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“No Savage Shall Inherit the Land”: The Indian Enemy Other, Indiscriminate Warfare, and American National Identity, 1607-1783

by Walter L. Hixson


US Foreign Policy and the Other

John Quincy Adams warned Americans not to search abroad for monsters to destroy, yet such figures have frequently habituated the discourses of U.S. foreign policy. U.S. Foreign Policy And The Other focuses on counter-identities in American consciousness to explain how foreign policies and the discourse surrounding them develop. This excerpt, adapted from Chapter 1. “No Savage Shall Inherit the Land”: The Indian Enemy Other, Indiscriminate Warfare, and American National Identity, 1607-1783, looks at how Native Americans, as the primary and quintessential American other, proved central to forging national identity. This book is now available in paperback.


Prior to the arrival of Europeans the land that they would call the new world was of course not new at all but rather a “thriving, stunningly diverse place, a tumult of languages, trade, and culture, a region where millions of people loved and hated and worshipped as people do everywhere.”11 Only 160 or so years later, by the middle of the seventeenth century, European diseases devastated Indian populations that had acquired no immunities, killing as much as 90 percent of the indigenous population. But this period, and the generations that followed, would also be characterized by violent Indian removal, a process that occurred in concert with the formation of early American national identity. It may thus be useful to “track the violence embedded in the articulations of national identity and territoriality” in U.S. history.12


Fueled by the discourses associated with early-modern capitalism, Christianity, and racial formation, European settler colonialists drove Indians from the land over the longue dureé of early American history. As private property and individual landholding became foundational under modernity, Europeans violently displaced Indians for personal gain. Christian texts, such as the admonition in Genesis 1:28 to “subdue the earth and have dominion over every living thing that moves on the earth,” undergirded conquest of both the human and environmental other. Indians, then, like the land itself, became blank spaces on the colonial map, there to be conquered. Racial modernity—especially with the unfolding of the African slave trade, the largest forced migration in human history— reinforced violent repression and dispossession. “Convinced that Europe was synonymous with civilization,” Colin Calloway notes, “colonizing Europeans failed to see anything of value in Indian civilization.”13


The European colonial assault on the Americas encompassed a continuous history of extirpative war sanctioned by the “savagery” of the Indian other. Although Protestant Europeans denounced cruelties associated with the conquistadores, settler colonialism proved no less destructive of Indian cultures. Fueled by the modernist discourses of individual opportunity, “the pilgrim’s progress,” and the inevitable triumph of a superior people, Euro-American settlers repeatedly resorted to indiscriminate warfare to drive out or destroy their “savage neighbors.”14


Perplexed and repulsed by the concept of private property, Indians often proved willing to share space but not to remove from it in deference to European settler colonialism. Indians used and changed the land for their own purposes but they refused to see the land as something to be carved up and claimed by the individual. The Euro-Americans, however, could see it in no other way. To the Euro-Americans under modernity, a sovereign people, under God, were on a mission to take command over nature, including the savage Indians. This process entailed demarcation and control of space; establishment of boundaries, maps, surveys, treaties, and seizures; and the commodification of the land. Individual Euro-American settlers, as British authorities as well as the Indians would discover, would not be restrained in their borderland expansion. Although settler colonialists would perfect the art of taking Indian lands through unequal treaties and other modernist legal means, extirpative warfare inhered in the emergent American identity.15


Amerindians engaged in violence as well as trade and diplomacy as they evolved complex strategies of homeland defense. Highly gendered, Indian violence typically focused on the individual attainment of the masculine warrior through demonstration of his bravery in the field. Most indigenous groups had strong warrior traditions dating back for centuries. Warfare characteristically was short and seasonal but often cruel and vicious. Indians had fought each other for centuries; they regularly aligned with Euro-Americans to kill other Indians; they attacked by surprise, killed, took scalps, tortured their captives often excruciatingly, and sometimes posed the corpses of dead women, children, and babies to taunt and to terrorize. Native Americans rarely sought to annihilate their enemies, to wipe them from the face of the earth; they typically did not demand unconditional surrender or utter destruction of their foes. They sometimes engaged in rape but apparently less often than did the Euro-Americans.


The cultural practice of adopting captives distinguished most Amerindian tribes from the Euro-American way of war. Indians took into their societies captives—both Indian and white—to replace those who had been lost. For many North American Indian tribes, ravaged by disease, war and captive taking provided the only means to rebuild their numbers. Rather than wage indiscriminate warfare, Indians typically preferred to take captives rather than to kill.


