The use of the word red as opposed to black or white was originally just an easy reference point to identify Native Americans; just as the term Negroes was used to identify African slaves. The various tribes did not generally have a problem with being identified as red. They would refer to the Europeans as whites, and the slaves as blacks. Much of the labeling that took place was initiated by the Native Americans. As tensions developed over the years, the whites were almost always referred to as whites but often with derogatory terms added on. Americans were considered ugly or as nothing compared to the “red” man.
The use of “Red Man” or “Redskin” as an identifier began to take on a negative connotation as more and more Europeans made the move to what would later become the United States of America. As the lands on the Eastern Seaboard began to fill up and as tales of riches to be found further west circulated, there was a powerful incentive to paint the Native Americans as something less than a benign presence. The people formerly known as Europeans were transformed by the end of the Revolutionary War into Americans. Previously, the divisions between the British and the colonials had not left much time for turning attention to the lands then possessed by the original occupants.
The final defeat of the British in 1783 saw the newly independent Americans restless and filled with a sense of manifest destiny. A ragtag band of volunteers made up of raw recruits had managed to defeat the world’s leading power of its day. The original 13 colonies were now transformed into the 13 states. However, one thing had most definitely not changed. The elite maintained firm control over land, wealth, and power. The elected had gone from British merchants to American gentlemen farmers.
Men who had just been mustered out of the army saw little chance for their lot to improve if they remained where they were. All that most of them had to look forward to was a return to the jobs they had held before the war. Perhaps they would work for “Americans” now instead of the British, but still they would work for someone else’s benefit. The one alternative seemed to be “Go west, young man”, which is something many of them did well before the famous quote by Horace Greeley.
The start of the 1700s had seen the Native Americans as a mainly benevolent group who were willing to share their bounty and knowledge with the newcomers. The end of the century saw the start of the transformation which turned this same group into a band of savages. Popular literature had to be able to justify the pillage and plunder of lands which clearly belonged to groups that had been there for centuries. American pioneers carved out a vast territory upon the grounds which previously had belonged to their neighbors to the west. The destruction of an ancient way of life, accompanied by diseases for which the Native Americans had no immunity from was the beginning of the end. The start of American independence was the beginning of the end of freedom for Native Americans.
Berkin, C. (2011). Making America: A History. Independence, Kentucky. Wadsworth Cengage
Shoemaker, N. (1997, June). How Indians Got to Be Red. American Historical Review, 102(3),
624-644. Retrieved from http://www.ebscohost.com