by Gerald Therrien

The Unveiling of Canadian History, Volume 3.

The Storming of Hell

– the War for the Territory Northwest of the Ohio, 1786 – 1796.

During the American Revolution, when General Washington had asked General Wayne to undertake an extremely perilous enterprise – the storming of Stony Point, Wayne replied : “General, I will storm Hell, if you will only plan it.”

Part 1 – The Western Frontier

Chapter 3 – The Treaty of Fort Harmar, January 9th 1789

The American Congress continued with their efforts to obtain peace with the Indian nations, while the British military government in Canada continued with their efforts to sabotage any American peace with the Indians, that would allow the British to continue to hold onto the American western posts. But all that would change with the inauguration of the first American president – General George Washington.


Arthur St. Clair, Governor of the Northwest Territory

On June 7th 1787, Colonel Harmar left Fort Harmar on the Ohio river and travelled with over 300 troops to Fort Knox at Vincennes, a town of ‘900 French souls and 400 American souls’, where he had published the resolve of Congress respecting intruders on the public lands (in both English and French). He also met a small party of Indians and assured them of the friendly disposition of the United States and sent them with a message inviting all the chiefs of the different tribes on the Wabash river to a council meeting with him.

While waiting for the Indians to assemble, he travelled to visit the French villages of Kaskaskia with 192 ‘old men and young’, Cahokia with 239 men, the small villages of Prairie de Rocher and St. Philip, and the small stockades of La Belle Fontaine and Grande Ruisseau, inhabited by Americans without authority. He also visited the Spanish commandants at their settlements at St. Louis and St. Genevieve.

Upon returning to Kaskaskia, 150 Wea and Piankishaw Indians arrived and met with him and ‘expressed their determination to preserve perfect peace and friendship with the United States, as long as the water flowed.’ Harmar left a garrison at Kaskaskia and returned with his troops to Fort Harmar, arriving on November 13th. While he was gone, Colonel Harmar had been made a Brevet Brigadier General.

On January 27th 1788, four weeks after returning from his trip to Fort Pitt, Arthur St. Clair, the Governor of the Northwest Territory, wrote to Henry Knox, Secretary of War, about his efforts to arrange a meeting with the Ohio country Indians, that:

“from all accounts, there is a great deal of uneasiness amongst them and it is clear to me that if it cannot be removed a very general war will ensue … the falls of the Muskingum is fixed upon for the place of treaty and invitations have been sent by the superintendent to the different nations to meet us there on the 1st of May.”

But the council would be postponed, due to delays both by the Americans and the Indians.

Late in May at Fort Pitt, St. Clair authorized the shipment of provisions for the intended treaty to the Falls of the Muskingum, 70 miles north of Fort Harmar, with an escort 23 men to begin to prepare for the council, by clearing away the brush and constructing the needed log houses and council house.

On July 12th, a Chippewa war party surprised and attacked the escort, killing two and wounding three of them before they were able to answer fire, and then retreated into the brush. The American troops then abandoned the Falls of the Muskingum and returned to Fort Harmar. St. Clair sent a message to Detroit, to be forwarded to the Indians’ council that was to assemble at the Maumee Rapids in September, that chastised them for disrespect and unprovoked hostility, and that the meeting place would now be changed to Fort Harmar.

On July 26th, Governor St. Clair ordered the creation of Washington county (between the western border of Pennsylvania and the Scioto river) and commissioned justices of the peace, court judges and officers of the county militia that ‘the said county of Washington shall have and enjoy all and singular the jurisdiction, rights, liberties, privileges, and immunities whatsoever to a county belonging’.

After a July meeting of the Iroquois at Buffalo Creek, to settle a land sale to Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham of Massachusetts, one delegation of Mohawks under Joseph Brant and another delegation of Senecas under Cornplanter, left to travel westward to attend the meeting with St. Clair. Cornplanter and 36 Senecas arrived at Fort Harmar on September 9th, ready to meet with St. Clair, while Brant and his 275 Mohawks first travelled to Detroit to attend meetings with the Wyandots, Chippewas, Ottawas and Potawatomies, before departing for the Maumee Rapids (along with an officer of the British Indian Department) for a council with the other tribes of the western Indian confederacy – the Miamis, Shawnees and Kickapoos, to discuss the proposed meeting with St. Clair.

