American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Little Turtle

Miami leader Little Turtle was responsible for one of the biggest disasters in U.S. Army history. When he realized the futility of continuing to fight, he renounced war and became a loyal ally of the American government.

Little Turtle (Michikinikwa) was born near the Eel River in the vicinity of present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana, around 1752. His father was a chief of the Miamis, but, because his mother was a Mahican, tribal custom dictated that he could not inherit a leadership position. Nonetheless, Little Turtle displayed fine leadership and warrior qualities as a young man, and he was eventually made a Miami chief by the tribal elders. He was pro-British by nature, and in 1780 his warriors attacked and destroyed a French-Illinois expedition under Colonel Augustin de la Balme. After the American Revolution, he became a leading spokesperson for resistance to white encroachment north of the Ohio River and helped to form a loose confederation of Miami, Shawnee, Potawatomi, and Ojibwa Indians. In 1787, Congress guaranteed the Indians that their hunting grounds would be respected. Within a few years, however, a rash of illegal settlements precipitated a fierce border war between the Indians and the frontierspeople. By 1790, when it was apparent the Indians would not accept the squatters, the American government resorted to punitive measures.

The U.S. government initially chose General Josiah Harmar, who had assembled a force of 1,100 poorly trained Pennsylvania and Kentucky militia, stiffened by 300 army regulars, to deal with the Indians. Little Turtle by this time was principal war chief of the Miamis, and he ordered his braves to feign retreat, luring the Americans deeper and deeper into the countryside. Harmar met no opposition until he reached Little Turtle's village, where the Indians ambushed and mauled two reconnaissance expeditions in October 1790. Having lost 262 men and accomplished nothing, the white militia withdrew to Kentucky. This victory assured Little Turtle's subsequent leadership over the Maumee Valley tribes, and they united in time to face an even greater onslaught.

In September 1791, the government dispatched General Arthur St. Clair with a force of 2,300 raw regulars and 300 Kentucky militia against the Indians. Little Turtle commanded a force of similar size, assisted by the Shawnees Blue Jacket and Tecumseh. Desertion soon reduced St. Clair's force to 1,500 men, and, encouraged by this weakness, Little Turtle abandoned his usual defensive tactics in favor of a direct assault. This tactic was something that Native Americans had never tried before. On the morning of November 4, 1791, his warriors stormed the American encampment while the soldiers were breakfasting and routed them. St. Clair, gravely ill, roused himself from bed and attempted to rally the survivors before the entire army was annihilated. A bayonet charge enabled 500 men to escape destruction but at tremendous cost, with over 600 soldiers killed and 300 wounded, and Little Turtle's losses appear to have been negligible. In November 1792 he also defeated a party of Kentuckians led by John Adair. Fearing that the dreaded "long knives" would attack again, however, Little Turtle spent the next two years shoring up tribal solidarity and soliciting help from the British.

As feared, the Americans appeared once more, this time with General Anthony Wayne at their head. Wayne spent almost two years training and equipping his force of 2,000 men and advanced carefully, building forts along the way. Little Turtle respected his professional and energetic preparations, calling him "the chief who never sleeps." The Indians harassed his line of supply with impunity, but when they rashly attacked Fort Recovery in July 1794 and were rebuffed, many grew sullen and returned home. Little Turtle took stock of "Mad Anthony" and counseled other chiefs to seek peace. "We have never been able to surprise him," he warned. "Think well of it. Something whispers to me, listen to peace." Little Turtle was ridiculed and lost command of the Indians to Blue Jacket. On August 20, 1794, Wayne crushed the confederation at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, in which Little Turtle commanded a few Miamis and played a small role. The following year, Little Turtle was a signatory to the Treaty of Greenville, whereby the Indians gave up most of the land that comprises present-day Ohio. Containing his bitterness, he declared, "I am the last to sign the treaty; I will be the last to break it."

From that time on, Little Turtle remained a friend of the United States, and in 1797 he traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with President George Washington and Tadeusz Kosciuszko, who presented him with a brace of pistols. He was sincere in his quest for peace and made additional land concessions with Governor William Henry Harrison, who built a house for him on the Eel River. He also took the white scout William Wells as his sonin-law and kept the Miamis out of Tecumseh's tribal coalition. Little Turtle succumbed to illness at Fort Wayne on July 14, 1812 and received a military burial.

Steve L. Danver

Further Reading
Carter, Harvey L. 1987. The Life and Times of Little Turtle: First Sagamore of the Wabash. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.; Edel, Wilbur. 1997. Kekionga! The Worst Defeat in the History of the United States Army. Westport, CT: Praeger.; Sword, Wiley. 1985. President Washington's Indian War: The Struggle for the Old Northwest, 1790–1795. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

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