(part one of five)
War on the American frontier was generally brutal, but few incidents inflamed American passions in the country’s early history as much as the torture and execution of Colonel William Crawford in June 1782 in Northwestern Ohio. Crawford’s death marked the emotional climax of another patriot attempt to neutralize British power at Detroit, generally exercised through Native American proxies who had their own reasons for fighting the Americans, and halt the raids against American settlers on the frontier. The Huron and Wyandot who lived about the Sandusky River, and the Shawnee to their South on the Scioto and Miami Rivers, both occasionally aided by various clans of the Delaware and Mingo tribes, were particularly troublesome in the Ohio River valley. Colonel Crawford’s campaign, which resulted in his death, was meant to punish the tribes for past raids to forestall future raids.
Most of the American Revolution’s more well-known events on the western frontier took place in Kentucky, Indiana, or even Illinois where famous personalities like George Rogers Clark and Daniel Boone would dominate the story and modern memory. (The northern and southern frontiers have their own stories and legendary figures.) Campaigns in Ohio are less well known, perhaps because they did not end well for the Americans. But, while Clark was becoming “Conqueror of the Northwest,” developments closer to home in modern Ohio were turning against the Americans.
At the war’s outset, American peace commissioners had sought to maintain the neutrality of the Indian tribes along the frontier. They met with some success early on, but self-interest and British diplomacy eventually led the dominant tribes in the south and north to join the British side. Iroquois Indian tribes, for example, were a key component of Burgoyne’s advance down the Hudson in 1777, for example. The Ohio tribes, however, were slower to take up the hatchet. Those farthest from the Americans to the north and west did not initially see much value in going to war. More militant tribes at the western end of Lake Erie, notably the Wyandot led by Dunquat/Pomoacan, or Half King as he was known to whites, on the upper reaches of the Sandusky River, depended on British support and sought greater unity among the Ohio Indians before fully mobilizing. The Delaware and Shawnee were the two holdouts among Ohio Indian nations. Both tribes were internally divided, but more militant factions became dominant over time and joined the British and western nations waging war on the frontier. When those tribes split, Ohio became a broad no-man’s land, though which Indian war parties readily moved to raid isolated farms and towns across the Ohio into Kentucky, Virginia and Pennsylvania.
In 1781 Congress placed Brigadier General William Irvine in command of Continental Forces in the west and the garrison at Fort Pitt, at the confluence of the Ohio, Alleghany, and Monongahela Rivers in western Pennsylvania. Sizing up the situation, Irvine envisioned a two-part strategy to secure the frontier. Traditionally, Americans had conducted punitive raids against Indian towns and villages, a form of economic warfare. The Indians themselves often withdrew before an advancing American column, leaving the Americans to plunder Native American assets, such as crops, stores, trade goods, and animals while destroying the rest. This strategy had not worked. While it might lead to a brief respite, Indian raids continued. Irvine was convinced that the Indians themselves “must be followed up and beaten.”[i] In other words, he sought a pitched battle with Indian warriors, rather than a punitive expedition.
The second pillar in his strategy was to remove British influence from the environment. Clark had taken this approach in moving against British posts at Kaskaskia, Vincennes, and Cahokia. But, Detroit eluded him, as well as Irvine’s predecessors at Fort Pitt. On December 2, 1781, shortly after assuming his post at Fort Pitt, Irvine wrote Washington and drew the Commander in Chief’s attention to Detroit:
“I believe if Detroit was demolished, it would be a good step towards giving some, at least temporary, ease to this country. It would cost them at least a whole summer to rebuild and establish themselves; for, though we should succeed in reducing Detroit, I do not think there is the smallest probability of our being able to hold it.”[ii]
He thought 700-800 Continentals and 1,000 militia would be sufficient to quickly carry the town and fort by sudden assault. The challenge, as with all operations on the frontier, was logistics. Dissatisfied with the situation at Fort Pitt, which relied on poorly-supplied, and ill-disciplined militia to support an inadequate force of Continentals, Irvine traveled east to Philadelphia to enlist that state’s support for his strategy, in particular, the regular maintenance, garrisoning, supply and support of forts on the frontier.[iii]
In February 1782 Irvine wrote Washington again from Philadelphia, upping the ante on his estimate of the scale of a campaign against Detroit, which he suggested should take place in the late summer. Washington’s reply was simple: unable to meet the needs of a campaign, “offensive operations, except on a small scale, cannot just now be brought into contemplation.”[iv]
