The Battle of the Pumpkin Fields

At the Treaty of Paris in 1783 which ended the American Revolution, Great Britain ceded parts of the province of Quebec west of Pennsylvania, south of the Great Lakes, and north of the Ohio River to the nacent United States of America. Known as the “Old Northwest” or “Ohio Country”, the cessation consisted of the present day American states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and northeastern Minnesota. Since the government under the Articles of Confederation had no provision to tax, the new US government expected raise money to pay off its war debt through the selling of land in the Northwest Territory to settlers. In the Ohio Country lived Britain’s Indian allies during the American Revolution, whose lands were recognized by the Americans, but forfeit, as per the terms of the Treaty of Paris. The area was a vast wilderness punctuated by only a few Indian nations, but the Indian culture demanded vast amounts of land for hunting grounds in addition to their semi nomadic system of agriculture. The settlers arriving in the Northwest Territory to claim their land naturally led to conflict with the Indian nations and led to increasing bloodshed along the frontier. Moreover, despite the Treaty of Paris, the British had no plans to evacuate their troops from the area, and still occupied Fort Detroit in the late 1780s. The British secretly desired a client buffer state between Canada and the United States, which would keep the Great Lakes under British control, and provide an exclusive market for their manufactured goods, upon which the Indians were dependent but had no way of producing on their own.

At various times between 1783 and 1785, the leadership of the Indian nations of the Northwest Territory, primarily the Wyandot (Huron), Miami, Shawnee, Lenape (Delaware) Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Kaskaskia, and the Wabash Confederacy, came together at Fort Detroit to form a bulwark against the expansion of the United States westwards. They formed the United Indian Nations in 1785, which was a loose confederation of generally Algonquin speaking Indian nations who agreed not to treat with the United States separately. The decentralized nature Western Confederacy, as UIN was known in the US, was exploited by the land hungry Americans. Less than a year later in January 1786 the Shawnee, Delaware, and Wyandot signed the Treaty of Fort Finney which allowed Americans to settle on their lands along the Ohio River. The Confederate Council Fire at Fort Detroit rejected the treaty which violated the Confederacy agreement. The Americans didn’t care.

The Northwest Territory was formally organized in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. The governor, Arthur St. Clair, was instructed to “re-establish peace and harmony” with the Western Confederacy, but by 1789 peace negotiations broke down and Indian war parties and American militias raided each other’s settlements regularly. About 1500 American settlers were killed or enslaved, along with an unknown number of Indians, in the two years before the beginning of the Northwest Indian War.

The ratification of the US Constitution in 1787 permitted the authorization for the Executive Branch to raise a permanent army, funded by yearly appropriations by the US Congress. The first 300 American regulars were barely enough to keep up with settlers floating further and further down the Ohio and enforce the treaties with the various nations of the Western Confederacy. The big problem was not the Indians, but the settlers, just as the British found out 30 years before after the French and Indian War. Congress only authorized one regiment for operations on the frontier, and then only for year one terms as per US Constitution. That wasn’t nearly enough time, or men, to train the men properly, man the forts, maintain the treaties, protect the surveyors, much less act on the delicate situation. The untrained, ill equipped, ill funded, and inexperienced soldiers of the First American Regiment under Lieutenant Colonel Josiah Harmer could not keep the squatters and settlers inside the treaty lands, the Shawnee and Miami war parties from attacking homesteads and settlements, nor the Kentucky, Virginia, and Pennsylvania militia from conducting reprisal raids.

In 1786, Harmar built Fort Knox at Vincennes, (the old Fort Knox in present day Indiana, not today’s Fort Knox in Kentucky) specifically to prevent Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark and his Virginia militia from raiding Confederacy lands. In 1789, newly inaugurated President George Washington suffered significant blowback from American citizens in the West to do something about the bloodshed. Washington, always a friend to the Indians, at least until he wasn’t, asked St. Clair if the Western Confederacy was inclined to peace or war, St. Clair responded, “War”.

