Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the final contest in one of the least remembered wars in American history
In one sense, the Northwest Indian War — fought between the U.S. and the assorted tribes of the Western (Wabash) Confederacy — actually represented the conclusion the American Revolution. As the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant famously described it, the end of that war resulted in the sale of Native people to the US Congress. Although the British never enjoyed practical control over the Ohio River valley — nor, for that matter, did the French before them — England did not hesitate to offer it to the US as part of the Treaty of Paris. The subsequent war for the Ohio River valley was prompted by the widespread recognition among Indian people that political independence for the colonies would prove catastrophic to their long-term interests. During the war, the United States had employed scorched earth tactics to break the power of an already divided Iroquois Confederacy; after 1783, the Miami, Shawnee, Delaware, and Kickapoo among other groups correctly understood that British concessions left them vulnerable to further white encroachment.
Indeed, throughout the 1780s the United States offered formal and informal inducements to land speculators, squatters and anyone else who wished to intrude on Indian lands north of the Ohio. Congress opened up vast areas of eastern Ohio for settlement following treaties in 1784, 1785, 1786 and 1789, when representatives of the Seneca, Wyandotte, Delaware, Ojibwe, Sauk, Potawatomi, and Ottawa surrendered claims in the name of their entire nations (who may or may not have actually consented to the terms of the settlement). As articulated in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the official policy of the US claimed to possess the “utmost good faith” in respect to American Indians and vowed that
their lands and property shall never be taken from them without their consent and in their property, rights and liberty, they shall never be invaded or disturbed, unless in just and lawful wars authorized by Congress; but laws founded in justice and humanity shall from time to time be made, for preventing wrongs being done to them, and for preserving peace and friendship with them.
Though casting itself as both protector and lawful chastener of its Indian brothers, Congress was for the most part inept in both roles. Weak by design, the US Congress was unable to maintain its commitments to interior Indians. Whites across the western frontier, from the Carolinas to Lake Erie, lashed out against Indian villages in an effort to push the settlement line westward. Meanwhile, states like Connecticut — which continued to claim territory west of the Cuyahoga — rewarded veteran soldiers by illegally granting them tracts of land that were supposedly reserved for Ohio Indians.
Determined to limit white expansion west of the Ohio River, tribes of the region united politically and militarily. In 1786, delegates from nine tribes sent a message to Congress insisting that land cessions would not be legitimate unless they occurred “in the most public manner, and by the united voice of the confederacy.” The so-called “partial treaties,” they added, would be considered void. While diplomatic efforts foundered, the ongoing frontier grew more violent, as Indians struck back with the aid of the British, who were eager to prolong their mischief south of the Great Lakes. By the end of the decade, more than 1500 Americans and an untold number of Indians had died in frontier skirmishes, provoking a major crisis in Washington’s first term as President. Washington responded by ordering a succession of generals against the Shawnee and Miami, who comprised the heart of the Northwest Indian confederacy. American forces performed terribly, losing several battles in present-day Indiana and Ohio; the defeat of Arthur St. Clair in November 1791 still ranks as one of the worst losses in American military history, with 632 soldiers killed (out of an army of 920) and nearly all of the rest wounded.
While some members urged a settlement with the US, most leaders of the Confederacy were committed to maintaining the Ohio River as the boundary between white and Indian sovereignty. In 1792, they announced that peace negotiations would not proceed until the US agreed to confirm that boundary. In 1793, the Confederacy reiterated these demands in a statement issued from the Miami Rapids in northwestern Ohio.
We desire you to consider[,] Brothers, that out only demand, is the peaceful possession of a small part of our once greaty Country. Look back and view the lands from when we have been driven to this spot, we can retreat no further, because the country behind hardly affords food for its present inhabitants. And we have therefore resolved, to leave our bones in this small space, to which we are now confined.
On 20 August 1794, “Mad” Anthony Wayne, commander of the absurdly-named Legion of the United States, led 3000 soldiers into battle against the Shawnee chief Blue Jacket and the Miami chief Little Turtle, whose badly outnumbered forces fled after a brief skirmish near present-day Toledo. Fewer than 100 fighters died in the battle, but it was a consequential moment. Among other things, the battle marked the end of British assistance to the Indians of that region; when confederacy warriors, expecting to receive British protection, fled to nearby Ft. Miami, they were turned away. At the time, the United States and Great Britain were engaged in negotiations that would eventually lead to Jay’s Treaty, a deal that would result in the British evacuation of its northwestern forts; the British, who did not want the US to side against them in their ongoing war with France, were eager to avoid a formal confrontation with the US.
With the Battle of Fallen Timbers and the eventual ratification of Jay’s Treaty, the Indian people south of the Great Lakes were permanently weakened and were no longer able to resist intrusion from the east. A little less than a year later, the Treaty of Greenville liquidated nearly all Indian claims to what would eventually be the state of Ohio.