Conquest of the Old Northwest - James Baldwin

The Conquering White Man

I. Beyond the Border

It was several years before any important settlements were attempted west of the Great Miami. In the Wabash Country and the Illinois Country, the Indians still roved unmolested, and but few white men ventured to invade the wild solitudes of the woods and prairies.

The French people at the old posts of Vincennes and Kaskaskia were in a distressing condition. When George Rogers Clark invaded their country, they did all they could to help him. They gave him money and supplies, and in many cases impoverished themselves to aid the American cause. In return they received only certificates of indebtedness from the Virginia government and most of these certificates were never paid. Later on, some lawless Americans, pretending to be officers from Virginia, visited their settlements and oppressed and robbed the simple people in a most shameful manner. To add to the sum of their misfortunes, there were heavy rains, and the rivers, swollen to unusual heights, swept away their crops; early frosts destroyed their corn; and the Indians, who had formerly been their friends, were now their enemies.

In their great distress to whom should these people turn if not to the Americans who claimed jurisdiction of their country? Father Gibault, our old acquaintance who had given such valuable aid to George Rogers Clark, accordingly sent a memorial to Governor St. Clair, telling him of the sad condition of his people. "Loaded with misery, and groaning under the weight of misfortunes accumulated since the Virginia troops entered their country," said he, "the unhappy inhabitants throw themselves under the protection of your excellency."

When the governor visited these distant settlements in the following spring, he found that all he had been told was true. To him the French settlers appeared to be the gentlest and kindest people he had ever met. But they were woefully ignorant, not one in fifty being able to read or write. Their modes of life and methods of labor had not changed for a century. They were honest and cheerful, constant in their attendance at church, and devoutly religious. But they had not kept pace with the progress of the world, and seemed to belong rather to the Middle Ages than to the new era of progress which was then dawning over the world.

The territorial legislature, before which their case was finally laid, could not restore to them their former prosperity, nor do much to reconcile them to the new order of things. Indeed, among the pushing Americans who were laying the foundations of a great new empire in the Northwest, there were few who felt any sympathy for these slow-going people of an alien race.

In the lake regions the British still held the ports of Detroit and Mackinac, and through them all the northern part of the Northwest Territory. This was done in direct violation of the treaty of peace signed in 1783; but the United States was not yet strong enough to assert its full rights. And so the fur trade of the Northwest remained in the hands of the English; English agents continued to deal with the Indian tribes; and English influence long delayed the settlement of the lake country. It was believed, too, and not without reason, that English intrigues had much to do in inciting the Indians to make war upon the colonists in the Ohio Valley.

II. Harmar

The Indians had never felt friendly toward the Americans. The coming of so many settlers into the southern part of their ancient hunting grounds filled them with alarm. The lawless deeds of white ruffians, who had entered their country for purposes of plunder, exasperated them beyond measure.

Although the red men no longer crossed the Ohio to harry the Kentucky borders, yet bands of Kentuckians still made warlike raids into the Indian country, and took tenfold vengeance for the injuries they had suffered in former years. Even when treaties were made and signed, the whites were the first to break them. "The frontier settlers," said Washington, "entertain the opinion that there is not the same crime (or indeed no crime at all) in killing an Indian as in killing a white man."

Under these circumstances what could be more natural than that the tribes should refuse to abide by the treaties which their chiefs had made, and combine to resist the invaders? Stung to madness, they demanded that the whites should withdraw to the south of the Ohio; and a long and bloody war began.

The pioneers who had ventured farthest into the wilderness were of course the first to suffer. Prowling bands of Indians infested the woods and made life outside of a stockade very insecure. Their modes of harassing the backwoodsmen seemed to vary with their varying moods. Sometimes they "contented themselves with seizing the horses or driving away the cattle of an emigrant, depriving the wretched family of the means of support, and reserving further vengeance until a more suitable time. Sometimes an Indian warrior would creep into a settlement by stealth and create general dismay by carrying away a child, or robbing a family of the wife and mother. Sometimes a father was the victim, and the mother and children found themselves alone in the backwoods deprived of their protector and provider. Many a lonely cabin was attacked in the night and all the inmates pitilessly slain."

In order to put an end to these barbarities, and oblige the savages to abide by the treaties they had made, it was decided to send out General Harmar with a body of troops to punish the restless tribes as severely as possible.

On a day in early October General Harmar left Fort Washington at the head of nearly fifteen hundred men, intending to invade and overrun the country of the Miamis. The little army marched northward, following almost the same route that Celoron with his French soldiers had taken thirty-six years before. Within a little over two weeks he reached the Miami villages near the old Maumee portage and not far from the present site of Fort Wayne. The villages were deserted; but Harmar burned their three hundred huts and a large supply of corn which he found stored away. And then, like some would-be heroes of a later time, he reported to his superiors that he had dealt the enemy a terrible blow and had accomplished all that he had set out to do.

