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Map of the Northwest Indian War

The Northwest Indian War (1785–1795), also known as Little Turtle's War and by various other names, was a war fought between the United Statesmarker and a confederation of numerous American Indian tribes for control of the Northwest Territory. It followed centuries of conflict over this territory, first among Indian nations, and then with the added shifting alliances among the tribes and European powers, such as Francemarker and Great Britainmarker, and their colonists. The new nation of the United States entered after achieving independence. The United States' decisive victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 finally brought the conflicts to an end. As a result, Indian tribes were forced to cede territory including much of present-day Ohiomarker to the US in the Treaty of Greenvillemarker in 1795.


Beaver Wars (1650s)

The land east of the Mississippi River and south of the Great Lakesmarker had been fought over for centuries before the United Statesmarker government was formed. About 1200 CE, after years of fierce warfare, the Iroquois invasions from the north pushed several tribes out of the Ohio Valley. These included the Osage, Kaw, Ponca and other Siouan-language tribes. Over the next centuries, they migrated west to what were historically considered their traditional lands west of the Mississippi River at the time of European contact. The more powerful tribes displaced other tribes, such as the Caddo, to the west in turn.

In 1608 Frenchmarker explorer Samuel Champlain sided with the Wyandot (Huron) Indians living along the St. Lawrence Rivermarker against the Iroquois Indians living in upper New Yorkmarker state. The result was the bitter enmity of the Iroquois against the French, which resulted in the Iroquois' siding with the Dutch traders coming up the Hudson River in about 1626. The Dutch traded the Iroquois furs for firearms and hatchets and knives. With more sophisticated arms, the Iroquois nearly eliminated the Hurons and all of the Indians west of their territories in the Northwest Territory or Ohio country in the Beaver Wars, starting in the 1650s. The western tribes had also been weakened by European diseases, to which they had no natural immunity. With the Iroquois armed with steel knives, steel hatchets, and muskets, the wars became more brutal, with higher fatalities. Historians considered them among the bloodiest conflicts in the history of North America.

After victory, the Iroquois enlarged their territory. The number of tribes' paying tribute to them realigned the tribal geography of eastern North America. Several large tribal confederacies were destroyed, including the Wyandot (Huron), Neutral, Erie, and Susquehannock. The Iroquois pushed several other eastern tribes west to or across the Mississippi River. The Ohio country was virtually emptied of native people, as Indian refugees fled west to escape Iroquois warriors. After the Iroquois returned to New Yorkmarker and the Northeast, they left much of the Northwest territory, Kentuckymarker territory and Ohio Territory with decimated tribes and empty villages.

About 1655, the Iroquois became trading partners with the British, who took over the New Netherlands territory from the Dutch. After about 1700, some remnants of the Indian tribes began returning to the Northwest Territory. They were often conglomerations of several tribes who paid tribute to the Iroquois.

French and British occupation

Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, both Britain and France claimed ownership of the Ohio Country, in competition with the Iroquois Confederacy. By the mid-1700s, both nations had sent merchants and fur traders into the area to trade with local Indians, and violence quickly erupted. The French and Indian War, an expression in North America of the Seven Years War in Europe, brought Indian tribes into the conflict as allies of the French and British. With its defeat, France relinquished any claims on the area to Britain with the Treaty of Paris in 1763.

The British still faced competition with numerous Indian tribes, including those in the Great Lakes region: the Ottawasmarker, Ojibwas, Pottawatomis, and Hurons; those from eastern Illinois Country, which included the Miami, Wea, Kickapoo, Mascouten, and Piankashaw; and those from the Ohio Country: the Delawares (Lenape), Shawnee, Mingo, and Wyandot, among others. The tribes were unhappy about British colonists' moving into the area. This unhappiness erupted in Pontiac's Rebellion of 1763-66, where the Indians burned several forts. They also killed and drove many settlers out of the Northwest Territory. The British had to send troops to reinforce Fort Pitt. The Indians were defeated in the minor Battle of Bushy Runmarker. In the end the war fizzled with almost nothing resolved.

