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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

The Quiet Years (1796-1807)


The signing of the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 and the evacuation of the western posts in 1796 had unquestionably reduced the influence and effectiveness of the British Indian Department among the tribes of the Northwest. The disgruntled and starving Indians, who had been unable to hunt or plant corn for the past two years as a result of the military campaigns, spent the harsh winter of 1795-96 at Swan Creek, on the north side of the Maumee River near present Toledo, Ohio, and were provisioned by the Indian Department from the king's stores at Detroit. Alexander McKee and other officers from the service hoped that in the spring of 1796 the Indians could be induced to move north into Canada and settle at Chenail Ecarté, an area 12 miles square just north of Lake St. Clair.1

The removal of the tribes from the United States was a slow and disappointing process; however, the British Indian Department wanted the Indians to be relocated by spring in time for planting and thus reduce the cost of the enormous consumption of provisions.2 But the Indians were tardy, and the delays continued until several chiefs finally offered the excuse that they had planted corn at Swan Creek and wished to remain at that location in order to harvest the crop. Clearly, most of the Indians did not want to leave their ancient homelands in spite of the fact that the political authority for the future of native survival in the Ohio valley was now vested in the hands of their recent and hated enemies, the Americans. Instead of the expected exodus of thousands, only a few hundred Indians eventually migrated to the supposed sanctuary of British North America. In July some of the Shawnee under Captain Johnny and Blackbird moved to Bois Blanc Island in the Detroit River, opposite the grand home of Matthew Elliott. But it was not until 1797 that scattered bands finally trekked to Chenail Ecarté.3

21 The post at St. Joseph, a British Indian Department centre on the upper lakes, 1800. (Public Archives of Canada.)

With the American takeover of Niagara, Detroit and Michilimackinac in the late summer of 1796, the British Indian Department was faced with the new, if less formidable, task of managing Indian affairs during the few quiet years of peace. The surrender of the disputed western posts prompted a reduction of British military forces in Upper Canada, as an era of Anglo-American friendship was seemingly assured. Only 500 men of the Queen's Rangers and Royal Canadian Volunteers4 were left to garrison Kingston, York and the replacement forts that were to be constructed in Canadian territory: Fort George at Newark on the west bank of the Niagara River; Fort Malden at Amherstburg on the Detroit River, and Fort St. Joseph, on the island of the same name at the mouth of the Saint Marys River.5

The re-location of the military garrisons and the construction of new posts as well as the termination of the long war with the United States for control of the Ohio valley necessitated a complete reorganization of the British Indian Department. At the request of Lord Dorchester, Alexander McKee devised a "Plan for the Future Government of the Indian Department" in June, 1796. In his report, the deputy superintendent general stressed the importance of continuing to employ the officers of the department to "use the utmost diligence to preserve and promote friendship between the Troops and the Indians. . .,and to maintain harmony at the King's [new] posts."6 He also suggested that in addition to the usual employment of departmental storekeepers, clerks and interpreters, three superintendents of Indian affairs should be appointed, one for each of the replacement forts. As a result McKee recommended his son Thomas as superintendent for St. Joseph, Matthew Elliott for Fort Malden, and William Claus, a grandson of Sir William Johnson, for Fort George.7 Just prior to his departure for England, Lord Dorchester approved the appointments, and the British Indian Department, thus restructured, assumed its new role of managing Indian affairs.

In June 1797 at St. Joseph, Alexander McKee and his son Thomas met with Ottawa and Ojibway to negotiate the purchase of the island which "the Indians readily agreed to," and to attempt to curb the traditional intertribal warfare between the Sioux and the Ojibway.8 The Indians promised to visit and trade at the new British post and "appear[ed] to be friendly as usual."9 Captain Peter Drummond, the commandant at St. Joseph, seemed content with the situation and noted with enthusiasm that the construction of the barracks and the buildings for the British Indian Department were progressing smoothly.10 But the attitude of the British military after Greenville was that the Indians should be abandoned to their own devices, as there would be no future need for their assistance. The new object of the government, observed Thomas McKee, was "to have as few Indians to come to the Posts as possible in order to lessen the expenditure of Provisions."11


The peacetime policy added new complications to the general administration of the Indian Department in Upper Canada. Since 1775 the department had faced continuous crises, and as a result great freedom had been bestowed on the various agents in regard to obtaining provisions and gifts for the British Indian allies. But for a decade after 1796, a period of comparative tranquility existed in the Northwest, and this meant the return to a rigid routine and the strict accounting of goods. To compound the situation the expenses of the Indian Department were defrayed from the army budget, and this created a definite cause for future friction. The old, irritating problem of military jurisdiction and authority in the affairs of the Indian Department was to reach a climax in the McLean-Elliott feud at Fort Malden in 1797.

