Early Conflicts in the Ohio River Valley

By William Schuhmann

The Filson Historical Society has a large and well maintained collection of manuscripts and artifacts, but one of the lesser known resources that the Filson has to offer is its historical files. The historical files (or vertical files) are a collection of general information files on various topics. So, before diving into primary resources, like letters and newspaper articles, it's a good idea to check them out so you can get a general understanding of the topic you are studying. As one of the Filson’s interns, I thought it might be interesting to demonstrate some of the information that can be found in the historical files. The following article is on early conflicts in the Ohio River Valley, it was written using information primarily found in that file and then expanded upon using some of the Filson’s other resources and the internet.

At the outbreak of the Revolutionary War in 1775, the Ohio River was becoming a contested region between settlers and Native Americans. After the British acquired a large amount of frontier territory from the French after the French and Indian War, the crown issued the Proclamation of 1763, forbidding settlement west of the Appalachians in an attempt to avoid conflict between settlers and the native tribes. Settlers and land speculators strongly protested the Proclamation of 1763 because it limited their migration westward into former French territory. To satisfy the colonists, the British negotiated two new treaties with the Iroquois and Cherokee in 1768: the Treaty of Fort Stanwix and the Treaty of Hard Labour. The combined result of these treaties allowed for British colonists to now settle east of the Ohio River. However, the tribes who actually lived and hunted in the Ohio River Valley, such as the Shawnee and Mingo, were not consulted when those treaties were signed. Essentially, the British had assumed that by signing a treaty with one tribe, they were signing a treaty with all the native tribes, which wasn't true in the slightest. Also, the Iroquois had gotten paid for the use of land that wasn’t even theirs to sell in the first place.  As a result, the Shawnee felt compelled to create a confederacy of western tribes in order to prevent future territorial losses. The Iroquois and British then worked together in order to isolate the Shawnee from other tribes and prevent them from making allies.

Daniel Boone. [Filson Photograph Collection, 11x14 individual].

In the years following the treaties of 1768, the Shawnee and other Ohio River Valley tribes did all they could to prevent the settlement of their land by colonists, mostly resorting to having war parties attack settlers. Lord Dunmore, the colonial Governor of Virginia, asked the Virginia House of Burgesses to declare war on the Shawnee in order pacify the western frontier, thus beginning Lord Dunmore’s War in May of 1774. At the outbreak of the war, the Shawnee found themselves with very few allies due to Iroquois denunciation. The war lasted seven months and ended in October of 1774 with the defeat of Chief Cornstalk of the Shawnee at the Battle of Point Pleasant. After the Virginian victory, the Shawnee were forced to agree that the Ohio River would be the boundary between their nation and settlers.

Once the American colonies revolted against the British Empire in 1775, the tribes north of the Ohio River, particularly the Shawnee, saw the revolution as an opportunity to take back their territory across the river from the Americans, resulting in alliance between the Shawnee and British. To supplement the British army, officials in Detroit armed Native American war parties, who in turn attacked many American settlers and militiamen in Kentucky, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. After the failed Squaw Campaign led by General Edward Hand in 1778, it was decided that in order to effectively attack north of the river, a fort would need to be built on the opposite bank. Fort Laurens was built in the territory of the Delaware tribe for this purpose in 1778. However, soon after its completion, the Delaware chief, White Eyes, was killed by American militia. His successor, Captain Pipe, moved west and began to receive support from the British, making a campaign launched from Fort Laurens impossible.

In 1778, George Rogers Clark of the Virginia Militia invaded Illinois and captured Kaskaskia, Cahokia,  and Vincennes, taking General Henry Hamilton prisoner in 1779. Hamilton was commonly known as the “Hair Buyer General” because he often paid Native Americans for the scalps of Americans, making his capture quite the victory for Clark. Over the course of the next several years, the Ohio River valley was the site of regular back and forth warfare between Native Americans, Americans, and the British. In 1780, with a combined British and Indian force, Bird’s invasion of Kentucky killed and captured hundreds of Americans, which resulted in Clark’s retaliatory destroying of several Shawnee towns along the Mad River in Ohio. 1782 was the deadliest year during the war on the western frontier. The Americans lost engagement after engagement. Colonel Crawford’s expedition deep into native territory failed miserably, resulting in his death by being burned at the stake. After Crawford's execution, natives all along the frontier became emboldened. Fort Estill and Logan's Station were attacked by the Wyandot, who also defeated Captain Estill at the Battle of Little Mountain on March 22, 1782.