Great Britain officially closed the area of the Northwest Territories to colonial settlement by the Proclamation of 1763, in an effort to create peaceful relations with the Shawnee and other tribes in the region. On June 22, 1774, the British Parliamentmarker passed the Quebec Act, which annexed this region to the province of Quebecmarker. Some colonists, wanting to be free to move to "new lands" west of the Allegheny Mountains, called this one of the Intolerable Acts that contributed to the American Revolution.

American Revolution and after

During the American Revolution, four tribes of the six in the Iroquois Confederation sided with the British. They fought against colonists in the Battle of Oriskanymarker, aided the British in the Battle of Saratogamarker and the Battle of Wyoming in Pennsylvaniamarker, and the Battle of Cherry Valley in New York, as well as in numerous other actions throughout New York and Pennsylvania. As the British concentrated on the southern United States in 1779, General George Washington took action against the Iroquois. He instructed General John Sullivan to attack and destroy Iroquois villages in upper New York. Leading about 5,000 troops, Sullivan defeated the Iroquois in the Battle of Newtown, then destroyed over 40 Iroquois villages and all their associated crops in the fall of 1779. His army destroyed over 10 more in other parts of New York. Because of the social disruption and crop losses, some Iroquois men, women, and children died of starvation that winter. However, many of the Iroquois retreated to Fort Niagaramarker and other parts of Canadamarker where they spent a cold and hungry winter. Their power in present-day United States territory was lessened, and their claims to the Northwest Territories were challenged.

In 1778, American General George Rogers Clark and 178 men captured the British forts on the Ohio River. This gave the United States control of the Ohio river and a claim to all the land north of the Ohio River.

The Battle of Blue Licks was the last battle of the American Revolutionary War fought in Kentuckymarker. On a hill next to the Licking River in what is now Robertson County, Kentuckymarker, a force of about 50 British rangers and 300 American Indians ambushed and routed 182 Kentucky militiamen.

With the end of the war, the Treaty of Paris with Great Britain gave the United States independence and control of the Northwest Territories, at least on paper. The Iroquois allies were forced to cede most of their land in New York state to the new nation, and many of the Iroquois moved on to reservations in Canada.

The Ohio territory was subject to overlapping and conflicting claims by the states of Massachusettsmarker, Connecticutmarker, New York, and Virginiamarker. While the British Crown had suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Yorktown , there had been no decisive defeat for their Indian allies in the Northwest Territories. In addition, the Indian tribes in the Old Northwest were not parties to the treaty. Many leaders, especially Little Turtle and Blue Jacket, refused to recognize American claims to the area northwest of the Ohio River. The British remained in possession of their Great Lakes forts, through which they continued to supply Indian allies with trade items and weapons in exchange for furs. Some in the British government wished to maintain a neutral Indian territory between Canada and the United States, but most agreed that immediate withdrawal was not possible without sparking a new Indian war. The lingering British presence was not settled until the War of 1812 finally drove the British out of the Northwest Territories.

Through the public sale of western lands, the Continental Congress sought to stabilize the dollar and pay down some of its war debt. The Land Ordinance of 1785 gave encouragement to land speculators, surveyors, and settlers who sought to gain new land from the Indians who may or may not have had a claim to it. To acquire most of the eastern portion of the Ohio Country, Congress negotiated the Treaty of Fort McIntosh in 1785 with several Indian tribes. Settlers from Connecticut were already streaming into the Western Reserve, which extended into part of a reservation set aside for some of the tribes.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, passed by the US Congress under the Articles of Confederation, gave Indians title, under U.S. law, to enjoy whatever lands they lived on. It also encouraged the influx of U.S. settlers north of the Ohio River. Localized ambushes and engagements between those settlers and Indians continued. The failure of the 1789 Treaty of Fort Harmar to address underlying grievances between the two sides exacerbated the problems.

