Redefining Fallen Timbers
A Skirmish in the Old Northwest:
The Battle of Fallen Timbers as an Insignificant Event in the History of American ExpansionThe American military victory at what came to be known as the Battle of Fallen Timbers is often considered the moment at which the Old Northwest was "won." This oversimplification not only detracts from the well structured effect of Wayne's entire 1794 campaign, it also fails to attribute importance to the conflict at Fort Recovery, the diplomatic efforts of John Jay, and the successful Treaty of Greeneville in August of 1795. Not merely one battle, (which in terms of duration, casualties, and finality was more similar to a skirmish) but a long series of events culminating in the Treaty of Greeneville was responsible for the "winning" of the Old Northwest. The Battle of Fallen Timbers, when considered independently from the events of great consequence occurring before and after, was not a decisive event in the history of American expansion. Because of the drastic consequences of St. Clair's defeat in 1791, historians that recount Wayne's campaign are eager to draw contrasts between the leadership of St. Clair and that of Wayne. Those historians inclined to write pro-American accounts of these campaigns emphasize the point that St. Clair's army was woefully trained and supplied, and that Wayne's army achieved victory by avoiding the fateful lessons of St. Clair. These accounts miss the point that St. Clair's defeat had as much or more to do with the brilliant military leadership of Little Turtle and Blue Jacket than any difficulties with quartermaster's office. Wayne, like St. Clair, experienced difficulties with his provision supplies but this is not heavily stressed by many historians likely because he was ultimately victorious. Wayne's biographers often discuss the Battle of Fallen Timbers in grand terms and heavily emphasize Wayne's generalship and tact in securing victory, while failing to mention the extreme difficulties the Indian Confederacy faced in establishing their resistance.
Biased Presentation of EventsThe pro-American attitude is most greatly exaggerated in speeches that celebrated the anniversaries of major Indian battles or the unveiling of monuments. Although these speeches are not always given by historians, their biased presentation of historical events cannot be totally divorced from the flawed histories that they have been exposed to. For example, while speaking to a crowd assembled in Toledo to witness the 1929 unveiling of an Anthony Wayne monument, Secretary of War James W. Good informed his audience that:
If we visualize a map of the United States as it would have been without the victory at Fallen Timbers, we see the great states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota forming the south central portion of Canada, a Canada reaching deep down into the very heart of our Mid-West. Such a gigantic wedge driven into the very vitals of our young nation would have discouraged all westward expansion and our future history might well have been the story of a few stunted colonies penned in between the Appalachians and the sea. It was only by the retention of the Northwest Territory that the Louisiana Purchase was made possible, followed inevitably by the addition of Texas and California to the national domain and the westward march of the most triumphant migration in all the history of mankind.Here not only was the Northwest Territory being attributed to Wayne's victory, but so too the entire progeny of Manifest Destiny. A more balanced presentation of historical fact would focus less on the so called battle itself, and more on the failed attack on Fort Recovery by the Indians on 31 June 1794, Jay's Treaty which was signed on 19 November 1794, and the Treaty of Greeneville which was signed 3 August 1795. These three events provide indispensable context for what actually made westward expansion into the Northwest Territory possible. Unfortunately these events are often deemphasized in historians' accounts and the Battle of Fallen Timbers has thus been portrayed as a more glorious and important event than it actually was. Historian Randolph C. Downes argues that the victory at Fallen Timbers was an inevitable result of the Indians' failure to storm Fort Recovery on July 1, 1794, nearly two months before the battle largely considered the one that "won" the Northwest Territory took place. Downes states that "the attack on Fort Recovery was the beginning of the end...the confederacy had failed. The issue of Fallen Timbers and the treaty of Greenville had been decided." The Indians had "attained their maximum force by the middle of June" but knew that such a force would grow restless and its numbers diminish without a prompt encounter. The Indians, because they were still waiting for official British troop support, drafted "all white traders among them, and with this motley array of leaders, the Indians, two thousand strong, advanced in two divisions against the Americans at Fort Recovery, which had been built on the same spot where the Indians had so thoroughly defeated St. Clair three years earlier. This time around the Indians surprised a party of American soldiers who were outside the fort's walls, but did not prevent the Americans from retreating back into the fort. Once the Americans had returned to safety within the walls, the Indians made several, costly dashes into open ground in an attempt to storm the fortifications. After about 200 Indians had been killed, with minimal losses suffered by the Americans, the Confederacy retired dejectedly from the surrounding forest. British Colonel R.C. England reported that this attack had "all the ill consequences of a defeat, without materially weakening the Americans." A British Indian agent who had participated in the battle wrote after the lost battle: "Instead of having about 2000 men as was expected we will not have now above 500- such a disappointment never was met withÉI must observe with grief that the Indians had never it in their power to do more- and have done so little."
