“Land, Liberty, and Loss” by Alan Taylor, below, is the eponymous leading essay for HNY’s newest initiative, a scholar-guided, multi-part exploration of our nation’s founding and how its history—or, more pointedly, misapprehensions of that history—often serves as an obstacle to full democratic and civic flourishing. The project is grounded in the historical and ongoing intersections between racial justice, including the centuries-long deprivations endured by Indigenous and Native Americans, and the evolution of the American landscape. “Land, Liberty, and Loss” is meant to prompt reflection on assumptions about the human connectedness between the natural and built environments, and to allow us to reconsider in a holistic sense how the Revolution that resulted in the United States connects to or disrupts indigenous histories, our use of natural resources, political development, and national expansion.
A key theme in Taylor’s work has been the way in which global events—not least, British victory in the Seven Years’ War in 1763 and the Patriot victory in the American Revolution twenty years later—reshaped the year-to-year balance of power between Natives and settlers. Put bluntly, the American Revolution upended the long-standing norms and practices that underlay Native-settler relations in the colonial era. In this way, Taylor’s essay traces the century-long transformation of Haudenosaunee country from being a “middle ground” between the French and British empires—a place defined by an uneasy pluralism and a roughly equivalent balance of power between Natives and Europeans—to a “divided ground” in the aftermath of the Revolution, a land torn between British Canada and the “empire state” of New York. Patriot victory, British abandonment, and the settler-driven expansion of America’s “empire of liberty” went on to precipitate dissensus and factionalism within the Six Nations into the nineteenth century. Taylor asks us to consider how the historical narratives produced in the post-Revolutionary period contorted or erased this complex history—along with the possible alternatives to it— with reverberations down to the present day. The implications for how we understand “democracy” are immense.
Taylor provides a powerful thesis about Haudenosaunee politics and agency in the two centuries following European arrival circa 1600, situating the rupture of the American Revolution in a long history of Native-settler conflict and interdependence. Along the way, Taylor dismantles several timeworn assumptions about Native culture that persist in the American imagination today. Organized around four key themes—landscape, contact, dispossession, and memory—the essay explains how the Six Nations living in contemporary New York State understood and managed their lands; how they governed and settled disputes; and how, in relationship with European empires, they negotiated with colonial officials amid a growing tide of settler incursion into their lands.
In 1600, the region west of the Hudson River as far as Lake Erie (in the future state of New York) belonged to a confederation of five nations speaking related Haudenosaunee languages. From east to west, they consisted of Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. During the early eighteenth century, a sixth nation, the Tuscaroras, would migrate northward from the Carolinas to increase the Five Nations into the Six Nations. In 1600, Haudenosaunee peoples dwelled in large, fortified hilltop villages. The women cultivated fields of maize, beans, and squash, while men engaged in hunting, fishing, warfare, and diplomacy. Both genders shared in the governance that sought consensus among clan mothers and male chiefs and warriors.
During the fifteenth century, the Five Nations had waged destructive wars upon one another, sparked by the pursuit of vengeance when the member of one nation killed someone of another. For safety, the Haudenosaunee clustered in hilltop villages surrounded by wooden palisades. This violence threatened to destroy them. But a prophet named Deganawida and his chief disciple, Hiawatha, preached a new message of unity and peace meant to stem armed conflicts. They persuaded the Five Nations to form a Great League of Peace and Power. The nations periodically sent chiefs to the main village of the central nation, the Onondagas, to hold condolence ceremonies that reconciled a nation and its people who had suffered a violent loss. In these ceremonies, chiefs presided while the kinfolk of a killer present gifts to the relatives of the victim’s family. Delivery and acceptance restored peace and broke the cycle of revenge killings. Right thinking restored, the chiefs returned home.
“This forest management, plus the extensive crop fields around villages, defied Europeans’ absurd stereotype of Indians as savages living in a wilderness.”
