The Crawford Campaign, 1782: Captivity, Torture, and Execution

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One of the few historical markers denoting the campaign.  The other side of the security fence at the left is home to the county landfill.  Tymochtee Creek is to the right.  (Author Photo)

(part five of five)

For those men separated from the retreating main body in the pell-mell retreat, Crawford’s expedition had become a nightmare, beginning with the panic on the night of June 5.  James Paul remembered being shaken awake with word that the men were leaving and attempting to retrieve his horse in the dark before finding it had already slipped its bridle and wandered away.

“I groped about in the dark and discovered two other horses tied to the same sapling and my horse standing at their tails.  This revived my drooping spirits.  On finding my horse standing quiet, I bridled him and mounted, and about the same time a number of other horses were mounted by their owners, and all put out from the camp ground together, amounting in all to nine in number, and we made as much haste to get away as we could, considering the darkness of the road, and no roads but open woods to ride through, and no one to guide us.”  Paul and his fellows realized Colonel Williamson, now leading the main body, was retreating on a longer route home, “leaving us nine and many other stragglers behind to take care of themselves as best they could, and to steer their own course homeward, and, as it turned out afterward, but few of these stragglers ever got home.”[1]

Paul and his group eventually became mired in a swamp and had to abandon their horses, making their way on foot, pursed by Native American warriors who forced them to scatter.  After sleeping in hollow logs and under rocks, going without food other than a blackbird and occasional handful of berries, Paul eventually made his way back across the Ohio alone near Wheeling, arriving at a small fort where settlers had taken refuge against renewed Indian raids.[2]

John Slover, one of the expedition’s guides and a member of Paul’s group as it escaped, described a similar scene of panic: “at the moment of our retreat the Indians (who had probably perceived that we were about to retire) firing alarm guns, our men broke and rode off in confusion, treading down those who were on foot, and leaving the wounded men who supplicated to be taken with them.”[3]  Without naming Paul, Slover complained of one man with a burned foot slowing them down.  (Paul had indeed burned his foot on a hot shovel the night of the retreat.)[4]  Where Paul made good his escape, Slover was captured when the group was forced to scatter.  He had been a prisoner before and one of his captors recognized him, carrying him off to a town inhabited by Mingo and Shawnee.  Another militiaman, Michael Walters, had a similar experience.  Agreeing that that the men were scattered and every militiaman “took his own road,” he was left behind, fell in with a friend, and stuck to the woods, venturing onto a road when they thought themselves safe enough.[5]  Eventually, the Indians caught him too.

Crawford’s attempt to find his wayward company did not go well at all.  His horse was exhausted and could not keep up with his scattering militia.  Dr. Knight stumbled upon him in the middle of the night, just a quarter mile from the battlefield, when he heard the Colonel calling for his son, his son-in-law, Major Rose, William Crawford, and his nephews.  Crawford seemed not to recognize Knight until the latter confirmed he was the surgeon.  The colonel’s state of mind at that point was unclear.  According to Knight, Crawford asked the doctor not to leave him and the party “then waited, and continued calling for these men till the troops had passed us.”  Conceding that his horse could not keep up with the militia, Crawford repeated his request not to be abandoned by either Dr. Knight or some of his best friends.  He “exclaimed” against the militia for riding off irregularly, leaving some of the wounded behind.[6]  They moved southwest then turned northward until they were confident they had moved through the Indian lines before finally turning east for home.  They could hear firing ahead of them, the skirmish between the main body under Williamson and pursuing Indians.[7]  Two more men fell in with Crawford’s small party.  The older one of the pair continually dropped behind, unceasingly calling out for Crawford’s party to wait for him.  He must have drawn attention.  At Sandusky creek, his call was followed by an Indian yell, after which the old man was never heard from again.[8]