At the Maumee Rapids council, some favoured war while some favoured peace, and some wanted to repudiate the former peace treaties and to reopen the question of the boundary. Joseph Brant wanted to propose to the Americans, that the Indians would cede all the land east of the Muskingum and Tuscarawas rivers, and that the Americans would cede all the land west of the rivers as Indian territory. While the Hurons, Chippewas, Ottawas, Potawatomies, and Delawares were willing to join in the compromise, however, the Shawnees, Miamis and Kickapoos, who got the greatest part of their living from plundering the settlements, insisted on the Ohio river as the boundary.

In August, Alexander McKee, of the British Indian Department, had held a council with the Shawnee and told them not to go to the conference with St. Clair. The Shawnees, Miamis and Kickapoos would not attend the council with St. Clair but returned to their homes.

Brant and his Mohawks, along with the delegates of the other Indian nations travelled to the Muskingum Falls and sent a message to St. Clair, with their compromise proposal and with a request that the meeting place be returned to the Muskingum Falls.

But St. Clair’s instructions from Congress stated that ‘the treaties which have been made may be examined but must not be departed from, unless a change in boundary beneficial to the United States can be obtained’ and so, he could not accept their compromise. 

A quick glance at the boundary line of the treaties, would appear to indicate that the American Congress intended to proceed with settlements along all the rivers that flowed south into the Ohio river, while reserving for the western Indian nations, all of the lands along those rivers that flowed north into the Great lakes.

This plan, to make the Muskingum river the new boundary, would mean giving up all of the Ohio country except for a small strip between the western border of Pennsylvania and the Muskingum river! The sale of these lands was intended to help the United States deal with its enormous debt. Congress had promised land grants to the veterans of the Continental army. When there were no settlements north of the Ohio country, the Indian raids were launched against the settlements south of the Ohio river, so why would the British now stop the raids against the new settlements? In other words, using the threat of Indian raids, the British would get the United States to give up all of the Northwest territory! (Remember how Dr. Franklin and the peace negotiators in Paris refused to budge one inch on the western boundary!) There could be no compromise.

On September 14th, St. Clair wrote to Knox, the Secretary of War, concerning the prospects for peace, that although ‘it appears that the Wyandots are well disposed themselves (and) the other nations will be here … but a war with the western tribes, at least, seems inevitable both from the circumstances that there is no reason to expect them at the treaty, and from the intelligence General Harmar received two days ago’ – i.e the attack on the escort party that was preparing for the meeting at Muskingum Falls.

St. Clair replied to the Indians that he would not return the meeting place to the Falls and the proposal was altogether inadmissible, and (correctly) accused them of being under undue British influence. 

Cornplanter and a few Seneca warriors, travelled to Muskingum Rapids to speak to the Indians there, and to urge them to come to the meeting with St. Clair. But Brant and his Mohawks refused to attend and left to return to Detroit. Upon meeting any Indian delegates that were on their way to the meeting, Brant urged them not to attend and to turn back. While Brant and his Mohawks returned to Canada, and while the Shawnees, Miamis and the Wabash Indians retuned to their homes, over 200 Indians did attend the council with St. Clair at Fort Harmar – the Delawares, Wyandots, Ottawas, Chippewas, Potawatomies, and Sacs, who were joined by Cornplanter and the Senecas and other members of the Six Nations.

On January 9th 1789, a treaty was signed at Fort Harmar that renewed and confirmed the treaty and boundary line that had been agreed to at Fort McIntosh by the Ottawas, Chippewas, Wyandots and Delawares, that the United States would also take into their friendship and protection the Potawatomies and Sacs, and that St. Clair would distribute $6000 worth of goods to them. 

