Violence between Frontiersmen and American Indians in the Southwest

May 31st, 2011

The War Department Papers include an exceptionally rich collection of documents detailing violent conflicts between white Americans and American Indians on the frontier, particularly those in the Southwest Territory. Both sides in these conflicts defended their actions as just, and each side engaged in both offensive and defensive action. Sometimes the white settlers initiated the violence by illegally encroaching on Indian lands; other times, various Indian tribes initiated the violence by attacking legal settlements. This put the War Department in a precarious position, as it had to balance the complaints of both the Indians and frontier settlers (many of whom were lower-class, subsistence-level farmers). President Washington and Henry Knox in particular were perplexed about what to do in this situation.

A prime example of offensive violence by frontiersmen against American Indians in the Southwest Territory occurred in the year 1794, when Captain James Ore led a force of 550 men – without instructions from Washington – to retaliate the deaths of several white Americans in the Mero District of Tennessee. Ore and his force invaded the Lower Cherokee towns of Nickajack and Running Water and murdered upwards of 50 Indian men, taking 19 women and children as prisoners. For a detailed account from Captain Ore himself, read here. President Washington and Secretary Knox were outraged with this impulsive attack, not only because it came without orders from Washington, but because the Lower Cherokee were allies of the United States. Needless to say, the United States government had much explaining to do to the Cherokees. William Blount, Governor of Southwest Territory, also disapproved of this action, calling it an “illegal and unauthorized enterprise” and insisting that the military ought to exhibit “feelings of humanity” before conducting such a rash act of violence.

On the other hand, some of the American Indians were the ones to initiate violence, oftentimes against relatively defenseless, lower-class white families settled legally on the frontier. In Georgia near the Oconee River, some Indians reportedly killed and scalped a white woman and black woman on the frontier. The Creek Indians in particular were known to scalp various men and women on the Georgian frontier, as illuminated in this report on the murder and scalping of seven individuals. One small yeoman farmer was found outside his home with a tomahawk sticking out of his skull. Another report in 1794 described a “barbarous massacre” by a group of 12 to 15 Indians where several women and “small children” were killed: “Some scalped and barbarously cut to pieces; some tomahawked very inhumanly, and the poor helpless infants committed to the torturing flames.”

Both sides in these conflicts had just causes for complaint: the Indians, of course, for encroachments upon their land, and for violence initiated by some of the Americans; the frontier families, for acts of violence by some of the Indians against legal settlements.

In an interesting letter from Secretary Knox to President Washington, Knox was particularly harsh toward the whites who illegally attacked friendly Indians, explaining that many of the Indians had just reason to be angry: “The desires of too many frontier white people, to seize, by force or fraud, upon the neighboring Indian lands, has been, and still continues to be, an unceasing cause of jealousy and hatred on the part of the Indians,” Knox wrote.

According to Knox, this led to a vicious circle of violence, as Indians retaliated against white violence, with whites then retaliating against Indian violence: “The encroachment of white people is incessantly watched [by the Indians], and in unguarded moments, they are murdered by the Indians. Revenge is sought, and the innocent frontier people are too frequently involved as victims in the cruel contest. This appears to be a principal cause of Indian wars.”

Knox was afraid that this cycle of violence would contribute to an “inability of both parties to keep the peace.” Think of the conflict like that between Israel and Palestine – an attack by one causing a revenge attack by the other, which in turn spawns another revenge attack, until both sides are embroiled in endless conflict.

Knox’s solution was for the United States government, to the best of its ability, to pursue a policy of peace with the Indians in the Southwest Territory, which included the Creeks, Cherokees, and Chickasaws:

“It seems that our own experience would demonstrate the propriety of endeavoring to preserve a pacific conduct, in preference to a hostile one, with the Indian tribes. The United States can get nothing by an Indian war; but they risk men, money, and reputation. As we are more powerful, and more enlightened than they are, there is a responsibility of national character, that we should treat them with kindness, and even liberality. It is a melancholy reflection, that our modes of population have been more destructive to the Indian natives than the conduct of the conquerors of Mexico and Peru. The evidence of this is the utter extirpation of nearly all the Indians in most populous parts of the Union. A future historian may mark the causes of this destruction of the human race in sable colors.”