Shortly after Estill’s defeat, 1,000 Wyandot warriors were gathered by Captain William Caldwell, commander of Butler’s Rangers. His attack was called off when he heard that Clark was waiting on the opposite bank of the river to invade Ohio in retaliation for Estill’s defeat. This intelligence was actually false. Nonetheless, Caldwell still led his 50 rangers and 300 native warriors across the river into Kentucky. Their target was initially Bryan’s Station, where they burned all the crops and killed the livestock. Caldwell’s small army vanished when they heard the militia was on its way. Around 200 militiamen arrived, commanded by Colonel John Todd and Lieutenant Colonel Daniel Boone. The militia pursued Caldwell to Licking River, where native scouts were seen watching them on the opposite bank. Boone, worried of an ambush, advised not attacking. However, Major Hugh McGary advised immediate attack. The militia marched across a ford in the river and formed a battle line several men deep. They marched up the hill on the opposite bank where the scouts were spotted only to discover Caldwell’s entire force waiting for them. The militia was ambushed at a very close distance, resulting in Todd being killed and leaving Boone in command of the remaining men. According to an interview with Jacob Stevens, a Kentucky militiaman who survived the battle, “Early in the firing, George Corn was shot right in the mouth, taking away all the upper and lower teeth of his right jaw. I saw him spit the ball in his right hand and thought he was shot in the breast, such was the quantity of blood, and didn't know of the bullet till he told me. Jim Hays, on the other side of me, said he'd be damned if he didn't shoot one. I told him to take care or he would get it next, and had scarce said it when he received a shot in the collar bone”. Boone ordered a retreat where his men were fighting hand to hand with native warriors who had managed to flank them. Boone’s son, Israel, was shot through the neck and killed. Boone mounted a horse and joined the retreat. In the end, around 72 militiamen had been killed while Caldwell only suffered 7 deaths. The Battle of Blue Licks was an embarrassing defeat for the Kentucky militia. It's considered the last battle of the American Revolution.

Despite Clark’s absence from the battle, he was widely criticized for allowing it to happen. In order to compensate for the humiliating defeat, Clark, assisted by Boone and Benjamin Logan, invaded Ohio, destroying several Shawnee villages. The Shawnee, unwilling to go toe to toe with the famous George Rogers Clark, retreated to their villages by the Mad River. The sad part of Clark’s action was that the Shawnee had not participated at Blue Licks, only the Wyandot had. In 1786, Benjamin Logan’s Kentucky Militia would burn Shawnee villages on the Mad River and McGary would murder the Shawnee Chief Moluntha, who had surrendered, with a tomahawk as vengeance for the Kentuckians’ defeat at Blue Licks.


Filson Historical

7 comments on “Early Conflicts in the Ohio River Valley

  1. Will Walsh

    I am interested in knowing more about Shawnee/Wyandot and allied tribes raids in the Louisville area. I know they continued to occur at some level into the 1790s. I was wondering if the Filson Club had a good unified source on the subject. Given that the Shawnee killed John Filson in Ohio in 1788 I thought the club might do so.

    1. Jennie Cole

      Hi Will, thank you for your comment. I’m not aware of any unified source, I’m afraid. There are a few articles in the Filson Club History Quarterly that may be of interest; you can review the listing here: https://filsonhistorical.org/wp-content/uploads/FCHQ_index1.pdf. You can search our manuscript access database for mentions of the Wyandot/Shawnee raids in our manuscript collection here: https://filsonhistorical.org/special-collections/manuscript-card-catalog/ and in our library collection using the online catalog here: http://filson.ipac.dynixasp.com. We have some general histories on the tribes and on early Kentucky settlement as well, and you may find this general history from the Heritage Council of use: https://heritage.ky.gov/Documents/Native_History_KyTeachers.pdf. Best of luck in your research!

  2. Samuel A. Forman

    Hello Jennie,
    Fascinating article.
    I am trying to find, for a book I am writing, a detailed first hand account of a large Native American raid on an Ohio River flatboat and keelboat flotilla circa 1789-90. I understand that a number of early KY and NW Territory accounts are among the John D. Shane interview transcripts at Wisconsin Historical Society, and that notable ones with KY associations have been transcribed and published by the Filson Society over the years. But I cannot so far figure out how to index these frontier stories in a way that focuses on Ohio River Native-Pioneer friction on the Ohio River in this particular timeframe. Thank you, Sam Forman

    1. Jennie Cole

      Hi Sam,
      The published Shane interviews are scattered throughout early Filson Club History Quarterly volumes, but tend to be organized by the name of the person interviewed, rather than the subject. I’ll see if I can find an index to the Quarterly that might be of assistance, and will be in touch!
      Best wishes,

  3. Tom Latham

    I’m hoping to find a John Shane interview with the famous Dr. Jonathon Knight ,Crawford Campaign survivor and early settler of Shelbyville,Ky
    Someone must have recorded his heroic event.

    1. Jennie Cole

      Hi Tom! I don’t see a John D. Shane interview with John Knight (those are all in the Draper Manuscripts at Wisconsin Historical Society), but Knight did publish his experiences as well. See: John Knight ‘The Narrative of Doctor
      Knight’ in Hugh Henry Brackenrige (ed.) Indian Atrocities: Narratives of the Perils and Sufferings of Dr. Knight and John Slover, Among the Indians, During the Revolutionary War.”



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