Stern Measures: Thomas Jefferson Confronts the “Hair Buyer”

August 22, 2016
by Joshua Shepherd Also by this Author


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For a high ranking British official about to be captured by Rebel forces, it was an ominous portent of future treatment.  Surrounded at the frontier outpost of Fort Sackville on the Wabash River, Detroit Lt. Gov. Henry Hamilton received a less than cordial demand for surrender on the morning of February 24, 1779.  In an icy message penned by American commander Lt. Col. George Rogers Clark, the outnumbered and outmatched Hamilton was bluntly warned that if he dared destroy any supplies or papers prior to capitulation “you may expect no mercy, for by Heavens you shall be treated as a Murtherer.”[1]

Henry Hamilton (Wikimedia Commons)
Henry Hamilton (Wikimedia Commons)

Although captured officers could generally expect decent treatment during the Revolution, Hamilton, arguably the most reviled Briton in the trans-Appalachian west, would experience far less than the norm, and the controversy which erupted over his imprisonment was due in no small part to the very brutal nature of the war on the frontier.  In June of 1777, Hamilton received orders from Lord George Germain to actively court the assistance of the region’s Indians in harassing the American backcountry, or, as Germain loftily put it, to employ every means “that Providence has put into His Majesty’s Hands, for crushing the Rebellion.”[2]  Hamilton, who claimed to be apprehensive of unleashing the horrors of an Indian war against America’s civilian populace, nonetheless complied with the directive.[3]

The governor regularly supplied southbound raiding parties with supplies and ammunition, but made token gestures to soften the blow.  Hamilton endeavored to attach to each war party one or more Loyalists, generally Indian Department rangers and interpreters, with orders “to attend to the behavior of the Indians, protect defenceless persons and prevent any insult or barbarity being exercised on the Prisoners.”[4]  Native war parties operating under Hamilton’s aegis proved immensely successful, wreaking havoc on the frontier in a wide arc from Pennsylvania to Kentucky.  In the first year of British-authorized raids, Hamilton reported that the tribes brought 109 prisoners into Detroit, and the governor consistently offered ransoms for such captives.[5]

Despite his attempts to operate the war with the superficial appearance of European mores, Hamilton was clearly caught up in an exceedingly nasty business which left him uneasy over the execution of his orders.  From the comfortable vantage point of Whitehall, the decision to employ Indian auxiliaries was simply an essential war measure; for officers on the ground, including Hamilton, the conflict was far more complex.  Clearly giving vent to a good bit of angst, Hamilton optimistically reported that he had singlehandedly moderated centuries-old tribal war practices, but confessed that attempts to alter the brutal nature of backcountry fighting was “rather to be wished than expected.”[6]

The greatest point of contention that would develop over the governor’s war record regarded his participation in the tribal tradition of scalping, a grim fate that fell on men, women, and children – both dead and alive.  On the frontier, both sides adopted the practice as a matter of course, but the Americans were outraged that Britain and her tribal allies targeted backcountry civilians who were, ostensibly, British subjects.  Warriors sent out by Hamilton were well supplied by the Indian Department; a 1778 inventory listed such items as 1,800 “scalping knives,” which were clearly categorized as such.[7]  War parties returning to Detroit would announce their success by shouting the “scalp yell,” and were feted and resupplied by Hamilton and his subordinates.[8]  Although, in Hamilton’s opinion, the tribes “have shewn a humanity hitherto unpracticed among them” toward their captives, he likewise recorded the scalps exhibited at Detroit: 129 on one occasion, 15 on another, 81 on yet another.[9]

The governor not only celebrated the taking of such grim tokens but, in a wily game of frontier diplomacy, gave them to other Indian nations in an attempt to strengthen inter-tribal cooperation.  On June 17, 1778, the governor recorded that a Delaware war party “presented me with two pieces of dryed meat (scalps) one of which I have given to the Chippoways, another to the Miamis.”[10]  All in all, Hamilton put on a cheery face regarding the prosecution of the war, telling the Indians at one council that the results “have been good, as you have succeeded in almost all your enterpizes, having taken a number of prisoners and a far greater number of scalps.”[11]

