The Revolutionary War was formally ended by the Treaty of Paris in early 1783. Problems with compliance arose on both sides nearly immediately on several issues. One was the continued occupation by Great Britain of the so-called “Western Forts.” These forts should have reverted to American hands according to the terms of the Treaty. The breach this represented was a problem that lasted all the way until 1796, when the United States finally ratified the Jay Treaty of 1794 and Britain turned over the forts.
Identifying the forts included in “Western Forts” proved to be less straightforward than I expected. Counts of the number of forts involved vary depending on which sources you consult. Much contemporary correspondence suffered from the same problem that interested me in researching this in the first place: They simply refer to “Western Forts” (or Outposts, or Garrisons). They covered three general areas: The Northwest Territories, Upstate New York, and Lake Champlain (the latter a little more Northern than Western). The consensus among the various sources leads me to the following list:
- Fort Michilimackinac/Fort Mackinac
- Fort Lernoult/Fort Detroit
- Fort Miami
Upstate New York:
- Fort Au Fer
- Fort Dutchman’s Point
Some of this needs further explanation:
- Several forts had multiple names. Lernoult and Oswego became Detroit and Ontario—same forts, new names. Alternatively, Michilimackinac and Mackinac are two different forts, the former located in Mackinac City at the very top of Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, the latter located on Mackinac Island, close by in the straits between lakes Michigan and Huron and technically considered part of the Upper Peninsula. Mackinaw was built in 1781, and shortly thereafter Michilimackinac was destroyed. Mackinac is the one the British occupied, though the prior appellation was sometimes used in the correspondence from the time.
- The list changes a bit depending on whether you are looking backward from the perspective of John Jay’s 1794 treaty, or forward from the Paris Treaty of 1783. For example, the Fort Miami in Ohio was constructed (by the British!) on American territory in the period between the two treaties. It was not in existence for the Paris Treaty, though it was included in what was handed over in the Jay Treaty (however, see the next point).
The British-built Fort Miami was built on U.S. soil, in direct violation of U.S. sovereignty, in 1794. Its purpose was to obstruct Gen. Anthony Wayne’s march toward Fort Detroit, and to rally Indian support to do it. The resulting Battle of Fallen Timbers was won by Wayne in short order as the tribes which included the Shawnee, Miami, and Ottawa, among others, quickly dispersed. The resulting Treaty of Greenville (Indiana) opened much of Ohio to white settlement.
- Just to complicate things further, some of the Paris perspective lists did include a Fort Miami. The only explanation I can find for this was that there was a second Fort Miami (Fort Saint Phillipe or Fort Miamis), located in Indiana. The French constructed this much earlier and it eventually became Fort Wayne.
- Fort Erie (or Presque Isle) was mentioned in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the British demanding Treaty compliance though, by one source at least, it was not in American territory. Yet another source indicated it was on American land. It was American but was somehow not involved in the controversy.
- Finally, I also have a list of what I call “orphan forts” as they appear in one source. These include the Great Sodus Fort (referenced in a letter from Secretary of State Edmund Randolph to Jay), Fort Recovery (built by Gen. Anthony Wayne during the time between the Treaty of Paris and the Jay Treaty but never British occupied), and Fort Sandusky (burned down in Pontiac’s Rebellion in 1763 and long gone by 1783). All these forts will be set aside for purposes of this discussion.
Article VII of the Treaty of Paris of September 30, 1783, stipulated that “his Britannic Majesty shall with all convenient speed . . . withdraw all his armies, garrisons, and fleets from the said United States, and from every post, place, and harbor within the same; leaving in all fortifications.” When final ratification of the treaty was completed in early 1784, the British continued to hold all these outposts.
What followed was a fruitless series of U.S. attempts to take back the forts. In August 1783, Gen. George Washington had dispatched Gen. Friedrich von Steuben to Canada to arrange details of evacuation with British Gen. Frederick Haldimand. Von Steuben was soon sent packing with two letters, one to Washington explaining how Haldimand had instructions about the cessation of hostilities but nothing about turning over forts, and one to Von Steuben himself explaining the same. In reporting the incident to his superiors, Haldimand admitted he was playing for time. In May 1784, Lt. Col. Nicholas Fish arrived representing Gov. George Clinton of New York, only to receive similar dispatch from Haldimand, who added that Britain would discuss the subject only with Congress, not with individual states. This excuse evaporated when Lt. Col. William Hull arrived in July 1784 bearing a letter from Henry Knox, America’s Secretary of War. Having since received impossibly vague instructions from London, Haldimand elected to rebuff Hull and sent him away empty-handed.
