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 5 –  The Battle at Miami Town, October 22nd 1790

The United States government now began a policy to ‘humble and chastise’ the Indian nations, that were being manipulated by the British Indian Department to attack the western settlements, and also to offer them a path towards negotiating a treaty for peace.


General Josiah Harmar, commander of the First American Regiment, by Raphael Peale

Governor St. Clair arrived back at Marietta on September 15th, bringing with him the last of the Pennsylvania militia, which was deficient by 200 men, due to the deliberate neglect of Pennsylvania Governor Mifflin!

On September 19th, as instructed, St. Clair sent Return Meigs Jr. to deliver the letter to the British commander at Detroit ‘that the expedition about to be undertaken is not intended against the post you have the honor to command … but is on foot with the sole design of humbling and chastising some of the savage tribes whose depredations are become intolerable’. Meigs arrived at Detroit and on October 14th received the British commander’s answer (i.e. lie) that the Americans’ military preparations had caused no uneasiness and that they had given the Indians no encouragement or assistance in committing depredations along the Ohio. However, messengers were sent to the British traders at the Miami villages warning them of the imminent danger, and that they should aid and advise the Indians in their resistance to the greatest extent possible.

St. Clair’s plan of attack involved two separate thrusts. General Harmar would lead 320 federal troops along with 1133 militia from Kentucky and Pennsylvania in an attack on the Miami villages, while Major Hamtramck would lead 50 federal troops from Fort Knox along with 280 Kentucky militia, in an attack against the Indian villages on the Wabash river ‘to divert the attention of the Miamis to that quarter’

On September 30th, Hamtramck had left Vincennes with 330 men and marched along the Wabash river to attack the Indian village at the mouth of the Vermillion river. Arriving there on October 10th, they found an abandoned village. Estimating that there were about 750 Indian warriors in the area, and with a growing shortage of rations, on October 14th Hamtramck decided not to move on to attack the Wea villages, but to break camp and return to Vincennes, arriving back at Fort Knox on the 26th.

Harmar began to advance his army of 1453 men from Fort Washington on September 26th, placing Colonel Hardin in over-all command of the militia, with Colonel Trotter leading the 3 battalions of Kentucky militia and with Colonel Truby leading the single Pennsylvania militia battalion, opening a road for the artillery, as the army marched in three columns along the old trace along the Miami river (that was used by George Clark in his raid against the Shawanees in October 1782). Upon reaching the St. Marys river, about 35 miles from the Miami villages, a captured Shawnee spy informed Harmar that the Indians had, at first, planned to make a stand at the Miami villages, but with only 600 warriors present, they decided that since they were too few to confront Harmar’s army, they would prepare to abandon their villages and burn them.

Although Miami spies had watched the progress of Harmar’s columns closely, other Indian tribes were very slow in sending assistance and warriors to Kekionga – the main Miami town at the confluence of the Saint Marys and Saint Joseph rivers, that combine to form the Maumee river, and the site of the primary British trading post in the region for trading for furs and also for the horses and plunder from the Indian raids.

In March 1790, Alexander McKee had been appointed the British Indian agent at Detroit. He used two posts along the Maumee river – one at the rapids near its mouth at lake Erie, and the other at the Glaize river, to distribute arms, ammunition and provisions to the warring tribes of Shawnee and Miami Indians. While the Indians and the traders evacuated and moved to the British trading post at Miami Rapids, the Indians confiscated all the traders’ ammunition, and later burned the town.

After a council of war, Harmar now determined to quickly send one of his columns and strike the Indians at Miami Town before they could get away. On October 15th, Hardin and a 600-man force (including 50 regulars to provide support) entered an abandoned Kekionga, and then dispersed to search for any inhabitants and for plunder through the town and the other nearby villages. On October 17th, Harmar and his main army joined Hardin’s advance detachment. Although the Indians had abandoned the town, the 600 warriors were still close by, raiding the army’s packhorses and mounts during the night.

