His Majesty’s Indian Allies: 10 Notables

"At The French Post" by David Wright, davidwrightart.com.

In many respects it was a sobering testament to Britain’s mounting resolve to suppress the Revolution at all costs.  “It is his Majesty’s resolution,” explained Lord George Germain, “that the most vigorous Effort should be made, and every means employed that Providence has put into His Majesty’s Hands, for crushing the Rebellion.”  The vigorous effort to which Germain referred was the employment of Indian auxiliaries, a grim war measure adopted for the purpose of “exciting an alarm” upon the American frontier.”[1]

From the outset of the war both British and American authorities recognized the inestimable value of forging alliances with the Indians, or, at the very least, securing guarantees of neutrality.  A number of native communities were rent by such decisions, but ultimately the majority of the tribes sided with Great Britain.  Such Indian nations were not signatories to formal alliances in the European sense, but, in elaborate ceremonies often attended by British representatives, would both figuratively and literally “take up the hatchet” on behalf of the British.  The Delaware chief Pipe later explained the ritual; the British, he said, “put a war hatchet into my hands, saying: Take this weapon and try it on the heads of my enemies … and let me afterwards know if it was sharp and good.”[2]

The tribes, whose very survival depended on the skills of a robust warrior class, would prove to be formidable opponents.  Although the disparate Indian nations, even with British coordination, could never entirely settle intertribal rivalries and present unified opposition to the Americans, their undeniable skills at carrying out desultory guerilla actions essentially opened a devastating second front to the war.  Such raids were frustratingly difficult to counter; George Washington observed that defending an extensive backcountry was “next to impossible.”[3]  Despite the European traditions of warfare which were generally observed by British and American troops on the eastern seaboard, the conflict on the frontier was an exceedingly brutal war of reprisal that more often than not targeted civilian populations.  While serving as Virginia’s governor, Thomas Jefferson nonetheless acknowledged that the backcountry fighting was an integral part of the overall war effort.  “We are all embarked in one bottom,” he wrote, “the Western end of which cannot swim while the Eastern sinks.  I am thoroughly satisfied that nothing can keep us up but the keeping off the Indians from our Western quarter; that this cannot be done, but by pushing the war into their Country”[4]

Such an approach proved to be the only workable strategic solution.  In punitive expeditions that struck native strongholds from the lake country of western New York to the mountains of North Carolina, American armies leveled Indian villages and destroyed the crops which were vital in sustaining the tribal war effort.  For the nascent United States, the crippling distraction of a frontier war was sure to elicit a stern desire for national retribution.  Treaty commissioners at Fort Stanwix in 1784 bluntly expressed to Iroquois chiefs the new realities of American ascendency.  “You are a subdued people; you have been overcome in a war which you entered into with us, not only without provocation, but in violation of most sacred obligation.  The great spirit who is at the same time the judge and avenger of perfidy, has given us victory over all our enemies.”[5]

Such a stance was woefully optimistic.  The Treaty of Paris, which officially put a halt to the war in 1783, had far less impact on the frontier.  Although Britain would publicly maintain the peace, her tribal allies would continue to bedevil the United States with an excruciatingly costly war until 1795.

Joseph Brant

A 1776 portrait of Brant by George Romney.
A 1776 portrait of Brant by George Romney.

He was born in obscurity in the backwaters of the western frontier, but by the close of the Revolution was regarded as the most legendary Indian ally of Great Britain.  His exploits as a raider elicited outrage from the highest levels.  “It is in the highest degree distressing,” wrote George Washington, “to have our Frontier so continually harrassed by this collection of Banditti under Brant.”[6]

Possessing an extraordinarily powerful intellect and irrepressible determination, Brant was destined to distinguish himself.  Born a Mohawk and christened an Anglican, Brant received formal education from the Reverend Eleazar Wheelock, the founder of Dartmouth College.  He was not a hereditary chief, but rose to prominence in the Iroquois Confederacy due to his inherent ability to lead.