Strike one, strike two, and strike three. It was clear by now that the British were not interested in surrendering the posts. Their motives for doing so were several, complicated, and to some extent overlap. The major ones were:
1. Treaty Leverage. The British wanted leverage to force American compliance with the treaty terms. The U.S. had not complied with several portions of the treaty, most critically not making good on pre-Revolution debts owed to British merchants and subjects, and their continued confiscation of Loyalist Britain still held American territory, they asserted, as a gauge for the proper performance of its treaty obligations by the Americans. Legitimate complaints about the U.S. treaty violations, however, were a smokescreen as it is now known that the day before formal ratification of the Treaty of Paris, the British Home Secretary Lord Sydney secretly decided to instruct its governor general in Canada to maintain control over all the forts. The British strategy going forward would be to hide behind the debt issue to disguise their continued imperial ambitions and the resulting non-compliance with the treaty. If Britain had made a move to turn over the forts and then pulled back, the debt and loyalists arguments might have held water. But no such move was ever made.
The courts of some states had declared that the Revolution, as a social upheaval, had broken all previous contracts and engagements; hence, American debtors were not responsible for the interest on their debts incurred during the conflict. Two states particularly presenting problems were New York and Virginia. It was a nice try but was not going to cut it with the British. In its impotence, the Confederation Congress could not overrule state actions, making resolution of the debt issue even more difficult. One British official was heard to quip that Britain needed to send not one but thirteen envoys to the States!
Of course, the American government’s weakness was resolved with the new Constitution and the assumption of the presidency by Washington in 1789. One of the first tasks for Washington was to establish control of the hinterlands where the British still controlled the forts. This proved to be a harder task than envisioned due to some of the other factors listed below.
2. The Fur Trade. Despite British misdirection on the debt issue and the treatment of loyalists, America maintained that the real issue for holding the posts was to retain control of the fur trade. Despite British protestations to the contrary, the British National Archives contains reams of documents which provide fine ammunition for the American charge. The fur trade was at that time the greatest and most profitable single industry in North America. Exactly how profitable was a question.
The forts, though comprising little land by themselves and widely dispersed, controlled the fur trading routes. Estimates of the worth of this trade vary greatly. One source put it at as much as £200,000 annually (roughly $240,000), while another put it closer to between £20,000 and £60,000 per annum. A third source indicates Fort Detroit and Mackinac generating £40,800 and £60,400 per year, respectively.
The counterpoint is the cost of controlling the forts. It is estimated that at just one fort, Fort Detroit, the bill for merchandise, rum and provisions purchases for the period June 1779 to October 1780 (pre-treaty) was nearly £90,000. Further, at stake was not the sales price of the furs, but the profits, a far lower number than the gross sales. It is likely that holding the forts to maintain the fur trade was a losing proposition financially. From purely business considerations, it was in Britain’s interest to turn over the forts. In fact, the British Prime Minister in 1782, Lord Shelburne, stated that the treaty would save the British £750,000 annually, at least part of this due to not having to provision the forts.
Lord Dorchester (formerly Sir Guy Carleton), the governor general of British North America, was instructed by the British government five months later that the posts must be held at all costs, and recaptured if taken; that this was preferable to the loss of the fur trade and the endangering of Quebec. Over time, the fur trade shifted in anticipation of the eventual loss of the posts, such that when the British actually turned them over via the Jay Treaty, there was little perceptible impact on the industry. The British had held the posts until they were no longer of value from a fur trade perspective.
3. Indian Relations. The thorniest issue in the mix was relations with the Native Americans. They represented a delicate matter for both the British and the Americans, exacerbated by the high unpredictability of the Indian reaction to the Paris Treaty and the differing reactions among the different tribes. The primary sore point with the Indians was the lack of their inclusion at the table in the Paris Treaty negotiations. But this would have not been the issue it was had the Treaty not drawn the borders as it had. The Treaty had assigned the region south of the Great Lakes and between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to the United States, a region the Indians had considered theirs since the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix. The British had bargained the Indian land out from under them, leaving them to work it out with the Americans.
The American stance was quite clear from the beginning as expressed by Richard Butler, one of the emissaries designated to make the Paris Treaty terms a reality through negotiations with the Indians:
You joined the British King against us, and followed his fortunes; we have overcome him, he has cast you off, and given us your country; and Congress, in bounty and mercy, offer you country and peace. We have told you the terms on which you shall have it; these terms we will not alter.
In other words, American and Indian representatives would need to conclude their own peace in North America, but it would hardly be a negotiation. Technically, the United States remained at war with the King’s Indian allies in 1783. This war would play out in conflicts too numerous to discuss in the scope of this article, running all the way to the 1794 Jay Treaty and beyond.
By 1786, the United States had signed peace treaties with all the important northern and western tribes. These paper agreements had little value, however, when compared to the realities on the ground. Events soon spiraled out of the control of the conciliators, as militants from various tribes vowed resistance and followed their own courses. Thefrontier was embroiled in an unofficial but quite real war, such was the intensity of Indian hostility.
