Washington and the Northwest War, Part One

The Ohio River was to play a significant role both in Washington's life, and the life of the new nation. As a young man, the young Washington tramped through the forests of the Ohio Valley defending British interests against the forces of France and their Indian allies. As President, he was required to make official policy regarding the same area in which he had fought as a young man. The river known to the Indians as Ohiopeekhanne (which meant "the White Foaming River" or "the River of Many White Caps") dominated interests in the Old Northwest. Its great importance was due to the fact that the river (a quarter of a mile wide) ran west, travelling some 981 miles before it emptied into the Mississippi River. It also accounted for almost one quarter of the water which reached the Gulf of Mexico "at the mouth of the Mississippi River." The river offered an enormous potential for transport of goods.

The Ohio River attracted many settlers. Near the turn of the nineteenth century, a frontier traveller reported that "The settlements on each side of the Ohio are extensive, and much of the land is... cultivated. The appearance of the rising towns and the regularly disposed farms on its banks is truly delightful.... No scene can be more pleasing... than this, which presents to view a floating town, as it were, on the face of a river." The 1783 Treaty of Paris ceded much of this land to the young United States, which under the Articles of Confederation sold much of it to help pay its debts. Washington stated in 1784 that a "wide door" should be opened to the west "and make a smooth way for the produce of that country to pass to our markets."181

In his last days as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, Washington discussed his ideas regarding western expansion. He believed that many of the soldiers of his army should be granted western lands so that the new nation would have in place "a brave, a hardy and respectable Race of People, as our advanced Post, who would be always ready and willing (in case of hostility) to combat the Savages, and check their incursions." He asserted that the idea alone of such a settlement would awe and frighten the Indians, and it would protect future settlers from "savage barbarity." He wished to buy Indian lands fairly, "and to induce them to relinquish our Territories, and to remove into the illimitable regions of the West."182

Henry Knox, Washington's Secretary of War, felt that the western lands should be used as a source of wealth to pay of the debts of the Revolutionary War, even suggesting that the land be given to the veterans of the war and formed into a new state. President Washington approved of this idea.183 It is important to remember that Knox rarely wrote any statement or order concerning the Indians which Washington did not approve. Knox dealt more directly with the Indian question because the president had to administrate the entire executive department. However, when Washington's ideas about the Indians differed from those of Knox (while this was uncommon), Knox always willingly made any changes desired by the president.184

Unfortunately, the Americans' view towards the Indians had not changed much since the days of the French and Indian War. They were not seen as the proprietors of the land, but rather as creatures not very different than animals, selfishly holding onto lands that white settlers desired. The merciless way the Indians often treated white captives, along with their totally alien religious beliefs did nothing to improve the settlers' opinions of Indians. An early observer wrote that "[the Indians are] more brutish than the beasts they hunt, more wild and unmanly than that unmanned country which they range rather than inhabit."185

The most important tribe in the Northwest (and also the most defiant) was the Miami tribe. Washington once described them as "mistaken people" who were noted for "their robberies and murder." The general Little Turtle (who handed the United States some of its greatest defeats, and whose Indian name was Michikinikwa) was a member of this tribe.186 While they were often described as the "Miami Confederacy," they were in reality a loose association of tribes which spoke the same language and shared the same tribal customs. By the 1790s, they numbered around 1500 people.187