Protecting the FrontierThe Battle of Fallen Timbers, which occurred nearly two months after the failed siege of Fort Recovery, had been in the works since the staggering defeat of General St. Clair's army on November 4, 1791. St. Clair's defeat prompted a new course of action for the United States government in trying to maintain control over the Northwest Territory. On March 15, 1792 Congress passed legislation entitled "An Act for making further and more effectual provision for the protection of the Frontiers of the United States." The act greatly increased the size of America's standing army, which had lost about two-thirds of its members during St. Clair's defeat, and ordered the professionalization of the newly recruited troops that would make up the American Legion. Anthony Wayne accepted his appointment to Major General of the Legion on April 13, 1792 and moved towards Pittsburgh to assemble and train his forces. A campaign against the hostile Indian Confederacy was only to begin if the peace negotiations taking place with the Indians in the summer of 1793 should fail. The Indians refused to accept any treaty proposal in which the Ohio River was not the boundary between them and the United States and the negotiations broke off by September 3, 1794. The American commissioners were not only disappointed with the Indians, but also with the British who had served as translators during the proceedings and whom the Americans alleged had unduly interfered in the negotiations.
After the negotiations ended, Wayne was given permission to march northward from Fort Washington but Wayne decided that it was too late in the summer to begin a campaign. He was left by Secretary of War Henry Knox to judge, "Whether your force will be adequate to make those audacious savages feel our superiority in Arms. Every offer has been made to obtain peace by milder terms than the sword- the efforts have failed under circumstances which leave nothing for us to expect but war." Knox's bitter tone underscores the resentment the American peace commissioners felt at their failure during the Sandusky negotiations of 1793. Neither the U.S. government nor the American people were anxious to start another costly Indian campaign if it could be avoided. Historian Thomas Boyd states, "At that time the United States were profoundly opposed to war...the country had bitterly protested against the enormous expense and failures of the earlier campaigns; and if this last one was to be like the others it was probable that the public would refuse to support another."
A War Easily WonNot only were the citizens hostile to an Indian war, they were also resistant to an encounter with the British, believing that in such an encounter "the great interest of the nation" would be sacrificed because of the "clamor and private interest of a few men." As late as 24 May, 1794, when Wayne's army was in its final stages of preparing to march northward, speeches were given in the Kentucky legislature "in the most inflammatory & invective language" with one speaker concluding, "I shou'd not be displeased to see the British in possession of the N.W. banks of the Ohio as our Neighbors." The sentiment in Wayne's army was that a war with the British would not only be advantageous to American interests, but easily won. A letter from an unknown officer in Wayne's legion written to a friend in Cincinnati on April 22, 1794 states, "You seem to dread a British war; but I have doubts whether we should not pray for itÉour country is invulnerable, and we have little to lose" against an "inveterate and persecuting foe." Wayne's plan, as reported to Knox, was to delay an attack against the Confederacy so as to pressure the British patience and ability to supply the Indians, and thereby force them into "some desperate effort" and "compel those haughty Savages to sue for peace." Wayne's ultimate goal was a meaningful peace, and if it could be achieved without costly, protracted battles, so much the better. The British were vigorously preparing the Indians for war in late 1793. On October 20, Indian Agent Matthew Elliot sent fellow agent Alexander McKee "ten barrels of powder, twenty cases of shot, and two thousand flints, along with other supplies." In February of 1794, Lord Dorchester gave an inflammatory speech to assembled Indians in which he stated, "I shall not be surprised if we are at war with them [The United States] in the course of the present year...we have acted in the most peaceable manner, and borne the Language and Conduct of the People of the United States with Patience; but I believe our patience is almost exhausted." The British in Canada did not have authority from the Crown to instigate a war against Wayne's army, but they were successful in influencing the Legislature of Upper Canada to pass a Militia Act in 1794 that granted Simcoe the authority to prepare naval forces, "being obvious that in case of invasion the defence of the Province would greatly depend on the operations on the Lakes & Rivers."
