more serious than any actions by Napoleonic France. British naval commanders routinely searched American ships, seized vessels and cargoes, and took off sailors believed to be British subjects. They also frequently impressed American seamen into their service.

When Jefferson issued a proclamation ordering British warships to leave U.S. territorial waters, the British reacted by impressing more sailors. Jefferson then decided to rely on economic pressure; in December 1807 Congress passed the Embargo Act, forbidding all foreign commerce. The law required strong police authority that vastly increased the powers of the national government. Economically, it was disastrous. In a single year American exports fell to one-fifth of their former volume. Shipping interests were almost ruined by the measure; discontent rose in New England and New York. Agricultural interests suffered heavily also. Prices dropped drastically when the Southern and Western farmers could not export their surplus grain, cotton, meat, and tobacco.

Ograbme
A political cartoon showing merchants dodging the “Ograbme”, which is “Embargo” spelled backwards. The embargo was also ridiculed in the New England press as Dambargo, Mob-Rage, or Go-bar-’em.

The embargo failed to starve Great Britain into a change of policy. As the grumbling at home increased, Jefferson turned to a milder measure, which partially conciliated domestic shipping interests. In early 1809 he signed the Non-Intercourse Act permitting commerce with all countries except Britain or France and their dependencies.

James Madison succeeded Jefferson as president in 1809. Relations with Great Britain grew worse, and the two countries moved rapidly toward war. The president laid before Congress a detailed report, showing several thousand instances in which the British had impressed American citizens. In addition, northwestern settlers had suffered from attacks by Indians whom they believed had been incited by British agents in Canada. In turn, many Americans favored conquest of Canada and the elimination of British influence in North America, as well as vengeance for impressment and commercial repression. By 1812, war fervor was dominant. On June 18, the United States declared war on Britain.

The War of 1812

The nation went to war bitterly divided. While the South and West favored the conflict, New York and New England opposed it because it interfered with their commerce. The U.S. military was weak. The army had fewer than 7,000 regular soldiers, distributed in widely scattered posts along the coast, near the Canadian border, and in the remote interior. The state militias were poorly trained and undisciplined.

Hostilities began with an invasion of Canada, which, if properly timed and executed, would have brought united action against Montreal. Instead, the entire campaign miscarried and ended with the British occupation of Detroit. The U.S. Navy, however, scored successes. In addition, American privateers, swarming the Atlantic, captured 500 British vessels during the fall and winter months of 1812 and 1813.

The campaign of 1813 centered on Lake Erie. General William Henry Harrison—who would later become president—led an army of militia, volunteers, and regulars from Kentucky with the object of reconquering Detroit. On September 12, while he was still in upper Ohio, news reached him that Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry had annihilated the British fleet on Lake Erie. Harrison occupied Detroit and pushed into Canada, defeating the fleeing British and their Indian allies on the Thames River. The entire region now came under American control.

The British fleet harassed the Eastern seaboard with orders to “destroy and lay waste.” On the night of August 24, 1814, an expeditionary force routed American militia, marched to Washington, D.C., and left the city in flames. President James Madison fled to Virginia.

1024px-The_President's_House_by_George_Munger,_1814-1815_-_Crop
The White House ruins after the conflagration of August 24, 1814.

The British moved on to their major target, the heavily fortified major city of Baltimore. The British naval guns, mortars and new “Congreve rockets” had a longer range than the American cannon onshore. The ships mostly stood out of range of the Americans, who returned very little fire.  All the lights were extinguished in Baltimore the night of the attack, and the fort was bombarded for 25 hours. The only light was given off by the exploding shells over Fort McHenry, which defended the city, illuminating the flag that was still flying over the fort. The sight inspired the American lawyer Francis Scott Key to write “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” a poem that was later set to music as “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

800px-Ft._Henry_bombardement_1814
An artist’s rendering of the bombardment at Fort McHenry. Francis Scott Key watched from a U.S. truce ship and was inspired to write the four-stanza poem he originally titled “The Defence of Fort McHenry”. The poem was later set to music and named “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which was adopted as the national anthem in 1931.

