John Bartram’s and Peter Collinson’s Differing Views on Native Americans

November 23, 2022
Josh DiPrima

Just as family and friends sometimes debate over modern political issues, the events of the past were oftentimes no exception. The correspondence between John Bartram and his business partner, Peter Collinson, reveals such a discourse, as both Bartram and Collinson gradually held polarized views of the indigenous populations who raided the Pennsylvanian frontier during the Seven Years’ and Pontiac’s Wars.

The Seven Years’ War (1756–63) was an international conflict fought between long-standing rivals, Great Britain and France, for global superiority. The French and Indian War (1754–63) was the North American theater of the conflict and was named after the significant role Native Americans played on both sides. The two European powers had developed into major economic and political players on the continent, and the war gave Native Americans the chance to fight for the side they felt held their best interests. Although the British had Native allies, France’s better indigenous diplomacy and less manipulative past made them the more attractive ally for many nations.[1]

This Francophile tendency was especially evident in Pennsylvania among indigenous nations, where the British had consistently exploited and distanced the region’s Lenape (Delaware), Shawnee, and other nations. These groups fought alongside the French in battles and raided the Pennsylvania frontier, stealing supplies and killing the region’s poorly defended white settlers. The Natives eventually agreed to a separate peace, under the Treaty of Easton in 1758, on the condition that the British would not expand further west into the indigenous lands of western Pennsylvania and Ohio. When the British quickly disregarded this requirement, indigenous raids of the Pennsylvanian frontier began again under Pontiac’s War (1763–64).[2]

“The Indians delivering up the English captives to Colonel Bouquet… in Novr. 1764,” engraving by Pierre Charles Canot, 1766 (Library of Congress). This exchange occurred near the end of the Pontiac’s War and was a coerced requirement for peace (see the bayonets behind the colonists). While many captives were happy to be returned, others had been adopted as members of Native communities and had lived there happily for a long time. Both sets of individuals were returned in Sir William Johnson’s attempt to restore peace and reduce the region’s Native population.

Bartram’s response was like that of many Pennsylvania colonists. In February 1756, he wrote to Collinson in London with anger and fervent racism, expressing that “O: Pensilvania thou that was the most flourishing & peaceable province in North America is now scourged by the most barbarous creatures in the universe…. The barbarous inhuman ungrateful natives [are] weekly murdering our back inhabitants…. If our captains pursue them if in the level woods thay skip from tree to tree like monkies….” In the early years of the Seven Years’ War, Collinson seemed to agree with Bartram, responding how, “Wee here are greatly Effected at the Ravages and cruelties Exercised by your ungrateful perfidious Indians.” The raids were undeniably brutal, but both Bartram and Collinson failed to consider the Natives’ motives. They viewed the raiders as deceitful and “barbarous,” focusing solely on their actions rather than recognizing that they were fighting the British colonial system’s own treacheries and incursions onto their land, which threatened their very way of life.[3]

By the time of Pontiac’s War, the decades-long friends and business partners had become polarized over these very viewpoints. Bartram continued to see his raiders in a similar light, expressing that the “only method to establish a lasting peace with the barbarous Indians is to bang them stoutly,” and that, “the Indians must be subdued or drove above 1000 miles back.” Collinson, on the other hand, began to consider the indigenous perspective more critically. He responded to John’s callous letters with criticism, stating:

“My dear John, thou does not consider the law of right, and doing to others as would be done unto. We, every manner of way, trick, cheat, and abuse these Indians…. Lett a person of Power come & take 5 or 10 Acres of my Friend Johns Land from Him… How Easy & resigned he would be… but if an Indian resents it, in his way… nothing but Fire and Fagot will do with my Friend John…” [4]

We may never know what led to Collinson’s change in perspective, but the backgrounds of both individuals provide potential avenues to understand why their views differed. Collinson was a Quaker, and as such, he likely believed in the core Quaker principle of the “inner light.” The inner light held that God resided universally within all humans, making their bodies, and not the church, his temple. George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, preached that this light could be realized and lit within anyone, and he embodied this teaching by acting towards the equality of all – including women and Native Americans. The open-minded nature of this tenet made many Quakers pacifists and generally friendly towards Native Americans. It also formed the foundation behind Pennsylvania’s “Holy Experiment.” Although Bartram was also a Quaker, many of his beliefs strayed from Quaker orthodoxy, resulting in his disownment in 1758. Bartram’s exact views on the inner light are unknown, but his predilection towards war and his prejudice towards Native Americans suggest that he did not view innate equality as highly as other Quakers.[5]

It is also important to consider how Bartram and Collinson lived in entirely different settings. Collinson lived in London, where he could look at the colonial raids from far outside of the situation, while Bartram lived in Pennsylvania and was affected by indigenous raids throughout his entire life. When he was still a child, John Bartram’s father was killed, and his stepmother and step siblings temporarily kidnapped, during the raids of the larger Tuscarora War (1711–1715) in North Carolina. As an adult, Bartram’s annual botanic expeditions across the colonies were sporadically halted by Native raids that made the frontiers unsafe, which limited his business. When raids erupted in Pennsylvania throughout the 1750s and 60s, it is possible that he knew some of the people who were affected, and it is likely that his opinions were also further influenced by the reactions of white settlers around him. While these developments do not excuse his prejudice and ignorance of the Natives’ true motives, it shows how Bartram was affected by the larger events around him, and how his views may have been shaped differently from Collinson’s over time.[6]

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Notes

[1] Gregory Evans Dowd, War Under Heaven: Pontiac, the Indian Nations, and the British Empire (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2004): 22-89.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Bartram to Peter Collinson, February 21, 1756, in The Correspondence of John Bartram: 1734-1777, edited by Edmund Berkeley and Dorothy Smith Berkeley (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1992): 400-401; Peter Collinson to John Bartram, June 8, 1756, in Ibid, 405.

[4] John Bartram to Peter Collinson, September 30, 1763, in Ibid, 609; John Bartram to Peter Collinson, October 23, 1763, in Ibid, 612; Peter Collinson to John Bartram, December 6, 1763, in Ibid, 615-616.

[5] George Fox. “Boyhood: A Seeker,” “First Years of Ministry,” and “Two Years in America,” in An Autobiography. Originally written 1694. (Whitefish: Literary Licensing LLC, 2014). Street Corner Society. https://web.archive.org/web/20070612033233/http://www.strecorsoc.org/gfox/title.html; Henry Joel Cadbury, “The Disownment of John Bartram,” Bulletin of Friends’ Historical Association Vol. 17, No. 1 (Spring 1928): 16-22.

[6] Joel T. Fry, “Historic American Landscapes Survey, John Bartram House and Garden (Bartram’s Garden), HALS No. PA-1, History Report,” MS report, U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, HABS/HAER/HALS/CRGIS Division, Washington, DC, 18.

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