Conquest of the Old Northwest - James Baldwin

Bienville de Celoron

I. On the Allegheny

The plan of building a line of forts for the protection of French interests in the Northwest was a wise one, but the work was allowed to languish. Year after year passed by, and but little was accomplished. The English never relaxed their claims, and their traders boldly invaded the territory which the French regarded as their own. Each year the French saw the fur trade setting more and more toward Albany instead of toward their own trade centers in Canada and on the Gulf. Their control over the western Indians seemed to be growing constantly weaker—they feared it would soon be lost.

At length the French government saw that something decisive must be done without further delay. As a first step, therefore, in strengthening the claims and influence of France, M. Bienville de Celoron was instructed to explore the Ohio region and take formal possession of the country in the name of King Louis XV.

On a warm day in July Celoron started from Canada on this important mission. He had with him twenty soldiers, a large number of voyageurs, and about thirty Indians, most of them being Iroquois. A son of the famous Joncaire, a half-breed Seneca having great influence among the Indians, went with him as his interpreter and guide.

From Lake Erie Celoron and his company crossed the short but difficult portage to Chautauqua Lake, where they launched their fleet of light canoes and began their voyage. Without mishap or delay they continued their course to the outlet of that beautiful sheet of water and then onward down the crooked and shallow stream which connects it with the Allegheny. "In some places," wrote Father Bonnecamp, the priest who went with the expedition, "the water was only two or three inches deep; and we were reduced to the sad necessity of dragging our canoes over the sharp pebbles, which, with all our care and precaution, stripped off large slivers of the bark. At last, tired and worn, and almost in despair of ever seeing La Belle Riviere, we entered it at noon of the 29th."

French explorers in Old Northwest


It was the Allegheny River upon which their canoes emerged; for that stream was then considered a part of the Ohio or La Belle Riviere. At the first convenient place the party landed in order to perform an important ceremony which was to be repeated at various points farther down the river. Soldiers and voyageurs were drawn up in line upon the bank; the priest pronounced a blessing, and Celoron in a loud voice proclaimed King Louis XV. to be the rightful sovereign of all the land. A sheet of tin bearing the arms of France was nailed to a tree, and at its foot an engraved leaden plate was buried "as a token of renewal of possession heretofore taken of the River Ohio, of all streams that fall into it, and all lands on both sides to the source of the aforesaid streams."

French explorers on the Allegheny


This ceremony being ended, the soldiers fired a salute, the Indians and voyageurs yelled in concert, and the party again took to their canoes. As they floated down the Allegheny they passed many straggling wigwams and small villages of Indians. The sight of so many canoes with white men caused great alarm, and men, women, and children fled into the woods. Young Joncaire with all his arts of persuasion could hardly make them believe that the Frenchmen intended to do no harm. Whenever they could be induced to stop and listen, Celoron would read to them a letter which he said was from their "great father," the king of France.

"My children," the letter ran, "since I was at war with the English, I have learned that they have deceived you; and, not content with corrupting your hearts, they have invaded my lands. I therefore send to you Monsieur de Celoron to tell you my intentions, which are that I will not endure the English on my land. Listen to me, children; mark well the word that I send you; follow my advice, and the sky will always be calm and clear over your villages."

II. Down La Belle Riviere

In a few days the party reached a village of the Delawares from which all the people had fled. This was at a place which Celoron described as the finest on the river. It was probably at the forks of the Ohio where now stands the city of Pittsburg. There, with the usual ceremonies, they buried another leaden plate, after which they continued their voyage. They were now fairly launched on the Ohio itself, the true Belle Riviere, discovered and first navigated by the Sieur de la Salle, eighty years before. Eighteen or twenty miles farther down, they came to a large village which the French called Chininque, but which was known to the English traders as Logstown. It was the most important place on the river and was inhabited mainly by Delawares and Shawnees. Here, too, lived a number of Mingoes, a mixed race, descended from the Iroquois and the conquered Andastes, or Eries, of the Lake Erie region.

[Illustration] from Conquest of the Old Northwest by James Baldwin

The savages at Logstown were not afraid of the Frenchmen, neither did they receive them very kindly. They ranged themselves along the river bank and greeted their visitors with a volley of musket shots. But here young Joncaire's good offices were again most valuable. He persuaded the chiefs to allow Celoron to land his men, and a time was set for the holding of a council.

At the council Celoron read another letter which he said had been written by their French father, "Onontio," the governor of Canada. "My children," it ended, "the English intend to rob you of your country; and that they may succeed, they begin by corrupting your minds. As they mean to seize the Ohio, which belongs to me, I send to warn them to retire."

The chiefs were not altogether pleased. "The English," they said, "pay us the best prices for out furs. Their rum and their blankets are good and cheap, and we need them. Yet we will do what the great father bids us."

There were ten English traders in the town at that very time; and Celoron had but little faith in the promises of the chiefs. As the party continued their voyage down the beautiful river they heard of the English at many places. Men from Virginia had been exploring the rich valleys on the south, and they were already making plans for the settlement of that region. A number of wealthy Virginians had formed a company called the Ohio Company; and the king of England had, that very summer, granted to this company two hundred thousand acres of land, to be chosen wherever they should prefer, west of the Alleghanies.

At some distance below Logstown, Celoron met six Englishmen, who had been trading in the Northwest and were returning to Pennsylvania. They had fifty horses with them and a hundred and fifty bales of furs which they had bought from the Miamis and Shawnees. As France and England were then at peace, Celoron did not dare to punish these trespassers as he thought they deserved. All he could do was to bid them to leave the country as quickly as possible and never come back. The traders answered, very meekly, that they would obey his commands; and they carried a letter from Celoron to the governor of Pennsylvania asking him to forbid his subjects trespassing upon the territories of the king of France. It is not to be supposed that they remembered their promises long, or that the letter had much influence with the governor.