As early as 1795, the department had been accused of depredations. Joseph Brant noticed that "Goods intended for the tribes [were] often not received. . . . The Enormous expense of which much seems to disappear before getting to the Indian country."12 Lieutenant Governor Simcoe argued that the apparent unpopularity of the Indian Department arose "from the changes of peculation and from the belief that the officers of the Department foment ill will between the Indians and the United States."13 He further considered the department as" an Establishment not only incompetent and dangerous as far as concerns foreign nations, but to be too extensive in its objects."14

These charges of pillage resulting in personal profit were not mere speculation or unfounded, particularly in the case of Matthew Elliott. In the autumn of 1796, traveller Isaac Weld estimated the size of Elliott's estate at the mouth of the Detroit River as 2,000 acres, a very large part of which was cleared and "cultivated in a style which would not be thought meanly of even in England."15 The house, Weld stated, was the best in the whole district, and situated 200 yards from the river, the parlor windows afforded an excellent view of the Indian canoes passing and repassing before Bois Blanc Island.16 Elliott used his farm as his Indian agency, and with the assistance of his storekeeper and clerk, George Ironside, exercised control of Indian affairs in the region. Alexander McKee had retired to his home on the nearby Thames River, and from there directed a general supervision of Indian affairs in Upper Canada.

The affluent life-style of Elliott and his customary liberality of goods toward the Indians, for which the army had to account, soon began to annoy the military at Malden who had been ordered to economize. In return the Indian Department was disgusted at the action of the British officers who had agreed to lend 50 barrels of pork to the Americans at Detroit in the autumn of 1796 when supplies for the Indians appeared scarce. The problem of the distribution of supplies to the Indians was acute now that peace had come to the Northwest. The basis of the difficulty was that the military held the purse-strings and the Indian Department the power in regard to the Indians. To ensure that an accurate account of provisions and gifts could be maintained, the military decided that their officers should be present on each occasion in which Indians received goods. But small parties of Indians were constantly arriving to proclaim their loyalty to the British king and to receive gifts, as was the tradition. Since Elliott's farm was more than one mile from the British officer's quarters at Fort Malden, it was impossible for army representatives to be present at every occasion.

The commandant at Fort Malden (Amherstburg), Captain Hector McLean, initiated the feud in a letter of complaint to James Green, the military secretary at Quebec. After discussing the details of the construction of several buildings at the new post, McLean commented on the expenses of the enormous consumption of provisions by the Indians, and thought that the high costs could be checked without the least detriment to the Indian service.17 McLean had hoped that the presence of officers during the distribution of goods would curb any excesses by the Indian Department. But Elliott refused to detain various Indian dignitaries in order to accommodate the army. This action prompted McLean to write two long letters to Green, in which the commandant accused the Indian Department of carelessness and lack of formality. McLean was astonished at the consumption of provisions and suggested as a remedy the gradual diminishing of the issue of provisions to the Indians, and that native visits to the post should be made less frequently. "I have reason to believe that their coming in so often is encouraged by Mr. Elliott."18 McLean further objected to the fact that the government had to pay Elliott £160 per year for storage, because the Indian stones were kept at his farm and not at the garrison. In addition, since the farm was over a mile away, the officers found it inconvenient to attend every delivery of presents, particularly when such short notice was given and generally at the dinner hour. Also, the distance, argued McLean "renders the peculation the more easy, and detection less so."19 Finally, the commandant delivered a scathing denunciation of Elliott.

He lives . . . in the greatest affluence at an expense of above a thousand a year. He possesses an extensive farm not far from the garrison stock'd with about six or seven hundred head of cattle & . . . employs fifty or sixty persons constantly about his house & farm, chiefly slaves. . . . How his wealth had been accumulated, . . . is well known.20

Matthew Elliott, confident of the power of the Indian Department, appeared unperturbed at these verbal attacks and smugly continued the feud with McLean by issuing provisions to Indians, often in the absence of the army officers from Malden. But a week after the explosion regarding provisions, McLean uncovered another aspect of Elliott's activities—the supposed peculation of bread. The normal practice in securing bread for the Indians was to have Elliott send a requisition to the commanding officer at the fort for a specific amount. With the signing of the order form, Elliott would despatch his servants to the garrison bakery to obtain the bread. However, McLean noticed that Elliott's negro slaves were picking up some 20 to 25 loaves per day. Apparently Elliott was getting free bread for himself and his large household staff from the garrison bakery under the pretext of acquiring it for the Indians. The commandant immediately ordered the commissary not to charge any bread to the government account unless delivered directly to the Indians for their own use.21

22 Fort George, Niagara River, one of the three main British Indian centres in Upper Canada. Sketch by James Walsh, about 1804. (William L. Clements Library, Ann Arbor, Michigan.)

