|A detail from a Kentucky Historical marker at the site of the Battle of Blue Licks.|
School children in those quaint days when they were supposed to memorize important events and dates in history, could tell you with certainty that the American Revolution was won on October 19, 1781 when Lord Charles Cornwallis surrendered his army to George Washington’s Continental Army and a large French force.
Certainly with the main British Army in the bag as prisoners of war, it effectively put an end to most fighting in the settled eastern coastal regions. General Washington took the Continental Army into camp at Newport. By tacit gentlemen’s agreement garrisons left isolated were allowed to remain un-molested in barracks until they could be withdrawn. Some quickly were evacuated to Nova Scotia, other lingered for months stretching into years. Occasionally some patrol would class with local militia and some local historians have elevated a few almost bloodless skirmishes here and there to the status of “last battle of the Revolution.” Maybe a dozen towns fight like dogs over an already stripped bone for the title.
The war officially dragged on until September 3, 1783 when Benjamin Franklin and John Adams secured British agreement to the Treaty of Paris ending hostilities.
But in frontier regions west of the Alleganies, it was a whole different story. The battle for the control of the heart of the continent continued with a particularly savage intensity on all sides.
Although Colonel George Rogers Clark had weakened the British in the west by his legendary captures of Forts Kaskaskia in 1778 and Vincennes in 1779, they still held the critical stronghold of Fort Detroit, though which they waged a largely proxy war on the scattered frontier settlements in the Ohio Valley and as far south as modern Tennessee and North Carolina. They armed and advised a coalition of western tribes incensed by the settlers seizing some of their richest traditional hunting grounds.
Tribes including the Shawnee, Lenape (Delaware), Mingo, Wyandot, Miami, Ottawa, Ojibwa, and Potawatomi, were armed with British muskets and supplied provisions to villages to allow warriors to abandon the hunt and harvest for extended campaigns against the scattered settlements, particularly those in Kentucky, then a western county of Virgina. Sometimes they were accompanied by British officers and small contingents of troops, occasionally even deploying a light field cannon. Warriors were rewarded with bounty payments on settler scalps regardless of age or sex—which spread that once localized custom across Native American tribes all over the continent.
The British regarded the tribes as allies and the warriors as irregular troops. Horrified settlers who found their farms raided, families slain, and small villages wiped out, regarded them as blood thirsty savages. And they vowed revenge.
The war had settled into a familiar pattern. The British would arrange a raid across the Ohio into Kentucky with large forces of their irregulars. Among the settlers the tell tale sign of smoke from the burning cabins of neighbors would be a signal to retreat into well fortified block houses or palisaded forts which they could usually defend with accurate rifle fire. Traditionally, native warriors would abandon an attack after a day or so, but their British advisors taught them the European art of the siege. Although the posts could usually hold out, some were overtaken and the inhabitants generally slaughtered or women and children taken as captives. Others endured long sieges until the Indians, becoming bored, would drift away no matter what their British officers could do.
Local militia would respond from surrounding areas to try to relieve the sieges. Frequently they would mount their own expeditions into Indian territory usually fruitlessly chasing the warriors and burning abandoned villages.
George Rogers Clark was in over-all command of the Kentucky militia and was the one commander that both the British and Indians feared and respected. But he could not be everywhere and his militia spent most of their time on their own farms awaiting muster orders.
In 1792 50 British Rangers under Captain William Caldwell gathered 1,100 warriors supervised by Pennsylvania Tories Alexander McKee, Simon Girty, and Matthew Elliott to to attack Wheeling, on the upper Ohio River probably the largest force sent against American settlements.
But the native irregulars got wind of rumors that Clark was preparing to cross the river further west and attack their villages with a large force. This was a rumor undoubtedly spread by agents of the wily Clark, who made a demonstration of patrolling the river in a large keelboat armed with small swivel cannon. Most of Caldwell’s auxilieries melted away to defend their homes and the attack on Wheeling had to be abandoned.
Clark never intended to mount an invasion of the Indian homeland. He was spread too thin and feared that if he mustered a large enough force, it would leave his settlements unprotected from attacks.
Frustrated, Caldwell and less than 300 of his remaining warriors crossed the Ohio to attack Bryan Station at today’s Lexington. Most of the settlers in the area were able to retreat to the fortified station, where they watched helplessly as their crops and cabins were burned. The fort was besieged for two days starting on August 15. But scouts reported that contingents of militia were nearing and engagement was broken off. Caldwell and his force slipped away, heading for the villages deep within the heavily wooded interior.
About 185 militia from Fayette and Lincoln Counties under the command of senior militia Colonel John Todd with Lt. Col. Daniel Boon and Steven Trigg as his subordinates relieved the fort on August 18. A second column of Lincoln militia was expected but had not arrived.
