The Costs of Empire: Native Americans and the Origins of the Stamp Act


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Michael A. McDonnell
University of Sydney
Follow on Twitter @HstyMattersSyd

This month, 250 years ago, the British Parliament in London met to consider the vehement colonial response to the hated Stamp Act. The tax had been introduced in 1764 to raise revenue from the colonies in North America. But as most Americans know, colonial protests forced Parliament to back down, and in doing so, set off the fuse that would eventually ignite the American Revolution. Yet few Americans know why this legislation was passed in the first place.

In part, it was to recover some of the tremendous costs of Britain’s imperial wars. In 1763, Britain emerged victorious from the Seven Years’ War, a conflict that began on the frontiers of its North American colonies but which quickly became global in scope. Britain bested its rival France in India, the Caribbean, and North America, but only after pouring hundreds of thousands of pounds into its navy and army.

Though the war had been tremendously costly, it quickly led to another imperial war that gets less attention – this time with Native Americans – in a conflict we often now call “Pontiac’s War.” At the end of the Seven Years’ War, Native Americans insisted the British had only conquered the French, and not them. But British military officers, with their confidence brimming from their previous successes, acted imperiously and ignored native claims to sovereignty and their land.

After hearing a British officer boast to a delegation of Native Americans that the English could crush them “whenever they pleased,” one wary British agent responsible for Indian relations complained that military officers were “so intoxicated with providential Success that we will presently stumple over the whole Universe, if no Block should happen to lay in our way.”

But the British were about to be blocked.

As if on a signal, Native Americans all across the Great Lakes rose up together in 1763 and attacked British forts in one of the largest pan-Indian wars in North America. Dozens of forts were overrun. In the most extreme case, Michigan Indians gained access to a British fort by holding an exhibition – and fake, as it turned out – lacrosse game. Within months, attacking Indians captured or killed an estimated 2000 British soldiers and colonial settlers, rolling back the frontier hundreds of miles.

The British were powerless to stop the onslaught. They struggled to bring a military end to the war.

Every step they took turned into a quagmire. When a supply convoy attempted to reach Fort Niagara in September 1763, for example, some three hundred Seneca Iroquois, together with Odawa and Ojibwe from Detroit and the Ohio, attacked and managed to overwhelm a relief force as well. More than seventy soldiers and wagoneers were killed at what became known as the “Devil’s Hole Massacre” – one of the deadliest skirmishes of the war for the British.

With little hope of outright victory, the British chose to cut their losses and try to broker a peace deal.

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Well into the nineteenth-century, native nations such as the Anishinaabe Odawa continued to exert a diplomatic influence on British affairs in North America. Unknown artist, attributed to Sir Joshua Jebb, ‘Two Ottawa Chiefs Who with Others Lately Came Down from Michillimachinac Lake Huron to Have a Talk with Their Great Father The King or His Representative, c. 1813-1820’. Image courtesy of the David Ives Bushnell Collection of Canadiana, Acc. No 1981-55-41, Library and Archives Canada.

In 1764, the British Superintendent of Indians, William Johnson, set out for Niagara and sent word to dozens of Native communities to meet him there. Over 2000 Indians gathered there, many staying for several weeks. Johnson had to provide provisions for the duration of their stay since he was the host of the council. He also gave out generous presents of textiles, iron goods, and alcohol, in return for promises from Native delegates that they would allow the British re-occupy their posts. Though Indian “presents” are often seen as hand-outs, they were effectively the “rent” the British had to pay to use Indian lands.

In total, William Johnson claimed he doled out L58,000 worth of provisions and presents at Niagara in 1764. Coming hot on the heels of the end of the Seven Years’ War, and the military expenses incurred in Pontiac’s War, Britain could ill-afford the rent on its newly inherited territory.

In fact, almost at the same time Johnson was spending lavishly to appease Native Americans, British officials back in London were deciding whether the colonies in North America should pay a bigger share in their own defense. The officials were particularly concerned about the mounting costs of keeping 10,000 troops in North America who were there to help maintain peace between colonists and Indians.

In 1764, Parliament passed the Stamp Act, and thus, 250 years ago, the dreaded stamps reached the American colonies and led to a chain of events that would set off the Revolution.

News of the Stamp Act enraged many colonists and ignited riots in some of the major towns. British efforts to tax the colonists to help pay for the defence of the empire would ultimately push many into outright rebellion.
News of the Stamp Act enraged many colonists and ignited riots in some of the major towns. British efforts to tax the colonists to help pay for the defence of the empire would ultimately push many into outright rebellion.

How much money did Parliament initially hope to raise in the colonies by passing the Stamp Act? Approximately L60,000 – roughly the same amount that Johnson claimed he had spent at a single Indian council.

While Johnson’s spending was not a direct cause of the Stamp Act legislation, it was typical of the costs of policing the British Empire. And the mounting expenses simply became too big a burden for British officials to bear alone. The Seven Years’ War, followed by Pontiac’s War, convinced them that colonists should share in the costs of empire, and steps should be taken to stop further settler-Indian conflicts.

Though they eventually repealed the Stamp Act, British legislators would persist in their efforts to tax the colonists. At the same time, they continued to make trade concessions to Native Americans because they could not afford another war with them. They also rushed through the passage of the Proclamation Act of 1763, which excluded British colonists from lands west of the Appalachian Mountains.

Ironically, of course, in trying to avoid further conflict with the powerful Indian nations that ringed the colonies, the British ended up in a civil war with their own colonists.

Michael A. McDonnell is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Sydney. He is the author of Masters of Empire: Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America (2015), as well as The Politics of War: Race, Class, and Conflict in Revolutionary Virginia (2007), winner of the 2008 NSW Premier’s History Prize, and co-editor of Remembering the Revolution: Memory, History, and Nation-Making from Independence to the Civil War.

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