Colonel Bradstreet and his Missing Expedition

By Kathy Warnes

The story of Colonel Bradstreet’s army, the enmity of Captain John Montresor for the Colonel and what happened to the army at Rocky River in the middle of October 1764 is a little known episode in the titanic struggle for the North American continent between the French and English. Dramatic episodes in the struggle played across the sparkling sands washed by Lake Erie and twelve years later in the execution of Nathan Hale as a spy in Manhattan. The English had fought and won the long and bloody war against France for possession of the North American continent that had officially raged from 1756-1763, but actually had begun decades before that. The French had usually been friendly and conciliatory toward the Indians and the French Jesuit priests and French traders had forged friendly and generous trading relations with their Native American neighbors. After the English had conquered New France, they antagonized the Western tribes by refusing to give them free ammunition as the French had done, treating them arrogantly building forts and allowing whites to settle on Indian lands. Pontiac, a charismatic Ottawa chief, vowed to rally the tribes and drive the English back into the sea. In April 1763 he called a council on the banks of the Ecorse River near Detroit and planned an attack on the garrison at Detroit. Pontiac and his Ottawas and his Wyandot, Pottawatomie and Ojibwa allies stormed the fort on May 10, 1763 and anticipating help from the French besieged it until November. When he realized that no French help was imminent, Pontiac retired to the Maumee River but continued to wage war. The Indians of the Pontiac conspiracy attacked Fort Pitt in Pennsylvania which held firm until Colonel Henry Bouquet and his army relieved it. On their way to Fort Pitt in August 1763, Colonel Bouquet and his army fought a fierce battle with the Seneca, Delaware and Shawnee at Bushy Run outside of Pittsburgh and defeated them. In the meantime Pontiac’s allies, the Delaware, Seneca and Shawnee tribes captured and destroyed the British outposts of Sandusky, Michilimackinac and Fort Le Boeuf and Fort Presque Isle. The borders of Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia seethed in a state of terror.

In the spring of 1763 the English launched an offensive campaign against Pontiac and his allies. They sent out two armies-one into Ohio under Colonel Henry Bouquet and the other to the Great Lakes under Colonel John Bradstreet. Commander in Chief General Thomas Gage condemned Colonel Bradstreet’s attempt to make treaties with the Indians and Colonel Bradstreet returned home without accomplishing much. Because of his Pennsylvania campaign, Colonel Bouquet brought the Seneca, Delaware and Shawnee to sue for peace and Sir William Johnson forged a treaty with them. Pontiac failed to persuade some of the Indian tribes further west and south to join his rebellion, so he negotiated a treaty with Sir William Johnson in 1766. The English pardoned Pontiac who was later murdered in Illinois. Sir William Johnson, Superintendent of Indian Affairs in British North America and General Thomas Gage, Commander of British forces, didn’t trust Colonel John Bradstreet. While Colonel Bouqet was willing the Battle of Bushy Run and forcing the Indians to make peace, Bradstreet negotiated treaties with them that Johnson and Gage felt weren’t binding and that the Indians immediately violated. Sir William Johnson in his diary said of Bradstreet’s conduct with the Indians:
His sending messages to Pondia in ye Manner he did Served only to put Him on his guard and when he found that Pondiac was not inclined To treat with them and ordered his Army to embark. In order to attack him, The Inds. Were as ready & alert as any of the Troops, & some went In ye. Front, as Liet Fisher says, in order to Engage first, Notwithstanding Ye Author of that low scurrilous letters said to be wrote from Sandusky Affirms (amongst other falsehoods) that they would not fight the Miamis-He does not know that there is any difference between the Ottawaes & Miamis.1
Pontiac did know the difference between the ottawases & Miamis and he knew when he was defeated. On August 8, 1764, Colonel Bradstreet and his followers arrived at Detroit and Pontiac and his followers agreed to peace. Pontiac fled to Illinois and Colonel Bradstreet and his forces returned to Fort Niagara. One hundred years later in 1864, the story of Colonel Bradstreet’s expedition back to Fort Niagara still had many chapters to unfold and two scientists in Ohio and Wisconsin helped turn the pages. Dr. Jared P. Kirtland of Cleveland wrote a letter to Dr. Increase A. Lapham of Milwaukee in May 1864. The two doctors – one medical and one LL.D., honorary degree from Amherst College – probably met through their mutual membership and labors in the Boston Historical Society. They respected and consulted with each other from their respective cities. Dr. Kirtland wrote in his May 14, 1864 letter that he had been working out the solution of a historical problem for 24 years and had finally completed it. He stated that since the earliest settlement of Rockport(the present Rocky River, Ohio) seven miles west of Cleveland, numerous warlike and other implements had been discovered. An antique silver hilted sword, numerous bayonets of the Old Tower stamp, fragments of muskets, quantities of musket flints, several old-fashioned teaspoons, silver and copper coins of English and French coinage bearing dates from 1717 down to 1749, cannon and grape shot and a surgeon’s amputation knife were among the articles discovered. According to Dr. Kirtland the artifacts had been found on the beach at Rocky Run and McMahons Run, drawn in by fisherman’s nets or ploughed up in adjacent highlands. He reported that “a common grave containing numerous Anglo Saxon, not aboriginal skulls has long been noted on the right bank of the river opposite the head of navigation, and also near by an oblong pit, dug with much regularity in which a tree 3 feet in diameter is growing. Both the pit and the grave were observed 45 years since.”2 Dr. Kirtland consulted the historical record and found an 1834 address by Governor Lewis Cass to the Historical Society of Michigan which seemed to solve the mystery. According to Cass, historical tradition said that a severe storm overtook General Bradstreet’s expedition in 1764 and a number of Batteaux and many men were lost. Then, Dr. Kirtland wrote to Increase Lapham asking him if he knew any more details of the accident. Dr. Lapham was president of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin and had already established a historical reputation exploring early Indian mounds. Dr. Kirtland asked him for facts about the subject and Increase Lapham gave him the fact of the Cass speech and Sir William Johnson.

