By Daniel B. O’Connell
Over the last ten years I’ve noticed at many events an increase in reenactors portraying Native Americans. Often one can see their camps tucked away with the Provincial troops or set off on their own location independent of the military camps. During the American rebellion the Natives played a significant yet fragile role with the British in the regions considered frontier or border, a few being: Canada, the Hudson, Mohawk and Ohio valleys, the regions of western Pennsylvania and what was then considered Kentucky. Although often perceived that the British were using Native Americans as a form of ruthless warfare, an overlooked fact is the British were obligated to honor the agreements and treaties made with the Native Americans as well as contending with tempering the Native traditions of warfare. As the rebels made incursions and settlements within the Native territories the British very often found themselves in want of significant numbers of regular troops and relied on punitive expeditions comprised of what few British troops could be spared, supplemented with loyal militias and forces comprised of Native Americans. No matter if the reader sides with the British or Rebel perspectives on the actions involving the use of Native Americans, the significance, culture and diplomacy required to include Native Americans in the rebellion is an interesting study regardless of your stance on the issue.
Studies of Natives in the American Revolution
Volumes of books and studies have been offered on Natives in the American Revolution and certainly one brief article will not provide even a most casual accounting on the subject. Yet if only for the curiosity of the reader I offer a few edited excerpts from the Journal of Henry Hamilton, a journal of his expedition against Vincennes to remove the threat of George Rogers Clark. When word reached Hamilton at Detroit that the rebel forces had occupied Vincennes one of Hamilton’s preparatory concerns was maintaining the loyalty and services of the Native Americans, no simple task as the arduous trek from Detroit to Vincennes traversed hundreds of miles as well as several tribes and bands of Native Americans. Another overlooked area of study is how Hamilton, DePeyster and any British officer or civil leader had to be sensitive as well as knowledgeable with the culture and diplomacy required to secure Native American support. Below are a few excerpts from Hamilton’s Journal while he was at Detroit in August 1778 preparing for the Vincennes expedition and campaign. The variety of tribes involved is significant:
“Detroit: August 8th, 1778- This intelligence was communicated…(note: to Colonel Bolton at Niagara) by letters, one sent by land by a Savage, who was but 9 days going…28th– Lieut. Chevr. Chabert arrived from Niagara and his brother Joncaire Chabert with 70 Wyndatts from a scout. 23rd– The Ottawas, Chippoweys, and the Pouteouattamies were called to council, who told me they would accompany me – The Huraons who were also to have come, were prevented by bad weather… and the other Wyndatts came and offered their services…24th-Afternoon attended at an Indian feast.25th-prepared a present for the Shawanese with a speech to be carried by Captain McKee exhorting them to perseverance, and desiring that some of their chiefs should meet me at the Miami – that the lake Indians were risen to accompany me & c.26th– Charles Baubin arrived with letters from the Miamis Town, he brought the talk of the Chickasaas to the Ouabache Indians…29th– Met the 4 Nations in council, read to them the speeches of the Chickasaas, and the Peankashaas and the other Ouabash Indians…30th– A strong party of Chippoweys of Massigaiash’s band came to offer their services.”
Securing as many tribes and bands at Detroit Hamilton set off in October destined for Vincennes. Below we begin to expose how Native American customs and culture began to affect the expedition:
“October 2nd– This afternoon an Indian feast on the common (note: Detroit’s Common), all seem’d in good temper and well disposed. 7th– Embarked at ¼ past two pm… The disposition of the boats which had orderes to keep as close as possible to that one which carried a distinguishing flag, was as follows: The Indians with their Officers and interpreters were divided and formed the front and rear divisions in their canoes. River Rouge (note: near Detroit): October 8th– Would have taken advantage of the calm and Moonlight to have set off at 2 o’clock in the morning but the Indians demurred saying it was not their custom to travel in the night when they went to War… set off at 7 in the morning.”
Above we see a Hamilton a powerful man, Lieut. Governor of Upper Canada, the military commander of this British expedition acquiescing to the customs of the Native Americans in his command. From River Rouge (site of the British ship yards 6 miles down river of Detroit) Hamilton makes his way to the mouth of the Maumee or Miami river (modern Toledo Ohio) and works his bateaus up the river from Point aux Chenes to modern day Waterville and Grand Rapids Ohio:
“Point aux Chenes: October 10th-(note: North Shore mouth of Maumee River) Lieut Showrd of the King’s Regt, 1 Sergn, 1 Corp, 30 private arrived ½ past 4 in the afternoon. Lieut DuVernet got the 6 pounder out of the boat, mounted and hauled up a steep bank in 10 minutes. 11th– Directed the detachment of the Kings (note: King’s 8th Regiment) to pitch their tents in the Oaks something advanced… 6 Hurons killed 50 Turkies in a short time, a good omen of plenty for our march – strict orders against firing out of the boats except the Indians.”
