Military history


The Erosion of Iroquois Influence


IN 1742 REPRESENTATIVES of the Six Nations solemnly confirmed a prior land sale to the Penn family, by which the Delaware Indians were dispossessed of two-thirds of a million acres of eastern Pennsylvania territory. The Delawares had lived on that tract, in the valley that still bears their name, since pre-Columbian times, centuries before they had become clients of the Iroquois. Everyone involved knew that the original sale— the so-called Walking Purchase of 1737—had been a spectacular fraud. The spokesmen of the Six Nations nevertheless confirmed it at the Treaty of Easton in 1742 because to do so offered irresistible advantages to the Great League. Despite its tragic consequences for the Delawares, the transfer of their lands to the Penn family cemented an understanding between Pennsylvania and Onondaga: henceforth the Six Nations would act as sole agents for the sale of Indian land-rights within the province.

But the Walking Purchase would prove to be another kind of turning point, too. As white farmers began arriving in the late 1730s, the eastern Delaware bands relocated to the Susquehanna’s north branch, settling in a remote region called the Wyoming Valley alongside Shawnees who had been there for several decades. At Wyoming, powerless to retaliate against their betrayers, they nursed a sense of grievance against both the Six Nations and the settlers who had taken their homeland. Meanwhile, the Iroquois sellout spurred the removal of other Shawnee and Delaware groups to the Ohio Country. Despite the continued pretense that they were Iroquois dependents, once they reached the valley the Shawnees and Delawares were beyond Onondaga’s effective control. Iroquois influence in the Ohio Country would inevitably diminish as the numbers of refugees grew.1

But the single event of greatest consequence to the erosion of the Six Nations’ neutrality was a great treaty negotiated at Lancaster, Pennsylvania, in 1744, when Iroquois diplomats met with representatives of Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. On its face, the Treaty of Lancaster marked the high point of Iroquois influence in dealing with the English colonies. In return for what at the time seemed minor concessions, the league received gifts that included eight hundred pounds in Pennsylvania currency and three hundred pounds in gold, as well as all three governments’ acknowledgment of Onondaga’s suzerainty over several southern Indian tribes, on whose behalf it could henceforth speak, as it spoke for the Delawares and the Shawnees. Perhaps most important to the league was Virginia’s recognition of Iroquois warriors’ right to pass through the province to attack the Cherokees and Catawbas, a concession that evidently included an agreement to provision war parties while in transit.2

If all these benefits seemed to expand Iroquois power, the Treaty of Lancaster in fact foretold its end, for the Confederacy’s part in the bargain ceded all its remaining claims to land within the boundaries of Maryland and Virginia. Although it is quite clear that Canasatego, the Onondaga headman who negotiated on behalf of the league at both Easton and Lancaster, thought that he was giving up only a fictive Iroquois claim to the Shenandoah Valley, he was in fact trading away the whole of the Ohio Country. More than mere reticence made the Virginia commissioners refrain from mentioning that their colony’s charter assigned the Old Dominion a western boundary on the Pacific Ocean (including “the ‘island of California’ and all other islands” within a hundred miles of the coast) and a northern limit that extended along a line roughly from the northern bank of the Potomac to the western shore of Hudson Bay.3

Canasatego’s concession was no trivial oversight. By the spring of 1745, the Virginia House of Burgesses had granted nearly a third of a million acres on the Ohio to a syndicate of about twenty rich land speculators from the Northern Neck (the area between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers). Although the outbreak of King George’s War temporarily delayed their activities, it would be only a couple of years more before the speculators, now calling themselves the Ohio Company of Virginia, would begin to press their western claims in earnest. They intended to sell lands at the confluence of the Allegheny and the Monongahela to settlers who, they believed, would soon cross the Appalachians.

Transappalachian white settlement—horrifying to Onondaga, whose neutrality policy rested on the illusion of control over the Ohio Country—would in fact be postponed. But the delay would have less to do with Iroquois maneuverings than with the developing competition of Virginians, Pennsylvanians, and Canadian French interests for control in the west. With the waning of the Confederacy’s influence over the region and its supposedly dependent peoples, the Ohio Country would become the scene of intercolonial and international competition. The Great League, which had so recently acted as the diplomatic equal of the British and French empires, would over the course of the next decade become largely irrelevant to the imperial antagonists.