The Treaty of Paris ended the Revolutionary War. Much of the land which Great Britain had won in the French and Indian War was ceded to the United States in this treaty. The Indians had for the most part tolerated British control, basically because the British had a great interest in trade with the Indians. However, the Americans were not coming merely for trade, they were coming to settle. On October 15, 1783, Congress passed the Ordinance of 1783, setting up a boundary line between the Americans and Indians. It included provisions to prevent injustice to the Indians, and it regulated trade, declaring that only licensed persons could trade with the Indians.188 By 1786, Congress had claimed possession of all lands south of Canada, north of the Ohio, west of the Alleghenies, and east of the Mississippi river.189 Ignoring the warnings of Henry Knox that it could begin an Indian war, Congress in 1787 passed the Northwest Ordinance, opening up the western territory to settlement and creating a system that would eventually allow these territories to become states. Under the Articles of Confederation, the money from land sales was too lucrative for the financially starved Congress to ignore. In theory, although not in reality, it protected Indian rights, claiming that Indian lands could not be taken without their consent or by a "just and lawful" war.190 The three methods of acquiring Indian lands thus were by: purchase, conquest, or by occupation of vacated lands. The phrase "just war" could easily be used whenever a war against the Indians was desired, since the term itself was never clearly defined.191

In order to maintain their vast fur trade, the British were very slow in turning the land over to the United States.* The British occupied an extensive series of military forts in the frontier, which the treaty required them to evacuate. In addition, the British tried to maintain control of the land by using the Indians to harass American settlers. The British were not able to protect their interest with military might, but they had to give the impression to the Indians that they were ready and willing to aid them in any way they could.192 To aid them in controlling the Indians, the British had established a powerful Indian Department. This department regarded the Indians as children. The British referred to themselves as the Indians' "Father," and often told them that they would have to choose which "father" they preferred, the British or the Americans.193

As he entered the presidency, Washington had a basic approach to Indian affairs and the west. He thought that attempts must be made to secure peace with the Indians through formal treaties, acknowledging their territorial integrity.194 He agreed with the opinions of General Philip Schuyler that the tribes should be allied with the United States.195 The first president harbored some measure of goodwill towards the Indians. Washington would not preside over the extermination of the Indians.196 He and Knox felt that peace negotiations should be attempted before entering into war with the Indians. Knox said that an attack on the Wabash Indians (a collective name given to the Indians inhabiting the region around the Wabash River, including the Miamis and several other tribes) would be unfair since the United States had no treaty with them (meaning they had not yet broken any treaty with the United States). Knox told the president that "a system of coercion and oppression" would cost more than a system of conciliation, and "the Blood and injustice which would stain the character of the nation, would be beyond all pecuniary calculation." He claimed that the slow advance of white society would eventually reduce the Indians to "a very small number."197 Washington knew that the Indians' hunting grounds would eventually be destroyed, and he thought the only way they could survive was to try and assimilate with the Americans.198 However, Washington said that Indians who chose to attack the United States rather than treat with them, "were to be punished with a vigor and severity that would destroy them and would deter less aggressive tribes from emulating them."199 Washington hoped to seize the Indian trade from the British, and also felt that the west was necessary to preserve Americašs "primoeval simplicity."200

Unfortunately for Washington, his vision of peaceful boundaries between Indians and Americans, with each respecting the rights of the other, was sadly wishful thinking. For example, around 1785 settlers began to flood the Kentucky-Pennsylvania-Virginia frontier. General Josiah Harmar was sent to build a fort at Marietta, Ohio (which was called Fort Harmar). Among other goals, the fort was to stop illegal settling, but the presence of the fort had little effect on the aggressive actions of the settlers.201

In 1789, Arthur St. Clair, the United States governor of the Northwest Territory, pressed the Indians to sign the Treaty of Fort Harmar which granted the United States a considerable portion of Ohio land which the Indians had not wanted to surrender. St. Clair believed with typical white arrogance that this treaty had broken the back of the incipient Indian confederacy. Washington's administration regarded the treaty as a substantial victory. However, the treaty had the unfortunate effect of spilling Indian and white blood throughout the Kentucky frontier.202 The Wabash Indians demanded protection from Kentucky frontiersmen who were making incursions into their hunting grounds. This demand made any serious treaty negotiations impossible, as Kentucky was too important to the new nation. The president could not afford to alienate Kentucky for the sake of the Indians.203

