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Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 14

The British Indian Department and the Frontier in North America, 1755-1830

by Robert S. Allen

Indian Confederacy: The Search (1784-93)


After the American Revolution, the Indians learned that they had no right to exist independently or to live where they pleased. By fighting with the British between 1775 and 1783, the tribes, according to the official American view and the Treaty of Paris, had forfeited title to their lands. Thus Indian land was to be considered as conquered and surrendered territory. The ignorance and frustration of the Indians was constant. To them, the entire peace treaty of 1783 was incomprehensible. The tribes had won two glorious victories at Sandusky and Blue Licks in 1782 and had never been overrun by the Americans. They knew themselves therefore to be unconquered.1 Also the British in the Northwest had not been overrun or conquered. How, then, reasoned the Indians, could the British cede the land of the Ohio region (which the tribes regarded as their own) to the Americans? Yet the tribes learned that the United States had been given, by international treaty, all the land up to the middle of the Great Lakes.2

The British, through the speeches of Sir John Johnson and other members of the Indian Department, denied that they had forfeited Indian lands by the terms of the 1783 treaty. What had been transferred to the United States, they stated, was the exclusive right to buy Indian lands within the American international boundary, but not the ownership of these lands which had been guaranteed to the Indians by several prior treaties, particularly the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768.3

On 15 October 1783, the Confederation of the United States inaugurated an Indian policy based on the report of James Duane, chairman of the committee on Indian affairs. The ordinance repudiated the Ohio River boundary and demanded that the tribes of the Northwest withdraw west and north beyond the Miami and Maumee rivers.4 The Indians were told that the land on which they now lived had been ceded by Great Britain in the Treaty of Paris. Consequently, the Indians were a subdued people and subject to the wishes of the United States.5 Thus treaties could be negotiated and the tribes would have to vacate certain lands for settlement. In attempting to establish peace with the Indians of the Northwest, Congress wished to begin the process of acquiring the lands between the Ohio and the Mississippi.6

At the Treaty of Fort Stanwix on 22 October 1784, the appointed American commissioners, Oliver Wolcott, Richard Butler and Arthur Lee, managed to assemble the influential Six Nations and negotiate a settlement. The Iroquois leaders protested to the representatives of the United States that a definitive treaty could not be concluded without the presence of the Algonkians — Ottawa, Ojibway, Potawatomi, Delaware, Shawnee and Wabash confederates.7 This protest was an effort to maintain Indian unity against American territorial ambitions as encouraged by Joseph Brant and members of the British Indian Department at Sandusky in 1783.

The commissioners, however, sternly reminded the Indians that they were a subdued people and that the king of England had ceded to the United States all the Indian land as far as the Great Lakes, and by right of conquest, the Americans could "claim the whole."8 The Iroquois leaders debated the alternatives, but Cornplanter, a noted Seneca chief, argued that an accommodation must be made with the Americans if peace was to be preserved, and his rhetoric influenced the rest. So having been abandoned by the British, now the Ohio valley Algonkian Indians were sold out by their old rivals, the Six Nations.

By the terms of the treaty, the Six Nations surrendered to the United States their ancient territorial claims to much of the land lying west and north of the Ohio River.9 This provision was contrary to the prior treaties, proclamations and acts of 1758, 1763, 1768, 1774 and 1775. But of equal importance to the Americans was the knowledge that it freed the western tribes from Iroquois domination.10 The western tribes, by right of conquest, were subject peoples of the Iroquois. However, when the Iroquois divested their claim to the Ohio country in 1784, the tribes in that region were considered free and independent and could be dealt with accordingly by the Americans. The policy of Congress was to terminate land claims tribe by tribe, and thus disassociate itself from the traditional policy of Sir William Johnson, who worked through the Six Nations to obtain concessions from the Algonkian tribes. With the 1784 treaty successfully completed, the congressional representatives looked forward to negotiating with the western tribes without Iroquois interference, a policy maxim reminiscent of the old official British colonial policy of "divide and rule."

At Fort Mcintosh on 21 January 1785, only a few minor chiefs from the more pacifistic factions of the Wyandot, Delaware, Ojibway and Ottawa assembled to hear the Americans. George Rogers Clark, back woodsman and hero of Vincennes, had replaced Wolcott, but the speech read to the western Indians was the same as that of Fort Stanwix. After token objection, the chiefs of the tribes represented acknowledged the protection of the United States and signed away lands north of the Ohio River.11

At the Sandusky conference in 1783 the tribes had pledged that no agreement would be made with the United States except through the Indian confederation as a whole; but at Stanwix and Mcintosh, the various tribal land cessions resulted in the dissolution, for the moment, of the united Indian front.

The removal of tribal land claims by the treaties of 1784 and 1785 only complicated the Indian policy of the United States in the Northwest. Native restlessness and discontent became apparent. The 1784 Iroquois cession angered the Wyandot, Delaware and other native bands which argued that the Six Nations had no right to cede the Ohio valley hunting grounds inhabited by Algonkian tribes. Also, the 1785 treaty was considered invalid by the Ohio valley tribes because the militant Shawnee, one of the most influential tribes of the region, had refused to attend the council.

