Little Turtle – Miami War Chief turned peacemaker

By Mike Barhorst - For the Sidney Daily News

Little Turtle was a war chief who turned peacemaker during his lifetime.

Photo couresy of the U.S. Army Military Institute

Editor’s note: in conjunction with the 200th celebration of the establishment of Shelby County, the Sidney Daily News will be publishing a year long series about the county’s history.

When Christopher Columbus arrived in what he thought was India, he named the people he found Indios. We have little idea of the number of distinct groups of ‘Indios’ who were living in what soon became known as the New World, as there is scant historical record. Only one of the groups (the Mayans) had a written language.

We do know that today the Bureau of Indian Affairs recognizes 573 distinct Native American tribes, with hundreds more inhabiting the other 65 countries and territories that today comprise the New World. Our knowledge of the indigenous people is further complicated by a philosophy that was perhaps most clearly stated by General Philip Sheridan; “The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.”

I mention that as a prelude to noting that there is little documentary evidence for much of Little Turtle’s life. In fact, even his name is an English translation of the phonetic spelling of his name, which has many variations including Mihšihkinaahkwa, Michikiniqua, Michikinikwa, Meshecunnaquan, Mischecanocquah, Meshekunnoghquoh, Michikinakoua, and Me-She-Kin-No-Quah. The word translated means “a species of terrapin”, thought by many historians to be the painted turtle.

Although the year and the place of his birth as well as his parentage are uncertain, it is likely that Little Turtle was born in either a small Miami village along Devil’s Lake in what is now Whitley County, Indiana, or at a much larger nearby village known as Turtletown (the location of the present village of Churubusco). It is widely believed that his parents lived in Pickawillany before moving west after the village was destroyed in 1752. It is also likely that Little Turtle was born in 1752 shortly after his parents arrived in Indiana, although some historians believe that he was born in 1748 while they were residing at Pickawillany.

Descriptions of Little Turtle indicate that he was nearly 6 feet in height with dark, penetrating eyes. He had pierced ears, and usually wore large, silver rings in his ears and on his upper arms. Little Turtle never drank alcohol and distrusted those who did.

While the chief of the Myaamiaki (Miami) was a hereditary title passed from father to son, the war chief was selected for his prowess in battle. By the time Little Turtle was in his mid-thirties, he had been selected as the war chief of the Atchatchakangouen division of the Miami people.

Little Turtle earned war chief status by defeating French forces under Augustin de La Balme. The French forces under La Balme plundered the principal Miami village of Kekionga (present-day Fort Wayne) in October 1780, as part of a prelude to an attack on British forces in Detroit.

On Nov. 5, 1780, Little Turtle led the assault on La Balme’s encampment along the Eel River. La Balme and a number of his men were killed, bringing an end to the campaign against Fort Detroit.

Subsequently, Little Turtle led raids against colonial American settlements in Kentucky, fighting on the side of Great Britain. Unfortunately for their cause, the Miami nation was not unified in their support of the British. The Piankashaw Miami supported the rebel Americans forces. The Wea Miami either remained neutral or fought for the British.

Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1783) that ended the Revolutionary War, the British abandoned their native allies and ceded the land between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River to the newly formed American government. Americans considered this region to be theirs as a result of winning the war.

The new American government established the Northwest Territory (the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin and a part of Minnesota) in 1787. The government further subdivided the land north of the Ohio River into the Indiana and Ohio Territories in 1800. Subsequently, the State of Ohio was formed in 1803.

Native Americans living in the territories resisted the encroaching American settlers and violence in the area escalated. Native tribes formed the Western Confederacy. Their goal was to keep the Ohio River the boundary between Indian lands and the United States. Little Turtle emerged as one of the war leaders of the confederacy, which also included the Shawnee under Blue Jacket and the Delaware under Buckongahelas. The conflict which followed is known both as the Northwest Indian War and Little Turtle’s War.

In an effort to end the ongoing border war with native tribes, the American government sent an expedition under the command of Gen. Josiah Harmar to the region. Harmar’s forces were primarily comprised of poorly trained militia, as the national government had almost entirely disbanded the army following the Revolutionary War.

Harmar’s forces looted and destroyed the Indian villages they encountered as they marched toward Kekionga. When they arrived on Oct. 15, 1790, they found that Kekionga had been burned to the ground by the Miami to prevent it from falling into American hands.

On Oct. 16, Gen. Harmar learned that Indian forces were massing along the Eel River. Harmar sent 300 men under Colonel John Hardin north of Kekionga towards the Eel River. On Oct. 19, Hardin’s forces suffered a tragic defeat in an ambush led by Little Turtle. Almost all the US forces were killed.