Once again the culture and customs or perhaps the abilities of the Native Americans is put into play as Hamilton notes that only the Indians may shoot from the boats. At modern day Waterville Ohio Hamilton makes note in his journal of the difficulty passing the rapids at Roche de Bout, then moving to or near modern day Grand Rapids Ohio Hamilton describes in magnificent detail an Indian feast as well as his own participation in the Native ceremonies:
“October 13th– The light bateaus had some difficulty in passing the Roche de Bout (note: rapids at Waterville Ohio) the current being very strong… took a view of this rapid… encamped at Mildrum’s a league above the rapids. Mildrum’s (note: at or near modern day Waterville Ohio) October 14th– Twelve Cabins of the Ottawas at this place… great abundance of game… fine Timber.. Savages kill a she bear and cub as they were passing below rapide du loup (note: modern day Wolf Rapids on Maumee River)… took a view here: Last night invited to a feast by the Chippoweys, as to me it appeared worth noting, I mention some particulars– Their tents or booths are pitched on each side of the fire place in a strait line, the fire made of long dry logs, extended about 15 Yards in length– The Warriors only present, (their women not appearing,) sat on skins on each side– The War Kettle on the fire with the Flesh (which was Bear) cut into pieces of nearly equal size– All their Arms tyed to a Stake with a War belt (in token of Union) and painted with Vermillion– We entered one by one, and were shewn to our seats by a person appointed (the Sir Clement of the assembly)– The Servant of the Warriors then helped the guests to the choicest, that is with them the fattest pieces of the Meat, without bread– This domestic serves every one of his nation on a scout, if they are not too numerous when he has one or two aids as occasion requires, it is his exclusive privilege to carry the war kettle, he cuts up the Provision, cooks it, and at solemn feasts divides it, for in general the Kettle hangs over the fire with soup and boullie, and every one helps himself as he is prompted by hunger– The Office of Servant (or Mishinnawey) is held honorable, as it requires strength, alacrity and wonderful patience, a slavish cowardly fellow could not be promoted to this dignity– by the way no reproachfull or angry expression falls from any person when the servant makes a mistake or fails any way in his duty, he is either calmly set to right by an old man, or perhaps the young men may titter, for the most trifling thing is matter of laugh to an Indian– let it be remarked that there is no such thing in use among them, not even to be found in their language as an oath or a curse– terms of reproach they have few– Hog is most common– to call a Man Woman is highly injurious, which they express by saying, You are only fit to wear a Machicotte, or pettycoat– to spit in a man’s face is the penultimate indignity, to bite off his nose the ultimatum, but this usually is done when liquor has possession of them and happens more commonly among the soft sex than among the men—To return to our feast; all being seated, and served, before a morsel was touched, the Priest made a short address to the Master of life, at the close of each division of his harangue all the Indians joined in one solemn expression of assent.– The Priest then in more particular terms addressed the Lord of all, imploring his protection in their present undertaking and besought the inferior spirits presiding over rivers, Woods, Mountains, to be propitious– The deepest silence and most serious attention was observable during the prayer, no such thing as laughing or whispering, so common in our places of Worship– It was a clear star:light night, and I was affected by the humble and reverential worship of these poor ignorant but well meaning creatures– Prayers over they fell to with great keenness and very shortly the bones were all that was left for even the Bear’s skin, boiled first and then broiled and cut into thongs had found its way down their throats– The Master of the Feast then took up the Bear’s head by a Thong of bark and having given the War shout which was echoed by all present, he sung his War song accompanied by the dance as usual, all the company marking the measure by a deep expiration coming from the bottom of their lungs, with a correspondent action of the Body and head, having made the circuit of the fire he laid the head at my feet– I followed his example carefully avoiding stepping over the fire, which is against their rules– (’tis remarkable that when going to war, if an Indian burns or otherways hurts himself he must not start or complain, and if a spark of fire lights on him, he must quickly pick it off without expressing pain-) some Chiefs followed, and some took a bite of the head, saying ’twas the head of the Great Knife, so they stile the Virginians– after these a young Ottawa chief danced, and being of the Nation invited by the Chippoweys, kept the head for himself.”
A month later on the upper Wabash River, still laboring to reach Vincennes, Hamilton describes religious customs as well as how the Native Americans set up their camp while at war:
This morning the Indians having represented that it was contrary to their customs to have the Nattes (Budgetts which contain their Household Gods, relics, and such things as they use in their divinations Medicines &ca) in their rear when going to War, I found their superstition too strong to be combated, and accordingly ordered the Interpreters to tell them, they should on all occasions fix their camp in their own manner, that is, advanced toward the Enemy’s country–It is well known that these people seldom if ever, post sentinels or keep watch at night, tho ever so essential to their security–Their camp is formed in this manner– Large fires are kindled before which they lie in rows, on each side, with their feet towards the fire– At their heads are placed their arms leaning against a rock– In this position they go to sleep, and if any noise is made or alarm given, the first who hears it touches his neighbour, and the whole are presently roused, tho in silence, and take to their arms without bustle or confusion– Should any one have a dream which bodes something favorable, or the contrary he relates it in the morning to his comrades, and their reliance on omens is such, as frequently to defeat an enterprise–Sometimes a man who is disposed to return from war, makes known a dream which calls for him to quit his comrades, no one pretends to dissuade him, he takes his pack, and sets off perhaps accompanied by some of his comrades, the Chief not pretending to interpose—”
For the sake of space I stop very short of the conclusion of Hamilton’s November 16th entry describing the Native Americans on his expedition but the full account can be viewed or downloaded from: Henry Hamilton’s Journal. At this website the complete Hamilton Journal can be studied and contains amazing detail of an 18th Century frontier expedition including more Native American insights and descriptions. If there is one thing I have learned from Hamilton’s accounts of Native Americans it is that as reenactors we have very little insight into our fellow reenactors who portray Native Americans. Those of us who portray British regulars, Provincials or even Rebel forces with a shared history of Native American actions would do well in reading Hamilton’s Journal as well as any other contemporary sources on Native American culture and practices of the Rev War era. I’ll suggest that at Rev War events we should approach those reenactors portraying Natives and learn a bit more about our shared history. Perhaps a Native-based reenactment or Grand Council is in order so as to offer us more insight into Native reenacting. Such an event at or near the same ground Hamilton describes would surely be a “Grand Council!” D.O.