Not surprisingly, Hamilton’s reputation was irreparably wrecked due to distorted accounts of his activities.  Rumors abounded that the governor offered hefty scalp “bounties” to Indian war parties.  Such claims were a slight mischaracterization of Hamilton’s actual practices, but exaggerated hearsay, which grew with the telling, served to inflame feelings against him.  Readers of the Virginia Gazette were assured in February of 1776 “that the commanding-officer at Detroit offers them [the Indians] 10 l. for every scalp”; another source set the supposed scalp bounty at £50.[12]  Daniel Sullivan, a Patriot spy who operated in the northwest and visited Detroit, passed along second hand reports that the governor “paid very high prices in Goods for the Scalps the Indians brought in.”[13]  By the time George Rogers Clark readied for his raid against Vincennes in February of 1779, he disdainfully referred to Hamilton as “The Famous Hair Buyer General.”[14]

Captured by Clark on February 25, the governor received a rude awakening.  Hamilton was outraged when Clark ordered several captured officers placed in irons in retribution for their participation in Indian raids.  Francois Maisonville, whom the Americans considered as particularly obnoxious, was himself the victim of a botched scalping that left him with a partly mutilated crown.  Hamilton was warned “to be on my guard as there was a design of shooting me thro’ the head.”[15]

Greater insults awaited when Hamilton and over two dozen of his men were transferred to Virginia.  Prior to setting out, Clark warned the governor that backcountry settlers would likely have little compassion on the prime instigator of Indian war, and that his life could be in danger.  Hamilton and his officers were hosted in private homes along the way and treated quite hospitably; although they faced no overt threats, they endured a good measure of unpleasantness from gawkers.  At Logan’s Station in Kentucky, Hamilton recorded that “the people were not exceedingly well disposed to us, & we were accosted by the females especially in pretty coarse terms.”  All in all, the captive Britons were viewed as a set of “Infernals … who had each been more bloodthirsty than Herod the Tetrarch.” [16]  Lt. Jacob Schieffelin, a translator in the Indian Department, was indignant over the ordeal, during which, he claimed, the captives were forced to march barefoot and hungry and were “insulted by every dirty fellow as they passed through the country.”[17]

Frontier families had, of course, suffered far worse, a fact which was not lost on Henry Hamilton.  The governor had supplied the very war parties that were harrying the frontier, but seeing the results of their handiwork firsthand gave the governor a slightly different perspective.  He was particularly struck by the cordiality of one Kentuckian whose son had been killed by Indians the previous year.  Hamilton nonetheless felt that any ill manners were “very excusable” because the Kentuckians “had suffered very severely from the inroads” of the Indians.  Backcountry settlers, he explained, were “in hourly apprehension of attacks from the Savages, and no doubt these poor inhabitants are worthy of pity.”[18]

Similar sympathy wouldn’t be forthcoming for Hamilton when he reached Virginia.  Before the prisoners reached the capital at Williamsburg, an American officer intercepted them with disheartening news.  The Virginia Executive Council, headed by Gov. Thomas Jefferson, had opted for a conspicuous show of retribution toward Hamilton and two of his subordinates, Philip Dejean and William Lamothe.  Rather than being treated as gentlemen prisoners of war, the men were to be placed in irons and confined in Williamsburg’s public jail.

The council issued its orders in scathing prose generally attributed to Jefferson himself.  The orders contained a lengthy remonstrance against British treatment of prisoners, which was described as “savage and unprecedented among civilized nations.”  The harsh treatment that would be meted out was justified on the grounds that the prisoners had “distinguished themselves personally in this line of cruel conduct” and were therefore “fit subjects to begin on with the work of retaliation.”  Hamilton in particular was singled out as the architect of inexcusable frontier brutality.  Printed copies of his proclamations had reportedly been discovered on the bodies of slain settlers;[19] worse yet, it was asserted, Hamilton “gave standing rewards for scalps, but offered none for prisoners.”[20]

In crafting the case against Hamilton, Jefferson and the council relied heavily on the testimony of John Dodge, a Connecticut Yankee turned western fur trader who had been imprisoned by the British after running afoul of authorities in Detroit.  By 1779, Dodge had escaped and published his account of a truly nightmarish ordeal, grandiosely titled An Entertaining Narrative of the Cruel and Barbarous Treatment and Extreme Sufferings of Mr. John Dodge.  Dodge claimed to have been imprisoned under the most horrific conditions: clapped in irons, thrown into a freezing and filthy dungeon, denied food and medicine, and daily threatened with execution.  Dodge characterized Henry Hamilton as little more than a sadistic monster who rather enjoyed tormenting helpless victims, and repeated the standard charges against the governor: that he dispatched war parties with express orders “not to spare man, woman, or child”, and offered a £20 standing reward for scalps.  Because Hamilton refused to pay anything for captives, claimed Dodge, the Indians were in the habit of forcing their prisoners to carry baggage to the outskirts of Detroit and then tomahawking them in sight of the city.[21]