Formation of the confederacy

Co-operation among the Indian nations forming the Western Confederacy had gone back to the French colonial era. It was renewed during the American Revolutionary War. The Confederacy first came together in the autumn of 1785 at Fort Detroit, proclaiming that the parties to the Confederacy would deal jointly with the United States, rather than individually. This determination was renewed in 1786 at the Wyandot (Huron) village of Upper Sandusky. The Confederacy declared the Ohio River as the boundary between their lands and those of American settlers. The Hurons were the nominal "fathers" or senior guaranteeing nation of the Confederacy, but Shawnees and Miamis provided the greatest share of the fighting force.

The Confederacy included warriors from a wide variety of sources:

In most cases, an entire "tribe" or "nation" was not involved in the war; Indian societies were not centralized. Villages and individuals decided on participation in the war.

Nearly 200 Cherokee from two bands of the group known as Chickamauga lived and fought alongside the Shawnee from the time of the Revolution through the years of the Indian Confederacy. In addition, the Cherokee leader Dragging Canoe sent a contingent of warriors for a specific action.

Some warriors of the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes, which were traditionally antagonistic to the northwest Indians, served as scouts for the United States during these years.

Course of the war

Still opposed to the US, some British agents in the region sold weapons and ammunition to the Indians and encouraged attacks on American settlers. War parties launched a series of isolated raids in the mid-1780s, resulting in escalating bloodshed and mistrust. In the fall of 1786, General Benjamin Logan led a force of Federal soldiers and mounted Kentucky militia against several Shawnee towns along the Mad River. These were protected primarily by noncombatants while the warriors were raiding forts in Kentucky. Logan burned the Indian towns and food supplies, and killed or captured numerous Indians, including their chief, who was murdered by one of Logan's men. Logan's raid and the execution of the chief angered the Shawnees, who retaliated by escalating their attacks on American settlers.

Indian raids on both sides of the Ohio River resulted in increasing casualties. During the mid- and late-1780s, European-American settlers south of the Ohio River in Kentucky and travelers on and north of the Ohio River suffered approximately 1,500 casualties. Settlers retaliated with attacks on Indians.

In 1790, President George Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox ordered General Josiah Harmar to launch a major western offensive into the Shawnee and Miami country. In October 1790, a force of 1,453 men under Brigadier General Josiah Harmar was assembled near present-day Fort Wayne, Indianamarker. Harmar committed only 400 of his men under Colonel John Hardin to attack an Indian force of some 1,100 warriors, and Hardin was handily defeated.. He lost at least 129 soldiers.

Washington ordered Major General Arthur St. Clair, who served as governor of the Northwest Territory, to mount a more vigorous effort by summer 1791. After considerable trouble finding men and supplies, St. Clair was somewhat ready, but the troops had received little training. At dawn on November 4, 1791, St. Clair's, accompanied by about 200 camp followers, was camped near the present-day location of Fort Recovery, Ohiomarker, with weak defenses set up on the perimeter. An Indian force consisting of around 2,000 warriors led by Little Turtle, Blue Jacket, and Tecumseh, struck quickly. Surprising the Americans, the warriors soon overran the poorly prepared perimeter. The barely trained recruits panicked and were slaughteredmarker, along with many of their officers, who attempted to restore order and stop the rout. The American casualty rate of 69% was based on the deaths of 632 of 920 soldiers and officers, and 264 wounded. Nearly all of the 200 camp followers were slaughtered, for a total of about 832 deaths—the highest United States losses in any of its Indian battles. In 1792 Washington's emissaries Colonel John Hardin and Major Alexander Truman were killed while on peace missions in Shelby Countymarker and Ottawa, Ohiomarker, respectively.

After St Clair's disaster, Washington ordered General “Mad” Anthony Wayne to form a well-trained force. Wayne took command of the new Legion of the United States late in 1793. After extensive training, his troops advanced into Indian country and built Fort Recoverymarker at the site of St. Clair's defeat. In June 1794, Little Turtle led an attack on Fort Recovery but without success. Wayne's well-trained Legion advanced deeper into the territory of the Wabash Confederacy. Blue Jacket replaced Little Turtle in overall command, but the Indian forces were defeated at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794.