The wary savages, however, hung on the flanks of his army; his men were entrapped in ambuscades; and he was at last obliged to return to the Ohio, having suffered losses much greater than those he had inflicted upon the enemy. It was plain that Harmar was not the man to be intrusted with an enterprise so difficult and so important; nor would it be possible to subdue the Indians without some greater show of force and many new recruits to the army of the Northwest.

III. Wilkinson

While Governor St. Clair was waiting at Fort Washington for the arrival of aid from the East, he sent out General Wilkinson with five hundred and twenty-three Kentucky horsemen to punish the tribes in the valley of the Wabash. These men were fearless backwoodsmen well-trained in Indian warfare, and the expedition was assured of success from the start. Fully armed and equipped, they rode in a northwesterly direction through the thickly wooded region which now comprises the central part of Indiana.

Their progress at first was slow, but at the end of a week they reached the Wabash near the site of the present city of Logansport. There, in the midst of cornfields, they found an Indian town which they captured without resistance. "I encamped in the town that night, and the next morning I cut up the corn, burned the cabins, mounted the young warriors, squaws, and children, in the best manner in my power, and leaving two infirm squaws and a child, with a short talk, I commenced my march for the Kickapoo town in the prairie."

In this manner, capturing, burning, and destroying, the Kentucky rangers swept down the Wabash Valley until they reached a point a little below the mouth of the Tippecanoe near the present Lafayette. By that time the horses were tired out, and the men were murmuring because of being led so far into the enemy's country. Wilkinson thought it wisest, therefore, to return to the settlements.

Just three weeks from the day of his departure from Fort Washington, he arrived with his rangers at the falls of the Ohio, having traveled four hundred and fifty miles and carried distress and terror into the heart of the Wabash country. President Washington was so much pleased with the results of this raid that he said, "The enterprise, intrepidity, and good conduct of these Kentuckians are entitled to peculiar commendation."

IV. St. Clair

The next year St. Clair himself led an army into the country of the Miamis. His soldiers were for the most part raw recruits, "men purchased from prisons, wheelbarrows, and low resorts of the Eastern cities," who were eager to fight Indians at two dollars a month. The supplies were no better than the men; the food for the army was insufficient; the powder was of the poorest quality; the horses and oxen were ill-fed and little able to endure the hardships of a campaign in a country where there were no roads.

It was not until October that St. Clair's forces were ready to start. On the fourth of that month the march was begun from Fort Hamilton, a new stockade on the Great Miami about twenty-five miles from Cincinnati. There were barely two thousand men in the army, and only a small portion of these were experienced soldiers. After cutting their way through the forest for forty-two miles, they stopped to build another stockade which they named Fort Jefferson.

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


The march was then resumed, the course of the army being directed toward the Miami towns near the head of the Maumee. On the third of November, St. Clair found himself in the heart of the enemy's country, and went into camp on the banks of the Wabash not far from its source. The next morning the camp was attacked by a large force of Indians, and a dreadful battle ensued. The Indians were led by Little Turtle, a Miami chief of great discretion and bravery. Concealed among the trees and high grass, they poured a constant and destructive fire into the half-formed ranks of their foes.

St. Clair himself showed the greatest bravery. Although weak and suffering from continued ill health, he rode into the thickest of the fight, encouraging his men by his presence. Several horses were killed under him, and although eight balls passed through his hat and clothes, he himself was unhurt. The slaughter was terrible. Four fifths of the officers and nearly one half of the men were killed or wounded. The ground was covered with bodies, and the little river was red with blood. What could St. Clair do but order a retreat?

The retreat soon became a wild flight, and it so continued until the survivors found themselves safe behind the stockade of Fort Jefferson. It is estimated that St. Clair had fourteen hundred men in the fight, and that of these scarcely fifty escaped unhurt. The carnage would have been even greater had not the Indians been so eager to secure plunder. After the conflict was over, they began in their savage way to avenge their wrongs still further by the most brutal treatment of the wounded and dying.

"You make war against us to rob us of our land," they would say. "Here, then, you may have as much land as you want!" And they would cram the eyes and throats of their wretched prisoners full of clay and sand.

The blame for this terrible defeat was ascribed, and entirely without reason, to St. Clair. People accused him of cowardice, inefficiency, and even of treason. When, some years later, he asked Congress to compensate him for his services, and in his old age relieve him from want, his petition was refused, and he was publicly reproached as a "pauper." Five months after the battle he was forced to resign his commission, and General Anthony Wayne was chosen to lead the campaign against the Indians.

