The Great Fear of 1776

Age of Revolutions

By Jeffrey Ostler

Sometime in mid-1776, just as colonists were declaring their independence from Great Britain, an unnamed Shawnee addressed an assembly of representatives from multiple Indigenous nations who had gathered at the Cherokee capital of Chota. Taking a wampum belt in hand, the Shawnee spoke of a long history of injustice at the hands of the “Virginians,” a term many Native people applied to greedy settlers from Virginia and other colonies. The “red people,” he said, had once been “Masters of the whole Country,” but now they “hardly possessed ground enough to stand on.”[1] Not only did the Virginians want their land, the Shawnee contended, they wanted their lives. It is “plain,” he said, that “there was an intention to extirpate them.”[2] Although the term genocide had not been invented, this is precisely what the Shawnee feared Native people were up against: a project that…

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