Native Americans were the featured villains in what were probably the first non-supernatural conspiracy fears experienced by European migrants to America.
Fear and Loathing in the American Woods
The early American frontier was in many ways a deeply fearful place, especially in the first decades of white settlement in any given region. Settlers knew little about their new home’s existing occupants, and possessed only the sketchiest notions of how many there were, where they lived, and what their intentions might be.
Though as many as 7 million people lived above the Rio Grande at the time of first contact, Europeans thought of North America as, in Pilgrim leader William Bradford’s words, a “hideous and desolate wilderness”.
In traditional Judeo-Christian culture, wilderness was a place to be feared rather than cherished, a place where monsters and devils lived to test the faith of good, civilized people.
Especially among the New England Puritans, it was commonly believed that the Indians were devil worshippers out to do their master’s bidding, though not actual devils themselves. (However, it was considered quite likely that the Indians lived among real monsters, including dragons!) Thus the expectation of confronting ultimate evil was built into the Puritans’ sense of their “errand into the wilderness”
Certainly not all the colonists shared the Puritans’ high level of theological dread, but some fear of the Indians was fairly constant and not without justification, since over the first three centuries of European settlement, there was always some part of North America where the natives were resisting their own conquest and displacement.
This resistance often took the form of a raiding style of warfare that was intended to spread terror and usually preferred striking at weakly defended targets, like an outlying cabin or an isolated outpost. Always seeking ways of fighting that minimized their own casualties, Indian war leaders were not above using devious tactics such as ambushes, sneak attacks, and feigning peaceful intentions.
One of the great Indian victories during Pontiac’s Rebellion (or War or Conspiracy, depending on your point of view) of 1763, the Ojibways’ triumph over the British at Ft. Michilimackinac was accomplished by lulling the soldiers into complacency with a friendly game of ball. The Indian players hit the ball into the open gates of the fort, chased after it, then suddenly attacked with weapons the Ojibway women had smuggled inside the post while the whites were watching the game.
Though the European armies of the Early Modern Period were no slouches at wreaking death and destruction on the civilian population, Indian warfare was perceived as particularly and intimately awful. In some ways Indians were better at distinguishing their targets than whites were—the French were often spared in raids on European outposts— but their military customs made few allowances for noncombatants.
Indian massacre stories invariably featured a scene in which a warrior tore an infant from her mother’s arms and dashed her head against a hearth or a tree; this became a cliché, but by no means one without a basis in reality. Numerous common practices of Indian warfare haunted the dreams of European settlers, soldiers, and officials, especially the scalping or other mutilation of victims’ bodies and the taking of captives to be assimilated into Indian society.
(It should be noted that whites fighting Indians made few such allowances themselves, and showed far less interest than the Indians in taking captives. Nevertheless, white attacks on Indian villages were called “raids” or “battles,” while successful Indian attacks on white settlements or military posts were termed “massacres.”)
This fear of assimilation by an alien, collectively minded society, a recurrent theme in the annals of American conspiracy theory, has one of its roots in tales of captivity among the Indians. Some of the stories even admitted what historians have found to be true, that many captives, especially women and children, were successfully assimiliated, and showed little desire to return to European ways. Ever more lurid Indian captivity narratives became a staple of American popular culture, and perhaps its first unique contribution to world literature.
The earlier comment about Indians haunting settlers’ dreams should be taken quite literally. Recent interpretations of the 1692 Salem witchcraft crisis have emphasized the role of New England’s lateseventeenth-century Indian wars (1675–1678 and 1688–1691) in generating the psychological stress and supernatural fears that exploded in Massachusetts.
A large number of the accusers had some direct or immediate family experience with the Indian wars, and those who didn’t had probably read Mary Rowlandson’s popular, then recently published book on her experience as a captive during the earlier conflict, King Philip’s War. The witchcraft evil was thought to have first come from Indian powwows in the forest, and the devil appeared to several Massachusetts women as “a thing like an Indian,” or “a Tawny man”.