The Great League was not a European-style nation. Unlike the kingdoms of France and England, the Great League had no central government, no bureaucracy, no army, and no courts of law. The various villages preserved their autonomy, all free to go their own way, provided they relied on the Great League to keep the peace among them. But the Great League developed political, diplomatic, and military consequences. By keeping peace among the five, the league encouraged them to cooperate in external relations with other peoples. Peace within rendered the Five Nations more formidable to their neighbors in every direction.
Because of their Great League, the Five Nations thought of themselves as devoted to peace so they pressured their neighbors to join them. When others refused, they became enemies subject to raids meant to take captives, whom the Five Nations adopted. Many of their enemies were Algonquin-speaking peoples including the Montagnais and the Algonkin to the north in Canada; the Abenaki, Mahican, Mohegan, Nipmuck, Massachusett, and Wampanoag to the east (in the future New England); and the Leni Lenape (or Delaware) to the South (in the future Pennsylvania and New Jersey). But the Five Nations especially wanted to absorb the many Haudenosaunee speaking nations near them. They included the Huron (or Wendat) and Petun to the north; the Erie, Wenro, and Neutral to the west, and the Susquehannock to the south. Captives taken from them adapted more quickly to a new life among fellow Haudenosaunees.
Villages and their crop fields lay at the core of the Haudenosaunee landscape with a broad, forested surrounding zone reserved for hunting game, especially deer, and for fishing in the streams and gathering berries, nuts, roots, and wood. Haudenosaunees managed that forest with annual fires meant to burn the underbrush, while leaving behind the larger trees. By eliminating the forest understory, this fire management improved the sight lines of hunters pursuing game – and increased the fertility of the soil for producing berry plants. These routine, annual, managed fires were far less destructive than the more occasional and spectacular forest fires of our time. This forest management, plus the extensive crop fields around villages, defied Europeans’ absurd stereotype of Indians as savages living in a wilderness.
The Haudenosaunee opportunity soon came in the Hudson Valley, named for a Dutch-employed explorer, Henry Hudson, who ascended the river in August 1609. Five years later, a Dutch company established a trading post near present-day Albany. Initially called Fort Nassau and, after 1624, Fort Orange, this post offered a market for the Haudenosaunee to exchange furs from their hunting for guns and ammunition made by the Dutch. The Five Nations peoples referred to the Dutch as Kristoni, which meant “metal-making people.” Natives began to serve an overseas market as well as supply their own needs. At first, the trade goods seemed a great boon to Natives, offering the superior durability and cutting edge of metal tools and the explosive power of firearms. But trade drew Natives into a dependency on imported manufactured goods.
To obtain guns, the Haudenosaunee increased their hunting and trapping of beaver. By the 1640s, Haudenosaunees had over-hunted the beaver in their own country, reducing the supply of furs for trade. That decline motivated them to expand their warfare outward to take more hunting territory from their neighbors. They had also acquired more guns than the surrounding Native nations, including the allies of the French. The Haudenosaunee dramatically escalated their attacks in frequency and scale, waylaying canoes laden with the furs of their enemies bound to trade with the French along the St. Lawrence.
“Colonial empires always fell short of the European fantasies of command and control, although they also unleashed powerful forces of disease, trade, war, and new settlements that disrupted Native communities.”
Then they mounted destructive attacks on the villages of those enemies, as the Haudenosaunee sought thousands of captives for adoption into their own societies. The European traders (and the settlers who came along with them) had, unwittingly, brought new epidemic diseases, including smallpox and measles, with them to the Americas. As Natives traded with the newcomers, they became exposed to new diseases to which they lacked immunities. During the first half of the seventeenth-century, the Haudenosaunee lost half of their population as disease deaths exceeded new births. To rebuild their populations, the Haudenosaunee attacked their neighbors to take captives. During the 1640s and 1650s, these massive raids devastated the Susquehannocks, Wenro, Erie, Neutrals, Hurons, and Petuns. Most of the survivors became adopted captives among the Five Nations. Some others fled and resettled as refugees around French settlements.
By trying to absorb so many captives, the Five Nations created new dissensions and divisions within. Many captives brought with them a Catholic faith learned from the French. They tried to convert the traditional believers of the Five Nations. When they failed, hundreds moved away northward to settle at Kahnawake, near the French town of Montreal, where they could attend Catholic services.