In 1790, Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox authorized Harmar to conduct a “punitive expedition” against the Shawnee and Miami to deter further attacks. Harmar might have been a dandy, but he didn’t need instructions on how to prevent Indian attacks. He was the senior officer in the American Army. As the Indians and settlers knew, the American frontier was too large and too untamed to defend outside a few forts where refuge could be found, the only choice was to attack, something the Pilgrims and Puritans figured out 125 years previously in the Pequot War. Western New York was just at that time open for settlement because of Sullivan’s Campaign in 1779 broke the Iroquois permanently, even though the Iroquois continued to raid from Fort Niagara and reservations in Canada for years.

Along with the First American Regiment, Harmar, now promoted to major general, mustered the militia at Fort Washington (present day Cincinnati, Ohio), and Fort Knox at Vincennes. The two forces, one under Major Jean Hamtramck at Vincennes and the other under Harmar, were to converge on the large Miami town of Kekionga (present day Fort Wayne, Indiana). They’d destroy any Confederacy villages and British trading posts along the way. The destruction of the British trading posts was key. Their loss would economically tie the Western Confederacy to the United States, no matter how many villages were destroyed. The Indians simply had no choice: the old ways were lost forever, if not completely in knowledge, then certainly in will. With the trading posts gone, the British would be in the same position France was in before the French and Indian War: without massive subsidies, British goods would be too expensive, too few, and of lesser quality than American goods produced nearby. The Indians would have no choice but to buy from American traders. Once Kekionga and the surrounding Miami villages were destroyed, the combined army would go on to Fort Detroit, weather permitting, and expel the British, completing the subjugation of the Western Confederacy.

The expedition got off to a rough start. In early October 1790, Hamtramck’s column burned a few abandoned villages of the Wabash Confederacy, but his Virginia militia began to desert soon after. The militia that Hamtramck, and Harmar, had for the offensive was not the same that took part in the raids. The campaign was in the middle of the harvest and many farmers paid for substitutes, who not fighting for their homesteads and strictly for pay, made for poor militia. As soon as the festive atmosphere of the original muster at the fort was replaced by the hard living and imminent fear of death or mutilation endemic to campaigning, the militia trickled away. Hamtramck was only out for a few weeks before he turned around and returned to Vincennes.

Harmar’s column departed Fort Washington on 7 October had much more success initially. At the head of 320 regulars of the First American Regiment, and 1,200 militia from Kentucky and Pennsylvania, Harmar headed directly at Kekionga, burning villages along the way. On 15 October, about 25 miles from Kekionga his scouts captured a Shawnee scout who told him that the warriors of the Miami and Shawnee tribes were massed at Kekionga waiting for more warriors from the other nations of the Western Confederacy and 320 Cherokee warriors, traditional British allies. Determined to surprise the Indians before they grew even stronger, Harmar dispatched Colonel John Hardin with 600 soldiers and militiamen to force march and surprise the Indians while he followed behind with the trains and main body. Hardin found the village abandoned and when Harmar arrived on the 16th, they confiscated the food left behind, and burned the town to the ground. There were no Confederacy warriors to be found.

The 1000 warriors of the Western Confederacy under war chiefs Little Turtle of the Miami and Blue Jacket of the Shawnee weren’t running away, they were just waiting for Harmar to divide his force. They knew everything about Harmar’s army, its morale problems, and everything about Harmar himself. They knew he spent a significant amount of time in Paris (where he delivered the ratified Treaty of Paris to Benjamin Franklin in 1783) and got addicted to the good life. They knew he was up to his eyeballs in debt because of it, but refused to give up the lifestyle. They knew he would have a sumptuous wagon filled with top shelf booze. They knew he was a drunk. Hell, everyone knew Harmar was a drunk: Henry Knox even referred to it in one of the specified objectives of the campaign “Don’t drink, sober generals are good generals.” Little Turtle and Blue Jacket knew it was only a matter of time before Harmar made a mistake they could exploit and his army disintegrated as a result. There was no reason to waste warriors’ lives, who could not be replaced, in a straight up battle for Kekionga, They didn’t have to long to wait.

