On the morning of February 23, 1779, — 240 years ago this day — 19 young soldiers walked through the gates of Fort Laurens in the Ohio country to cut wood and round up some stray horses. They were chilled and hungry and many of them were suffering from toothaches and other aches and pains that were the common afflictions of life and work on the wild frontier.
The work party was still within sight of the fort — but out of musket range — when they were set upon by a mixed force of Indians and British Rangers and slaughtered almost to a man. It took but a few terror-filled minutes; a flurry of gunshots, war whoops and a sudden rain of blows from tomahawk and war club — brought an end to frontier soldiers caught in a misbegotten damp squib of a campaign.
Fort Laurens was supposed to be a forward operating base for a campaign to attack the militant Indian villages — mixed Shawnee, Delaware, Mingo (Ohio Seneca) and Wyandot, mostly — along the Sandusky River, then push on to take the British base at Detroit. That campaign had lost impetus and the 170-man garrison of the fort was isolated in the territory of some of the finest guerrilla fighters in the history of Frontier Partisan warfare.
Seventeen members of the February 23 work party were cut down in the whirlwind of violence; two were carried off. The Indian/British force lingered in the area, and the garrison was too terrified to venture out to bury their comrades, who lay where they fell for a month, their bones picked over by wolves and carrion birds.
A relief force arrived in March, and the slain were finally gathered, and most of them were buried together in a mass grave. And there they lay for almost 200 years, before the grave was excavated and the remains of 13 of the dead forensically examined in several detailed studies.
The skulls of the Patriot dead tell a tale of trauma.
The garrison reported that the work party was fired upon, but there is no clear evidence of gunshot wounds among the bones. This does not preclude soft tissue wounds, of course, (there were a couple of .50 caliber balls recovered in the grave) but it is curious. Perhaps the fire was rushed and ineffective. In any case, the killing was done with frontier melee weapons — tomahawks and ball-headed clubs. Almost all the skulls show multiple injuries.
The tomahawk wounds demonstrate that the ’hawk blades were narrow — more Backripper than war ax.
And the terrible crushing fractures demonstrate that even in an era of gunpowder and steel, the traditional wooden war club remained a brutally effective weapon.
All the skulls showed scoring where the scalping knife ran along the bone.
The most well-known study of the remains — Interpersonal Violence Between 18th Century Native Americans and Europeans in Ohio in the American Journal of Physical Anthropology — makes what seems to me an odd observation about the savagery of the attack:
The ambush victims at Fort Laurens were outnumbered, which might account for the presence of multiple perimortem cranial injuries. But it is still not clear why this was tactically necessary. In this context, it is even more confusing that three, four, or five blows were required to subdue a victim who had essentially no chance to fight back. We feel that the distribution of traumatic lesions at Fort Laurens may indicate something more than just warfare tactics, such as intense anger.
The authors apparently have no conception of battle frenzy or the pure, primal satisfaction men take in crushing the skulls of an enemy. *
It doesn’t require an exceptionally high degree of anger.
Reports have surfaced in the past couple of years that the elite SEAL Team 6 operators routinely engaged in a form of cranial mutilation of their kills called “canoeing” — shooting a corpse at the top of the forehead, which blows the head out in a “V” or canoe shape, exposing the brains. It became a kind of signature for the operators. Reportedly, one of the SEALs who took out Osama bin Laden canoed him, which is one explanation as to why ID photographs were never released.
No, not “tactically necessary.” Just frontier warfare — 18th century or 21st.
* Examinations of battlefield trauma from skeletons excavated at Towton in England yield results that indicate that smashing up skulls is just how melee action rolls. The battle on March 29, 1461, was a decisive moment in the War of the Roses, putting Edward IV of the House of York on the throne of England. Again, we have cranial injuries beyond what was “tactically necessary.”
Many of the individuals suffered multiple injuries that are far in excess of those necessary to cause disability and death. From the distribution of cuts, chops, incisions, and punctures, it appears that blows cluster in the craniofacial area, in some cases bisecting the face and cranial vault of some individuals and detaching bone in others. Series of cuts and incisions found in the vicinity of the nasal and aural areas appear to have been directed toward removal of the nose and ears. There are few infra-cranial (torso and limb) injuries, which may suggest that these areas were not targeted, that these individuals were wearing armour, or that they sustained their injuries while in a position that did not allow them to defend themselves.