War and Conflict in the Ohio Country during the American Revolution

The War Years (1775-1783)

October 19, 2023
by Jason Edwin Anderson Also by this Author


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The American Revolution came as a fire storm. No section of America was untouched or unaltered. The British Colonists who were in open rebellion against the crown in 1775 found themselves embroiled in a conflict that would last well beyond the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783. The war cost them dearly—in resources, money, and manpower. Despite the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence, which stated on July 4, 1776, “that all Men are created equal,” the American Revolution’s most lasting legacy was its impact upon the Native Indians. Torn between allying with the British or the American colonists, the Indians of the Ohio Country were faced with a dilemma—which side would best defend their lands and their way of life? The Ohio Country became the scene of violent conflict between the British Army and their Indian allies, the Continental Army and their Indian allies, and the American settlers who simply wanted western lands. By 1783 the Treaty of Paris temporarily ended hostilities between the Americans and their British brethren, but it did not resolve the ever-increasing violence in the Ohio Country.

The Indian world and the Anglo-American world viewed each other very differently. To the Indians the encroachment of British colonists ever westward meant a constant seizure of traditional Indian lands which led to an evaporation of their culture. To the Americans the Indians in the Ohio Country were a constant threat which justified removal if only to access the rich lands west of the Ohio River. The Indians understood their foe. They realized that their lands were in jeopardy and would do everything in their power to prevent American westward migration. Despite the ways in which their lands were poorly represented on British and American maps of the 1750s and 1770s, the American Indian tribes in the north dominated the area of modern-day Pennsylvania, western New York, Ohio, and Kentucky. Cartographers repeatedly omitted Indian territory, or at best, downplayed the importance of its inhabitants. Historian Chad Anderson notes eighteenth-century cartographers portrayed western land as almost devoid of any permanent Indian settlement or activity.[1]

Throughout the twentieth century the story of the Revolutionary War has been a very Atlantic-centric narrative. Until the turn of the twenty-first century the historiography of the Revolutionary War in the West has been gleaned over. American colonists shared culture, traditions, and beliefs with their British brethren. The Native Indians were a foreign entity. Historian Colin G. Calloway noted that

Virginians like Washington who ventured there [Ohio Country] were like blind men feeling an elephant: they touched the edges of an Indian world they could barely imagine, a continent inhabited by countless Indian Nations, confederacies, villages, bands, and clans that built and sustained relations with one another; that faced west, north, and south as much as they faced east to confront a growing English presence.[2]

The northwest was home to countless Indian tribes in 1775. The Iroquois Confederacy dominated upper New York and western Pennsylvania. This confederacy consisted of the Senaca, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Mohawk, Tuscarora, and the Wyandots. In addition to these tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy were the Shawneeand theDelaware. At the outset of the Revolution these tribes traded, hunted, and waged war with one another. With the western encroachment of Americans after the French and Indian War, the tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy became increasingly weary of American settlers. It became evident that the terms of the 1768 Treaty of Fort Stanwix had benefited these settlers far more than the Iroquois.[3] As the war between England and her North American Colonies escalated in the east, tensions mounted in the west. Throughout the war Native Indians were sought after for their assistance, especially from the Continental Army who faced a crisis in pursuing their claim to the Ohio Territory by defeating the British in the west. The Stockbridge Indians provided valuable service to the Continental Army in the east throughout the war. Despite this, Native Indians remained elusive allies at best for General Washington and the Continental Army. As Calloway noted, Washington knew he had to fight a defensive war against the British army in the east. Fighting the Indians in the west would be a very different story.[4]

The Importance of the Indian Lands

The war goals for both the Continental Army and the Continental Congress were very different in the west than along the Atlantic coast. The western focus was not upon a war of independence from Great Britain as much as a war for the opportunity to gain land. Many land speculators, Washington among them, had their sights set on land in the Ohio Valley since the French and Indian War. Land companies were formed and much had been invested in land to the west. However, with the establishment of the Royal Proclamation of 1763, these new lands were out of reach for American colonists so long as Great Britain controlled them. As the war progressed the availability and control of these lands became an ever-increasing possibility for Americans. Westward settlement depended upon one thing—the removal of all obstacles including British military forces and Indian tribes in western New York, Pennsylvania, and the Ohio Country.

