President Washington’s Calculated Risk


At this critical moment a wholly unrelated event cast a fierce and garish light over the entire western scene, revealing how, in the very nature of any cold war, the risks of hot war are terrifyingly real. In 1790 the Nootka controversy, developing from an obscure altercation off the distant coast of Vancouver Island in the Pacific, led England to serve upon Spain an ultimatum so insulting that war between the two seemed inevitable. English troops in Canada were alerted to undertake an expedition down the Mississippi to seize the Spanish forts along the river. At New Orleans the Yaxoo Land Company of South Carolina was at the same moment negotiating with the Spanish governor to establish an independent colony near Natchez. Inspired by the war threat, Dr. James O’Fallon, the impetuous manager for the company, suddenly switched tactics and, backed by a volunteer army of Kentuckians led by his brother-in-law George Rogers Clark, threatened instead to take what he wanted by force.

Washington and his advisers were thunderstruck. Suddenly, world war appeared imminent in the Mississippi Valley, and O’Fallon and Clark were making sure the United States would become involved. Cabinet meetings called to deal with the crisis faced a bleak prospect: war between England and Spain must result in one or the other gaining control of the full length of the Mississippi and thus surely inheriting the whole West.

Alexander Hamilton proposed siding with the English and hoping to come out with Florida as a consolation for the loss of the Ohio Valley. Thomas Jefferson advocated instead an alliance with Spain in return for the cession of New Orleans and the Floridas. Hamilton was strongly opposed to the projected Harmar cxpedition which must certainly, under the circumstances, excite the English to defend their Indian allies aggressively. Jefferson argued that the expedition was now more advisable than ever; he felt it would serve notice that the United States would oppose any English effort to descend the Mississippi to get at Spanish possessions. Washington listened calmly and as calmly made up his mind: the expedition was to go ahead but the greatest care would be taken to give the English formal assurance that no threat to Detroit was intended.

So began the brush-fire war which, it was hoped, would effectively guard the interests of the United States without involving us in a full-scale war. Arthur St. Glair, governor of the Northwest Territory, was authorized to call out the western militia to reinforce Harmar’s regulars. And then, as suddenly as it had darkened, the international situation brightened. Revolutionary France abandoned its former ally Spain, which was then forced to bow to the English ultimatum, and O’Fallon and Clark dropped their threat to take Natchez. By the fall of 1790 the danger of a general war had passed, and Harmar, under auspices as hopeful as could be expected, was able to march off into the wilderness to initiate the supremely critical test: how much punishment of her Indian allies would England tolerate before coining openly to their assistance?


He did not get far enough to find out. The Indian forces under their war-wise commander, Little Turtle, skillfully drew Harmar on, stole his horses, maneuvered him into awkward positions, and killed 183 of his men while losing something less than twenty of their own. Harmar withdrew hastily to the Ohio. The brush-fire war, as so often before and since, had proved to require something more than halfway measures.

In the West, in the East, and around the Indian council fires the effect was immediate. For the Indians, it was the first time since the days of Sullivan’s victorious campaign against the Iroquois in 1779 that they had faced American regulars, and this time they had won. Their belligerency was solidified, and with new vigor and assurance they pressed their demands that the Ohio be recognized as the permanent boundary between American and Indian territory. For the American settlers in the West, the fiasco was just one more demonstration that the federal government was inept and that the East was not interested in their troubles. The regulars had come to rescue them, but the principal consequence had been that Indian attacks upon the settlements were now more violent than before. The feeling grew among westerners that they would have to find their own way out of their difficulties.

In the East the effect was to stir a brief flurry of patriotic fervor. The insult to the national honor must be avenged. Governor St. Clair was reinforced and instructed to assume personal command in the field. Great care was taken to make sure that there would be no second slip-up. This time the Indians must be made to realize that they were dealing with the power of the United States. This time they must be humbled.