British patronage was likewise a factor.  A favorite of Sir William Johnson, the superintendant of the Northern Indian Department, Brant enjoyed a good measure of preferment despite his relative lack of experience.  During a grand tour of England beginning in 1775, he was granted an audience with King George III and reciprocated with unwavering loyalty.  Brant, contrary to common misconception, was not exactly a commissioned officer in the British army (that title was bestowed through the Indian Department),[7] but nevertheless became Britain’s most crucial native ally on the northern frontier.

He exceeded the expectations placed on him.  At the head of a mixed bag of volunteers composed of both Indians and Loyalists, Brant struck terror into the Patriot settlements of New York and Pennsylvania.  His leadership was critical at many of the larger actions in the theater, including Fort Stanwix and Oriskany.  Brant likewise led a contingent during the assault on Cherry Valley during which undisciplined Seneca warriors – not under Brant’s authority – perpetrated one of the most infamous massacres of the Revolution.

Brant was without question the most feared of the King’s Indian allies, and arguably one of the most skilled partisan commanders of the Revolutionary War.  Daniel Claus, a deputy superintendant in the Indian Department, offered one of the more accurate assessments of his legacy.  “In short,” wrote Claus, “Mr. Brant was the dread and terror of the whole country.”[8]

Dragging Canoe

No other name could strike such fear in the isolated settlements of America’s southern backcountry, and for good reason.  The Cherokee chief Dragging Canoe initially rose to prominence for opposing the accommodationist policies of tribal elders – including his own father – at the 1775 Treaty of Sycamore Shoals.  Appalled that the older chiefs were willing to sell a vast tract between the Kentucky and Cumberland Rivers, a furious Dragging Canoe ominously warned Transylvania Company agents that “it was the bloody Ground, and would be dark, and difficult to settle.”[9]

He made good on such threats.  Despite the protests of British agents who counseled coordination with Crown forces, Dragging Canoe and the militants, who effectively seized control of tribal leadership, helped instigate a full scale war in 1776.  The unacceptable depletion of Cherokee lands, Dragging Canoe asserted, was due to the bargaining of weak men that “were too old to hunt … but that for his part he had a great many young fellows that would support him and were determined to have their Land.”[10]

Cherokee war parties struck hard at the overmountain settlements of the upper Tennessee watershed, but stirred up a hornet’s nest in the process.  On July 20, Dragging Canoe’s party was worsted in a furious fight at Long Island of the Holston, and the chief himself was badly wounded.  Punitive expeditions mounted by Virginia and the Carolinas laid waste to Cherokee country, and when tribal moderates sued for peace, Dragging Canoe led the dissidents farther west.  The breakaway militants, known as the Chickamauga, incessantly attacked frontier settlements across the southeast for the rest of the war, and remained implacable opponents of American expansion into the 1790’s.

Blackfish

He was the bane of the Kentucky settlements.  A respected war leader of the Shawnee Chillicothe band, Blackfish proved the Kentuckian’s chief antagonist at the outset of the war.  All through the summer of 1777 Shawnee war parties harried the settlements, but were unable to dislodge the Americans from the crude stockades in which they sought protection.  That winter, Blackfish scored one of the greatest coups of the western war, capturing a party of nearly thirty Kentuckians, including the legendary frontiersman Daniel Boone.

The following September Blackfish was at it again, attempting to negotiate the surrender of Boonesborough.  At a council with nine of the settlement’s leading men, the chief, according to the Kentuckians, hatched an unsuccessful ruse.  “Getting up,” reported John Bowman, “Blackfish made a long Speech, then gave the word go.”[11]  Indian warriors abruptly seized the Kentuckians; in a furious tussle during which the chief was thrown to the ground, the white men miraculously escaped to the stockade, ushering in the legendary Siege of Boonesborough, which ended in failure for the Shawnee.

In the spring of 1779, an army of Kentucky militia entered the Miami Valley and attacked Blackfish’s village of Chillicothe.  In the ensuing battle, he received a ghastly gunshot wound that shattered his leg.  Dragged to safety, the chief grimly encouraged his warriors “not to leave him but to stand their ground and all die together.”[12]  Blackfish lingered in considerable pain for at least a month and a half before succumbing to his wounds.                       .