In 1775 the west was populated by a complex social and political structure known as the Iroquois Confederacy.[5] Colin Calloway noted that this was truly a unique world that neither the Americans nor the British fully understood. Examining the Revolutionary War from the perspective of the Indians in the Ohio Country alone presents a complex cultural crisis. First, the tribes were pressed with offerings of either peace or war by England and America. Which side would benefit the Indians most? Some had sided with the French in the last war, some with the British. Those who had fought with the British were now torn over whom to ally with; the English who occupied Fort Niagara and Fort Detroit; or the American colonists who pressed them from the east and the southeast. Second, tribal leaders were forced to ally with the side that offered the best and most plentiful supplies: food, clothing, and most importantly, protection when needed. This would become a precarious indicator of trust and allegiance. Lastly, the diverse Indian tribes within the Ohio Country were continually at war with one another. The Revolutionary War split traditional Indian alliances and many tribes were pitted against each other. This became an effective way to devoid the area of their powerful influence and presence.

As the war moved into the west by 1777, both the Americans and British courted the various Indian tribes in the Ohio Country. The British were able to supply trade goods, provided the Saint Lawrence River remained open to navigation. Throughout the war the many tribal members of the Iroquois Confederation remained allied to the British. Others, such as the Shawnee and Delaware tribes, allied themselves with the Americans. Due to internal conflict perpetuated by divergent alliances, the Iroquois Confederacy was shattered during the war. Tribes found their alliance put into question when violent acts were committed against them by western colonists or those who supposedly were their allies. Still other tribes were at war with one another during the Revolution.[6] The Oneida tribe left the Confederacy and allied themselves to the Americans, as did the Tuscarora. Additionally, the Delaware, traditionally allied to the Americans, became disheartened after the violent massacre of Delaware Moravian Indians at Gnadenhutten in 1782. They ended the war allied to the British. The Revolutionary War wreaked tremendous havoc upon the many Indian tribes in western New York, Pennsylvania, and especially the Ohio Country.

The Revolutionary War Moves into the Ohio Country: 1777-1778

Throughout the war General Washington remained focused on securing the Ohio Country. In a series of correspondence to his commanders in the west, Washington gave varying instructions regarding Indians. Despite being occupied with military matters in and around Philadelphia he kept a tight grip on his officers west of Pittsburg. In his letters to Generals Edward Hand and Lachlan McIntosh, as well as Col. Daniel Brodhead, Washington continually referred to the “Ohio Country” rather than the “Ohio Territory.” This indicated that he viewed the land and the peoples who occupied it as a separate political entity. It was not to be assumed that the territory would naturally become part of America. The classification of “territory” in 1776 inferred that the land belonged to the recently created United States of America. The term “country” indicated separate ownership. Despite this careful indication, Washington pursued the Indian lands with determination and vigor.[7]

General Washington’s initial plan focused upon an attack upon the British garrison at Fort Detroit. The fort posed the greatest threat to American settlers in the Ohio Country. The British commander at Fort Detroit, Gen. Henry Hamilton, encouraged Indian raids against American settlers living in Ohio.[8] The Continental Congress approved a resolution on June 11, 1778, authorizing an expedition against Fort Detroit. This expedition involved the construction of a series of forts in the Ohio Country west of Fort Pitt, and north toward Lake Erie. It also required negotiating with the various Indian tribes in Ohio and forming, or repairing, alliances with them.

On July 25, 1778, after much debate on the course of the war in the west, the Continental Congress revised its original resolution of June 11 and stated the “the expedition against the fortress of Detroit be for the present deferred.” Instead, General McIntosh was instructed to “proceed without delay, to destroy such towns of the hostile tribes of Indians as he in his discretion shall think will most effectually tend to chastise and terrify the savages.”[9]

Minimal coverage has been paid regarding the Ohio Indian tribes and chiefs during the Revolutionary War in the west. Focus has been given to American leaders such as Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark who exemplified the ideals of American western settlement and frontier spirit. The contributions of the great Native Indian leaders in the 1770s and 1780s such as Cornstalk, White Eye, John Kill Buck, Joseph Brant, and Captain Pipe is lacking in the historical narrative. These men were competing against impossible odds. On the one hand they were leaders of their individual tribes, members of Indian nations, deliberating upon which ally would benefit them best in the end, Great Britain, or America. They were forced to continue traditional negotiations among their fellow tribal leaders of various communities—both those at war and those at peace. The Iroquois Confederacy, for example, was a diverse and complex organization in its own right. Binding its members together while facing two opposing enemies at the same time was no small feat.[10] Throughout the Revolution they were also responsible for political “foreign relations” in negotiating the various treaties that were made by their own tribe and the Continental Congress, as well as those negotiated with various individual states.[11]

Nineteenth and early twentieth-century historians continued the narrative of the Indian “savage” and of “barbarity and brutality” committed by the “red man.” The early historiography of the Revolution in the Ohio Country reflected American attitudes towards Indian life, especially regarding the western territories and states beyond the Mississippi River.[12] By the early twenty-first-century the historiography shifted from the traditional Atlantic historical perspective to writing about the Revolution in the west with a focus on a more continental, cultural approach to writing about the impact of the war on the Indians and their society.

