Northwest Indian War

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The Northwest Indian War (17851795), often known as Little Turtle's War in older reference works, was a war fought between the United States and a large confederation of Native Americans ("Indians") for control of the Old Northwest, which ended with a decisive U.S. victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. As a result of the war, territory including much of present-day Ohio was ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Greenville in 1795.

Although often regarded as one of the seemingly self-contained Indian Wars that occurred throughout early American history, the Northwest Indian War was actually part of long frontier struggle in the Ohio Country that included the French and Indian War (17541763), Pontiac's Rebellion (17631764), Lord Dunmore's War (1774) and the American Revolutionary War (17751783). Indeed, for many Native American communities, these wars were part and parcel of a single war that spanned several generations. For example, historian Francis Jennings suggested that the Northwest Indian War was, for the Delaware (Lenape) people, the end of a Forty Years' War that began soon after the Braddock Expedition in 1755. For some American Indians, the conflict would be resumed a generation later with Tecumseh's War (1811) and the War of 1812 (hence the term Sixty Years' War) and come to an end in the era of Indian Removal.


Parties to the Indian confederacy

Note: in most cases, an entire "tribe" or "nation" was not involved in the war; Native American societies were not centralized, and involvement in warfare was decided on a village or even individual basis.

Some bands of Choctaws and Chickasaws, southern tribes traditionally unfriendly with the Indians of the Northwest, served as scouts for the Americans in the war.

Context of the War

Co-operation among the nations forming the Confederacy had gone back to the French colonial era and was renewed during the American Revolutionary War.

The Treaty of Paris (1783) had given the United States government control, on paper, of all the land east of the Mississippi river and south of the Great Lakes; but the Native American nations actually living in this region were not party to the talks. And while the British Crown had suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Yorktown (1781), there had been no decisive defeat for their Native American allies in the west. Furthermore, the British remained in possession of the Great Lakes forts through which they continued to supply their Native American allies with trade items (including weapons).

Finally, Congress sought to stabilize the dollar and pay down its war debt through the sale of western lands under Native American occupation. The Land Ordinance of 1785 gave encouragement to land speculators, surveyors, and so on, who sought to gain Native American land - sometimes through bribery or deceit - for resale to European settlers.

Congress had negotiated the Treaty of Fort McIntosh in 1785 to acquire most of the eastern portion of the Ohio Country. However Connecticut settlers were already streaming into the Western Reserve which extended into the reservation set aside for the tribes. Conflict soon broke out between the two sides.

History of the Conflict

The Wabash Confederacy first came together in the autumn of 1785 at the British fortress at Detroit, proclaiming that the parties to the Confederacy would deal jointly with the United States, rather than individually. This determination was renewed in 1786 at the village of the Hurons, where the Confederacy further insisted on the Ohio River as the boundary between their lands and those of the American settlers. The Hurons were the nominal "fathers" or senior guaranteeing nation of the Confederacy, but Shawnees and Miamis provided the greatest share of the fighting force.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 gave Native Americans title, under US law, to enjoy whatever lands had not been taken from them, but it continued to encourage the influx of US settlers beyond the Ohio. Localized engagements between those settlers and Native Americans continued to rage. the failure of the 1789 Treaty of Fort Harmar to address underlying grievances between the two sides exacerbated the problems and made widespread conflict inevitable.

In 1790, the US government launched a major western offensive. Under Josiah Harmar, the Americans burnt Kekionga, the main village of the Miamis, but were ambushed by Confederates under Little Turtle and fell back.

The governor of the Northwest Territory, Arthur St. Clair, was given command of a second offensive in 1791. St Clair built a number of forts along the same general route as Harmar had taken, but at a battle at what is now Fort Recovery, Ohio, Confederates from the Shawnee, Delaware, and Huron nations among others ambushed the Americans and killed many hundreds of them. St Clair withdrew in defeat.

"Mad Anthony" Wayne was given command of the new Legion of the United States late in 1793. He advanced into Indian country and built Fort Recovery on the site of St Clair's defeat. In June 1794 Little Turtle again led the attack on the Americans at Fort Recovery, but without success, and Wayne's Legion advanced deeper into the territory of the Wabash Confederacy. Blue Jacket replaced Little Turtle in overall command, but could not prevent the Native American's defeat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794.

Fleeing from the battlefield to regroup at the British-held Fort Miamis, Blue Jacket's forces found that the British had locked them out of the fort. The British and Americans were reaching a close rapprochement at this time to counter Jacobin France. Two treaties in 1795 sealed the new state of affairs. The Treaty of Greenville required the Confederates to cede most of Ohio and a slice of Indiana to the US; to recognize the US, rather than Britain, as the suzerain powers in the Old Northwest; and to give ten chiefs to the US as hostages until all prisoners were returned in guarantee. Jay's Treaty, which had already been signed, provided for the British withdrawal from the western forts.

Key figures

For the US

For the Indian confederacy


  • Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University, 1992.
  • Jennings, Francis. The Founders of America. New York: Norton, 1993.
  • Sugden, John. Blue Jacket: Warrior of the Shawnees. Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 2000.
  • Sword, Wiley. President Washington's Indian War: The Struggle for the Old Northwest, 1790-1795. Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.
  • White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. Cambridge University Press, 1991.
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