Cornplanter

Chief Cornplanter, portrait by Frederick Bartoli, 1796.
Chief Cornplanter, portrait by Frederick Bartoli, 1796.

To the people of the Six Nations he was regarded as “a chief of considerable eminence.”[13]  A Seneca war chief of lengthy experience, Cornplanter nonetheless urged caution when war broke out between Great Britain and the colonies, advising an Iroquois council to steer clear of a fight they had no part in.  Initially advocating neutrality, Cornplanter thought it best “not to lift our hands against … Either Party, because they got in to Difficulty, it is nothing to us.”  Meddling in the Revolution, he concluded, could be costly to the Iroquois: “war is war Death is … Death a fight is a hard Business.”[14]

Despite such reticence, Cornplanter proved to be a relentless enemy of the Americans once Iroquois involvement became all but inevitable.  Regarded as one of two leading Seneca war chiefs, he commanded warriors in nearly every major clash on the New York and Pennsylvania frontier, including the battles at Oriskany and Wyoming.  The raid which he helped lead against Cherry Valley in the autumn of 1778 resulted in one of the most notorious killing sprees of the Revolution.

Although present for the disastrous Iroquois defeat at Newtown, a tenacious Cornplanter continued leading raids against rebel settlements.  Subsequent to the end of the war, the chief labored to lead his people through a landscape forever altered by American victory.  “The great revolution amongst the White people,” he wrote to George Washington, “has extended its influence to the people of my Colour: turn our faces which way we will, we find the white people cultivating the ground which our forefathers hunted over.”[15]

Emistisiguo

For this powerful chief of the Upper Creeks, fighting was a way of life.  David Truitt, the Creek agent from Britain’s Southern Indian Department, made repeated diary references to Emistisiguo either preparing for war, being away at war, or having just returned from war.  His preferred target was the Choctaw, a traditional tribal enemy, but when war came to the southern backcountry he just as readily turned his attention to the American rebels.

In fact, Emistisiguo had labored for years to harmonize relations with the English colonists, and British officials could consistently rely on the Creek headman to help keep the peace.  His favored treatment nonetheless seems to have aggravated tribal rivalries, and the notably independent Creek bands would never throw their full weight behind the British.  “The Nation is divided one part against another,” Truitt reported in 1772, “in regard of the respect that has been showed to Emistisiguo.”[16]  At the outbreak of the war, there was no question where the chief’s loyalties lay, and he headed war parties that struck the southern frontier from Georgia and the Carolinas into modern Tennessee; Emistisiguo likewise worked in concert with the Cherokee as well as Lt. Col. Thomas Brown’s Loyalist rangers.

In June of 1782 Emistisiguo led a contingent of Creeks in an attempted link-up with British forces and, after a remarkable 500 mile journey through Patriot territory, assaulted an American camp outside of Savannah.  In a confused night action in the early morning hours of June 24, the Indians gave a good accounting of themselves until they were driven off by an American counterattack.  Among the dead was Emistisiguo.  Brig. Gen. Anthony Wayne paid the slain chieftain a simple but fitting compliment; he was, wrote Wayne, “our greatest enemy, and principal warrior of the Creek nation.”[17]

Sayenqueraghta

War is perpetually a young man’s undertaking, a stubborn fact which nonetheless failed to discourage the silver haired old warrior of the Seneca.  Likely in his early seventies during much of the war, Sayenqueraghta, better known as Old Smoke, would act as one of the two primary war chiefs of the Six Nations.

Possessing an impressive record as a fighter that stretched back for decades, Old Smoke’s support was pivotal for the British in securing an alliance with the bulk of the Iroquois Confederacy.  Quebec’s Governor Frederick Haldimand considered him the “King of the Senecas, and by many degrees, the most leading, and the man of the most influence in the whole of the Six Nations.”  Haldimand likewise warned that any overt preference of Joseph Brant could antagonize more influential war chiefs such as Old Smoke and be “productive of very dangerous consequences.”[18]

Once Old Smoke openly avowed a British alliance, he proved remarkably active for his age.  Often paired with his younger counterpart Cornplanter, the elder war chief led contingents of Seneca warriors in most of the major actions on the northern frontier, and was the primary Indian architect of the crushing American defeat at Wyoming in July 1778.  The old warrior fought through the end of the war and died in 1786; he was, in the words of Haldimand, “brave, prudent, and perfectly attached to Government.”[19]

