26 September 2022
The Haldimand Papers: The British Empire in North America
Patrick J. Jung is a professor in the Department of Humanities, Social Science and Communication at the Milwaukee School of Engineering, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
As an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow, I had the honour of spending five weeks at the British Library engaged with the Haldimand Papers during the summer of 2022. This sizeable collection presented a daunting task as it consists of 249 volumes, many of which contain hundreds of original manuscripts. Nevertheless, it was time well spent with one of the most important manuscript collections for understanding the history of the British Empire in North America.
Frederick Haldimand was a Swiss-born British army officer who arrived in North America in 1756 during the opening years of the French and Indian War. Except for a hiatus in Britain from 1775 to 1778, Haldimand remained in North America until 1784. In addition to serving as the military commander of East and West Florida from 1765 to 1773, he served as the commander of Quebec from 1778 to 1784 and was responsible for the colony’s military defense, particularly during the American Revolution. Haldimand also commanded British installations in the Great Lakes region. His papers often provide the only record of the events that transpired in this vast expanse, which included posts in the eastern Great Lakes such as Fort Niagara (Fig. 1) and Fort Detroit (Fig. 2), and the sole installation in the western Great Lakes, Fort Michilimackinac.
Originally, I planned to focus on those documents related to the American Revolution in the Trans-Appalachian West, but in the course of my research, I noticed a distinct contrast between the British officer class serving in North America and the American colonials concerning their attitudes toward Native societies. Whereas colonials sought to expand their settlements westward beyond the Appalachian Mountains at the expense of the Indigenous societies, British army officers strove to preserve Native lands for Native people. The reasons for this sentiment shifted over time, but it was a surprisingly consistent policy goal from the 1750s onward. The Haldimand Papers proved to be an essential resource for investigating this ideological divide as they span three crucial decades and preserve a record of British imperialism in North America that is unparalleled in scope.
During the 1750s and 1760s, British officers endeavoured to prevent American colonials from settling on the Native lands of the Trans-Appalachian West to mollify the Indigenous societies and prevent uprisings such as that of Pontiac’s Rebellion from 1763 to 1766. In the aftermath of this insurrection, British military administrators reestablished the earlier system of trade instituted by the French that extended political, economic, and cultural autonomy to Native people. The advent of the American Revolution witnessed both the British and their Native allies working toward the common goal of defeating the American colonials and pushing the tide of White expansion eastward back across the Appalachian Mountains. When the Treaty of Paris ended the conflict in 1783, Haldimand gave this policy a more structured form when he proposed establishing a Native barrier state north of the Ohio River as a means of preserving the land base of Britain’s Indigenous allies. In a letter dated 27 November 1783, Haldimand advised that “the intermediate country between the limits assigned to Canada by the provisional treaty…should be considered entirely as belonging to the Indians, and that the subjects neither of Great Britain nor of the American States should be allowed to settle within them” (Haldimand Papers, Add. Mss. vol. 21716/73-75). The idea of a North American Native barrier state remained a British objective for the next three decades.
The Haldimand Papers make clear that American colonials exhibited what Patrick Wolfe (2006) has labeled “settler colonialism,” or the “logic of elimination” (387-388) whereby they sought to eliminate Indigenous peoples from their homelands. Through the voluminous correspondence preserved in the Haldimand Papers, the patient researcher can discern the development of British policies designed to counter American settler colonialism and preserve Native autonomy during the latter half of the eighteenth century. British policymakers ultimately failed to achieve this policy goal, and thus, it remains a neglected aspect of British imperial history. As I continued my examination of the Haldimand Papers, I became determined to correct this historiographic oversight in the future.
In his synthesis of the history of the British Empire, Bernard Peters (2004) asserts that British military commanders on the ground and imperial authorities in London often found it necessary to “protect…indigenous subjects from maverick Britons” (6). Certainly, this was the case in British North America from the 1750s onward. Historians researching this phenomenon will find the Haldimand Papers an essential source of historical information.
Anderson, Fred. (2000). Crucible of War: The Seven Years’ War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754-1766. New York: Vintage Books.
Berkhofer, Robert F., Jr. (1969). “Barrier to Settlement: British Indian Policy in the Old Northwest 1783-1794.” In The Frontier in American Development: Essays in Honor of Paul Wallace Gates. Pp. 249-276. David Ellis, ed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Dendy, John O. (1972). “Frederick Haldimand and the Defense of Canada, 1778-1784.” Ph.D. diss., Duke University.
Haldimand, Frederick. Papers. (1750-1790). Additional Manuscripts, vols. 21661-21895. British Library.
Porter, Bernard. (2004). The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-2004. Fourth edition. Harlow, United Kingdom: Pearson.
Sutherland, Stuart, Pierre Tousignant, and Madeleine Dionne-Tousignant. (1983). “Haldimand, Sir Frederick,” In Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 5, pp 887-904. Francess Halpenny, ed. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983.
Wolfe, Patrick. (2006). “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8:387–409.