Washington did not in 1789 believe that force was absolutely necessary. He feared that a destructive war in this "still very early stage of our affairs" might lead to disaster for the young nation. The cost of such a war, measured in both blood and dollars, may well splinter the fragile union. The possibility that a war with the Indians could lead to a second war with the British also contributed to the president's hesitancy at using force against the Indians.204 He commented "... there is nothing to be obtained by an Indian War but the Soil they live on and this can be had by purchase at less expense, and without that bloodshed, and those distresses which helpless Women and Children are made partakers of in all kinds of disputes with them."205

In his messages to the Indians themselves, Washington endeavored to pacify them with reasonable explanations of the actions of the United States, along with reassurances that the United States was not intent upon taking more land than was deemed fair. Early in Washington's administration, several important leaders of the Six Nations had disavowed certain treaties that had been signed under the Articles of Confederation. In early 1791 the president sent a message to them which explained that it was not in his power to nullify the treaties in question. He assured them, however, that a new Indian agent that he was sending would not defraud them of land, nor assist anyone else in doing so. He asked them to try and convince the Miami Indians to stop their hostilities on the frontier.206

Washington, whatever his prejudices against the Indians, did not believe in genocide for the Indians. This was one of the primary causes for his hesitation in using force against them. Secretary Knox shared Washington's views on this matter. Knox's biographer North Callahan commented that Knox held a humane view towards the natives. He often advanced the idea of a fair trading and land acquisition with the Indians, as did Washington. Nevertheless, Knox was not slow to advocate military operations against intractable Indians.207

Knox wrote to Washington:

How different would be the sensation of a philosophic mind to reflect that instead of exterminating a part of the human race by our modes of population that we had persevered through all difficulties and at last had imparted our Knowledge of cultivating and the arts, to the Aboriginals of the Country by which the source of future life and happiness had been preserved and extended. But it has been conceived to be impracticable to civilize the Indians of North America - This opinion is probably more convenient than just.208

However, despite the pacific desires of both Washington and Knox, it soon appeared to them that military action was necessary. From 1783 to 1790, it was believed that the Indians had killed 1,500 settlers and stolen upwards of 20,000 horses. While the president thought that only some tribes in the area were causing the conflicts, as well as many of the frontiersmen, he managed to get the Congress to strengthen the army. He also convinced the Congress to authorize Arthur St. Clair to mobilize a force against the Indians. He publicly stated that the Indians' behavior would determine whether or not St. Clair would use force.209 Washington rarely offered peace to the Indians without having the threat of force behind it. In late 1789, while informing St. Clair to notify all the Wabash tribes that the United States wanted to treat for peace, he also authorized St. Clair to call out militia from both Virginia and Pennsylvania to defend the frontier from the Indians.210 He ordered St. Clair to parley with the Wabash tribes, in a vain hope that peace would prevail. Unfortunately, by the spring of 1790, Washington was doubtful that a peaceful agreement could be achieved.211

Colonel Josiah Harmar, a soldier with a reputation for hard-drinking, and little experience in fighting Indians, was appointed to command a force against the Wabash tribes. Three hundred regulars and one thousand Kentucky and Pennsylvania militia were recruited for this expedition. The expedition did not go well. Washington was forced to wait for weeks with no word from Harmar. Assuming the worst, Washington commented "I expected little from the moment I heard he was a drunkard, I expected less as soon as I heard that on this account no confidence was reposed in him by the western country. And I gave up all hope of success, as soon as I heard that there were disputes with him about command." However, since Washington needed to give his first annual address to Congress, he asked Knox on November 2, 1790 to prepare a report to the Congress justifying Harmar's expedition.212 In his address he made a statement which described his general position on Indian affairs:

There was reason to hope that the pacific measures adopted with regard to certain hostile tribes of Indians would have relieved the Inhabitants of our Southern and Western frontiers from their depredations. But you will perceive... that we ought to be prepared to afford protection to those parts of the Union; and if necessary to punish aggressors.213