Egushawa

The Ottawa chief is nearly forgotten today, but in his lifetime wielded tremendous influence over the remote tribes of modern Michigan: the Ottawa and Chippewa.  British authorities had good reason to court their assistance; even the Ohio tribes regarded the warriors of their Michigan neighbors as “the wildest people.”[20]

Egushawa was an unrivaled power broker among the fierce “Lake Indians.”  Moravian missionary David Zeisberger, who enjoyed the chief’s protection, asserted that Egushawa functioned as something of  a “head-chief of the Chippewa, and can call them together as often as he finds it needful, for all first comes to him, and he communicates it to the others.”[21]  In such a capacity, Egushawa was a key diplomatic liaison in promoting British interests in the Northwest.  He was likewise an active and respected warrior, and consistently led Ottawa contingents in some of the frontier’s most legendary campaigns, including the Mohawk Valley in 1777, Vincennes in 1778, and Kentucky in 1780.

Detroit’s Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton regarded Egushawa as a contemplative and determined commander, but found him most effective when espousing the cause of a British alliance.  At an intertribal council in 1779 the chieftain extolled “His Majesty, the great Chief at Quebec, all His Majesty’s Officers and Soldiers” as crucial allies in the preservation of tribal homelands.  “We see our father was foremost,” explained Egushawa, “to rise up, and come thus far to frustrate the designs of the Virginians.”[22]

Pipe

Statue of Hopocan, also known as Captain Pipe. (Flickr | Christy Ramsey)
Statue of Hopocan, also known as Captain Pipe. (Flickr | Christy Ramsey)

No other native leader of the Revolutionary era better exemplifies the bitter fruit of a tragically squandered diplomatic opportunity.  At the outset of the war the Delaware chief better known as “Captain Pipe” was a staunch advocate of neutrality, at one point scolding British agents as little more than servants who “had no power to hand the tomahawk to them; Nobody could force him neither to take it.”[23]

Pipe was pushed further toward a British alliance due to the rash actions of ill-disciplined American militia.  In February of 1778 an American expedition out of Fort Pitt stumbled on two hunting camps of peaceful Delawares and killed a handful of noncombatants.  Among the dead were members of Pipe’s family.  Despite the killings, Pipe assured American authorities that he intended to maintain “the friendship subsisting Between us.”[24]

Ultimately the bitter realities of the war forced him to take sides, and he proved a scourge to the American backcountry.  A seasoned frontier raider, Pipe likewise helped orchestrate the defeat of Colonel William Crawford’s expedition in 1782, and the chief subsequently presided over Crawford’s notoriously macabre death by fire.

But even after casting his lot with the British, Pipe remained embittered that he had been forced to take sides.  “Father,” he once addressed the commandant of Detroit, “You may, perhaps, think me a fool, for risking my life at your bidding, in a cause, too, by which I have no prospect of gaining anything; for it is your cause and not mine.  It is your concern to fight the long knives;[25] you have raised a quarrel amongst yourselves, and you ought yourselves to fight it out.”[26]

Pluggy

In the opening years of the Revolution, there was no greater blight on the peace of the western frontier than, in the words of the Virginia Council, “the obstinate and wicked Disposition of the Said Indians of Pluggy’s Town.”[27]

Better known to the whites as “Captain Pluggy,” the Mingo leader Plukkemehnotee was an inveterate enemy of the Americans at a time when many native leaders clung to a tenuous neutrality.  The Mingo were, in fact, not a tribe in any conventional sense, but a heterogeneous community – largely composed of Iroquoian Seneca and Cayuga – who steered their own course.  Regarded by the Americans as little more than a maverick “banditti,” Pluggy’s Mingo lived up to their reputation, marauding across the Virginia backcountry with a persistence that infuriated state authorities.