The next day, Harmar sent out a 300-man reconnaissance detachment under Colonel Trotter to discover the Indians’ camp, but by dusk they had to return to Harmar’s encampment, now at the nearby village of Chillicothe, without any success.

On October 19th, Colonel Hardin led 180 men, including 30 regulars under Captain Armstrong, on another reconnaissance mission and after travelling about 8 miles, discovered an abandoned Indian campsite, but which had been set up as a trap, by Little Turtle, the Miami chief whose village was 16 miles from Kekionga. Hardin’s men were now ambushed by Little Turtle and his 150 warriors, hidden in the timbers on both sides of the camp.

Upon being fired at from both sides, Hardin and the militia immediately retreated, but Armstrong and his regulars stood their ground and formed a line to fire on the Indians in the underbrush. After the regulars had fired a volley, Little Turtle ordered a charge, before the Americans had time to reload. The Americans met them with their bayonets but were soon overwhelmed, and 22 regular soldiers and a few remaining militia-men were slain, scalped and plundered. Hardin, Armstrong and the retreating force were able to make their way back to Harmar’s base at Chillicothe.

With provisions running low and with the loss of many packhorses, Harmar decided to begin preparation to return to Fort Washington. Five nearby Indian villages, including Chillicothe, were burned, along with vast piles of corn and hay, and the army began its return march on October 21st. That evening, believing that the Indians would severely harass his retreat unless checked, Harmar sent a strong detachment back to the ruined towns, in hope to surprise any Indians who had returned to the villages to salvage any provisions.

Major John Wyllys would lead 60 regulars, along with Hardin and 300 militia and 40 horsemen back to Kekionga. When they were within 2 miles of the town, Wyllys sent Colonel Hardin and 150 militia on a circuitous march westward to fall on the rear of the town, then sent Major McMillan and the other 150 militia to encircle the town from the east, while he and the 60 regulars and the 40 cavalry marched directly for Kekionga to surprise the returning Indians.

But chief Little Turtle, leading over 800 Indians, devised another ambuscade to meet Wyllys’s army. At sunrise, as Wyllys force was crossing the ford at the Maumee river at Kekionga, the Indians, hidden on the opposite shore above and below the ford, fired on the cavalry-men and horses in the lead. McMillan and the right flank soon swung back and arrived on the scene, and attacked the Indians, forcing them from the bushes to flee northward. The cavalry now were able to regroup and joined in the chase. Wyllys and his 60 regulars now crossed the Maumee and began to file past the ruins of Kekionga through a razed cornfield. Here in an open field with no cover, they were ambushed from both sides by Little Turtle and his main army. The regulars stood their ground, firing into the oncoming warriors, then using their bayonets, having no time to reload, but were soon defeated. Wyllys and 50 regulars were killed – only 10 men were able to escape.

Hearing the heavy firing, McMillan reformed his men and started back south, finding the few survivors of Wyllys’s men being chased by the Indians, and together they fought the Indians hand-to-hand and drove the Indians westward – into the approach of Hardin’s force that was encircling the town from the west. The warriors fled away through the underbrush, and it was estimated that over 100 were killed that day. In addition to the 50 regulars killed, the militia had 68 missing and presumed killed, and 28 wounded. The American troops, under Hardin, left their dead behind and made their retreat back to Harmar’s camp. Little Turtle was preparing another attack on the Americans when, that evening, a lunar eclipse occurred, which was viewed as a bad omen by many of the superstitious Indians who withdrew, and plans for any further action were abandoned. Harmar’s army marched back to Fort Washington, arriving on November 3rd.