This latter statement from Knox to Washington was quite prophetic – for historians have indeed been justly critical of the destructive policies towards the Indians by certain portions of the white American population. Knox perceived this, and so wished to walk a thin line between satisfying the complaints of both the settlers and the American Indians, while maintaining peace to the best of his ability. In the end this strategy proved to be quite difficult, and American leaders in the first half of the nineteenth century were undoubtedly less interested in peace with the Southwestern Indians than the Washington administration was in the 1790s. By the 1830s, many of these same Indians had been forcibly removed to the territory west of the Mississippi River, leaving behind land that had belonged to their people for an untold number of generations.

A Soldier First and Last

May 24th, 2011

On November 5, 1790, Josiah Harmar, senior officer in the Army of the United States, penned an emotional letter to Henry Knox, Secretary of War. Harmar was deeply wounded by Knox’s communication, which indicated that President Washington expressed doubts regarding Harmar’s fitness for command, as “the bottle incapacitates me.” Harmar wrote “you shall never find me a courtier, but upon all occasions self-possessed and a Soldier…I have a certain Sort of something about me called honor, which will never suffer me to commit a mean action.” This letter, from the Knox papers of the Maine Historical Society, means little out of context, but is striking for its simple and eloquent defense of himself as “a Soldier” rather than as senior officer. It is also interesting that the letter was found among Knox’s personal papers at his Maine home, Montpelier.

The collections of the Papers of the War Department allow us to trace the thread of correspondence leading up to this missive. We discover that it is an impassioned reaction to a letter Harmar received from Knox on September 3, 1790, just as he was marching upon the Maumee (Miami) towns, in a disastrous action that ruined his military career. Knox had ordered Harmar, stationed in the Northwest Territory, to dispatch with a troublesome group of Indians who had been worrying towns and settlements in the frontier area. Poorly equipped with a ragtag group of militia, Knox was delivered a resounding defeat at the hands of Little Turtle. Following this stunning upset, Harmar was relieved of command, and replaced by Arthur St. Clair. Although the text is difficult to read, it is clear that Knox, in the context of friendship and admiration, is expressing concerns based on reports that Harmar drinks too much and that it might be affecting his command. We can only assume that such a letter, delivered on the day that Harmar marched against the Maumee, did little to help matters. You can read Harmar’s account of the action against the Maumee in the Papers of the War Department.

Harmar, as was not uncommon at the time, requested a court martial, feeling that he would fare better in a court of his fellow soldiers. Harmar was vindicated of wrongdoing, but rumors of his alcohol abuse dogged him for the rest of his life, and he struggled to maintain himself and his home outside of the military. By March 1792, he was already petitioning the treasury for his back salary of 577 dollars.


Community Transcription: Two Months On

May 17th, 2011

Two short months ago we officially launched the Scripto tool on the PWD site. Our volunteers have been transcribing diligently, and the results are pouring in.

Since our launch in March, we have registered more than 170 new users. By utilizing various H-Net lists, we have been able to reach out to a wide audience of potential transcribers and users. We continue to add users each week, as we reach out to other communities—genealogists, for example. We currently have users who are students, teachers, hobbyists, historians, and self-described “transcription geeks.”

PWD editors have nominated some 140 documents for transcription. Those users have produced an impressive range of transcriptions, including 80 finished documents. In addition, we have monitored and responded to dozens of questions from transcribers, using both the “talk” feature and e-mail support. Each day the archive grows, as we add newly completed transcriptions and as editors nominate new ones.

As we continue forward with the project, users may still register for a transcription account.

Why Build Another Navy?

