Indigenous peoples: the American Declaration of Independence

Learning objectives

  1. Compare and contrast portraits of Indigenous peoples involved in American Independence with those of American colonists.
  1. Infer the impact of the Declaration of Independence on Indigenous peoples through portraits.
  1. Evaluate the use of portraits as a source for examining this history.

Britain’s first successful Colony A country or an area that is governed by people from another, more powerful, country. in America was established in Jamestown in 1607, in what is now Virginia.

Over the next 150 years thousands more colonists arrived. The land claimed expanded to 13 Colony A country or an area that is governed by people from another, more powerful, country. , taking up the full length of America’s east coast. But by the late 1700s, these colonies had become dissatisfied with British rule and rebelled. This led to the American War of Independence A war between America and Britain from 1775 to 1783. It resulted in America becoming independent of Britain. (1775–83).

Eventually, the 13 colonies gained their independence from British rule. This was formalised in the Declaration of Independence The document which stated that the thirteen British colonies in America were independent of Britain. It was adopted on 4 July 1776. and was the first step towards establishing a new nation – the United States of America.

Indigenous Coming from a particular place and having lived there for a long time before other people came there. peoples had lived in America for 10,000–12,000 years before the British colonists arrived. Many experienced violence from the colonists when their land was taken from them. Colonisation Taking control of an area or country that is not your own, especially using force, and sending people from your own country to live there. , and the Declaration of Independence had a devastating effect on their lives and cultures. At the same time, Indigenous men and women resisted British ways of life, holding on to their own customs and traditions.

Exploring American Independence through portraits

Look at these two portraits of people involved in the American War of Independence A war between America and Britain from 1775 to 1783. It resulted in America becoming independent of Britain. and the Declaration of Independence The document which stated that the thirteen British colonies in America were independent of Britain. It was adopted on 4 July 1776. .

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    Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea),    by James Peachey (Peachy, Pitchy), after  Gilbert Stuart,    1786,    NPG D23311,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), by James Peachey (Peachy, Pitchy), after Gilbert Stuart, 1786
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    The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, July 4th 1776,    by Asher Brown Durand, after  John Trumbull,    published 1820 (1786-1797),    NPG D1357,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, July 4th 1776, by Asher Brown Durand, after John Trumbull, published 1820 (1786-1797)
  1. Write down your first impressions of the people from looking at the portraits.
  1. What are the differences and similarities between the people in the two portraits?

Now explore the portraits further. Will your first impressions change?

Look closer: Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant)

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    Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea),    by James Peachey (Peachy, Pitchy), after  Gilbert Stuart,    1786,    NPG D23311,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), by James Peachey (Peachy, Pitchy), after Gilbert Stuart, 1786
    • Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant) was a Mohawk warrior and Diplomat A person whose job is to represent their country in a foreign country, for example in an embassy. .
    • He was an Ally People, organisations or countries who agree to help and support each other, especially in politics or in a case of war. of the British government during the American War of Independence A war between America and Britain from 1775 to 1783. It resulted in America becoming independent of Britain. , leading a group of Mohawk people to fight alongside the British Army.
    • Thayendenagea is wearing a feathered ‘gustoweh’ headdress, possibly including dyed porcupine quills.
    • He has a large shell around his neck. Shells worn like this are a traditional symbol of leadership. They are thought to be symbolic of both earthly and supernatural powers.
    • His face appears calm.
    • His chin is raised and he is looking into the distance with a fixed gaze.
    • The artist appears to have shown him as a proud and confident leader.
    • Thayendanegea predicted that independence for the 13 Colony A country or an area that is governed by people from another, more powerful, country. would mean that Indigenous Coming from a particular place and having lived there for a long time before other people came there. peoples would lose their land.
    • He convinced four of the Six Tribes The six groups of people that made up the Iroquois Confederacy of Indigenous peoples. They lived in today's New York and Southeast Canada. Made up of the Mohawks, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora Tribes. (the Mohawks, Onondagas, Cayugas and Senecas) to fight with Britain against the 13 colonies.
    • His prediction was right. The Six Tribes were not part of the formal negotiations between Britain and the American colonies that led to the United States being formally recognised as an independent nation. They were not granted any land.
    • This portrait was created by James Peachey. It’s a print based on a painting by Gilbert Stuart.
    • Stuart painted other important figures from the American War of Independence A war between America and Britain from 1775 to 1783. It resulted in America becoming independent of Britain. , including George Washington who became the first president of the United States of America.