Yet even before the treaties were ratified, American backwoodsmen swarmed into the Ohio River area—"so fine a country my eyes never beheld"12—and upon Indian lands not yet ceded. The attempts by congressional forces to drive these settlers out of the contested region were futile. The "white banditti" were well organized, numerous, and firm in the belief of the right of expansion into vacant forest lands.13

The Indians, however, in spite of their land cessions in the recent treaties, were prepared to contest the advance of the backwoodsmen. Captain Johnny, a Shawnee chief, told the Americans at a council at Wakitunikee that

you are drawing close to us, and so near our bedsides, that we can almost hear the noise of your axes felling our Trees and settling our Country . . . the Boundary is the Ohio River, . . . but it is too clear to us your design is to take our Country from us . . . [we are] determined to act as one man in Defence of it. Therefore be strong and keep your people within Bounds, or we shall take up a Rod and whip them back to your side of the Ohio.14

The resolution of the Indians to defend their country was no veiled threat. Settlers floating down the Ohio River in flatboats were repeatedly attacked by various bands of irascible natives.15 Tribal spokesmen explained to British agents that they had never asked for peace; indeed, they thought the Americans desired it, and listened to them only because the Indians were so advised by their father, the British king. The tribes "had no idea that the Americans looked on them as conquered people 'till so informed by the commissioners."16

The general dissatisfaction of the Indians prompted Joseph Brant to visit the country of the upper lakes in the summer of 1785 and hold council with the nations. At the assembly the Six Nations implored the Algonkian tribes to join them in defending their country against the attacks of the United States and they repudiated the action taken by their representatives at Fort Stanwix. Although the tribes declared their firm attachment to the king, British Indian Department agents present nonetheless advised them not to act precipitately, but to state to Congress their position and claims.17

Like Pontiac 20 years earlier, Brant was concerned about native survival, and it was the Mohawk leader's hope that he could combine all the tribes of the Northwest into a single grand confederacy.18 Only through solid Indian unity could effective resistance be made against American westward expansion. But he knew that what was required to gain Indian acquiescence was a more solid assurance of British support. Therefore, in order to ascertain exactly what position his majesty's government would take if serious difficulties developed between his people and the Americans, Joseph Brant journeyed to England during the winter of 1785-86.

The arrival of the "noble American savage" in England on 12 December 1785 caused a sensation in British society.19 Although Brant enjoyed the pageantry and pleasures of London social life, he was preoccupied with the problems of the native people in America. In a lengthy introduction to Lord Sydney, Secretary of State of the Home Department between 1783 and 1789, Joseph reminded the minister of the faithful and valuable role the Six Nations played in the late American war. The Indians, he continued, were astonished that the British had forgotten them at the peace treaty of 1783, and the Americans were violating the British-Indian pact of 1768. Therefore, Brant urged, would the king support the Indians in a war with the United States?20

Sydney's reply, three months later was a paragon of British diplomatic protocol. Certainly the king had the welfare of the Indians at heart but

His Majesty recommends to his Indian allies to continue united in their councils, and that their measures may be conducted with temper and moderation; from which, added to a peaceful demeanor on their part, they must experience many essential benefits, and be most likely to secure to themselves, the possession of those rights and privileges which their ancestors have heretofore enjoyed.21

The language was nebulous enough to imply that Britain would assist the Indians in a future emergency, but it provided Brant with little immediate encouragement for a British-Indian alliance against America.

However, in a secret despatch, Sydney instructed Lieutenant Governor Henry Hope of Quebec to avoid assisting the tribes openly, but to maintain a friendly relationship with them since "the very peace and prosperity of the province depends on it."22

It is utterly impracticable for his Majesty's Ministers to prescribe any direct line for your Conduct should matters be driven to the extremity, and much will depend upon your judgment and discretion in the management of a Business so delicate and interesting.23

Unquestionably British native policy for America in 1786 was vague. Nonetheless it did possess the soundness of flexibility and allowed the local officials in the field to use their own discretion according to the exigency of the circumstance. Whitehall could then repudiate any such decision if the action proved harmful to the delicate balance of Anglo-American diplomatic relations.

Brant returned to the forests of North America in the summer of 1786 to find the native problem acute. During his absence in England the American commissioners Clark and Butler had summoned the peace faction of the Shawnee to a council at the mouth of the Great Miami River. In return for a promise of peace, the Shawnee delegates acknowledged that the United States was "the sole and absolute sovereign of all territory ceded by Great Britain in the 1783 treaty."24 In addition the chiefs signed away Shawnee claims to territory east of the Miami River.25

The treaties of 1784, 1785 and 1786, based solely on the idea of conquest, had coerced the Indians into relinquishing all their lands along the northwest frontier to the United States. Congress was suspicious of the British activities with the Indians and followed a policy of counteracting the king's influence among them by attempting to reduce the tribes to the status of dependent wards. By 1786, however, the northwest tribes were disgusted with the whole Indian policy of the United States and repudiated all the treaties made with the congressional representatives since the close of the American Revolution.26 The Shawnee were particularly incensed against the influx of the backwoodsmen, and raids commenced along the Ohio River.27 Congress, having embarked prematurely on a policy of aggression, was financially powerless to combat Indian resistance.

11 Field dress (private), Loyalist corps, Butler's Rangers; watercolour by Charles M. Lefferts. (New York Historical Society.)

In an effort to bring some security to the helpless frontier, two expeditions under George Rogers Clark and Benjamin Logan were organized by Kentucky, independent of central authority. Clark's action against the Miami of the Upper Wabash River failed miserably owing to desertion and lack of supplies, and he was forced to retreat to Vincennes.28 Colonel Benjamin Logan, however, surprised the Shawnee and on 6 October 1786 burned their two principal towns of Maycockey and Wakitunikee (where Captain Johnny had made his defiant speech in 1785).

