Midtrød on Juricek, 'Endgame for Empire: British-Creek Relations in Georgia and Vicinity, 1763-1776'

Author: 
John T. Juricek
Reviewer: 
Tom Arne Midtrød

John T. Juricek. Endgame for Empire: British-Creek Relations in Georgia and Vicinity, 1763-1776. Gainseville: University Press of Florida, 2015. 338 pp. $74.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8130-6074-3.

Reviewed by Tom Arne Midtrød (University of Iowa) Published on H-AmIndian (June, 2016) Commissioned by F. Evan Nooe

Diplomacy, Corruption, and Miscalculation on the Pre-Revolutionary Southern Frontier

In Endgame for Empire—a sequel volume to his earlier book, Colonial Georgia and the Creeks (2010)—John T. Juricek provides a well-written, clearly argued, and copiously documented discussion of diplomatic relations between the Creek confederacy, the British Empire, and the province of Georgia from the British victory in the Seven Years’ War through the opening stages of the American Revolution. In so doing, Juricek exposes the inadequacy, folly, and occasional corruption that characterized British attempts at mending fences with Indian peoples in the period following the seminal year of 1763.

It could never have been easy. The British ouster of the French from Louisiana and the Spanish from Florida fundamentally upset Creek diplomacy, which had for decades centered on cultivating relations with all three imperial powers. Creek frustration with the British was on the rise, which manifested itself in killings of British traders, a development Juricek sees as a sign that Creek leaders were losing control over their people. Imperial officials knew that discontent among the Native nations represented the most pressing challenge to Britain’s authority over the new territories it claimed, and thus set out to improve these relations through the implementation of a series of reforms that included the famous Royal Proclamation of 1763.

The British reform program was based on rational and even idealistic assumptions, but in Juricek’s account, it ended up backfiring quite spectacularly, so that by the outbreak of the American Revolution it had—at least in the Southeast—accomplished little beyond disappointing the Creeks and other Indians and alienating British colonials. A congress at Augusta in 1763 seemingly provided a promising start, but no sooner was this conference over than word arrived from London that the Proclamation of 1763 had opened trade with the Indians to all British subjects in America. Access to trade may have been intended to reconcile colonials to other facets of the Proclamation—notably its famous boundary line and its ban on private purchases of Indian lands—but the flood of new (and often unscrupulous) traders into Creek country practically guaranteed that intercultural violence would ensue (as did the growing presence of colonial squatters).

Southern Indian Department superintendent John Stuart and Georgia governor James Wright—the two central characters in Juricek’s narrative and the central actors in Britain’s diplomacy with the Creeks—agreed that opening the trade to all comers was a poor idea. They could hardly have failed to do so, since the resulting instances of intercultural homicide would repeatedly shake Creek-British relations (in 1773, for instance, killings of British subjects led Georgia to impose a trade embargo on the Creeks). They did not agree on much else, including land. While Stuart sought to uphold the royal policy of firm boundary lines, Wright was far more interested in acquiring land for the benefit of Georgia (and himself). Had the imperial reform program actually been implemented, Wright’s attitudes might not have mattered, as the superintendent would have been in firm control of Indian affairs, but in the years following the outbreak of the Stamp Act crisis in 1765, officials in London withdrew from active involvement in Indian relations, leading Stuart largely bereft of assistance.

Wright, of course, was not alone in coveting Indian land, and in the early 1770s the governor and many of Georgia’s leading merchants and traders became involved in an elaborate scheme to secure an enormous tract of land from the Creeks and Cherokees in exchange for cancellation of debts to colonial traders and merchants. Stuart saw the complicated shenanigans that ensued as a blatant violation of British policy, but thanks to Wright’s lobbying in London, the plan went forward, resulting in the so-called New Purchase made from Creek and Cherokee leaders in June 1773. What is striking in Juricek’s account of these events is not that a venal governor collaborated with equally venal colonials, which was not unique (Virginia governor Lord Dunmore comes to mind) but rather the backing he received from the highest circles of power in London. Wright returned to Georgia as a baronet and secured the shady purchase of land, but while his popularity in Georgia briefly increased, the New Purchase would ultimately leave all parties involved dissatisfied—and seriously hurt the cause of the British rule in the Southeast.

The land cession left most Creeks dissatisfied, but the New Purchase was equally alienating to the traders and merchants who had gone along with Wright’s schemes. These men, who had relinquished their claims to Creek trading debts in expectation of high profits from future land sales, found their hopes frustrated, among other things because the newly ceded lands sold poorly, in part because prospective purchasers feared Creek resentment if they came to settle on this land. Blaming Wright and the government he represented for their economic losses and thwarted ambitions, Georgia’s traders and merchants came to favor the Revolutionary cause, and the Creeks were alienated from the imperial government, especially since Wright at the very eve of the Revolutionary War sought to recover his popularity by attempting to procure yet another purchase of Creek land, a scheme that enabled patriot leaders—who had little else to offer the Indians—to cast themselves as defenders of Creek lands against grasping imperial officials. In part for these reasons, the Creeks would remain on the sidelines during the first years of the Revolutionary War, and when they did enter the fray, it was too late for them to affect the outcome.

Endgame for Empire is thus valuable for its insights into imperial Indian relations during the decade before the American Revolution, and will no doubt be of great interest to students of the Native Southeast and the Revolutionary period. Its treatment of inter-Indian politics is less satisfying, mostly because it leaves so much unexplained. Juricek is clearly aware of the importance of this topic, for he frequently brings up such issues as growing divisions between the Upper and the Lower Creeks and the importance of the drawn-out war between the Creeks and the Choctaws, but he provides no in-depth explanation of these issues, which will no doubt be frustrating to many readers, at least those who are not specialists in this particular time and area. Of course, Creek-British relations—not Indian-Indian affairs—stand at the center of this book, but since Juricek makes it quite clear that internal Indian politics often had a profound influence on Creek relations to the British (the Creek-Choctaw war, for instance, made the Creeks especially vulnerable to British trade embargos), some further coverage of these issues seems in order.

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Citation: Tom Arne Midtrød. Review of Juricek, John T., Endgame for Empire: British-Creek Relations in Georgia and Vicinity, 1763-1776. H-AmIndian, H-Net Reviews. June, 2016. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=45691

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