August 20, 1794 – American forces under the command of General “Mad Anthony” Wayne defeat Old Northwest Indian Confederacy forces in Battle of Fallen Timbers, opening much of modern day Ohio to white settlement.
Besides proclaiming England’s recognition of the independence of its former 13 colonies, the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War gave the Americans something nearly as valuable: England relinquished any and all claims to the Ohio Valley. The northern Ohio Valley – that vast area north of the Ohio River and East of the Mississippi, now known as the “Old Northwest” – contained rich farmland coveted by white American settlers. Of course, the entire area was already occupied by dozens of Indian nations, not that that fact mattered to the Americans.
Even before the Revolutionary War had ended, white settlers had begun crossing the Ohio River and settling in modern day Ohio. Playing catch-up was Continental Congress, which actively negotiated with local tribes to buy up as much land as possible, which it then sold to land developers (such as the Ohio Company), who then sold individual lots to settlers.
Between 1784 and 1786 the Continental Congress was able to negotiate a number of land sales treaties with tribes along the Ohio River. Some of these treaties were legitimate; others were not. All too often a pattern that had existed since colonial times was followed: government negotiators would pay off a couple of tribal chiefs to sell tribal land that they had no right to sell. When the rest of the tribe found out about the treaty and objected, they were told in no uncertain terms that military force would be used, if necessary, to enforce the signed treaties, and the tribes would have no choice but to pack up and move west.
At that same time, another ugly 150 year old pattern would play out: as more and more settlers moved into the area, they would settle outside of the treaty boundaries, encroaching onto what remained of Indian land. While American government officials wanted the encroachment to stop, it was powerless to prevent it or remove the settlers once they were there. Moreover, if these illegal white settlers attacked local Indians enforcing their land rights, American officials would have no choice but to send in soldiers to protect its citizens, no matter that they were in the wrong.
In 1785, several Native American tribes in the Old Northwest, led by the Shawnee and Miami, joined together to form an Indian “Confederacy.” The tribes in the Confederacy agreed to deal with the United States as a united group. In 1786, the Confederacy declared its rejection of all land sale treaties in the Old Northwest that had previously been made with the Continental Congress. The Confederacy insisted that all white settlers be removed from the Old Northwest and that the Ohio River become a permanent boundary between white and Indian land. While the Continental Congress was willing to renegotiate the treaties, it was not willing to give up land already purchased and settled. Armed conflict was inevitable.
With secret support of arms and ammunition from British agents, still angry over their loss in the Revolutionary War, the Confederacy began raiding white settlements in Ohio, killing scores of settlers. White frontiersmen, of course, retaliated. Between 1786 and 1790 armed conflicts between the two sides increased, with massacres on both sides. In 1790, the new United States government finally got involved, and the conflict developed into what became known as the “Northwest Indian War.”
The War officially began when newly elected President Washington ordered General Josiah Harmar to launch a major offensive into Shawnee and Miami Indian territory (near the modern day Ohio and Indiana border). Harmar’s goal was to destroy main Miami village of Kekionga (modern day Fort Wayne, Indiana). In October, 1790, Harmar set off with 1,400 men to do the job.
When Harmar’s forces arrived at Kekionga, they found it abandoned and so burned it to the ground. A week later, however, his men were ambushed by Confederacy warriors led by Miami Chief Little Turtle. In the battle (known as “Harmar’s Defeat”), Harmar lost over 400 men and had to flee back to the safety of Fort Washington in southern Ohio.
The next year, 1791, Washington ordered the governor of the Northwest Territory, Arthur St. Clair, to lead a new assault to crush the Confederacy. St. Clair was so confident of success that he bragged openly of bringing “utter destruction” to the Indians. His forces, however, were undertrained and under-equipped for the job.
Waiting for St. Clair was a large force of Shawnee warriors led by Chiefs Tecumseh and Blue Jacket (who, legend has it, was a white man), along with Miami warriors led by Little Turtle. In early November, near modern day Fort Recovery on the Ohio/Indiana border, they attacked St. Clair’s force of 1,000 men. The battle lasted only two hours, after which St. Clair ordered a retreat. St. Clair had three horses shot out from under him as he tried to rally his troops, many of whom hid beneath wagons and behind trees.
Over 600 of St. Clair’s soldiers and most of his officers were killed along with nearly 200 civilian camp followers (wives, children and prostitutes). Practically all of the surviving soldiers were wounded. In that one battle, nearly 1/4 of the entire existing U.S. army had been wiped out. St. Clair himself only barely managed to escape with his life. Upon learning of the catastrophe, Washington exclaimed, “It’s all over! St. Clair defeated! – routed! . . . Cut to pieces, hacked, butchered, tomahawked – O, God! O God!. . . How can he answer to his country?”
It took two years for the United States government to recover. After St. Clair’s defeat, Washington called upon Revolutionary War veteran General “Mad Anthony” Wayne to build and command a new army to defeat the Confederacy. Wayne believed that the previous expeditions against the Indians had failed because of poor training and discipline, and so he began rigorous preparations for a new assault force.
While Wayne trained his troops, Washington tried peace negotiations with the Confederacy. These failed, however, as the Confederacy still insisted on keeping the Old Northwest free from whites and then killed two of Washington’s peace emissaries.
On August 20, 1794, Wayne, with 3,000 well trained and equipped troops, set out to confront the Confederacy. Wayne met the forces of Blue Jacket (who had taken over military leadership of the Confederacy from Little Turtle) in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, near present day Toledo, Ohio. After a short battle, Wayne’s larger and well-equipped forces routed the Confederacy.
Following this defeat the Confederacy collapsed. In 1795 Confederacy leaders signed the Treaty of Greeneville, in which they ceded most of Ohio and a portion of Indiana to the U.S. This treaty opened nearly all of Ohio to a new flood of white settlers, making it eligible to become a state in 1803. However, not all Indians accepted defeat. One veteran of Fallen Timbers who did not sign the Treaty of Greeneville was the young Shawnee war leader Tecumseh, who would form a new Confederacy and renew armed Indian resistance in the Old Northwest a decade later.