By Mike Ryan, OCJ field reporter
The Northwest Indian War (~1785-1795), also known as Little Turtle’s War, was fought to establish European dominance and control of the Northwest Territory north of the Ohio River in what is now the state of Ohio. The Northwest Indian War played a significant role in the white settlement of the United States frontier and the displacement of the area’s indigenous tribal peoples. The lands of Ohio hosted the largest and most consequential battles of this often small-scale and tit-for-tat series of armed skirmishes that pitted confederated Native American tribes against white settlers and the United States military.
After the Revolutionary War, the British-ceded land of the Northwest Territories had yet to be fully settled and governed. Following a series of tribal attacks against pioneer settlements such as the Big Bottom Massacre in 1791 that left around 11 settlers dead and the attempted Shawnee/Wyandotte siege on Dunlap’s Station in that same year, it became clear from the European perspective that settlement north of the Ohio River would only occur with a significant defeat and vanquishing of the native population.
Thus, the Northwest Indian War was fought to establish “rights” for white pioneers to settle in the Ohio territory. And the government and settlers’ adversaries were formidable, as Native American battle forces were led and organized by legends in Native American history and lore: Miami chief Little Turtle and Blue Jacket, chief of the Shawnee. These warriors headed the Western Indian Confederacy of several tribes that had united against white encroachment into the region. The Wyandotte (Huron), Shawnee, Lenape (Delaware), Miami, Potowatomi, Odawa, Ojibwe, Wea, and Pinkashaw all contributed warriors to this loose confederation. It was the largest alliance of Indian tribes ever assembled. Additionally, the tribes were aided with material support by the British military, which refused to abandon its posts in the Northwest Territory.
The two bloodiest and most decisive combat zones from this war are now preserved as state/federal monuments and memorials commemorating the battles, the cultures who clashed, and the importance of this war to Ohio and United States history.
In rural Mercer County, along the banks of the Wabash River, near what is now the Indiana border, Fort Recovery State Museum and Monument is the site of the two largest Indian battles ever fought in the United States. In suburban Maumee, The Battle of Fallen Timbers National Historic Site memorializes the final decisive battle of the Northwest Indian War, which led to the Treaty of Greenville and the essential ouster of Native American people from their ancestral homelands.
Fort Recovery tells the tale of the Western Indian Confederacy’s shifting fortunes. Two very different stories emerge from this battleground, as it is both the site of one of the greatest Native American military victories and one of their most portentous defeats.
On Nov. 4, 1791, a day ingloriously dubbed “St. Clair’s Massacre,” 900 out of 1,200 United States soldiers were killed at an encampment at eventual site of Fort Recovery. This is the worst United States military defeat to Native American warriors ever; the slaughter ranks as the highest rate of U.S. casualties ever tallied in any single Indian battle. Like many early battles in Little Turtle’s War, the Native American fighters were successful and on the offensive, with the settlers and government soldiers being untrained, inexperienced, ill-equipped, and unfamiliar with the terrain.
This humiliating, gory ambush and defeat garnered the attention of the federal government and President George Washington, who appointed Revolutionary War hero “Mad” Anthony Wayne to recruit and train a legitimate army for the defense and conquest of the frontier. To do so, Wayne created the Legion of the United States and established a fort at the site of St. Clair’s defeat as a show of defiance and provocation to the local tribal people.
With his prudently trained fighting force of 250 men prepared, Wayne took on an opponent of approximately 2,500 Native American combatants on June 30 through July 1, 1794. After ambushing a supply train leaving the fortification, tribal warriors laid siege to Fort Recovery for 2 days, but Wayne and his men held firm and defended their outpost. This battle, now known as “Wayne’s Victory” at Fort Recovery, where Wayne and his men defeated the largest Indian confederation ever assembled, was a symbolic and strategic victory that turned the tide in the war.
Kim Rammel, the Site Manager for Fort Recovery State Museum, said that visitors interested in learning about this battleground first-hand should plan for 2 to 3 hours minimum to take in all the different areas.