This disposition of the Indian Confederacy in the months before Fallen Timbers is well recorded in a report from Sergeant Lent Munson, late of the first sub-legion in Gen. Wayne's army who had been captured and held prisoner by Indian forces. Munson's report stated that, "the Indians talk with great confidence of their own superiority in numbers and bravery; and boast that they are not afraid of four to one; they say the American army is made up of cowards and boys. They seem however to stand in awe of Gen. Wayne, though they despise his men." Munson also provided intelligence on the expected plan of Indian action when he reports "the mode of conducting this campaign will be by attacking escorts of provision and detached parties; and that they will not attack the main army unless they find it weakened or exposed. The Indians have no expectation of being subdued; they say that when they have cut off two or three more armies of Americans, the United States will make peace with them" The Indians, according to Munson, did not consider Wayne's campaign the final encounter for control of the Old Northwest. They were confident of a favorable outcome, but did not expect an end of frontier warfare to result. The Battle of Fallen Timbers occurred on the morning of 20 August 1794, a few miles southwest of present day Toledo. The Indians, who had received intelligence from deserters and scouts that an attack would occur on the 18th, began their traditional fast on the evening of the 17th. Wayne delayed his attack for several days, in order to build Fort Deposit and thus secure the Legion's baggage, and this pause greatly depressed the Indians. On the morning of the 20th, hundreds of warriors left the Indian battle line and traveled to Fort Miami, which was within eyesight from the battlefield, to get provisions. By chance, Wayne's army attacked the Indians before most of the warriors had returned to the field. The remaining warriors put up little resistance and fled the short distance to Fort Miami to regroup under British command. Or so they thought. The British offered no assistance to their Indian allies and thus the battle came to an inconclusive end. Wayne's army lost only 31 soldiers in the brief fight, and between 19 and 40 Indians were killed.
Immediately following the action on August 20, 1794, few of the men involved seem to have conceived that the last battle for the Old Northwest had been fought. Lieutenant William Clark was surprised that Wayne, having been informed of the precise position of the Indians from his spies, had not placed the Kentucky volunteers in the rear of the enemy to "cut off their retreat...thus putting an end to this expensive war." Clark was also critical of Wayne for the fact that "not more then 300 out of 1500 well mounted Riflemen were ever brought to action, and they but a few moments."
A report of the battle that reached the Pittsburgh Gazette stated that a "young man discharged from Wayne's army gave the following account" of a battle which lasted approximately fifteen minutes, before the Indians gave way. Substantial news of the battle was slow to reach Cincinnati but a small paragraph appeared in the Centinel 23 August that reported: "we are informed by a gentlemen from Greenville" who in turn had been informed by a small band of Choctaws, "that our army had a skirmish with the Savages and defeated them. It was by no means headline news. The resistance from the Indians was so light that Wayne and his troops "began to apprehend a deception and that the enemy had sent forward light parties to harass and disorder us, and to draw us in that Condition into the hands of their main body." The stage had certainly been set for a grand battle; Wayne had received intelligence as to the exact location of the enemy and brief exchanges of fire had occurred with advance parties of Wayne's legion on several days before 20 August. A member of the Legion expressed his dismay at Wayne's inability to engage the enemy on 18 August when he wrote, "A large body of the Enemy had been out in the morning and had formed a line as with design to receive our Army...and altho' we have every description of troops...no attempt is made to interprize [sic] upon them or to take advantage of an Enemy, who do not understand a single principle of defence, whose great power consists in their invisibility, who now for the first time within the memory of Man, present themselves a fair object." After the battle had begun and the fleeing Indians were not pursued, there was disgust that "no attempt was made to profit by our victory...this looks more like unto a drawn battle than a victory." The troops in the Legion were clearly under the impression that a great battle would be fought and the Indian forces would suffer great casualties in the action. They were disappointed and angry that no such event occurred. The Indians had fled from the field swiftly enough to avoid major casualties, but they had retreated to such a distant over the following days that they could offer little resistance as Wayne's legion "destroyed & Pilaged the Fields of Corn & gardins, of the Savages & Burnt large stacks of hay...for spite Burnt all the Indian Hutts throughout the vicinity of the