Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

The Native Americans' Role in the American Revolution: Choosing Sides

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


Joseph Brant or Thayendanegea, Mohawk chief

Joseph Brant or Thayendanegea, Mohawk chief, led four of the "Six Nations" against the American rebels. Detail of lithograph by Thomas McKenney (produced between 1836-1844).

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

We desire you will hear and receive what we have now told you, and that you will open a good ear and listen to what we are now going to say. This is a family quarrel between us and Old England. You Indians are not concerned in it. We don't wish you to take up the hatchet against the king's troops. We desire you to remain at home, and not join on either side, but keep the hatchet buried deep." —The Second Continental Congress, Speech to the Six Nations, July 13, 1775

At the outbreak of the Revolutionary crisis in the 1760s, Native Americans faced a familiar task of navigating among competing European imperial powers on the continent of North America. At the close of the era in the 1780s, Native Americans faced a "New World" with the creation of the new United States of America. During the years of conflict, Native American groups, like many other residents of North America, had to choose the loyalist or patriot cause—or somehow maintain a neutral stance. But the Native Americans had distinctive issues all their own in trying to hold on to their homelands as well as maintain access to trade and supplies as war engulfed their lands too. Some allied with the British, while others fought alongside the American colonists.

In this lesson, students will analyze maps, treaties, congressional records, firsthand accounts, and correspondence to determine the different roles assumed by Native Americans in the American Revolution and understand why the various groups formed the alliances they did.

Guiding Questions

  • Why did some Native American groups become involved in the American Revolution—either on the British or American side?
  • What roles did they play in the conflict and what were the consequences of their decisions?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will understand the different roles assumed by various Native American tribes during the American Revolution.
  • Students will understand the issues involved for Native Americans in choosing the British or the American side of the conflict, such as maintaining trade or preserving homelands.


Indians faced numerous challenges to their survival as a people on their own lands in the eighteenth century. The French and British vied for control of the continent at mid-century while the American colonists continued to look to the interior for lands to expand their settlements. After the British victory in the Seven Years' War, (see EDSITEment-reviewed Digital History's The Seven Years' War) Indian peoples found their diplomatic options more circumscribed. As North American colonists, eager for land, began to spill over the Appalachian Mountains in the 1750s, British concern and Indian anger over the expansion increased. The Royal Proclamation of 1763 (a link from EDSITEment-reviewed Avalon site) attempted to restrict that expansion and alienated many American colonists.

The outbreak of the American Revolution had great consequences for the Indian peoples of North America. They understood the Revolution was a contest for Indian lands as well as for liberty. Some groups, such as the Cherokee warriors, defied their elders and attacked frontier settlements all along the southern frontier. The Cherokees took the offensive against the Americans early, only to be defeated by Patriot soldiers from the southern colonies. Many others attempted to remain neutral. In the Ohio Valley, the Shawnees, led by Cornplanter, and the Delawares, led by White Eyes, worked hard to steer a course between the combatants. But hatred of Indians among western settlers and hunters soon destroyed that peace. American militia killed White Eyes of the Delawares in 1778, and others slaughtered unarmed, converted, Moravian Indians at Gnadenhutten, Ohio, in 1782. The Ohio Indians allied themselves with the British after these attacks.

Many other Indians sided with the British in the hopes that a British victory would stem the flood of western expansion. The Iroquois Confederacy split. Joseph Brant, a well-educated Mohawk and a Free Mason, along with his sister Mary Brant, led his people away from a policy of neutrality and into an alliance with the British. The Stockbridge Indians, Christian mission Indians (Mohicans), however, joined their western Massachusetts neighbors, volunteering as minutemen even before fighting broke out.

The successful Revolution resulted in the creation of the new republic but also a new world for the Indians. When Great Britain handed over all of its territory east of the Mississippi and south of the Great Lakes to the United States at the Peace of Paris in 1783 without consulting their former allies, those Indians found themselves under severe pressure by settlers and speculators in the new nation interested in expanding westward either by acquiring Indian lands by treaty or by force.

As a word of caution, teachers should make students aware of the issues involved in using primary sources of Native American speeches. These valuable but rare primary sources were usually transcribed by Europeans, and the documents often reflect European ideas of Native American speech.

Several sources provide good background information for the teacher.