Though routinely depicted in Euro-American discourse as bloodthirsty savages, Indians also engaged in trade and diplomacy using deeply embedded traditions involving council fires, wampum and gift exchanges, and smoking of the calumet. Indians participated vigorously in trade and commerce, especially the fur trade, obtaining firearms and other European products in exchange for beaver pelts. Indians both allied with Europeans and played them off against each other or against their own indigenous rivals. Various Indian groups conducted painstaking negotiations to remove land from commercialization, often winning concessions from their British and American counterparts. Indeed, “The concessions wrung from British and American governments over the colonial and early national eras are testimony to Amerindian political acumen in the face of daunting pressures.”16


Following the arrival of Europeans in the Chesapeake region, the Algonquian Indian leader Powhatan initially pursued a diplomatic understanding with the settlers. Powhatan presided over the thirty or so tribes, about 7,500 Indians in total across some eighty miles between the James and Potomac Rivers. In the famous incident of December 1607—a prelude to ethnic violence has been rendered as a love story—Powhatan may have sought to display his prowess to let live or destroy the English colonists when one of his daughters, Pocahontas, saved the English mercenary John Smith from execution. Smith, a veteran of prior warfare against the Islamic Eurasian enemy other, failed to appreciate the gesture, as he viewed the Indians as heathen savages. When conflict later erupted, it was Smith who pioneered the tradition of irregular war in the new world by burning and razing Indian homes and agricultural fields. “Inspired by Smith’s success, the Virginia Company institutionalized the measures he had pursued.”17


Virginia’s first governor, Francis Wyatt, concluded in the wake of the conflict that it would be “infinitely better to have no heathen among us … than to be at peace and league with them.”18 While suffering fearful losses of life through war, disease, and starvation, the Jamestown settlers benefited from a continuing influx of new colonialists and supplies while the Indians, lacking immunities against the new diseases, perished in droves. As it became clear that the settler invaders intended to drive the Algonquians off the land, the Indian sachem Opechancanough launched an allout counterattack. In the last gasp surprise offensive of 1644, Opechancanough’s warriors killed some five hundred Euro-American settlers. Now equipped with an organized militia in each county and forts all along the James River, the Virginians responded with a campaign of indiscriminate warfare culminating in the summary execution of Opechancanough and the selling of indigenous captives into slavery.19


After two generations of bitter conflict, the Tidewater Wars ended in total victory for the Virginians. Virginia society had become militarized through the creation of the militia and the string of fortresses throughout the colony. The campaign of ethnic cleansing—the killing, relocating, and generally driving “hostile” Indians from their midst—established a framework for the Euro-American settler colonial project.


Although in other respects New England societies bore little resemblance to settler colonial patterns in the Chesapeake, indiscriminate warfare against the indigenous other came to characterize both regions. William Bradford, governor of Plymouth, landed with the expectation of encountering “savage people, who are cruel, barbarous, and most treacherous.” The New England Amerindians, who had previously encountered European explorers, fishermen, and would-be colonists, greeted the mostly Puritan settlers with distrust. Nevertheless, Massasoit, the Wampanoag chieftain, opted to try to work with the fledgling colonists rather than wipe them out, as he surely could have done at the outset. As colonists arrived en masse over the next generation, the Massachusetts Indians would be devoid of such options.20 After a long period of relative peace, the expanding Bay Colony moved deeper into the interior, bringing on a war of annihilation against the Pequot Indians. “Indian villages, and therefore noncombatants, were the main targets of the English in the Pequot War, New England’s first largescale military conflict,” John Grenier explains.21 In May 1637 Massachusetts Bay, joined by Indian allies including the Mohegans and Narragansetts, longstanding enemies of the Pequot, attacked the Pequot village on the Mystic River under the leadership of Captain John Mason, a veteran of English conflict in the Netherlands. Determined to wipe out the settlement of mostly women, children, and old men, Mason fired the village and then relished “the extreme amazement of the enemy and a great rejoicing of ourselves.” God had condemned the Indians to the “fiery oven” and their “frying in the fire, and the streams of blood quenching the same” had exacted a “revenge so sweet,” the governor of Plymouth exulted. Troops using dogs hunted down survivors and conducted summary executions, sometimes replete with torture as when they tied one Pequot’s leg to a post and put twenty men on a rope tied to the other leg as they “pulled him to pieces.”22