Garrison." Small attacks on the body of the army persisted for a few days after August 20th and Indians were frequently in the area enough so that Clark and the men under his arms feared "hourly a charge from the Enemy." Wayne was confident that the enemy had retreated "quite beyond the mouth of the Miami" but still did not consider the fighting to be complete. In a letter to Knox written on 28 August, Wayne stated "It is not improbable that the Enemy may make one more desperate effort against the Army- as it is now said that Reinforcement was hourly expected at Fort Miamis from Niagara, as well as Numerous tribes of Indians living on the margins & Islands of the Lakes." Wayne was actually hopeful that British and Indian reinforcements would arrive and another battle would commence so that a "more complete & decisive" victory could be achieved. The frequent appearance of Indians around the Legion's camp led Clark to conclude that the safety of a departing convey of militiamen was not assured. Clark stated,"Those that are acquainted with the Situation of the Army will I trust, excuse me for indulging, for a moment apprehentions that only this escort may fall a Sacrefice to the enrag'd Savages but that the Situation of the Legion is not the most Secure." Proof that the legion was still on edge despite Wayne's confidence of safety can be found in Clark's August 30th entry; "This morning the Camp alarm'd, the works immediately man'd all to their posts, in anxious Suspence, awaiting the approach of the Enemey." No Indians were responsible for the panic but rather the discharge of guns being cleaned by the volunteers. The weeks after Fallen Timbers were an uneasy time for the Legion of the United States. Even in late September Wayne was still surprised at the lack of military action being directed at his army: "We took up our line of March & arrived at this place on the 17thÉwithout seeing an Enemy or meeting with any interruption from them. How to account for their inaction or long silence I am at a loss – unless they are awaiting the arrival of Governor Simcoe, with the further reinforcement."
August closed without word of the battle reaching President Washington, but on 30 August 1794 he authored a letter to John Jay requesting a British response to the construction of Fort Miami within "the known and until now the acknowledged limits of the United States." Washington was prepared to use diplomacy to capture the Ohio country should Wayne's Legion fail to dislodge the British from Fort Miami. Wayne had been giving instructions by Knox that if "It should become necessary to dislodge the party at the rapids of the Miami, you are hereby authorized in the name of the President of the United States to do it." Washington knew that Simcoe was more likely to heed the demands of the British government than the demands of General Wayne. Washington was also confident that London would not attempt "On this irregular and high-handed proceeding of Mr. Simcoe, which is no longer maskedÉto hold out ideas of friendly intentions toward the United States, and suffer such conduct to pass with impunity." The reaction to Fallen Timbers of British authorities in the theatre was not one of despondency. Simcoe regretted the Indian retreat but still retained hope that, "when the first impressions shall be worn away...means may be used to restore them to their wonted resolution." Simcoe expected the Indians to continue the fight and prepared provisions for such an occasion. In instructions to Colonel R.G. England, Simcoe encouraged him "to promise ample payment to all who shall have their barns and grain burnt, provided they persevere in their loyalty. G. Britain must pay or protect." Simcoe also issued orders in the days after Fallen Timbers to commanders at Forts Niagara, Erie, and Chippewa to send troops westward to Detroit. These troops were not intended to wage an offensive against Wayne's Legion or to provide aid for any Indian attack, but were being assembled to defend Detroit against an American assault. Simcoe also believed that the Indians were still in a state as to detach to Wayne's rear and disrupt his lines of communication. Simcoe felt it necessary to strengthen Detroit because not only had the Indians failed to provide a check to Wayne's advance, but Fort Miami was in no suitable condition to hold out against an attack. Colonel England reported to Simcoe that, "I am much concerned to mention to you that the Detachment of Royal Artillery, & 24th Reg't are much reduced by the FeverÉthey are very unequal to Garrison Fort Miamis if any thing hostile should be intended." These acts were not moves of desperation by Simcoe. He had reason to believe that the cause was not lost on 20 August. McKee reported to Joseph Chew, and this report reached Simcoe about a week after the 20th, that the Americans had lost "between 3 and 400 killed and Wounded and a great many horsesÉand retreated the very same way the came, but whether on account of the want of Provisions, or of an order from Philadelphia cannot be Certainly known." McKee had estimated Indian deaths at 19 and thus Simcoe had a casualty report which very much suggested that the Americans had won a piece of ground in pyrrhic fashion.