Preparation Instructions

1. Download or link to the following documents that will be used by the students in this lesson.

2. If your students are not familiar with analyzing online primary documents, you may also want to explore The National Archives Teachers' Resource Page, available through EDSITEment, which provides document analysis worksheets for students.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Choosing Sides

1. (Optional) If students did not learn about the Seven Years' War prior to this lesson, it might be a good idea to review the role of the Native Americans in that conflict (see Digital History's The Seven Years' War. It will be helpful also if students have an understanding of the way European control of the land changed after that war. The British received all the French lands in Canada (except two small offshore islands) and all the French lands east of the Mississippi River. Spain took over Louisiana. The following EDSITEment resources provide some background as well as some primary voices that can be used in a more extensive review lesson of the Seven Years' War:

2. As a lesson motivator, present the students with the introductory quotation (found in the introduction to this lesson), the Second Continental Congress's speech to the Six Nations, without the reference or the date. Working in small groups or as a whole class, students use context clues to brainstorm answers to the following questions:

  • Who may have said this?
  • What is the message?
  • To whom was this request being addressed?
  • When and where was the message being delivered?

Once the students provide the answers to those questions, they can speculate on the following:

  • Would you expect that the Native Americans would get involved in the fighting of the American Revolution? Why or why not?
  • If you think that the Native Americans would choose sides and fight, with whom do you think they would ally and why?

3. The documents that the students will examine refer to various Native American tribes. The map entitled "Native American Tribes: 1783," provides a geographical reference for students. The teacher could simply have this map or one like it available for students to refer to during the lesson, or he or she could direct a more structured examination of the map. For example, students could complete a simple T-chart (see accompanying Chart), noting which tribes were from the area of the original thirteen colonies (students could also name the specific colony where each tribe was located) and which tribes were from the newly acquired western territories.

4. Students will annotate and analyze several documents by Native Americans regarding their role in the American Revolution. First, the teacher should have the students review the model annotations on the following document (1783 Joseph Brant message to Governor Frederick Haldimand of Quebec) to understand some of the key topics and concepts.

5. Divide the students into groups; each group should analyze 2-3 documents. Students should highlight phrases and issues that help them understand how Native Americans determined whether they would side with the British, ally with the Americans, or remain neutral. The documents are as follows:

  • Journals of the Continental Congress, Speech to the Six Nations, July 13, 1775 This document, on the EDSITEment-reviewed Avalon Project, is a request made by the Americans to the Iroquois, requesting their neutrality. It is interesting that in this document, while the Americans are officially asking the Native Americans to stay out of the conflict, they dedicate a great deal of the speech to making their case for independence. The symbolism of the "family quarrel" is repeated throughout many of the documents. The language, including the idea of a "covenant chain" and addressing the Iroquois as "brothers," is significant.
  • "The Oneida Indians to Governor Trumbull," 1776. The Oneida, one of the Six Nations, tried to remain neutral but eventually ended up on the American side, which split the Six Nations. This document is from early in the war and also refers to the "family quarrel," a fight that doesn't concern the Native Americans. Here, the Native Americans are addressing the Americans as "brothers."
  • The Disturbances in America give great trouble to all our Nations": Mohawk Joseph Brant Comes to London to See the King, 1776, on History Matters. This document has a helpful headnote. Mohawk leader Joseph Brant talks about the long-lasting alliance between the British and the Native Americans but also expresses the Mohawk feelings of anger and betrayal regarding the lack of British protection from the settlers.
  • Conference with Indians at Fort Pitt," July 6, 1776. The Delawares and Shawnees focus on the issue of not allowing the combatants to march through Native American lands, not wanting the war to be fought on Native American land.
  • "Treaty with the Delawares: 1778." The treaty between the Delawares and the United States of North-America raises issues of fair trade, rights for armies to cross Native American land, the desire for peace, and other issues.
  • "Chickasaw Peace Treaty Feeler-1782." The Chickasaw Indians had a long alliance with the British. When the Spanish replace the British in West Florida, the Chickasaw send a peace feeler to the United States that uses the language of family.
  • Chickasaw Chiefs, Message to Congress, July 1783. In this message to Congress, the Chickasaw desire a halt to encroachments on their land and regular access to supplies in order to appease their belligerent young warriors; they discuss the difficulties that the war has posed for Native American communities.

6. In the whole group or smaller groups, review with the students their annotations and develop a Venn Diagram of key arguments for choosing sides.

  • What were the issues that the various Native American groups were facing?
  • Did they share common goals with other Indians? Varied ones?
  • Did the issues change over the course of the Revolutionary era? Why?
  • What arguments did they make? Why?

7. As part of the discussion of these documents, the teacher can also help students to analyze and evaluate the documents. The following questions might be used to guide this aspect of the discussion:

  • Who was the original source?
  • What do we know about this individual? His/her perspective?
  • Who made the record? What was his perspective? Why is it important to know who was responsible for making the record?
  • When was the record made?
  • What was the purpose of making the record?
  • What is the nature of the document: letter, oral history, government document? Was the source public or private? Why is this information important?
  • How might this background regarding the document influence our use of the information it contains?
  • How can we determine which record is more accurate when accounts conflict with one another?
Activity 2. The Iroquois Experience

1. Share with the students some material on the role of the Iroquois in the American Revolution, in particular the significant efforts of Joseph Brant. You can use the general discussion by Colin Calloway, American Indians and the Revolution. (from National Park Service: Stories from the Revolution site)