Simultaneously, Harmar’s remaining forces destroyed all the other Miami villages in the area before retreating. On Oct. 21, Harmar’s scouts advised that the Miami had returned to Kekionga.

Harmar sent a force back to the Indian town on the morning of October 22. Two companies of US forces under Colonel Hardin took a position along the Saint Joseph River. Three companies, under Major John Wyllys, had hoped to entrap the Indians in Kekionga by crossing the Maumee River.

The Miami challenged the crossing, killing several men in the surrounding fields and the river itself. Major Wyllys and several officers were killed. In total, 183 soldiers were killed, and about the same number of Miami warriors. Harmar’s army was forced to retreat back to Fort Washington.

In an attempt to avenge what is known in history as Harmar’s Defeat, Gov. Arthur Saint Clair led a force of nearly 2,000 soldiers north from Fort Washington toward the juncture of the Maumee and Wabash Rivers. Little Turtle lead a coalition force of about 1,000 warriors.

The armies met on Nov. 4, 1791. Many of the militiamen fled the field immediately. The regular soldiers under St. Clair’s command fought stubbornly for several hours before retreating. Survivors began reaching Fort Jefferson late that afternoon and evening. To this day, the battle remains the worst defeat ever suffered by the U.S. Army.

Following the decision of a grand council of tribal leaders at the mouth of the Auglaize River, Little Turtle led a force of 200 Miami and Shawnee past the U.S. outposts of Fort Jefferson and Fort St. Clair, reaching Fort Hamilton on Nov. 3, 1792. The warriors intended to make an attack near the U.S. settlements on the anniversary of St. Clair’s Defeat.

Able to capture two prisoners, Little Turtle learned that a large convoy of packhorses had left for Fort Jefferson and was due back within days. Little Turtle moved north and found the convoy of nearly 100 horses and 100 Kentucky militia under the command of Major John Adair encamped outside Fort St. Clair. Little Turtle and his warriors attacked at dawn on Nov. 4. The militia fled into the safety of the fort. Little Turtle’s force captured Adair’s camp and its provisions. All the horses were killed, wounded, or driven off. As a result, Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkinson, in command of Fort Washington, believed that the fortifications north of Fort Washington to be indefensible.

Between 1792 and 1794, General “Mad” Anthony Wayne commanded the Legion of the United States in a third expedition in the Northwest Territory against the Indian confederacy. To avoid still another defeat Wayne rigorously trained 3,500 U.S. troops and carefully planned his campaign.

The American forces successfully repulsed Little Turtle’s exploratory attack on Fort Recovery on June 30, 1794. Afterwards, Little Turtle counseled his tribesmen to pursue a negotiated peace rather than suffer defeat in battle. Unable to persuade the leaders of the tribal confederacy to negotiate peace, Little Turtle stepped down as the intertribal war chief. Little Turtle ceded command to Blue Jacket, although he retained leadership of his own group of Miami tribesmen.

Little Turtle’s son-in-law, William Wells, a white man who was born in Kentucky and lived among the Miami for eight years after his capture in 1784, also sensed the defeat of the Indian alliance and switched sides to join the American forces. Wells served as a scout for General Wayne’s troops, and later as an Indian Agent for the U.S government.

The Indian confederacy was defeated at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 20, 1794. After the battle, the Miamis abandoned Kekionga and relocated to other villages along the Eel, Mississinewa, and Wabash Rivers.

Following the Indian confederacy’s defeat at Fallen Timbers, their leaders signed the Treaty of Greenville on Aug. 2, 1795. Little Turtle travelled with his wife to Greenville and gave an impassioned speech before signing the treaty. He was hopeful that the treaty would lead to improved relations between the Americans and Native Americans.

Unfortunately, Little Turtle’s wife died the following day. Her funeral and burial included American soldiers as pallbearers, American music and a three-gun salute.

Although Indian resistance to the Americans diminished after the Treaty of Greenville was signed, Indian raids continued to threaten settlements along the frontier. In 1795, Little Turtle refused an alliance with the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh. Little Turtle continued to advocate for peace, and began to adapt to the American way of life, including acquisition of his own land. Little Turtle made trips east to meet with three presidents.

In November 1796 Little Turtle met with President George Washington, who presented him with a ceremonial sword. In 1797-98, Little Turtle met President John Adams during a second trip east.

