The beginnings of a multi-tribal and multinational conflict over ‘the Ohio Country,’ an area later widened and renamed ‘the Northwest Territories,’ is not widely familiar. Most of the stories we learned of the American Revolution ignore or downplay this dimension in favor of all the battles along the Eastern Seaboard or the Upper Hudson Valley. These were compelling tales, but they were never the complete picture. For that, we need to step back a bit.
Before the arrival of the bearded and smelly people of the ‘Great Canoes’ to Turtle Island, we learned of one Native people, the Lenape (aka Delawares). They were considered an ancient people from the west who moved steadily eastward until they met the Atlantic Ocean. They made the bay areas their home, calling themselves ‘the people of the dawn,’ meaning they saw the Sun rise before others.
But they were not the only people in motion. Behind them was another Algonquin-speaking people known as the Shawnee. Their name among the Algonquins was a dual mixture of ‘people of the south wind’ and ‘people of the thaw and better weather.’ When you consider that most Algonquins were centered in what is now Canada, the meaning of ‘Shawnee’ makes sense. There is debate over the Shawnee’s origin, but let’s take their word for it. They considered the Lenape their ‘grandfathers,’ meaning an older connection in whose footsteps they followed.
If the Lenape settled on the shore of the rising Sun, their Shawnee ‘grandchildren’ seemed a restless bunch, moving about far and wide—from what is now Illinois in the west to northern Georgia in the south and Pennsylvania in the east. But their trails always seemed to end in the ‘Ohio Country,’ stretching from its upper forks and ‘Logstown,’ down the Ohio Valley and its Indiana and Kentucky tributaries to the Mississippi. Many smaller tribes, such as the Miami and the Mingo (Seneca), also saw this area as home, but none were quite as powerful as the Shawnee.
We need to understand these lesser-known peoples and territories to make complete sense of the American Revolution or, more appropriately, the American War of Independence from Great Britain. First, we must set aside the ‘one-front’ concept of the war as conflict on the Atlantic seaboard. It was a two or even three-front war, engaged in the West with Native peoples, who had allied themselves with the British but were mainly fighting for their own homelands as well. Slave revolts were an internal front.
We covered New England’s revolutionary ‘motley’ class struggle component with our account of the multiracial rebellion of dockworkers and sailors in Boston against the UK naval brass. But the Southern colonies also faced the enslaved’s risings, often instigated by the Brits. The UK had recently abolished slavery on its own soil while hypocritically still profiting from its widespread practice in the colonies throughout the Caribbean and elsewhere.
A good starting point is Lord Dunmore’s War, around 1774. John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, was Virginia’s governor then. According to Wikipedia:
“In September 1773, a then-obscure hunter named Daniel Boone led a group of about 50 emigrants in the first attempt by white colonists to establish a settlement in Kentucky County, Virginia. On October 9, 1773, Boone’s oldest son James, age 16, and a small group of men and boys who were retrieving supplies were attacked by a band of Delawares, Shawnees, and Cherokees. They had decided “to send a message of their opposition to settlement…” James Boone and Henry Russell, a teenage son of future Revolutionary War officer William Russell, were captured and tortured to death. The brutality of the killings shocked the settlers along the frontier, and Boone’s party abandoned their expedition. By December, the incident had been reported in Baltimore and Philadelphia newspapers. The deaths among Boone’s party were among the first events in Lord Dunmore’s War.”
Settler ‘Ranger’ militias made it their business to slaughter Native peoples at will. One was Captain Michael Cresap, who, in the Pike’s Creek Massacre, killed the family of the Mingo Chief Logan. The Mingo were relatively peaceful, but Cresap’s crew didn’t care. They simply wanted to kill or drive away the Natives from the Ohio, West Virginia, and Western PA area. Lord Dunmore sent his militia to aid Cresap and others, gathering around a place called ‘Point Pleasant,’ near what is today Wheeling, Steubenville, and Beaver, PA. On hearing of the murders, Logan made a famous statement, recorded on a monument in the area today:
“I appeal to any white man to say, if ever he entered Logan’s cabin hungry, and he gave him not meat; if ever he came cold and naked, and he clothed him not. During the course of the last long and bloody war, Logan remained idle in his cabin, an advocate for peace. Such was my love for the whites, that my countrymen pointed as they passed, and said, Logan is the friend of the white men. I have even thought to live with you but for the injuries of one man. Col. Cresap, the last spring, in cold blood, and unprovoked, murdered all the relations of Logan, not sparing even my women and children. There runs not a drop of my blood in the veins of any living creature. This has called on me for revenge. I have sought it: I have killed many: I have fully glutted my vengeance. For my country, I rejoice at the beams of peace. But do not harbor a thought that mine is the joy of fear. Logan never felt fear. He will not turn on his heel to save his life. Who is there to mourn for Logan? Not one.”
Here a Shawnee chief named Cornstalk entered the picture. He had advocated neutrality in the rising conflict between the Brits and the Americans but tilted toward the British. He had also taken part in Pontiac’s rebellion to defend the Ohio country homeland earlier. With other Native leaders, Cornstalk went to Fort Randolph in 1777 to negotiate peace. They were murdered while preparing to talk.
The consequences were severe, and the Shawnee dropped their neutrality. Under the new American governor Patrick Henry, Virginia found a Shawnee-led resistance on his western front. The absconding Lord Dunmore offered a last-minute deal to Virginia’s slaves: if they rebelled and joined his ‘Ethiopian Regiment,’ they would be emancipated. Thousands did so, and we know that a few made it to free status in Nova Scotia and the UK itself. Some were returned to Africa.
During the revolution, the Shawnee captured several settlers in the region, including Daniel Boone, but took them to Detroit and sold them to the British. Among these was my own third GGrandfather, George Baker, captured with his wife Elizabeth Nicholson and five children. They made an early settler home at the ‘Baker Blockhouse’ on Raccoon Creek, near the Ohio River in Western PA, a few miles downriver from the old Logstown. After their release by the British later, they issued a statement asserting they had been treated well and with civility by their Shawnee captors and had no ill will on that account. They returned to what is now Beaver County and rebuilt their homestead. Eventually, they had a granddaughter, Amanda Baker, who married William Hamilton Davidson, a young farmer known for apple orchards. A monument marks the old Baker homestead and burial grounds today just west of the Center Exit on I-376. Artifacts are kept in a Museum at Penn State Beaver. They were clearly settlers on lands taken militarily, but so far as I have been able to determine, none of my family were ‘rangers’ or engaged in any killings of the Native peoples.
The battles of the new White Slave Republic on its western frontiers, however, were now defined, and the conflicts over what it now called its ‘Northwest Territories’ were far from over. More to Come