Accuser Mary Toothaker of Billerica finally admitted under questioning that she had lashed out because she was “troubled w’h feare about the Indians, & used to dream of fighting with them.” Toothaker claimed to have signed up with the devil herself because he had “promised to keep her from the Indians”.
At least these colonial New Englanders had some direct or nearly direct experience of the Indians they feared so much. In later centuries, far more white Americans eagerly consumed Indian atrocity stories around the family table and in popular literature and newspapers than ever interacted with Indians or witnessed an Indian raid.
Given the emphasis placed on the depredations of “murderous savages” in their information about the Indians, it is perhaps not surprising that nineteenth-century migrants heading to the Pacific coast on the Overland Trail brought hair-trigger emotions to all their thoughts and actions concerning Indians.
Many reported their scalps itching at the very thought of Indians. Most westering travelers suffered “far more,” according to historian Glenda Riley, “from their own anxieties what could happen to them than from what actually did happen”.
Unfortunately, the Indians themselves did suffer, at the hands of settlers who were easily panicked into acts of violence and prejudice, and eager to support harsh government policies against Indians, having learned to deal with their anxieties by fearing and hating the natives.
The Myth of the Superchief
Although it would be stretching the definition of conspiracy theory to include all fears of Indian attack in this category, much of what settlers, soldiers, and government officials believed about the Indians certainly does qualify. Whites often became convinced that the Indians of different villages, tribes, and languages were leagued against them, and secretly plotting mayhem even when relations were peaceful and friendly.
In some respects, a conspiracy model of Indian behavior came naturally to Europeans, who struggled to understand or even perceive the complex cultural, social, and political distinctions among the various Indian groups they encountered. As with many cross-cultural conspiracy theories, it was easy to move from lumping all Indians together culturally to believing that all Indians were working together against the colonists.
This pattern emerged even before the beginning of permanent settlement. The leaders of the 1585 lost colony of Roanoke abandoned their island off the coast of present North Carolina out of a belief that Pemisapan, the weroance of the local Indian village, had organized a region-wide conspiracy, involving many tribes, to starve and then wipe out the colony.
According to historian Michael Oberg, Pemisapan had probably done nothing more than “grown weary of an intolerant, violent, contagious, and dependent people”, and, quite understandably, moved his village off Roanoke Island to a more congenial neighborhood. Even so, colony commander Ralph Lane led a force that brought back the weroance’s head, the culmination of a pattern of precipitous, threatening actions by Lane.
“No conspiracy is needed,” writes Oberg, to explain the growing hostility of the region’s Indians to the Roanoke colony. The English settlement abruptly shifted locations after Pemisapan’s death, and disappeared completely a few years after that.
Pemisapan represents the original version of two ideas that became standard parts of conspiracy theories about the Indians: the Indian mastermind or monarch in control of tens of thousands of warriors, and the unfaithful Indian ally or convert.
From “Pemisapan’s Conspiracy” on, serious or widespread Indian resistance was usually attributed by Europeans and later chroniclers to the machinations of some preternaturally brilliant, all-powerful “superchief” (Bourne, 202).
This analysis may have been somewhat accurate for the Powhatan Indian rebellions against Virginia in 1622 and 1644, which almost destroyed the colony and are generally thought to be the work of the war chief turned paramount chief Opechanacanough, Pocahontas’s uncle, and the reputed power behind her father Powhatan’s throne.
The reputations of most other putative Indian masterminds were built on much shakier foundations. In many cases, a widespread conflict was blamed on someone who was really only a major figure in some critical early encounter, or promoted himself as the primary conspirator in a later treaty with the white authorities.
For instance, New England propagandists depicted their apocalyptic, region-wide Indian war of 1675–1678 as the work of Philip, sachem of Pokanoket, whom they dubbed “King Philip” to reemphasize their claim that the conflict was, as Russell Bourne puts it, “not a series of separate raids by provoked people but a brilliantly orchestrated war, conducted by a devilish military genius”.
Besides personalizing the conflict as conspiracy theories so often do, this conspiratorial view of the New England Indians’ resistance was a political and ethical convenience for whites, who were authorized by their belief in this evil plot to ignore the role of their own behavior in the Indians’ unrest, take extreme measures against tribes whose land rights conflicted with their ambitions, and to declare the masalah solved when the designated villain was eliminated.
