Down the Rabbit Hole with Three Captains Johnny

On the afternoon of June 4, 1782 in the grasslands of western Ohio, a Pennsylvania volunteer named Francis Dunlavy spent a portion of his time trying to shoot a Native American he later called “Big Captain Johnny.”  For his part, the Indian attempted with equal passion to kill Dunlavy.  At some point, they worked themselves into a position on opposite sides of a recently fallen tree at the edge of a wood that adorned a modest, but noticeable rise that could pass for a hill in the surrounding plain.  Even dropped on its side, the tree still held a full canopy of leaves, and the two combatants stalked each other around it.    Eventually, “Big Captain Johnny” saw his opening.  He was close enough to rise and hurl tomahawks at Dunlavy.   Fortunately, he missed and Dunlavy survived to relate the tale to his friends and family.  In 1872, more than 30 years after Dunlavy passed, his family related the tale to C.W. Butterfield, who wrote the first history of the Crawford Campaign.  Before telling the story again, I wanted to confirm it.  That meant searching for Francis Dunlavy and Captain Johnny anywhere, and everywhere, they might have left footprints in history. 

            Dunlavy was the easiest to find. Misspellings, poor reproductions, and faulty transcriptions of hand-written documents are common in documents of the period.  But, by comparing several documents and timelines, it’s not rocket science to figure out who many lists refer to.  Butterfield, who I occasionally type as Butterworth (thank you decades of successful corporate syrup marketing), offered his name as Francis Dunlevy, likely based on correspondence with a family member, A.H. Dunlevy.  The Pennsylvania Archives contained a partial list of volunteers for the expedition from Westmoreland County.  (Most came from Washington County.)    Perusing those lists turned up no Dunlevys.   However, Francis was not a particularly common first name.  Volume II of Series Six identifies a Francis Dernboy as Captain Craig Ritchie’s lieutenant and no Dunlevys.  Butterfield identified Dunlavy as a member of Ritchie’s company.  It’s not a stretch to imagine a tired transcriber mistaking the upward swoop of a cursive “l” for a cursive “b” and the downward swoop of a “y” is common to both names.  Not conclusive, but a good sign.

            Pension applications came next.  Fold3 has digitized many of the original applications.  Although it was unpaid volunteer service, the county lieutenant for Washington county, Colonel James Marshel, promised to credit time against required militia service for any volunteer.  That meant keeping records.  Although Dernboy appears in a list of volunteers from Westmoreland County, it’s reasonable to suspect that Marshel’s counterpart from Westmoreland County, Colonel Edward Cook, made a similar offer, which is how Dernboy made it into the Pennsylvania Archives roll.  Sure enough, Francis Dunlavy applied for a Revolutionary War pension and he claimed service for the Crawford campaign while noting he was not claiming it other volunteer activities.  While he didn’t mention the episode with Captain Johnny and indicated he acted as sergeant, not as a lieutenant, this Francis Dunlavy is the man Captain Johnny’s tomahawk missed, still assuming the family story is true.  I’m inclined to take Dunlavy’s spelling of his last name, given as a deposition, as proper, rather than a subsequent story related to Butterfield.  

Captain Johnny himself is another story.  Three as it turns out.  Unfortunately, much of what we know about Native Americans in the Revolution comes down in the writings of whites: missionaries, translators, diplomats, officers, traders, and various people that Indians encountered as they made their way through life.  Although there are exceptions, the record is of necessity biased and incomplete.   One of the problems that results concerns naming conventions.  Because whites, often speaking several tongues themselves, struggled with Native American languages, they tended to give prominent Indians names that were easier to record.  Indians did the same in the other direction.  The practice wasn’t usually meant to insult or patronize, but simply to make the interaction of disparate societies easier.  (Of course, this doesn’t mean that the practice could not be insulting or patronizing.)

            I had come across references to Captain Johnny before when researching and writing about Ohio Indians and the Revolutionary War.  They tended to be oblique.  His name would appear on a list of Indians present at some council with Continental authorities or during an interaction with missionaries living in the Ohio Country.  Butterfield relates a private description of him as “Big Captain Johnny” who was present with friendly Shawnee Indians at Wapakoneta in western Ohio during the War of 1812.  “He must have been seven feet in height!  He was as frightfully ugly as he was large.”  Anyone seven feet tall would have been remembered.  So, the place to start looking for Dunlavy’s Captain Johnny was to look for a tall Indian.