A treaty was also signed at Fort Harmar with the Five Nations (minus the absent Mohawks) that renewed and confirmed the treaty and boundary line that they had agreed to at Fort Stanwix in October 1784, and also that St. Clair would distribute $3000 worth of goods to them.

On June 25th, Lord Dorchester, the British Governor of Canada, wrote to Lord Sydney, then the British Secretary of State for the Home Department, after having seen a copy of the treaty of Fort Harmar, and described the boundaries that had been agreed to:

“But those Indian nations who refused to attend Governor Sinclair … seem now to be determined to remove and prevent all American settlements north west of the Ohio. They have dispatched war pipes to the different nations and sent a large deputation from the Wabash and the Miamis to Detroit to announce their determination for war, and demand a supply of ammunition.”

On October 20th, William Grenville, the new British Home Secretary who replaced Sydney, would reply to Dorchester that:

“in a former dispatch to your lordship dated the 5th of April 1787, I observe that the sentiments of his Majesty’s ministers at that time are fully explained to you respecting these people and nothing has since appeared that can induce them to propose any change of the general system of conduct therein directed to be pursued.”

Grenville was referring to the letter written by Sydney (April 5th 1787) that:

“your lordship has judged very wisely in exerting every means to confine the war between them and the Americans to as narrow a scale as possible, but if it should extend itself to the northward, which will most likely be the case, and the Americans should carry their threats into execution of attempting to gain the forcible possession of the posts in the upper country, we cannot but look upon the assistance to be derived from the Indians as extremely desirable, and perhaps the most effectual impediment to such an undertaking.”

Throughout 1789 and 1790, Indian war parties of Miamis, Shawnees and Cherokees, would again plunder, burn, steal horses, kill and take scalps and take prisoners, among the Kentucky settlements south of the Ohio river, and also among the small settlements north of the Ohio river. The British remained secure in the knowledge that Congress was too weak to oppose their plans.

That scheme would be overturned on April 10th 1789, with the inauguration of George Washington as President of the United States.

On May 2nd, St. Clair presented the Fort Harmar treaties with the minutes of the meetings and the correspondence with the Indian nations, to President Washington in New York. Regarding his instructions ‘to endeavor at extending the northern boundary’, St. Clair wrote that:

“(he) found that any attempt to extend the limits at that time would be very ill received, if not defeated entirely, the settling a peace with them; it was, therefore, not proposed, and the boundaries remain as settled at the former treaties.”

During that summer, Congress was busy debating the structure of its new independent government.

President Washington signed into law the Tariff Act on July 4th – ‘for the support of government, for the discharge of the debts … and the encouragement and protection of manufactures’ ; the creation of Department of Foreign Affairs on July 27th, Department of War on August 7th and Department of the Treasury on September 2nd, and appointed Alexander Hamilton as Secretary of the Treasury on September 11th, Henry Knox as Secretary of War on the 12th, and Thomas Jefferson as Secretary of State on the 29th – the last day of the first session of the first Congress of the United States. 

[After John Jay had refused the appointment as Secretary of Foreign Affairs, he continued to serve as the temporary Secretary until Jefferson, who was in France, returned to the United States, finally arriving in New York on March 22nd 1790.]

On the 28th, Congress also approved 12 amendments to the constitution (called the Bill of Rights) and submitted them for consideration to the legislatures of the several states.

On September 14th 1789, Governor St. Clair wrote to President Washington that

“the constant hostilities between the Indians who live upon the river Wabash and the people of Kentucky must necessarily be attended with such embarrassing circumstances to the government of the Western Territory, that I am induced to request you will be pleased to take the matter into consideration, and give me the orders you may think proper.”

On September 16th, President Washington sent St. Clair’s letter to Congress, adding that:

“I think proper to suggest to your consideration the expediency of making some temporary provision for calling forth the militia of the United States, for the purposes stated in the Constitution, which would embrace the cases apprehended by the Governor of the Western Territory.”