As Harmar and the main body established a camp outside Kekionga, Harmar sent raiding parties out to destroy the smaller villages and find the elusive warriors. These raiding arties were exactly what Little Turtle and Blue Jacket were waiting for. On 19 October, Hardin set off to attack the village of Miami chief Le Gris. On the way, Hardin’s 30 regulars, 30 cavalry and 180 militia spotted a lone Indian and they gave chase. The Indian ran into a swampy marsh along the Eel River known as “Helle’s Corner”. He was a decoy. Once inside the marsh, Little Turtle attacked the spread out Americans. The militia immediately broke, mainly without coming into contact, though a few stayed with the regulars and died fighting. Only 8 regulars survived, including the company commander who had words later with Hardin. Though most of cavalry and militia survived, including Hardin, they mostly went home, but not before spreading the tales of their defeat back at Harmar’s camp.

The next day, another 300 strong mixed American force was ambushed eight miles north of Kekionga, leaving 20 dead, including the well-liked ensign who commanded the force. Almost certainly drunk, Harmar surprisingly pulled the camp back two miles further south of Kekionga in response to the attack. Even worse, Harmar refused the men’s request to recover and bury the bodies. They were no strangers to the Indians’ proclivity to mutilate the dead. Morale plummeted at Harmar’s obstinacy.

On the night of the 21st, Hardin decided to attack on his own, if only to bury the bodies. He also said he hoped to catch the Indians digging up their possessions that they buried, but more likely Hardin was looking to redeem himself after the Battle of Helle’s Corner. With sixty regulars and 300 militia, Hardin set out into the darkness. When Hardin arrived at Kekionga, he was surprised to find the ruins occupied by about a thousand Confederacy warriors, well-armed with British Brown Bess muskets. Little Turtle and Blue Jacket occupied the town after Harmar withdrew out of sight the day before. Hardin sensed an opportunity to trap the Indians in Kekionga, which was nestled in the bend of the Maumee River. Hardin sent a rider back to the camp for Harmar to bring up the main body, while he fixed the Indians in place.

Hardin divided his small force and one column rode around the town on the far bank to attack after crossing the river to the north. Unfortunately for Hardin, Little Turtle and Blue Jacket struck first as the small groups moved to their assault positions. Attacking and feigning retreat, the Indians spread Hardin’s command out further. Systematically defeating the small isolated detachments, the Indian warriors surrounded Hardin and the remaining regulars defending the ford over the Maumee River. Hardin’s men held firm and they were confident in the imminent arrival of the main body, just a few miles away.

Harmar wasn’t coming. When the rider told him of the Indians’ strength he began shaking. He was almost certainly drunk by several accounts. He formed the 900 men remaining in the camp into a hollow square to await the Indian attack. After about three hours, and low on ammunition, Hardin and what remained of his command broke out of the Indian encirclement and rejoined Harmar back at camp.

Harmar attempted to throw his officers a victory banquet that evening, but there was no denying the scale of Harmar’s defeat. Over the past three days, Harmar’s command suffered 262 killed and 106 wounded, and he barely heard shots fired in anger. Most of the killed were still laying in the fields, which infuriated the men. An unknown number of Indians were killed and wounded, the best guess was about 150. Ignobly, Harmar decided that he no longer had enough strength to continue. His militia were deserting in droves, so he returned to Fort Washington.

When the sun came up on the morning of 22 October 1790, the bodies of the American regulars and militia still lay unburied on the battlefield. The scalped heads of the dead reminded the Indians of squash steaming in the autumn air. They named their great victory over the United States at Kekionga, “The Battle of the Pumpkin Fields”.

Though Harmar proclaimed victory, Knox had him court martialed. Unfortunately the politically connected Harmer convinced the board to place the blame for the defeat at The Battle of the Pumpkin Fields on the ill-disciplined militia. Washington was furious at the defeat and Congress authorized another expedition, this time with Arthur St. Clair in command. Little Turtle and Blue Jacket became Indian heroes among the Western Confederacy. Most of what we know of Harmar’s campaign comes from the meticulous detail in the diaries of Major Ebenezer Denny, a Revolutionary War veteran, Pennsylvania regular in the First American Regiment, and future first mayor of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Battle of the Pumpkin Fields was the worst defeat suffered by the United States of America against the indigenous people of North America up to that time. The Battle of the Pumpkin Fields would end up being the third worst defeat against the Indian nations in American history, after the Battle of the Wabash in 1791 and the Battle of the Little Big Horn 85 years later in 1876.

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