In the late seventeenth century, a final wave of violence in both Virginia and New England cemented Euro-American settler colonialism but not without persistent Indian efforts at homeland defense. In what became a virtual iron law of American history, any impediment to westward expansion could incite civil tumult among the Euro-Americans. Thus in 1676, Virginia Governor William Berkeley tried to limit conflict with Indians by reining in landed expansion. Masses of armed men joined the Henrico planter Nathaniel Bacon in rebellion against the governor and Crown authority. Bacon condemned the Virginia authorities for attempting to discourage attacks against “those barbarous enemies,” as he described the Indian other. Bacon launched search and destroy operations into Pamunkey villages and Occaneechee territory, wiping out even Indians who refrained from resistance. As the Indians escaped into the forest, Bacon burned Jamestown before dying suddenly, probably from dysentery. Bacon’s demise brought an end to the rebellion, illustrating the determination of growing numbers of armed and violent men to take what they wanted on their self-avowed frontiers.23


Almost simultaneously, King Philip’s War marked another wave of indiscriminate warfare between New Englanders and the Amerindians. The Wampanoag sachem Metacom, son of Massasoit, had lived and traded peacefully with the Puritans for years and even taken on the European name Philip. Tensions escalated, however, over land encroachments, missionary efforts undermining Indian spiritual and political leadership, and unequal justice. Violence erupted in what would become a familiar and continuous pattern in American history, as an isolated incident escalated into full-blown extirpative war. Spurred on by younger warriors, Metacom, joined by the Narragansett and other tribes, led the resistance.


Having learned some lessons from the Pequot War, the Indians now too fought indiscriminately and left a series of New England towns littered with dead and mutilated bodies and in smoking ruins. The English, however, possessed superior numbers, material resources, and social cohesion that allowed them to prevail. The New England confederation eventually dispatched a one-thousand-man army on a campaign to search out and annihilate the indigenous enemy. The ultimate victory removed Indians as a threat in southern New England, thus furthering the English colonial project. The conflict had been devastating, however, as it inflicted greater casualties in proportion to population than any other war throughout American history.24


In order to achieve victory, the English adopted the once condemned and Indian-inspired techniques of irregular warfare. The English under the leadership of Benjamin Church now “skulked” in the woods and launched surprise attacks. Born of King Philip’s War, ranging and scalp hunting of the indigenous population soon permeated New England culture. The colonists bulked up enlistments through the incentive of scalp hunting, earning a return of five shillings for the scalp of a common Indian (often regardless of age or sex) to one hundred shillings, or five pounds, for King Philip. “Extirpative war, ranging, and scalp hunting provide both an effective and a financially rewarding means to kill, conquer, and subjugate the Indian peoples of the Eastern seaboard,” Grenier explains.25


Aided by a Native American traitor, the English located a Narragansett fortress at the Great Swamp east of the Chippuxet River and in a reprise of the Mystic River assault put it to the torch as the Indians sat down for dinner. Some 600 Narragansett —roughly half of them noncombatants— died in the inferno. “They and their food fried together,” one Englishman exulted. Several towns had been destroyed and more than five hundred soldiers and some one thousand New England civilians had been killed in King Philip’s War. Indian losses were much greater, however, following a campaign of lynching, murder, and enslavement. Metacom, a “great, naked, dirty beast” and thus the personification of the Indian other, was executed, his body drawn and quartered, and his severed head hung from a pole for decades.26


King Philip’s War left a deep imprint, as it underscored the benefits as well as the traumas of indiscriminate warfare against the savage foe. In the wake of the war the English increasingly viewed “all Indians who resisted English definitions of authority as enemies.” The conflict reflected “the unwillingness of the colonists to accommodate Native cultures, economies, and land use” and as such presaged “most if not all of the subsequent major wars between Natives and settlers during the next two centuries of American expansion.” Moreover, King Philip’s War established a foundation that “would form the basis of American nationalism as it emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.”27



Euro-American Indian removal and indiscriminate warfare is but one chapter in a massive global history of settler colonialism. In addition to North America, examples of this type of colonial development include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, and Israel. However, as scholars of settler colonialism have pointed out, “[t]he place of the United States is especially controversial.” This controversy reflects the hegemonic sway of mythic American national identity, commonly known as American exceptionalism, and the extent that Americans have elided their history of colonialism. “The true magnitude of the violent encounter with the indigenous inhabitants of North America remains unacknowledged even today,” Karl Jacoby points out. “So too are its consequences and contingencies unexplored,” despite an outpouring of genocide studies.70


Americans have mostly elided rather than grappled with the implications of the ethnic violence and indiscriminate warfare. Wars had been waged from the arrival of the first Europeans to the end of the American Revolution yet history has obscured these conflicts. Many of these wars—Philip’s, William’s, Anne’s, Pontiac’s, and Dunmore’s—took on innocuous personal names or no name at all. This absence of meaningful names reflected “the unspoken recognition that there was little that was noble about them,” Cayton observes.75


The lack of nobility was one thing, the impulse to exterminate quite another. A consensus emerged among the Americans streaming into the borderlands as well as their backers in the east. The time had passed for trade and diplomacy, compromise and coexistence, with the indigenous peoples. These Americans sought a final solution to the problem that had long plagued the project of settler colonialism on a frontier they called their own.







