The American Revolution was a transformative event in American and global history, creating a new and confident American Republic and frustrating Great Britain’s imperial ambitions. But the effects of this war on non-Western groups are rarely considered. As we close out our month highlighting documents from the American Revolution, we invite you to take a closer look at the profound impact the new nation had on Native Americans. Saukamappee’s “Death Came Over Us All” describes an attack on an enemy camp and the spread of smallpox, a disease originating with Europeans, which resulted from the encounter. A study of this document reminds us that while the American Revolution stood for freedom and liberty for some, it represented violence, disease, and death for countless Native Americans.
By the close of the eighteenth century, the lives of most Native Americans had been transformed by the presence of American colonists. Suffering increasing demands on lands and resources, many Native American groups were displaced into territories occupied by other tribes, as shown in the image above of a nineteenth century depiction of a deadly battle between and Blackfoot and Plains Cree warrior on horseback. Trade in horses, gunpowder weapons, and furs had both benefited and harmed Native populations as wars over territory became more frequent and violent. Along with trade came new diseases to which Native Americans had no immunity. As tribes fragmented due to conquest, starvation, and illness, members of smaller tribes were sometimes adopted into new communities.
In the winter of 1787–88, a fur trader by the name of David Thompson was trading with members of the Blackfoot Confederacy in present-day Montana. While there, he recorded the firsthand account of Saukamappee, a Cree elder who had participated in the struggle to protect Blackfoot lands from Shoshoni, or Snake, Indians. Saukamappee, who had lost most of his own tribe to war and smallpox, was living amongst the Blackfoot when Thompson found him. Thompson described Saukamappee as “an old man of at least 75 to 80 years of age . . . his face slightly marked with the smallpox.”
The following passage from Thompson’s account of his conversation with Saukamappee highlights the effects of encroachment on the Native American population. Thompson’s words show that displacement, disease, and violence were decimating Native American populations:
The second day after this dreadful disease broke out in our camp, and spread from one tent to another as if the Bad Spirit carried it. We had no belief that one Man could give it to another, anymore than a wounded Man could give his wound to another. We did not suffer so much as those that were near the river, into which they rushed and died. We had only a little brook, and about one third of us died, but in some of the other camps there were tents in which everyone died. When at length it left us, and we moved about to find our people, it was no longer with the song and dance; But with the tears, shrieks, and how lings of despair for those who had never returned to us. War was no longer thought of, we had enough to do to hunt and make provisions for our families, for in our sickness we had consumed all our dried provisions; But the Bisons and Red Deer were also gone, we did not see one half of what was before, whether they had gone we could not tell, we believe the Good Spirit had forsaken us, and allowed the bad spirit to become our master. What little we could spare we offered to the Bad Spirit to let us alone and go to or our enemies. To the Good Spirit we offered feathers, branches of the trees, and sweet smelling grass. Our hearts were low and dejected, and we shall never be again the same people.
This document and others featuring the impact of Western Expansion on Native American tribes can be found in The Schlager Anthology of Western Expansion.