Trade, alliance, and war entangled colonizers and natives in unpredictable and uncontrollable ways. As the hidden price of trade goods, Natives reaped increased warfare and epidemic diseases that continued to reduce their numbers throughout the seventeenth century. But the French and Dutch were drawn into a complex world of Native alliances and enmities that compelled unanticipated investments of lives and money. Colonial empires always fell short of the European fantasies of command and control, although they also unleashed powerful forces of disease, trade, war, and new settlements that disrupted Native communities.
During the 1620s, the Dutch West India Company began to send small groups of settlers to occupy parts of the Hudson Valley, including a capital and port, named New Amsterdam, at the mouth of the river. While trade preserved good relations with the Haudenosaunee upriver, the Dutch colonists on the lower river waged a brutal war of dispossession against the resident Algonquian peoples. The settlers consisted of an ethnic mix including French, Belgians, Scandinavians, and Germans, as well as the Dutch. By 1660, the Dutch had established only 5,000 colonists in New Netherland. That small number made the colony vulnerable to a hostile takeover by the more numerous English colonists to the east in New England and to the south around Chesapeake Bay.
In 1664 the English conquered New Netherland, renaming that colony New York. Fort Orange became Albany, and New Amsterdam became New York City. The English took charge of the fur trade with the Haudenosaunee and, later in the century, tried to draw them into an imperial conflict with the French. But the Five Nations were hard pressed by their own conflicts against Native enemies, who had by 1680 acquired enough firearms from the French to compete effectively in war. Meanwhile, the English did very little to help their Haudenosaunee allies. During the 1680s and 1690s, the Haudenosaunee suffered more defeats and heavier losses. Raids no longer worked to bring in captives. Instead, they provoked counter-raids that destroyed many Haudenosaunee villages. In 1701, they made a French-assisted peace with their Native enemies, giving up their western and northern conquests made during the middle of the seventeenth century.
During the early eighteenth century, English, Scots, and German settlers arrived to supplement and extend the older Dutch settlements in New York. Colonists occupied the Hudson Valley and some pushed up the Mohawk Valley, putting pressure on the Mohawks there, who protested fraudulent land deals and surveys imposed by newcomers. Royal governors tried to restrain the settler dispossession of the Mohawks, who were considered essential to the colony’s security against attack from the French and their allies during the frequent imperial wars between 1689 and 1763. But in the last of those wars, British (as the English became known after 1707) forces overwhelmed the smaller French army defending Canada.
The British conquest of Canada seemed to secure the New York frontier for colonial settlement, setting off a post-war bonanza of land speculation. Far from providing free land to settlers, the colonial land system awarded immense tracts to wealthy speculators who then profited by retailing (or renting) smaller parcels to the families whose labor made farms. Most colonial fortunes depended upon the real estate appreciation produced by frontier expansion, Indian dispossession, and settler farm-building. This system sustained an unequal distribution of political power, for only powerful men favored by royal governors and their councils could win thousands of frontier acres further to enhance their wealth. Governors and councils favored one another and those gentlemen who could best promote an agenda in the elected assembly. Once procured, these large land grants enjoyed vigorous legal protection because most of the colony’s judges and lawyers belonged to the great landholding families.
“More than the naive victims of traditional accounts, the Indians adapted resourcefully to the colonial pressure for land. But they operated from a position of relative weakness given the superior numbers, wealth, and guile of the newcomers.”
During the 1760s, Sir William Johnson sought to enhance his “interest” – a nexus of wealth and influence – by making himself the primary broker for the speculative acquisition of Indian lands in the Mohawk Valley. Johnson exploited his intimate local knowledge to identify promising tracts for acquisition. He also made the most of his largesse and diplomatic expertise as the Crown’s Superintendent of Indian Affairs to persuade Natives to sell large tracts of land to him. He procured tracts of 50,000, 80,000, and 127,000 acres in the upper Mohawk Valley.
