The Battle of Fallen Timbers on August 20, 1794, cleared the way for American settlement into the southeastern corner of the Northwest Territory and nearby enclaves including Detroit and the future site of Chicago. The battle took place a few miles from British-held Fort Miamis (present-day Toledo) in Ohio. A confederation of Native Americans led by Weyapiersenwah (Blue Jacket) planned to trap General Anthony Wayne's army at a fortification made of fallen trees. Uncovering the trap, Wayne's mounted riflemen and infantry attacked, causing a general retreat. The British refused to protect the fleeing Indians in Fort Miamis. The battle, often called the final phase of the American Revolution, led to the British-backed Indians' ceding much land in the 1795 Treaty of Greenville.
The Battle of Fallen Timbers has its roots in the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the American Revolution. The new American government declared that Indian lands had been acquired from the British by terms of the peace treaty. Native Americans disagreed with this interpretation, with American demands for Ohio land cessions leading to plainly stated objections on the part of the Indian confederacy. Additionally, British authorities refused to relinquish their military posts on U.S. soil, using them as bases to supply the Indian nations in the Northwest Territory. Angered by American land demands and encouraged by British provisions, arms, ammunition, and moral support, Indians attacked American settlers on the frontier.
The American military responded to the Indian threat. In 1790, President George Washington sent an army under Brigadier General Josiah Harmar against the loose Native American confederacy, but his force was defeated on two separate occasions and forced to retreat. The following year, Washington sent a larger army, this one commanded by Major General Arthur St. Clair, to chastise the Indians who had beaten Harmar. Handicapped by a lack of provisions and equipment, St. Clair's force was ambushed on November 4, 1791 and suffered the most humiliating defeat ever inflicted on an American army. St. Clair lost half of his force in about three hours before his remaining troops ran for their lives from the battlefield near the present Ohio–Indiana border. The victories against Harmar and St. Clair gave the Indian confederacy a large quantity of arms and supplies, as well as the confidence to boldly reject peace proposals from the United States.
To regain the honor of his young country, President Washington formed a third army, styled the Legion of the United States, and selected Major General "Mad" Anthony Wayne to lead it. A born soldier, Wayne (1745–1796) had a long and distinguished military career that included service in the Revolutionary battles of Ticonderoga, Brandywine, Monmouth, and Yorktown. He was given plenary powers by the administration. With his decisions subject to review only by Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox, the general would conduct his latest military campaign as he saw fit.
Wayne's primary goals were subjugating the Indians and bringing peace to the frontier, with removal of the British threat an additional interest. These tasks initially seemed overwhelming because of the difficulties with transportation and supplies in the Northwest Territory. There were no reliable maps of the territory, and even basic information regarding the rivers and streams was nonexistent. Every piece of equipment purchased by the legion—paper, weapons, uniforms, sheet iron, shoes, buttons, needles—had to be purchased in the Atlantic states, carted overland to Pittsburgh, then shipped down the Ohio River to Fort Washington at Cincinnati. From there it had to be hauled overland, generally by packhorse, to forts. Construction projects were often delayed until soldiers could craft the tools they needed.
Further complicating the American situation, Wayne's force was always under strength and many of his soldiers were of poor quality. There was a constant stream of deserters. Yet Wayne was innovative with his troops. In addition to the standard branches of service—infantry, cavalry, and artillery—he employed riflemen, light infantry (armed with muskets of Wayne's own design), and mounted volunteers from Kentucky, who added mobility and firepower to the main body. This arrangement allowed Wayne to locate the enemy, absorb his attacks, and respond with overwhelming force at the critical point. His army was screened by parties of scouts on foot. Other scouts, known as spies, ranged far afield on horseback, occasionally even penetrating into Native American camps in search of intelligence.
Warriors from the Indian confederacy had been waiting for Wayne to advance. The Indian army, estimated at close to 1,500, moved south in two divisions. The first and largest, about 1,000 warriors, was composed of Wyandots (Hurons), Mingos, Shawnees, Ottawas, Chippewas, and Miamis. The second group consisted mostly of Delawares with some Potawatomis and stragglers from other nations.
The Native Americans had moved their women and children out from between the American invading forces and Fort Miamis. The noncombatants were placed in camps along the Maumee River, with settlements stretching from the fort to Swan Creek and to the shores of Lake Erie. This massive influx of refugees brought several thousand dependents to the area, which combined with the arrival of hundreds of Great Lake Indian warriors to place a major strain on available food supplies. British provisions eased the crunch, but the home front situation had mounted pressure on Indian leaders to drive Wayne from their lands. Accepting American peace demands would be equivalent to acknowledging cowardice.
On August 19, 1794, all available warriors arranged a line from the Maumee River bluffs into the timber and waited to ambush Wayne. They were joined by 100 British-Canadian volunteers. The Native American forces now numbered between 1,100 and 1,200 warriors, including about 100 adolescents. About 100 fighters had no guns, armed only with tomahawks. They waited in a jumble of trees blown down years before by a tornado.
Wayne issued an order that troops should be ready to move at 5 a.m. on August 20, modifying the regular order of march by having the formations march two men deep and in closer order than previously. Wayne expected the enemy to strike first, forcing him to fight defensively. A battalion of 150 mounted Kentucky scouts encountered the Indian ambush at 8 a.m. Overwhelmed by heavy fire, the Kentuckians retreated as they were chased by 300 to 400 warriors who had given up their prepared positions in anticipation of a quick victory. A front guard of army regulars was also overwhelmed, but the Indian attack stalled when it encountered a skirmish line of several hundred light infantry and riflemen that were covering the deployment of the main body of the Legion infantry. Once in position, the Legion charged into the fallen timber. The warriors, who had become thinly dispersed across a broad front, were overwhelmed by the infantry and cavalry. Driven back to their original position, the retreating Indians created disorganization and panic among the other warriors. Only on the extreme right of the battlefield was there an organized attempt by 100 Wyan-dots and the Canadian militia to halt Wayne's charge. Outnumbered and driven from the battlefield, the Indians retreated past Fort Miamis. The Indian dead were then scalped and mutilated by the Americans. None of the Indian or Canadian dead were buried by the Legionnaires, of whom twenty-six had been killed and eighty-seven wounded. Many of the American wounded were still hospitalized five months later.
After Wayne's victory, Indian people faced the reality that they would be compelled to give up the Ohio lands so forcefully demanded by the American government. The territory ceded at the Treaty of Greenville included a large area that had been a homeland for the Delawares, Shawnees, and allied Mingos as well as a hunting ground for the Wyan-dots. However, all Great Lakes Indians realized that they had a stake in the outcome. Tribes represented at Greenville were the Wyandots, Delawares, Shawnees, Ottawas, Ojibwas, Potawatomis, Weas, Miamis, Kickapoos, Piankeshaws, and Kaskaskias. For Americans, the Battle of Fallen Timbers demonstrated the need for a standing army to protect American interests on the frontier.
Caryn E. Neumann
Gaff, Alan D. 2004. Bayonets in the Wilderness: Anthony Wayne’s Legion in the Old Northwest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Horsman, Reginald. 1970. The Frontier in the Formative Years: 1783–1815. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.; Prucha, Francis P. 1969. The Sword of the Republic: The United States Army on the Frontier, 1783–1846. New York: Macmillan.; Sugden, John. 2000. Blue Jacket: Warrior of the Shawnees. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Sword, Wiley. 1985. President Washington's Indian War: The Struggle for the Old Northwest, 1790–1795. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Tanner, Helen Hornbeck, ed. 1987. Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.