People & Places

Then Again: As Americans fought the British, Abenaki people were caught in the middle

The Abenaki and other Algonquin tribes supported the French during a series of wars with the British between the mid-1600s and mid-1700s. After the French eventually lost to Britain and the American Revolution broke out, the indigenous populations of Canada and the Northeast had to decide which side to support. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

What can be more terrifying than living in a society descending into chaos and on the brink of war?

Imagine for a moment you are an Abenaki person living in Vermont at the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. Suddenly you are living in the midst of two warring groups, and faced with a difficult decision: Which side will you support? Will you back the British or the rebelling American colonists?

Abenaki people faced this dilemma during the late 1770s, when the war’s outcome was far from certain. Who would want to have to make this kind of choice?

They had confronted this sort of question already, ever since Europeans first arrived in the region in significant numbers. For a century and a half, starting in the early 1600s, they had backed the French against the British.

That choice had perhaps been easier. The French had arrived in Canada well armed, with a plan to establish colonies there, and eventually started moving into the Champlain Valley. The alternative to finding an accommodation with the French would probably have meant fighting them. Besides, why not side with the French? After all, they were offering to help the Algonquin tribes, including Abenaki, defeat their longtime foes, the Iroquois. The French wanted to ally with the Algonquin to gain a large piece of the region’s fur trade.

From the perspective of the French, the Algonquin proved valuable allies throughout numerous wars that rocked the Northeast and Canada, starting with King Philip’s War (1675-77) and not concluding until five wars and nearly a century later, with the French and Indian War, which ran from 1754 to 1763. That last war ended with a major French defeat, which meant the French were finished as a political and military force in North America, though of course many French people continued to make their homes in Canada.

Although the fighting had stopped, the era created fresh challenges for the Abenaki tribes of Vermont. Peace brought a sense of stability that encouraged British colonists to move north into Vermont, where land was cheap, plentiful and no longer sitting on the fault line between warring nations. Suddenly settlements sprang up seemingly everywhere.

Which colony owned the land that is today Vermont was much in debate, with New York and New Hampshire making forceful claims. By 1764, New Hampshire’s governor had issued charters to 112 towns in the area then known as the New Hampshire Grants. Not to be outdone, New York issued competing charters. By the mid-1770s, the two neighboring colonies had issued grants to roughly 3.5 million of Vermont’s 5.9 million acres.

Issuing grants wasn’t the same as actually settling the land. That was much harder, but thousands of colonists from Massachusetts and Connecticut, and some from as far away as Scotland, did move north into Vermont, believing it was their right to do so. The land had, of course, belonged for untold generations to Indigenous people. But by the 1770s, the Indigenous population of Vermont had been drastically reduced by epidemics and warfare. Those who remained found their ancestral lands encroached upon by growing numbers of British settlers. The population of the Grants soared from roughly 400 settlers in 1762 to 20,000 in 1775.

Peace lasted barely a dozen years. When hostilities erupted again, the situation baffled some Abenaki. They were used to the British and French hating each other, but this war, a sort of civil war pitting a country and its own colonists, was bizarre. As one Abenaki woman said, “O strange English men kill one another. I think the world is coming to an end.”

Not surprisingly, individual Abenakis made different choices in deciding how to deal with this chaotic world. Some backed the British, while others supported the Americans. And many more tried to remain neutral, since this wasn’t their fight.

But staying neutral proved difficult as Vermont played a strategic role in the war. The British military in Canada viewed the Champlain Valley as the best invasion route. In addition, the rebel stronghold at Newbury in the Upper Connecticut River Valley (known by Abenaki people as Coos or Cowass) was also a concern for the British.

Both sides viewed Vermont’s Abenaki population as an important ally and tried to win them over. The British offered them favorable trading terms and promised that they could keep their ancestral lands. American colonists offered trade and military protection.

Each side won converts. Abenaki warriors were among the Native Americans who fought with the British in the unsuccessful defense of St. John in Quebec, and the successful defense of Montreal. They also helped the British defeat the American force at Valcour Island on Lake Champlain in 1776. Other Abenaki warriors, however, joined Gen. Washington’s forces, laying siege to British-held Boston, and fought with the Americans during their failed invasion of Quebec.

Word of that spectacular American defeat at Quebec terrified Vermont settlers. The American army was in full retreat, carrying smallpox with it, and being pursued by the British troops and warriors from several tribes. The townspeople of Newbury strengthened their fortifications and braced for an assault. The news also frightened local Abenaki, who sought refuge in the settlers’ blockhouses. When an attack failed to materialize, the settlers and Abenaki people left the safety of the blockhouses, perhaps realizing that sometimes their fates were connected.

Gen. Bayley and others viewed Abenaki warriors as an important buffer against a British attack on the Upper Valley. Bayley said he would match the trading terms offered by the British, because “if the Indians trade with us we need no Soldiers.”

In July 1777, a group of 45 Abenaki families left Canada for the New Hampshire Grants, seeking to settle somewhere north of Newbury. An American general ordered local officers to settle them near the American settlement. They wouldn’t have to fight in the current military campaign, the general wrote, but “we expect that they hold themselves in readiness to give us their aid should it be wanted in the next.”

Throughout the war, the loyalty of Abenaki living in Vermont shifted as events unfolded. Their fluid allegiance drove the British and Americans to distraction. The British grumbled that Abenaki just picked whichever side they believed was strongest; the Americans had similar complaints.

How did the British and Americans think Abenaki people should decide whom to support? Did they expect them to be motivated by loyalty, to a cause that wasn’t their own? Whatever side they chose to back, it must have been an excruciating decision in a dangerous and chaotic world, possibly with life-or-death consequences. Who can fault anyone if they made their choice based on self-interest?

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Mark Bushnell

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