Kuron: Little Turtle, foe turned friendWritten by Frank Kuron | | email@example.com
Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes… Remember David Bowie’s chart-topping song? Change is inevitable, we all know it. One discerning Indian chief from our region dramatically turned and faced the change that was looming through the Northwest Territory on the eve of the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.
Michikinikwa, or Little Turtle, was chief of the Miami Indian tribe which gave its name to two rivers in southern Ohio and our own Maumee River, in a variant spelling. From his village at the source of the Maumee River, near present-day Fort Wayne, Ind., Little Turtle became the Americans’ prime antagonist from 1790-1794.
When the Revolutionary War ended in 1783, American veterans were granted land tracts in the Indiana and Ohio territories as payment for their service. Little Turtle couldn’t tolerate this land grab and led numerous raids against the frontiersmen crossing the Appalachians.
In 1790, George Washington sent Gen. Josiah Harmar to the Fort Wayne area to teach Little Turtle a lesson, but it was the president who learned through Harmar’s surprising defeat to never again send untrained troops against this foe.
The following year, Gen. Arthur St. Clair led a larger force to settle the score. However, a cunning Little Turtle surprised St. Clair’s troops and scored the largest Indian victory in history over any foreign intruder. On Nov. 4, 1791, in the wilderness about 20 miles west of present-day Wapakoneta, more than 600 Americans were killed — three times the number that fell at Custer’s Last Stand!
1n 1794, it was Anthony Wayne’s turn. This time was different. Wayne led military-savvy troops and had a plan that included building forts along his course from Cincinnati to our Maumee Valley. Where St. Clair had been defeated, Wayne built Fort Recovery, from which he survived a June attack from Little Turtle. This defeat gave Little Turtle his first inkling of change in the air.
Over the next two months, Little Turtle surprisingly tried to persuade the chiefs of the tribal coalition he was leading to seek peace with the Americans. It was becoming obvious to him that the expected support of the British was not forthcoming, and the Americans were growing in numbers and military prowess. It was a hard sell.
With little support for his change of attitude, Little Turtle reluctantly participated in, but did not command, the Fallen Timbers contest. Upon their defeat, several Indian leaders recognized Little Turtle’s wisdom and joined him in signing the Treaty of Greenville, which ceded the lower half of what would become Ohio to the Americans in lieu of a $1,000 annuity.
Little Turtle had the support of other famous chiefs like Blue Jacket of the Shawnee and Tarhe of the Wyandots, but other natives ostracized him and would soon ally themselves with an up-and-coming Shawnee leader, Tecumseh, who would resurrect and grow the Indian confederacy against the Americans.
Little Turtle continued to pursue peace, signing several more treaties with the United States. Even President Washington befriended him and built him a large log home on land near Fort Wayne in which he lived until a few weeks after the War of 1812 was declared. Ironically, Little Turtle died in battle with the same enemy that took down his former adversaries, St. Clair and Wayne – the gout!
Probably due in part to Washington’s influence, Little Turtle had his portrait painted by Gilbert Stuart, the most celebrated portrait artist of early America. A lithograph still exists, but the original painting went up in the flames set by the British in Washington, D.C., in 1814.
One of Little Turtle’s daughters married William Wells, a man Little Turtle had captured as a boy and raised as his own. Their daughter, Little Turtle’s granddaughter, Mary Wells, married a businessman named James Wolcott whose home can still be visited today on River Road in Maumee.
And if you ever go boating in Lake Erie, about five miles from the mouth of the Maumee River you might spot the tiniest of islands. It was once inhabited by the Miami tribe and used briefly by British forces as a supply station during the War of 1812. It’s named after Michikinikwa – Turtle Island.
Frank Kuron is author of the War of 1812 book, “Thus Fell Tecumseh.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bugle Call: Upcoming Events
- For a “spirited” stroll through Fort Meigs, come out the weekend nights of Oct. 26 – 27. Garrison Ghost Walks will be led every 15 minutes between 7 and 9 p.m. The whole family will enjoy hearing tales from the past and, while the ghosts may not be real, the fun certainly will be! Proceeds from this event go to the Old Northwest Military History Association. Reservations required.