Indiana During the American Revolution
The primary waterway between Lake Erie and the Mississippi River is through what has been called the “Glorious Gate.” The Maumee-Wabash sluiceway connected the most direct waterways from Quebec and Montreal to French settlements in the lower Wabash, Illinois and Mississippi areas. This route opened up new areas, rich in game, and being further south the route was more temperate than the four or five portages farther north in Canada and Wisconsin. Except for a nine mile portage at present day Fort Wayne, travelers, explorers, trappers, tradesmen and armies could traverse the entire distance by water. The portage was a “toll road” defended by the Miami Indians. Along present day Indiana’s southern border is another great waterway, the Ohio River. For about 200 years, these water routes were militarily and economically very strategic. During the French and Indian War, Pontiac’s Rebellion, American Revolution, Northwest Indian War and War of 1812, Indiana was continually contested by French, British, Colonial, Native and to a lesser degree, Spanish forces.
The Indiana Territory was formed May 7, 1800. Final boundaries were not established until 1816, when Indiana was admitted to the Union. Therefore, to fully understand Indiana during the Revolution, one must take a broader look at the regional struggle for independence from Great Britain.
Although not officially recognized as such until 1787, the territory northwest of the Ohio River (modern-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and part of Minnesota) was commonly known as the “Northwest Territory.” After the French and Indian War, the British Royal Proclamation of 1763 prohibited colonists from settling on native lands west of the Appalachian Mountains. Consequently, most Native American leadership sympathized with the British during, and after, the Revolution.
During the early 1700s, France established fortifications at Detroit, Miamis (present-day Fort Wayne), Ouiatenon (present-day Lafayette) and Vincennes. At the close of the French and Indian War, the French garrisons all surrendered to the British. Fort Detroit was sieged, Fort Miamis and Fort Ouiatenon were burned in 1763 during Pontiac’s Rebellion.
The Northwest Territory was largely uncontested during the early years of the American Revolution. In February 1779, George Rogers Clark captured Fort Sackville (Vincennes). The next month, an American detachment from Vincennes captured a British reinforcement fleet of seven boats carrying 40 soldiers, valuable supplies, and Indian trade goods. These actions destroyed much of the British military strength in the Wabash Valley and marked the beginning of the end of British domination in America’s western frontier.
Using Vincennes as a staging place, Colonel Augustin de laBalme lead a force of 104 volunteers up the Wabash with the intent of capturing Fort Detroit. Marching under a French flag, with the expectation of adding to his force from the Canadian villages of Ouiatenon and Miamis and eventually Detroit. La Balme’s force had little opposition until reaching Miamis (Kekionga), where he raided British stores and raised the French flag. November 5, 1780, the British allied Miami Indians, under Chief Little Turtle, destroyed de laBalme’s force near a Miami Village along the Eel River, north of Miamis town.
After conferring with Virginia Governor Thomas Jefferson (much of the Northwest was claimed by Virginia) George Rogers Clark sought to raise 2,000 men to march against Detroit. In August 1781, enroute to join Clark, 100 Pennsylvania militiamen under Colonel Archibald Lochry were attacked and overwhelmed by a force lead by Mohawk Chief Joseph near present-day Aurora, Indiana. The loss of Lochry’s detachment proved to be a fatal setback to Clark’s Detroit campaign
Northwest Indian War
Hostilities between the Colonies and Great Britain officially ended with the 1783 Treaty of Paris. Although the land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River were ceded to the United States, Great Britain had not consulted the Indians in the peace process, and the Indians were nowhere mentioned in treaty’s terms. Despite the treaty, the British kept forts and policies there that supported the Indians. In 1785, several Indian leaders (including Little Turtle and Joseph Brant) formed the Northwest (Miami) Confederacy at British Fort Detroit. The struggle would continue as the Northwest Indian War, or sometimes known as Little Turtle’s War.
In 1790, President George Washington directed the United States Army to halt the hostilities between the Indians and settlers and enforce U.S. sovereignty over the Northwest Territory. The U.S. Army, consisting of mostly untrained recruits supported by equally untrained militia, suffered a series of major defeats, including the Harmar Campaign (1790) and St. Clair’s Defeat (1791), also known as the Battle of the Wabash. The primary objective of both expeditions were the Miami villages near present-day Fort Wayne.
After St. Clair’s disaster, Washington ordered Revolutionary War hero General “Mad” Anthony Wayne to organize and train a proper fighting force. Wayne took command of the new Legion of the United States late in 1793. He led his men to a decisive victory along the Maumee River at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. On October 22, 1794, the United States army captured the Maumee-Wabash portage from the Miami Confederacy and built a new fort at Miamis, Fort Wayne, in honor of General Wayne. The defeated Indian tribes were forced to cede extensive territory, including much of present-day Indiana, in the Treaty of Greenville in 1795.
Hostilities with British encouraged Indians erupted again at Tippecanoe (near Lafayette) in 1811, followed by considerable action during the War of 1812. The British Empire’s designs on the Northwest Territory finally subsided with the 1814 Treaty of Ghent.
“Hell on the Wabash” is a military fife and drum tune popularized in the motion picture “Gettysburg.” The song’s origin is unknown, but it’s no doubt a commemoration of the many struggles along this Indiana waterway.