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George Washington had complicated relationships with Native Americans.

He was born into a world in which native peoples were still major players in the Americas, despite having suffered through three centuries of European diseases, dispossession, and warfare. Throughout his life, Washington negotiated with and served alongside Native peoples, fought against others, and sought their land for his own prosperity. 

"Washington and Fairfax at a War-Dance," engraved by John Rogers after John McNevin, c 1857. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert B. Gibby, 1984. [WB-3D1]

George Washington's first recorded encounter with Native Americans occurred while on a surveying trip in 1748 when he was 16 years old. Noting in his journal on March 23, at about 2:00 pm:

we were agreeably surpris’d at the sight of thirty odd Indians coming from War

During the French and Indian War, Washington spent the majority of his army service in Indian country and had the opportunity to interact with Native Americans from many nations. He grew to appreciate Native warriors’ military tactics he saw first-hand and later implemented some of them during the Revolutionary War. As commander-in-chief, Washington instructed armed forces to attack native nations allied with the British or who resisted American expansion.

By the time of his presidency, Washington and many of his contemporaries had come to believe that Native Americans had no choice but to assimilate into American society or face extinction. He also spoke of wanting to create policies based on "principles of Justice and humanity" towards native nations but the stability of the young republic and its citizens was his clear priority.

Washington himself lived in a multi-lingual world that included people speaking numerous Algonquin, Iroquoian, and Siouxan languages and dialects. His actions on behalf of the British government and later the United States affected Native peoples in often tragic ways. Today, George Washington’s Mount Vernon encourages scholarship surrounding Washington and Native Americans. Our archaeologists have found artifacts from every era of human activity at Mount Vernon, dating at least as far back as 10,000 years. We cannot tell the story of the Virginia Washington knew and the nation he helped to found without including indigenous voices.

Native American Diplomacy Before the American Revolution

Author Patrick Spero, now the Executive Director of the George Washington Presidential Library at Mount Vernon, discusses early diplomatic relations between colonists and Native American groups.

Colin Calloway

Historian Colin Calloway discusses his book "The Indian World of George Washington: The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation" with the Washington Library.

Nation to Nation

Historians Fred Anderson and Brett Rushforth describe George Washington's early encounters with Native Americans and his developing views and policies towards Native people during the presidency.

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