The march of the American Republic from sea to shining sea seems inevitable in hindsight. It’s easy to lose sight of contingency in history; moments when the trail could have turned in a different direction.
Had the First Nations people of the Ohio Country acted in concert when the American Revolution broke out in 1775, if the British had decisively supported them and encouraged them to hammer the lightly-defended fledgling backcountry settlements, the map of the United States might look considerably different.
As it happened, the British policy 1775-76 was indecisive. The government in Canada and its agents in Detroit sought to keep the Ohio Indians out of the orbit of rebellious Virginia and Pennsylvania, but hopes for reconciliation with the rebellious colonies restrained the British from going all-in and unleashing attacks along the frontier. Instead, they urged restraint on the tribes, encouraging them only to defend against incursions by the Virginia Long Knives north or west of the Ohio River.
For their part, the native peoples mostly sought to maintain neutrality, uncertain as to how the family quarrel of British America would play out and which side might best serve their interest in protecting their lands, their autonomy and their economy.
But if it had been up to one Mohawk militant known across the Ohio Valley frontier as Captain Pluggy, every settler in Kentucky would have been dead and the frontier shoved back to the Appalachian crest.
Plukkemehnotee was a Mohawk, one of the loose conglomeration of Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) migrants who had gradually through the mid-18th century moved out of their New York homeland and into the Ohio country, where they established settlements. These Ohio Iroquois were commonly called Mingo.
As Richard White points out in his magisterial The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815, the village was the critical political unit of the era in this region. It’s misleading to think of polities in tribal terms; Ohio villages were often of mixed ethnicity or tribal affiliation, and oriented themselves around kinship networks and trading relationships.
Plukkemehnotee founded a village that would carry his name a little north of modern day Columbus in central Ohio in 1772. Pluggy’s Town operated independently of any broader Haudenosaunee policy. Plukkemehnotee established close relations with the Shawnee in the region and allied his people with them when they fought the Virginians in Lord Dunmore’s War in 1774. Though the Shawnee sued for peace after that short, sharp conflict, Plukkemehnotee remained the arch-militant.
It seems that Plukkemehnotee’s militancy was personal as well as ideological; he had lost relatives and friends at the hands of the Virginians. At any rate, he burned hot and had little patience with the general Indian policy of watchful neutrality in 1775-76.
Pluggy was a shit-stirrer of the highest order. He spread rumors of war to panic his fellow tribesmen into conflict, and he spun statements by British General Henry Hamilton to make it sound as though the British were ready to back an assault on the Virginia backcountry. As Rob Harper puts it in Unsettling the West: Violence and State Building in the Ohio Valley, Plukkemehnotee and his allies resorted to “exaggeration, deception and subterfuge” in the effort to prod the Ohio Indians into all-out war.
But, despite spasms of individual violence — and Captain Pluggy’s best efforts to exploit them — the shaky peace held.
Plukkemehnotee traveled south to agitate among the Cherokee, and found a receptive ear with the equally militant Dragging Canoe. The Cherokee would launch a war in 1776 — and bear the wrath of Virginia and North Carolina militia who crossed the mountains to burn the Cherokee towns.
Dragging Canoe would carry on his struggle, operating out his southern mountain redoubt for 20 years.
Pluggy and his people were well-known to the Virginia authorities, who complained of…
“…the obstinate and wicked Disposition of the Said Indians of Pluggy’s Town.”
Captain Pluggy was regarded as the leader of a gang of “banditti” — and he did his best to live up to his ferocious reputation. On his own hook, he led harassing raids into Kentucky throughout 1776, stealing horses, slaughtering livestock and murdering stray settlers when the opportunity presented itself. In December, Pluggy’s raiders killed the noted frontiersman John Gabriel Jones, who, with George Rogers Clark had transported 500 pounds of desperately-needed gunpowder from Virginia to Kentucky.
By the end of 1776, Plukkemehnotee was leading a unit of 40-50 tough, motivated insurgents. Not satisfied with picking off a Long Knife here and a Long Knife there, the Mingo leader made a play to seriously attack the weak Kentucky settlements. The band of Mingo, Shawnee and Wyandot fighters hit Harrodsburg in central Kentucky on Christmas morning with a harassing attack, then moved on to the apparently weaker McClelland’s Station.
The warriors engaged the forted up settlers in a firefight lasting for several hours on December 29. John McClellan, founder of the settlement, went down. Attempting to directly storm the stockaded settlement, Pluggy was himself gunned down, and his followers spirited him off to be buried on a bluff overlooking a nearby spring. Legend has it that visitors to the spring could for years afterward hear the death cry of the fiery warrior, restless and angry even in death.
Captain Pluggy was just a few months ahead of his time. After the Declaration of Independence was signed, British policy hardened and the authorities in Canada and Detroit began to supply and actively encourage Indian attacks on the frontier settlements. At the same time, a substantial proportion of the Ohio Indians decided that an alliance with the Crown was in their best interests.
In 1777, all hell broke lose as real war came to the Ohio Valley.
There would be many close calls for the Kentucky settlements in the terrible years to come, but by 1777 they were just strong enough to hold on. The Ohio Indians and their British allies missed their best opportunity to destroy them in their infancy, the effort Plukkemehnotee had so ardently sought. Had the Kentucky salient been pushed back, the war in the West would have played out very differently, and the westward thrust of the new United States might well have been permanently blunted.
The Mingo would continue to raid intensively in Kentucky and western Virginia, closely allied with the Shawnee and Wyandot. The loss of a capable, highly-motivated leader like Plukkemehnotee had to have been a significant blow. He might have made a difference on behalf of the Ohio Indians’ resistance. But Captain Pluggy got plugged early, the victim of his own frustrated drive to strike a hard blow against the invaders of his country.