  1. The literature on this subject is extensive. See Brett Bowden, The Empire of Civilization:

The Evolution of an Imperial Idea (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).

  1. The frontier in American history and historiography has been heavily problematized

since the promulgation of the Turner Thesis in 1893. The best analysis I have found is

Kerwin Lee Klein, Frontiers of Historical Imagination: Narrating the European Conquest of

Native America, 1890-1990 (University of California Press, 1997).

  1. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1968), 102; Tzvetan

Todorov, The Conquest of America: The Question of the Other (New York: Harper & Row,

1984), 5; Kevin Bruyneel, The Third Space of Sovereignty: The Postcolonial Politics of U.S.-

Indigenous Relations (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007), 8. See also Walter

  1. Hixson, The Myth of American Diplomacy: National Identity and U.S. Foreign Policy

(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008); Fred Anderson and Andrew Cayton, The Dominion

of War: Empire and Liberty in North America, 1500-2000 (New York: Viking, 2005).

  1. As I am intending use of the term, “continuity” does not suggest that Indian warfare

was literally constant or continuous in that sense. Clearly the occurrence and scope

of Amerindian and Euro-American violence varied from place to place and time to

time. In some areas many decades could pass between outbreaks of sustained violence.

Moreover, Indians and Euro-Americans conducted multiple relationships, notably

commerce, that oft en proceeded in a nonviolent manner. All that said, as I read

early American history, violent Indian removal and extirpative war occurred repeatedly

and throughout the British colonies until the ultimate end game of Indian removal. I

therefore view this phenomenon as continuous over the longue dureé of early American


  1. Malani Johar Schueller and Edward Watt s, eds., Messy Beginnings: Postcoloniality and

Early American Studies (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 2.

  1. The defi nition and utility of “postcolonial studies” has been contested, oft en virulently,

and the literature is large and growing. In the sense I am using the term, postcolonial

refl ects an approach or methodology and not the temporal meaning suggested by the

hyphenated version of the term, post-colonial, or aft er colonialism. The nonhyphenated

version suggests that the impact of colonialism was so great as to be enduring, thus

the need to address its impact through the fi eld of postcolonial studies. Works that I

have found most useful include Ania Loomba, Colonialism/Postcolonialism (New York:

Routledge, 1998); Henry Schwarz and Sangeeta Roy, eds., A Companion to Postcolonial

Studies (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000); Robert J.C. Young, Postcolonialism: An

Historical Introduction (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000); Ania Loomba, Suvir

Kaul, Matt i Bunzl, Antoinett e Burton, and Jed Esty, eds., Postcolonial Studies and Beyond

(Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005); and Achille Mbembe, On the Postcolony

(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001).

  1. Sett ler colonialism refers to the process by which sett lers—or more appropriately settler-

invaders—sought to, as Caroline Elkins and Susan Pedersen explain, “construct

communities bounded by ties of ethnicity and faith in what they persistently defi ned

as virgin or empty land. Indeed, insofar as there was a logic to their approach to the

indigenous populations, it was a logic of elimination and not exploitation: they wished

less to govern indigenous peoples or to enlist them in their economic ventures than

to seize their land and push them beyond an ever-expanding frontier of sett lement.”

Sett ler-invaders, typically European, arrived with the intent to control space—defi ne it,

demarcate it, map it, own it, and secure it through violence if necessary. Examples of

this type of colony include Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, New Zealand, Israel,

and the United States. The Americans and the other sett ler-invaders sought nothing

less than the physical, geographical, spiritual, cultural, and symbolic elimination of the

indigenous population. See Caroline Elkins and Susan Pedersen, eds., Sett ler Colonialism

in the Twentieth Century: Projects, Practices, Legacies (New York: Routledge, 2005); “Sett ler

Colonialism,” South Atlantic Quarterly 107, No. 4 (Fall 2008); Patrick Wolfe, Sett ler Colonialism

and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and Poetics of an Ethnographic

Event (London: Cassell, 1999); The best overview of sett ler colonialism is Lorenzo Veracini,

Sett ler Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010);

see also “Sett ler Colonialism,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 107, 4 (special edition, Fall 2008);

PatrickWolfe, Sett ler Colonialism and the Transformation of Anthropology: The Politics and

Poetics of an Ethnographic Event (London: Cassell, 1999); James Belich, Replenishing the

Earth: The Sett ler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo World, 1783–1939 (New York: Oxford

University Press, 2009); and JohnC.Weaver,The Great Land Rush and the Making of the

Modern World, 1650–1900 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003).

