American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Harrison, William Henry

Title: William Henry Harrison
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William Henry Harrison (1770–1841) initiated the pivotal expansionist pattern of treaty negotiations of nineteenth-century America. As the builder of President Thomas Jefferson's plan for Indian removal beyond the Mississippi River, Harrison negotiated six treaties between 1803 and 1810, clearing the way for American expansion into the Northwest Territories at a far faster rate than anyone expected. By the end of the War of 1812, much of this territory was prepared for statehood, which swiftly followed for Indiana and Illinois.

Harrison's efforts began in September 1802, when he formed a council at Vincennes with members of the Delaware, Eel River Miami, Kickapoo, Piankashaw, Pottawatomi, and Wea nations to ascertain who owned various lands not covered in the Treaty of Greenville (1795). In a letter to encourage the participation of the various tribes, Harrison likened the Greenville Treaty to a tree whose branches he hoped to see spread over the land under which the European-Americans and the Native Americans could live in "its shade till the end of time" (Esarey, 1922, 52). The attending tribes did not consider this council in any way indicative of a treaty or an agreement of any kind with the United States government, let alone binding. However, Harrison did. Once the council had been held, the minutes note that the purpose was to "adjust" the treaty of Greenville, and, in treaty-like language, the minutes went on to transfer land in and around Vincennes to the United States and to exchange land along the Saline River to the tribes for the exclusive right of salt making. The Delawares objected to the discussions and left. No formal treaty was drafted based on this council.

In a letter dated February 27, 1803, Jefferson sent secret advice to Harrison, wherein the president outlined his plan and vision for the settlement of the Northwest Territory, including how Harrison could help achieve those ends. In this correspondence, Jefferson made no attempt to veil his intentions when he wrote to effect that the U.S. government should promote the Indians, in particular their leaders, to do business with government trading factories (houses) and to run up debt and "be glad" to see them fall into debt. Jefferson believed that, once these important leaders found themselves steeped in debt, they would be willing to "lop them off" by selling their lands to the willing U.S. government. Thus, Americans would encroach farther toward a borderland with the Indians, and the Indians would therefore either have to join with the Americans, becoming "citizens," or be forced to move out of the area completely to some unnamed western location beyond the Mississippi River. Jefferson notes disturbingly, "The former is certainly the termination of their history . . . " He ends with a troubling refrain: "[For] their interests and their tranquility it is best they should see only the present [stat]e of their history . . ." (Esarey, 1922, 71–73). Harrison was only too eager to attend to Jefferson's ideas, making sure he obtained treaty after treaty.

The first Treaty at Fort Wayne (1803) sought to secure land ownership for the U.S. government that Harrison believed was not covered in the previous Greenville Treaty. Many leaders of the invited nations—Delawares, Miamis, Shawnees, and Weas—looked on the proceedings with suspicion. To them, the 1795 Treaty of Greenville forever secured the lands north of the Ohio. It was supposed to be a done deal. Suddenly, it appeared not to be. Some tribal leaders refused to attend at all, but others who did come walked out in disgust. Harrison was of the opinion that government Indian Agent William Wells, who was married to a Miami woman, was intriguing behind his back to make things difficult, encouraging the tribal leaders to dissent. Following a series of setbacks and delays, by June 7 the treaty was secure and those present agreed to give up the lands in question, which were to be found on opposite sides of the territory. One section extended southwest of Fort Recovery in Ohio to just above the Ohio River on the eastern side, and the other section began just above Vincennes up to the Little Vermillion River in what would become Illinois. These two sections began a buffer zone that would cut the Indians off from the Ohio River. This treaty constituted little victory and little gain, but it was the beginning of an aggressive landgrab over the next seven years.

When a couple of Sac Indians arrived in St. Louis in 1805, Harrison wasted little time in sitting them down to negotiate a treaty to obtain a large portion of northwestern Illinois. The Sacs knew little of what they had signed, nor did they become a party to the agreement, but Harrison saw it as another gain. As these men returned to Saukenauk, the major Sac village along the Rock River, they related what had happened with Harrison. The manipulation of these men who did not even represent the tribe infuriated Black Hawk and caused the whole of the nation to be at odds with the United States into the 1830s. But it would not be until the end of the War of 1812 that Americans could take possession of this land.

The most offensive of the treaties was the second Treaty of Fort Wayne, in September 1809. Here, large portions of land filled out the remaining gaps of the buffer zone. By then, a human wall of white settlement would stand in the way of Native American access to the Ohio River. The remaining tribes would dwell in a smaller and smaller area.

Harrison's family background influenced his ends to promote himself in any way possible. Coming from one of the first families of Virginia, Harrison's father lost the family's money, forcing William Henry to end his medical education and seek a military career during the early 1790s. He became an aide to General Anthony Wayne.

It has been said that the treaty of Fort Wayne of 1809 is what tipped off the war in the west in 1812. Tecumseh met with Harrison in 1810 to protest angrily over what he knew Harrison and the U.S. government were doing by negotiating the treaties.

During the War of 1812, Harrison left office as governor to become first a militia general, then a general in the U.S. Army. His campaigns were mainly in the Old Northwest Territories and Ohio, as well as into Canada. His enemies were not just the British, but also the Indians. The successes he made would one day become the rallying point for his presidential ambitions.

Sally Colford Bennett

Further Reading
Esarey, Logan. 1922. Governors Messages and Letters, Volume I. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Commission.; Horsman, Reginald. 1961. "American Indian Policy in the Old Northwest, 1783–1812." William and Mary Quarterly Third Series, 18, no. 1 (January): 25–53. Billington Library, Johnson Country Community College, Overland Park, KS. Available at: http// Accessed December 9, 2002.; Kappler, Clarence J., ed. 1904. Indian Affairs: Laws and Treaties, Volume II (Treaties).; Millet, Allan R. 1997. "Caesar and the Conquest of the Northwest Territory, the Second Harrison Campaign." Timeline 14, no. 5 (September–October): 2–21.; Owens, Robert M. 2002. "Jeffersonian Benevolence on the Ground: The Indian Land Cession Treaties of William Henry Harrison." Journal of the Early American Republic 22, no. 3 (Fall): 405–435.; Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Oklahoma State University. Library Electronic Publishing Center. Available at:

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