St. Clair returned to Philadelphia to provide his assessment of the situation on the frontier, meeting with Secretary of War, Knox, who wrote to President Washington on December 10th, regarding his report of Harmar’s expedition and his proposal for a new expedition, that:

“[His] proposal of obtaining cession of territory from the Wabash Indians at this particular time, seems liable to several objections. 1st It is not for the interest of the United States to extend their territory at present … 2ndly To grasp at additional territory will give the expedition an avaricious aspect. In this point of view it will disgrace the government. The motives of the expedition ought to appear as they really are – A clear and uncompounded dictate of justice to punish a banditti of robbers, and murderers, who have refused to listen to the voice of peace and humanity. And as a terror to warn other tribes against the commission of similar crimes. It will not materially lessen the charge to assert the United States propose to pay the Indians for the lands – because it is a well known fact, that unless they could be civilized, and learn the arts of agriculture, the taking away their lands for the usual pitiful considerations, is taking away the means of supporting their lives.”

St. Clair also met with Secretary of State, Jefferson, who wrote to President Washington on December 14th, with his report respecting the lands of the inhabitants of Post Vincennes, that:

“The Resolution of Congress of August 29, 1788 had confirmed in their possessions & titles the French and Canadian & other settlers at that post, who, in or before the year 1783, had settled there, & had professed themselves citizens of the U.S. … and had made a donation to every head of a family, of the same description, of 400 acres of land.”

President Washington continued in his personal mission to preserve the union and its independence – to secure the defence of the western frontiers and to secure the nation’s financial health.

On December 8th 1790, President Washington had given his State of the Union address to Congress, to open the 3rd session of the 1st Congress:

“Fellow Citizens of the Senate and House of Representatives … The abundant fruits of another year have blessed our country with plenty, and with the means of a flourishing commerce. The progress of public credit is witnessed by a considerable rise of American stock abroad as well as at home; and the revenues, allotted for this and other national purposes, have been productive beyond the calculations by which they were regulated … In conforming to the powers vested in me by acts of the last session, a loan of three millions of florins … has been completed in Holland.”

On February 25th 1791, Congress would receive ‘a communication from the Secretary of the Treasury explaining the terms on which the loan of 3 million florins … to have been negotiated’.

And also on that same day, President Washington would sign into law ‘An Act to incorporate the subscribers to the Bank of the United States’.

Earlier, on December 23rd 1790, Congress received from Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, his ‘Report on a National Bank’. Hamilton had proposed to establish a national bank, to buy the promissory notes issued to soldiers, farmers and others, and also to exchange the old states’ debt for new Treasury debt. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson had opposed the creation of the national bank, hoping that the frontier land could be sold for a dollar an acre in government debt certificates and the whole national debt be paid with these proceeds. Hamilton, opposing Jefferson, did not want the future of the United States to be held hostage to the land speculators, and instead fought to establish a national bank to promote domestic manufactures and internal improvements.

Opposing this report, Madison gave a day-long speech, lecturing the congressmen that there was no mention of a bank in the constitution and therefore that it was never intended to give the federal government the right to create one. However, critics of Madison pointed out that during the Constitutional Convention, Madison had been the one to propose giving Congress the power to charter banks (even though the proposal was defeated); and also quoted Madison himself from his authorship of one of the Federalist Papers, where he insisted that there were implied powers in the constitution that gave Congress the ability to deal with many aspects of government. The House passed the bill to charter the Bank of the United States by 39 to 20.

While President Washington approved of Hamilton’s financial and economic plan, he nonetheless, asked Secretary of State, Jefferson, and Attorney General, Randolph, for their opinions on the constitutionality of the national bank. Jefferson wrote an essay denouncing the ability of the federal government to establish a national bank. At the president’s request, Hamilton answered both Madison’s and Jefferson’s arguments with a 15,000-word treatise that justified the creation of the bank. Pleased with Hamilton’s reply and now convinced of the constitutionality of the bank, President Washington signed the bill into law on February 25th 1791.

Continuing in his address, President Washington stated that:

“Since your last Sessions I have received communications by which it appears that the District of Kentucky, at present a part of Virginia, has concurred in certain propositions contained in a law of that State; in consequence of which the District is to become a distinct member of the Union, in case the requisite sanction of Congress be added.” 