Maycockey town raised the "Yanky" colours but to no purpose, as the army destroyed the town, proceeded to Wakitunikee and destroyed it and burned the houses of Alexander McKee and Blue Jacket.29


The violence on the frontier alarmed Sir Guy Carleton, Lord Dorchester, the new governor of Quebec. As a representative of the British crown he quickly conveyed the message to the Indians that the king was at peace with the world and was neither prepared nor wished for war. The Indians, Dorchester urged, must endeavour to secure a solid peace with the Americans. In a despatch to Sir John Johnson, Superintendent General of Indian affairs, the governor cautioned that "All promises (to the Tribes) not intended to be fulfilled must be avoided."30

In a letter to Lord Sydney a few days later, Dorchester elaborated on the reason for his concern.

The Americans have made an inroad on the Shawanese country west of the Ohio, burned some of their villages and carried off some women and children as prisoners. The town where the Indian Congress was to assemble was also laid in ashes. The alarm [is] increased by the report that parties are moving up the Rivers which fall into the Ohio River from the North and leads to Detroit.31

The governor realized that a prolonged war between the Indians and Americans was a distinct possibility. Therefore, it was in the national interest of British North America to maintain at any cost the allegiance of the tribes of the Northwest, for upon them rested the retention of the western posts—Niagara, Detroit and Michilimackinac—and indeed the defence and survival of the upper Province of Quebec. To achieve this loyalty, the British government spent over £20,000 per year between 1784 and 1788 on Indian presents.32 The tribes were provided with ammunition, muskets, axes, knives, clothing and medals of King George III.33 Lord Sydney even suggested that it might be advisable to give the Indians ammunition with which to defend themselves against the Americans.34

As a gesture of unity and to discuss their mutual problems, the tribes of the Northwest and the Six Nations gathered for a lengthy council near the mouth of the Detroit River in December of 1786. Joseph Brant opened the conference with a speech pleading for Indian unity. The tribes responded by unanimously and formally denouncing the treaties of 1784, 1785 and 1786. The Indians justified this action by blaming the Americans who, they contended, held councils wherever they chose without regard to the tribes and made separate treaties instead of having a general conference with all the nations.35

11 Field dress (private), Loyalist corps, Butler's Rangers; watercolour by Charles M. Lefferts. (New-York Historical Society.)

After this lengthy discussion the council, known now as the "United Indian Nations," drafted an address to Congress. The message began with a declaration of surprise that the tribes were not included in the peace treaty of 1783. The king had advised them to remain quiet, observed the Indians, but unfortunately "mischief and confusion" had occurred. Nonetheless, the Indians urged a meeting in the spring to negotiate a treaty of friendship and understanding with the Americans. Meanwhile, suggested the council, Americans should stop encroaching on tribal lands across the Ohio River.36

The British, as represented by their Indian Department agents at the councils, had succeeded in obtaining a loose alliance of the Northwest tribes. This was a damaging blow to the early Indian policy of the United States which had planned a programme of divide and rule. However, Indian unity was shaky at best. At the Detroit council there was friction over the concession of lands north of the Ohio by the Treaty of Fort Mcintosh. The Wyandot and Delaware who lived nearest the Ohio, and who would bear the brunt of an American attack, were prepared to compromise. But the Shawnee and other western Indians were determined to stand firm on the 1768 line as the limit of white expansion.37

During the long, complicated Indian-American debate over recognition of aboriginal rights, the British maintained a position of remarkable consistency. In the spring of 1787, Major Robert Matthews, military secretary to the governor, made an official tour of inspection of the western posts for the purpose of making a special report for the information of the secretary of state of the Home Department. During the course of his travels, Matthews wrote Joseph Brant and gave him a summation of the official British policy toward the tribes of the Northwest.

[The king] cannot begin a war with the Americans, because some of their people encroach and make depredations upon parts of the Indian country; but they must see it is his Lordship's intention to defend the posts . . . . On the other hand, if the Indians think it more for their interest that the Americans should have possession of the posts, and be established in their country, they ought to declare it, that the English need no longer be put to the vast and unnecessary expense and inconvenience of keeping posts, the chief object of which is to protect their Indian allies, and the loyalists who have suffered with them.38

The tone of the letter was such that the Indians were to believe that if the posts were surrendered to their inveterate foes, the Americans, the traditional life style of the tribes would be doomed. Sydney, writing to Lord Dorchester, echoed the theme by arguing that the conduct of the Americans had justified the retention of the western posts. The British treatment of the Indians, continued Sydney, has always been liberal and "considering that the security of the Province may depend on their loyalty, supplies may be augmented rather than leave them discontented."39 Whitehall was anxious to continue using the natives as pawns in their dealings with the Americans, and thus retain British commercial and imperial interests in the Northwest. Yet, because of tribal resistance and British policy for the frontier, the United States in the summer of 1787 initiated a policy of appeasement of the Indian tribes and the public lands of the Ohio valley.