At the mouth of the Muskingum River another sheet of tin was nailed upon a tree and another lead plate was buried. More than sixty years afterward, some boys who were playing along the river, saw the edge of this plate jutting out from the side of a bank where the stream had partly unearthed it. The foolish lads carried it home, and had melted a part of it into bullets before its value was discovered. What was left of it may still be seen in the museum of the American Antiquarian Society. Two or three other plates have since been found in other places near the junction of other rivers with the Ohio.

[Illustration] from Conquest of the Old Northwest by James Baldwin


Celoron's further progress down the Ohio was neither pleasant nor promising. Many of the men unused to the hot August weather became sick. The Indians along the shore were suspicious if not unfriendly. It was plain that the English had been tampering with them and making them promises. One morning, near the mouth of the Scioto River, the voyagers came upon a large village of Shawnees. They landed some distance above the place, and young Joncaire, with a flag of truce, went forward to make peace with the savages. As he approached the village he was greeted with fierce yells and hoots of defiance. His flag was riddled with bullets, and a party of young braves rushed upon him and made him prisoner. Some tried to tomahawk him on the spot; others wanted to burn him alive. But there chanced to be in the village an Iroquois chief who had known Joncaire since his boyhood.

"Let the young man go," said he. "He is my brother, and you shall not harm him."

The Shawnees hesitated. They dared not offend the Iroquois nation, and still they did not wish to receive the French. At last, however, they loosed their hold upon their prisoner and bade him go back to his companions.

[Illustration] from Conquest of the Old Northwest by James Baldwin


Celoron was now more than ever anxious to win the friendship of these Indians, for he knew that if the English should persuade them to take the warpath, they would be powerful foes. He therefore ordered his men to embark again and drop down the river to a point opposite the village. When the savages saw them coming they rushed to the shore and began shooting at the canoes. But no one was hurt. The Frenchmen landed in safety, posted guards along the river bank, and made as great a display of force as they could.

As the day wore on, the Indians began to feel alarmed, and sent some of their older men across the river to make a treaty of peace. A council was held in Celoron's tent. The chiefs expressed great sorrow that their young men should have behaved so badly, and promised to help the Frenchmen along in their voyage. There were some English traders in the village, and Celoron demanded that they should be driven out. But the Indians gave him to understand that this would not be done; and the council broke up without either party having gained what it wanted.

III. Up the Great Miami

On one of the last days in August the voyagers arrived at the mouth of the Great Miami. There Celoron buried the last of his leaden plates and resolved to follow the Ohio no farther. For a whole month, as Father Bonnecamp says, he had been exploring "La Belle Riviere, that river so little known to the French, and unfortunately too well known to the English." He was resolved now to penetrate boldly into the interior of the country, and by making friends with the natives, win them to the support of the French cause.

On the following day, therefore, the party began a slow and laborious voyage up the Great Miami. The heat was oppressive, many of the men were ill, and progress was very slow. The few Indians that were met were of the Miami nation, and they proved to be no more friendly than the Shawnees. Celoron tried to win their confidence by giving them presents of powder and shot; but they would accept nothing from him. It was plain that English traders had been among them.

Near the mouth of Loramie Creek, a hundred miles from the Ohio, there was a large village of Miamis ruled over by a chief known to the French as La Demoiselle, but to the English as Old Britain. This village which the English called Pique Town, or Pickawillany, not long afterward became one of the most powerful Indian towns in the Northwest and the seat of the great Miami Confederacy. Celoron and his party stopped here for a day, and a council was held with La Demoiselle and his braves.

For many years the French had been trying to persuade the Miamis to return to their former hunting grounds, farther to the north and out of the way of temptation by the English. Celoron now endeavored to induce La Demoiselle to lead his people back to their old homes at Kekionga near the Maumee portage. "My children," he said, addressing the chiefs in council, "you will enjoy in that country the delights of life, it being the place where repose the bones of your fathers and those of the Sieur de Vincennes whom you much loved." La Demoiselle and his chiefs listened kindly to what the Frenchman said, and promised that at a convenient time they would do all that was asked of them; but any one could see that they, too, had been won over to the English cause.

For three weeks the voyagers toiled up the Miami, until at last the stream became so shallow as to make further progress by water impossible. Then they dragged their canoes ashore and burned them. The next day they bought a few horses of the Indians, and started over-land through the untracked wilderness, directing their course toward the northwest. For five days they struggled through the woods and at last reached the spot where two small rivers unite to form the Maumee, or as it was then called, the Miami-of-the-Lakes. Here was the site of the old Miami village of Kekionga, and the place where now stands the city of Fort Wayne. On the north bank of the Maumee, Celoron and his companions found a small stockade occupied by a few French soldiers and coureurs de bois. There was not much there, however, to cheer the tired wanderers; for every man at the post was sick with fever and ague, and accommodations were very slight for so large a company. The very next day, therefore, Celoron borrowed some log canoes, and the homeward voyage was begun.

A week later he was at Detroit, and on the ninth of November he arrived safe at Montreal. He had been absent a little over three months, had traveled a distance of more than twelve hundred miles, had traversed unknown rivers and pierced trackless forests, had met many unfriendly bands of savages, and had returned from his perilous expedition with the loss of only a single man. His visit to the Ohio Country must have produced greater results than wa3 at first supposed; for, when war actually began between the English and the French, the Indians very generally gave their support to the latter.