Native Americans During the War of 1812

In years leading up to and during the War of 1812, Native Americans continued to resist American expansion into their territories.  Native groups made alliances with either the British or the Americans during the war in an attempt to advance their own goals or improve their own situations.  As a result,

Tecumseh02
Tecumseh.

Tecumseh was a Shawnee warrior and chief, who became the primary leader of a large, multi-tribal confederacy in the early 19th century. Born in the Ohio Country (present-day Ohio), and growing up during the American Revolutionary War and the Northwest Indian War, Tecumseh was exposed to warfare and envisioned the establishment of an independent Indian nation east of the Mississippi River under British protection. He worked to recruit additional members to his tribal confederacy from the southern United States.

Tecumseh was among the most celebrated Indian leaders in history and was known as a strong and eloquent orator who promoted tribal unity. He was also ambitious, willing to take risks, and make significant sacrifices to repel the Americans from Indian lands in the Old Northwest Territory. In 1808, with his brother Tenskwatawa (“The Prophet”), Tecumseh founded the Indian village the Americans called Prophetstown, located north of present-day Lafayette, Indiana. Prophetstown grew into a large, multi-tribal community and a central point in Tecumseh’s political and military alliance.

Tecumseh’s confederation fought the United States during Tecumseh’s War, but he was unsuccessful in getting the U.S. government to rescind the Treaty of Fort Wayne (1809) and other land-cession treaties which stripped natives of their claims to their ancestral homelands. In 1811, as he traveled south to recruit more allies, his brother Tenskwatawa initiated the Battle of Tippecanoe against William Henry Harrison’s army, but the Indians retreated from the field and the Americans burned Prophetstown. Although Tecumseh remained the military leader of the pan-Indian confederation, his plan to enlarge the Indian alliance was never fulfilled.

Tecumseh and his confederacy continued to fight the United States after forming an alliance with Great Britain in the War of 1812. During the war, Tecumseh’s confederacy helped in the capture of Fort Detroit. However, after U.S. naval forces took control of Lake Erie in 1813, the British and their Indian allies retreated into Upper Canada, where the American forces engaged them at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813, where Tecumseh was killed. His death and the end of the war caused the pan-Indian alliance to collapse. Within a few years, the remaining tribal lands in the Old Northwest were ceded to the U.S. government and subsequently opened for new settlement and most of the American Indians eventually moved west, across the Mississippi River. Since his death Tecumseh has become an iconic folk hero in American, Aboriginal, and Canadian history.

Death_of_Tecumseh
Death of Tecumseh, Frieze of the United States Capitol rotunda.

Further south, the British began aiding the Creek Indians in modern day Alabama and Georgia. In March 1814, General Andrew Jackson and General John Coffee led a force comprised of about 2,000 Tennessee militiamen, Choctaw, Cherokee, and U.S. regulars in a war against the Creek Indians. Out of 1,000 Creeks, led by Chief Menawa, 800 were killed at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend. Only 49 of Jackson’s forces were killed. Jackson pursued the remaining Creeks until they surrendered, ultimately signing the Treaty of Fort Jackson, which limited their territory and independence.

The Treaty of Ghent

British and American negotiators conducted talks in Europe. The British envoys decided to concede, however, when they learned of Macdonough’s victory on Lake Champlain. Faced with the depletion of the British treasury due in large part to the heavy costs of the Napoleonic Wars, the negotiators for Great Britain accepted the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814. It provided for the cessation of hostilities, the restoration of conquests, and a commission to settle boundary disputes. Unaware that a peace treaty had been signed, the two sides continued fighting into 1815 near New Orleans, Louisiana. Led by General Andrew Jackson, the United States scored the greatest land victory of the war in the Battle of New Orleans, ending for once and for all any British hopes of reestablishing continental influence south of the Canadian border.

lossy-page1-1024px-The_Battle_of_New_Orleans._January_1815._Copy_of_engraving_by_H._B._Hall_after_W._Momberger.,_ca._1900_-_1982_-_NARA_-_531091.tif
Andrew Jackson’s unlikely victory against a superior British force at the Battle of New Orleans came in January 1815, weeks after the official end of the war. It turned him into a household name.

