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Uncommon Sense

By oieahc · February 01, 2023

Racialization and Dispossession in the Memory of the American Revolution

WMQ 8 min read

by Blake Grindon (Princeton University)

Blake Grindon is the author of “Hilliard d’Auberteuil’s Mis Mac Rea: A Story of the American Revolution in the French Atlantic” (William and Mary Quarterly, October 2022).

Many years ago, when I first became intrigued by Jane McCrea—the subject of my dissertation and of my recent WMQ article—I searched her name in the catalogue of the New York Public Library. McCrea was a colonist living near what is currently Fort Edward, New York, in 1777, when she was killed by Native allies of the British. Her story quickly became the subject of anti-Indian and anti-British propaganda. At the NYPL that day, I discovered a tantalizing title Mis Mac Rea, roman historique. The book jumped out at me for two reasons: its origin was France, not North America, and it was published in 1784, less than ten years after McCrea’s death. But what I found next sparked my interest even more. Hilliard d’Auberteuil, the author of this book, had written other titles in the NYPL collection, none of them fiction. Most fascinating, even in that initial catalogue search, it was clear that he was linked to France’s most famous Caribbean colony, Saint Domingue. The question of what McCrea’s story might mean to this French colonial author, and what that in turn meant to the history of the American Revolution, led, some six years later to my article in the current issue of WMQ.  

When I was approached to write this piece reflecting on my article, one of the questions I was asked was how my article related to this larger project. While the first half of my dissertation examines the Revolutionary War in the Northeast and the events leading up to McCrea’s death, the second deals with the spread of the story throughout the Atlantic. Hilliard d’Auberteuil’s strange little novel belongs to this part. Thematically, however, the connections run even deeper. As I worked with WMQ’s readers in the revision process the centrality of racial taxonomies to my overall argument became increasingly clear. The same could be said of the overall trajectory of my dissertation.

As I have continued my investigation into McCrea, I’ve become increasingly aware of the centrality of European and Euro-American racial classifications to this project. The closing decades of the eighteenth century were a fertile era for imagining new methods of governance and challenging existing structures of power. But, as Hilliard d’Auberteuil’s writing on both McCrea and Saint Domingue show, it was also a time when the imaginations of European and Euro-American intellectuals were especially concerned with defining racial categories and policing the boundaries of these categories. Race became a useful tool for delegitimizing political critiques that could be deemed as “non-white” in origin. In the American Revolution, where a new nation had to contend both with the authority of the British Empire and of Indigenous American nations, the racialization of Native Americans served to legitimate the United States.

In Patriot use of McCrea’s story, violence was a key marker of racial distinction. McCrea, the argument went, was the victim of inhumane violence that was inherent to Native warfare. McCrea’s story was a part of a wider racialized attack on Native warfare and Native political authority, and on Britain’s supposed support of Native violence. A focus on how the war was conducted pervaded debates about political legitimacy throughout the American Revolution, for Europeans, colonists and Native Americans. Native leaders portrayed adherence to traditional practices of war as an expression of sovereignty and criticized British and American practices of war—part of larger criticisms of British and American colonialism that they brought to the war. When the Stockbridge Mohicans entered the war on the side of the rebelling colonies in 1775 Captain Solomon Uhhaunauwaunmut insisted that, “if you send for me to fight,…you will let me fight in own Indian way. I am not used to fight English fashion.”[1] Similarly, Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant), the Mohawk war chief and early supporter of the Haudenosaunee joining the war on the British side, wrote a letter to the Akwesasne and Kahnesatake Mohawks in which he stated “it will the best method for us to make war our own way.”[2] Yet so successful was the Patriot mobilization of a narrative of racialized violence, via stories like McCrea’s, that Native American commentaries on the conduct of war as an expression of legitimate political authority in the revolutionary era have been rendered nearly invisible in many histories of the Revolution.

The lack of attention to these commentaries is not, one might say, of purely “academic” interest. Race remains central to contests over Indigenous sovereignty in the United States today. The concerns Native Americans have raised around the case of Haaland v. Brackeen, currently before the U.S. Supreme Court, shows that the racialization of Native Americans remains a powerful tool to undermine Native sovereignty. With the approach of the 250th anniversary of the Revolution, Jane McCrea’s story provides a powerful vantage point from which to consider how racialization and Indigenous dispossession were intertwined in the war that created the United States.

[1] “Speech delivered by Captain Solomon Uhhaunauwaunmut, the Chief Sachem of the Moheakumnuk Tribe of Indians residing in Stockbridge, on the 11th day of April, 1775, after sitting near two days in Council it being an Answer to a Message sent them by the Congress,” American Archives, 4th series, vol 2, 315-16.  

[2] Quoted in Paul Lawrence Stevens, “His Majesty’s‘Savage’ Allies: British Policy and the Northern Indians During the Revolutionary War, the Carleton Years, 1774-1778,” (PhD Dissertation, SUNY Buffalo, 1984) 853.

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