After a time, Crawford’s party came across two men, Captain Biggs and a severely wounded Lieutenant Ashley, whom Biggs had carried off the battlefield.  When a heavy downpour started as the group made its way east—the same one soaking Rose and the main body further down their trail—the men decided to make camp and lit a fire, remaining there all night.  They set out again at dawn and came across a freshly killed deer, from which they sliced meat to carry.  It was not long before they encountered a smoldering fire, concluding that some portion of the retreating militia had camped there the night before.  They used it to roast the venison, at which point the hunter, a militiaman, approached the group and joined it.[9]  That afternoon, Crawford’s party crossed its original path westward.  Knight and Biggs wanted to remain off the trail, but Crawford assured them that the Indians would not pursue them beyond the Sandusky plains, which they were well past.  He was wrong.  They followed the trail and ninety minutes later were ambushed by Indians.  Knight, in the lead with Crawford, prepared to fight, but the Colonel surrendered on June 7.[10]  Biggs fired at the Indians, but did no damage, and surrendered himself and Lieutenant Ashley at Crawford’s command.  The four were separated, with Dr. Knight and Colonel Crawford being marched to a camp of Delaware led by Wingenund.[11]  While there, Michael Walters crossed paths with them on June 8, but “We staid there but a few minutes when we were forced to go off and leave them we had no liberty to speak to him.”[12]  Brown concluded that Walters and a comrade had been captured by Chippewa warriors eager to hurry them past the Delaware, lest that tribe seize the militia prisoners.[13]  On Sunday evening, June 9, Knight reported that a party of returning Delaware brought with them Biggs’ and Ashley’s scalps, along with an Indian scalp Biggs had taken during the battle, and Biggs’ horse, but Brown argued that event occurred on June 8 at Wingenund’s camp.[14]

Brown concluded that the published accounts of Knight’s narrative skipped over June 9, but his detective work concluded the prisoners were taken to the Old Wyandot Town, from where Crawford was separated from the group and taken to see Simon Girty at Dunquat/Half King’s Town.[15]  From Girty, the colonel learned that his son-in-law and nephew had also been captured (presumably after their separation from Rose on June 6) and were prisoners of the Shawnee.[16]  (They had, in fact, already been tortured to death.)  Girty informed Crawford that he was to take the blame for the Gnadenhutten massacre.  Crawford denied any involvement and asked the Loyalist whether he could purchase Crawford from the Delaware, essentially ransoming him, and promised to divulge military intelligence in exchange for his freedom.[17]  Girty promised to try, but encouraged Crawford instead to make an escape attempt, even offering some help.  For his part, the American colonel was exhausted and dispirited, and declined the offer.[18]

On the tenth, while Williamson and Rose were taking their headcount, Crawford rejoined the other prisoners at Old Wyandot Town.  Hopocan had already arrived and painted the faces of the prisoners black, which he proceeded to do to Crawford and Knight as well.[19]  It was a sign that they were to be killed.  John Slover witnessed earlier executions and saw the results of the killings of Crawford’s son-in-law and nephew.  He described the process that the Mingoes and Shawnee at Wachatomakak inflicted on one of their party:

The inhabitants from this town came out with clubs and tomahawks struck beat and abused us greatly.  One of my two companions they seized, and having stripped him naked blacked him with coal and water: This was the sign of being burnt the man seemed to surmise it, and shed tears…on our coming to it [the town], the inhabitants came out with guns, clubs and tomahawks.  We were told that we had to run to the council house, about three hundred yards.  The man that was blacked was about twenty yards before us, in running the gauntlet: They made him their principal object, men, women and children beating him, and those who had guns firing loads of powder on him as he ran naked, putting the muzzles of the guns to his body, shouting, hallooing and beating their drums in the mean time.  The unhappy man had reached the door of the council house, beat and wounded in a manner shocking to the fight; for having arrived before him we had it in our power to view the spectacle: it was indeed the most horrid that can be conceived: they had cut him with their tomahawks, shot his body black, burnt it into holes with loads of powder blown into him; a large wadding made a wound in his shoulder whence the blood gushed.  Agreeable to the declaration of the enemy when he first set out he had reason to think himself secure when he had reached the door of the council house.  This seemed to be his hope, for coming up with great struggling and endeavour, he laid hold of the door but was pulled back and drawn away by them; finding they intended no mercy, but putting him to death he attempted several times to snatch or lay hold of some of their tomahawks, but being weak could not effect it.  We saw him borne off and they were a long time beating, wounding, pursuing and killing him.”[20]