2. Ask students to explore the words and images of Brant at the beginning of the Revolutionary War and at its end. One of the text documents and one of the images will be provided with explanatory notes or annotations. For the portrait, students will be able to see how the painting's visual language operates and also have key symbols and objects identified. A contrasting eighteenth-century portrait of a Native American is the 1762 engraving of "The Three Cherokees Came Over From the Head of the River Savanna to London." The engraving depicts the three Cherokee chiefs who visited King George III in London after the Seven Years' War seeking assurances about the security of their homelands in South Carolina. This portrait of Indians during the colonial era is one of the few done from life, rather than being drawn after the fact as in the more familiar European depictions.

Students will be asked to consider some of the following questions about the documents:

  • What was the situation that the Mohawks and other Iroquois were facing at the beginning of the conflict? At the end?
  • What were their goals? What were they asking the British government for?
  • What tone and language does Brant use in his appeals? Why do you think he adopts those methods?
  • What tone and visual language do the two artists adopt?
  • How do the verbal and visual appeals work together to achieve Brant's mission?
Joseph Brant in London, 1776:
Joseph Brant or Thayendanegea, 1783-86

Modeling image interpretation of 1786 Northumberland portrait of Brant:

  1. Clothing and other items: What sort of garments has Brant chosen? He wears an open collar shirt with a cape of joined silver rings around his shoulders, a wide silver armband on his right arm and four silver bracelets on his right wrist. A red cap with more silver rings has yellow, orange and black feathers attached to the band.
  2. What do the garments mean? The silver ornamentation attests to his high rank. Some of his decorations were ceremonial gifts such as the gorget (a type of armor that protected the neck) that was a gift from King George III and below that a medallion portrait of the king in an imposing brass locket, all signs of alliance with the British, especially the King.
  3. Pose: His strong nose and mouth give him the appearance of an imposing leader. His face has full modeling, the same treatment as Stuart gave his European and American subjects
  4. What are Gilbert Stuart and Joseph Brant trying to say? Brant appears as a statesman, an Iroquois statesmen of great dignity who wears signs of royal favor for his diplomatic activities.

3. For a whole group discussion students will be asked to chart the changes that have come about during and because of the war between the British, Americans, and the Indians. They should discuss what changes have occurred between the documents from 1776 and those from 1783/1786. They can look at the following:

  • What changes do you notice in his presentation?
  • How Brant makes his case to the British government?
  • How Brant presents himself in his portraits?
  • Also, note the differences, if any, between the text documents and the portraits.


Option 1:

Using what they have learned from the documents, the secondary reading, and any other materials they used, students should write an essay on the following question: "What can you conclude about the alliance decisions made by Native Americans? Why did some Native American groups become involved in the American Revolution—either on the British or American side? What roles did they play in the conflict and what were the consequences of their decisions? Defend your answer using the documents from the activities and your knowledge of the Native Americans' post-Revolutionary War experience."

Option 2:

Using what they have learned from the documents, the secondary reading, and any other materials they used, students role-play a mock council of a Native American tribe, debating the merits and drawbacks of a particular allegiance. The dialogue must accurately reflect the history. They should also identify which tribe they choose to portray since that identity should influence the council meeting decision.

Extending The Lesson

1. What happened to these Native American allies after the American Revolution? Students could explore the post-revolutionary experiences of the different Native American tribes in the United States and Canada. How did their experiences differ from what the treaties signed with the new United States had promised? What factors (i.e. location/geography, tribal leadership, their Revolutionary allegiances, relationships between the various Native American tribes) played a role in the post-Revolutionary experience of the different Native Americans? Students could take their research one-step further: where are those Native American groups today? See the U.S. Census Bureau's American Indians and Alaska Natives Map, a link on EDSITEment's Internet Public Library.

2. Other members of Joseph Brant's family were important figures. You could explore the biography of Molly Brant, his sister, a link from Nativeweb or his brother-in-law Sir William Johnson, Indian Superintendent

3. The Continental Congress was quite involved in Native American affairs during the War. American Memory's Learning Page has a feature on the Home Front during the Revolutionary War with several documents and discussion.

4. The Battle of Oriskany in 1778 in central New York was a critical engagement involving Native Americans on each side of the battlefield. See the National Park Service: Discover History, The Battle of Oriskany: "Blood Shed a Stream Running Down."

Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies
  • History and Social Studies > Themes
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Revolution and the New Nation (1754-1820s)
  • History and Social Studies > People > Native American
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > War and Foreign Policy
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Map Skills
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Textual analysis
  • Using primary sources
  • David Jaffee, City College of New York, CUNY (New York, NY)
  • Megan Mehr, Brooklyn International High School (New York, NY)


Activity Worksheets