The British had put themselves in a tough position. They felt a certain responsibility toward the tribes—if not as a matter of honor, then certainly as a matter of security. It was up to Canadian officials, therefore, to regain their trust and allegiance with promises of continued support.
Holding the forts illustrated the tightrope Britain was trying to walk – keeping on good terms with the tribes but avoiding conflict with the United States. Evacuation of the posts would be a sure sign of betrayal of the Indians. British officials even feared that the Indians, because of the treaty terms, would vent their rage on the British-held garrisons. To reconcile the Indians with the Americans while at the same time recovering the confidence of the natives proved an impossible needle to thread.
4. Lack of Commercial Agreement. The failure to strike a comprehensive commercial agreement between Britain and the United States also led to failure to resolve the standoff. Negotiations between the parties continued after the initial 1783 agreement to reach a comprehensive trade agreement between the two, an agreement that would deal with issues such as the fur trade and resolve the border disputes. In sum, a treaty that would resolve many of the questions the Treaty of Paris left unanswered about the relationship between the peoples of the British Empire and the United States. Surely it was simply a matter of time before the final pieces of the border settlement fell into place.
Well, no. Several problems with this approach arose. First was the American “take it or leave it” stance with the Indians, described in the previous point. When the Indians chose not to back down, the tiny and underfunded U.S. Army, an extension of the weakness of the Confederation government, could not back up the diplomatic bullying of American policymakers with armed force.
Further, to codify future British-American trade relations, British negotiator David Hartley came to Paris in 1783 with a series of proposals written by Canadian merchants. These included a provision that British troops would continue to garrison the western posts for three years, primarily because the merchants did not believe that the United States was currently capable of protecting the lives and property of traders.
The American peace commissioners, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and John Jay, tentatively agreed to this, in exchange for trade reciprocity between the U.S. and the British West Indies. This last part may be where things broke down. A change in the British ministry to one much less sympathetic to the Americans resulted in a less conciliatory stance toward the U.S. and a desire to remain true to the Navigation Acts. Among other restrictions, the Acts required goods to be transported between Britain and the (now former) colonies on British ships and restricted what types of goods could be carried. The result was that the proposed language was not included in the final agreement. With no commercial agreement reached, the forts and commerce situations remained at status quo.
The Americans were convinced that the inability to spell out commercial details and the functioning of the border beyond what was fashioned in the initial treaty was due to the perception (unfortunately largely accurate) that the Confederation Congress would be unable to enforce the treaty provisions with all the states. American policymakers would need to prove that the United States could act like a unified national state if it ever expected to strike a deal with Great Britain. The border situation remained in limbo, not only between the U.S. and British Canada but between both and the Indians.
5. Reassuming Control? Lastly, some attributed an even more opportunistic spin on British policy, believing that they were waiting for the nascent republic to disintegrate so that they could re-assume their possession of the country. Congress’s inability to control the states, as exemplified by the debt and loyalist issues, its inability to collect taxes from the states, and its difficulties in solving the Western lands issues, all signaled its tenuous hold on power. This lack of control indicated a real possibility of disunion and collapse. As Benjamin Franklin observed, “she desired to postpone as long as possible the final surrender of a valuable region. She hoped that the new Union would not hold together and that a coveted territory would thus revert to her.”But this was a mirage, one that ultimately persuaded Britain to sign Jay’s Treaty in 1794.
The establishment of a new constitutional government in 1789 changed the dynamics of many of these factors that were predicated on the weakness of the American government, though even then it would take some time for the new government to establish its bona fides and remedy the weaknesses of the Confederation. The new government was soon much more actively engaged, as exemplified by one Thomas Jefferson missive to the British government cataloging all the treaty violations that ran some thirty-plus pages (modern typed!) along with sixty enclosures. Things like this started to prepare the ground for the Jay Treaty.
When finally the sides tried again, the issue of the forts was settled by Article II of the Jay Treaty in 1794. Reminiscent of the failed Treaty of Paris, it read:
His Majesty will withdraw all His Troops and Garrisons from all Posts and Places within the Boundary Lines assigned by the Treaty of Peace to the United States. This Evacuation shall take place on or before the first Day of June One thousand seven hundred and ninety-six, and all the proper Measures shall in the interval be taken by concert between the Government of the United States, and His Majesty’s Governor General in America, for settling the previous arrangements which may be necessary respecting the delivery of the said Posts.
The Jay treaty, though famously hotly debated in America, was eventually signed by President Washington on May 6, 1796. Most of the outposts were formally handed over by the end of the summer, with the last, Fort Mackinac, handed over on October 2. The long episode of the Western forts was over, at least for now. Some would come back into British hands the War of 1812, but that’s another story for another day.
The Paris Peace Treaty of September 30, 1783, The Avalon Project, avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/paris.asp.
The Jay Treaty, November 1794, The Avalon Project, avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/jay.asp.