Dodge painted a revolting picture of British brutality; unfortunately, his grasp of the truth was extraordinarily flexible.  Although he claimed to have been jailed under close confinement from January to July of 1776, records seem to indicate that he was transacting real estate deals that very spring.[22]  Dodge would eventually gain the reputation of a shifty frontier ne’er-do-well; in addition to slanderous scribblings, Dodge was later implicated in nefarious trading practices and cross border slave snatching.  Although there were accurate bits in his Narrative (descriptions, for instance, of Hamilton congratulating victorious war parties), some of what Dodge wrote was wildly exaggerated or demonstrably false.  In what appears to be a somewhat accurate assessment, an outraged Hamilton characterized Dodge as little more than “an unprincipled and perjured renegade.”[23]

In June of 1779, however, Dodge’s accusations were widely believed, and the wrath of the Old Dominion fell rather unpleasantly on Henry Hamilton.  He arrived in Williamsburg on the evening June 16, and would remember the event with bitterness.  His party stopped at the Governor’s Palace, where Hamilton expected to be received by Jefferson himself; he would be disappointed.  Jefferson refused to see the prisoners, who were unceremoniously escorted to the Williamsburg jail.  Their accommodations were less than agreeable.  While some captured British officers in Virginia were comfortably lodged in rented homes, Hamilton was shackled and housed in a miserable jail cell with British deserters and common criminals.  Hamilton thought the space, which accommodated six men, not greater than 100 square feet, and reeking from lack of ventilation.  One corner was occupied by a filthy chair used as a makeshift privy, “A kind of Throne,” wrote Hamilton, “which had been of use to such miscreants as us for 60 years past, and in certain points of wind rendered the air truly Mephytic.”[24]

Just three days after the Virginia Council publicly issued its order, Jefferson reported the matter to George Washington with the hope that the harsh measures intended for Hamilton would meet with the commander-in-chief’s “approbation.”[25]  Washington replied that he was in full agreement with the council, as Hamilton’s policy “to excite the savages to acts of the most wanton barbarity” placed him in a separate class from common prisoners.[26]

British protests over the affair, however, quickly materialized, sparking no small controversy and a flurry of correspondence.  Maj. Gen. William Phillips, who was held in Virginia subsequent to his capture at Saratoga in 1777, penned a lengthy letter to Jefferson in which he objected to Hamilton’s treatment. Phillips enjoyed cordial relations with the Virginia governor and admitted that if Hamilton was actually guilty of the accusations against him he would be worthy of death.  Phillips, however, refrained from speculating whether such charges “may be founded upon positive facts, be matter of hearsay, or taken from the reports of interested men.”  Phillips focused his arguments on the fact that Hamilton had not surrendered at discretion and should consequently to be considered as a prisoner of war entitled to the civil treatment due a captured officer.[27]

Due to the kind offices of his jailer, Hamilton himself was able to acquire paper, quill, and ink even though the Virginia Council had barred him their use.  Despite the unpleasant conditions of his imprisonment, Hamilton struck a very respectful tone, and rallied to the defense of his two subordinates, Dejean and Lamothe.  The two men, Hamilton pointed out, had operated under his orders, and he personally assumed responsibility for their actions.  “If there be any criminality in those orders Justice demands that I alone should be the sufferer.  I therefore make it my request that I may suffer, alone.”  Hamilton expressed hope for a public trial as he was confident his character would survive “the Test of That Enquiry.” [28]

Jefferson addressed such complaints in a letter to General Phillips on July 22; typically Jeffersonian, the document is a lengthy, lawyerly, and remarkably worded polemic. Jefferson defended Hamilton’s treatment on the “general principle of National retaliation” and launched into a vehement denunciation of British treatment of American prisoners of war, specifically citing the deplorable conditions on prison ships.  Since American protests had gotten nowhere, wrote Jefferson, “you must excuse me for saying it is high time, by other lessons, to teach respect to the dictates of humanity.”[29]

When it came to Hamilton, Jefferson clearly backed off from the worst allegations which the Virginia Council had included in its original order confining Hamilton to shackles.  Gone were accusations that Hamilton had paid bounties for scalps, or that he offered no ransom for American captives.  Jefferson nonetheless insisted that Hamilton was personally complicit to some of the worst atrocities of the war.  Mirroring language which he had previously used in the Declaration of Independence, an incensed Jefferson explained that “The known rule of warfare with the Indian Savages is an indiscriminate butchery of men women and children.  These Savages, under this well known Character, are employed by the British nation.”  Jefferson confessed that he was no expert on the European norms governing the treatment of prisoners, but was in no mood to quibble about Hamilton’s discomfort.  Regardless of what such rules of war dictated, wrote Jefferson, “I am sure that confinement, under its strictest circumstances, as a retaliation for Indian devastation and massacre, must be deemed lenity.”[30]