As the gatekeeper for acquiring Mohawk and Oneida land, Johnson also favored his “friends” – primarily prominent officers and officials who could help advance his interests at the provincial capital, New York City, or at the imperial capital, London. Although Johnson certainly exploited his office to procure Indian lands, his methods compared favorably with other land speculators. Most got a few Indians drunk to procure a surreptitious deed without proper translation – and then they failed to pay its terms, while using creative surveys to inflate the bounds. In 1765 the lieutenant governor, Cadwallader Colden, acknowledged to Johnson, “It will be impossible for you to please both the Indians and the Pattentees of the great Tracts. I believe not one of the great Tracts were fairly purchased.” In sharp contrast, Johnson procured his deeds by dealing publicly and soberly with entire village councils assisted by an interpreter and notarized by a justice. And he scrupulously made his promised payments.
Johnson’s conduct better fit Indian expectations. They made limited land cessions to improve their relations with influential colonists in order to create long-term obligations to treat the natives as brethren. Primarily that meant continuing generosity in food and drink to passing Indians. Unable to protect all of their domain from the swelling tide of settlement, Mohawks hoped to give shape to, and benefit from, the transfer of their lands. As a means to those ends, the chiefs innovated in two ways during the 1760s. First, they leased some lands in farm-sized parcels directly to settlers, as an alternative to selling title to large tracts to speculators. Second, when the chiefs did sell wholesale, they preferred to deal with Johnson. With his help, Mohawks favored those speculators most likely to treat Indians with respect and generosity. More than the naive victims of traditional accounts, the Indians adapted resourcefully to the colonial pressure for land. But they operated from a position of relative weakness given the superior numbers, wealth, and guile of the newcomers.
In a marriage of convenience, Johnson’s and the Mohawks’ interests intertwined in a tense synergy. Although Johnson’s exploitation was part of the story, so was native agency. The New York frontier of the 1760s offered a place and period of experimentation in the modes of acquiring and settling Indian lands- some more mutual and benign than others. These possibilities even included a few local alliances between common settlers and hard-pressed natives against the great landlords of the colony. Such alliances suggested alternative paths to a future not yet hardened into the arbitrary and almost complete dispossession of Indians that hindsight now imposes on the past as a given.
But the growing number of new settlers, many coming from overpopulated New England, gave many New York leaders a confidence that they could ignore Haudenosaunee protests of new land grabs. Neither the law courts nor an elected assembly would protect Indians from fraud and dispossession. In part the problem was formal: Indians could not prevail in courts that required written documents and that forbade or discounted native testimony as unreliable. And in part the problem was substantive: self-interest induced assemblymen, councilors, judges, lawyers, and jurors to minimize aboriginal land rights.
“New York was built on the ruins of the Haudenosaunee homelands.”
No friend of colonial republicanism, Johnson supported the British Empire’s efforts to tighten control over the colonists. Johnson recognized that Indians would always suffer from any American government elected by farmers and led by land speculators.
Beginning in 1775, a revolution made new state governments more democratic and, so, more responsive to settler demands for Indian dispossession. During the war for independence, the Patriot cause merged a frontier hunger for Indian land with a dread of British power. When the Empire defended Indian rights, Patriots detected a threat to colonial liberty, which they equated with their own power to make private property from native lands. They considered British taxation and British protection of aboriginal lands as common exercises in distant and irresponsible tyranny.
Noting the Patriots’ sense of racial entitlement and lust for native lands, most Haudenosaunees feared that the revolution would lead to their dispossession and enslavement. The Mohawks, Cayugas, Onondagas, and Senecas assisted the British in a frontier war that ravaged most of the Patriot settlements. In 1779, General John Sullivan’s Patriot troops looted and burned the Haudenosaunee villages around Seneca and Cayuga Lakes and in the Genesee Valley – while another commander did the same in the upper Allegheny Valley. Patriot soldiers marveled at the substantial villages of log cabins, the broad fields of Indian corn, and the extensive orchards of apple, peach, and cherry trees – all of which they systematically destroyed. Sullivan boasted of eliminating 40 Haudenosaunee villages and at least 160,000 bushels of corn. Impressed by the fertile soil, many officers and soldiers eagerly anticipated a post-war return as conquering settlers.