While the British and Americans were negotiating a settlement, Federalist delegates selected by the legislatures of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont, and New Hampshire gathered in Hartford, Connecticut to express opposition to “Mr. Madison’s war.” New England had managed to trade with the enemy throughout the conflict, and some areas actually prospered from this commerce. Nevertheless, the Federalists claimed that the war was ruining the economy. With a possibility of secession from the Union in the background, the Hartford Convention proposed a series of constitutional amendments that would protect New England interests. Instead, the end of the war, punctuated by the smashing victory at New Orleans, stamped the Federalists with a stigma of disloyalty from which they never recovered.  The Federalists’ opposition to the War of 1812 and the Hartford Convention had terminally damaged the party.

The Monroe Doctrine

On December 2, 1823, President Monroe introduced the most famous aspect of his foreign policy in his State of the Union Address to Congress. The Monroe Doctrine, as it came to be called, stated that any further attempts by European powers to interfere in the affairs of the nations of the Western hemisphere (namely Latin America) would be seen as an act of aggression against the United States, requiring a U.S. response. The Monroe Doctrine came about as a result of U.S. and British fears the Spain would attempt to restore its power over former colonies in Latin America. President Monroe essentially sent notice the Americas, both North and South, were no longer open to colonization by European powers.

The fact that the U.S. was still a young nation with very little naval power meant that the warning went largely ignored by the major powers. Despite this, the British approved of the policy and largely enforced it as part of the Pax Britannica, whereby the British Navy secured the neutrality of the high seas. It was mainly through this support, rather than the Monroe Doctrine exclusively, which secured and maintained the sovereignty of Latin American nations.

Monroe-Doctrine-Post
The United States would invoke the Monroe Doctrine repeatedly through the next century, as reflected from this cartoon from around the year 1900.

The First Seminole War

In Southern Georgia, Chief Neamathla of the Miccosukee tribe – part of the larger Seminole cultural group – at Fowltown was engaged in a land dispute with General Edmund Pendleton Gaines, the American commander at Fort Scott. The land had been ceded by the Creek at the Treaty of Fort Jackson. However, the Miccosukee considered itself a different tribe. It held that the Creek did not have right to cede Miccosukee land. In November 1817, a force of 250 men was sent by General Gaines to capture Neamathla, but was driven back. A second attempt in the same month succeeded, and the Miccosukee were driven from Fowltown.

Seminole village
A modern depiction of a classic Seminole village.

A week after the attack on Fowltown, a military boat transporting supplies, sick soldiers, and the families of soldiers to Fort Scott (it is not clear if children were on board) was attacked on the Apalachicola River. Most of the passengers on board were killed, with one woman captured and six survivors making it to Fort Scott.

General Gaines had been ordered not to invade Spanish Florida save for small incursions. After word of the Scott massacre reached Washington, DC, Gaines was ordered to invade Spanish-colonized Florida in pursuit of Seminoles, but not to attack Spanish installations. However, Gaines had been ordered to eastern Florida to deal with piracy issues there, so Secretary of War John C. Calhoun ordered General Andrew Jackson to lead the invasion.

General Jackson gathered his forces at Fort Scott in March 1818. His fighters were 800 regulars, 1,000 Tennessee volunteers, 1,000 Georgia militia, and 1,400 friendly Creek warriors. Jackson’s force entered Florida on March 13, following the Apalachicola River and constructing Fort Gadsden. The Indian town of Tallahassee was burned on March 31 and the town of Miccosukee was taken the next day. The American and Creek forces left 300 Indian homes devastated in their wake, reaching and capturing the Spanish fort of St. Marks on April 6.

