The Indian War of 1790-95 – Part 1

July 9, 2011

United States’ Indian policy grew out of the idea that because First Nations fought on the side of the British during the Revolutionary War they lost the right of ownership to their lands when Britain ceded all territory east of the Mississippi. First Nations were told that the United States now owned their territories and they could expel them if they wished to do so. This right of land entitlement by reason of conquest stemmed from the hatred of “Indians” which had been seething for decades and the arrogance instilled by victory over the British. They needed First Nation’s lands northwest of the Ohio River to sell to settlers in order to raise much-needed revenue. But the impoverished new nation could not back up their new policy. So they took a different tact.

In March of 1785 Henry Knox was appointed Secretary of War and he began to institute a new policy. He proposed to Congress that there were two solutions in dealing with the First Nations. The first was to raise an army sufficient to extirpate them.

However, he reported to Washington and Congress that they didn’t have the money to fund such a project. The estimated population of the First Nations East of the Mississippi and south of the Great Lakes was 76,000. The Miami War Chief Little Turtle’s new “Confederation of Tribes” were quickly gaining numbers and strength and they were determined to stop American advancement at the Ohio. To try to beat them into submission not only seemed infeasible but immoral. He argued it was unethical for one people to gain by doing harm to another people and this could only harm America’s reputation internationally.

The second solution, which he favored, was to return to the pre-revolutionary policy of purchasing First Nation Lands through the cessation treaty process. In order to sell this idea to Washington and Congress he pointed out that the First Nations tenaciously held on to their territories and normally would not part with them for any reason. This was because being hunting societies the game on their lands supported their population. But, as proven in the past, time and again, when too many settlers moved into their territories game became scarce. Because the land was overrun by whites and ruined as a hunting territory they would always consider selling their territory and move their population further west

In 1785 an Ordinance was passed by Congress dividing the territory north and west of the Ohio River into states to be governed as a territory. In 1787 this Ordinance was improved upon by passing the Northwest Ordinance appointing Major General Arthur St. Clair governor of the new territory. The new Ordinance covered a huge tract of land encompassing the present-day states of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. Land would now be purchased and hostilities would cease unless “Indian” aggression were to provoke a “just war”. America was determined to expand westward as its very existence depended upon it. Clearly there would be “just wars”.

The first of these cession treaties was signed at Fort Harmar in 1789. This small cession did little to change the minds of the First Nations Confederacy. Hostilities continued provoking the first of the “just wars”. In 1790 President Washington authorized St. Clair to raise troops to punish Little Turtle’s  Confederacy of Miami, Shawnee, Ottawa, Potawatomi and Ojibwa nations. He raised an army of 1,200 militia and 320 regulars and set out from Fort Washington, Cincinnati, under the command of Brigadier General Josiah Harmar.

Little Turtle retreated before Harmar’s lumbering army. He led Harmar deep into enemy territory where he had set a trap in the Maumee River valley near present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana. Harmar’s army was strung out in one long column. The trap was sprung and Little Turtle attacked Harmar’s flank killing 183 and wounding 31. Panic set in. Harmar retreated in disarray. Little Turtle pursued intent on wiping out the American army.  However, an eclipse of the moon the next night was interpreted as a bad omen so the pursuit was called off.

General Harmar claimed a victory but had to face a board of inquiry. The defeat was whitewashed but Harmar was replaced by General St. Clair who was a hero of the Revolutionary War. Little Turtle’s stunning success bolstered the ranks of the Confederacy. In 1791 St. Clair raised another army of 1,400 militia and 600 regulars. He marched them out of Fort Washington and took up a position on high ground overlooking the Wabash River.

Little Turtle and his war council decided take the Americans head on. Not their usually tactic it took St. Clair by surprise. Confederacy warriors scattered the Kentucky Militia. Other militiamen shooting wildly killed or wounded some of their own men. Bayonet charges were mowed down by fire from the surrounding woodlands. St. Clair tried to rally his troops but could not. With General Richard Butler, his commanding officer, wounded on the battlefield he ordered a retreat. It was no orderly one. Most flung their rifles aside and fled in a panic.

The American army was completely destroyed. Suffering nearly 1,000 casualties it would be the worst defeat ever suffered by the United States at the hands of the First Nations. Washington was livid. He angrily cursed St. Clair for being “worse than a murderer” and the defeat on the Wabash became know as St. Clair’s Shame. On the other hand First Nations’ hopes and confidence soared. 

NEXT WEEK: The Indian War of 1790-95 – Part 2