The Indians subsequently cut the dead man’s body into pieces and put his head and sections of his limbs on poles outside town.  That evening, Slover saw the bodies of three others in the same “black, bloody, burnt with powder” condition.  He recognized one face as William Harrison’s and the clothes of William Crawford on the other.[21]  They were similarly dismembered.

After painting their prisoners black on the tenth, Hopocan and Wingenund resumed the march to Hopocan’s town.  Crawford and Knight were separated from the other prisoners, who went ahead with their guards.  As Crawford and Knight followed, they encountered four of the preceding prisoners tomahawked and scalped by the side of the path.  When they arrived and were reunited, Knight watched in horror as women and boys separated the remaining five prisoners from the colonel and doctor, then beat, tomahawked, and dismembered them, returning to Crawford and Knight occasionally to waive the militiamen’s scalps in their faces.[22]  It was a short respite, as the Indians then separated Crawford and Knight, sending the former ahead by about a hundred and fifty yards back on the path to a Shawnee town.  Recalled Knight, “Almost every Indian we met struck us either with sticks or their fists.”[23]  During one of these beatings, someone hit Knight in the jaw with the back of a tomahawk, making it nearly impossible for him to chew.[24]

After arriving at Hopocan’s town, the Delaware leader conducted a sort of trial, although it has the ring of a ceremony intended to lay the groundwork for Crawford’s execution, rather than a fact-finding exercise meant to determine his guilt or culpability in the Gnadenhuten massacre.  (Painting the prisoners black earlier had already indicated their individual sentences.)  During the “trial,” Girty again pled for Crawford’s life, but was refused.[25]

Eventually, Colonel Crawford and Dr. Knight arrived at what would be Crawford’s execution site.  The Indians deposited them in front of a fire, stripped Crawford naked then beat him.  Knight was given the same treatment momentarily.  Afterwards, the Indians tied Crawford’s hands behind his back and one foot to a length of rope secure to a post, enabling him to walk short distances.  Crawford asked Simon Girty if the Indians intended to burn him.  The latter answered yes and Crawford “said he would take it all patiently.”[26]

Afterwards, the Delaware Chief Hopocan assembled a group of Indians and harangued them. When he was done, the assembled circled Crawford, then loaded their smoothbores with powder and fired the load into Crawford, burning him black much as Slover had witnessed the Mingoes and Shawnee do to one of his fellow prisoners and had surmised the colonel’s son-in-law and nephew.  Knight estimated that they fired seventy powder loads into Crawford, then cut off his ears.  Knight is unclear how much time passed, but the Indians then proceeded to take turns removing sticks from the fire burning a few yards away from the colonel and apply them to his naked body.  He could still move away from one assailant to the degree that the rope securing him to the pole by his foot gave him mobility, but the Indians eventually surrounded him and gave him no space free of torment.  Women in the village proceeded to throw hot coals at him until they covered the ground over which he could walk.  The burning poles and coals would have ignited any unburnt gunpowder on Crawford’s skin or embedded in his open wounds, exacerbating the horror.

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Modern monument near the site of Crawford’s execution.  (Author Photo)

Crawford called out to Simon Girty to end his pain and shoot him, but Knight reported Girty declined and proceeded to mock the militia colonel.  Girty later promised Knight he faced the same treatment among the Shawnee.[27]  Girty’s behavior during Crawford’s execution is up for debate.  Through the beginning of the 20th century, authors viewed him as celebrating Crawford’s death and refusing to assist him out of spite, or perhaps fear for his own safety.[28]  Later authors, however, are more sympathetic, describing his escalating efforts to ransom Crawford and spare him the cruel death that awaited.[29]  Each approach generally reflects the attitudes prevailing in the writer’s time and that of the source material.