The fighting in King George’s War—in Europe, the War of the Austrian Succession—lasted only until 1748, when the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle restored all conquests to their prewar owners. But the Iroquois would never regain the influential position they had occupied at Lancaster in 1744. The conflict had cracked open what had long been a fissure in the Confederacy’s solidarity when the Mohawks, easternmost and most consistently Anglophile of the Six Nations, abandoned neutrality in favor of direct cooperation with New York. They chose a most inopportune time to do so.

Unlike the fervently anti-Catholic New Englanders, who quickly mounted an expedition against Louisbourg—the fortified town and naval base on Cape Breton Island that was the strategic key to the Gulf of the St. Lawrence—and actually conquered it in 1745, New Yorkers felt little enthusiasm for fighting the French. Their governor, George Clinton, very much a servant of the Crown, appealed to the Mohawks for help, and at his instigation they undertook raids on Canada in 1746, 1747, and 1748; but the merchants who dominated the assembly, led by the powerful, Albany-based De Lancey family, would consent to no military measures beyond the building of a few forts. Indeed throughout the war Albany’s fur merchants traded enthusiastically with their counterparts in Montréal via Lake George, Lake Champlain, and the Richelieu River, even as the Mohawks’ mounting losses made them ever more suspicious of New York’s good faith. King George’s War thus proved a disaster for the Mohawks specifically and gravely diminished the coherence of Confederacy policy-making. This in turn weakened Iroquois neutrality and accelerated the pace of Anglo-American trading and land speculation in the Ohio Valley.4

The war’s effects on the Pennsylvanians and Virginians already active in the west had been predictable. As always in wartime, the insecurity of persons and property caused farmers and Indian traders to flee the frontier for the comparative safety of eastern settlements. As the war wound down, however, land speculation and trading ventures erupted into the Ohio Country as never before. The traders were mainly Pennsylvanians who had long lived among the Shawnees and Delawares on the Susquehanna, and who simply followed their customers to the Ohio Country in the 1730s. For these the fall of Louisbourg and the closure of the St. Lawrence to French shipping created a bonanza, as Indians from all over the interior began looking to English sources for the manufactures they needed. Offering English goods at prices no French trader could match, the aggressive Pennsylvanians expanded their trade to include commerce with tribes that lived far to the west, eventually reaching even the Miamis and Wyandots, who had never traded with any but French partners.5

As early as 1747 one particularly flamboyant Pennsylvania trader, an Irish immigrant named George Croghan, could be found on the site of modern Cleveland trading with the Mingos and luring “Northern Indians”—French allies—across Lake Erie by offering “goods on much better terms than the French.” By 1749, Croghan and his associates had set up a big trading post on the upper Great Miami River, in what is now western Ohio, at a Miami Indian settlement called Pickawillany. This promising village stood near several important portages and trails, and— to Croghan, most importantly—had a chief, Memeskia, who was willing to send wampum belts to groups as far off as Michigan, inviting them to come to Pickawillany. Within a year or two, Memeskia’s invitations and Croghan’s emporium drew hundreds of families to the settlement, and the enterprising Irishman could see opportunities blossoming in every quarter. Soon he was trading with Shawnee bands as far down the Ohio River as the site of modern Louisville and sending boats up the Kentucky River. The French could hardly afford to be indifferent to such avid poaching on what had been their exclusive commerce; as they knew better than anyone, trade goods and gifts held their alliance system together. So, not forgetting that he had been a thorn in their side during the last war, the French put a price on George Croghan’s head.6

Croghan treated the news that his scalp had acquired a market value as a joke, but in fact it offered a highly accurate gauge of the growing French fear that the English were about to seize control of the Ohio Valley. From the perspective of the increasingly jittery officials in Québec, Pennsylvania traders infesting the Ohio Country seemed to be a spearhead of aggression that had to be deflected—by force, if necessary. The imperious naval officer who was serving as governor-general of New France, the comte de La Galissonière, therefore dispatched a military detachment to make a circuit of the Ohio Country in 1749. La Galissonière gave the command to Captain Pierre-Joseph de Céloron de Blainville, an officer long experienced in Indian relations; he set off from Montréal in June with a party of more than two hundred Canadians and about thirty Indians. Céloron carried three instructions: to renew the ancient French claim (by right of La Salle’s discovery) to the Ohio Country, to gather intelligence on the degree of English influence, and to awe the Indians by demonstrating France’s ability to send soldiers into the heart of their country.