On September 29th, Congress approved ‘an act to recognize and adapt to the constitution of the United States, the establishment of the troops raised under the resolves of the United States in Congress Assembled’, and was signed by President Washington.

On October 6th, President Washington wrote to Governor St. Clair that:

“it is highly necessary that I should, as soon as possible, possess full information whether the Wabash and Illinois Indians are most inclined for war or peace. If for the former, it is proper that I should be informed of the means which will most probably induce them to peace. If a peace can be established with the said Indians on reasonable terms, the interests of the United States dictate that it should be effected as soon as possible. You will, therefore, inform the said Indians of the disposition of the General Government on this subject, and of their reasonable desire that there should be a cessation of hostilities as a prelude to a treaty. If, however, notwithstanding your intimations to them, they should continue their hostilities, or meditate any incursions against the frontiers of Virginia or Pennsylvania, or against any of the troops or posts of the United States … then you are hereby authorized and empowered in my name to call on the lieutenants of the nearest counties of Virginia and Pennsylvania for such detachments of militia as you may judge proper, not exceeding, however, one thousand from Virginia and five hundred from Pennsylvania … I would have it observed forcibly that a war with the Wabash Indians ought to be avoided by all means, consistently with the security of the frontier inhabitants, the security of the troops, and the national dignity. In the exercise of the present indiscriminate hostilities, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to say that a war without further measures would be just on the part of the United States. But if, after manifesting clearly to the Indians the dispositions of the General Government for the preservation of peace, and the extension of a just protection to the said Indians, they should continue their incursions, the United States will be constrained to punish them with severity.”

President Washington further instructed St. Clair:

“(to) proceed, as soon as you can with safety, to execute the orders of the late Continental Congress respecting the inhabitants of St. Vincennes and at the Kaskaskia and the other villages on the Mississippi.”

He was referring to the resolution of Congress of August 29th 1788:

“that measures be taken for confirming in their possessions and titles the French and Canadian inhabitants and other settlers at Post St. Vincents who on or before the year 1783 had settled there and had professed themselves citizens of the United States.”

Early in January 1790, St. Clair was extending the law of the United States further into the Territory.

On January 4th 1790, after arriving at Fort Washington, the headquarters for General Harmar, St. Clair ordered the creation of Hamilton County, on the lands purchased by Mr. Symmes between the Little Miami and Big Miami rivers, and appointed the court judges, justices of the peace and the officers for the county militia. St. Clair also changed the name of the settlement from Losantiville to Cincinnati. 

On January 8th, St. Clair arrived at Clarksville and appointed William Clark the justice of the peace and captain of the militia.

[At the Falls of the Ohio, both Louisville and Fort Nelson, on the south side of the Ohio river, were part of Kentucky county, Virginia. But Clarksville was on the opposite shore, on the north side of the Ohio river and therefore was part of the Northwest Territory.]

Now, back at Fort Steuben, on January 23rd, St. Clair wrote to Major Hamtramck at Fort Knox (Vincennes) that:

“I have enclosed a speech to the Indians of the Wabash and those of the Miami village, which I must take the liberty to request you will get forwarded to them … It is much the wish of the general government that peace may be established with those people, and the trial to effect it must be made. Should it fail, there is no doubt but an attempt must be made to chastise them.”

And on January 26th, St. Clair wrote to Knox, the Secretary of War, that:

“I have great confidence in the friendly disposition of the Wyandots and their influence over many of the tribes is considerable. The Miamis, and the renegade Shawanese, Delawares and Cherokees, that lay near them, I fear are irreclaimable by gentle means. The experiment, however, is worth the making; and, at any rate, I do not think we are yet prepared to chastise them.”

Major Hamtramck informed St. Clair that he had waited until the Indians on the Wabash had returned from their winter hunt, that on March 16th he had sent Captain Pierre Gamelin, with St. Clair’s speech, that he had gone as far as the villages on the Vermillion river, where the Indians there received it and gave a friendly answer, but when he received a threat to his life, he stopped his journey and instead returned to Fort Knox.