The first candidate was a well-known Lenni Lenape (Delaware) Indian named Welapachtschiechen.  This Captain Johnny, among the best known during the Revolution, was present at several councils first with British colonial authorities and then agents of the Continental Congress.  As reported by those officials, traders, merchants, interpreters, he was a recognized leader and chief of the Turkey division of the Delaware nation, had physical stature, and looked out for the best interests of his people.  He was notable and people remembered him, which suggested he might be Dunlavy’s martial opponent.  But…

            Welapachtschiechen belonged to the peace faction of the Delaware.  While the war faction had gone over to the British and the peace faction was dwindling on the Ohio River closer to Pittsburgh, it was possible Welapachtschiechen had changed his course and joined the bullk of his nation farther west.  A little more digging suggested that was unlikely, and then impossible.   On Christmas Day, 1777 Welapachtschiechen and his wife Rachel, a Philadelphia-born white woman taken captive during the French and Indian War, plus their four older children were baptized into the Church of the United Brethren.   He took the name Israel.  By 1782, Welapachtschiechen was an old man.  Digging deeper still, it turns out Israel was killed at the Gnadenhutten massacre in March 1782.  Unless his ghost attacked Francis Dunlavy, it wasn’t this Captain Johnny.

Candidate number two turned up in 19th century frontier-story type histories, the kind that modern historians often reject as “boys stories,” although they were written for adults.  In these tales, Captain John was a younger Shawnee who makes an appearance in the 1790s.  I found no name in his native language, but he was described as rather tall, prone to drink, fight, and cause trouble.  He engaged in enough personal fisticuffs with post-war Ohio settlers to earn a place as a widely known frontier character.  In legend he was also cruel.  When he and his wife fell out and both claimed their three-year old son, Captain John reportedly chopped the toddler in two rather than permit his wife to take the boy or accept an 18th century equivalent of shared custody.  He was sometimes associated with a Shawnee leader known as Captain Logan.  [To complicate matters further, there were several Logans, Captain Logans, and James Logans floating around the frontier during the late 1700s and early 1800s.]  He turns up later as a scout for the Americans under Generals William Henry Harrison and then Duncan McArthur during the War of 1812.  Captain John disappears after that.  It’s not much to go on, but it would certainly be possible for a young Indian warrior to serve on the Shawnee side in 1782 and the American side in 1812.  More than a few did. Indeed, the private letter Butterfield cited for the story of the confrontation with Francis Dunlavy indicated that A.H. Dunlevy had personally seen “Big Captain Johnny” serving under General Harrison during the War of 1812 and believed that man to be the same Shawnee on the Sandusky three decades prior.  All points in his favor.  But, Captain John’s contemporaries, Harrison, McArthur, and Captain Logan were very young children during the Revolution.  While it is possible that a much older Captain John campaigned with them thirty years after trying to kill Dunlavy, it seems unlikely.

Our third possibility, and most likely candidate, is a Shawnee chief named Kekewepelethy.  He was a Mekoche Shawnee Chief and hardline opponent of American expansion.  Early in the war, he was a member of several peace delegations to the Americans, but after the war became a prominent proponent of resisting American movement into the Ohio country.  Even more, he was an early advocate of a pan-Indian alliance to resist that advance and achieved greater prominence alongside the Shawnee chief Blue Jacket and the Miami leader Little Turtle.  On his way to such a prominent role as an opponent of the Americans, he left footprints throughout the record at councils among the Ohio nations and with the Americans. Moreover, those who encountered him frequently described Kekewepelethy as very tall, although perhaps not the seven foot giant Captain John was.  He played a prominent role at a 1786 conference at Fort Finney, which made him old enough to have fought Francis Dunlavy in 1782 as a Shawnee leader.  Americans frequently referred to him as Captain Johnny.  Kekewepelethy died in 1808, so he was clearly not the same man who joined the Americans in 1812.  

With all that in mind, I felt comfortable naming Kekewepelethy as Dunlavy’s opponent.  How do we reconcile that conclusion with Butterfield’s history?  Apply Occam’s razor; the simplest answer is often the right one.  A.H. Dunlevy simply made a mistake and Butterfield repeated it.  He mistook the seven foot Shawnee he saw in 1812 as the same tall Shawnee who had fought his kin on the Sandusky River in 1782. After all, whites called them both some derivation of Captain John. That’s easier to accept than the alternatives.  While all of our candidates were tall, Welapachtschiechen was  dead.  Captain John was likely too young and, late in life, too accommodating to the Americans.  In contrast, Kekewepelethy was in the prime of life during the battle and a consistent American opponent.  It’s not an ironclad case, but the best one that we can make for now.

This entry was posted in Common Soldier, Native American, Personalities, Western Frontier and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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