Northwest Indian War

Northwest Indian War
Part of the American Indian Wars
Treaty of Greenville.jpg
This depiction of the Treaty of Greenville negotiations may have been painted by one of Anthony Wayne's officers.
LocationNorthwest Territory (United States)

United States victory

 United States
Western Confederacy
 Great Britain
Commanders and leaders
United States George Washington
United States Josiah Harmar
United States Arthur St. Clair
United States Anthony Wayne
United States James Wilkinson
Blue Jacket
Little Turtle
United Kingdom Alexander McKillop
4,000 colonial militiamen10,000 Native American warriors
1 British company
Casualties and losses
1,221 killed
458 wounded
1,000+ killed
Unknown wounded

The Northwest Indian War (1785–1795), also known as the Ohio War, Little Turtle's War, and by other names, was a war between the United States and a confederation of numerous Native American tribes, with support from the British, for control of the Northwest Territory. It followed centuries of conflict over this territory, first among Native American tribes, and then with the added shifting alliances among the tribes and the European powers of France and Great Britain, and their colonials.

Under the Treaty of Paris (1783), which ended the American Revolutionary War, Great Britain ceded to the U.S. "control" of the Northwest Territory, which was occupied by numerous Native American peoples. Despite the treaty, the British kept forts there and continued policies that supported the Native Americans in the Northwest Territories. In 1787, there were 45,000 Native Americans in the territory, and 2,000 French.[1] President George Washington directed the United States Army to enforce U.S. sovereignty over the territory. The U.S. Army, consisting of mostly untrained recruits supported by equally untrained militiamen, suffered a series of major defeats, including the Harmar Campaign (1790) and St. Clair's Defeat (1791), which were resounding Native American victories. About 1,000 soldiers and militiamen were killed and the United States forces suffered many more casualties than their opponents.

After St. Clair's disaster, Washington ordered Revolutionary War hero, General "Mad" Anthony Wayne, to organize and train a proper fighting force. Wayne took command of the new Legion of the United States late in 1793. He led his men to a decisive victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. The defeated tribes were forced to cede extensive territory, including much of present-day Ohio, in the Treaty of Greenville in 1795.


Beaver Wars (1650s)

The land east of the Mississippi River and south of the Great Lakes had been fought over for centuries before the United States government was formed.

In 1608, French explorer and founder of Quebec City Samuel Champlain sided with the Wabanaki Confederacy and their allies the Huron people living along the St. Lawrence River against the Iroquois Confederacy ("Five Nations") living in what is now upper and western New York state. The result was a lasting enmity by the Iroquois Confederacy towards the French, which caused them to side with the Dutch fur traders coming up the Hudson River in about 1626. The Dutch offered better prices than the French and traded firearms, hatchets and knives to the Iroquois in exchange for furs.[2]

Engraving based on a drawing by Champlain of his 1609 voyage, depicting a battle between Iroquois and Algonquian tribes near Lake Champlain

With these more sophisticated weapons, the Five Nations nearly exterminated[citation needed] the Huron and all of the other Native Americans living immediately to their west in the Ohio country during the Beaver Wars, beginning in the 1640s. The Native American tribes were competing for hunting grounds for the fur trade. The western tribes had also been weakened by epidemics of European infectious diseases, against which they had no acquired immunity. The Five Nations's use of modern weapons caused the wars to become deadlier. Historians consider the Beaver Wars to have been one of the bloodiest conflicts in the history of North America.

About 1664, the Five Nations became trading partners with the British, who conquered the New Netherlands (renamed New York) from the Dutch.

The Five Nations enlarged their territory by right of conquest. The number of tribes paying tribute to them realigned the tribal map of eastern North America. Several large confederacies were destroyed or relocated, including the Huron, Neutral, Erie, Susquehannock and Shawnee. The Five Nations pushed several other eastern tribes to and even across the Mississippi River. The Ohio country was virtually emptied, as the defeated tribes fled west to escape the Five Nations warriors. After the Five Nations' warriors were defeated, they left much of the Northwest territory, Kentucky and Ohio almost unpopulated and with abandoned villages. They had claimed the entire Ohio Valley as their own exclusive hunting ground.

