Washington had a complicated relationship with Native Americans. Throughout his life, he negotiated with and served alongside native peoples, fought against others, sought their lands for his own benefit, and established diplomatic ties as president.Explore the Timeline
At the age of sixteen, George Washington ventured into the Western reaches of Virginia to survey lands in the Shenandoah Valley and along the South Branch of the Potomac River for Lord Fairfax. The surveying team laid out land lots for purchase on Fairfax’s lands along the western edge of Virginia.
Washington encounters "thirty odd Indians coming from war” at a trading post, later recording it in his diary.
Nothing remarkable on Thursday but only being with the Indians all day.”
Virginia Governor Robert Dinwiddie needed to send a message to the newly built French forts, demanding the French leave lands claimed by Britain in the Ohio Valley. Dinwiddie chose Washington as the messenger because of his experience surveying on the frontier and his ties to the powerful Fairfax family.
Major Washington and 150 soldiers traveled to the Ohio Valley to fight for Virginia’s claim to the land. Washington and Tanacharison (a Seneca leader) were unable to defend themselves when about 500 French soldiers and 100 Indians attacked Fort Necessity, forcing Washington to surrender. This sparked the French and Indian War.
During the French and Indian War, Washington spent the majority of his army service in Indian country and had the opportunity to interact with Native Americans from many nations. He grew to appreciate the native warriors’ military tactics that he saw first-hand. Later, Washington implemented some of these tactics during the Revolutionary War.
On January 6, 1759, George Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis. Washington owned and operated Mount Vernon in the years between his marriage to Martha and the onset of the American Revolution. Mount Vernon is located on the ancestral lands of the Piscataway and Douge.
The British government prohibited American colonists from settling lands west of the Appalachian Mountains with the Proclamation Line of 1763. As an investor in land companies and a surveyor, Washington was affected by the boundary line. Washington believed the Proclamation’s controls on westward movement were discriminatory against American colonists.
In the fall of 1770, George Washington traveled to the Ohio River Valley to check on some of his lands. While there he renewed ties with Native Americans, meeting with several Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) chiefs. Some remembered Washington from his 1753 diplomatic mission while others had only heard of him.
Early during the Revolutionary War, many Indian tribes tried to remain neutral. For those tribes that chose to fight, the majority of the tribes fought for the British but a few fought for the Americans. As commander-in-chief, Washington instructed armed forces to attack native nations allied with the British or who resisted American expansion.
In 1779, General Washington dispatched an expedition under General John Sullivan into Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) country to destroy Indian villages and crops. The objective of the campaign was to stop British and Indian raids by burning Indian villages and crops. It earned Washington the Iroquois name of “Town Destroyer.”
In the U.S. Constitution, the President can make treaties with other countries with the "advice and consent" of the Senate. Washington declared that a similar practice should also apply to agreements with Native Americans. So, treaties became the basis for the United States government to interact with Indian tribes and acquire Indian land.
By the time of his presidency, Washington and many of his contemporaries had come to believe that Native Americans had no choice but to assimilate into American society or face extinction. He also spoke of wanting to create policies based on "principles of Justice and humanity" towards native nations but the stability of the young nation was his clear priority.