May 17th, 2011

Meeting in a waterfront Philadelphia tavern in 1775,  the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress, (which included John Adams as a member),  decided to form the Continental Navy, authorizing construction of thirteen frigates.  Since the British had tended to jealously guard its own  ship building industry,  the Colonists would take time developing one for themselves.  Thus in the meantime, some of the first war ships were simply converted merchant vessels and commissioned privateers.  As the war progressed, these makeshift war vessels would prove a bit more successful than the Continental Navy’s ships, most of which were either captured or destroyed by the Royal Navy.  Even John Paul Jones’ illustrious Bonhomme Richard, though victorious over HMS Serapis, sank off the coast of England.  In any event, by the end of the war, only a handful of the estimated sixty-five ships that served in the Continental Navy survived, and in 1785 Congress auctioned the last vessel of the Continental Navy to a private owner. As late as the 1900s, remnants of the 36  gun frigate Alliance, known for having fired the last shot of the war, could be seen resting on a mud bar along the Delaware River.

While there might have been talk about building another Navy, legislative discussions tended to hit a dead end over matters of  funding, taxes, and the increased power and authority a Navy might give to a new central government.  Then America found itself drawn into European affairs as the Algerians closed off  access to lucrative Mediterranean markets by seizing her ships and cargo and enslaving and ransoming the crew. This drove up maritime insurance rates and bankrupted merchant houses, some of which operated out of Philadelphia, the seat of government at the time. After some political wrangling, some of it regional,  and some along Federalist-Republican partisan lines, Congress authorized funds to build six frigates.  In this letter, Secretary of War Knox asks to meet with Philadelphia Quaker and master ship builder Joshua Humphreys to discuss the design of proposed frigates.

Their names? During the initial design stages, the frigates were simply designated A-F.  Later, the names would be chosen by the War Department,  some as symbols of the  new U.S. Constitution.  Their names and place built included: Portsmouth New Hampshire, Congress; Boston, Constitution; New York, President; Philadelphia, United States; Norfolk, Chesapeake; and Baltimore, Constellation.


Allowance of Spirits

May 3rd, 2011

It was common in the late 18th century American army to provide a daily allowance of “spirits” to each soldier. Generally the allowance was measured in “gills,” a gill being the equivalent of four fluid ounces.  Section 6 of  “An Act to augment the Army of the United States” specifically provided that “…every non-commissioned officer, private and musician shall receive daily…a gill of rum, brandy, or whiskey.” (1 Stat. 604-05) [July 16, 1798]  However, Congress must have had second thoughts about the allowance because only eight months later, section 22 of a law entitled “An Act for the better organizing of the Troops of the United States (1 Stat. 749-55) [March 3, 1799]  stated “That it shall be lawful for the commander-in-chief of the army, or the commanding officer of any separate detachment or garrison thereof, at his discretion, to cause to be issued, from time to time to the troops under his command…rum, whiskey, and other ardent spirits in quantities not exceeding half a gill to each man per day…” In his General Orders of June 13, 1799, Inspector General Alexander Hamilton discussed “issuing Liquor to the Troops” and directed that the allowance for each man should be a half gill per day “whenever the Contractors can furnish the supply.” He added, however, that commanders had the discretionary power of “issuing for fatigue service or on Extraordinary Cases.” In other words, commanders could reward their men for additional work or exceptional service with additional rations of liquor.  When Hamilton discussed the matter in his letter of August 26, 1799 to John J. U. Rivardi, he observed that although most men had enlisted when the allowance of spirits was half-gill per day “…Those who entered the Service whilst the act of Congress which allows a gill pr. day was in force…have some colour to contend that the witholding from them of any part of that allowance would be a breach of contract.” Hamilton’s comment would seem to indicate that the allowance of spirits was a significant factor in the decision of those who enlisted in the army. Indeed, it may have been so significant  that cutting that allowance in half might constitute a legal justification for terminating the enlistment.