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.Continue reading “￼Down the Rabbit Hole with Three Captains Johnny”
Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Joshua Shepherd
For most history enthusiasts, a visit to a battlefield is simply a diversion that very often takes place during an annual vacation. But the pleasant surroundings of America’s historic parks belie the terrifying sights that greeted a battlefield’s first visitors.
On December 24, 1793, a detachment of American troops under the command of Major Henry Burbeck arrived at an insignificant knoll deep in the wilderness of present-day Ohio. Tasked with constructing a timber fortification on the site, the troops first had to attend to the unenviable task of clearing the remains of over six hundred men who had been killed there two years earlier. Burbeck reported that the battlefield “had a very melancholy appearance – nearly in the space of 350 yards lay 500 skull bones – 300 of which we buried.” Most of the skulls, it was reported, appeared to have been smashed by tomahawk blows.Continue reading “ERW Weekender: Fort Recovery”
The odds are good that you haven’t been able to visit some of your favorite Revolutionary War sites during the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of these locations rely on foot traffic for their annual income and may be struggling to stay afloat amidst various state lockdowns and a smaller number of visitors. (We left out many national, state, and local parks, which sometimes have access to government funds. But, they often have partnerships with non-profit foundations that provide vital support for their activities.) So, we decided to start a list of museums and parks that you can help out now and visit as circumstances allow. No doubt it will grow. The list does not constitute a solicitation or endorsement, but many of our historians visited some of these museums in the past and found them really helpful to our own work. (You may need to copy and paste some links.) If you search our “weekender” posts, there are even more sites to support and visit when you can.
John F. Winkler, Peckuwe 1780: The Revolutionary War on the Ohio River Frontier, (Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2018). $24.00
I once read a review comparing Osprey Publishing’s monographs on particular battles, weapons, uniforms, or campaigns to “flash cards,” which made me smile. As a kid, I somehow acquired stacks of flashcards laying out the technical specs of various military aircraft or ships and thought they were the greatest things since sliced bread. Those were the days before Amazon or Barnes & Noble, when a kid had to depend on the local library and Waldenbooks for books about history, which they didn’t have in large numbers. The Osprey monographs were a windfall of sorts when the local library started carrying them. They’re not intended for an academic audience by any stretch, but can play a useful role in interesting popular audiences in places, people, and events that might otherwise prove too obscure or too intimidating for a young or casual reader. So, when I came across John F. Winkler’s new monograph for Osprey, Peckuwe 1780, I snapped it up as much for sentimental reasons as for my interest in the American Revolution on the western frontier.
For much of the American Revolution, the British waged war on their rebelling colonists in the Ohio River Valley via proxy, relying on western Indian nations (Shawnee, Wyandot, Mingo, Chippewa, Ottawa, and others) to attack isolated American settlements and villages across the Ohio River. The Continental Congress, already unable to meet the needs of its own army along the coasts, could offer little in the way of assistance. So, frontier defense largely fell upon the local militia. They adopted a two-pronged strategy: 1) build forts and blockhouses along the frontier, giving settlers a place of safe haven when Indian raiding parties were about, and 2) preemptive raids against Native American villages in an attempt to disrupt their preparations for raids against the settlers.
In 1777, however, Congress realized that more aggressive measures were required: the war would have to be carried against the heart of British power at Detroit, from where the British coordinated, supplied, and rewarded Native American raids. With that in mind, Congress and Continental authorities at Pittsburgh began planning an offensive to capture the British post between Lakes Huron and Erie. First, they would need to secure the continued neutrality of the Delaware Indian nation in the Muskingum River Valley, which today is in Eastern Ohio. Second, they would need to build a substantial network of forts capable of sustaining an overland offensive. Building a new fort in Delaware territory would serve both goals.
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.