The irregularities in the Indian Department under Elliott at Fort Malden were exposed for the third time over the requisition for goods to supply the Indians at Chenail Ecarté during the winter of 1797-98. Elliott requested supplies for 534 Indians, but McLean received a return of Indians at Chenail to the number of 160 from Lieutenant Fraser, whom the commandant had sent to check the actual numbers.22 The principal chief at Chenail, Chief Bowl, supported Fraser's figures. The false return of Indians by Elliott and the mounting bitter feud with McLean over provisioning and obtaining bread from the garrison bakery finally provoked the governor-in-chief, Robert Prescott, to dismiss Matthew Elliott as Superintendent of Indian Affairs at Fort Malden in December, 1797.23 Thomas McKee was appointed to succeed Elliott.

The McLean-Elliott feud reflected the new policy of order and regulation so beloved by the peacetime army. Elliott, who had served the Indian Department faithfully for nearly 20 years in times of crisis, undoubtedly did not realize that the power of the department during the quiet years was to be curtailed, and that a rigid enforcement of regulations had replaced the more usual practice of laxity in which the attainment of a degree of personal profit was not considered unwarranted. Dismissed without the benefit of a proper investigation, Elliott became in effect the scapegoat for the common peculiarities of the Indian Department in Upper Canada. His conduct was not unlike that of most of the other members of the department, notably McKee. For the next 10 years Elliott was preoccupied with attempts to clear himself and obtain reinstatement.


In addition to the peace negotiation with the upper lakes tribes at St. Joseph and the unfortunate Elliott scandal at Fort Malden, the Indian Department was confronted with another type of problem in the form of a dispute with Joseph Brant over the sale of the Grand River lands. The Haldimand grant of 1784 had provided the Iroquois with a "fertile and happy retreat" on the Grand River as a substitute for the loss of their traditional homelands in New York during the American Revolution. But by 1796 less than 2,000 Iroquois, mostly Mohawk, had taken advantage of the opportunity to live on this large tract of about 570,000 acres. This discouraging situation was compounded because of the gradual yet steady advance of white settlement in Upper Canada which began to surround the reserve. Game became scarce in the Grand valley, and Iroquois repugnance at being reduced to the status of yeomen resulted in economic depression for the Indians at Grand River.

In an apparent effort to alleviate the Indians' plight, Joseph Brant devised a plan whereby the future welfare of the Grand River Iroquois could be assured. The Mohawk leader rationalized that the sale of large sections of the reserve to British and American purchasers would provide the native people of the Grand valley with a sufficient fund for their future needs. The argument was convincing because such a large area was not needed by the Indians who were indifferent to cultivating the land. As a successful step in achieving his aims, Brant acquired the power of attorney in 1796 to sell the Indian lands along the Grand River, and this power was acknowledged and signed by 35 chiefs of the confederacy.24 To finalize the business transactions, Brant held a large council with William Claus, superintendent of Indian affairs at Fort George, in November, 1796, at which the Mohawk entrepreneur argued for a legal deed to the Grand River lands of the Iroquois.25 Brant contended that the Haldimand grant of 1784 not only constituted the creation of an estate in fee simple for the Indians, but recognized the Iroquois confederacy as a distinct nation, competent to arrange its own affairs with other sovereign states such as Great Britain and the United States.26

William Claus and the Indian Department, representing British interests, countered that the Six Nations, Brant's arguments notwithstanding, did not enjoy the status of a sovereign nation. Haldimand's actions, replied Claus, should not be construed as the authority to dispose of Indian property without the king's approval. Indeed, the question of the sale of Indian lands had been settled by the royal proclamation of 1763, which stated in part:

And whereas great Frauds and Abuses have been committed in purchasing Lands of the Indians to the great Prejudice of our Interests and to the great Dissatisfaction of the said Indians; . . . to prevent such Irregularities for the future, and to the end that the Indians may be convinced of our Justice and determined Resolution to remove all reasonable Cause of Discontent, We . . . require, that no private Person do presume to make any Purchase from the said Indians of any Lands reserved to the said Indians, within those parts of our Colonies where, We have thought proper to allow Settlement; but that, if at any Time any of the said Indians should be inclined to dispose of the said Lands, the same shall be Purchased only for Us in our Name.27

Although the proclamation acknowledged the validity of Indian land title, or native rights of prior occupancy, it did not accept the idea of Indian sovereignty overall lands not formally surrendered to the king.

