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President Washington’s Calculated Risk

May 2024
17min read

To secure the old Northwest he waged our first cold war, which came to a climax in the Battle of Fallen Timbers

Washington, upon taking office, was confronted by demands more complex and critical than were to be posed any incoming President until the day of Lincoln’s inauguration. Far from least among these problems was the contriving of a foreign policy that might offer some hope of retaining American title to the Ohio Valley without the maneuver involving us in a new war with recent enemy England or with recent ally Spain, or with both.


Washington’s cold war, like the wider one in which we are now embroiled, was brought on by a sudden and unforeseen broadening of our national responsibilities. The men who fought the Revolution were battling for the independence of the thirteen seaboard states. There was some thought that, if all went exceptionally well, victory might conceivably support a claim to eastern Canada as a means of insuring the future security of those states. But aside from a handful of visionary Virginians, no one dreamed of laying any claim to the far, Indian-infested wilderness beyond the mountains.

Two unexpected developments, however, disturbed this preoccupation with a purely Atlantic point of view. During the Revolution, almost unnoticed amid the many distractions of the struggle, some thousands of American settlers had crossed the mountains to seize upon homes in that western wilderness, and with the coming of peace, some scores of thousands more were crossing to join them. Next, England, at the peace table, astounded the American commissioners with a sudden offer to cede the West to the United States. Few influential Americans of the rank of congressman or governor could bring themselves to feel that the interests of the western settlers coincided in any way with national interests. But Washington, informed by his youthful experiences at Fort Necessity and Braddock’s Field and his lifelong interest in western lands, was one of those visionary Virginians who could see over the mountains. He resolved to hold the West at every risk short of another foreign war.


The task he had set himself must surely have baffled any temperament less calm, less patient, less resolute. First off, there were the hard facts of geography. The nation’s population was predominantly coastal; its center, according to the 1790 census, was east of Baltimore. Only one road—and that a bad one—ran as far west as Pittsburgh. The only other mountain crossing was the Wilderness Road, a mere pack trail. In the West itself there were only buffalo traces and rivers. The transAllegheny settlements, most numerous in southwestern Pennsylvania, eastern Tennessee, and north central Kentucky, with a fringe in north central Tennessee and on the north bank of the Ohio, were scattered across a vast area that was still largely wilderness.

In every respect the West was a strange, wild region far more distant than any Viet Nam, Korea, or Jordan of our cold war days. In the foreign offices of the world and in the minds of most people living in either the East or West, it was taken for granted that the western settlements must, if they survived at all, either become a separate nation or drift under the protection of Spain, England, or France.

Next among the physical facts was the existence of the powerful Indian nations, who had not been consulted during the peace negotiations, who did not recognize England’s cession of what they considered their own land to the United States, and who fiercely resented the settlers’ intrusion and were determined upon their expulsion or extermination. The Cherokee and the Creek in the South, supplied and encouraged by Spain, and the Shawnee-Delaware-Wyandot-Miami confederacy in the North, supplied and encouraged by England, waged an inconclusive but infinitely harrowing war upon the settlements during the seven years of the Revolution and for the next thirteen years thereafter.

So far the bellicose settlers had managed to defend themselves, though at a cost of many hundreds of casualties a year, in a type of warfare that subjected their women and children to as many perils as their men. President Washington was now disposed to come to their aid, but he dared not put federal troops in the field without first taking the most careful thought to the probable reactions of Spain, France, and England.

Spain had actual strategic control of two thirds of the West. She had been ceded the west bank ol the Mississippi by France in 1763, the two Floridas by England in 1783, and she maintained garrisons at St. Louis, Natchez, New Orleans, Mobile, and Pensacola. At the peace table, with the ardent support of France, Spain had claimed the entire Ohio Valley—and she claimed it still. She had refused to recognize England’s stunning cession of the region to the United States and as a mark ol her continuing displeasure was refusing even to recognize the independence ol the United States. She was lending powerful weight to her claim by encouraging the Indian war, by closing the Mississippi, the one outlet to the settlers’ commerce, and by embarking upon a campaign of bribery and seduction to induce the Americans in the West to secede from the United States.

France, though for the moment in the background, strongly supported every Spanish ambition because she regarded Spain as but the temporary caretaker of her own western interests and looked forward to the time when she would repossess her North American empire.

In the North the posture of England was the most ominous of all. She had” ceded the West to the United States in order to create friction between her former colonies and their wartime allies. But she had no idea of closing any of her own doors of opportunity in the West. She refused to give up her fortified posts at Niagara, Detroit, and Michilimackinac; by continuing to promote and supply the northern Indian war upon the settlements, she could make sure that the United States did not in the meantime get too firmly established in the central valley.


