Before you listen…
“The American Frontier” in the 1780s was not a very pleasant place to be.
When Great Britain signed the treaty in 1783 acknowledging American independence, they acknowledged something else of great significance: America’s “claim” to the vast swathe of territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. Protected by the British government from a surge of land-hungry colonists since 1763, this land contained many people of various native tribes who had no notion of the claim of any foreign power to the land they’d called home for centuries.
Defending the land—now promoted by the young American government as “open” for any American to purchase, was always going to be a near-insurmountable challenge. Not only did the Americans have technology and organization on their side, they also had vast numbers. Immigrants from Europe, people who had no chance of ever establishing themselves in their home countries with their own property, were streaming over by boat for the chance of a lifetime: a piece of earth to truly call their own. On the other side, the native people were reeling from the decimation caused by European diseases for which they had no natural defense. Untold thousands and entire villages died before Colonists could even arrive in force, just from contact with European traders and representatives. The loss of life had culturally destabilizing influence, as did the importation of new European goods.
On top of all that, the tribes were still not accustomed to the idea of a common enemy against which all should unite. European colonies had gained a foothold in America not just through the inroads of disease, but also by forming alliances, playing off different ancestral enemies against each other and then turning on their erstwhile friends when the field had been cleared. Wide ranging tribal confederacies were difficult to form on an even temporary basis and leadership within and across tribes was always fluid. Warriors followed chiefs out of earned respect rather than any official obligation or fear of rank.
Such was the situation on the Ohio River, the de facto boundary between American and “Indian” land in 1790. Bands of Shawnee, Miami, Wyandot, Lenape, and Wabash tribal people resisted the incursions of settlers in the post-war years, violently and chaotically, with atrocities committed on both sides of the conflict. Thousands of people were killed before George Washington, President under the recently implemented Constitution, wished to put the ugly matter to rest and “pacify” the tribes beyond the Ohio.
Eager to get the war done on the cheap (the American government was dangerously in debt and short of funds) and with a genteel disdain for the ‘savages’ and their Stone Age war-fighting, Washington was content to leave the assignment to a contingent of mixed-quality militia (funded by states rather than the national treasury) and a minority of professionals, under the leadership of some under-utilized acquaintances from the Revolution. Show some force, he thought, and the tribes will be intimidated into submission.
He did not reckon with the consequences of poor training and leadership for his men, or with the emergence of a formidable triumvirate of tribal leaders who would not be intimidated: Blue Jacket, leading the Shawnee, Buckongahelas of the Lenape, and a wily tactician from the Miami people, who would come into his own against the forces of the new Republic, a man with the unassuming Translated name of Little Turtle…
For Further Awesome Reading…
Little Turtle and his contemporaries are tough to pin down. His people did not leave us a written account of his early life and struggle, so we rely on sources from “our” cultural side to understand him and the defense of the Old Northwest. That said, modern scholarship has gone to great lengths to provide balanced historical accounts that draw from the limited tribal sources that are available, as well as the old American sources.
If you don’t mind a book that doesn’t look good, but contains first rate information, try
Little Turtle (Me-she-kin-no-quah): the great chief of the Miami Indian nation by Calvin Young
This book is actually a scanned republishing of a long out-of-print history. It’s a little tough on the eyes, but it’s a classic.
For a straight-up history of the Northwest Indian War and its unusual events:
President Washington’s Indian War, by Wiley Sword
Aside from having a great name, Sword achieves an impressive level of detail and balance in his account. His bibliography is broad and deep.
For a good general history of the culture clash and adventure of America’s early encroachment on native lands, there are a couple of interesting histories that capture the “feel” of the era, even if Little Turtle himself does not star as the main character.
William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest, by William Heath
This book is a great biography of Little Turtle’s culturally half-white, half-Indian son-in-law. His remarkable life was a great symbol for the times in which he lived and the complicated feelings anyone with sympathies on both sides of the cultural struggle must have had.
The First Frontier: the Forgotten History of Struggle, Savagery, and Endurance in Early America, by Scott Weidensaul
This is a super-readable and comprehensive account of the first couple of centuries in European/American and ‘Indian’ relations. I can’t recommend it highly enough for people who want to understand the history before the “Wild West” was even a myth.
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