After about 1700, some remnants of the Native American tribes began returning to the Northwest Territory. They were often conglomerations of several tribes who paid tribute to the Five Nations (see also Mingo).[3]

French and British occupation

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, both Britain and France claimed ownership of the Ohio Country, in competition with the Five Nations (who became the "Six Nations" after the admission of the Tuscarora in 1722), and by the mid-18th century both had sent merchants and fur traders into the area to trade with local Natives, the actual inhabitants of the territory. Violence quickly erupted. During the French and Indian War, an extension in North America of the Seven Years' War in Europe. Indian tribes allied with either the French or British, often depending on trading priorities, and warred with each other and the colonists. France was defeated and relinquished all its territorial claims to Britain in the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

The British still faced opposition from numerous Native American tribes, including in the Great Lakes region: the Ottawa, Ojibwa, Pottawatomi, and Huron; in the eastern Illinois Country: the Miami, Wea, Kickapoo, Mascouten, and Piankashaw; and in the Ohio Country: the Delaware (Lenape), Shawnee, Mingo, and Wyandot. The tribes were angered by the arrogance of British colonial officials, who treated them like defeated subjects, and concerned by the growing threat of British colonials moving to settle in their territories. They attacked in Pontiac's Rebellion of 1763–66, when the Native Americans burned several British forts on their land. They killed and drove many settlers out of the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes territory. In response, Britain sent troops to reinforce Fort Pitt, which ultimately succeeded despite an ambush by the Natives in the nearby Battle of Bushy Run. The war petered out without a clear winner. The Natives remained and yet had not managed to drive British colonial forces out of their territory.

Britain officially closed the Northwest Territories to colonial settlement by the Proclamation of 1763, in an effort to create peace with the tribes west of the Appalachian Mountains. On June 22, 1774, the British Parliament passed the Quebec Act, which annexed the Northwest Territories to the province of Quebec. Some colonials, wanting to move to "new lands," described this as one of the Intolerable Acts that contributed to the American Revolution.

American Revolution

Fall of Fort Sackville

A faction of the Cherokee led by Dragging Canoe, as well as the Shawnee, were already at war with the "Long Knives" starting in 1776, in the Cherokee–American wars, which merged into the Northwest Indian Wars.

During the American Revolution, four of the Six Nations of the Iroquois League sided with the British. The Mohawk, Onondaga, Cayuga and Seneca fought against colonists in the Battle of Oriskany, aided the British in the Battle of Wyoming in Pennsylvania, and at Saratoga, Cherry Valley, and other raids throughout the Mohawk Valley in New York, as well as in numerous other actions on the frontiers of New York and Pennsylvania. As the British concentrated on the southern United States in 1779, General George Washington took action against the Six Nations.

He instructed General John Sullivan to attack and destroy Six Nations villages in upper New York. Leading about 5,000 troops, Sullivan defeated the Six Nations forces in the Battle of Newtown, then destroyed over 40 Six Nations villages and all their stored crops in the fall of 1779. Because of the social disruption and crop losses, some Six Nations men, women, and children died of starvation that winter. Many Six Nations families retreated to Fort Niagara and other parts of Canada, where they spent a cold and hungry winter. Their power in the present-day United States territory was lessened, and their claim to the Northwest Territories was challenged.

In 1778, American General George Rogers Clark and 178 men captured the British forts on the Mississippi and Wabash Rivers. This gave the United States control of the Ohio River and a claim to all the land north of the Ohio. In the Fall of 1779, Natives allied with the British attacked a company of men under Col. David Rogers and Captain Robert Benham near Cincinnati; only a handful of soldiers survived the attack. [Note 1] In 1780, a French officer named Augustin de La Balme led a volunteer militia from Vincennes on a raid of Kekionga, with a goal of capturing Fort Detroit. This marks the first known victory for Little Turtle, who gathered available warriors and destroyed La Balme's force.[4]

As the war with the British came to a close, the young United States looked to secure their borders, exact revenge for Native American raids, and expand westward. In March 1782, a band of Pennsylvania militia entered Ohio Country and massacred a Christian Lenape village of Gnadenhütten.[5] Two months later, Colonel William Crawford led 500 volunteers deep into Ohio Country and attacked Native American villages near the Sandusky River. Crawford's force was defeated with a loss of about 70 Americans killed, and several prisoners were executed in retaliation for the Gnadenhutten massacre.[6] In August 1782, the last battle of the American Revolutionary War, the Battle of Blue Licks, was fought in Kentucky. On a hill next to the Licking River in what is now Robertson County, Kentucky, a force of about 50 British rangers and 300 Natives ambushed and routed 182 pursuing Kentucky militiamen.

With the end of the war, the Treaty of Paris (1783) with Great Britain gave the United States independence and control of the Northwest Territories, at least on paper. The Six Nations' allies were forced to cede most of their land in New York state to the United States, and many Six Nations families moved on to land reserves in old Quebec Province (now southern Ontario).