Violence and Vengeance: 1782-1783

Violence dominated the Ohio Country from 1778-1783. Even after British General Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, fighting continued northwest of the Ohio River. This was perpetuated by years of mutual animosity as noted by historian Douglas R. Hurt, stating that “The frontier people, so typified by the Virginia Militia, were Indian haters first, last, and always.”[13] After the murder of Indian Chief Cornstalk and his son near Fort Randolph in 1777, the peaceful alliance between the Americans and the Delaware Indians was greatly strained. In 1778 a delegation of Delaware Chiefs met with Gen. Lachlan McIntosh, Col. Daniel Brodhead, Col. William Crawford, and other American officers, at Fort Pitt. The treaty with the Delaware, commonly referred to as the Treaty of Fort Pitt, rebuilt the shaken alliance. Trade goods and protection were promised in return for access through Delaware lands and the establishment of forts for the future campaign against Fort Detroit.

Following this treaty the first American fort in the Ohio Country was established—Fort Laurens. Named for the President of the Continental Congress, Henry Laurens, Fort Laurens was to serve as a staging ground for military action in the west. General Washington was keen to learn as much as possible about the Ohio Country: water routes, locations of tribes, interactions with the British, and distance between Indian settlements. He hoped the establishment of Fort Laurens would provide that information. From the outset the garrison at Fort Laurens faced massive challenges. With a rotation of military commanders in the Ohio Country, Washington was faced with hostile, aggressive Indians, bolstered by British support.[14] The fort was attacked multiple times by Indian raiding parties. Soldiers were ambushed outside the fort and beyond musket range from the defenders. Forced to remain inside the fort for their own protection, the garrison faced near starvation. Letters from McIntosh and Brodhead to Washington questioned the usefulness of the fort, especially if it was too great a distance from Fort Pitt to keep well supplied. More troops were needed if Fort Laurens was to be a deterrent to Indian aggression. The decision was made to abandon the fort in 1779.[15]

Washington’s letters to his military commanders in the west continually advocated pressure be put upon the Indians in the Ohio Country. His views towards an aggressive war in the west was made clear: “if we cannot engage the friendship of the savages, reduce them to the necessity of remaining quiet.” Washington further added that “If we can reduce or force the Six Nations to a submission, it will have an admirable effect upon all the Western tribes.” He increasingly wanted to impress upon the Indians the threat of American military force which he would use “to fall upon and destroy the whole County of the Six Nations.”[16] Indian allies, especially the Delaware and Shawnee, continued to advocate for peace. Throughout 1778 and 1779 six separate peace negotiations were recorded between the American army and the Delaware chiefs.[17] Despite these good intentions the treaties did not stave off the onslaught of western settlers nor change their attitudes towards the Indian “savages” who lived in the Ohio Country.

In April 1781, Col. Daniel Brodhead attacked a peaceful Indian settlement at Coshocton. The destruction was immense. He had employed the techniques used with General Sullivan in 1779—burning homes, destroying the settlement, murder, and most of all, destroying crops, key of which was corn. By destroying the food supply, it forced the Indians to move further west or to become a greater burden on the British at Fort Detroit. This attack placed the fragile American-Indian alliance in grave peril and resulted in Broadhead being court martialed. In March 1782, after Indian attacks upon American settlements on the western frontier, militiamen under the command of Col. David Williamson attacked the Moravian Christian Mission at Gnadenhutten. Peaceful Delaware Indians, who had converted to Christianity, were rounded up, and ninety-six Delaware Indians, men, women, and children, were bludgeoned to death.[18] This shattered the Delaware-American alliance in the Ohio Country.

Shortly after Williamson’s savage attack, Col. William Crawford led an expedition towards Sandusky that resulted in his capture. The Delaware Indians met the Americans with a superior force. Crawford was tortured to death; his murder reported by two Americans that had escaped.[19] To the Delaware, William Crawford’s death symbolically atoned for those who had been slaughtered at Gnadenhutten months before. The report of Crawford’s death further perpetuated American vengeance, just as word of the massacre at Gnadenhutten had among the Ohio Indians. The violence of 1782 in the Ohio Country, both at the hands of the Americans and the Indians, became a whirlwind of retaliation, murder, and destruction.[20]

