Last year I came across Dr. John Knight’s account of the torture and execution of Colonel William Crawford by members of the Delaware Indian tribe in 1782. It was a vicious execution, but not unheard of in the wars on the American frontier, where violence and brutality from both sides were common.
Born in 1722, Crawford was a long-time business partner of George Washington, particularly in the acquisition of land in the Ohio River valley. A veteran of frontier conflicts, during the Revolution he had served as the Lieutenant Colonel of the 5th Virginia Regiment, commanded the 7th Virginia in the east, and then returned to the Pittsburgh area to raise the 13th Virginia. Sidelined during the war’s last years, he commanded local Pennsylvania militia and was largely retired by 1782. For years, settlers in the Ohio Valley had agitated for punitive raid against the Ohio Tribes along the Sandusky River in today’s northwestern Ohio. Their goal was to retaliate for Indian raids across the Ohio and spoil future raids. By the spring of 1782, they could not be restrained. After the militia massacred defenseless Christian Indians at Gnadenhutten in March, Brigadier General William Irvine, the Continental Commander at Pittsburgh, arranged for Colonel Crawford to lead the inevitable militia expedition, likely in hopes that Crawford could prevent a repeat. (Crawford had taken no part in the Gnadenhutten Massacre).
What became known as Crawford’s Expedition set out from the Ohio River on May 25, finally meeting significant Indian resistance on the Sandusky River on June 4, near the modern town of Upper Sandusky. The fighting lasted two days with no clear conclusion, but things did not bode well for the militia. As they grew weaker, the Native Americans—largely from the Wyandot, Delaware, and Shawnee nations—grew stronger. On the night of June 5/6, a planned withdrawal turned into a rout and Crawford was separated from his command. He linked up with a small party and eventually started eastward, bound for the Ohio. On June 7, Delaware Indians caught Crawford and his party en route. The Delaware returned them to the Sandusky, heading for a settlement near Tymochtee Creek a few miles from the battlefield and north of today’s Upper Sandusky. Along the way, they encountered other militia from the expedition, many of whom are killed on the way back to the Sandusky. By the 10th, it was clear Crawford would suffer a similar, albeit more gruesome, fate. Having suffered beatings since his capture, Crawford was to burn at the stake. Knight took up the narrative:
“When we were come to the fire the colonel was stripped naked, ordered to sit down by the fire and then they beat him with sticks and their fists. Presently after I was treated in the same manner. Then then tied a rope to the foot of a post about fifteen feet high, bound the colonel’s hands behind his back and fastened the rope to the ligature between his wrists. The rope was long enough either for him to sit down or walk round the post once or twice and return the same way…The Indian men then took up their guns and shot powder into the colonel’s body, from his feet as far up as his neck. I think not less than seventy loads were discharged upon his naked body. They then crowded about him, and to the best of my observation, cut off his ears: when the throng had dispersed a little I saw the blood running from both sides of his head in consequence thereof.”
“The fire was about six or seven yards from the post to which the colonel was tied: it was made of small hickory poles, burnt quite through in the middle, each of the poles remaining about six feet in length. Three or four Indians by turns would take up, individually, one of these burning pieces of wood and apply it to his naked body, already burnt black with the powder. These tormentors presented themselves on every side of him, so that which ever way he ran round the post they met him with burning faggots and poles. Some of the squaws took boards upon which they would put a quantity of burning coals and hot embers and throw on him, so that in a short time he had nothing but coals of fire and hot ashes to walk upon.”
“Col. Crawford at this period in his sufferings besought the Almighty to have mercy on his soul, spoke very low, and bore his torments with the most manly fortitude. He continued in all the extremities of pain for an hour and three quarters or two hours longer, as near as I can judge, when at least being almost spent, he lay down on his belly; they then scalped him and repeatedly threw the scalp in my face. An old squaw…got a board, took a parcel of coals and ashes and laid them on his back and head after he had been scalped; he then raised himself upon his feet and began to walk around the post: they next put a burning stick to him as usual, be he seemed more insensible of pain than before.”[i]
Dr. Knight was hauled away before the bitter end with the promise that the Shawnee to the south would do the same to him. On his way the next day, Knight passed the execution site and saw Crawford’s remains lying in the ash. The doctor eventually escaped, making his way to the Ohio. He was found and taken to Fort McIntosh and then arrived at Pittsburgh on July 5. There, a local attorney, Hugh Brackenridge recorded his account, edited it, and rushed it into print.