At some point, Crawford verbally prayed for death.  Knight estimated that they kept up this treatment of Crawford for an hour and forty-five minutes to two hours before Crawford finally lay down on his belly, presumably amidst the hot coals that had been flung at him.  The Indians promptly scalped him, taking care to wave the scalp in Knight’s face.  When a woman placed hot coals on Crawford’s back, he raised himself and no doubt staggered around the pole for a bit, apparently insensate to the continued torture, when the beatings with burning sticks resumed.  Knight was spared having to witness the bitter end as he was led to Hopocan’s house about three quarters of a mile from the execution site. The next morning, the Indians painted him black, marking him for execution, and then set out for a Shawnee town about forty miles away.  He passed Crawford’s bones lying in the ash around the pole.[30]

For reasons known only to his captors, a single mounted warrior drove Knight on his march south, leaving the doctor afoot.  When an opportune moment presented itself, Knight attacked his jailor, who still managed to escape, and made off with what equipment he could.  As he made his way east, Knight survived much as Paul had, on roots and berries, although he was able to chew a wider variety of plants as his jaw healed.  He traveled eastward for three weeks, crossing the trail the militia had taken westward, before reaching the Ohio on July 3 and finally finding relative safety in inside the walls of Fort McIntosh the next day.[31]

Slover spent more time among the tribes of western Ohio, being present at several war councils among the Shawnee, Delaware, and Miami tribes in which the Indians plotted their strategy against the Americans.  But, after a time, he also seemed destined to share Crawford’s fate, to the point having been tied to a pole and shown the burning fires.[32]   A fortuitous rain doused the fire, buying Slover another night on earth.  He used that time to escape, steal a horse, and eventually make his way on foot to Wheeling.

Not all of the captured militiamen were left to the mercy of the Native Americans.  Michael Walters, who was left behind on the night of June 5 and captured after a short time retreating with a small group, watched his captors kill one wounded man and remove his heart and then briefly encountered Colonel Crawford.  The two were not allowed to speak.  Walters did not know which tribe had captured him and his fellow militiamen, but the escorts seemed solicitous of his safety and generally steered away from the local villages along the Sandusky.  Eventually, they were delivered into the care of Butler’s Rangers.[33]   The Rangers kept Walters and his cohorts away from the Indian towns until they could obtain water transport across Lake Erie to British posts around Detroit, and then the length of Lake Erie, past Niagara Falls, down Lake Ontario, and eventually to prison in Montreal, where Walters arrived on October 28.[34]

Word of the Crawford expedition’s defeat, although not Crawford’s fate, reached Fort Pitt in early June.  Colonel Williamson and Lieutenant Rose dispatched their reports to General Irvine on June 13 and he forwarded them to Washington on the sixteenth.[35]  The reaction was swift.  Bluntly, the militia desired to have another go at the Indians.  Irvine reported to the Secretary of War, “That disaster has not abated the ardor or desire for revenge (as they term it) of these people.  A number of the most respectable are urging me strenuously to take command of them, and add as many continental officers and soldiers as can be spared; particularly the former, as they attribute the defeat to the want of experience in their officers.  They cannot, nor will not, rest under any plan on the defensive, however well executed; and think their only safety depends on the total destruction of all the Indian settlements within two hundred miles; this, it is true, they are taught by dear-bought experience.”[36]