Other references to the storm can be found in the histories of Francis Parkman and the published letters of Sir William Johnson in the Albany Archives that give enough details to authenticate the story. The historical record reveals that the beach at the mouth of Rocky River, Ohio teemed with activity. In November of 1763, Major John Wilkins and 600 British regulars settled into bateaux and embarked from Albany to Detroit by way of Niagara Falls and Lake Erie. As well as the soldiers, the bateaux were loaded with military stores to relieve the garrison of Detroit which Pontiac and his Indian allies held under siege. The expedition had reached the mouth of the Rocky River when one of Lake Erie’s sudden squalls hit. Three officers, seventy men and twenty boats loaded with provisions, field pieces and ammunition sank beneath the stormy lake waters. Later, a searcher found a surgeon’s knife buried in the sand and since the surgeon of the party was included in the lost, this was a piece of corroborating evidence. A private soldier’s diary called “Diary of the Siege of Detroit”, places the scene of the wreck at “Pine Points,” in the vicinity of the mouth of the Rocky River. The story of Colonel Bradstreet’s army and what happened to it at Rocky River in the middle of October 1764 is documented by Indian Superintendent Sir William Johnson and Captain John Montresor who in 1763 had traveled to Detroit to relieve it with provisions and now was acting as surveyor and builder of redoubts to the English forts. Colonel Bradstreet with an army of three thousand men and about 200 Iroquois Indians who were English allies, scurried into waiting bateaux swaying on the waves of Lake Erie. Colonel Bradstreet’s army was on its way back to Ft. Niagara from Detroit and he had camped at Sandusky to negotiate with the Indians. Suddenly the Colonel decided to break camp. He gave orders for an immediate and silent retreat, even though the Indians desired him to remain. Even the fact that he had sent out a hunting party and two New Jersey soldiers to fish for his table didn’t deter him. Several of his officers tried to reason with him and begged him to allow a bateaux to stay for an hour or two to wait for the men. The expedition had not been on the lake over an hour when the wind gathered force and the waves pounded the sides of the bateaux. The full fury of the storm burst upon them.

