October 25, 2012Vol. 43, Issue 2

Building Empire in 18th-Century North America

Speculators in Empire: Iroquoia and the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix

A new book by William Campbell, History

The buildup to the Revolutionary War and the U.S. national narrative overshadows the story of 18th-century North America—especially as it is told, and taught, in the United States, says William Campbell, History.

“Most history that talks about early America will typically switch thematic perspective after the Seven Years' War in 1763,” he says. “And everything talked about post-1763 is talked about in the context of leading to the revolution.”

But the lived reality of the people at the time had less to do with the “stuff leading to revolution,” he says, and more to do with empire building, both native and European.

William Campbell

William Campbell

“The revolution itself was largely a product of a minority of the population,” he adds. “Even John Adams said only one third of colonials were ‘ardent patriots’—the two-thirds being either ‘ardent loyalists’ or, most likely, indifferent to the revolutionary cause.

“Adams, of course, was only talking about white colonists. When one considers the involvement of First Nations and enslaved Africans, the story becomes much more telling.”

In the end, says Campbell, “the conflict that birthed this nation is much better approached and understood as a civil war.” 

Campbell now brings scholarly attention to the lesser-known history of the time after the French and Indian War with his new book, Speculators in Empire: Iroquoia and the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix.

Campbell has looked closely at early North American history since his graduate work at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada. He specializes in contact, colonization, land claims, and treaty rights.  His study of the 1768 treaty looks at the complex negotiations between colonial officials, land speculators, traders, tribes, and individual Indians.

At Fort Stanwix, the British negotiated with the Iroquois to readjust the boundary line established by the Royal Proclamation of 1763 that divided American Indian lands from colonial settlements. The result was the largest land cession in colonial North America. The British gained tens of millions of acres including parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia—lands the Iroquois did not occupy themselves.

“The book explores the building of empire post-Seven Years' War and the dynamics of who is involved in the land treaty and speculation. Who benefits and who doesn’t,” he says. “And this lends much more credit to the idea that the most momentous and transformative events taking place at that time had little to do with events most commonly associated with leading up to colonial revolution.”

Thousands of people gathered at Fort Stanwix to negotiate this massive land transaction. The result was a treaty that would have a colossal impact on the continent’s First Nations for the next half century.

In the book, Campbell argues that the Iroquois, while lacking military might at this point in history, had significant diplomatic power. They understood the English legal system; their history of negotiating with the English was nearly a century and a half long. They were “well trained in the legalities of exploitation.” And they leveraged this power to protect their own culture and territorial lands, using the treaty process to deflect colonial settlement into the Ohio country.

“The Iroquois themselves were players in the exploitation of other First Nations in an attempt to protect their own homeland [located in what is upstate New York today to south of the Great Lakes],” says Campbell. “They demonstrated clear understanding of the British legal system because they negotiated clear land rights for themselves. They were speculators in empire.

“The British wanted the native population—in the form of the Iroquois—to legally cede land. That gave the 1768 proceedings some notion of legality in the exploitation and extension of settlement westward.”

The Treaty of Fort Stanwix has been largely overlooked by historians, says Campbell. “No one has really paid much attention to it—even though it was the largest gathering of both native and colonial representatives in early American history. Literally thousands of people gathered at Fort Stanwix to negotiate this massive land transaction. The result was a treaty that would have a colossal impact on the continent’s First Nations for the next half century.”

“At the very least, my book gives readers an account of that history, which sets off another four decades of conflict west of the Appalachian Mountains—with British representatives and then American representatives and native nations—the latter who were fighting for their freedom, sovereignty, and independence.”

Campbell is now looking at how treaties, commonly thought to quell tensions at the end of a conflict, often actually catalyze another period of conflict.

“My new project will look at treaties from the 17th century up until the 19th century in early North America, Canada, and the United States,” he says. “But the focus will not be on a national narratives, rather on what those treaties meant in terms of future conflict for Native American populations.”

—Anna Harris, Public Affairs and Publications