Burning Colonel Crawford

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.

Wiliam Crawford at 40 (Wikimedia Commons)
Crawford at about 40, twenty years before his execution (Wikimedia Commons)

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:

Burning_of_Colonel_Crawford (Wikimedia Commons)
Burning of Crawford (Wyandot Historical Society)

“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.

The 1994 Monument, east of the 1877 Monument and the location Brown identified (ES Photo)

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.

16 thoughts on “Burning Colonel Crawford

    1. The war on the frontier is heartbreaking because so many people were caught up in the violence between both sides. I didn’t mention it in the post on Gnadenhutten, but if I recall correctly, the warriors from the western nations struck an isolated family farm and carried off the settlers, including a woman and her baby. The indians then killed both and impaled their bodies on stakes as a warning to whites living across the Ohio not to venture westward. Such stories were common and, as near as I can tell, true. Historians writing in the 19th century didn’t debate the facts of the raid so much as disagreed over whether the PA militia were aware of that particular incident when they crossed the Ohio bound for Gnadenhutten. The atrocities were really part of a years-long cycle. Both sides could point to a vast number of incidents in which they had been horribly wronged.


      1. Very true. That said in our time we have more understanding of the reality that the whites were encroaching on/taking Native American land as they were driven out etc. But yes the violence on both sides was ghastly. FYI my children are part Cherokee from their dad’s side . .of course they were pushed out too which may be affecting my thinking here.


    1. Neat. He was a fascinating guy. If you haven’t already, check out Robert N. Thompson’s “Disaster on the Sandusky: The Life of Colonel William Crawford.” There are some nuggets of family history in there that might interest you. We also ran a September series on Colonel Crawford’s Ohio Campaign that went a little deeper into the last months of his life.


    2. Tom Latham

      Lisa, About Valentine Crawford being your great grandfather, Im trying to find out which nephew named BILLY accompanied Hannah Crawford’s 1806 RETURN to the burn site? as stated in History of Richland County, Baughman Vol. 1: 144-45. Tom Latham, tla7528@aol.com


  1. Pingback: The Crawford Campaign, 1782: Rout, Retreat, and Recovery | Emerging Revolutionary War Era

  2. Tom Latham

    I too have had the extreme desire to find dr. Knights journals in Hope’s to find any written evidence of the burn site location. Sadly I have found very little after having traveled to his shelbyville homestead and his cemetery. As a reinactor who helped with the new memorial at the richie cemetery I will never give up the theory that someone in the knight family does have his personal papers relating his OWN account . It baffles me to understand an educated man of medicine who raised 10 children ,related those stories to his grandchildren ,send his oldest son off to help fight in the border wars ,send other sons to medical college ,NEVER left any kind of stone or physical memorial to MARK the site of the greatest sacrifice any soldier could have experienced? CRAWFORD was not only his superior officer but relation as knight married the Col. niece Polly.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Tom Latham

    Eric, if I canhelp in any way please call on me. I will never give up the search. So far my last contact with the knight relation led me Marina Del Ray in California. I have some other leads that mrs Cottongin had supplied me from her home in Shelbyville, Ky.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Donna Vance Christensen

    Hannah Vance Crawford is my 6th Great Aunt. John Vance is my 6th Great Grandfather who I traced and received my first DAR pin and joined the Association in Florida where I moved from Illinois. Vance history is full of historical stories. I have a second soldier William Whitlatch who was an Indian Spy.
    More soldiers have been found in our family tree. I have found both father and son with last name of Ashby, also related to me, on the same land survey list as John Vance, surveyed by George Washington. Those will be my next two DAR soldiers. I see Fort Ashby is a museum and rebuilt Fort. I am amazed at the history! I’m hoping to get to Fort Ashby after COVID crisis is over.


    1. Melissa Dunn

      Donna, My grandmother s a Crawford from Connellsvile PA. I am working on my DAR membership right now, with the help of my local chapter. I would love to hear more of your research. I am just getting started and any information we can share would be wonderful!


  5. Tom Latham

    Dear Donna, Im glad you have taken the dive into your family history. Please let me know if your can find a nephew or great nephew Billy Crawford. I would like to nail down the truth in a story of HANNAH ‘s return visit to the burn site in 1806. Thank you. Tom Latham

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Northern Exposure

    Understand about the “white settlers” encroaching on Native lands. But there were plenty of wars and savagery going on between the Native tribes long before white men set foot on this continent. Moreover, the story of the human race is one in which the stronger force pushes the weaker one off their lands. For some reason we always hear about the “bad white man” in North American histories but you’ll find similar stories from the time human history was recorded. Absolutely ever empire has done it. The Romans, the Carpathians, the Persians, the Vikings, the Saxons and Britain’s.


  7. james martuccio

    To your point, these were cavemen wandering on the land maurading and murdering other Indian tribes. For anyone to believe that human progress by the greatest country on earth should have been impeded by a culture that didn’t have the wheel is crazy. As the Apache and cherokee terrorized and massacred other Indians overtaking their lands so did the more advanced European societies did of them. No difference


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