The Impact of the Revolutionary War upon the Indians in the Ohio Country

The Ohio Country, and the Ohio Native Indian culture, was forever changed after the Treaty of Paris was signed. The new United States now gained control of the Northwest Territory from Great Britain—albeit if only on paper. The Iroquois Confederacy had been broken—geographically, socially and militarily. The military campaigns of General Sullivan in 1779 into Iroquoia, although it initially provoked continual Indian raids and violence, had devastated the Confederacy.[21] Throughout the 1780s and early 1790s Ohio Indian raids and attacks attempted to stimy American settlement and encroachment into the “country.” It was not until 1795 at the Battle of Fallen Timbers that the Native Indians in the “Ohio Country” were finally subdued by the military forced of the United States.[22]

The Revolutionary War temporarily resolved the decades-long violence between Americans and Native Indians using military and diplomatic force on one hand, while perpetuating generational violence. By forcing Indians from their lands in the Ohio Country, the animosity and hatred moved west of the Mississippi River. The unresolved conflicts of the Revolutionary War in Ohio lead to violent confrontations between Native Indians and American throughout the west for decades to come.


[1]Anderson cites many eighteenth-century century maps and cartographers and how each one treated the Indian tribes in the west differently. Many did not include them, to promote settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains. None of these were Indio-centric maps and all were made by Anglo-American cartographers. In some regard those maps that included western lands became a travel brochure for new settlement. Chad Anderson, “Rediscovering Native North America: Settlements, Maps, and Empires in the Eastern Woodlands.” Early American Studies 14, No. 3 (Summer 2016). An overview of eighteenth-century century maps is critical for the understanding of Indians settling in the Ohio Country. The following maps are referenced in Chad Anderson’s essay: Henry Poppel, A Map of the British Empire in North America, 1755; John Mitchell, Map of the British and French Dominions in North America,1757; Lewis Evans, A Map of the Middle British Colonies in North America, 1755; Thomas Hutchins, A Map of the Western Parts of Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and North Carolina,1778; Robert Morden, A New Map of New England New York Iarsey Pennsylvania Maryland and Virginia, 1685; and Henry Mouzon, Composite—North and South Carolina, 1776. All are in the David Rumsey Map Collection, www.davidrumsey.com.

[2]Colin G. Calloway, The Indian World of George Washington, The First President, the First Americans, and the Birth of the Nation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018). 41.

[3]The Treaty of Fort Stanwix signed by Iroquois tribes on November 5, 1768, in New York, yielded territorial lands to the Americans. This treaty would cause numerous problems during the Revolution as internal conflict rocked the Confederacy to the core. Member tribes declared that their lands were given away by those who never had claim to the lands. The National Archives has digital versions of all original Indian treaties at www.archives.gov/research/native-americans/treaties/catalog-links.

[4]Calloway, The Indian World of George Washington. Calloway notes that Washington had to wage an offensive war against the Indians in the west. The goals in the west were different from those in the east. Land was to be gained if the west was secured.

[5]The Iroquois Confederacy is also referred to as the Iroquois League or the Six Nations. Originally known as the Five Nations, it changed with the addition of the Tuscarora tribe.

[6]Two tribes of the Iroquois Confederacy, the Seneca and the Oneida, fought against each other at the Battle of Oriskany in 1777. This further divided and weakened the Confederacy’s ability to withstand continued western settlement.

[7]In the first of a series of letters written to Brig. Gen. Lachlan McIntosh and Col. Daniel Brodhead, Washington referred to the area of the Ohio as the “Ohio Country.” Both McIntosh and Brodhead also referred to this in letters to Washington. George Washington to Lachlan McIntosh, January 31, 1779, founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-19-02-0112.

[8]British Gen. Henry Hamilton was known as the “hair buyer” for paying his Indian allies for each American scalp that they brought to him. It became difficult to determine the origin of each scalp, however the fear instilled in western settlers provided proof of the effectiveness of this type of trade. Hamilton kept detailed records of his Indian allies, including sketches of some of the more important tribal leaders. James H O’Donnell III, Ohio’s First Peoples (Athens; Ohio University Press, 2004), 54-55.

[9]After the Revolutionary War Doctor Lyman Draper acquired a collection of letters dealing with the war in the west. The Draper Papers were edited by Louise Phelps Kellogg in the early 1900s. These volumes provide numerous primary sources from American soldiers and commanders, British commanders, and Indian chiefs. Resolutions form the Continental Congress that pertain to the Ohio Country are also included. Detroit Expedition Planned, June 11, 1778 (88-89), Detroit Expedition Advised, July 17, 1778 (112-113), Detroit Expedition Abandoned, July 25, 1778 (121). Louis Phelps Kellogg, Frontier Advance on the Upper Ohio: 1778-1779 (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1916); Robert A. Staley, “American Indian treaty diplomacy on the Papers of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789,” Government Information Quarterly 29, 2 (2012): www-sciencedirect-com.ezproxy.liberty.edu/science/article/pii/S0740624X12000044?via%3Dihu.