Irvine returned to Fort Pitt on March 25. Conditions had only worsened in his absence. His own troops were in a disrespectful, if not outright mutinous, state. He suspected there was a plot afoot to murder Colonel John Gibson, who Irvine had left in command while he was in Philadelphia, over the officer’s alleged friendliness toward the Indians! (Gibson maintained good relations with the dwindling numbers of neutral or pro-American Shawnee and Delaware Indians in the area, much to the anger of local militiamen, who did not distinguish among tribes or factions.) The general wrote the Secretary of War, “The few troops are the most licentious men and worst behaved I ever saw, owing, I presume, in a great measure, to their not being hitherto kept under any subordination, or tolerable degree of discipline.”[v]
Meanwhile, escalating Indian raids on frontier farms and work parties had led to a militia offensive led by militia Lieutenant Colonel David Williamson of the Third Battalion, which culminated in the slaughter of neutral Christianized Delaware and Mingo (also known as Moravians after their missionaries) gathering crops abandoned earlier in the towns of Gnadenhutten, New Schoenbrunn, and Salem on the Muskingum River.[vi] Irvine was disgusted by the state of affairs, writing Washington:
“[T]hings were in greater confusion than can well be conceived. The country people were, to all appearance, in a fit of frenzy. About three hundred had just returned from the Moravian towns, where they found about ninety men, women and children, all of whom they to put to death, it is said, after cool deliberation and considering the matter for three days. The whole were collected into their church and tied when singing hymns.”[vii]
Afterward, a party of settlers, quite possibly Williamson’s men, attacked a work party near Fort Pitt and killed two friendly Delaware Indians who had officer’s commissions in American service, despite the presence of an officer’s guard with the party.[viii] Irvine suspected an incident of fratricide on the part of the guard.[ix] Nevertheless, by April, Irvine assured Washington he had set matters right.
Notwithstanding Irvine’s confidence that matters were well in hand, frontier settlers continued mobilizing for a punitive raid against the tribes along the upper Sandusky, whose numbers had grown over the years with the addition of militant Delaware led by Hopocan, known as Captain Pipe among the Americans. The militia had reason as Indian raids into the upper Ohio country had intensified in retaliation for the Gnadenhutten massacre.[x] In April, the call for volunteers went out.[xi] The militia’s plan was to march across Ohio and attack Indians gathered along the upper reaches of the Sandusky River, the source of so many raids on white settlements across the Ohio. For his part, Washington’s attention had already turned towards territory north of Fort Pitt and the southeastern shores of Lake Erie. As far as the Commander-in-Chief was concerned, the Ohio frontier would have to wait.
[i] Irvine to Washington, December 2, 1782 in C.W. Butterfield, ed., Washington-Irvine Correspondence: The Official Letters Which Passed Between Washington and Brig.-Gen. William Irvine and Between Irvine and Others Concerning Military Affairs in the West from 1781 to 1783, (Madison, WI: David Atwood, 1882), 79. Hereafter Washington-Irvine Correspondence.
[ii] Irvine to Washington, December 2, 1782, in Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 79.
[iii] The area in today’s southwestern Pennsylvania was disputed by Virginia and Pennsylvania, which complicated command authorities and responsibilities for raising, maintaining, and supplying militia and Continental forces operating there. Irvine hoped to sort things out by returning to the new nation’s capital and enlisting the Continental Congress in his efforts.
[iv] Irvine to Washington, February 7, 1782, Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 92, and Washington to Irvine, March 8, 1782, Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 94.
[v] Irvine to Lincoln, May 2, 1782, Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 172.
[vi] C.W. Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782, (Cincinnati, OH: Robert Clarke & Co, 1873), 37-39. The Tuscarawas is a tributary of the Muskingum, which flows into the Ohio. Eighteenth century writers and subsequent historians often referred to the region, and hence both rivers, simply as the Muskingum. Williamson, of Washington County, PA. was Lieutenant Colonel, 3rd Battalion, Pennsylvania Militia, raised in the area around Donegal Township. Item 13, Militia Officers Index Cards, 1775-1800, Pennsylvania State Archives, Archives Records Information Access System (ARIAS). Available at: http://www.digitalarchives.state.pa.us/archive.asp. Accessed January 13, 2018.
[vii] Irvine to Washington, April 20, 1782, Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 99.
[viii] James Wimer, Events in Indian History, (Lancaster: G. Hills & Co., 1841), 279-280. The Indians were Delaware led by Gelelemend, also known as Killbuck Jr. to distinguish him from his father. They were part of the peace faction in the Delaware tribe and had sought the protection of the Americans at Fort Pitt when Hopocan led his war faction west to join the Indians on the Sandusky.
[ix] Irvine to Washington, April 20, 1782, Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 100-102. Irvine suspected the attackers were Williamson’s men, but Butterfield held otherwise based on the work of another historian. Note 1, 102-103.
[x] Boyd Crumrine, ed., History of Washington County, Pennsylvania, with Biographical Sketches of Many of its Pioneers and Prominent Men, (Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co., 1882), 112.
[xi] Samuel J. Newland, The Pennsylvania Militia: Defending the Commonwealth and the Nation 1669-1870, (Annville, PA: Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, 2002), 135.