Fleeing from the battlefield to regroup at the British-held Fort Miami marker, Blue Jacket's forces found the British had locked them out of the fort. The British and Americans were reaching a close rapprochement at this time to counter Jacobin Francemarker in its French Revolution.

In 1795 the United States engaged in two treaties that recognized the changes in power. By the Treaty of Greenvillemarker, the northwest Indian tribes of the confederacy were forced to cede most of Ohio and a slice of Indianamarker to the U.S.; to recognize the U.S., rather than Britain, as the ruling power in the Old Northwest; and to give ten chiefs to the U.S. as hostages until all European-American prisoners were returned. Also that year, the United States negotiated Jay's Treaty with Great Britain, which required British withdrawal from the western forts while opening up some British territory in the Caribbean for American trade.


The war has no widely accepted name; other names include the "Old Northwest Indian War", the "Ohio War", the "Ohio Indian War", and the "War for the Ohio River Boundary". In U.S. Army records, it is known as the "Miami Campaign". One historian has recently suggested naming it the "Miami Confederacy War", but other scholars have resisted naming the war after the Miamis (or Little Turtle, as was once common), arguing that this overlooks the centrality of Blue Jacket and the Ohio Country Indians in the war. Many books avoid the problem of what to call the war by describing it without putting a name to it, or ignoring it. Similarly, the battles and expeditions of the war do not have "standard" names in U.S. history books, except for the Battle of Fallen Timbers.

Although this war was the first major military endeavor of the post-Revolutionary United States, and a major crisis of President George Washington's Administration, historians have sometimes overlooked it. Although 19th-century Indian Wars became more famous in American popular culture (in part because of being more recent), the Northwest Indian War resulted in more casualties of the United States military and noncombatants than the combined battles of Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Cochise, and Red Cloud. In the Battle of the Wabashmarker (St. Clair's Defeat) American Indians achieved their highest rate of casualties against the US Army.

The Northwest Indian War was part of a long frontier struggle in the Ohio Country, which included the French and Indian War (1754–1763), Pontiac's Rebellion (1763–1764), Lord Dunmore's Warmarker (1774) and the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783). Many Indian communities perceived the wars as a kind of endemic warfare with European and American settlers that spanned several generations. For example, historian Francis Jennings suggested that the Northwest Indian War was, for the Lenape people, the end of a "Forty Years' War" that began soon after the Braddock Expedition in 1755. For some American Indians, the conflict resumed a generation later with Tecumseh's War (1811) and the War of 1812 (hence their term Sixty Years' War). Conflict with the US continued to the 1830s era of Indian removals from east of the Mississippi.

Key figures

United States

Indian Confederacy


  1. The Jesuit Relations... 1610-1791, Creighton University, accessed 20 Jan 2009
  2. *
  3. Harmar's Defeat [1] accessed 20 Jan 2009
  4. Drake, Samuel Adams; The Making of the Ohio Valley States: 1660-1837: pp. 173-175; ISBN 1582184224, 9781582184227
  5. Edel, Wilbur : Kekionga!: The Worst Defeat in the History of the U.S. Army; ISBN 978-0275958213
  6. Roosevelt, Theodore St. Clair's defeat, 1791; pub 1896

Further reading

  • Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University, 1992.
  • Jennings, Francis. The Founders of America. New York: Norton, 1993.
  • Skaggs, David Curtis and Larry L. Nelson, eds. The Sixty Years' War for the Great Lakes, 1754-1814. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-87013-569-4.
  • Sugden, John. Blue Jacket: Warrior of the Shawnees. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
  • Sword, Wiley. President Washington's Indian War: The Struggle for the Old Northwest, 1790-1795. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.
  • White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. Cambridge University Press, 1991.

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