The first governor of the American territory northwest of the Ohio River was Arthur St. Clair, a veteran officer of the American Revolution, whose appointment became effective on 22 October 1787. The governor was instructed to negotiate a treaty of peace with the Indian tribes and "to conciliate the white people inhabiting the frontiers towards them."40 But there was to be no departure from the former treaties of 1784, 1785 and 1786, unless a more favourable boundary could be obtained for the United States, "You will not neglect any opportunity that may offer of extinguishing the Indian rights to the westward as far as the river Mississippi."41

St. Clair was a man of limited military and administrative capacity, but he did realize that if the uneasiness among the tribes of the Northwest could not be removed, a general war would ensue. In a letter to Henry Knox, the Secretary of War, the worried governor observed

Whether that uneasiness can be removed I own, I think doubtful, for though we hear much of the Injuries and depredations that are committed by the Indians upon the Whites, there is too much reason to believe that at least equal if not greater Injuries are done to the Indians by the frontier settlers of which we hear little.42

In spite of the apparent danger, St. Clair arranged an Indian council, but he regretted that the finances of the United States would not permit a more liberal appropriation of money, particularly since the tribes were receiving large amounts of presents and other inducements from the British.43 Congress had voted a total of $34,000 of which $20,000 was to be applied toward the extinguishment of Indian claims to lands already ceded to the United States, and for purchasing other lands beyond the limits fixed by prior treaties. Nonetheless, after a final meeting with Knox, the governor departed for the "Territory Northwest of the River Ohio."

When St. Clair finally reached the Ohio on 9 July 1788, the frontier was in a chaotic state. One observer noted that the emigration to Kentucky and Ohio, termed the western territory, "exceeded the bounds of credibility." Enterprising New England people in particular, checked in their commercial pursuits at home, turned to the tempting, though remote, country and were not deterred by the danger or difficulty in finding a means of subsistence. In addition, "the present feeble Congress has little authority over any part of the western country, and it is doubtful whether the new one may possess the power sufficient for the purpose."44

Depredations on the frontier became more bold and alarming than ever. American backwoodsmen butchered a band of migrant Cherokee on the Scioto; and on 13 July an Ottawa raiding party attacked and plundered the American supply column carrying the Indian presents for St. Clair's upcoming council.45 During this summer of violence one young man, Thomas Ridout, the future surveyor-general of Upper Canada, was captured on the Ohio by a group of Shawnee. Although suffering considerable hardship while living in the Indian towns, Ridout observed, upon being paroled at Detroit, that "it is almost needless to say to those who are acquainted with the causes of disturbance between the Americans and natives, that the former are in general the aggressors, but in this war they are so in a more unjust degree than usual."46

While atrocities were being exchanged on the frontier, St. Clair waited patiently at Fort Harmar for the Indians to arrive. The tribes had assembled at the Maumee in October, 1788, to discuss the feasibility of treating with St. Clair. Some of the more remote western bands saw no need for another treaty: their towns were too far removed to feel the pressure of American expansion. Joseph Brant persisted, however, and counseled a policy of moderation, suggesting that the Muskingum-Venango line would provide a reasonable compromise to the Ohio River boundary. The tribes were badly divided over this proposal, and the Shawnee and Miami finally left the meeting in anger. Indian unity, the keystone to successful native resistance against the Americans, was again rent. The other tribes agreed to attend the St. Clair meeting, but Brant, his dream of a united Indian nation apparently shattered, refused to be a part of the separate tribal negotiations with the governor.47

In January, 1789, a number of native bands, with the notable exception of Brant's Mohawks and the militant Shawnee and Miami, gathered at Fort Harmar on the Ohio River near Marietta. Initially the tribal delegates pressed for the retention of the Ohio line, but St. Clair refused. After considerable bickering the Indian leaders reluctantly agreed to negotiate two separate and dictated treaties. On 9 January 1789, the Six Nations, led by their pro-American Seneca orator Cornplanter, accepted the terms of St. Clair which reaffirmed the boundary provisions established by the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1784. But the Americans made a notable concession in that they paid the Iroquois $3,000 for the land ceded. Although the governor did not fully concede the Indian right to the land of the Northwest, he did comply with the principle of purchase.48 A second treaty was arranged with the Algonkian Indians on the same day. Again the tribal leaders renewed the boundary fixed by the Treaty of Fort Mcintosh. For this concession the Indians received $6,000 in presents and goods.49

The treaties of Fort Harmar opened up the great part of the Ohio valley to American occupation. St. Clair regarded the negotiations as a great victory; but the treaties had stained the honour of the native leaders and by the time they reached their wilderness towns, their mood had grown to a seething desire for revenge. The irony of the situation was that the United States, moving rapidly in 1789 toward a policy of peace and absorption, was forced to wage a desperate five-year Indian war for which the new republic had neither the means nor the desire.


Notwithstanding the treaties of Fort Harmar concluded by Governor St. Clair with the Iroquois and several of the Algonkian tribes, the tranquility of the frontier settlements, now extending 400 miles along the Ohio, had not been secured. The Shawnee, Miami and Wabash tribes, who had refused to attend the Fort Harmar negotiations, were determined to prevent all American settlements northwest of the Ohio River; the Indians were despatching war pipes, and a deputation was sent to Detroit to announce war and to demand ammunition.50 Joseph Brant, still vainly attempting to gain positive assurance of British support in an Indian-American war, desired to know if the western posts were to be kept or handed over to the "Yankees" who were "Taking advantage all the time and the English appear to be getting tired of them."51

The continual ravaging of white settlements in Kentucky and along the Ohio prompted a concerned George Washington to call out the militia of Virginia and Pennsylvania for the protection of the frontiers against the incursions of the hostile tribes. The president cautioned St. Clair that war with the Indians ought to be avoided "by all means consistent with the security of the frontier inhabitants, and the security of the troops, and the national dignity."52 But if the Indians persisted, a campaign would be necessary.

