George Washington Lived in an Indian World, But His Biographies Have Erased Native People

It’s good to be reminded that imperial expansionism was central to the American project. And it began with the first president, George Washington, in his relationship with natives and in his addiction to land speculation.

The Anti-Federalists warned against making America into another empire. But the Federalists won the war of rhetoric and power. Because of this, we now live in Washington’s dream of an American Empire.


Colin G. Calloway | an excerpt adapted from The Indian World of George Washington | Oxford University Press | 23 minutes (6,057 words)

On Monday Afternoon, February 4, 1793, President George Washington sat down to dinner at his official home on Market Street in Philadelphia. Washington’s dinners were often elaborate affairs, with numerous guests, liveried servants, and plenty of food and wine. On this occasion Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of War Henry Knox, Attorney General Edmund Randolph, Governor of the Northwest Territory Arthur St. Clair, and “the Gentlemen of the President’s family” dined with him because they were hosting an official delegation. Six Indian men, two Indian women (see Author’s Note on use of the word “Indian”), and two interpreters, representing the Kaskaskia, Peoria, Piankashaw, Potawatomi, and Mascouten Nations, had traveled more than eight hundred miles from the Wabash and Illinois country to see the president…

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5 thoughts on “George Washington Lived in an Indian World, But His Biographies Have Erased Native People

  1. Along these lines, there is another recent Long Reads piece:

    For other context, I’d recommend the book Bound Away by David Hackett Fischer and James C. Kelly. Also keep in mind that the American imperialists weren’t only focused Westward but also toward Mexico, Central America, and Cuba. It was a grand vision of conquest, invasion, occupation, and acquisition.

    • I’m in my second re-reading of Blood Meridian, and I know that the author didn’t write it as a morality tale, but some of the early passages really skewer any pretensions of benign intent behind colonial expansion into the Southern hemispheres. It seems McCarthy tapped a deep and acrid vein that runs through Washington’s speculations and earlier. The early French did have a different relation with the native cultures around the eastern seaboard, and those ambiguous hybrid cultures formed by settlers cut off from the imperial mainland and the natives they traded and inter-married with were a constant irritant to the Crown’s ministers.

      Though the European powers could be relied on to protect some of their dependents, including Indians, when it benefited their interests, but now I’m venturing out of the history I know much about. I’m curious about what parts of history Paine appealed to in his arguments ( I mostly know of his attacks on monarchy, I tried incorporating some of them into my own writing), instead of the Roman model of patronage and conquest that Washington and some of the other Founders evidently followed.

      • I’ve never read it a second time. And it’s been a long while since I read it the first time. I’d have a different perspective on it now. I was largely ignorant of history at the time when I was reading books like that.

        Ya know, I think you have me stumped about Paine. I’ve never come across discussion of Paine’s knowledge of history. He was more well read than he let on. But I don’t know that he read history books. And I don’t recall coming across historical references in his writings.

        I hadn’t thought about that. It makes me curious now that you bring it up.

    • There is also Peter Onuf’s Jefferson’s Empire. It’s about Jefferson’s ideal of an “Empire of Liberty”, basically a precursor to the neocon vision of American imperialism.

      “…we shall divert through our own Country a branch of commerce which the European States have thought worthy of the most important struggles and sacrifices, and in the event of peace on terms which have been contemplated by some powers we shall form to the American union a barrier against the dangerous extension of the British Province of Canada and add to the Empire of liberty an extensive and fertile Country thereby converting dangerous Enemies into valuable friends.” – Jefferson to George Rogers Clark, 25 December 1780

      “we should then have only to include the North in our confederacy, which would be of course in the first war, and we should have such an empire for liberty as she has never surveyed since the creation: & I am persuaded no constitution was ever before so well calculated as ours for extensive empire & self government.” – Jefferson to James Madison, 27 April 1809

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