"Stout, bold, cunning and the greatest travellers in America": The colonial Shawnee diaspora

Laura Keenan Spero
Dept. of History, University of Pennsylvania
July, 2010


There is no comprehensive study on the Shawnees before the American Revolution. Scholars have generally concluded that a scarcity of evidence and the mobility and multiplicity of Shawnee communities in this period makes such a study impossible and have, in any case, viewed Shawnees as bit players in early American history. This project is not only an over-arching history of a diverse people, but recasts Shawnees as central to the history of North America. By gathering evidence from far-flung documentary source bases and reframing the problem of Shawnee dispersal as the creation of a Native diaspora, the present work shows how Shawnees were among the most well-connected Native peoples east of the Mississippi and possessed the potential to shape Native-European relations and affect imperial ambitions through their widespread influence among Native peoples. This dissertation traces the Shawnee diaspora from its roots to the American Revolution. It begins with the mid-seventeenth-century dispersal of the Shawnees from the Ohio country and follows various Shawnee individuals and communities to the Great Lakes, southeast, and mid-Atlantic regions. In each of these contexts, Shawnees forged close bonds of alliance and kinship to other Native peoples while also pursuing economic and diplomatic relations with various European powers. Ultimately, however, Shawnees' experiences of colonialism led many to participate in inter-Native, anti-imperial movements, and the Shawnee diaspora became a potent medium in inter-Native politics. Initially survival strategies, Shawnees' integration into diverse Native communities granted them unprecedented access to potential allies while their extensive migrations provided nearly unmatched social and geographic expertise. By the Seven Years' War (1754-1763), Shawnees were poised to act not only as warriors, but as leaders, organizers, and messengers of pan-Indian resistance aimed at protecting Native lands and sovereignty. They did so for decades. Yet, by attending to the constraints of Shawnees' ties to other peoples and the failures of their efforts to create lasting inter-Native confederacies, this dissertation also questions whether the limits of Native connectivity may have been more powerful than its potential.