765228024The American force left St. Marks and continued to attack Indian villages. It captured Alexander George Arbuthnot, a Scottish trader who worked out of the Bahamas and supplied the Indians, and Robert Ambrister, a former Royal Marine and self-appointed British agent, as well as the Indian leaders Josiah Francis and Homathlemico. All four were eventually executed. Jackson’s forces also attacked villages occupied by runaway slaves along the Suwannee River.

Having declared victory, Jackson sent the Georgia militia and Creek warriors home, sending the remaining army back to St. Marks, where he left a garrison before returning to Fort Gadsden. On May 7, he marched a force of 1,000 to Pensacola where he believed the Indians were gathering and being supplied by the Spanish. The governor of West Florida raised a protest, insisting that the Indians there were mostly women and children. When Jackson reached Pensacola on May 23, the governor and the Spanish garrison retreated to Fort Barrancas. After a day of exchanging cannon fire, the Spanish surrendered.

The governments of Great Britain and Spain both expressed outrage over the invasion. However, Spain was unable to defend or control the territory, as several local uprisings and rebellions made clear. The Spanish Crown agreed to cede Florida to the United States per the Adams–Onís Treaty of 1819, and the transfer took place in 1821.

The article was adapted in part from:

  1. The Formation of a National Government
  2. Tecumseh

 

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The Pristine Myth: How Native Americans Shaped Their World

This lesson was reported from:
Adapted in part from open sources.

The Pristine Myth

  1. What is the pristine myth?
  2. Aside from fire, what other examples of indigenous Americans shaping their environment does Denevan cite?  Follow one of the links in the relevant portion of this passage and explain one of these techniques or accomplishment in greater detail.
  3. Why did so many Europeans and their descendants fail to recognize the ways that Native Americans purposefully shaped the land? 
  4. How did Native Americans use fire?
  5. How did Europeans achieve the same or similar goals using different techniques?
  6. Could any of these Native American techniques be applied today?
“There were not really very many of these redmen … the land seemed empty to invaders who came from settled Europe . . . that ancient, primeval, undisturbed wilderness . . . the streams simply boiled with fish … so much game . . . that one hunter counted a thousand animals near a single salt lick … the virgin wilderness of Kentucky … the forested glory of primitive America.” –  John Bakeless, The Eyes of Discovery, 1950.

In fact, Bakeless’s portrayal of Native Americans as passive in their environment – as little more than wild animals inhabiting a niche in an ecosystem – couldn’t be more wrong.  Various groups of Native Americans shaped North and South America for millennia before modern Americans started paving the forests to put up parking lots.

Historical ecologist William M. Denevan was one of the first scholars to recognize and describe the ways in which Native Americans, just like Europeans, shaped the environments in which they found themselves.  In a seminal book, he called the idea that Native Americans had not significantly impacted the landscape of the Americas prior to the arrival of Europeans “the pristine myth.”  To support his case, Denevan cited the many mounds, causeways, roads, terraces, and cultivated forests in both North and South America – as well as ample evidence that Native Americans used fire as a versatile tool to control and shape their environment.

Purposefully set fires helped promote valuable resources and habitats that sustained indigenous cultures, economies, traditions, and livelihoods. The cumulative ecological impacts of Native American fire use over time has resulted in a mosaic of grasslands and forests across North America that was once widely perceived by early European explorers, trappers, and settlers as untouched, pristine wilderness.

It is now recognized that the original American landscape was already humanized at the time that the first Europeans arrived.