Dorchester, who was concerned for the safety of the upper Province of Quebec, was naturally suspicious of the movements of the United States in raising troops. The governor feared that the purpose of the American force was to subdue the Indians and then to attack the frontier posts.53 But St. Clair, under instructions from Washington, lessened British anxiety by informing the commander at Detroit that the American expedition was designed solely for the purpose of "humbling and chastising some of the savage tribes whose depredations are becoming intolerable, and whose cruelties of late become an outrage."54

The commander of the American expeditionary force was Brigadier General Josiah Harmar, the senior active military officer of the United States in the Ohio Territory. His army began to muster at Fort Washington (Cincinnati) in September, 1790, but supplies were low and the militia quotas of Kentucky and Pennsylvania were incomplete.55 In spite of these vexing problems Harmar marched for the Indian country in early October. The point of attack was a group of Miami towns clustered about the portage between the Maumee, St. Joseph and Wabash rivers. Harmar's advance met little opposition, for the Indians burned their houses and cornfields and retreated ahead of him.

Five of the largest Miami towns had been burned and 20,000 bushels of corn destroyed, but barely a shot had been exchanged. Harmar was satisfied; he had successfully completed his mission of destroying the Indian settlements. Colonel John Harden, however, was disappointed at the lack of action and received permission to make a reconnaissance in force in the hopes of forcing an engagement with the natives. In two separate battles on 20 and 23 October 1790, Harden was attacked and his troops badly mauled by Shawnee, Miami and Potawatomi under the Miami leader Little Turtle. In the first action the Americans suffered 300 killed, and in the second confrontation the Indians drove the Americans into a swamp and killed 200 more, all, according to Elliott, with spear and tomahawk. The number of Indians killed was only 25. American prisoners professed that Detroit was the intended object in the spring.56 After these engagements, General Harmar returned to Fort Washington and St. Clair reported with incredible optimism that "General Harmar has made a very successful campaign," but Washington was disgusted with Harmar's results and wrote privately to the Secretary of War; "I expected little from the moment I heard he was a drunkard."57

12 Joseph Brass (1742-1807), the warrior. Painted by George Romney. Inscribed lower right, Thayeadanegea. (National Gallery of Canada.)

When the news of the disastrous campaign of General Harmar reached Congress, that body immediately voted to augment the size of the permanent military establishment. Major General Arthur St. Clair was appointed commander-in-chief as well as governor. The concluding remarks on the Harmar campaign were presented to Congress in a report by Henry Knox who commented caustically that the army, at a cost of $320,000 had burned some grain, destroyed a few bark huts and suffered over 200 killed, while Indian losses were less than 100.58

In November Little Turtle and Blue Jacket, a principal warrior of the Shawnee, travelled to Detroit to ask the British for clothing and food for the distressed Indian families who had lost everything during their flight from Harmar. These two chiefs stated that war resulted because of American encroachments on lands beyond the Ohio, and the tribes were bound to defend their traditional hunting territories. The land, they claimed, had always belonged to the Indians, and by former treaties the Ohio was always considered the boundary line; this was rigidly adhered to by the tribes.59

Emboldened by their success, the Indians made more frequent their depredations, and the conditions on the frontier were now more deplorable than before the American expedition. In January of 1791, native bands destroyed the New England settlement of Big Bottom near Marietta, and an attack was launched against Dunlop's Station near Cincinnati. Several communities were entirely disrupted as murder, torture and captivity became common.60

In the spring a number of tribes gathered at the Miami with the intention of achieving an acceptable decision which would facilitate a favourable termination of their troubles with the United States; but Indian optimism, owing to their late victory, war preparations and continual hostilities on both sides had widened the breach and peaceful negotiations for the moment were not feasible.61 Grenville at the Home Department was alarmed at the reports of Indian outrages and urged Dorchester to effect a reconciliation of differences and establish an atmosphere of peace in the western country. Dorchester was in fact pursuing a policy which suited exactly the desires of the British Home Department. In February of 1791 the governor told Sir John Johnson that he would feel great satisfaction in being instrumental in putting an end to the hostilities between the United States and western Indians. He instructed Johnson to "learn the nature and extent of the specific terms on which the Confederated Indian Nations would be disposed to establish a great tranquillity and friendship with the United States."62 The idea of open British interference in an Indian-American war was clearly not sanctioned.


In 1791, the United States, despite overburdening financial difficulties, was determined to conduct a second punitive expedition against the Indians in an effort to bring peace and security to the Northwest frontier. In April, St. Clair, after consultations with Washington and Knox, returned to the Ohio country to undertake the organization of his campaign. At Pittsburgh, the governor invited Iroquois bands to join his force against the Algonkian tribes.63 Ironically Congress, at the same time, had directed Colonel John Procter of the American Indian Department to engage the assistance of Cornplanter and other chiefs of the Six Nations in peacefully settling the disputes between the Americans and the hostile Ohio Indians.64 Owing to the influence, however, of Joseph Brant, Alexander McKee and other members of the British Indian Department, the Iroquois were persuaded to reject the American proposals. In addition, Procter, who had hoped to meet with the natives at Sandusky, was denied permission to proceed westward by Colonel Gordon, the British commander at Fort Niagara. Gordon was angry because the different American commissioners had avoided applying for British aid, preferring instead to impress the Indians with their own importance. The commander was convinced that if the Americans had applied to the British government to bring about a peace on equitable terms, "the results would have been accomplished long ago."65 The American peace mission was thus abruptly terminated, and Procter returned to St. Clair's base at Fort Washington.