[10]In many regards the Iroquois Confederacy, and many similar tribal associations, can be compared to the Continental Congress itself. As a political entity, the Confederacy had “full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do,” as quoted from the Declaration of Independence which established the same authority for the Continental Congress in 1776. In this context the Indian tribes of the west appear very similar to the American Colonies to the east.

[11]The original manuscript copies of the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, November 5, 1768, the Treaty of Fort Pitt, September 17, 1778, and the Treaty of Fort McIntosh, January 21, 1785, can all be viewed at www.archives.gov/research/native-americans/treaties/catalog-links.

[12]To read samples of nineteenth and twentieth-century interpretations of the Revolution in the West (Ohio) see History of the Delaware and Iroquois Indians: Formerly Inhabiting the Middle States, with Various Anecdotes, Illustrating their Manners and Customs, Embellished with a variety of original cuts (Philadelphia: The American Sunday School Union, 1832); History of Wayne County, Ohio, Vol. 1(Indianapolis: B. F. Bowen & Co., 1910). Historical writing on the American Indian in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century has refocused to examine the culture of Indian society and the impact that the Revolution made upon their way of life. For samples of these reinterpretations see O’Donnell III, Ohio’s First Peoples; R. Douglas Hurt, The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1720-1830 (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996); and Calloway, The Indian World of George Washington.

[13]Hurt, The Ohio Frontier.

[14]General Hand was first in command at Fort Pitt. He was replaced by Gen. Lachlan McIntosh. McIntosh requested a transfer upon receiving word that his home in Georgia had been seized by the British in 1779. McIntosh would be replaced by Col. Daniel Brodhead.

[15]Thomas I. Pieper and James B. Gidney, Fort Laurens 1778-1779: The Revolutionary War in Ohio (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1976).

[16]Washington to McIntosh, January 31, 1779,founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-19-02-0112.Washington to McIntosh, June 10, 1778, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-15-02-0358; Washington to Daniel Brodhead to, March 22, 1779, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-19-02-0552.

[17]Captain White Eyes and John Kill Buck to Col. George Morgan, June 9, 1778 (83-84); American Messages to Indians, June 16, 1778 (91-92); Messages from the Delawares, July 19, 1778 (117-18); Delawares Council with McIntosh, November 22, 1778 (178-80); Delawares Warn Fort Laurens, January 29, 1779 (212-13); Delaware Chief Discouraged, March 15, 1779 (254); Friendly Delaware Murdered, April 28, 1779 (296-98); Council of Delawares with Colonel Daniel Brodhead, July 12, 1779 (387-88); Negotiations with Cherokee, July 18, 1779 (392-400). Kellogg, Frontier Advance.

[18]The Murder of the Christian Indians in North America in the year 1782, a Narrative of Facts (Dublin: Benthham & Hardy, 1826). Francis C. Hubner, The Moravian Missions in Ohio (Washington, DC: Simms & Lewis, 1898). P. H. Kaiser, Moravians on the Cuyahoga: Address delivered before the Western Reserve Historical Society (Cleveland: Mount & Co. 1894).

[19]C. W. Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782 with Biographical Sketches, Personal Reminiscences, and Descriptions of Interesting Localities Including, also, Details of the Disastrous Retreat, the Barbarities of the Savages, and the Awful Death of Crawford by Torture (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1873).

[20]John C. Apple, “Colonel Daniel Brodhead and the Lure of Detroit,” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 38, no. 3 (July 1971); Roger D. McGrath, “The American Rifleman in the Revolutionary War.” The New American 26, 18 (2010); Karim M. Tiro, “New Narratives of the Conquest of the Ohio Country,” Journal of the Early Republic 36, 3 (2016).

[21]Iroquoia, as marked on maps of the 1750s and 1770s, is located in upper New York. As continual American settlement moved westward, the Iroquois nations moved west into parts of Pennsylvania and Ohio.

[22]In 1795 Revolutionary War Gen. Anthony Wayne defeated the Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers—the sight of a tornado. The British-Indian alliance in the Northwest, which had been in operation since the beginning of the Revolutionary War, was now broken. This battle led to peace in the “Ohio Country.” Mary Stockwell, Unlikely General: “Mad” Anthony Wayne and the Battle for America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).

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