On February 4th 1791, President Washington would sign ‘An Act declaring the consent of Congress that a new state be formed within the jurisdiction of the Commonwealth of Virginiaand admitted into this Union, by the name of the State of Kentucky’. Later on February 18th, he would sign into law ‘An Act for the admission of the State of Vermont into this Union’.

Further in his address, President Washington stated that:

“It has been therefore known to Congress that frequent incursions have been made on our frontier settlements by certain banditti of Indians from the North West side of the Ohio … they have, instead of listening to the humane invitations and overtures made on the part of the United States, renewed their violences with fresh alacrity and greater effect … These aggravated provocations rendered it essential to the safety of the Western settlements that the aggressors should be made sensible that the Government of the Union is not less capable of punishing their crimes, than it is disposed to respect their rights and reward their attachments. As this object could not be effected by defensive measures it became necessary to put in force the Act which empowers the President to call out the Militia for the protection of the frontiers. And I have accordingly authorized an Expedition in which the regular troops in that quarter are combined with such draughts of Militia as were deemed sufficient.”

On January 24th 1791, President Washington would send to Congress a report he had received from Knox, that recommended:

“That it is to be apprehended, the late expedition against the Miami Indians will not be attended with such consequences as to constrain the said Indians to sue for peace; but on the contrary, that their own opinion of their success, and the number of trophies they possess, will probably not only encourage them to a continuance of hostilities, but may be the means of their obtaining considerable assistance from the neighbouring tribes …”

“That it therefore appears … to be incumbent on the United States to prepare immediately for another expedition against the Wabash Indians, with such a decided force as to impress them strongly with the power of the United States …”

“That a post established at the (Miami Village) as the consequence of a successful expedition, would curb and overawe not only the Wabash Indians, but the Ottawas and Chippewas and all others who might be wavering and disposed to join in the War …”

“That it would therefore of consequence afford more full security to the territory of the United States Northwest of the Ohio. In this point of view it would assist, in the reduction of the national debt, by holding out a security to people to purchase and settle the public lands …”

“The regular force upon the frontiers seems utterly inadequate for the essential purposes of the United States.”

On March 3rd 1791, President Washington would sign into law ‘An Act for granting lands to the inhabitants and settlers at Vincennes and the Illinois country in the Territory Northwest of the Ohio, and for confirming them in their possessions’. Also on March 3rd, he would sign ‘An Act for raising and adding another regiment to the military establishment of the United States, and for making further provision for the protection of the frontiers’ – to enlist 912 regulars for the 2nd regiment, and also 2000 6-month levies for the upcoming expedition to establish a post at the Miami Town.

Secretary Knox now prepared his peace plan and a new expedition against the continuing British-manipulated Indian attacks upon the western frontier settlements. On March 9th, he issued his instructions to Brigadier General Charles Scott to lead 500 mounted volunteers, to depart by the 10th of May – should no order be received by then to suspend the operation, and ‘to proceed to the Wea, or Ouiatanon towns of Indians, there to assault the said towns, and the Indians therein, either by surprise, or otherwise, as the nature of the circumstances may admit, sparing all who may cease to resist, and capturing as many as possible, particularly women and children’.

On March 11th, Knox issued his instructions to (Colonel) Thomas Procter:

“[to] immediately repair to the Cornplanter’s residence … and make known to him your intentions … you are to endeavor, by all possible means, to induce the Cornplanter, and as many other of the chiefs as possible, to go with you upon your mission to the Miami and Wabash Indians … you will proceed by water or land … to Sandusky … where reside the Wyandot and Delaware tribes … these tribes are our friends and in treaty with us … you will inform them of the object of your journey and desire that they will appoint some chiefs to accompany you … you will proceed … to the Miami Town, where you will assemble the Indians together, and speak to them … The great object of your long journey is, to impress the said Miami and Wabash Indians with the candor and justice of the General Government. That the United States require only that they would demean themselves peaceably. That, if they should refuse to listen to this invitation, they will only be liable for the evil which will fall upon and crush them …”

Knox continued, that:

“If you succeed in persuading them to accompany you to Fort Washington, you will set out immediately with them, sending Captain Houdin and such chiefs of all the tribes present, as shall be agreed upon, to the Wea and Ouiatanon towns, on the Wabash, … in order to persuade them also to repair to a treaty at Fort Washington … But, if, after using all your arguments to induce the Miami Indians to repair to Fort Washington, you should fail, you must leave them, and with the friendly Indians who may accompany you, repair to Fort Washington.”