The story of Crawford’s fate, and that of the other prisoners, reached Fort Pitt with Dr. Knight on July 4 and John Slover on July 10, only increasing the pressure on Irvine to launch another offensive.[37]  According to Irvine, “This account has struck the people of this country with a strange mixture of fear and resentment.  Their solicitations for making another excursion are increasing daily, and they are actually beginning to prepare for it.”[38]  Irvine continued to resist leading an expedition, not optimistic about its prospects or having authorization from Washington, but encouraged the militia to continue preparing.  He was in fact prepared to lead the expedition unless prohibited, but nothing came of the effort.[39]  The offensive desired by frontier settlers would have to wait until the wars for the Northwest Territory, under President Washington, when Indian participants in Crawford’s execution were singled out for punishment as settlers spread into the region.[40]

By July 23, shortened versions of Knight’s account were being printed in Philadelphia.[41]  In 1783, a Philadelphia printer published an account of the expedition combining Knight’s and Slover’s reports heavily edited by a local attorney, Hugh H. Brackenridge, ensuring that the tale of Crawford’s brutal execution would spread.[42]  Reprints appeared in 1798, 1813, 1822, 1843, and 1867 and the story appeared in many histories of the frontier, ensuring that Crawford’s tale would live on in the 19th century.

As the militia began filing back to their homes, word spread of the fates of their family members among frontier families.  On the banks of the Youghiogheny at a cabin known as Spring Garden, Hannah Crawford waited weeks for word of her husband’s fate.  His death left her in a sorry state.  She eventually drew a pension from the state of Pennsylvania and in 1804 applied for assistance from Congress.  Her grandson, Uriah Springer, recalled years later that she once took him across the river, sate down on an old log, and cried it was the place from which she had taken leave of her husband in 1782.[43]  In 1806, she convinced another grandson, Billy, to take her to the Sandusky River plains in northwestern Ohio.  Riding her favorite horse, Jenny, over 250 miles of the day’s primitive roads and Indian trails, she eventually reached a Wyandot village on the Sandusky.  She and Billy enlisted some guides from the tribe willing to take her out to the grove on Tymochtee Creek and show her where Crawford had been executed.  There, she walked over a spot where plants had reportedly refused to grow for nearly a quarter century because of the ash and shed ample tears.  Then, she simply remounted her horse and rode home.[44]  Eventually, she passed away in her home in 1817 just a month a shy of her ninety-fourth birthday.

Today, a few small markers and monuments scattered about Wyandot County in northwest Ohio, commemorate suspected sites of the battle, Crawford’s burning, and various Indian towns.  But, there are few interpretive markers explaining events as they unfolded on the Sandusky during the last months of the American Revolution.[45]  Today, a county in Ohio not far from the battlefield is named after Colonel Crawford.  The skirmish on the Olentangy and Crawford’s capture occurred within its limits.  In the summer 2017, the colonel’s limestone statute on the exterior of the courthouse there was decapitated in an act of either political protest or simple vandalism.  A granite replacement arrived from China earlier this year.

(I want to express a special appreciation to Tom and Marnie Hill of Upper Sandusky, OH.  Tom took time from his schedule to drive me around Wyandot County and show me several sites associated with Colonel Crawford’s campaign and execution.  An accomplished local historian, his knowledge of the area and campaign are priceless.)

[1]           Sherrard, Paul Narrative, 11

[2]           Sherrard, Paul Narrative, 11-22.

[3]           Slover Narrative, 17.

[4]           Slover Narrative, 19.

[5]           Walters Journal, 183.

[6]           Dr. Knight’s Narrative, 7.

[7]           Dr. Knight’s Narrative, 7.

[8]           Dr. Knight’s Narrative, 7.

[9]           Dr. Knight’s Narrative, 8; Parker Brown identifies Ashley and Biggs as En. Hankerson Ashby and James Mitchell, who belonged to Biggs’ company.  Brown, “The Historical Accuracy of the Captivity Narrative of Doctor John Knight,” 60.

[10]         Dr. Knight’s Narrative, 8-9.

[11]         Brown, “The Historical Accuracy of the Captivity Narrative of Doctor John Knight,” 60.