Céloron returned in November, having paddled and portaged a great circle of three thousand miles: up the St. Lawrence and across Lakes Ontario and Erie; along the Allegheny, Ohio, Great Miami, and Maumee Rivers to Detroit; and finally back down Lakes Erie and Ontario to the St. Lawrence and Québec. In a gesture of almost touching futility, he and his party buried small lead plates at intervals along the way—“as a monument,” their inscriptions read, “of the renewal of possession that we have taken of the said River Ohio and of all those that fall therein and of all the lands on both sides, unto the sources of these said rivers.” Céloron had treated with the Indian tribes he met, offered gifts to renew their devotion to their father Onontio, and warned them that as faithful children they must henceforth send home any Englishmen who appeared among them. In general, he noted, the Indians received this news coolly. On at least one occasion their reaction was so evidently “unsatisfactory” that he and his men were obliged to beat a hasty retreat.7

That much an old Indian hand like Céloron could hardly have found surprising. What unsettled him more was how many Pennsylvania traders he encountered, including parties leading pack trains of fifty horses, laden with pelts. He had warned them that they were trespassing on lands belonging to Louis XV, had written letters for them to take back to their governor, and had explained that their presence in the Ohio Country was unwelcome. But even the dutiful Céloron knew that such warnings would have no real effect. When he made his report to the new governor-general, the marquis de La Jonquière, he assessed the situation pessimistically. The Miamis had become estranged and were corrupting other groups, even the loyal Wyandots. Without permanent French trading stations in the Ohio Country, and without a subsidized flow of trade goods that could compete with the astonishingly cheap manufactures of Great Britain, the Indians of the region would inevitably gravitate to the British.8

Grave as the situation seemed in late 1749, however, the governor-general took no immediate action. A less decisive figure than his predecessor, La Jonquière overreacted, then dithered, contemplated half-measures, and died. The decision to oppose the growing English influence in the west would await the arrival from France of another governor-general, Ange Duquesne de Menneville, marquis de Duquesne, in 1752. Meanwhile English influence on the Ohio would continue to grow and further alarm the anxious Canadians by taking on an even more sinister aspect. For between 1749 and 1752 Virginia speculators began moving to create a permanent settlement at the Forks of the Ohio.

The Ohio Company launched its invasion of the western country in 1749 by building a fortified storehouse at the confluence of Wills Creek and the north branch of the Potomac—the spot high in the Alleghenies where Cumberland, Maryland, now stands. Not far from the storehouse lay the divide beyond which the Youghiogheny River begins its north-westward fall to the Monongahela and the Ohio. The company ultimately intended to sell Ohio land to farmers and then to supply them with manufactures, but in the meantime it planned to capitalize on its advantages in water transportation (via the Potomac, Youghiogheny, and Monongahela) to steal a march on the Pennsylvania Indian traders, who relied on slow and expensive transport by pack train. The Virginians therefore stocked the Wills Creek fort with four thousand pounds’ sterling worth of trade goods and built a second fortified structure to house their employees. The following year, they hired an experienced Maryland surveyor, trader, and guide, Christopher Gist, to explore the valley as far west as the falls of the Ohio.9

Gist’s surveys, conducted over the next two years, gave the Virginia investors a remarkable view of the Ohio Valley’s potential. He reported broad flats covered with white oak forest, fertile river bottoms, wide grassy meadows unmarred by so much as a shrub, surface deposits of coal—even salt licks holding the fossil remains of mammoths whose four-pound molars he sent back to his astonished employers. Equal in importance to his surveys, however, were the diplomatic functions that Gist also performed for the company. With the help of the ubiquitous Croghan, Gist convened a treaty conference at the Delaware, Shawnee, and Mingo settlement of Logstown—the Half King Tanaghrisson’s headquarters—in the spring of 1752. This conference, at which Croghan pretended to be the representative of Pennsylvania’s government and acted as a mediator, would prove to be a critical gathering, for it secured an important concession from Tanaghrisson, whom Gist and Croghan acknowledged as spokesman for Iroquois interests in the region.10

The ostensible purpose of the council at Logstown—a substantial village about fifteen miles downstream from the Forks—was to secure the consent of the local Indians to the construction of an Ohio Company “strong house” at the confluence of the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers. This installation, like the Wills Creek storehouse and barracks, was to be a fortified trading post at which, Gist stressed, trade goods would be made available at highly favorable rates. But it would also serve two other purposes, about which Gist had less to say. First, its location at the Forks would make it the strategic key to the valley of the Ohio; second, it would become the focus for a settlement of two hundred pioneer families that the company intended soon to establish at the Forks. These matters were of concern to every Indian leader at the conference, since they knew full well that a permanent Anglo-American settlement would gravely threaten their peoples’ ability to control their lands, and hence their destinies. But Tanaghrisson, as sole spokesman of the Iroquois League, was the only figure with whom Gist and Croghan would deal, and his overwhelming desire, in the aftermath of Céloron’s expedition, was to obtain enough material support from the British to shore up his shaky standing with the peoples he was supposed to lead.