Wayne's retreat was a surprise to Colonel England who had expected an assault on Fort Miami. In his report to London in early September, Lord Dorchester informed British Secretary of War Henry Dundas, that the general belief among the British in Upper Canada was that Wayne had retreated to await artillery reinforcements with which to launch an attack in the fall. It was undoubtedly the sentiment in Upper Canada that the battle of Fallen Timbers did not amount to a winning of the Old Northwest. Simcoe wrote to Dorchester that "If there should be a war with the United States, we may expect it, at the outset, to be violent and universalÉit may take place in the winter, when all obstacles, but those which a regular siege presents, may in a great measure be done away." Wayne had intelligence of the continued British influence on the Indians after the battle and feared that a fight would resume after the commissions of Wayne's troops had expired. In December of 1794, Wayne complained to Knox of the "Insidious part recently taken by the British...to stimulate the savages to continue the war, who being but too well acquainted with the near approach of that period in which the Legion will be dissolved; have artfully suggested a suspension of hostilities until spring in order to lull us into a state of security." Wayne was committed to arranging peace negotiations with the Indians, but he was also expecting renewed military action against his forces. The Indian reaction to Fallen Timbers was one of extreme disappointment. The Indians did not suffer great casualties but were utterly forsaken by the British at Fort Miami. The first signs of British weakness were apparent to the Indians after the failed siege of Fort Recovery. Indians began to disperse from the theater in large numbers and McKee was faced with the challenging task of encouraging the Indians to stay and fight while not having authority to pledge British military support. McKee wrote to England after the failed siege that, "there would have been little difficulty in stopping all the Indians here, Provided I had been authorized for that purpose, but we must in that case have taken an active share in the contest and become at least auxiliaries in the War." The British had already committed the questionable act of offering nominal military support to the Confederacy, although these troops were not fully attired British regulars. McKee was successful in keeping about 1300 Indians in the field and in the vicinity of Fort Miami but only a little more than a third of these 1300 Indians would actually participate in the fighting against Wayne.
The Indians' confidence that had been shaken at Fort Recovery was further diminished on August 14th when the Confederacy met at council to discuss its plans for opposition against the Americans. At this council, Little Turtle, the victorious chief at St. Clair's defeat in 1791, expressed his doubts as to the benefits of opposing Wayne's army. According to many accounts of the proceedings, Little Turtle stated his opinion that "We have beaten the enemy twice under separate commanders. We cannot expect the same good fortune always to attend us. The Americans are led by a chief who never sleeps...it would be prudent to listen to his offer of peace." This speech was criticized openly by other chiefs at the council and Little Turtle was branded a coward; nonetheless, it is likely that Little Turtle's speech created an impression of futility amongst some of the warriors. Historian John Sugden states that "It was apparently with misgivings that some Indians manned the defense line on 19 August." These misgivings foreshadowed the faint resistance and precipitous retreat that the British lamented and the Americans celebrated. The retreat was damaging to the Indians sense of pride but it was not an unprecedented act of defeatism. Historians of frontier warfare note that it was not the custom of Indian warriors to sustain significant casualties if a battle seemed too difficult. Historian Colin Calloway notes that, "Indians readily and regularly gave way in the face of determined resistance Éto incur heavy casualties in achieving an objective was a concept foreign and repulsive to Indian peoples." The Indians were also quick to retreat because the proximity of Fort Miami and the assumption of British support meant that their retreat was not the end of the battle but only a preliminary stage. They were deceived. Major Campbell at Fort Miami did not have the authority to give the Indians quarter and thus did not open the gates to the fleeing Indians. Calloway credits the eventual success of Wayne's campaign to Campbell's decision and he writes, "The British desertion at such a critical moment, rather than the battle itself, proved to be the vital factor in subduing the Indians." Calloway goes on to quote Mohawk chieftain John Norton: "The Conduct of the British Fort dispirited the Confederates much more than the issue of the battle, which they fought with very inferior number, and in a disadvantageous position, without considerable loss: this they considered as a misfortune which might be repaired with glory, - another time; but the former, they did not know how to remedy."