Plukkemehnotee’s aggressiveness would be his undoing.  In the winter of 1776 Pluggy led between forty and fifty warriors on a raid in Kentucky which was initially successful.  But on December 29, the chieftain led an impetuous assault on the fortified stockade of McClelland’s Station.  The affair ended in a bloody repulse, and during an intense exchange of gunfire Pluggy was shot and killed.[28]

Mingo depredations would continue to nettle the Virginians.  The following summer, Governor Patrick Henry wrote that “I was ever of opinion, that the severest Vengeance should be taken on Pluggy’s People.  The Terror of their Fate, may serve as a usefull Lesson to the Neighboring Tribes.”  In a blunt reflection on the brutal nature of frontier warfare, Henry concluded that “Savages must be managed by working on their Fears.”[29]

Alexander McGillivray

Portrait of Alexander McGillivray, or Hoboi-Hili-Miko (1750-1793), contained in a silver locket.
Portrait of Alexander McGillivray, or Hoboi-Hili-Miko (1750-1793), contained in a silver locket.

He was one of the Revolution’s most curious enigmas.  The educated and somewhat effete son of a Scottish trader, McGillivray rose to unrivaled power among a feared nation of warriors.

At the outbreak of the war McGillivray was in Charleston, where he had received an education, including studies in Greek and Latin, at the behest of his Loyalist father.  By the summer of 1777 McGillivray was back among his mother’s people – the Creek nation – as a commissary of Britain’s Southern Indian Department.  He was most effective at gathering intelligence and bolstering Britain’s standing among the Creek, who were, at best, lukewarm allies of the Crown.

As a warrior he was considered something of a flop.  Although he did head contingents of Creek warriors in the field, most notably in the defense of British held Pensacola, he was apparently more adept at leading from the rear.  His own brother-in-law Louis Milfort considered McGillivray’s penchant for avoiding battle as something of a joke.  “When one has so much administrative capacity,” asserted Milfort, “he does not need military virtues to be a great man.”[30]

The Creek nation seemingly agreed with such sentiments.  When the famed war chief Emistisiguo was killed at Savannah in 1782, McGillivray remarkably assumed the mantle of Creek leadership.  He was likewise embittered that Crown forces had abandoned their tribal allies to the United States.  While seeking a Spanish alliance, McGillivray explained that although Britain “has been compelled to withdraw its protection from us, She has no right to transfer us with their former possessions to any power whatever contrary to our Inclination and Intent.”[31]

 

[1] M. Shoemaker, et al, eds., Report of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan (Lansing: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Co., 1908), 9:347.  Letter, Lord George Germain to Henry Hamilton, March 26, 1777.

[2] John Heckewelder, History, Manners, and Customs of the Indian Nations Who Once Inhabited Pennsylvania and the Neighboring States (Philadelphia: Publication Fund of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, 1876), 134.

[3] George Washington to George Clinton, September 25, 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-17-02-0118 .

[4] Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951), 4:628.  Letter, Thomas Jefferson to County Lieutenants of Berkeley and Frederick, February 16, 1781.

[5] Neville B. Craig, ed., The Olden Time: A Monthly Publication Devoted to the Preservation of Documents (Pittsburgh: Wright & Charlton, 1848), 2:424.

[6] Washington to Brig. Gen. Edward Hand, November 16, 1778, Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-18-02-0167 .  Washington made reference to the activities of both Joseph Brant and “Butler”, presumably John Butler.

[7] In April 1779 Brant was granted the somewhat hollow honorific of “Colonel of the Indians.” Ernest Cruikshank, “Joseph Brant in the American Revolution,” Transactions of the Canadian Institute (Toronto: Copp, Clark Company, 1895), 4-5:260.  The following year Brant was commissioned through the Indian Department as captain of the “Northern Confederate Indians.”  Brant used the title but, militarily speaking, placed little stock in it, later explaining that “During the war, although I bore the commission of a captain, I never received commands as such, but acted as War Chief, which I believe was of more utility than if I had been in the other capacity.”  William L. Stone, Life of Joseph Brant – Thayendanegea (Cooperstown, New York: H. & E. Phinney, 1844), 2:408.  Letter, Joseph Brant to Sir John Johnson, November, 1801.

[8] Cruikshank, Transactions, 257.