President Thomas Jefferson corresponded with Little Turtle to encourage the introduction of American agricultural methods to Miami society. Little Turtle made two additional trips to Washington, D.C. in 1801–02 and 1809–09 to meet with President Jefferson. At the request of Little Turtle and other chiefs, President Jefferson provided agricultural equipment and livestock to the Miamis and Potawatomis in an effort to encourage the tribes to adopt farming.

Despite such efforts, most of the attempts at assimilation failed. The failure of assimilation was a contributing factor to the federal government seeking further land cession treaties and the eventual removal of the territory’s Native American inhabitants from the Northwest Territory.

In 1809, Little Turtle broke with other Miami leaders when Indiana Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison traveled to Fort Wayne to renegotiate treaty terms. Working with Little Turtle and his son-in-law, William Wells, Harrison succeeded in obtaining the Treaty of Fort Wayne in which 2,500,000 acres of land were ceded to the federal government.

Tribal leaders who opposed Little Turtle, including Pacanne, Jean Baptiste Richardville, Owl, and Metocina refused to relinquish any more land to the U.S. government. Harrison was forced to recognize the Mississinewa chiefs as the true representatives of the Miamis, not Little Turtle, and to declare that Little Turtle was not a Miami.

Although Little Turtle was among the signers of the Treaty of Fort Wayne, afterwards he was no longer involved in Miami affairs. Shawnee war chief Tecumseh and his brother, Tenskwatawa (The Prophet) condemned the treaty and began talks with the British about forming an alliance.

The Americans defeated the British and their Native American allies at the Battle of the Thames in 1812, destroying the power of the Native American confederacy. As a result, many of Native Americans moved farther west.

Little Turtle retired to a Miami village twenty miles northeast of Fort Wayne. Following the Siege of Fort Wayne during the War of 1812, General Harrison ordered the destruction of all Miami villages within a two-day march of Fort Wayne. Harrison’s forces also destroyed the village where Little Turtle lived, but spared Little Turtle’s home, which the U.S. government had built for his use.

Little Turtle died on July 14, 1812, at the home of his son-in-law William Wells, not far from Kekionga. He was honored with a military-style funeral with full military honors at Fort Wayne. Little Turtle was buried in his ancestral burial ground near Spy Run.

Little Turtle’s Impassioned Speech Before Signing the Treaty of Greenville

“General Wayne: I hope you will pay attention to what I now say to you. I wish to inform you where your younger brothers, the Miamies, live, and, also, the Pattawatamies of St. Joseph’s, together with the Wabash Indians. You have pointed out to us the boundary line between the Indians and the United States, but I now take the liberty to inform you, that that line cuts off from the Indians a large portion of country, which has been enjoyed by my forefathers time immemorial; without molestation or dispute. The print of my ancestors’ houses are evervwhere to be seen in this portion. I was a little astonished at hearing you, and my brothers who are now present, telling each other what business you had transacted together heretofore at Muskingum, concerning this country. It is well known by all my brothers present, that my forefather kindled the first fire at Detroit; from thence, he extended his lines to the head waters of Scioto; from thence, to its mouth; from thence, down the Ohio, to the mouth of the Wabash, and from thence to Chicago, on lake Michigan; at this place I first saw my elder brothers, the Shawanese. I have now informed you of the boundaries of the Miami nation, where the Great Spirit placed my forefather a long time ago, and charged him not to sell or part with his lands, but to preserve them for his posterity. This charge has been handed down to me. I was much surprised to find that my other brothers differed so much from me on this subject: for their conduct would lead one to suppose, that the Great Spirit, and their forefathers, had not given them the same charge that was give to me, but, on the contrary, had directed them to sell their lands to any white man who wore a hat, as soon as he should ask it of them. Now, elder brother, your younger brothers, the Miamies, have pointed out to you their country, and also to our brothers present. When I hear your remarks and proposals on this subject, I will be ready to give you an answer: I came with an expectation of hearing you say good things, but I have not yet heard what I have expected.”

Source: American State Papers. Indian Affairs, 1789–1815 (Washington, D.C.: Gales and Seaton, 1832), Vol. 1

Little Turtle was a war chief who turned peacemaker during his lifetime. Turtle was a war chief who turned peacemaker during his lifetime. Photo couresy of the U.S. Army Military Institute

By Mike Barhorst

For the Sidney Daily News

The writer is a local hsitorian and city of Sidney mayor. He is also the chairman for the Shelby County Bicentennial Committee.

The writer is a local hsitorian and city of Sidney mayor. He is also the chairman for the Shelby County Bicentennial Committee.