V. Fallen Timbers

It was not until nearly two years after St. Clair's defeat that General Wayne was prepared to make a decisive movement against the enemy. Con the 7th of October he reached a point about six miles north of Fort Jefferson, and there he determined to make his winter camp. The camp was carefully laid out and fortified, and named Fort Greenville. It occupied the site of a part of the present town of Greenville in Ohio. Here the little army remained several months, and the soldiers were drilled every day in the tactics of Indian fighting and in the use of the saber and the bayonet.

The British at Detroit were much alarmed when they heard of Wayne's careful preparations; for they imagined that he might be intending to march against them instead of against the Indians. In order to be prepared for such an emergency, the lieutenant governor of Canada marched out with three companies of British regulars, and built a fort at the lower end of the rapids of the Maumee, a short distance from the place where Maumee City now stands. The Indians had been encouraged by the British to stand their ground against the Americans, and the building of this fort gave them great hopes of aid from Canada.

In the following August, Wayne marched into the heart of the Indian country. His army consisted of about twenty-six hundred men, all of whom had been well drilled and thoroughly prepared for the work that was to be done. He did not stop to capture defenseless villages and destroy cornfields, but he sought out the Indian warriors in their chosen stronghold. On the 19th he reached a place on the Maumee about four miles above the new British fort. On account of the great number of trees here that had been blown down by a hurricane, thus making a passage through the woods almost impossible, this place was called Fallen Timbers. Here, among the prostrate trees and matted brush and dense under-woods, the Indians were lying in wait.

As a band of horsemen were floundering along through bushes and briers, a number of Indians arose from their hiding places and fired upon them. This was a signal for the beginning of the fight. The mounted soldiers were formed in position and ordered to move forward under cover of the river bank; and the foot soldiers were directed to charge upon the lurking places of the savages, driving them out at the point of the bayonet, and following them up so closely that they would have no time to reload their guns. These orders were given quickly and were readily obeyed. The Indians were taken by surprise. They arose and fled; and the Americans won a complete victory.

Many of the fleeing Indians were pursued to the very walls of the British fort; and it was with difficulty that Wayne could restrain his men from storming the post itself. "As it was," says an early historian, "many of the Kentucky troops advanced within gunshot, and insulted the garrison with a select volley of oaths and epithets, which must have given the British commandant a high idea of backwoods gentility."

VI. Greenville

After his victory at Fallen Timbers, Wayne, with his little army, marched slowly up the Maumee. His course was marked by widespread devastation. Scouting parties were sent out who destroyed the cornfields and villages for fifty miles on each side of the river. Never before had the Indians of the Northwest met with so signal a defeat, and never had they been punished with so great severity.

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


Nearly a month was occupied in this progress of destruction; and it was late in September when the army reached the head of Maumee) where was the famous portage to the Wabash. (There a strong stockade was built, and named Fort Wayne; and there the general received delegations from the Indian tribes, and listened to their propositions for peace. Some of the chiefs hesitated, still hoping for assistance from the British; but the wisest among them were in favor of giving up the struggle. "The Americans are now led by a chief who never stops," said Little Turtle; "the night and the day are alike to him. And during all the time that he has been marching upon our villages, notwithstanding the watchfulness of our young men, we have never been able to surprise him. Think well of it. There is something that whispers to me that it will be prudent to listen to his offers of peace."

At Greenville, the next year, the chiefs met in council with General Wayne, and a treaty of peace was made. The Indians gave up all claims to the lands, east of the Cuyahoga and Tuscarawas rivers, and south of an irregular line drawn about halfway between Lake Erie and the Ohio to the head waters of the Wabash, and thence southwestwardly to the mouth of the Kentucky River. They also made grants of large tracts of land in the Lake region. One of these was a strip six miles wide fronting on Lake Erie and the Detroit River and extending from the Raisin River to Lake St. Clair. This, of course, included the post of Detroit, which was still occupied by the British. Another tract on the mainland north of the Strait of Mackinac, together with the island of Bois Blanc, was deeded to the United States as "an extra and voluntary gift of the Chippewa nation." Among other reservations ceded to the Americans were the lands occupied by the post at Mackinac, a tract of land six miles square at the mouth of the Chicago River, a large area at Fort Wayne and the Maumee portage, and several thousand acres in southern Indiana, which had been granted by Virginia to George Rogers Clark. In return for all these concessions and voluntary gifts; the Indians received presents of goods valued at one hundred and twenty thousand dollars and the promise of an annual payment of ninety-five hundred dollars. It has been said, by way of compliment to General Wayne, that no chief or warrior who gave him the hand at Greenville ever again lifted the hatchet against the United States.