Despite Jefferson’s resolve to carry through with severe retaliatory measures, the case against Hamilton faced an unexpected reversal when General Washington abruptly, if reluctantly, changed course.  After consulting with “several intelligent General Officers,” Washington concluded that the entire subject was “involved in greater difficulty than I apprehended.”  He expressed little sympathy for Hamilton personally but confessed that “the practice of War may not justify all the measures that have been taken against him.”  It all rested on an unfortunate technicality; because Hamilton had signed terms of capitulation it “placed him upon a different footing from a mere prisoner at discretion.”  Washington’s meaning was fairly clear: although Hamilton’s actions merited “discrimination” from the average prisoner, it would be best if Jefferson eased up on the captured governor.[31]

Ultimately Jefferson felt compelled to do just that.  Hamilton and his fellow prisoners were released from irons, and by the first of October 1779 were offered parole.  A furious and suspicious Hamilton, who felt that the parole was “artfully worded” and designed to entrap him, would have none of it.  Specifically, he objected to a provision that would constrain him from saying anything to the “prejudice” the United States.  Although Lamothe and Dejean accepted the terms, an intransigent Hamilton refused to budge.  For another year he was held prisoner.  Although he was no longer subjected to irons, the governor remained, as he put it, “under the varied tyranny of unfeeling men;” afflicted with gout, shivering beneath thin blankets, and occasionally reduced to prison rations and water.  It was only from money made available by General Phillips was Hamilton able to purchase a few necessities.[32]

It was through Phillips’s prodding that Hamilton finally signed a parole in October of 1780, ending a bitter personal trial that began nearly two years earlier.  Initially paroled to New York City, he was officially exchanged in the spring of 1781.  Hamilton penned several letters in which he attempted to vindicate himself up the chain of command, and it seems to have worked.  By 1782 he was back in Canada as the lieutenant governor of Quebec; subsequent to the war he served as the governor of Bermuda and Dominica.

For over two centuries, however, American historians have vigorously endeavored to outdo each other in heaping blistering indictments on Henry Hamilton.  In 1832 the governor was described as “a remorseless destroyer of the human race.”[33]  By 1883, frontier historian Consul Wilshire Butterfield announced that the case was closed.  No further evidence was really needed, asserted Butterfield, “to fix upon the memory of Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton the stamp of most barbarous cruelty.”[34]  To the present day, some historians persist in repeating John Dodge’s most damning – if distorted – accusations: that Hamilton paid generous “bounties” for American scalps but offered nothing for prisoners.

Hamilton himself feared as much.  His correspondence indicates that Hamilton found the traditions of frontier warfare supremely distasteful – “a deplorable sort of war,” [35] he thought – but after assuming his duties at Detroit, the governor, whatever his reasoning might have been, opted to take the path of least resistance.  The governor made official pronouncements about the humane treatment of American civilians, but ultimately did whatever was necessary to maintain the good graces of tribal allies who waged war with an entirely different playbook.  Even before his capture at Vincennes, a defensive Hamilton declared that he had simply operated under orders from London and that “I have alwaise endeavour’d to instill Humanity as much as in my power to the Indians.”  Such explanations may have ultimately saved the embattled governor from Thomas Jefferson’s desire for “national retaliation,” but failed to redeem his permanently tarnished legacy.  Hamilton clearly recognized the inevitable result of his management of the Indian war out of Detroit.  “I know my character has been staind,” protested Hamilton, “but not deservedly.”[36]


[1] 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), 180.  Hereinafter cited as Hamilton Journal.

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

[3] Letter, Henry Hamilton to [Lord Shelburne?], April 9, 1782, in John D. Barnhart, ed., “Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton’s Apologia”, Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 52, Issue 4, (1956), 386.

[4] Barnhart, “Hamilton’s Apologia”, 386.

[5] Barnhart, “Hamilton’s Apologia”, 387.

[6] Barnhart, “Hamilton’s Apologia”, 386-387.

[7] A List of Goods on Hand for the Indian Department, Detroit, 5 September 1778, in Shoemaker, Report of the Pioneer Society, 471.

