The Shawnees were magnificent.
From the French and Indian War through the War of 1812, this Algonquian-speaking nation was at the spearpoint of the native resistance in the Ohio River Valley. Never numbering more than a few thousand, they stood against the white tide that rolled down the Ohio and pushed across the Alleghenies to conquer the rich heartland of what would become the eastern United States.
“The Shawnees earned a reputation as fierce warriors, among Indians and whites alike. Colonel Charles Stuart, who fought against them at the Battle of Point Pleasant in 1774 reckoned they were ‘the most bloody and terrible’ of all Indians ‘holding all other men as well Indians and whites in contempt as warriors, in comparison with themselves.’ They evidently boasted they had killed ten times more white people than any other tribe. They were ‘a well-formed, active and ingenious people,’ said Stuart, ‘assuming and imperious in the presence of others not of their own nation, and sometimes very cruel.’”
— Colin G. Calloway, “The Shawnees and the War for America”
The Shawnees, reassembled in towns north of the Ohio River after a diaspora in the south, first aligned with the French against the British, then the British against the Americans — seeking powerful patrons and allies in an effort to secure their lands.
Shawnee leaders Blue Jacket and later the famed Tecumseh formed coalitions with other tribes of the Old Northwest in the battle to stem the tide of American conquest.
They assaulted the settlements in Kentucky and in turn saw their towns in Ohio attacked and burned. They attacked shipping along the Ohio River so violently — often using white “renegade” Shawnees to lure flatboats to shore with piteous pleas for rescue — that for periods, traffic was brought to a standstill.
There were shocking atrocities on both sides, in a war that recognized no neutrals.
While the militants resisted, a substantial portion of the Shawnee nation migrated across the Mississippi into then-Spanish territory. Though it is easy to admire the “rather die on my feet than live on my knees” attitude of the militants, it is also easy to understand the war-weariness of the migrant Shawnees, who recognized the futility of standing in the path of the flood and sought only to get the hell out of the way. Their tragedy was that there was really nowhere to run where the flood wouldn’t reach them.
Pushed out of their Kentucky hunting lands and away from the Ohio River line, the Shawnees led by Blue Jacket formed a coalition with the Miami chief Little Turtle to resist further incursions into the Northwest Territories. (Contrary to 19th Century legend accepted as fact by historians until nearly the end of the 20th Century, Blue Jacket was not a white man raised by the Shawnees, but a native Shawnee — and one of the finest war leaders the native resistance brought forth anywhere).
In 1791, President George Washington sent essentially the entire U.S. Army to break the coalition. Blue Jacket’s Shawnees and warriors of the Miami, Ottawa, Delaware, Potawatomi and other nations set up a classic horseshoe ambush near the Wabash River (Ohio) and hit St. Clair’s camp at dawn. The ensuing “battle” was a slaughter. The warriors targeted officers and the artillerymen who struggled to bring their pieces to bear. With tactical surprise and leadership disruption taking their toll, St. Clair’s force of 2,000 broke and ran. The Indians got amongst the camp followers, killing more than 600 soldiers and non-combatants and wounding some 300 more. It was the worst defeat suffered by an American force up to the Civil War. In terms of loss-to-strength proportions, it probably ranks as the worst defeat in U.S. history.
In comparison, the legendary destruction of Custer’s command on the Little Big Horn was small doings.
But the aftermath of the great coalition victory points up the simple, inexorable truth of the wars of empire: the Anglo-European powers had massive resources. Lose an army; build a new one. That task went to General Anthony Wayne, who, in 1794, defeated the tribes at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in northern Ohio.
The warrior Tecumseh built another coalition, which attempted to unite all the tribes in one final effort to resist the American invasion, but the coalition and an alliance with the British in the War of 1812 ultimately failed as well. No matter how fierce the resistance, the momentum of the American conquest could never be checked. (Find clips of the excellent PBS episode of “We Shall Remain: Tecumseh’s Vision” here).
Many Shawnees continued careers as frontier partisans well into the 19th Century. As Calloway notes:
“The far-ranging Shawnees also earned a reputation as hunters and guides in the West, as did the Delawares, who, like them, moved repeatedly ahead of the advancing frontier. Captain Randolph Marcy, who wrote The Prairie Traveler in 1859 as a guidebook for wagon trains crossing the Great Plains, recommended employing Shawnee and Delaware scouts and hunters. He had used them on several occasions and ‘found them intelligent, brave, reliable and in every respect well qualified to fill their positions. They are endowed with those keen and wonderful powers in woodcraft which can only be acquired by instinct, practice and necessity which are possessed of no other people that I have heard of…’”
One especially badass warrior with the picturesque name of Shawnee Spybuck became the chief lieutenant of mountain man and scalp hunter Jim Kirker, ironically acting as a partisan on behalf of empire and against an Apache resistance. Such was life on the frontier…
Among the native tribes of the United States, only the Comanche and the Apache could rival the Shawnee for the ferocity and tenacity of their resistance. They had a civilization of their own and a homeland to defend and they did so with skill and daring for decades. They deserve to be honored.