Thus Tanaghrisson—persuaded no less by the thousand pounds’ worth of gifts that Gist had heaped on the ground before him than by the assurances of goodwill he and Croghan were piling even higher—agreed to the construction of the strong house and remained silent about the settlement it implied. But in order to gain the acquiescence of the Delawares (after the Mingos, the most numerous of the Ohio Indians) the Half King was also compelled formally to recognize one of their headmen, Shingas, as their “king,” a status that would entitle him to speak on behalf of his people, and thus to negotiate in his own right. Tanaghrisson tried to hedge his bets by maintaining that everything done at Logstown would have to be ratified by the Grand Council at Onondaga, but his actions testified to the tenuousness of Iroquois influence in the Ohio Country. With or without Onondaga’s approval, the Delawares would soon have begun to act for themselves under Shingas’s leadership anyway. They had grown too numerous and had moved too far west to remain indefinitely under the Confederacy’s tutelage. From this point onward, the Delawares and other Ohio Indian peoples would begin to steer their own course.11

Of more immediate consequence for the governments of Pennsylvania and Virginia was an event that occurred not long after the conference ended, two hundred miles farther west, at Pickawillany—the Miami town where George Croghan and his associates maintained their trading post. At about nine o’clock on the morning of June 21, 1752, a party of about 180 Chippewa and 30 Ottawa warriors, accompanied by 30 French soldiers from Detroit under the command of a French-Ottawa officer named Charles-Michel Mouet de Langlade, attacked the settlement. Most of Pickawillany’s men were away hunting; most of its women, who had been working in the cornfields, were made captive. After a six-hour attack, Langlade called a cease-fire. He would, he said, return the women and spare the defenders (who numbered only about twenty) if they agreed to surrender the traders. Lacking any alternative, the defenders agreed, then looked on while the raiders demonstrated what the consequences of trading with the English could be. First they dispatched a wounded trader “and took out his heart and eat it”; then they turned their attention to the settlement’s headman, Memeskia. This chief, known to the French as La Demoiselle, had lately acquired a new sobriquet, Old-Briton, from Croghan and his colleagues. Now, to repay “his attachment to the English” and to acquire his power for themselves, the raiders “boiled [him] and eat him all up.” Then, with five profoundly apprehensive traders and a vast quantity of booty in hand, they returned to Detroit. Behind them lay the smoking ruin that, twenty-four hours earlier, had been one of the largest settlements and the richest trading post west of the Appalachians.12

Unlike Céloron’s little lead plates and letters of warning, Langlade’s raid quickly disinfested the west of Pennsylvanians. The Miami chiefs sent urgent requests to the governments of Pennsylvania and Virginia for arms and aid, but the Quakers who dominated the Pennsylvania Assembly refused to become entangled in a developing war, and the Virginians found that they had no compelling reason to support so distant a people. When no help came, the Miamis quietly returned to the protection of their French father. Langlade’s bold stroke thus drove the most irritating English traders from the Ohio Country, even as it restored an important Indian alliance. Yet all English activity in the region did not immediately cease. The Ohio Company of Virginia continued with its plans to found a settlement at the Forks, now taking the precaution of building a second fortified storehouse at the mouth of Red Stone Creek on the Monongahela River—a spot just thirty-seven miles upstream from the river’s confluence with the Allegheny. 13 Red Stone Fort gave the company its first permanent foothold in the Ohio watershed. It also suggested forcibly to the French that Langlade’s coup had been only a half victory over the English invaders.

This was not, as it happened, an accurate inference. The French had always understood English activities in the Ohio as being far more cooperative and highly organized than they really were. Pennsylvania traders and Virginia speculators had in fact never constituted two prongs of a single invasion, but rather had been determined rivals. The interests of Pennsylvanians who made their living by trading with the Indians for deerskins, bearskins, and beaver pelts were in two ways incompatible with those of the Virginians. In the short run, the Ohio Company was a dangerous competitor in the Indian trade. Ultimately, however, if the company’s plans to promote the migration of farm families to the Forks succeeded, the new settlers and their livestock would inevitably displace both Indians and wildlife. Thus the Pennsylvanians had done their best to set the Indians against the Virginians, and the Virginians had done their best to return the compliment. Even the close cooperation between the Ohio Company’s man, Christopher Gist, and George Croghan, the “king of the Pennsylvania traders,” at the Logstown council had nothing to do with solidarity between the groups. In fact, the Philadelphia assets of Croghan’s trading partnership had lately been seized in bankruptcy proceedings, and he had fled to avoid arrest. Acting on his own account, Croghan had acquired a highly dubious claim to 200,000 acres of land adjacent to the Ohio Company’s patent. Because that claim would have been invalid under Pennsylvania law, Croghan promoted Virginia’s interests at the treaty conference as a means of securing his own.14