  1. Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972), 35. See

also Dominique-Octave Mannoni, Prospero and Caliban: The Psychology of Colonization

(Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1950); Albert Memmi, The Colonizer and the

Colonized (Boston: Beacon Press, 1965).

  1. Loomba, Colonialism/Postcolonialism, 145.
  2. The literature is vast. For a sampling see Frederick E. Hoxie, “Retrieving the Red Continent:

Sett ler Colonialism and the History of American Indians in the U.S.,” Ethnic and

Racial Studies 31 (2008), 1153–1167; Colin G. Calloway, “2008 Presidential Address: Indian

History from the End of the Alphabet; And What Now?” Ethnohistory 58 (Spring

2011), 197–211; Jeff rey Ostler, The Plains Sioux and U.S. Colonialism from Lewis and Clark to

Wounded Knee (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004); Ned Blackhawk, Violence

over the Land: Indians and Empires in the Early American West (Cambridge, MA: Harvard

University Press, 2008); Pekka Hamalainen, The Comanche Empire (New Haven: Yale

University Press, 2008); Brian DeLay, War of a Thousand Deserts: Indian Raids and the

U.S.-Mexican War (New Haven: Yale University Press), 2008; James F. Brooks, Captives

and Cousins: Slavery, Kinship ,and Community in the Southwest Borderlands (Chapel Hill:

University of North Carolina Press, 2002).

  1. Charles C. Mann, 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus (New York: Vintage

Books, 2006), 29.

  1. Mark Rifk in, Manifesting America: The Imperial Construction of U.S. National Space (New

York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 13.

  1. Bowden, The Empire of Civilization; Nicholas B. Dirks, Geoff Eley, and Sherry B. Ortner,

Culture/Power/History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994); Geoff Eley and

Ronald Grigor Suny, eds., Becoming National: A Reader (New York: Oxford University

Press, 1996). Also on this topic, works by and about Michel Foucault, too numerous to

mention, are indispensable. On racial modernity, see David Theo Goldberg, The Racial

State (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002). See also Joyce E. Chaplin, “Race,” in The British-

Atlantic World, 1500-1800, ed. David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick (New York: Palgrave,

2002): 154–72; Colin G. Calloway, New Worlds for All: Indians, Europeans, and the

Remaking of Early America (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 10.

  1. Peter Silver, Our Savage Neighbors: How Indian War Transformed Early America (New York:
  2. W. Norton, 2008).
  3. Stuart Banner, How Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier (Cambridge,

MA: Belknap Press, 2007).

  1. Paul Grant-Costa and Elizabeth Mancke, “Anglo-Amerindian Commercial Relations,”

in Oceanic Empire: Britain’s Atlantic and Indian Ocean Worlds, ed. H.V. Bowen, Elizabeth

Mancke, and John G. Reid (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming).

  1. Daniel Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America (Cambridge,

MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 69–81; John E. Ferling, Struggle for a Continent:

The Wars of Early America (Arlington Heights, IL: Harlan Davidson, 1993), 21.

  1. Richter, Facing East, 75. [emphasis added]
  2. Alan Taylor, American Colonies: The Sett ling of North America (New York: Penguin, 2001),


  1. Ferling, Struggle for a Continent, 28.
  2. John Grenier, The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814 (Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 2005), 26.

  1. Ferling, Struggle for a Continent, 36–38.
  2. Taylor, American Colonies, 138–57.
  3. Richter, Facing East, 90–105; Armstrong Starkey, European and Native American Warfare,

1675-1815 (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998), 57–82.

  1. Grenier, The First Way of War, 43.
  2. Ferling, Struggle for a Continent, 57; Jill Lepore, In the Name of War: King Philip’s War and

the Origins of American Identity (New York: Knopf, 1998).

  1. Jenny Hale Pulsipher, Subjects unto the Same King: Indians, English, and the Contest for Authority

in Colonial New England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005),

112; Daniel R. Mandell, King Philip’s War: Colonial Expansion, Native Resistance, and the

End of Indian Sovereignty (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010), 144;

Lepore, In the Name of War, xiv.

  1. Jacoby, Shadows at Dawn, 2.
  2. Skaggs and Nelson, Sixty Years’ War for the Great Lakes, 382.