At a hastily convened council of war, experienced Indian fighters recommended against immediate pursuit of Caldwell, who by this time had a 40 mile lead. But Todd, the kind of reckless hot head who would make repeated appearances in frontier history with uniformly tragic results, mocked the cautious officers as cowards.
Unable to resists a challenge to their honor, the majority of officers who had advised caution fell into line. By afternoon they were mounted up and pursuing a broad and easily followed trail. They made camp that night and then reached the Licking River near Lower Blue Licks, a natural spring and salt lick, the next morning, August 19.
Indian scouts could be observed on the top of a hill across the river. A large open area led up to the top with scrub wood on either side. Another council was called and Todd asked Boone, his most experienced officer and universally respected, his opinion. Boone told him that the trail had been too easy to follow, that ordinarily the little army would have never caught glimpse of any scouts. He was sure that they were being lured into an ambush. Even Todd agreed and it looked like the force would stay put, at least until the rest of the Lincoln militia could come up.
But Major Hugh McGary, who had been particularly stung by Todd’s taunts the day before, hopped on his horse and in a display of bravado yelled out, “Them that ain’t cowards, follow me!” The men, thinking the order had been given, followed as McGary forded the river. The other reluctant officers had to follow. Boone told one, “We are all slaughtered men.”
On the other side of the river, now committed, Todd hastily organized a line of battle. Most men dismounted and formed several rows deep. Todd and McGary commanded in the center, Trigg on the right, and Boone on the left. Todd and Trigg led mounted from the front. Boone advanced with his men on foot.
By the time the lines neared of the hill, withering fire erupted from ravines running along the flanks and from the top. Todd and Trigg were almost immediately shot out of the saddle. The center and right were broken after moments under fire and began a disorderly retreat taking casualties as they ran.
Boone and his men, taking advantage of what cover they could find, continued to advance until he discovered his flank was exposed by the collapse of the center and he was taking enfilading fire. Boone ordered a retreat. He captured a loose horse on the battle field and gave it to his son Israel, who had been fighting alongside of him. Israel took a ball to the neck almost as soon as he got up. Boone, seeing his son dying, grabbed the horse and hiding himself by practically laying down on one flank, managed to get away.
The militia lost 72 dead, 11 captured, and dozens wounded, one of the highest losses as a percentage of men engaged in the entire Revolution. By contrast the Rangers and native auxiliaries lost only 7 men. The battle was a disaster.
In November Clark, who was stung by criticism that he had somehow “allowed” the ill advised attack even though he knew nothing of it, was able to raise a large militia force of Kentuckians vowing vengeance. He crossed the Ohio and chased Indians who melted into the forests. He burned several villages along the Miami River that the Shawnee, who had not even participated in the Battle of Blue Licks, had abandoned. Clark returned home claiming a fruitless victory in the last American offensive of the war.
Even when word of the Treaty of Paris finally reached the frontier late the next year, it hardly changed anything. The British refused to honor treaty provisions for the evacuation of Fort Detroit and other western outposts. And they never ceased to hope that using Indian allies that they could lay claim to the trans-Allegany west, or at least achieve a native buffer state. They continued to arm and supply warriors who continued to make smalls scale raids into Kentucky and harass traffic on the Ohio.
In 1786 full scale war re-erupted. General Benjamin Logan, the officer who had never made it to Blue Licks, commanded a large force of Federal regulars and Kentucky Militia against Shawnee villages along the Mad River. Several were burned, crops and stores destroyed, and women, children and old men killed. A Kentucky militia man also tomahawked Shawnee chief Moluntha under the mistaken belief he had been at Blue Licks. Logan’s actions spawned and even wider Shawnee uprising and bloody raids across the frontier.
After armies under General Josiah Harmar in 1790 and General Arthur St. Claire in 1781 were both routed with heavy losses, President Washington ordered General “Mad” Anthony Wayne to form the Legion of the United States, a well-trained force and put an end to the situation in 1793. The following year he defeated the British-supported confederacy of tribes led by Little Turtle and Blue Jacket at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.
In 1795 the Treaty of Grenville forced the tribes to recognize American sovereignty over the Northwest Territory and ceded large swaths of land in Ohio. The same year The Jay Treaty reaffirmed the duty of the British to abandon Detroit and other western posts. The British hauled down their colors there in 1796.
But even then the peace was not permanent. Tecumseh and his brother the Shawnee Prophet forged a new confederacy and rose again. He was defeated at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 181l by a large force under William Henry Harrison. And despite setbacks, British ambitions in the west were finally ended after the War of 1812.
Looking at all of this, Native American historians tend to view the whole period from Braddock’s Retreat in the French and Indian Wars in 1764 to the end of the War of 1812 as a single Fifty Years War on native independence.