Throughout the summer and autumn, military preparations and active hostilities were carried on by the Indians and Americans. The Shawnee and Miami in particular were most hostile, raiding the back settlements and attacking flatboats along the Ohio River.66 Toward the end of May an American army of 700 under the command of Brigadier General Charles Scott marched against the Upper Wabash tribes and destroyed a few towns belonging to the nonbelligerent Wea and Piankashaw. The militia killed a number of old men, women and children left behind, and to the apparent horror of Alexander McKee, the Americans skinned a chief whom they had killed.67 In July, Brigadier General James Wilkinson led an expedition of 500 Kentucky militia against several more distant Wabash towns. This force met no opposition, but succeeded in burning some villages and killing a few natives.68 These raids only heightened Indian-American contempt and bitterness, and the desire for retaliation was mutual.

Indian councils were held in early July at the foot of the Miami rapids.69 The chiefs were determined to form a confederacy of all the tribes to defend their country to the last and the boundary they contended for was the Ohio River. At the same time, St. Clair was grappling with the difficulties of raising troops in the frontier. His force was ill-equipped and untrained; the lash was applied liberally, desertion common, murder not unknown, and the problem of logistics ever plaguing.70 Yet in spite of these mounting perplexities St. Clair marched for the Indian country in September. His force constructed two posts called Fort Hamilton and Fort Jefferson in mid-October in order to protect the lines of communication.

13 Sir Frederick Haldimand (1716-91), governor general of Canada. (Public Archives of Canada.)

The Indians, commanded by Little Turtle, had been supplied from the British stores at Detroit. To further bolster native confidence, Alexander McKee, Matthew Elliott and Simon Girty and other notables of the British Indian Department were present to act as advisers. Girty noted that "the Indians were never in better heart and are determined to drive the Americans to the Ohio and to starve their posts."71 St. Clair suffering from a severe case of gout, advanced cautiously through the wilderness, heeding the words of Washington, "beware of surprise."

At sunrise on 4 November 1791, the Indians assaulted the American camp. The militia panicked almost Immediately, but the regulars held their ranks and managed to check the ferocity of the native thrust; however, the death of Richard Butler, the second in command. disheartened the Americans who began to give way and finally fell into utter confusion.72 The fugitives, throwing away arms and equipment, continued their flight for 30 miles until they reached Fort Jefferson. The battle was one of the most severe ever fought between Indians and Americans. Casualty figures have been hotly debated: Americans losses range from 500 to 1,500; native losses from 50 to 150. But unquestionably, the affair was the greatest Indian victory since the Braddock disaster of 1755. In an anonymous letter from Niagara, the details and implications of the battle were clearly outlined.

The American Army of which no doubt you have this summer heard, had advanc'd on the third of this month to within Forty Miles of the Miamis Towns, they were there encountered by near Two thousand Indians, who on that day took from them the greatest part of their Horses & Cattle — On the 4th, at Sun rise they attack'd their Camp, but Were twice repuls'd, irritated beyond measure, they retir'd to a little distance, where separating into their different tribes and each conducted by their own Leaders, they returned like Furies to the assault & almost instantly got possession of near half the Camp — they found in it a row of Flour Bags, & bags of Stores, which serv'd them as a Breast work, from behind which they kept up a constant & heavy fire, the Americans charg'd them several times with Fixed Bayonets, but were as often repuls'd — at length General Butler, second in Command, being kill'd, the Americans fell into confusion & were driven from their Cannon, round which a Hundred of their bravest Men fell, the Rout now became universal, & in the utmost disorder, the Indians follow'd for Six Miles, & many fell Victims to their Fury, in the Camp they found 5 pieces Brass Cannon, 3 of 6 & 2 of 4 pounds, 1 4-1/2 Mortar & 2 paturaros, all Brass & mounted for field Service, with these they took all the Arms, Ammunition, Provisions, Cloathing, entrenching Tools, and Stores of every kind, the Americans had in their Camp for the purpose of erecting Forts, & remaining the ensuing Winter in the Indian Country, besides the Commanding Officer, the Adjt. Genl. & Surgeon Genl. Twelve hundred are said to have Fallen in the Assaults & pursuits—you however know the Indians, most probably this Number is exaggerated we do not hear of one prisoner — about 50 of the Indians are said to be killed & wounded, the Numbers at first were American Regulars 1500, Militia 800, in all 2300 — of Indians nearly 2,000. Two Forts they had erected on their Rout nam'd Hamilton & Jefferson, are said to be surrounded by the Indians, they contain 100 Men each with but little provisions; the truth of this information may be depended on, Simon Girty, if not in the action, was within view of it. He had join'd Coll. McGee at the foot of the Rapids brought the American Orderly Books & all their papers—Butler's Scalp was brought in, & is sent they say to Joseph Brant with a severe Sarcasm for his not being there — He is at the grand River with the Six Nations — Cowan in the Felicity was dispatch'd with the interesting intelligence. I saw him yesterday at Fort Erie — He left your Brother well on the 14th who had sometime before hurt his arm and was not yet able to write, an Express is now getting ready for Quebec, finding an opportunity I send this by New york. Humanity shudders at the number of poor wretches who have fallen in this Business, but as they were clearly the agressors, they merit less pity, the horrible Cruelties that may probably now fall on the defenceless Frontiers of the Western American Settlements, is infinitely more dreadful & claims from every person who can feel as a man, every preventative that can be devis'd; I have this morning wrote to our Friend Mr. Askin strongly pressing him to join the Trade in inspiring the Indians with moderation. The Americans must be severely hurt at this Blow, however willing to resent it, they will find great difficulty in raising another Army for this Service. They would probably listen to any Reasonable Terms of accommodation, if they saw a prospect of its being establish'd on solid Grounds, perhaps this can only be affected by the influence of the British Government & Trade with the Indians — The Terms the Indians ask'd were, that the Ohio shou'd be establish'd as the Boundary to the American Settlements, & that they shou'd enjoy unmolested their hunting Grounds, to the West & North of that River, some of the Branches of the Ohio to the Southward of this come within a few Miles of the Genesea River, which runs into Lake Ontario Sixty Miles East from the Fort of Niagara — If these two Rivers by the interposition of Government cou'd be fix'd as the Boundaries between the Americans and Indians, & between them & us, we shou'd secure our Posts, the Trade, & the Tranquility of the Country; you will know that the present lines must furnish a source of constant Contention & dispute— The others now propos'd being on Streams not navigable, will be free from this, the Indians not having as yet sold their Country between this & the Genesea nor does any of the American Settlements extend to the West of that River, but they very soon will—I wish our Peacemakers of 83 had but known a little more of this Country. I wish our present Ministry were informed of the actual situation — perhaps this is the important moment in which the unfortunate terms of that Peace maybe alter'd — Perhaps this moment may never return —