[12]         Walters Journal, 183.

[13]         Brown, “The Historical Accuracy of the Captivity Narrative of Doctor John Knight,” 60.

[14]         Dr. Knight’s Narrative, p. 9; Brown, “The Historical Accuracy of the Captivity Narrative of Doctor John Knight,” 60.

[15]         Brown, “The Historical Accuracy of the Captivity Narrative of Doctor John Knight,” 60.

[16]         Dr. Knight’s Narrative, 9-10.

[17]         Brown, “The Historical Accuracy of the Captivity Narrative of Doctor John Knight,” 60.

[18]         Philip Hoffman, Simon Girty: Turncoat Hero, (Franklin, TN: Flying Camp Press, 2008), 170-171; Brown, “The Historical Accuracy of the Captivity Narrative of Doctor John Knight,” 58, 60.

[19]         Brown, “The Historical Accuracy of the Captivity Narrative of Doctor John Knight,” 58, 61.

[20]         Slover Narrative, 21-22.

[21]         Slover Narrative, 22.

[22]         Dr. Knight’s Narrative, 10.

[23]         Dr. Knight’s Narrative, 10.

[24]         Dr. Knight’s Narrative, 14.

[25]         Brown, “The Historical Accuracy of the Captivity Narrative of Doctor John Knight,” 61.

[26]         Dr. Knight’s Narrative, 11.

[27]         Dr. Knight’s Narrative, 11-12.

[28]         See, for example, A.J. Baughman, ed., Past and Present of Wyandot County, Ohio, vol. 1, (Chicago: The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1913), 105; History of Crawford County and Ohio, (Chicago: Basking & Battey, 1881), 204.

[29]         See, for example, Hoffman, Simon Girty: Turncoat Hero, 171-174.

[30]         Dr. Knight’s Narrative, 12.

[31]         Dr. Knight’s Narrative, 15.

[32]         Slover Narrative, 24-28.

[33]         Walters Journal, 183.  Brown concluded that Walters captors were Chippewa.

[34]         Walters Journal, 184.

[35]         “Colonel David Williamson to Irvine” June 13, 1782 and “Lieut. Rose to Irvine,” June 13, 1782, in Washington-Irvine Correspondence, Appendix M.  Williamson’s letter begins on page 366 and Rose’s letter begins on page 367.  They both sent lengthier reports later.

[36]         Irvine to Lincoln, July 1, 1782, Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 174-175.

[37]         Irvine to Washington, July 11, 1782, Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 126-129.

[38]         Irvine to Washington, July 11, 1782, Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 128.

[39]         Irvine to Lincoln, July 1, 1782, Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 174-175.

[40]         Brown, “The Historical Accuracy of the Captivity Narrative of Doctor John Knight,” 64-65.

[41]         Extract of a letter dated Fort Pitt, July 6th, 1782, Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser, July 23, 1782 in Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 375-376.  The same paper published a short account of the expedition on July 17th, but it only reported Crawford’s capture, not his fate.

[42]         Brown, “The Historical Accuracy of the Captivity Narrative of Doctor John Knight,” January, 1987.  Brown argues that Brackenridge took liberties with Knight’s story, largely by leaving out information or context in order to inflame anti-Indian sentiments.  He does not contest the brutality of Crawford’s execution.

[43]         Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782, 291.

[44]         Parker B. Brown, “The Search for the Colonel William Crawford Burn Site: An Investigative Report,” The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Vol. 68, No. 1. 66.  Brown conducted a lengthy search for the site and concluded it was likely south and west of memorials erected in 1877 and 1994, but could not locate it definitively.

[45]         This summer, my brother and I visited Wyandot and Crawford counties, where we were fortunate to meet local historian Tom Hill and his wife Marnie.  Tom graciously drove us around the countryside surrounding Upper Sandusky, pointing out suspected Indian village sites, the local monuments, and likely route of the militia’s march.  His knowledge of events in the area is invaluable.

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