The Indian’s Vespers by Asher Brown Durand was painted in 1847.  As part of the so-called Hudson River School of romantic painters, Durand often portrayed the American wilderness as a primeval state of nature, untouched by the hands of man.  Here, in keeping with the idea that Native American lived in harmony with nature, accepting its bounty while leaving almost no footprint on the land, a Native American prays toward the rising sun.
Eleven major reasons for Native American ecosystem burning:
Hunting The burning of large areas was useful to divert big game (deer, elk, bison) into small unburned areas for easier hunting and provide open prairies/meadows (rather than brush and tall trees) where animals (including ducks and geese) like to dine on fresh, new grass sprouts. Fire was also used to drive game into impoundments, narrow chutes, into rivers or lakes, or over cliffs where the animals could be killed easily. Some tribes used a surround or circle fire to force rabbits and game into small areas. The Seminoles even practiced hunting alligators with fire. Torches were used to spot deer and attract fish. Smoke was used to drive/dislodge raccoons and bears from hiding.
Crop management Burning was used to harvest crops, especially tarweed, yucca, greens, and grass seed collection. In addition, fire was used to prevent abandoned fields from growing over and to clear areas for planting corn and tobacco. One report of fire being used to bring rain (overcome drought). Clearing ground of grass and brush was done to facilitate the gathering of acorns. Fire was used to roast mescal and obtain salt from grasses.
Insect collection Some tribes used a “fire surround” to collect and roast crickets, grasshoppers, Pandora Pinemoths in pine forests, and collect honey from bees.
Pest management Burning was sometimes used to reduce insects (black flies, ticks, and mosquitos) and rodents, as well as kill mistletoe that invaded mesquite and oak trees and kill the tree moss favored by deer (thus forcing them to the valleys). Fire was also used to kill poisonous snakes.
Improve growth and yields Fire was often used to improve grass for big game grazing (deer, elk, antelope, bison), horse pasturage, camas reproduction, seed plants, berry plants (especially raspberries, strawberries and huckleberries), and tobacco. Fire was also used to promote plant structure and health, increase the growth of reeds and grasses used as basket materials, beargrassdeergrasshazel, and willows.
Fireproofing areas There are some indications that fire was used to protect certain medicine plants by clearing an area around the plants, as well as to fireproof areas, especially around settlements, from destructive wildfires. Fire was also used to keep prairies open from encroaching shrubs and trees.
Warfare and signaling Indians used fire to deprive the enemy of hiding places in tall grass and underbrush, to destroy enemy property, and to camouflage an escape. Large fires (not the Hollywood version of blankets and smoke) were ignited to signal enemy movements and to gather forces for combat.
Economic extortion Some tribes also used fire for a “scorched earth” policy to deprive settlers and fur traders from easy access to big game and thus benefiting from being “middlemen” in supplying pemmican and jerky.
Clearing areas for travel Fire was used to fell trees by boring two intersecting holes into the trunk, then dropping burning charcoal in one hole, allowing the smoke to exit from the other. This method was also used by early settlers. Another way to kill trees was to surround the base with fire, allowing the bark and/or the trunk to burn causing the tree to die (much like girdling) and eventually topple over. Fire also used to kill trees so that it could later be used for dry kindling (willows) and firewood (aspen).
Felling trees Fire was used to fell trees by boring two intersecting holes into the trunk, then dropping burning charcoal in one hole, allowing the smoke to exit from the other. This method was also used by early settlers. Another way to kill trees was to surround the base with fire, allowing the bark and/or the trunk to burn causing the tree to die (much like girdling) and eventually topple over. Fire also used to kill trees so that it could later be used for dry kindling (willows) and firewood (aspen).
Clearing riparian areas Fire was commonly used to clear brush from riparian areas and marshes for new grasses and sedges, plant growth (cattails), and tree sprouts (to benefit beavermuskratsmoose, and waterfowl), including mesquite, cottonwood, and willows.
Image result for controlled burns
Many plants have seeds that open only in the extreme heat of a fire.  Other plants thrive once the ground is cleared of dead matter, freeing up resources like sunlight and returning nutrients to the soil.  Game like deer and rabbits are attracted to this fresh green growth, both increasing their population and attracting them to the location of a Native American’s choice.  A controlled burn can also reduce the risk of an out of control wildfire like those seen recently in California. (Photo Credit: Pennsylvania Gaming Commission)

Changes in Native Indian burning practices occurred as Europeans settled across the continent. 