Philip (who changed his name from Metacom when he became sachem) was the son of Massassoit, the Indian chief who had befriended the Pilgrims and allowed their Plymouth Colony to survive. Relations had deteriorated after Massassoit’s death as the local fur trade dried up and agricultural settlement expanded, bringing livestock that consumed the Indians’ open-field crops and forcing them into economic dependence upon whites.
Philip and his people also chafed under Plymouth’s unequal laws, which had recently been used to try to hang three of Philip’s followers. Plymouth leaders coveted the Pokanokets’ land, and eagerly accepted rumors circulated against Philip by the sachem’s Indian political rivals, to the effect the sachem planned a major war, possibly in concert with the French.
When Philip was recorded at a meeting with Rhode Island officials complaining about his people’s mistreatment by Plymouth, and vowing that he was “determined not to live until I have no country”, the mantle of conspiratorial mastermind was fitted and ready to be forced on him.
Philip was thought to be seeking the extermination of New England’s white population. The Pokanokets did begin hostilities with a much exaggerated raid on the nearby town of Swansea, but Philip himself spent the war running while the Narragansetts, Abenakis, and other tribes around New England did most of the fighting.
He nevertheless always remained New England’s primary target, and by the end of the war, his village had vanished, his wife and son had been sold into slavery, and his dismembered body was on display in the town of Plymouth.
Pontiac played a similarly inflated role in accounts of the 1763 “conspiracy” that bears his name. An obscure Odawa war leader (not a chief), Pontiac touched off a frontier-wide uprising but actually led only one phase of it, the failed siege of Ft. Detroit.
Both he and the British tried to advance their interests in the aftermath of the war, concluding a peace treaty that bolstered British claims to the Trans-Appalachian West and acknowledged Pontiac an Indian potentate, but probably got the former rebel assassinated as a traitor to the Indian cause.
As they had long done with the alleged “conquests” of the Iroquois “Empire,” the British authorities and the Anglo-American colonists exaggerated Pontiac’s power and status in ways that magnified both the military threat he posed and the glory and power that accrued to those who had pacified him.
The operative theory regarding Pontiac and many other superchiefs was well expressed in “Ponteach, or the Savages of America,” a drama published in 1766 by French and Indian War pendekar Robert Rogers.
Rogers’s Ponteach is a haughty forest emperor laid tragically low by his pride. “This Country’s mine, and here I reign as King,” a king whose “Empire’s measured only by the Sun,” the character asserts in explaining his disdain for British authority.
In fact, it is unlikely that general Indian uprisings could ever have been the work of a single conspiratorial mastermind, or even a knot of them. The primitive nature of the available means of communication alone—symbolic war belts of clamshell beads (“wampum”) were used to coordinate the 1763 risings—precluded any sort of command and control. Conspiracies were unlikely for more fundamental cultural reasons as well.
Most North American Indian tribes lacked any sort of true chief executive who could impose his will on his followers. A chief, unlike a European general, governor, or king, drew his power not from law or force, but only from the respect and love that his prowess, wisdom, and generosity had garnered among his people, who could obey him or not as they chose.
The superchief mythology, from the exaggerations of the leader’s influence and the depth of his scheming to the popular dramas (and often place names) that celebrated his nobility in defeat, was applied successively to every significant Indian resistance leader after Pontiac, from John Logan of the 1774 Lord Dunmore’s War (immortalized in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on Virginia for his oratorical prowess) to Tecumseh, Black Hawk, and Osceola in the early nineteenth century and, in a somewhat less conspiratorial vein, to such far western Indian rebels as Cochise, Geronimo, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse. It was applied retroactively to Philip in one of the antebellum era’s most popular plays, “Metamora.”
The celebrity that the superchief myth brought all of these men should not obscure how damaging it was to Indian people when they were still struggling to stay in their homelands. In their time, the names of all of these leaders were capable of plunging whole frontiers into panic, and such panics usually brought on white military campaigns that would be followed by the expropriation of Indian lands.