The president said that the United States was just as capable of rewarding the Indians' attachments as it was capable of punishing their "crimes."214 Washington also stated that the United States should observe the same ratification process on Indian treaties as with treaties of other nations.215

On December 13 the news that Washington had been dreading came: Harmar had been routed by Little Turtle with losses of over 200 men. The settlers in the area were forced to flee to the sparse United States fortresses in the frontier for protection against the warring tribes. The main reason for Harmar's defeat was thought to be poor preparation and lack of understanding of Indian battle tactics. Even Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson commented that the government had not yet learned that European battle tactics were useless against Indians.216 Washington suspected, correctly, that the Indians had been partially supplied by the British. Nevertheless, the United States was not in a position to openly accuse the British of this, so Washington had to content himself with writing carefully worded letters to British officials complaining about these events.

The Wabash tribes, invigorated by their victory over Harmar, began crossing the Ohio River and attacking United States settlements there in earnest.217 The Wabash tribes declared that the Ohio River should be the permanent Indian-white boundary.218 This re-energized native aggression put Washington into the uncomfortable position of having to take even more military actions against the Indians. The president prepared to retaliate in March of 1791 when he appointed Arthur St. Clair as Major General of the United States Army.219

However, before St. Clair mobilized his force, the administration attempted a new peace initiative. The president gave orders to Thomas Proctor to explain to the Indians that the United States wanted peace. He was also to try to get the tribes to come to negotiations at Fort Washington. The administration instructed Proctor to attempt to enlist the aid of the Iroquois in demonstrating the peaceful desires of the United States to the warlike tribes. Unfortunately, St. Clair had already asked the Iroquois to join the United States in an action against the Wabash tribes. Also, in June of 1791, the Miamis met with British representatives. At this point, the British had determined that their involvement between the United States and the Wabash Indians was the best way to maintain an influence in the territory. The Miamis agreed to modify their Ohio River boundary demands to the Muskingum River, west of the Ohio.220 The United States, however, by this time had sold much of present day Ohio to land companies, and was not interested.221

Late October, 1791 saw the appointment of Little Turtle as war chief against the American army. Miami war chiefs were fairly analogous to generals, but they also had ritual functions. They did not have the authority to declare war or make peace, only to lead warriors. The tribal council had authority over war and peace.222 The president, meanwhile, tried to give some of his own knowledge to his own general. In giving advice to St. Clair, Washington recalled his attitude towards Indians during the French and Indian War: "General St. Clair, in three words, beware of surprise; trust not the Indian; leave not your arms for the moment; and when you halt for the night be sure to fortify your camp - again and again, General, beware of surprise!"223

With the posting of St. Clair, Washington had made his choice. He had decided that war was inevitable with the Indians. The conduct of both Washington and Knox in this matter was duplicitous. In public Washington said that the St. Clair campaign was a necessary evil in order to force the Indians to respond to the "humane overtures" of the United States.224 Knox suggested to St. Clair that "in order to avoid future wars it might be proper to push the Indians back beyond the line formed by the Maumee and the Wabash." He also suggested that perhaps the existing boundary should be extended westward to the Mississippi. This kind of thinking was a contradiction of the public pronouncements of both Knox and Washington.225

President Washington continued to espouse the cause of justice towards the Indians. In his third Annual Address to Congress, he said:

... It is sincerely to be desired that all need of coercion, in future, may cease; and that an intimate intercourse may succeed; calculated to advance the happiness of the Indians, and to attach them firmly to the United States. ... It seems necessary: That they [the Indians] should experience the benefits of an impartial administration of justice. That the mode of alienating their lands the main source of discontent and war, should be a so defined and regulated, as to obviate imposition, and as far as may be practicable, controversy concerning the reality, and extent of the alienations which are made. The commerce with them should be promoted under regulations tending to secure an equitable deportment towards them, and that such rational experiments should be made, for imparting to them the blessings of civilization, as may, from time to time, suit their condition. That the Executive of the United States should be enabled to employ the means to which the Indians have been long accustomed for uniting their immediate Interests with the preservation of Peace. And that efficatious provision should be made for inflicting adequate penalties upon all those who, by violating their rights, shall infringe the Treaties, and endanger the peace of the Union.226