These were thorny difficulties. But the temper of the western settlers themselves presented one still more formidable. They had for so long been left by their eastern compatriots to shut for themselves, to tope unassisted with the miseries of their poverty and the unspeakable outrages of Indian war, that they had come to the conclusion that the Last wished them to fail. Since they were required in any event to fight their own battles, they were becoming increasingly resolved to fight them solely in their own interests. The impulse to secede became daily more violent and bitter. Their most lamous leaders advocated some form ol political union with Spain in order to secure the right to trade down the Mississippi. Others proposed securing England’s military aid in breaking the Spanish blockade. These were the men to whom the average settler must look for counsel and guidance, and all of them were engaging in earnest private correspondence with Spanish and English colonial governors and as earnestly conferring with Spanish and English agents circulating Treely through the West. The two most outstanding westerners had gone all the way: James Wilkinson had taken an oath of allegiance to the king of Spain and George Rogers Clark had offered to become a Spanish subject.

Washington had no need to look across the mountains to find fellow Americans bent on making his task more difficult, lie had been a unanimous choice for the presidency, but once in ofRce he found it no easier to win unanimous approval of many of his policies than did any of his successors. Most articulate easterners—congressmen, state governors, members ol his own Cabinet—took particular exception to his western views. They deplored federal meddling with the tangled international situation in the West as an unnecessary courting of dangers.


Opinion in the country was strongly set on a course we now would term isolationism. In 1781 the Continental Congress had voted unhesitatingly to instruct the peace commissioners to accede to the wishes of France and Spain by accepting; the crest of the Appalachians as the new nation’s western boundary. Sentiment had changed but little since. There was a general feeling that such energies as the weak new republic possessed should be concentrated upon the preservation of what had already been so painfully won.

In the face of these difficulties, Washington began to move, at first cautiously, even circumspectly, but without ever losing sight of his goal. First, he must somehow check the accelerating drift ol’ the western leaders toward secession. Since he possessed neither the means nor the resources to restrain or chasten them, lie made a virtue of necessity and rewarded them instead. All the prominent separatists, except Clark, were given military commands, governorships, judicial posts, or other federal preferment. There is no evidence that this halted their dealings with Spain, but it may have gained Washington a little time.

Next the President grasped the nettle of the West’s bitterest complaint: the unending Indian Avars which so far the settlers had waged without federal assistance. A war department was organized, and the single regiment of half-equipped, seldom-paid regular troops raised by the several states was sworn into the federal service. Josiah Harmar, the regiment’s commander, was instructed to prepare a punitive expedition against the northern Indian nations to compel them to recognize American sovereignty and to cease their attacks upon the settlements.

The territory to be invaded, in what is now Ohio and Indiana, nominally belonged to the United States under the terms of the peace treaty, but the Indians who occupied it were England’s allies and proteges. Washington had decided to risk the strong possibility that Harmar’s campaign would bring English troops from Detroit into the field to support their Indian confederates.

At this critical moment a wholly unrelated event cast a fierce and garish light over the entire western scene, revealing how, in the very nature of any cold war, the risks of hot war are terrifyingly real. In 1790 the Nootka controversy, developing from an obscure altercation off the distant coast of Vancouver Island in the Pacific, led England to serve upon Spain an ultimatum so insulting that war between the two seemed inevitable. English troops in Canada were alerted to undertake an expedition down the Mississippi to seize the Spanish forts along the river. At New Orleans the Yaxoo Land Company of South Carolina was at the same moment negotiating with the Spanish governor to establish an independent colony near Natchez. Inspired by the war threat, Dr. James O’Fallon, the impetuous manager for the company, suddenly switched tactics and, backed by a volunteer army of Kentuckians led by his brother-in-law George Rogers Clark, threatened instead to take what he wanted by force.

Washington and his advisers were thunderstruck. Suddenly, world war appeared imminent in the Mississippi Valley, and O’Fallon and Clark were making sure the United States would become involved. Cabinet meetings called to deal with the crisis faced a bleak prospect: war between England and Spain must result in one or the other gaining control of the full length of the Mississippi and thus surely inheriting the whole West.

Alexander Hamilton proposed siding with the English and hoping to come out with Florida as a consolation for the loss of the Ohio Valley. Thomas Jefferson advocated instead an alliance with Spain in return for the cession of New Orleans and the Floridas. Hamilton was strongly opposed to the projected Harmar cxpedition which must certainly, under the circumstances, excite the English to defend their Indian allies aggressively. Jefferson argued that the expedition was now more advisable than ever; he felt it would serve notice that the United States would oppose any English effort to descend the Mississippi to get at Spanish possessions. Washington listened calmly and as calmly made up his mind: the expedition was to go ahead but the greatest care would be taken to give the English formal assurance that no threat to Detroit was intended.