A month after the battle Alexander McKee wrote his superior, Sir John Johnson, giving him details of the St. Clair campaign. The agent noted that a minor chief, Quania, and ten men were the only Six Nation Indians who took part in the fight.73 Joseph Brant, to the derision of the western tribes, did not participate. The Mohawk leader was convinced that a compromise boundary line was the only solution to an Indian-American peace, and war would only hasten the death of native life and culture in the Ohio valley. The opinion of this influential Iroquois was to have a profound effect on the future status and negotiations of the Indian confederacy.

Along with the Indian warriors who participated in the battle against St. Clair was a considerable number of Canadians and mixed bloods. Traveller Isaac Weld commented that

A great many young Canadians, and in particular many that were born of Indian women, fought on the side of the Indians in this action, a circumstance which confirmed the people of the States in the opinion they had previously formed, that the Indians were encouraged and abetted in their attacks upon them by the British. I can safely affirm, however, from having conversed with many of these young men who fought against St. Clair, that it was with the utmost secrecy they left their homes to join the Indians, fearful lest the government should censure their conduct.74

The struggle for the Ohio valley was an Indian-American confrontation. Many mixed bloods and refugee Americans, particularly those who became members of the British Indian Department, actively encouraged tribal resistance to American expansion. These men lived among the native people, spoke their language, married their women, fathered their children and attended their councils; thus they maintained a considerable influence in policy-making. Vitally significant also, they possessed the sine qua non for an Indian war: the power to imply, promise, even hope for British assistance.

14 Sir John Johnson (1742-1830), superintendent general of Indian affairs, 1782-1828. (Public Archives of Canada.)

Yet Whitehall, as represented by the new secretary of state of the Home Department, Henry Dundas, was officially maintaining a policy of the strictest neutrality. Dundas ordered Dorchester to

show every consistent mark of attention, in regard to the Indian Nations who have showed proofs of attachments to the British Interests [but] . . . every means which prudence can suggest should be taken for healing the differences which at present exist [between the Indians and Americans], and for effecting, if possible, a speedy termination of the war. The chief object is to obtain for the Indians the peaceful possession of their hunting grounds.75

The Indians, revelling in the glory of a second successive victory, ravaged the defenceless northwest frontier in the winter and spring of 1792. Although the Indian war had been provoked by reciprocal depredations, Congress conceded that the whites were more probably the aggressors, as they frequently made encroachments on tribal lands. Indeed after the St. Clair battle, the Indians could have swept clean the country before them as far as Pittsburgh, for there was not a sufficient force to check their advance.76 But the Indians were concerned solely with the defence and preservation of their natural way of life within the confines of the land bordered by the Ohio River and the Great Lakes, as agreed to by the Treaty of 1768.

Washington was most distressed at the inability of the army to remove the Indian menace, but Congress was more accurate in assessing the problem.

It is only exposing our arms to disgrace, betraying our own weakness, and lessening the public confidence in the General Government, to send forth armies to be butchered in the forests, while we suffer the British to keep possession of the posts within our territory.77

Undoubtedly the tribes would not be able to effectively continue their operations against the Americans if the United States had the western posts. The British gave the Indians supplies, clothing, food, arms, ammunition and most of all, encouragement to persevere in their efforts to maintain their Ohio valley home lands. Nonetheless, in spite of British assistance in the Indian cause, it was "not the inclination or interest of the United States to enter into a contest with Great Britain."78


The twin Indian victories in 1790 and 1791 presented Whitehall with the opportunity to formulate a scheme for a native barrier state. The plan as described to George Hammond, the first minister to the United States, was to suggest British mediation between the Americans and the Indians to create a separate country for the tribes, independent from Great Britain and the United States; the boundary would be formed by the Great Lakes and the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.79 Lord Dorchester, on leave in England, fully supported the proposal.