Knox said that the goal of the campaign was to "extirpate, totally if possible," the Miamis and their allied tribes. If the government did any less than that, Knox believed, it might stimulate a separatist movement within the settlers. In addition, while Washington held the private view that the Kentucky frontiersmen were as responsible for the frontier violence as the Indians, in public he only cited the Indians as "aggressors."227

For a time, St. Clair's expedition seemed to be going well. Raids against the Miami Villages led by Lieutenant James Wilkinson in August, 1791 were so successful that Washington sent him a congratulatory message, complimenting his "zeal, perseverance, and good conduct."228 However, success turned to bleak disaster on November 4. Near the Ohio-Indiana border (at present day Fort Recovery, Ohio), by the Wabash River, the forces of St. Clair were ambushed and devastated by forces led by Little Turtle.229 The disaster that met St. Clair and his men on the Fourth remains one of the worst defeats ever handed to the United States by Indians. Even George A. Custer's 1876 defeat at the Little Big Horn pales in comparison to the 1791 battle. Fully 55 percent of the American force fell in only a few hours time. When it was over, 630 members of the expedition were either dead or missing. Out of a force of 1,400 strong, less than 500 people were unharmed, many of them noncombatants. The officer corps was cut in half; 69 of the 124 officers were reported either killed, wounded, or missing. In addition, the loss of war materiel and equipment was calculated at almost $33,000.230

The President learned of the defeat while entertaining guests in Philadelphia. Washingtonšs personal secretary, Tobias Lear, informed the president of a dispatch from the War Department which contained the news. Washington left the room and read the news immediately, and then returned to his guests, determined not to interrupt their evening. Once they had left, Lear chronicled the president's explosion of rage.

It's all over... St. Clair's defeated - routed, the officers nearly all killed.... Here,... yes, here on this very spot I took leave of him.... You have your instructions, I said, from the Secretary of War. I... will add but one word - beware of a surprise! You know how the Indians fight us.... He went off with that as my last solemn warning,... And yet! to suffer that army to be cut to pieces, hacked, butchered, tomahawked by a surprise - the very thing I guarded him against!! Oh God, Oh God, he is worse than a murderer! How can he answer to his country! The blood of the slain is upon him - the curse of widows and orphans - the curse of Heaven!

However, Washington soon calmed down and promised that St. Clair would be given justice. While a Congressional committee was set up to investigate the defeat, St. Clair, by February 1793 was discharged from the army, but still allowed to remain governor of the Northwest Territory.231 Meanwhile, a decision on what was to be done on the frontier had to be made.

In what must have seemed to Washington as a repeat of the consequences of Braddock's defeat so long ago, St. Clair's defeat had an overwhelming impact upon the Indians. Their confidence swelled; they now believed that no one could stop them. After a brief period of relative quiet, they soon began to carry the war to the illegal settlements north of the Ohio river, forcing many settlers to flee to Marietta or Cincinnati.232 The defeat also caused the British to re-energize their overtures towards the Indians. They counselled the Indians to insist upon the Ohio river as their permanent boundary. The Indian Confederacy, which had been disintegrating, also experienced a rejuvenation.233