“Fort Recovery has 2 blockhouses with a palisade connecting them that have been built in the general proximity to what is believed to be the original fort. We have a museum which houses one of the largest collections of prehistoric artifacts in Ohio as well as artifacts from the two battles themselves. With a grant through Ball State University, archaeological work has been done on the battle site and this information is shared with visitors. A Wayside exhibit consisting of signage at 14 different points of interest in town have been installed. Visitors are provided a map and can complete a self-guided tour of the 14 different points of interest. An over 100-foot tall monument was erected in the early 1900s commemorating all the people who lost their lives at the first battle. This includes soldiers and civilian camp followers. It was designed after the Washington Monument. Recent installation of lighting makes this an impressive site to see after dark,” Rammel said.
Fort Recovery State Museum and Monument pays tribute to the major battles fought in the area and the dominant players on both sides of the conflict, providing an in-depth accounting of the place’s significant history. The museum is open May-September but the fort grounds and monument can be accessed all year. The site can be found in the village of Fort Recovery at 1 Fort Site St. and more information can be found at fortrecoverymuseum.com.
On Aug. 20, 1794, just a little over a month following Wayne’s Victory at Fort Recovery, following a rigorous and thorough military campaign through the Great Miami and Maumee River Valleys, Wayne and his men won a decisive victory over the tribal confederation at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, which effectively ended the Northwest Indian War, lead to the Treaty of Greenville, and set the stage for Ohio’s statehood less than a decade later.
In this battle, General Wayne led the Legion to victory on a battle pitch littered with timbers felled by a tornado several years previous. Native warriors were routed out from this maze of dead and splintered trees, and as writer Andrew Marshall explains, “the entire battle lasted less than an hour. The Legion had significant casualties. with 33 men killed and 100 wounded. The confederacy had between 19 and 40 warriors dead, and an unknown number wounded. The battle fostered distrust between the native nations, and between the confederacy and the British; it was the last time the Western Confederacy gathered a large military force to oppose the U.S.”
Shannon Hughes, Director of Education and Programming for MetroParks Toledo explains that The Battle of Fallen Timbers is a significant site because “it is arguably one of the most influential battlefields for opening up America for national expansion. It ended Washington’s Northwest Indian War and it paved the way for the Indian Removal Acts. it is responsible for the creation of the Treaty of Greenville,” in which native tribes relinquished most of their Ohio lands and moved westward into Indiana.
Hughes explained that there are 3 different sites to explore at this National Historic Landmark: the 187 acre battlefield, Fallen Timbers Monument — a 9 acre site just south of the battlefield — and Fort Miamis—a British fort 5 miles east that played a significant role in the Battle of Fallen Timbers and in the later War of 1812.
“The monument is a memorial site for those who fell. There is also a walking trail at the monument and at the actual battle site there is a 1.25-mile walking trail with interpretive panels about the history of the battle. At Fort Miamis, the earthen works from the 1794 fort still exist. There is a recently built observation deck along a walking trail with interpretive signs here, as well,” Hughes said.
The battlefield is open 365 days a year from dawn until dusk and is operated by MetroParks Toledo, although it is designated as a National Park affiliate site because of its significance to American history. There are no parking or admission fees and Hughes suggests setting aside at least an hour for your visit. It is located at 4949 N. Jerome Rd. Maumee, Ohio. More information is available on their website at nps.gov.
The Northwest Indian War was a series of brutal and callous assaults and counter-assaults waged between two stubborn foes dedicated to victory and reprisal. Much blood was shed and terror inflicted upon the communities embroiled in the conflict. Roughly 1,500 settler men, women, and children were slaughtered by Native Americans in the build-up to the major military battles. And many bloody atrocities were committed against the natives at the hands of the white pioneers, militiamen, and soldiers who came to usurp the ancestral lands of the American Indian. While this particular military conflict receives comparatively little contemporary fanfare, it was a cruel, grinding, and dirty frontier war with long-lasting ramifications for dispossessed Native Americans and with tragic conclusions for both sides, as it resulted in more civilian and military casualties than the combined (and more famous) battles of Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Cochise, and Red Cloud.
Citizens are fortunate to have these small historical gems nestled in our backyards set aside and memorialized. These sites are important in their preservation of historical landmarks and public green space. A visit to Fort Recovery and Fallen Timbers gives insights about decisive and far-reaching, but oft-forgotten combats that shaped the course of Ohio’s history.