Campbell's decision to shut the gates of Fort Miami to the retreating Indian forces was another, but not the last, blow to Indian confidence in the British. As Wayne proceeded within firing distance of Fort Miami in the days after the battle and "had not been fired upon" the Indians "complained grievously of their having been deceived, and were greatly disheartened on finding that they were to receive no assistance from the British." More disappointments from their British allies were forthcoming and Jay's Treaty, which was signed on 19 November 1794, was undisguised, official proof that the Indian resistance in the Old Northwest would no longer be aided by the British. When the Confederacy learned that the British agreed to surrender their frontier posts to the Americans pursuant the treaty, Joseph Brant complained that it was but, "the second time the poor Indians have been left in the lurch." England and the British in Canada by late 1794 were more concerned with protecting their profitable North American fur trade than securing an Indian buffer state between them and the Americans. British interference in the Indian wars was still a chief concern of the Americans however and Washington's letter to Jay on 30 August 1794 instructed him to get answers from the British ministry as to their motives for interference since "there does not remain a doubt, in the mind of any well-informed person in this countryÉthat all the difficulties we encounter with IndiansÉresult from the conduct of the agents of Great Britain in this country." Washington probably did not have reports of Fallen Timbers and thus could not relay that encounter's proceedings to Jay as of August 30th. Jay, after some time, finally responded to Washington saying, "I am authorized by Lord Grenville to assure you in the most explicit terms that no instructions to stimulate or promote hostilities by the Indians against the United States have been sent to the King's officers in Canada." Jay had planned to present evidence of British interference with the Indians to Grenville but the treaty negotiations concluded before the British ministry gave an official answer to the charges of Simcoe's meddling.
Jay's Treaty was followed up nine months later by the Treaty of Greeneville. The American Indian Policy in the Old Northwest changed, at least in theory if not in practice, under new Secretary of War Timothy Pickering who took over for Henry Knox in the spring of 1795. Knox had favored a seizure of Indian lands by force whereas Pickering believed that the United States should establish the exclusive right to purchase Indian lands as they should become available. Pickering's primary goal for the Treaty of Greeneville was "peace and not increase of territory." Pickering did consider the lands of southern Ohio to be "an indispensable condition of peace," but he was willing to pay annuities for them in exchange for acquiescence. The value of these annuities was set at a maximum $10,000, but Wayne was still given latitude to alter that sum since, "The great object is to effect a peace and such a peace as shall let the Indians go way with their minds at ease; otherwise it may be but the era of renewed hostilities." The Treaty of Greeneville was a successful Indian treaty for the Americans, especially when contrasted with earlier treaties signed by the Miami, Shawnee, or Wyandot tribes. Historian Rufus King wrote of the Treaty of Greeneville: "Never after that treaty, to their honor be it remembered, did the Indian nations violate the limits which it established. It was a grand tribute to General Wayne that no chief or warrior who gave him the hand at Greene Ville ever after 'lifted the hatchet' against the United States." However, the treaty did not prevent but merely delayed an era of renewed hostilities. Historian Reginald Horsman writes that, "The resounding phrases of the famous Treaty of Greenville thus meant very little...The Indians thought the Greenville line was to last forever, the Americans know better." Land organized for settlement in 1796 and 1800 pursuant the Northwest Ordinance ignored the boundary line agreed upon at Greeneville. Indian participation in the War of 1812 was primarily influenced by further American encroachments past the defined boundaries. Just as Fallen Timbers had failed to be the final military action of the Old Northwest, the Treaty of Greeneville failed to be the final peace of the Old Northwest. The Battle of Fallen Timbers itself cannot be considered a major event in the history of American expansion because it did not resolve any of the major issues that had prevented expansion into the Ohio Valley. It did not crush the spirit of Indian resistance or inflict significant casualties on the Confederated Indian warriors, though Battle at Fort Recovery did both. It did not remove the British from the Old Northwest, Jay's Treaty was necessary to fulfill that purpose. And finally the Battle of Timbers did not secure a meaningful peace in the Old Northwest, because any peace that did exist owed its origins to the Treaty of Greeneville. It was only after the Treaty of Greeneville, writes historian Thomas Boyd, that, "At last the rule of the tomahawk and musket, which for more than twenty years had made the forests, the rivers and the plains beyond the Alleghenies a torture chamber and a burial ground... had reached its end."