Knox warned Procter that:

“you must, if within the limits of possibility, be at Fort Washington by the 5th of May next, whether you succeed or not. This is of the highest importance, as it is connected with collateral arrangements” [i.e. Scott’s expedition].

On March 21st, Knox issued his instructions to Governor St. Clair, who was appointed, on March 4th, a Major General, that:

“With the chief command of the troops to be employed upon the frontiers during the ensuing campaign”, [that] ‘An Indian war, under any circumstances, is regarded by the great mass of the people of the United States as an event which ought, if possible to be avoided. It is considered that the sacrifices of blood and treasure in such a war far exceed any advantages which can possibly be reaped by it … The great policy, therefore, of the General Government, is to establish a just and liberal peace with all the Indian tribes within the limits and in the vicinity of the territory of the United States … the arrangements with the Senecas … together with the recent mission of Colonel Procter … will strongly evince the desire of the General government to prevent the further effusion of blood, and to quiet all disturbances …”

Knox added that:

“But, in the mean time, if the Indians refuse to listen to the messengers of peace sent to them, it is most probable they will, unless prevented, spread themselves along the line of frontiers, for the purpose of committing all the depredations in their power … In order to avoid so calamitous an event, Brigadier General Charles Scott, of Kentucky, has been authorized … to make an expedition against the Wea, or Ouiatanon towns …”

“If the said expedition be not prevented, by you, on or before the 10th of May next, it is to proceed according to the instructions … it is confided to your discretion, whether there shall be more than one of the said expeditions … if no decisive indications of peace should have been produced, either by the messengers, or by the desultory operations, you will commence your march for the Miami village, in order to establish a strong and permanent military post at that place … for the purpose of awing and curbing the Indians in that quarter, and as the only preventive of future hostilities … Having commenced your march, upon the main expedition, and the Indians continuing hostile, you will use every possible exertion to make them feel the effects of your superiority; and after having arrived at the Miami village, and put your works in a defensible state, you will seek the enemy with the whole of your remaining force, and endeavor, by all possible means, to strike them with great severity.”

And on April 5th, Knox issued his instructions to General Richard Butler, to ‘immediately set off for the States of Virginia and Maryland, in order to put into immediate operation the measures necessary for the raising of the two battalions of levies’ for the expedition of St. Clair. (Other levies were being raised in New Jersey and Pennsylvania.) Knox made arrangements to obtain a rider to fort Pitt every Friday, so that he could maintain a weekly correspondence with both Butler and St. Clair.

[ next week – chapter 6 – The British–Indian War Agreement, August 15th 1791 ]

For those who may wish to support my continuing work on ‘The Unveiling of Canadian History’, you may purchase my books, that are available as PDFs and Paperback (on Amazon) at the Canadian Patriot Review :
  • Volume 1 – The Approaching Conflict, 1753 – 1774.
  • Volume 2 – Forlorn Hope – Quebec and Nova Scotia, and the War for Independence, 1775 – 1785.
And hopefully,
  • Volume 3 – The Storming of Hell – the War for the Territory Northwest of Ohio, 1786 – 1796, and
  • Volume 4 – Ireland, Haiti, and Louisiana – the Idea of a Continental Republic, 1797 – 1804,
may also appear in print, in the near future, while I continue to work on :
  • Volume 5 – On the Trail of the Treasonous, 1804 – 1814.

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