In the summer of 1778, Lieutenant Colonel George Rogers Clark of the Virginia militia launched one of the most daring American military operations of the Revolutionary War when he invaded the “Illinois country” and captured Cahokia and Kaskaskia in modern-day Illinois and Vincennes in southern Indiana, effectively neutralizing British power on the Illinois, Wabash, and Mississippi Rivers. Henry Hamilton, Lieutenant Governor of Quebec and Britain’s Superintendent for Indian Affairs in Detroit, could not allow such audacity to succeed, lest Britain’s influence with the western Indian nations wane. Learning of Fort Sackville’s fall at Vincennes on the Wabash River, he set out to recapture it.
Hamilton’s strength at Detroit was relatively modest. Success would depend on mobilizing friendly Native American nations on the march south, which required time, supplies, and trade goods as gifts. So, on September 24, he dispatched an advance party of roughly fifty militiamen and 33,000 pounds of goods south under the command of Captain Norman MacLeod. Because MacLeod’s task was to preposition supplies and trade goods, his line of march depended more on the water and would take him down the Detroit River to Lake Erie and the mouth of the Miami River near present-day Toledo, then southwest up the Miami to a portage near present-day Fort Wayne Indiana, where his small force could cross over to a tributary of the Wabash and travel down river to Vincennes. Along the way, MacLeod, who had served in the British Army during the French and Indian Wars and then as Indian Commissary at Detroit, was to help mobilize the Indian tribes to join Hamilton’s main force. On October 13, 1778 his party arrived at Miami village and MacLeod engaged in a round of personal diplomacy that reflects the kind of discussions he and Hamilton had during their entire time on the frontier. Such meetings typically involved an exchange of gifts and speeches. Fortunately, MacLeod recorded his in a small journal he kept on the march.
“After shaking of hands and lighting the Pipes I Spoke to them as follows: My friends I hope you are now Convinced that Your father at Detroit is Comming Meirly to assist you. I am come before him with nothing but Provisions. You Se I have a Great dale. But is is nothing in Comparison to what comes along with him. He bring Every thing Necessary for your Women & Children to Cloath and feed them. He likewise brings every thing that is Necessary for a Warrior with Plenty of milk to the Wise Chiefs. I know you heard bad News from the Wabash. But I am Surprised you Would listen to Such bad Birds. The long knives you know has been thretning not only the Indians But you father at Detroit this three Years Past. But you See with Pleasure they could do nothing. They have not been able to Save thereown People. Has not Some of your Wariors in this Village Arrived the other day with three of their Scalps. An other of your Chiefs is Soon Expected and I hope he will Bring more. The long knives knows the Indians on the Wabash has not Struk them yet and therefor they were not afraid of comming amongest them. They tell them that they are Strong enough to open the Road and desire the Indians to be quate. They tell them thus because they are afraid of them, they desire them to mind there hunting. But what will they hunt with, has the long knives been able this three years Past to give them any thing to hunt with. No they go naked themselves. […] your father at Detroit that gives and send you all. And you Shall Soon [Se]e him here with a good number of brave Whitemen and Indians and open the Road to the Misisipie.”[i]
The weather turned brutal on Hamilton and MacLeod during the march south. Sparse rains lowered water levels and they had to turn to the idea of building beaver dams and controlling the release of water periodically to move their supplies down river. Worse, temperatures fell and the Hamilton’s little army had to struggle through ice and periodic freezing rain or snow. Eventually, it arrived at Vincennes. This fall, we’ll revisit MacLeod’s journal periodically on this 240th anniversary of his march south.
[i] William A. Evans and Elizabeth S. Sklar, eds., Detroit to Fort Sackville, 1778-1779: The Journal of Norman MacLeod, (Detroit: Friends of the Detroit Public Library/Wayne State University Press, 1978), 34-35. The spelling and grammar errors are all from the original.