Over the summer, I took a family excursion to several Revolutionary War sites in Ohio, some of which I recently wrote about. In particular, I wanted to trace the experience of several Moravian missionaries and their congregations in the no-man’s land of the frontier. Traveling a back road along the Tuscarawas River between the villages of Gnadenhutten and New Schoenbrunn, we stumbled across the graves of David Zeisberger (1721-1808) and several notable missionaries at the crossroads of Goshen.
(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.”
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.
(part four of five)
As the night of June 5 gave way to a dark retreat on June 6, the militia struggled eastward, attempting to reimpose some order on their main body. According to Rose, Crawford set out after one wayward company that had decided on a more circuitous route of retreat that separated it from the main body. While he was gone, the Indians began firing into the militia camp in the dark. At “that instant, every Body was pushing as if it had been a signal agreed for that purpose.”[i]
Rose fell in with a group of about fifty men, who pushed south back toward the abandoned Wyandot town on the Sandusky they had passed through just a few days earlier, seeking to avoid the Shawnee, and then rejoined Williamson with the main body of men as it returned the way the expedition had come.[ii] In the rush, they lost track of Colonel Crawford. They moved directly to the route east without much order, placing speed over the coherence of a fighting unit. Williamson did manage to separate his best horsemen into a smaller group to contest any light horsemen they encountered on the Sandusky plain, but expected to find relative safety when they reached more heavily timbered areas. On June 6, Rose had a close call. Riding ahead while trying to keep the group from breaking up into smaller parties, mounted Indians charged him and his companions from a wooded area on the left. Rose managed to make it back to the main body, which promptly counter-charged with the light horse Williamson had created.[iii] In the process, he lost contact with his two companions, Colonel William Harrison (Colonel Crawford’s son-in-law) and Mr. William Crawford, (Colonel Crawford’s nephew).[iv]
Later that day, about 24 miles into their march, the militia paused to rest along Olentangy creek. Their mounted pursuers promptly fired into the main body from behind and the militiamen detected a light screen moving into place ahead of them, the beginning of an encirclement.[v] The militia started skirmishing while Rose rode to the rear, nearly through the Native Americans behind them, retrieved the rear body, which contained a substantial portion of the light horse, and sent them to clear the woods of enemy skirmishers in front. The maneuver succeeded and the militia were able to enter the woods, losing three dead and eight wounded in the hour-long fight. Despite anticipating a degree of relative safety there, pursuers continued to harass the flanks and the rear. Simultaneously, the poorly organized militia lost still more cohesion as a fighting unit as the woods broke up formations and isolated men in small groups. To make matters worse, the skies opened up and a heavy downpour soaked everyone to the bone.[vi]
(part three of five)
The expedition continued through thick forest until June 4, when it finally came upon a Wyandot town on the upper Sandusky after noon. It was abandoned to the surprise of Crawford’s guides.[i] (The Wyandot shifted from “Upper Sandusky,” which became known as “old town” and was above the modern town of Upper Sandusky to a new town of “Upper Sandusky,” which became known as Half-King’s town and was below the modern town of Upper Sandusky.) At this point, several men expressed their desire to return to the Ohio, complaining they were down to five days provisions.[ii] Crawford sent a reconnaissance party of about 40 men under Major Rose to the north, where the woods opened up into a gentle plain. Dr. Knight recalled, “there are a great many extensive plains in that country; The woods in general grow very thin, and free from brush and underwood; so that light horsemen may advance a considerable distance before an army without being much exposed to the enemy.”[iii] Indeed, northwestern Ohio was a gently rolling plain flattened by glaciers over a million years ago and covered in 1782 with knee- to waist-high grass, interrupted by an occasional grove of trees. The terrain rolls with small, gentle gulleys and hills rising in quick succession. The combination limited one’s ability to see great distances. It was perfect for the mounted force Crawford led, theoretically capable of moving quickly. But, the slow pace of the advance, the difficulty of terrain, poor availability of forage in the woods, and quality of the horses had worn the mounts out.[iv]