Sir William Johnson described Colonel Bradstreet’s actions during the storm. He said that the Colonel camped on a beach with his army a little way from a fine river where a thousand boats could lay with safety. Half the boats of the army were lost with six pieces of brass ordnance ammunition and arms. Some officers and rangers had to flee to the woods without any provisions and march about 400 miles through swamps, ponds, and rivers to reach Niagara. Several of the soldiers perished in the woods and along the lakeside. Those who reached the posts and inhabitants were almost spent with fatigue. Even those who came in the boats who escaped were left behind by the Colonel in utmost distress and confusion. “It is said that Shepperton recd a quantity of Ammunition at ye place where ye boats were wrecked, & that a Markee was pitched in ye cover what was doing.”3 The storm had destroyed several of the expedition’s boats and scattered the fleet. Colonel Bradstreet did not have boats enough to carry the whole of his party, so he sent a large detachment overland around the south shore of the lake. Cold, hunger and the fatigue of wading swamps, swimming rivers, and cutting their way through the underbrush killed many of the whites, though the hardier Indians survived the obstructions, perils and hardships of the south shore of the lake to the Niagara River. Relics of the expedition since found buried indicate that the boats went ashore near what has since been known as McMahon’s Run. The British regulars undoubtedly appropriated the surviving boats and found their way to Niagara with them, sending the provincial troops and friendly Indians to make the rough overland journey. The provincial troops from the Eastern states were under the command of Lt. Colonel Israel Putnam. The journal of Captain John Montresor records another perspective of the Bradstreet party’s encounter with the storm on October 18, 1764. Captain Montressor writes that on October 18, 1764 at 8:30 the entire expedition decamped and embarked for Niagara. It consisted of 1,400 men besides 150 Indians, 59 long boats, one barge and nine birch canoes. Running with a south southwest wind, a detachment of Light Infantry joined the others. They spent the whole day on Lake Erie and passed by the rivers Huron, Vermillion and Culiere and camped on a Sandy Beach to the westward, one mile off the Riviere au Roche (Rocky River) a little after dark. At about 8 o’clock all the boats except one had arrived and the weather was moderate. Suddenly without warning, heavy waves from the Northwest pounded the beach. The storm hit so suddenly that 25 of the boats or galleys were destroyed and a great quantity of ammunition and provisions were damaged and much of the baggage washed away. According to Captain Montresor:
the young warriors of the Hurons, Ottawas and Jibbeways of Detroit who were on the point of proceeding against the Ennemy in three parties, one against the Delwares and two against the Shawanese, which into four parties from our troops now intended immediately to strike on the enemy. During our distress our savages never offered us the least assistance. Remark this unfortunate accident must be imputed to the entire negligence of the troops.4
The next day, October 19, 1764, a mixture of snow and sleet fell on the camp. The men took stock of the repairs they would have to make and the number of boats fit for service. Captain Montresor offered his services to Colonel Bradstreet to command and conduct a party to Fort Pitt as provisions were so scarce. Captain Montresor reported that the missing boat from the night before arrived and immediately proceeded into the Rocky River. Parties were sent to collect baggage, provisions along shore and at 12:00 o’clock that night they buried their guns, six light brass, and six pounders because the boats couldn’t carry them. The next day an Indian, officer, two white men and three other Indians were detached to Fort Erie in a birch canoe with orders for two bateaux loaded and with provisions to meet the party as soon as possible. Superintendent Johnson and Commander in Chief Gage officially censored Colonel Bradstreet for his part in the storm disasters and his naiveté in handling the Indians. Respected author Alan Eckart reinforces Johnson and Gage by stating that Bradstreet was incompetent, grandiose, and hindered Colonel Bouquet in his legitimate efforts to treat with the Indians. General Gage wrote several stormy letters to Colonel Bradstreet about Colonel Bradstreet’s ignorance of Indian sentiments and culture. The same charges would be levied against him by the Colonists when he stepped into the role of Governor of Massachusetts in 1774 and he occupied Boston with 4,000 troops – one for every adult male in town. In April 1775, the English government in London ordered General Gage to arrest “the principal actors and abettors of insurrection in Massachusetts.” Under cover of darkness General Gage sent 700 Redcoats from Boson to seize Colonial arms and ammunition in Concord. The Americans got wind of the plan and met the British at Concord and later at Lexington with soldiers called Minutemen. Before the bloody day ended and the British marched back to Boston, 273 British and 95 Americans lay dead and the American resolve to fight for Independence had hardened into flint.

Captain Montresor did consider Colonel Bradstreet responsible for the storm disaster. He went on to serve in the British Army and faced another kind of morning storm on September 23, 1776 when he approached the American lines under a flag of truce. Nathan Hale had enlisted in the Continental Army on July 1, 1775, almost a year before the colonies declared their independence. When independence was declared on July 4, 1776, things were not going well for the Continental Army. General Washington suffered a crushing defeat on Long Island and he knew that he had to have better intelligence about British troop movements. Nathan Hale, an officer of Knowlton’s Rangers volunteered to spy for the Colonials. Disguised as a Dutch schoolmaster, he set out from Norwalk, Connecticut in a plain suit of brown clothes and a broad-brimmed hat. He crossed to New York on a ferry and got past all the guards except the last one who stopped and searched him. The guard found drawings with Latin descriptions of the British fortifications. Nathan Hale gave his name, rank in the American army and freely admitted that he had crossed the British lines to spy. Sir William Howe, the British commander, ordered him hanged the next morning without a trial. Hale asked his jailer for a clergyman and the jailer refused. Hale asked for a Bible and the jailer refused him that request as well. During the long dark night before his execution Hale had time to ponder who could have betrayed him. Later, his cousin, Samuel Hale, a Harvard man and Tory, was accused of betraying him. The story of Hale’s capture and execution appeared in the newspapers and Samuel Hale denied that he had betrayed Nathan. Later, Samuel fled to England, abandoning his wife and son. He never returned, giving some credence to the claim of his complicity in Nathan’s arrest. Other evidence indicates that Robert Rogers of French and Indian War fame and avidly pro-British, is the one who betrayed Hale.

On the morning of September 22, 1776 shortly before his execution, his British captors allowed Nathan Hale to write two letters and then conducted him to the gallows. From the gallows, Hale addressed the spectators. He said that it was the duty of every good soldier to obey any order from his commander-in-chief. Bystanders recorded his last words as “I regret that I have but one life to give my country.” The next day Captain John Montresor, defender of Bradstreet, approached the American lines under a flag of truce to report Hale’s capture, demeanor and his final words from the gallows.


1. The Papers of Sir William Johnson, Volume IV, Albany, The University of the State of New York,1925
2. Correspondence of Increase Lapham, 1864 Increase Lapham Papers, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison
3. Papers of Sir William Johnson
4. Journal of Captain John Montresor, July-October 1764, In Collections of the New York Historical Society for the Year 1881.