[8] For a brief description of the traditional “scalp yell” as practiced by victorious war parties, see 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), 216-217.  For an eyewitness (if potentially biased) recollection of Hamilton receiving a war party, see Consul Wilshire Butterfield, Leith’s Narrative: A Short Biography of John Leith, With a Brief Account of His Life Among the Indians (Cincinnati: Robert Clark & Co., 1883), 29-30.

[9] Shoemaker, Report of the Pioneer Society, 431, 465, 477.

[10] Shoemaker, Report of the Pioneer Society, 446.  Because the governor made repeated references to American scalps in his journals and correspondence, his isolated use of the tribal euphemism “dryed meat”, followed by a parenthetical “scalps,” is at least worthy of note.  British trader Henry Hay described the macabre pairing of war trophies in detail in 1790: “I was shown this morning the Heart of the white Prisoner I mentioned the Indians killed some time ago in the Indian Country – it was quite drye, like a piece of dryed venison, with a small stick run from one end of it to the other & fastened behind the fellows bundle that had killed him, with also his Scalp.”  Milo Quaife, ed., Fort Wayne in 1790: The Journal of Henry Hay (Greenfield, Indiana: William Mitchell Printing Company, 1921), 313.

[11] Shoemaker, Report of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan, 445.

[12] Virginia Gazette (Purdie), February 23, 1776, 3.

[13] Daniel Sullivan’s Deposition, March 20, 1778, in Reuben Gold Thwaites and Louise Phelps Kellogg, eds., Frontier Defense on the Upper Ohio, 1777-1778 (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1912), 232.

[14] Letter, George Rogers Clark to Patrick Henry, February 3, 1779, in James Alton James, ed., George Rogers Clark Papers, 1771-1781 (Springfield: Illinois State Historical Library, 1912), 97.

[15] Barnhart, Hamilton Journal, 190.

[16] Barnhart, Hamilton Journal, 194, 196, 203.  Hamilton likely made reference to Herod Antipas, the first century ruler whom the New Testament records as complicit in the executions of both Jesus Christ and John the Baptist.

[17] Jacob Schieffelin, “Narrative of Gov. Henry Hamilton: Loose Notes of the Proceedings and Sufferings of Henry Hamilton,” The Magazine of American History with Notes and Queries volume 1, (1877), 188.

[18] Barnhart, Hamilton Journal, 195-196.

[19] “The Indians leave these on or near the bodies of the People they murder, Good encouragement.” From Note 2, Washington from Brig. Gen. Edward Hand, September 15, 1777, Founders Online, National Archives (

[20] Order of the Virginia Council, June 16, 1779, in James, George Rogers Clark Papers, 338.

[21] Clarence Monroe Burton, ed., Narrative of John Dodge During His Captivity at Detroit (Cedar Rapids, Iowa: The Torch Press, 1909), 42.

[22] Burton, Narrative of John Dodge, 6-7.

[23]Shoemaker, Report of the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan, 512.

[24] Barnhart, Hamilton Journal, 205.

[25] Jefferson to Washington, June 19, 1779, Founders Online, National Archives (

[26] Washington to Jefferson, July 10, 1779, Founders Online, National Archives (

[27] Enclosure: William Phillips to Jefferson, July 5, 1779, Founders Online, National Archives (

[28] Hamilton to the Lieutenant Governor and Council of Virginia, July 30, 1779, Founders Online, National Archives (

[29] Jefferson to Phillips, July 22, 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives (

[30] Ibid.

[31] Washington to Jefferson, August 6-10, 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives (

[32] Barnhart, “Hamilton’s Apologia”, 394.

[33] B.L. Rayner, Sketches of the Life, Writings, and Opinions of Thomas Jefferson (New York: A. Francis and W. Boardman, 1832), 188.

[34] Butterfield, Leith’s Narrative, 30.

[35] Henry Bartholomew, ed., Collections and Researches Made by the Pioneer Society of the State of Michigan (Lansing: Wynkoop Hallenbeck Crawford Company, 1908), 10:268.

[36] George Rogers Clark’s Journal, February 1779, in James, George Rogers Clark Papers, 167-168.


  • Joshua, many thanks for a thoughtful article highlighting the cultural and command issues faced by British Officers working with native Americans. The clash of European views on the meaning, methodology and ethics of warfare with those of the native Americans made it virtually impossible for British Officials to act within their norm as “gentleman” and still maintain the use of the native Americans as weapons of war. This type of cultural clash certainly continues into the modern day.

  • Mr. Daigler,

    Glad you enjoyed the article, and I appreciate your comments; they’re especially insightful considering your background. And thank you, sir, for your service.

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