Reflection on the impact of the War of 1812 on Indigenous peoples, past and present.

Reflection on the impact of the War of 1812 on Indigenous peoples, past and present.


The War of 1812 fundamentally changed the colonial and native relationship in North America, and specifically in Canada. Prior to the war, Indigenous nations were vital military and economic allies to the settler societies. Indigenous peoples dominated the fur trade for centuries and were incredibly important to the economic welfare of the colonial settlements. Their knowledge of the land and masterful hunting skills propelled the influx of furs that would economically sustain the settler colonies throughout the mid sixteenth to eighteenth centuries. The trading insured a collaborative relationship between the natives and settlers, in which many Indigenous nations were seen by the Europeans as political bodies whose partnership and diplomacy was fundamental to the success of the colonies. By the War of 1812 this dynamic trade has seized due to several factors such as the Napoleonic Wars, that opened the fur trade in the European continent with Russia, as well as the dramatic decrease in furs in North America due to overhunting. The shifting economic situation also bare change to the fact that the colonies in Eastern North America had gradually become settler societies, which begun to prosper off of an array of resources and had developed their own internal economies, independent from the European continent.

Although the economic need for furs had declined, Indigenous groups remained vital partners to the colonial societies. They were essential military allies in the ongoing disputes and tensions between the newly independent United States and the British colony of Upper and Lower Canada. Indigenous war tactics as well as their knowledge of the land, were advantageous in the difficult to navigate dense forested landscapes of the region. They were incredibly important military allies, and their war tactics prompted a respected relationship with the colonial powers, who promised protection of Indigenous lands in exchange for their political and military alliances.  Yet this relationship following the War of Independence in the 1770s was tattered to say the least. Indigenous nations were entirely left out of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, whose claim for land and sovereignty was not at all mentioned. The Haudenosaunee most specifically, were disillusioned by the British, and opposed to be seen as subjects to the crown rather than allies. Their aid in the War of Independence resulted in the gifting of the Haldimand Track, which would later become an essential hotspot in the War of 1812.

Prior to, and the early years of, the War of 1812, Indigenous war negotiation was delt with by the British colonial military. Diplomacy, payments and gift giving were managed directly by military personnel who were responsible to maintain a collaborative and peaceful relationship with the various Native nations. British or American generals would approach a tribal council in diplomacy, offering gifts such as arms, blankets, metal tools, alcohol and tobacco. Diplomacy with Indigenous communities were complex and depended on long-lasting relationships that reflected Indigenous systems of kinship and trade. However, by the beginning of the war the management of Indian affairs which includes diplomacy, payments and gifting, were placed under the supervision of the Department of Indian affairs, which begun to transform as an important branch of the colonial government. This shifting of management from the military branch to the Department is one of the ways in which the War of 1812 had impacted and effected the lives of Indigenous people. This development in colonial administration would fundamentally change the relations between settlers and natives and remains the foundation to Canadian federal attitudes to, and the relationship with, First Nations peoples.

The end of the War of 1812, marked by the Treaty of Ghent signed in December 1814 by the United States and Britain, had created the official and international borders of the United States and Canada as we know them today. The conception of the frontiers had several detrimental effects to Indigenous peoples. The first, is that Indigenous peoples who inhabited the borderland regions were now landlocked and restricted in migratory movement in which they depended on for thousands of years.  Forever used to freely navigate between territories, these bands depended on large scale hunting grounds and agricultural rotation throughout regions and were now restricted to small enclosed areas. Indigenous nations were, for the most part, created of kinship based communities that would break apart and rejoin seasonally. Kinship, hunting and their ways of living held no frontiers nor was it bounded by imaginary political bodies. Nations as we understand them today are not a reflection on the ways Indigenous peoples divided and identified amongst themselves. This leads to the second problem of the US and Canada border; many Indigenous nations, communities and tribes were divided between the two frontiers. Groups who had resided in the American side of the border but sided with the British were forced to flee their native grounds. This resulted in forcing a large influx of Indigenous refugees to the Canadian side of the border. The War of 1812 saw a mass displacement of Indigenous peoples who would find themselves landless and divided from their various tribes, to be engulfed into newly formed communities (often of different kinship or even languages) isolated in reservations.