[9] William B. Palmer, ed., Calendar of Virginia State Papers, and Other Manuscripts, 1652-1781 (Richmond: R.F. Walker, 1875), 1: 283.  Deposition of Samuel Wilson, April 15, 1777.

[10] William L. Saunders, ed., The Colonial Records of North Carolina (Raleigh: Josepaus Daniels, 1890), 10:764.  Letter, Henry Stuart to John Stuart, August 25, 1776.

[11] James Alton James, ed., George Rogers Clark Papers, 1771-1781 (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Library, 1912), Letter, John Bowman to George Rogers Clark, October 14, 1778.

[12] “Bowman’s Expedition Against Chillicothe, May-June 1779,” Ohio Archaeological and Historical Publications 19 (1910), 454-455.  Account of Shawnee prisoner Joseph Jackson.

[13] James E. Seaver, A Narrative of the Life of Mrs. Mary Jemison, who was Taken by the Indians, in the Year 1755 (Canandaigua, New York: J.D. Bemis and Co., 1824), 77.

[14] Thomas S. Abler, ed., Chainbreaker: The Revolutionary War Memoirs of Governor Blacksnake as told to Benjamin Williams (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989), 75.

[15] Cornplanter to Washington, February 28, 1797, Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/washington/99-01-02-00367 .

[16] Newton D. Mereness, ed., Travels in the American Colonies (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 524.

[17] H.N. Moore, Life and Services of Gen. Anthony Wayne (Philadelphia: John B. Perry, 1845), 157.  Letter, Anthony Wayne to Nathanael Greene, June 24, 1782.

[18] Horace Edwin Hayden, The Massacre of Wyoming: The Acts of Congress for the Defense of the Wyoming Valley, Pennsylvania (Wilkes-Barre: Wyoming Historical and Geological Society, 1895), xxii.

[19] Hayden, The Massacre of Wyoming, xxii.

[20] Eugene F. Bliss, ed., Diary of David Zeisberger (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1885), 1:438.

[21] Bliss, Diary of David Zeisberger, 438.

[22] John D. Barnhart, ed., Henry Hamilton and George Rogers Clark in the American Revolution with the Unpublished Journal of Lieut. Gov. Henry Hamilton (Crawfordsville, Indiana: R.E. Banta, 1951), 168.

[23]Reuben Gold Thwaites and Louise Phelps Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778 (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1912), 165.  Letter, David Zeisberger to Edward Hand, November 16, 1777.

[24] Louise Phelps Kellogg, ed., Frontier Advance on the Upper Ohio, 1778-1779 (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1916), 187.  Captain Pipe’s Message, December 21, 1778.

[25] The tribes generally used the expression “Long Knives” to specifically reference the Virginians.

[26] Heckewelder, History, Manners, and Customs, 135.

[27] Reuben Gold Thwaites and Louise Phelps Kellogg, The Revolution on the Upper Ohio, 1775-1777 (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1908), 236.  Orders of the Virginia Council, March 12, 1777.

[28] Thomas D. Clark, ed., The Voice of the Frontier: John Bradford’s Notes on Kentucky (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993), 14.

[29] Thwaites and Kellogg, Frontier Defense, 30.  Letter, Patrick Henry to Edward Hand, July 27, 1777.

[30] John Walton Caughey, McGillivray of the Creeks (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1938), 4.

[31] Caughey, McGillivray of the Creeks, 64.  Letter, Alexander McGillivray to Arturo O’Neill, January 1, 1784.

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2 Comments

  • Joshua, I enjoyed reading your highlights for these Native leaders. Do you know when Brant was offered, informally or formally, refuge in southwestern Ontario? I’m wondering if during the 1782 peace negotiations Britain contemplated retaining this region for their Native allies.

    • Thank you, sir. My understanding is that the initial offer of a Mohawk refuge in Canada didn’t surface until the summer of 1783, subsequent to a visit which Brant made to Frederick Haldimand. The governor reported that the Mohawk “seem particularly hurt that no mention is made of them in the Treaty.” [of Paris] Haldimand initially offered to secure land near old Fort Frontenac but relocated the reserve to the Grand River at Mohawk request.

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