The reply of Claus infuriated Brant who argued in vain that the Iroquois could no longer survive exclusively on hunting, and that their only recourse was to sell parts of the grant so they might obtain some form of financial relief. The debate continued for months and grew increasingly bitter. By June, 1797, wild rumours were spreading in Upper Canada that the Iroquois were angry because they could not sell their lands on the Grand River and that they might raise the hatchet in retaliation against the king's subjects. Further unconfirmed information was received that the French and Spaniards were planning an invasion of Upper Canada from the Mississippi.28 In response to these alarms, and following the earlier instructions of the Duke of Portland of the Home Department, Lieutenant Governor Peter Russell held an important meeting with his executive council at Government House in York. The board unanimously agreed to capitulate to Brant's demands provided that the Indians formally transferred to the crown their "interest" in those Grand River lands which they wished to sell. The Indians readily agreed to this proviso and the transfer was arranged by February, 1798.29 In return the crown sold the designated tracts, approximately 352,000 acres, to the various individual white purchasers with whom Brant was dealing. Although Brant insisted that he was acting on behalf of his people, his personal wealth was considerably augmented as a result of the sale, and in later years the Indian Department noted the destitute condition of the Grand River Indians.30


With the exception of the McLean-Elliott feud and the controversy over the sale of the Grand River lands, the Indian Department in Upper Canada experienced an unusual period of quiet between the years 1796 and 1807. At St. Joseph, in March of 1798, Peter Drummond requested £1,700 worth of presents for the Indians who appeared to have completely adapted to the British change over from Michilimackinac;31 and at Fort Malden, McLean wrote lengthy despatches outlining the stages of development of the new post and of the building and construction of the Indian Department storehouses and council house.32 About a year after the dismissal of Elliott, Governor Prescott produced a return of issued provisions for 1797 and 1798 at Amherstburg and Chenail Ecarté. The figures showed a saving in 1798 (the year Elliott was no longer with the department) of 21,000 rations of provisions, 1,000 gallons of rum and 71,000 bushels of corn, amounting to upwards of £3,000, and that the Indians had actually received more in 1798 than in the year before.33 This inventory sealed the already damaged career of Matthew Elliott for many years.

23 Structural plan, Fort Goerge, 1799. Note British Indian Department buildings, upper centre. (Public Archives of Canada.)

24 Fort Malden (Amherstburg), 1804, another of the main British Indian Department frontier posts. Note B and C, storehouse and building for Indian Department. (Public Archives of Canada.)

The next few uneventful months were soon shattered on 15 February 1799 by the death of Alexander McKee at his home on the Thames River. His passing initiated a distasteful dispute as to whether the patronage of the Indian Department should be under civil or military control. In Halifax, the Duke of Kent, commander-in-chief of all his majesty's forces in North America, appointed Colonel John Connolly as successor. But the new lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, Peter Hunter, supported by Sir John Johnson in Montreal, argued for William Claus. During the interim J. Baby, A. Grant and Thomas McKee were appointed as temporary administrators of the Indian Department until further orders.34 Hunter Johnson and other senior officials of the department insisted that the new deputy superintendent general must be, like Claus, a man of considerable ability and experience regarding Indian affairs. The choice of Connolly, they maintained, was cleanly political, and his appointment was unwise because a lack of training and knowledge in the tactful art of Indian affairs could seriously jeopardize His Majesty's Indian interests in the Northwest.35 Opinions were exchanged for more than a year until 24 July 1800 when William Claus was finally accepted and appointed as colonel and deputy superintendent general. He held the position with honour and skill until his death in 1826.

With the appointment of William Claus the Indian Department settled back into the interminable tedium of Indian councils, gift giving, and pledges of British friendship. At Fort Malden, McLean decided that a reduction of the costly Indian presents would be desirable, particularly since the Americans were not pouring out supplies on attempting to detach the tribes from the king's interest.36 Thomas McKee opposed the reductions and regarded the distribution of gifts as vital. If the traditional policy was not continued, he cautioned, it "may operate to the diminution, if not the total extinction of our influence and may infinitely prejudice H. M's Indian Interest in these parts."37 The wisdom of McKee's advice was to be revealed later.

By the end of 1800 the years of friendly Anglo-American relations and an indifference toward the Indians produced a detached and relaxed attitude on the part of the British army in Upper Canada. The distribution of forces38 illustrated the apparent lack of concern for defence:

Kingston 102
York 143
Fort George 243
Fort Malden 118
St. Joseph 38

For the Indian Department, the major concern continued to be the Grand River lands. In three major councils at Fort George in 1803, 1804 and 1806, the Iroquois argued relentlessly for their legal right to lease more and more of their lands in order to gain a financial redress from poverty.39 But, although the Northwest and frontier of Upper Canada were quiet, relations between Great Britain and the United States at sea were rapidly deteriorating after 1803. With the renewal of war in Europe, the British government adopted a maritime policy which seriously damaged the commercial shipping of neutral nations. Confiscation of cargoes and impressment produced a wave of anti-British feeling in the United States, with demands by an aroused American public for a redemption of national honour.

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