America’s Long Journey: The Northwest Indians

The Northwest Indians

George Washington, 1792: “In vain may we expect peace with the Indians on our frontiers, so long as a lawless set of unprincipled wretches can violate the rights of hospitality, or infringe the most solemn treaties, without receiving the punishment they so justly merit.”

About the history of America and the Indians, two contradictory myths contend. One myth says the Indians were murderous savages who constituted an obstacle in the path of civilization. The other myth says tribal Native Americans lived in peaceful harmony with nature until they were massacred and their lands were stolen.

Is it still necessary to add that historical truth is more complicated than myth?

George Washington’s first foreign-policy challenge was not with the British, the French, or the Spanish, but with the Indian tribes of the Northwest Territory. By the late 1780s, the Western Lakes Confederacy, in raiding on both sides of the Ohio River, had inflicted more than 1,500 casualties. Clearly this had to be halted. But how?

It is easy, and meaningless, to say that Washington’s government should have conceded the West to the Indians. That was not going to happen. By the white man’s standards, that land was being wasted. Lush, fertile Kentucky, for instance, was entirely unoccupied. No Indians lived in what the Indians called “the dark and bloody ground.” They used it only for hunting. When Daniel Boone and other pioneers returned to their native North Carolina to report what they had found, people uprooted themselves and their families, and relocated west of the mountains. (Thus, by 1792 Kentucky was populous enough to become the first trans-mountain state to be admitted to the Union.)

Even if the fledgling nation had decided to leave half its territory in the hands of the Indians, the people would have decided differently, as they had thirty years before when the British had attempted the same policy. The result might have been two countries, one on either side of the mountains, but it would not have been white men on one side, Indians on the other. As long as the white man had the technological edge provided by gunpowder and numbers, it was not going to end any other way.

But Washington hoped for what we in our day might call peaceful coexistence. Seeing the Indian tribes as the problem in foreign relations that they were, he attempted to deal with them in the same way he would deal with any foreign power – by treaty if possible, and warfare otherwise. And, as with European powers, no peace could be obtained in the absence of effective military force.

It took three tries.

In 1790, Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox sent General Josiah Harmar and a force of nearly 1,500 men deep into Indian territory, near what is now Fort Wayne, Indiana. Harmar sent a detachment of 400 men led by Colonel John Hardin to attack more than 1,000 Indians. Hardin was defeated, and at least 129 of his men were killed.

The following year, Major General Arthur St. Clair met disaster near what is now Fort Recovery, Ohio. St. Clair’s 900 men (and 200 camp followers) were surprised and overwhelmed by 2,000 Indian warriors led by Little Turtle, Blue Jacket, and Tecumseh. Of 920 American officers and soldiers, 632 were killed and 264 were wounded. The camp followers who were slaughtered brought the death toll to 832, a horrifying total for the 1790s, and, in fact, a higher figure than was suffered in any of the following century’s Indian wars.

The troops Harmar and St. Clair commanded had been mostly militia. Their defeats convinced Secretary of War Knox that the country needed a professional army. Congress accepted his proposal, and created a small standing army until “the United States shall be at peace with the Indian tribes.” This army, titled The Legion of the United States, consisted of four sub-legions, self-contained units of infantry and artillery, each sub-legion commanded by a brigadier general.

It was recruited and raised in Pittsburgh, and then, in late 1793, Anthony Wayne, one of Knox’s officers in the Revolutionary War, was ordered to lead a new expedition against the Indians. An energetic, intelligent commander (the Indians called him “the chief who never sleeps”), he spent months training his troops, teaching them to fight Indian-style. As they moved West, he established and garrisoned forts along his line of march to ensure adequate re-supply.

Just as well that he did. On June 30, 1793, just outside the gates of Fort Recovery – built on St. Clair’s battlefield – a pack-horse train led by Major William Friend McMahon was attacked by 2,000 Indians led by Little Turtle. McMahon was killed, but the survivors fled into the fort. A two-day battle ensued, but Fort Recovery held, thus preventing a third disaster.

The following year, in August, 1794, the Legion of the United States decisively defeated Blue Jacket’s forces in the Battle of Fallen Timbers (near what is now Toledo). The Indians fled to British-held Fort Miami, hoping and presumably assuming that their erstwhile allies would shelter them. When the British refused to open the fort to them, the Indians were defenseless, and soon surrendered.. (This one incident, by itself, demonstrates the truth of the long-held American conviction that the British had been encouraging the Indian attacks.)

Fallen Timbers ended Indian resistance in the Northwest Territory. The 1795 Treaty of Greenville required the seven tribes involved – Shawnee, Miami, Ottawa, Chippewa, Iroquois, Sauk, and Fox – to cede most of Ohio and part of Indiana, and recognize the United States rather than Great Britain as the ruler of the territory. They did, and mostly moved west. General Anthony Wayne died in 1796, but in defeating the Western Confederacy, he had done for the northwest territory what Andrew Jackson would do for the southwest territory 20 years later.

We’ll never know if Washington’s policy might have resulted in peaceful coexistence of Indians and whites: The Indian’s Western Confederacy, the raids, the resulting military campaigns, and the final defeat at Fallen Timbers set both races on a different path.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.