The War of 1812 saw the creation of reserve lands which became legally defined in the Constitution Act of 1867, while most of the treaties between First Nations and the Federal government would take place during the decades following the war. Now that peace has been negotiated with the Americans, who were no longer a threat to the Dominion of Canada, Indigenous people were not needed for military alliances. They were now deemed a problem that the colonial government had to deal with. The first of this colonial problem was where to place them. As the colonial settlement grew and settler population increased, the years following the war saw ongoing land disputes between Indigenous communities who remained together and settlers who encroached on their lands. The Canadian government throughout the 1820s and 1840s had tried to strategize in various ways to keep squatters off of Indian lands. This issue was resulted typically though numerous treaties, however it did not stop settlers from squatting lands. Furthermore, the federal government would isolate Indigenous communities in less desirable lands with typically less fertile soils; which would later result in the tragically impoverished conditions many Indigenous communities would face. They were set up to fail.

Land claims and displacement were just one aspect of the issues which the colonial regime was facing. The creation of the borders between the US and Canada also made way for a construction of citizenship, in which Indians did not belong. The existence of Indigenous peoples within these colonial territories created a complex paradox; they were not settler citizens, they were different. Indians would become a legal category and a construct of colonial administration to limit the power of bands, and to disempower Indigenous peoples. They embodied a second-class citizenship in which still exists today-- a foundation for a rich discussion on settler colonialism exclusivity and citizenship in which reaches far beyond the scope of this exam, however worthy to mention, nonetheless.

The “Indian Problem” was to be dealt with by the Indian Department, which by the 1830s had become the primal mechanism and branch of government that was set to administer, communicate and “deal” with Indigenous nations and communities. The Department of Indian Affairs would become the main mechanism in which surveyed, oppressed, limited and controlled the lives of Indigenous peoples throughout the Dominion of Canada. Indian Agents would be stationed in nearly all reserves and Indigenous communities and would police the community’s affairs. Used as administrative bridges between the department headquarters in Montreal and later Ottawa, the agents would send detail reports on the lives of the members of the community. An example of the detailed surveillance that the agents had upon the communities, is exemplified in the file we looked at in class, of the Saugeen reserve. Agent Allen knew the smallest details of the Thompson family’s lives. From the individuals in the family, to the land they inhibited, their family history and even the smallest details of their lives such as the vegetables they grew in their garden and their changing employment. The case of the Thompson family is one of many, that shows how the federal government had scrutinised the lives of Indigenous people arguably more so than any other citizens. Surveillance by government as we understand it today was created during this period, and was moreover, developed primarily to limit and control the lives of Indigenous people.

The Thompson files however are recorded in the 1880s, decades after policies of assimilation and enfranchisement were enacted throughout Indigenous communities. The “Indian problem” reached beyond land claims. The Indian represented a citizen outside the normative construct of a colonial settler, and the government sought to transform the Indian from a ‘savage’ to a civilized man. The program of civilization meant a total cultural, linguistic and social transformation which was regarded as enfranchisement. While missionaries and the Department of Indian Affairs set stations throughout communities with the task of teaching the English language and Western agricultural methods, most Indigenous communities were extremely hostile to their presence. Enfranchisement was seen as a solution for Indian individuals who sought to be incorporated into settler society; once learning the English language and gaining skillful employment they were promised full citizenship and even land. However, between 1838 to the 1870’s only one declaration was filed by an Indigenous man, whose claim was later rejected. In short, enfranchisement was highly unpopular among Indigenous people, who had no interest in being incorporated into settler society or be “civilized”. These unsuccessful efforts by the federal government would later escalate to the genocidal policies of assimilation and the racist and misogynist policies of the Indian Act.  

The administrative systems of surveillance and record keeping by the Department had lay the foundation for the legal categorization that would come to define, control and limit the freedom and liberty of all Indigenous groups within Canadian territory. By the time the Indian Act was created in 1876 the bureaucratic and administrative infrastructure to enforce it was in place, and the guidelines used to categorize an Indian as well as administer the organization of the reserve still exist today. The War of 1812 had paved the foundation of the Canadian government present day relationship with, and attitude towards, Indigenous people.