Some settlers saw the potential benefits of low intensity, controlled burns, but by and large, they feared and suppressed them as a threat to their homes, farms, and towns.

Meanwhile, as Native American populations collapsed due to disease, violent conquest, and forced removal, the once-cultivated and sculpted green spaces between European settlements became truly wild.

In fact, the “primeval” forest observed by the romantic and transcendentalist writers of the early Nineteenth Century was the product of a catastrophic disruption of Native American society over the previous century by European settlers and conquerors.  In other words, the state of primeval nature – the overgrown forests with thick underbrush, overrun with wildlife – as described by such ostensibly perceptive men as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow or Henry David Thoreau existed because European-style civilization had supplanted Native American-style civilization, and their carefully cultivated wilderness landscapes had fallen into disrepair.

As Denevan puts it, “The pristine image of 1492 seems to be a myth, then, an image more applicable to 1750, following Indian decline.”

Asher Brown Durand’s The First Harvest in the Wilderness is impressed with the majesty of what he saw a untouched nature.  However, his painting might more accurately (if less poetically) be titled The First European-style Harvest in the Wilderness.

By the 1880’s, impacts of colonization had devastated indigenous populations, and fire exclusion became more widespread; by the early 20th century fire suppression had become official U.S. federal policy. Understanding how Native Americans used fire pre-settlement provides an important basis for studying and reconstructing subsequent fire regimes throughout the landscape and is critical to correctly interpreting the ecological basis for vegetation distribution.

Read more about how specific indigenous Americans groups shaped their world.

A section of Everglades National Park that is maintained through periodic controlled burns, which helps rangers consume dead plant material and clear invasive species. (Shark Valley, Florida, 2018.)

Further Reading

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann.


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The lush product of controlled burns. (Everglades National Park, Florida, 2018.)

Great Reading on the Ancient Maya

 

I recently took trip to Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula.  Forgoing the usual tourist center of Cancun and the Riviera Maya, I headed inland to Mérida.  From this, a Maya city turned Spanish colonial center turned Mexican provincial capital, one of the oldest inhabited places in the Western Hemisphere, I undertook a short series of day trips to the great Maya ruins of the Yucatan, including Chichen Izta, Uxmal, and Ek’ Balam

To maximize my time – to make the most sense of my all too brief visit to this incredible region – I did my homework before I left the States.  Of particular use to me – and to anyone looking to learn more about the Maya and their Mesoamerican neighbors – is The Maya (People and Places) by Michael Coe.  While certain passages were somewhat esoteric in their detailed account of the history of Maya archaeology, the book itself was eminently readable – a great resource for anyone looking to cut through the hype and 2012 sensationalism that soaks the usual Amazon search results.

Aimed at younger readers – but still rich and directly written, with lush illustrations – Ancient Maya by Barbara Somervill is a book that paints a nuanced portrait of this complex society.  Suitable for a middle or high school library, and I can honestly say that as an educator I took a lot away from this book myself.  It never speaks down to its audience, which is the sign that a book is truly accessible to all ages.

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann is a perennial favorite of mine.  While its scope is far wider than the Maya – encompassing Teotihuacan, the Aztec, the Inca, and many more Pre-Columbian societies that deserve more attention from the general public, Mann’s masterpiece is a true revelation – an inspiration that started me down the path that eventually led to the creation of Openendedsocialstudies.org.

If you know of any other relevant books I should be looking at – especially if they might help to inform future travel and lessons here at Openendedsocialstudies – please leave a comment in the section below!