Conquest of the Old Northwest - James Baldwin

For Savagery, or for Civilization?

I. The Policy of the English King

At the time that Vincennes and the posts in the Illinois Country were delivered up to the English the French population of the Northwest did not greatly exceed five thousand. In this number were included strolling traders, voyageurs, coureurs de bois, and about five hundred negro slaves.

The French disliked the thought of becoming subjects of the king of England. In Canada they could not help themselves, and therefore had to make the best of it; but many of those who lived in the Illinois Country abandoned their homes and crossed the Mississippi where they supposed the French king still held possession. They did not know that all the region beyond the river had been secretly ceded to Spain. Some of them gathered about the new post of St. Louis; others settled at the somewhat older village of St. Genevieve, nearly opposite Kaskaskia; and still others made their way southward to New Orleans.

No settlers from the colonies east of the Alleghanies came into the Northwest to make up for the loss of these emigrants. The country remained a savage wilderness with no white inhabitants save the few French people who remained in their little settlements, and the soldiers and traders who were stationed at the English posts. It was the intention of the British government to resign the entire region north of the Ohio to the possession of the Indian tribes to make of it a true Indian country under the protection of the English crown.

Not only were the colonists in Virginia, Pennsylvania, and New York forbidden to make settlements in the Northwest, but all entrance into that region was prohibited, and it was proposed to destroy the settlements which already existed there.

Three years before the beginning of our Revolutionary War, orders came from England to dislodge the French in the Wabash Country; and General Gage, the British military commander in the Northwest, made proclamation warning all white settlers, English as well as French, to remove from the country. But it was shown that the people at Vincennes had clear titles to their lands, some of them made nearly seventy years before; and when the matter was appealed to those higher in authority, the order of banishment, although not withdrawn, was allowed to rest unheeded and unenforced.

About a year before the battle of Lexington, a law was enacted by the British Parliament declaring the whole of the Northwest to be a part of Canada, restoring the laws that had been in force during the French rule, and confirming the Catholic priesthood in all their former rights, privileges, and property. It was a strange enactment, and was designed to benefit neither the French inhabitants nor the Catholic clergy, but to prevent the American colonists, who were now making themselves heard, from getting possession of the richest portion of the continent. The colonists were already on the verge of revolution; and the passage of this law increased the bitterness with which they were beginning to regard the mother country.

Virginia claimed the greater part of the Northwest as her own. It was hers by the terms of the charter which she had received from King James in 1609. New York also claimed a large portion of the same territory, having acquired it through various treaties with the Iroquois Indians. Pennsylvania also had claims based on a treaty made with the Iroquois at Lancaster. All the colonies had aided in rescuing this region from the French, and they now saw it about to be severed from them and formed into a vast inland province from which white men must be excluded. Every true American cried out against this act of Parliament. It was one of the many deeds of tyranny with which the people charged the English king, and was therefore one of the causes of the American Revolution.

In the meanwhile, the Indians of the Northwest were becoming reconciled to the English government, and at the same time bitterly hostile to the colonists. Why was this? The English king had assured them that their hunting grounds should not be invaded; his soldiers were ready to protect them from intrusion; his traders gave them good goods in exchange for their peltries, and supplied them with an abundance of cheap rum. The colonists, on the other hand, were eager to open up settlements in the wilderness; they wished to destroy the Indians' hunting grounds in order to make homes for themselves; and they cared nothing for trade with the savages nor did they wish their friendship on any terms.

When, therefore, the war of the Revolution broke out, the Indians were soon won over to the side of the English king. General Hamilton, the lieutenant-governor of Canada with headquarters at Detroit, had but to send out his war belt, and thousands of warriors were ready to seize the tomahawk and scalping knife and join in bloody forays upon the American frontiers.

The commanders of the British posts on the Wabash and the upper Mississippi encouraged the savages to send out bands to lay waste the borders of Virginia and destroy the newly formed settlements south of the Ohio. By direction of the king's ministers, the Indians were supplied with arms and ammunition for carrying on their murderous warfare; and by order of General Hamilton prizes were offered for the scalps of Americans, whether of men, women, or children. In the spring of a single year, no fewer than fifteen bands of bloodthirsty savages crossed the Ohio, and urged on by promises from the king's officers, committed many fiendish outrages.

How were the American people, while struggling for their independence, to put a stop to such barbarities? How could the scattered settlers in the frontier regions of Kentucky and Virginia be protected from the raids of these savage bands? How could the great Northwest, rich in undeveloped resources, be won for American homes and American control? The solution of these questions was made possible by the wisdom and daring of a young Virginian whose acquaintance we have already madeóGeorge Rogers Clark.