Knight’s narrative, as originally published, dominated histories for two hundred years until historian Parker Brown reassessed its veracity. Brown called out Brackenridge’s ulterior motives in getting the narrative into print: producing a story that would sell; stirring up the local populace to rise up and aggressively resist marauding Indian war parties; and shaming eastern authorities into dispatching additional resources to the frontier. According to Brown, “To do this, Brackenridge accented every gruesome aspect of Crawford’s ordeal.”[ii] Brown critiqued Brackenridge for leaving out context and taking some liberties with the facts, but he did not dispute the fundamental acts involved in torturing Crawford to death, such as beating the colonel, firing loads of gunpowder into his body, hitting him with burning poles, covering him in ash, or scalping him.
Heading to Ohio this summer, I made a dedicated road trip with my brother to Upper Sandusky, searching for the site of the battle and Crawford’s execution. Before setting out, I emailed the Wyandot County Historical Society and was fortunate when the curator of the county museum, Ronald Marvin, forwarded my note to Tom Hill, a local historian who grew up in the region and had clearly spent an extraordinary amount of time studying events around Upper Sandusky in the country’s first years. Simply, Tom was a goldmine for anyone studying Crawford’s campaign and gave me a ton of leads to pursue in my own research.
Tom took my brother and me around to various locations in the county, tracing out the likely sites of the battle and Crawford’s execution. In 1877, a local group put up a memorial at the location generally accepted as the execution site just east of the appropriately named Crawford, Ohio. Of course, by then those closest to the event had long died, the topography had changed, people had invested their reputations in a particular location, and memories had grown stale. Brown conducted an extensive bit of detective work searching for the site and concluded it was slightly south and a bit west of the 1877 memorial.[iii] Both are on private property. Taking a cue from Brown, Tom noted that several locations along Tymochtee Creek fit the descriptions available. Local citizens erected a new memorial in 1994 at the more accessible Ritchey Cemetery, east of the 1877 marker.
Crawford’s execution has been attributed to Indian anger over a number of events: Crawford’s role in raiding villages during Dunmore’s War in 1774, General Edward Hand’s “Squaw Campaign,” in the winter of 1778, when members of a local chief’s family were killed, or revenge for the Gnadenhutten Massacre the previous March. But, the list of American offenses against the Ohio Indians was as long as that perpetrated by Ohio Indians against frontier settlers and traders. Colonel Crawford had the misfortune of falling into Indian hands at a time when the war was particularly vicious. George Washington immediately recognized that it changed the tenor of the war. He wrote General Irvine, “I lament the failure of the former Expedition—and am particularly affected with the disastrous fate of Colo. Crawford—no other than the extremest Tortures which could be inflicted by the Savages could, I think, have been expected, by those who were unhappy eno’ to fall into their Hands, especially under the present Exasperation of their Minds, for the Treatment given their Moravian friends. For this reason, no person should at this Time, suffer himself to fall alive into the Hands of the Indians.”[iv] War in Ohio would be a fight to the death.
[i] Narratives of a Late Expedition against the Indians; with an Account of the Barbarous Execution of Col. Crawford; and the Wonderful Escape of Dr. Knight and John Slover from Captivity, in 1782, (Philadelphia: Francis Bailey, printer, 1782), 11-12.
[ii] Parker B. Brown, “The Historical Accuracy of the Captivity Narrative of Doctor John Knight,” The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Vol. 70, No, 1, January 1987, 55.
[iii] Parker B. Brown, “The Search for the Colonel William Crawford Burn Site: An Investigative Report,” The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Vol. 68, No. 1, 1985.
[iv] From George Washington to William Irvine, 6 August 1782, Founders Online, https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Crawford%20Author%3A%22Washington%2C%20George%22%20Period%3A%22Revolutionary%20War%22&s=1111311111&sa=&r=30&sr=. Accessed July 22, 2018.