Origins of Native American Military Service

Native American involvement in U.S. military campaigns dates to the American Revolution. Most Native nations attempted to remain neutral or sided with the British, with whom they maintained important trading relationships and military alliances. Some tribes, including Oneidas, Tuscaroras, and Stockbridge-Munsees, opted to fight for the Americans.

Polly Cooper cooking for two American soldiers over an open campfire during the winter

Oneida Indian Nation

Polly Cooper (Oneida) accompanied Oneida troops who brought food and supplies to relieve starving American soldiers during the winter of 1777–1778 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. She gave the army white corn and taught them how to prepare it. Cooper remained at Valley Forge through the winter as General Washington’s cook. For her efforts, she was gifted a shawl by the officers’ wives, which still resides in the hands of her descendants today. Oneidas participated in battles prior to and after Valley Forge as scouts, spies, and soldiers, giving significant aid to the revolutionary cause.

Their choice was influenced by proximity to colonial towns, relationships with Christian missionaries, and desire to recover or protect tribal lands.

Following the American victory over Britain, Native nations lost access to powerful European allies and stood alone to face the land-hungry United States.

Side profile of a man standing on a small boulder while carrying a rifle

Johann Ewald Diary, Volume II, Joseph P. Tustin Papers, Special Collections, Harvey A. Andruss Library, Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania

“An Indian of the Stockbridge Tribe,” Kingsbridge, New York, 1778. Sketch by Lieutenant General Johann von Ewald, Schleswig Jäger Corps (1744–1813). Pen and ink.

The Stockbridge Indians of western Massachusetts, a refugee community of Mohican, Housatonic, and Wappinger peoples, fought bravely for the cause of independence during the American Revolution. This sketch, by Captain Johann von Ewald, a Hessian officer who fought for Britain, depicts what a Stockbridge warrior would have worn and carried into battle.

During the War of 1812, many Native nations again supported Great Britain, still considered their last, best hope for stemming the tide of American settlement. After defeating Britain in 1814, Americans moved aggressively to acquire Native American homelands, laying the foundation for the tribal removals that dislocated Indian life in the decades preceding the Civil War.

Choctaw Chief Pushmataha in uniform

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Betty A. and Lloyd G. Schermer

John William Gear, Push-ma-ta-ha, 1838. Copy after Henry Inman and Charles Bird King, hand-colored lithograph on paper.

During the War of 1812, Choctaw Chief Pushmataha (ca. 1760–1824) and his warriors engaged and routed anti-American Muscogees, known as the Red Sticks, and joined U.S. forces under the command of General Andrew Jackson to defeat the British at the Battle of New Orleans. In recognition of his service, the United States presented Pushmataha with a full-dress military uniform, such as the one shown here. When he died in 1824 during a diplomatic visit to Washington, more than two thousand people followed the cortege to his funeral at Congressional Cemetery.