If the area northwest of the Ohio between the Mississippi and the Lakes shall be secured exclusively to the Indians, and remain neutral ground in respect to Great Britain and the United States, peace between them and the Indians will be restored immediately, and established upon a solid foundation.80

The creation of an Indian buffer state was designed to protect Upper Canada from the territorial ambitions of the American republic, preserve the hunting grounds for the Indians who had been under British protection and, of secondary importance, enable Canadian fur traders to continue operating in the region south of the Great Lakes from which they might otherwise be excluded.81 The price Britain would have to pay was the surrender of the western posts. Nonetheless Hammond, as instructed, merely suggested to Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State for the United States, the feasibility of establishing a national home for the Indians in the Ohio valley. But the Americans firmly rejected this offer and demanded that the British evacuate the western posts "with all convenient speed," as stipulated in the 1783 treaty.82

The arrival of John Graves Simcoe as the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada in the summer of 1792 further strained Anglo-American diplomatic relations. Simcoe had absorbed a violent antipathy to everything American in the course of his active military career with the Queen's Rangers during the Revolutionary War. He had accepted the Canadian post in the hope of being instrumental in the "Reunion of the Empire," and openly confessed that there was "no person who thinks less of the Talents or Integrity of General Washington than I do."83 The biggest fear of the lieutenant governor was that the Indians, if left to make their own peace with the republic, would then fall like a scourge upon a defenceless Upper Canada. What inspired Simcoe, however, was the hope of strengthening and extending British influence in the interior of the continent.84 His position was precarious because the official policy of Whitehall, like that of the United States, was to maintain an atmosphere of peace and cordiality between the two countries.

While Great Britain and the United States debated over the possible solutions to the native problems, Joseph Brant and a number of Iroquois were becoming increasingly disenchanted with British promises and the war against the Americans. Henry Knox had made peace overtures to the Six Nations and Brant was tempted to negotiate. The Mohawk leader wrote McKee that the British government gave only evasive answers.

If Great Britain wishes us to defend our Country, why not tell us so in plain language . . . . There is now a field open for our accommodation with the Americans . . . make them explain themselves on this subject, which I have never as yet, been able to prevail upon them to do.85

Discouraged by the vacillation of British native policy and realizing that the Indian victories had provided the tribes with a degree of bargaining power, Brant became convinced that the time was opportune to attempt a restoration of peace with the Americans through negotiations. To ensure that at least a part of the Ohio valley could be preserved for Indian use, Brant was prepared to accept a compromise boundary line. Many chiefs of the Six Nations supported the Mohawk's convictions, and with this idea firmly established in their minds, the Iroquois accepted an invitation to attend a large Indian conference in the summer of 1792.

The council at the Glaize, a tributary of the Miami River, was called by the various tribal leaders to ascertain what military and political strategy the Indians could agree upon in event of another confrontation with the Americans. Alexander McKee, representing British interests, was present at the assembly. Simcoe advised the agent that he should encourage the Indians "to solicit the King's good offices;" but fully aware of the pacific policy of Whitehall toward the United States, the governor warned McKee that

This solicitation should be the result of their own Spontaneous Reflections. [We] must assure our neutrality which we gave Congress; there should appear on our part nothing like Collusion or any active Interference to inspire them [the Indians] with such a sentiment.86

The proceedings commenced on 30 September 1792. The delegated speaker for the Algonkian tribes was Painted Pole, a Delaware, who directed his speech toward the Six Nations, accusing them of scheming with the Americans. Cowkiller, a noted Seneca orator, spoke for the shocked Iroquois delegation. "You have talked to us a little too roughly, you have thrown us on our backs."87 The Iroquois consulted in private for about an hour and then returned to the council. Surprisingly, the chiefs of the Six Nations reconciled their differences with the Algonkian tribes and agreed that instead of a third successive campaign, they would meet with the Americans at Sandusky the following spring. The Six Nations were given the honour of carrying the word of peace to the commissioners of the United States. However, the harsh exchange of words and divided opinion had left a mutual feeling of suspicion and doubt between the Algonkian tribes and Six Nations. Although both groups had fully consented to the Ohio River as the only negotiable boundary, the Iroquois, particularly the Seneca, were greatly exposed to American settlement and military strength: thus this important faction of the Six Nations was in a state of vacillation as to whether the Ohio should be the boundary or whether, for their security, a suitable compromise should not be obtained if the Americans pressed for such.

15 The Ohio country, 1783-96. (click on image for a PDF version)

Joseph Brant, suffering apparently from a "fit of sickness" did not reach the Glaize until the end of October. The influence of the Mohawk leader was important to the cohesive power of the Indian confederacy. Those chiefs who were still present hastily assembled a rump council for the dignitary. Brant was relentless in his theme of Indian unity as the only method of safeguarding native culture in the Ohio valley. Those chiefs present acknowledged his wisdom and assured their esteemed visitor that tribal unity would be preserved.88

Representatives of the Six Nations travelled to Buffalo Creek in November to meet the American commissioners and deliver the announcement devised by the Indian confederacy at the Glaize conference.89 Although the Americans accepted the Sandusky peace proposal, a deadly triangle had been formed. The Algonkian tribes led by the Shawnee, Miami and Delaware were adamant in their determination to defend the Ohio River boundary line. This group expected British aid in time of crisis, and with two victories to their credit assumed an air of genuine confidence. The Iroquois, who had adhered to the Ohio line in council, were impressed with the rhetoric of Branton unity, but like Brant and in spite of the promises to the contrary, they were prepared to accept the compromise Muskingum-Venango line. The Americans, who were eager to grasp at any straw that might result in peace, had agreed to the Sandusky conference, but the commissioners were not content with the Ohio boundary and hoped that a combination of presents and verbal persuasion would induce the natives to accept a new line. The only alternative for the tribal confederacy was the renewal of war and the possibility of Indian collapse. The keystone to a successful Indian resistance to American expansion was active British assistance. If Britain would not aid the tribes, Indian supremacy in the Ohio valley was doomed.

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