Look closer: The Declaration of Independence

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    The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, July 4th 1776,    by Asher Brown Durand, after  John Trumbull,    published 1820 (1786-1797),    NPG D1357,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
The Declaration of Independence of the United States of America, July 4th 1776, by Asher Brown Durand, after John Trumbull, published 1820 (1786-1797)
    • This portrait shows the Declaration of Independence The document which stated that the thirteen British colonies in America were independent of Britain. It was adopted on 4 July 1776. being given to Congress In the United States the name of the group of people who are elected to make laws, consisting of the Senate and the House of Representatives. for approval by Thomas Jefferson.
    • Other members of the committee who wrote the document can be seen around him, including Benjamin Franklin.
    • The men in the portrait are all wearing clothes fashionable for American statesmen at the time. These include waistcoats, tailcoats and long stockings.
    • The men seem relaxed and pleased. Some are talking to each other and many of them are smiling.
    • The Declaration of Independence The document which stated that the thirteen British colonies in America were independent of Britain. It was adopted on 4 July 1776. (1776) stated that ‘all men are created equal … with certain unalienable rights [of] life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’.
    • The Declaration did not include Indigenous Coming from a particular place and having lived there for a long time before other people came there. peoples.
    • Of the 48 people shown in this group portrait, not one individual is of Indigenous descent.
    • After the war, Indigenous peoples were not invited to the negotiations or granted any land as part of the Declaration of Independence.
    • None were invited to be present for the important moment captured in this portrait.

Investigating the impact of American independence on Indigenous peoples

After American independence, land and rights continued to be taken from Indigenous Coming from a particular place and having lived there for a long time before other people came there. peoples.

The perspectives of Indigenous American Connected with any of the groups of people who were the original people living in America before European colonists arrived. have often been left out of the story of American Independence. This is mainly because Indigenous peoples passed their histories down through the generations through spoken stories and objects. European settlers created the written records, which were then used to write the history.

There are very few portraits of Indigenous peoples from this time and most that do exist are made from the perspective of European settlers. Some early photographic portraits of Indigenous Americans survive. They were created in the 1800s by European American photographers.

Photographic portraits of Indigenous American peoples

These photographic portraits of Indigenous American Connected with any of the groups of people who were the original people living in America before European colonists arrived. are known as ‘cartes-de-visite’. These were small photographs on card, that were cheap to buy and easy to carry and collect. They were popular in the 1800s in both Britain and America. The photographers who took the portraits made money from selling the cards.

Look closely at these cartes-de-visite of Indigenous Coming from a particular place and having lived there for a long time before other people came there. peoples. Remember they were created by European American photographers.

Think about:

  • why these photographs might have been taken
  • what they might be saying about the people shown
  • whether or not these people had a say in having their photograph taken, or how they were shown in the photograph.
  1. What might these portraits tell us about the lives of Indigenous peoples after the Declaration of Independence?
  1. What questions do you have about them?

Look closer

Now look again at each portrait and learn more about each person by clicking on the images.

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    Ka(h)kewaquonaby, a Canadian chief (Peter ('Kahkewaquonaby') Jones),    by David Octavius Hill, and  Robert Adamson,    4 August 1845,    NPG P6(83),    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Ka(h)kewaquonaby, a Canadian chief (Peter ('Kahkewaquonaby') Jones), by David Octavius Hill, and Robert Adamson, 4 August 1845
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    Han-ye-tu Was-te ('Beautiful Night'),    by Unknown photographer,    circa 1862,    NPG Ax68181,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Han-ye-tu Was-te ('Beautiful Night'), by Unknown photographer, circa 1862
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    Ah Ah Shaw We Ke Shick ('Crossing Sky'),    by Unknown photographer,    circa 1862,    NPG Ax68188,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Ah Ah Shaw We Ke Shick ('Crossing Sky'), by Unknown photographer, circa 1862
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    Ah-pe-ma-za,    by Unknown photographer,    circa 1862,    NPG Ax68191,    © National Portrait Gallery, London
Ah-pe-ma-za, by Unknown photographer, circa 1862
  1. Does this information answer any of your questions?
  1. If you could interview the people in these portraits about the impact of the Declaration of Independence on their lives, what would you ask them?

How much can we learn from portraiture?

We do not know what any of the people in these portraits felt or thought at the time, or if they wanted to be portrayed in this way.

The clothes and objects in each of these portraits suggest a continuation of Indigenous Coming from a particular place and having lived there for a long time before other people came there. cultural practices after the Declaration of Independence The document which stated that the thirteen British colonies in America were independent of Britain. It was adopted on 4 July 1776. . In reality, the opportunities for the people in these photographs to express their culture through the portrait was very limited.

Contemporary artist Wendy Red Star aims to address this gap in her people’s history. Take some time to explore her work.

  1. In what ways do you think historic portraits are useful as sources in understanding the impact of the Declaration of Independence on Indigenous peoples? Why?
  1. In what ways do you think contemporary portraits are useful to help us understand the impact of the Declaration of Independence on Indigenous peoples? Why?

Reflections

  • You have focussed on a complex and brutal part of our shared history. It can bring up strong reactions. How are you feeling?
  • Do you have any questions? You could discuss them with a teacher or an adult you feel comfortable talking to.
  • You could use the links below to find out more about Indigenous Coming from a particular place and having lived there for a long time before other people came there. peoples from their own words and perspectives.