“Our Most Dangerous Enemies”: Indian Converts and Allies as Victims of Conspiracy Fears
Far more harmful than the “superchief” myth, in terms of the brutality it inspired in whites, was the related conspiracy theory that all Indians alike were actual or potential enemies, no matter what attitude they professed to hold toward whites. Even Indians who had become Christians, pursued white occupations, and lived peaceably near white towns for decades were treated as likely traitors, spies, and saboteurs.
Since the beginning of European contact, the colonizers had been urging the natives to lay down their weapons, adopt European ways of life, and convert to the Christian religion. Most Indians resisted this pressure when they could, but for many resistance became impossible once European settlement had engulfed their homelands.
Some responded to the urgings of Christian missionaries and adopted the faith, while others sought to simply live as quietly as they could, at peace with the settlers or even joining in the whites’ battles with other Indians.
In most of the colonies, then, there were at least small communities of peaceful and often Christian Indians living near white towns and farms. In times of general Indian conspiracy scares, these communities became deeply suspicious to whites, and often suffered as much or more than the tribes actually engaged in hostilities.
The residents of Puritan missionary John Eliot’s “praying towns” discovered this during King Philip’s War. Stories circulated of “Praying Indians” joining in raids on Christian towns and spying for the rebels. According to historian Jenny Hale Pulsipher, “The English were quick to believe tales of Christian Indian perfidy,” and the burning of English barns or haystacks “became pretexts for English violence against the praying towns”.
The Christian Indians at Wamesit had to abandon their village and food supplies in late 1675 after furious English militiamen fired on them without warning on two separate occasions, in one incident wounding a number of women and children, a twelve-year-old fatally. Various Puritan commentators questioned the sincerity of Indian religious conversions and depicted the “Praying Indians” as contemptible mockeries of Christianity.
Sometimes with and sometimes without official approval, New England troops sacked the villages of Indian Christians and Indian allies. Meanwhile, the authorities shut down many praying towns and interned numerous friendly natives on barren Deer Island in Boston Harbor. Some praying Indians even shared the fate of Philip’s family, enslavement in the Caribbean.
Other groups of peaceful Christian Indians were visited by some of the worst atrocities in the annals of European-Indian relations in North America. The infamous Paxton Boys massacre, for instance, was part of the fallout from the conspiracy theories surrounding Pontiac.
The Pennsylvania frontier had been wracked by Indian raids both during the 1763 rebellion and the French and Indian War that preceded it. There were a number of Christian Indian villages in the colony, including Conestoga, where a handful of people eked out a meager living selling bowls and baskets.
Looking for payback and charging that some of the Conestoga men had fought with Pontiac, a number of men from the town of Paxton, on the Susquehanna River in east-central Pennsylvania, concluded that these supposedly friendly Indians amounted to a “Basket & Broom-making Bandittey” who were “in Reality our most dangerous enemies”.
A week and a half before Christmas, 1763, fiftyfour Scots-Irish men from Paxton rode to Conestoga, and shot and hacked to death six Indians they found there, allegedly in revenge for Pontiac’s Rebellion. Local authorities gathered the surviving Conestogas (who had been lucky enough to be out) and placed them in a workhouse for protection. The men from Paxton soon rode in and killed the rest.
Far from horrifying their fellow Pennsylvanians, the “Paxton Boys” found themselves at the head of a popular cause. Their numbers swelled with new recruits, the Paxton Boys rode down to Philadelphia, in arms, to take some Christian Delaware Indians being protected there and topple the government itself if necessary. A manifesto was issued in which the supposedly Quaker-dominated government of Pennsylvania was charged with being insensitive to frontier needs because it was too soft on the Indians.
A poem called “The Cloven Foot Discovered” expressed the settlers’ view that whites who gave sympathy or aid to any Indians were traitors to their fellow colonists and fellow travelers of the Indians’ secret plots against the frontier settlements:
Go, good Christians, never spareOnly some fast talking by leading Pennsylvania politician Benjamin Franklin finally defused the Paxton Boys situation, but not before more than fifty of the “protected” Christian Delawares died of diseases in the city.