One might believe that after two severe defeats at the hands of the Indians Washington and his administration might consider more earnest peace overtures. However, these defeats only seemed to reinforce Washington's more martial side. The president wrote that the defeat of November 4 forced the United States into an offensive war, a defensive war being too expensive and time consuming (echoing Washington's opinion that offensive operations were the only way to defeat the Indians in the French and Indian War). Knox seconded Washington's opinion, claiming "it is by an ample conviction of our superior force only, that the Indians can be brought to... peace." By March 5, 1792, Washington was able to get Congress to pass a measure increasing the army to 5,168 men, with a liberal increase in pay for officers. The package cost $1,026,477.05, a huge amount for its time. An offensive war would necessitate constructing forts in enemy territory. After much thought, Washington eventually chose Anthony Wayne for the job of commander. Wayne, with his reputation earned during the Revolution as an exceptionally brave person, was thought to be the ideal taskmaster for training a new army which would definitely not repeat the mistakes of Harmar and St. Clair.234

By now Washington had determined that war was the only way that a workable peace with the Indians could be acquired. In addition, throughout this period, Washington suspected, often correctly, that Great Britain was pushing its Indian allies to keep up assaults on the United States. In the spring of 1792, Washington told Knox that he thought that it was the intention of the British to keep the United States and the Indians in a state of conflict. This could allow the British to change the western boundaries of the United States.235

While the defeat of November 4 only inspired Washington to prosecute the war with more determination, the defeat did not have the same effect on everyone in the country. Knox was disturbed at the alarm and criticism that the defeat had provoked among the people. Kentucky demanded protection from the Indians, and Washington immediately supported it. Washington continued to prepare for the war to which he was now resigned.236 The Washington administration came under some attack for the defeats in the forest. Even though Phillip Freneau, in his National Gazzette was fairly restrained in attacking Washington on the defeat of St. Clair, B. F. Bache's General Advertiser and John Dunlap's Dunlap's American Daily Advertiser severely condemned Washington's Indian policy.237 There was also Congressional opposition to the plans of the president. Many people felt that it was the first step to the creation of a permanent army. Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania, a noted opponent of Washington, said "Give Knox his army," and "he... will have a war in less than six months." Others did not want to pay this huge sum for a remote frontier war.238

Even though his policy regarding the Northwest appeared to be a failure, Washington attempted to win back public support for his goals. The administration inaugurated new peace negotiations with the Indians, and appointed new commissioners to treat with them. Washington selected Timothy Pickering, Benjamin Lincoln, and Beverly Randolph as the new Indian agents.239 In private, though, Washington still felt that a peaceful agreement was unlikely, and he told Knox to "proceed as if war was inevitable."240 In late 1792, Anthony Wayne informed Washington that "... the hostile Indians will not consent to a peace so long as a white man remains on the NW side of the Ohio - "241 Wayne also thought that the hostile Indians would not be satisfied with "any boundary short of the Ohio...."242

In August and September of 1792, the Indian Confederacy met to present a united Indian force against the United States. Knox sent the Stockbridge Indian Hendrick Aupamaut to that meeting, claiming that the United States only desired land obtained by "fair treaties." The Indians said that they desired that the Americans remove themselves from all lands north of the Ohio. One Indian delegate stated to General Israel Chapin "we do not want compensation, we want restitution of our Country which they [the United States] held under false pretences." The Indians said that they would meet with United States officials at the Sandusky rapids in the spring.243

The peace conference was proposed to take place at Lower Sandusky (present day Frémont, Ohio) in Spring, 1793. On April 18 of that year Knox sent instructions to the three Indian agents. They were to inform Wayne, who was preparing his army in Pennsylvania of the result of the negotiations. This was the last attempt at peace, and during the conference Wayne had orders to stop any acts of aggression against the Indians.244

President Washington did not expect peace to come from the Sandusky Conference. However, he could cheer himself with the belief that he had tried all options before going to war. Knox, in giving his instructions to the three commissioners, mentioned "the extreme dislike of the great majority of the citizens of the United States to an Indian war." Jefferson believed that the Sandusky Conference was extremely important for the future of Indian relations.245 He later stated, though, that the conference was only initiated "to prove to all our citizens that peace was unattainable on terms which any one of them would admit."246

To Part Two Of Chapter Six

To Chapter Five

To Table Of Contents