Book review: Dunmore’s War: The Last Conflict of America’s Colonial Era by Glenn Williams (Westholme, 2017)
In 1763, King George III issued a proclamation essentially declaring the regions west of the Allegheny off limits to settlement by whites. As it took responsibility for territories once claimed by France, Britain hoped to minimize existing and future conflict by separating the colonies from Indian territory. London had no interest in paying for security beyond the Alleghenies or another war on the American frontier.
The proclamation, of course, increased tensions with Britain’s American colonists, particularly speculators and those who expected to be rewarded with land beyond the mountains for their service during the French and Indian War. A subsequent series of treaties opening territory between the Ohio River and Alleghenies sought to appease colonial interests in Virginia and Pennsylvania, while minimizing conflict with the Iroquois Confederacy to the north and the Cherokee nation to the south, both powerful nations on the American border. Unfortunately, the Shawnee were stuck in between. Quite simply, the Iroquois, who claimed authority over that tribe, gave away traditional Shawnee hunting grounds.
As whites flooded into the area, cultural interaction, conflicting notions of property, order, and justice made violence all but inevitable. Robbery became murder, followed by revenge raids, more murder, mutual racial animosity, and the destruction of small settlements along the Ohio. Animosity begat animosity and as violence between colonists and Indians living along the Ohio escalated in 1773 and 1774, war rumors, diplomatic attempts to secure allies, and efforts to mobilize martial resources intensified.
At the same time, Pennsylvania and Virginia asserted competing claims to the Ohio River watershed around Fort Pitt, i.e., Pittsburgh. Sitting where the Ohio, Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers come together, the site had developed into a major trading post, settlement, and crossroads bringing whites and Indians from the west, north, and south together. It was, perhaps, the most strategically vital point on the Ohio River. Eventually, Virginia forces preempted Pennsylvania’s claims by physically occupying Fort Pitt—which Philadelphia had all but abandoned—and renaming it Fort Dunmore. With that, Virginia held legal responsibility for all the territory south of the Ohio, well into Kentucky. Thus, any war with the Shawnee would boil down to a conflict between the tribe and Virginia.
Histories of America in 1774 naturally focus on the momentous events in Boston and the run-up to general war between America and Great Britain. Dunmore’s War, named after John Murray, the fourth Earl of Dunmore and last royal governor of Virginia, is often overlooked. But Glenn Williams, a historian at the Army Center for Military History, tackles this conflict in his new book, Dunmore’s War: The Last Conflict of America’s Colonial Era.
Williams argues that most accounts of the Virginia-Shawnee war are misleading because they rely on Pennsylvania sources, which are predictably biased given the tensions between the two colonies. Typically, Pennsylvanians attributed the war to greedy Virginians, portraying the Shawnee as victims. Williams, however, makes considerable use of Virginia sources, which he has gone to great lengths to track down. He demonstrates that Shawnee raids preceded the war by months and that Virginia militia initially limited operations to defensive measures well south of the river while British authorities sought to secure a general peace, focusing their efforts on the Iroquois and Cherokee tribes to the north and south. But, when it became clear that the Iroquois (who claimed suzerainty over the Shawnee but could not exercise it) could not bring the cross-river raids to a halt, war between Virginia and the Shawnee became inevitable. Fortunately for the Virginians, diplomacy had largely isolated the Shawnee in the coming conflict.
In examining events preceding the war, Williams effectively juggles the dynamics of frontier families, individual bands of Indians, isolated traders, representatives from Virginia and Pennsylvania, militia commanders, common soldiers, and even relationships with London. The emphasis is, of necessity, on the frontier. Decisions in far-away Williamsburg or Philadelphia, for example, are viewed through the lens of how they affected developments along the Ohio. This leads to a vast range of personalities and conflicting interests, which Williams documents. But, the sheer number of players on the stage can be overwhelming at times. Because small decisions and actions by individuals spread over such vast territory had outsized consequences, Williams the historian must document and explain them all to understand the war. They make it difficult to follow a narrative. One suspects that the storyteller in Williams was frustrated at times. Fortunately, his skills as a writer enable him to capture enough of the key personalities involved to keep Dunmore’s War entertaining as well as enlightening.
Because a defensive posture and diplomacy had not stopped the raids by the summer of 1774, Dunmore opted for a punitive expedition deep into Shawnee territory. A Northern Division, under Col. Adam Stephen and Lord Dunmore himself, would descend the Ohio from Fort Dunmore while a Southern Division, commanded by Col. Andrew Lewis, would descend the Kanawha. Once united on the Ohio, the militia army would move against major Shawnee towns on the Scioto River. The attack would draw Shawnee raiding parties north of the Ohio to defend their territory and enable the Virginians to significantly damage the Shawnee ability to sustain raids. Even as Virginia assembled its forces, Dunmore still sought a diplomatic peace, which he could not secure.
Williams argues that the Shawnee, particularly the war leader known as Cornstalk, recognized their predicament. Cross-river guerilla raids might make the frontier uninhabitable for colonists, but a mobilized Virginia was considerably more powerful than the Ohio tribes. More immediately, Dunmore’s united forces would outnumber the Shawnee in any battle. Cornstalk opted to attack the Southern Division while Dunmore’s army was divided. A quick victory might enable the Shawnee to negotiate favorable peace terms. In putting his army in motion, Cornstalk had managed to secure aggressively-minded warriors from other tribes, including those nominally at peace with Virginia, including the Mingo, Delaware, Ottawa, Miami, and Wyandot nations. Williams estimates their combined strength at 700 to 800 men, slightly smaller than the returns for the Southern Division.
On October 10, 1774, the Southern Division and Cornstalk’s warriors met where the Kanawha flows into the Ohio, at Point Pleasant. The Indians attacked at dawn, hoping to surprise the Virginians, but incidental hunting parties, attention to security on the march, and an awareness that they were advancing in contested territory enabled the Virginians to assemble and eventually repel the attack, despite seriously underestimating its scope and scale at the outset. During the battle, both Shawnee and Virginians demonstrated the tactics and discipline that one would expect of experienced and well-trained soldiers, justifying the prominence that Williams affords preparations for war on both sides.
Although the Southern Division suffered more casualties, it held the battlefield and continued the advance into Shawnee territory. Stealing a march on Cornstalk, Dunmore’s column quickly reached the upper Shawnee towns on the Scioto River. There, he and the Shawnee signed the Treaty of Camp Charlotte, reaffirming the existing border and restoring some semblance of peace along the Ohio. Considering the state of affairs, it was extremely generous.
Williams’ examination of Dunmore’s War is likely to be the definitive history for at least a generation. He reviews the war in all its political, strategic, military, and cultural complexity, proving that this last war of the colonial era was not simply a land grab by Virginia. Instead, Williams credits the Shawnee with the pursuit of their own self-interest (having been misused by the Iroquois) and judges Dunmore’s effort as a strategically effective campaign conducted by an experienced royal governor in defense of Virginia’s interests. While he does not examine the conflict in the context of events leading up to the American Revolution, Dunmore’s War fits nicely into any study of the Revolutionary War’s unfolding on the frontier, Virginia’s preparations for rebellion, and the role of militia in providing security for the colony.