The governments of Pennsylvania and Virginia had also weighed into the competition for the west, pressing claims based on their respective charter rights to the lands near the Forks of the Ohio. Colony agents in London wrangled with one another before the Board of Trade—the British government body that supervised colonial affairs—as vigorously as their counterparts conspired against one another in the depths of the backcountry. Moreover, deep internal divisions within Virginia itself, between gentlemen belonging to different speculative companies, had also retarded the invasion of the west. The members of the Loyal Company—a syndicate interested in securing the rights to territory south of the Ohio River, in what would become Kentucky—had done their best to thwart the Ohio Company’s plans and indeed succeeded in doing so until 1749. Only when the head of the Ohio Company became acting governor of Virginia did the company begin to make headway in the west. With his death, the stockholders prudently offered a share to the newly appointed lieutenant governor of the province, Robert Dinwiddie.15

French policy makers in Paris and imperial officials in New France saw none of this. They recognized neither the real nature of the British incursions nor the fact that once Langlade had dealt with the Pennsylvanians, the Virginia menace could have been handled more effectively by diplomacy than force. Tanaghrisson, after all, had been willing to give the Virginians permission to build a trading post at the Forks only because he understood this as a gesture of alliance, and hence a measure of defense against French military domination. Had the French offered the Delawares, Shawnees, and Mingos cheap trade goods and reassurances instead of seeking to enforce a new hegemony over the Ohio Country, the outcome might have been different. Both the personality and the instructions of the new governor-general, however, precluded moderation.


The French chain of forts. This sketch map, made sometime after 1758 from the description of “an intelligent Indian who had resided there for a Considerable time,” uses small square symbols to depict the French “Logg’d Forts” constructed by order of the marquis Duquesne in 1753–54; broken lines indicate portage roads. A note accompanying the legend describes “Good water carriage from Ft. DuQuesne to Lake Erie, except the carrying place of 15 Miles from Beef River to Presqu’Isle.” Courtesy of the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan.

The marquis de Duquesne, like his predecessor and patron the comte de La Galissonière, was a blunt naval officer who preferred action to talk. A man utterly unafflicted by self-doubt, Duquesne arrived at Québec in July 1752 carrying orders that were deeply consistent with his natural bent. His superior, the minister of marine, had stressed the critical importance of preserving communication between the Canadian and the Illinois settlements via the Ohio and directed him “to make every possible effort to drive the English from our lands . . . and to prevent their coming there to trade.” Duquesne was to “make our Indians understand . . . that we have nothing against them, [and] that they will be at liberty to go and trade with the English in the latter’s country, but that we will not allow them to receive [the English] on our lands.” Accordingly the new governor required the Canadian militia (165 companies including over 11,000 men) to begin drilling every week and ordered a series of four forts built to establish a permanent military presence in the Ohio Country.

By the spring of 1753, two of the forts were already under construction. The first stood on the south shore of Lake Erie, at Presque Isle. A portage road connected it to the second, on the Rivière aux Boeufs (French Creek), a tributary of the Allegheny River. By autumn, the French had established a third post, Fort Machault, at the Delaware village of Venango, near the confluence of French Creek and the Allegheny; it incorporated a convenient complex of buildings, including a storehouse and forge, lately abandoned by a Pennsylvania trader, John Fraser. The last fort of the chain, which would stand at the Forks of the Ohio and furnish the strategic key to the Ohio Country, was scheduled for construction in 1754.16

Whether reckoned in livres or lives, this fortified system cost the French a prodigious amount. More than four hundred men perished and at least four million livres were spent in the feverish building. Duquesne believed that the English threat was so severe that the haste, cost, and lives lost were no more than the necessary price for securing French interests in the Ohio Country. But the ground on which the crucial fourth fort of the chain would rise—the post that would bear Duquesne’s own name—happened to be the spot that the Ohio Company had chosen as the site of its fortified trading post. That single fact would do more to create cooperation among the British colonies than any measures that the fragmented, competitive colonists could have devised on their own initiative.

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