On April 1st Hamtramck dispatched a second messenger, Antoine Gamelin, who travelled to many villages where they were pleased to receive the speech concerning the peace, but who would not answer until they had heard from the Miami. Gamelin arrived at Miami-town on the 23rd and met with the Miamis, Shawnees and Delawares. At a meeting with Blue Jacket, the chief Shawnee warrior, he was told that ‘we are all sensible of your speech, and pleased with it, but, after consultation, we can not give an answer without hearing from our father, at Detroit’, and he returned to Fort Knox.

On May 1st St. Clair wrote to Knox, that since arriving at Kaskasia on March 5th:

“(he had been) much engaged … in receiving and examining the claims of the inhabitants, which has consumed more of my time than I had any idea would have been necessary; but they are the most ignorant people in the world. There is not a fiftieth man that can either read or write, the consequence of which has been that every thing where they were parties has languished extremely. Though they are ignorant, they seem to be the gentlest, well-disposed people that can be imagined, and their manners are better than might have been expected, considering their ignorance, the want of proper government, and the grievous oppression under which they have groaned since they fell under the American dominion … Of what is passing in your quarter, or in the European world, we know as little as the man in the moon. For pity sake, send some newspapers.”

Earlier at Cahokia on April 27th, Governor St. Clair had ordered the creation of St. Clair County for the inhabitants of the frontier settlements on the Mississippi river in the Illinois country, and appointed judges, justices of the peace and militia officers for the new civil government.

He also informed Knox that ‘much mischief … has been done this spring upon the Ohio’ and that Hamtramck ‘ascribes the depredations all to the Miamies’

“The confidence they have in their situation, the vicinity of many other nations not very well disposed, and the pernicious counsels of the English traders, joined to the immense booty obtained by the depredations upon the Ohio, will most probably prevent them from listening to any reasonable terms of accommodation, so that it is to be feared the United States must prepare effectually to chastise them, and the consequence of not doing it may, very probably, be the defection of those who are now at peace with the entire loss  of the affections of the people of the frontiers.”

Having now received Hamtramck’s report and the journal of Gamelin, St. Clair hurried to return to Fort Washington to meet with General Harmar. But he sent his secretary, Winthrop Sargent, to Vincennes, to create Knox County on July 13th and to appoint the civil and militia officers. St. Clair and Harmar met on July 15th and after assessing the situation with the Indians on the frontier, they agreed to a plan for an attack on the Miami villages. St. Clair then left to travel to New York to present this report to Secretary Knox.

On August 23rd, in New York, St. Clair presented his lengthy report on the Illinois country to President Washington, and presented his plan of attack to Secretary Knox.

Knox replied that:

“whilst the President regrets exceedingly the occasion, he approves of the measures you have taken for preventing those predatory incursions of the Wabash Indians which, for a considerable period past, have been so calamitous to the frontiers lying along the Ohio. The offers of peace, which have been made on principles of justice and humanity to the Wabash Indians and refused, will fully justify the conduct of the United States in the operations which have been directed for the prevention of future murders and robberies. It is the earnest desire of the President that the operation should be effectual, and produce in the Indians proper dispositions for peace … There are existing jealousies in the minds of the British officers in Canada of the designs of the United States respecting the posts to have been relinquished by the late peace. It will be a point, therefore, of delicacy, that you should take measures by sending some officer or messenger, at a proper time, to assure the commanding officer of the real object of the expedition.”

Further, Knox wrote to St. Clair on September 14th that:

“the establishment of a post at the Miami village … would not be compatible either with the public view or the public finances … (and) render the measure at this period inexpedient, and, therefore, not to be undertaken. The expedition will either incline the Indians to treat for peace, or it will induce them to wage open war in the ensuing spring. A further time is also required to know the intentions of the British court respecting the delivery of Niagara and Detroit. The decision of this point has an intimate connection with the peace of the frontiers.”

[ next week – chapter 4 – The Treaty of Peace and Friendship, August 7th 1790 ]

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