To give your Indians Clothes to wear
Send ’em good Beef, and Pork, and Bread,
Guns, Powders, Flints, and Stores of Lead,
To Shoot Your Neighbours Through the Head;...
Encourage every friendly Savage
To murder, burn, destroy, and ravage.
Time and again in early America, peaceful Christian Indians found that the most dangerous place to be was anywhere near their supposed allies and coreligionists, the Anglo-American settlers.
No matter how devout a Christian and firmly committed to peace and friendship with whites a group of Indians might be, many settlers assumed all Indians were secretly conspiring against them, and in the right circumstances might slaughter whatever Indians they happened to run across. The biggest masalah that the young United States had in recruiting Indian allies during the Revolutionary War was the fact that pro-American chiefs kept getting killed by American soldiers.
By far the most heinous example of intentional “friendly fire” on Indians during the Revolution can be found in a 1782 incident that came to be known as the Gnadenhutten massacre, in present east-central Ohio. The “Ohio Country” was a bitter battleground between the British and Indians on the one hand, and the settlers just south of the Ohio River in Kentucky on the other.
German American missionaries from a sect called the Moravians had converted large numbers of Delaware Indians who lived in this area to Christianity and kept them on the American side. The Moravians were pacifists, so once converted these Indians did not even believe in fighting.
The Christian Indians of Gnadenhutten happened to be harvesting their corn one day in 1782 when a war party of American settlers appeared. They were pursuing some hostile Indians who had been seen in the area.
The settlers charged the friendly villagers of Gnadenhutten with being warriors, pointing to the existence of European implements, such as axes, spoons, and tea kettles, in this village of Indians who had adopted white lifestyles, as evidence they had killed and stolen from whites.
On the strength of this flimsy evidence, the Gnadenhutten Indians were sentenced to death. They spent the night praying to the European God, and in the morning the settlers dragged the Indians out of their cabins in groups of two or three and executed them with a mallet so as not to waste ammunition.
These sorts of incidents often turned white suspicions about Christian and friendly Indians into self-fulfilling prophecies. With friends like the American settlers, many Indians reasoned, who needed enemies?
During wars and war scares with neighboring colonial powers like Great Britain, France, and Spain, most Indians with any access to the “foreign” power were quite willing to work with them against the settlers and/or the United States if they possibly could, though the Indians’ fondest desire was always to be left relatively independent of any European power.
Colonial and U.S. officials frequently turned this rational pattern of Indian behavior into the basis of another sort of conspiracy theory, of the Indians as cat’s-paws of foreigners out to split off pieces of their territory or curb American expansion.
Andrew Jackson first made a name for himself by brutally precluding the possibility that the southeastern Indians might collaborate with the Spanish or British to block the United States from accessing the Gulf Coast and its ports.
This was the basic aim of his campaigns against the Creeks, the British, and the Seminoles between 1813 and 1818, which began with a settler panic about a “massacre” at Ft. Mims in Alabama, and ended with the summary execution of two British citizens and an Indian religious leader and the forcible U.S. annexation of Spanish Florida.
But at least Jackson’s enemies were genuinely hostile to the United States. Unfortunately, the mistreatment of friendly and Christian Indians continued long after the point had passed when Indians posed any real threat to the United States and even in cases where they could hardly have done more to demonstrate their loyalty. Perhaps the most egregious example of many occurred in Civil War kurun Minnesota.
A group of Winnebago Indians, previously removed by the government from their Wisconsin homeland, were living peacefully in the manner of white farmers in the area around Blue Earth. When a Sioux uprising broke out in 1862, the Winnebago were forced out of their homes as a security threat, and sent to a new reservation in a barren section of present Nebraska.
The Winnebago had no connection to the Sioux outbreak, and could not have made much of a military contribution to it in any case, since most of the fighting-age Winnebago men were serving in the Union army at the time. The Winnebago veterans would find no homes to return to after the war. At that point, many of them doubtless wished they had been conspiring against the United States.