President Washington’s Calculated Risk


The next autumn, better furnished with instructions and exhortations than with equipment and discipline, St. Clair set out on a northward march. He did not get even as far as Harmar had. When St. Glair reached the headwaters of the Wabash, about a hundred miles north of present-day Cincinnati, Little Turtle, with new confidence in the superiority of Indian manpower and tactics, came boldly out to meet him. St. Glair’s defeat was so inglorious that our history books have never even deigned to give the battle—which took place on November 4, 1790—3 name. He lost about 900 men, and for the Indians it was as great a triumph as their famous victory over Braddock, and St. Glair’s casualties were greater than Braddock’s. As in Braddock’s case, the remnants of his army, fleeing in panic, survived only because the Indians became too engrossed with collecting battlefield spoils to give pursuit.

The news of St. Glair’s disaster burst upon both East and West with catastrophic impact. The whole frontier now lay exposed to a sudden upsurge of Indian power. Happily, however, winter intervened and the Indians, constitutionally averse to campaigning in the snow, failed to attack. The savage onrush awaited spring.

In the East the flare of warlike spirit that had lighted St. Glair’s preparations was quenched by the chill news of his defeat and succeeded by a mood of sullen apathy.

Only with difficulty was Washington able to persuade Congress to raise a new regiment. Secretary of War Knox christened it The Legion, and Washington appointed Anthony Wayne, of Revolutionary War fame, as its commander. But when spring came, the new force was not ready to take the field; in any event, the temper of the country would not have permitted it. Diplomats, not soldiers, were to defend the country’s borders from the Indian menace. The twice victorious savages were not again to be assaulted. They were to be accommodated, cajoled, promised literally anything to persuade them to grant us peace. Washington had need of all the patience he had manifested at Valley Forge, for his Administration was committed under the drive of necessity to a program of frantic appeasement more long-suffering than the historic submissions at Munich or Panmunjom. Four separate efforts were made to convince the Indians that the United States wanted peace at any price:

Early in 1792 traders and missionaries who had access to Indian towns were officially though secretly dispatched with instructions to “insinuate upon all favorable occasions the humane disposition of the United States, and, if you can by any means ripen their judgment, so as to break forth openly, and declare the readiness of the United States to receive, with open arms, the Indians, notwithstanding all that has passed, do it .” These informal overtures brought no response.

At the same time, the Iroquois, once the most powerful and pugnacious of all Indian nations but now more neutral since their losses during the Revolution, were implored to send a delegation to Philadelphia. The government hoped to persuade them to use their good offices as go-betweens with their recalcitrant Ohio brethren. Some fifty delegates trooped to the capital, enjoyed the sights and the lavishness of their entertainment, made many eloquent speeches, received their presents, and finally promised to reason with the Ohio tribes. Instead, they simply went home again.

A third effort at appeasement was made. In May three formally accredited emissaries, General Rufus Putnam, Colonel John Hardin, and Captain Alexander Trueman, were dispatched to deal directly with the Indians. The burden of their instructions was to pledge the faith of the United States to the Indians “that no additional lands will be required of you.” Hardin and Trueman, traveling through the forest toward the Indian towns, were killed before they even got near them. Prudently, if unsuccessfully, Putnam waited until September to address the Indians from the safe distance of Vincennes.

Finally, in June, Joseph Brant, the most famous and influential of all living; Indians, was enticed to Phil- adelphia by a promise that his meeting with Washington was to be in the nature of a meeting between equals. Eventually Brant reached Philadelphia and was entertained by Washington. He said afterward that the Americans had offered him a down payment of one thousand guineas, double the pension he was receiving from England, and an ultimate reward of£20,000 if he succeeded in arranging a peace with the Ohio Indians. If so, he did not earn it. Upon his return to his home in Canada, instead of going west to see what he could do, he professed illness for the next several months.