Most of the surviving Haudenosaunee, about 5,000 in number, became refugees in a straggling, makeshift village that stretched eight miles along the Niagara River above the British-held Fort Niagara. Ragged and hungry, the refugees endured a bitter winter without adequate shelter. Seeking revenge, the refugees burned the villages of those Haudenosaunees – most Oneidas and some Tuscaroras – who had helped the Patriots. By 1781, almost all of the Haudenosaunee country had been depopulated and reeked of ash and cinders.
In the peace treaty of 1783, the British abandoned their Native allies by granting a generous boundary to their Patriot enemies: one that ran through the Great Lakes and Niagara River. That new border enabled American settlers to envelop and dispossess the Haudenosaunee. In a rapid succession of treaties made between 1784 and 1800, the state of New York and American land speculators took away most Native lands, paying the Haudenosaunee a pittance. Some Natives fled across the border to settle in Canada, but most of the Haudenosaunee persisted on shrinking reservations within New York.
Slow to develop as a colony, New York became the most dynamic state in the new United States. New York’s population quadrupled from 340,000 in 1790 to 1,372,000 in 1820. In 1790, New York had been the nation’s fifth state in population, lagging behind Virginia, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. By 1820, it had more people than any other state. New York was built on the ruins of the Haudenosaunee homelands.
The leaders of New York insisted that Indians were savage hunters who did not deserve to keep their land because, allegedly, they had failed to “improve” it. The leading judge in the new state, James Kent, dismissed Indians as “rude tribes, which had not advanced from the hunter state” and so had “no right to complain, if a nation of cultivators” replaced them. In fact, Natives had built substantial villages and cultivated broad fields. Because they had chosen the most fertile places, the former Haudenosaunee villages became magnets that attracted the first settlers. Only over time did the construction of farms and plowing of fields erase the robust imprints made by the Haudenosaunee on the land.
Still some vast earthworks survived in upstate New York. Unwilling to credit these to the Haudenosaunee, Americans insisted that these were the work of some vanished, more ancient people – perhaps wandering Welshmen or the legendary lost tribes of Israel. American leaders would only credit the Haudenosaunee with having destroyed the fortified villages and their apparently civilized inhabitants. This formula recast the ruins as evidence of Haudenosaunee barbarity rather than of their creativity and hard work. That myth justified their conquest.
The greatest writer of nineteenth-century New York, James Fenimore Cooper, was the son of a leading land speculator who founded Cooperstown. In his celebrated novels, collectively known as the “Leatherstocking Tales,” Cooper embraced the stark contrast between imagined Indians of the past, cast as noble savages, and the degraded survivors of his present. In the first of these novels, The Pioneers, Cooper introduced the character of Chigachgook. Once a great hunter, warrior, and chief, Chingachgook had lost all his tribesmen to become an aged, often-drunk, basket maker called Indian John. In times of drunken release and at the moment of his death, he regains his heroic identity and laments his dispossession and degradation. But Chingachgook could do nothing to reverse the course of history. He reminds readers that the settler conquest had its victims, but Cooper insists that the process served the dictates of a just Providence that wanted the wilderness converted into a new landscape of thriving farms, villages, and churches. Ultimately, Cooper romanticized the past while vindicating its erasure by the New York of his generation.
One of the foremost authorities on United States colonial history, Alan Taylor, the Thomas Jefferson Professor of History at the University of Virginia, is the author of several books: Liberty Men and Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier, 1760-1820 (1990); William Cooper’s Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the Early Republic (1995); American Colonies (2001); Writing Early American History (2005); The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (2006); The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies (2010); The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia (2013); American Republics: A Continental History of the United States, 1783-1850 (2021). Taylor has been awarded two Pulitzer Prizes and the Bancroft Prize. He has also been a finalist for the National Book Award.
HNY’s “Land, Liberty, and Loss” series is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ special initiative, “A More Perfect Union,” which is designed to demonstrate and enhance the critical role the humanities play in our nation and to support projects that help Americans commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026.