So began the brush-fire war which, it was hoped, would effectively guard the interests of the United States without involving us in a full-scale war. Arthur St. Glair, governor of the Northwest Territory, was authorized to call out the western militia to reinforce Harmar’s regulars. And then, as suddenly as it had darkened, the international situation brightened. Revolutionary France abandoned its former ally Spain, which was then forced to bow to the English ultimatum, and O’Fallon and Clark dropped their threat to take Natchez. By the fall of 1790 the danger of a general war had passed, and Harmar, under auspices as hopeful as could be expected, was able to march off into the wilderness to initiate the supremely critical test: how much punishment of her Indian allies would England tolerate before coining openly to their assistance?


He did not get far enough to find out. The Indian forces under their war-wise commander, Little Turtle, skillfully drew Harmar on, stole his horses, maneuvered him into awkward positions, and killed 183 of his men while losing something less than twenty of their own. Harmar withdrew hastily to the Ohio. The brush-fire war, as so often before and since, had proved to require something more than halfway measures.

In the West, in the East, and around the Indian council fires the effect was immediate. For the Indians, it was the first time since the days of Sullivan’s victorious campaign against the Iroquois in 1779 that they had faced American regulars, and this time they had won. Their belligerency was solidified, and with new vigor and assurance they pressed their demands that the Ohio be recognized as the permanent boundary between American and Indian territory. For the American settlers in the West, the fiasco was just one more demonstration that the federal government was inept and that the East was not interested in their troubles. The regulars had come to rescue them, but the principal consequence had been that Indian attacks upon the settlements were now more violent than before. The feeling grew among westerners that they would have to find their own way out of their difficulties.

In the East the effect was to stir a brief flurry of patriotic fervor. The insult to the national honor must be avenged. Governor St. Clair was reinforced and instructed to assume personal command in the field. Great care was taken to make sure that there would be no second slip-up. This time the Indians must be made to realize that they were dealing with the power of the United States. This time they must be humbled.

The next autumn, better furnished with instructions and exhortations than with equipment and discipline, St. Clair set out on a northward march. He did not get even as far as Harmar had. When St. Glair reached the headwaters of the Wabash, about a hundred miles north of present-day Cincinnati, Little Turtle, with new confidence in the superiority of Indian manpower and tactics, came boldly out to meet him. St. Glair’s defeat was so inglorious that our history books have never even deigned to give the battle—which took place on November 4, 1790—3 name. He lost about 900 men, and for the Indians it was as great a triumph as their famous victory over Braddock, and St. Glair’s casualties were greater than Braddock’s. As in Braddock’s case, the remnants of his army, fleeing in panic, survived only because the Indians became too engrossed with collecting battlefield spoils to give pursuit.

The news of St. Glair’s disaster burst upon both East and West with catastrophic impact. The whole frontier now lay exposed to a sudden upsurge of Indian power. Happily, however, winter intervened and the Indians, constitutionally averse to campaigning in the snow, failed to attack. The savage onrush awaited spring.

In the East the flare of warlike spirit that had lighted St. Glair’s preparations was quenched by the chill news of his defeat and succeeded by a mood of sullen apathy.

Only with difficulty was Washington able to persuade Congress to raise a new regiment. Secretary of War Knox christened it The Legion, and Washington appointed Anthony Wayne, of Revolutionary War fame, as its commander. But when spring came, the new force was not ready to take the field; in any event, the temper of the country would not have permitted it. Diplomats, not soldiers, were to defend the country’s borders from the Indian menace. The twice victorious savages were not again to be assaulted. They were to be accommodated, cajoled, promised literally anything to persuade them to grant us peace. Washington had need of all the patience he had manifested at Valley Forge, for his Administration was committed under the drive of necessity to a program of frantic appeasement more long-suffering than the historic submissions at Munich or Panmunjom. Four separate efforts were made to convince the Indians that the United States wanted peace at any price:

Early in 1792 traders and missionaries who had access to Indian towns were officially though secretly dispatched with instructions to “insinuate upon all favorable occasions the humane disposition of the United States, and, if you can by any means ripen their judgment, so as to break forth openly, and declare the readiness of the United States to receive, with open arms, the Indians, notwithstanding all that has passed, do it .” These informal overtures brought no response.

At the same time, the Iroquois, once the most powerful and pugnacious of all Indian nations but now more neutral since their losses during the Revolution, were implored to send a delegation to Philadelphia. The government hoped to persuade them to use their good offices as go-betweens with their recalcitrant Ohio brethren. Some fifty delegates trooped to the capital, enjoyed the sights and the lavishness of their entertainment, made many eloquent speeches, received their presents, and finally promised to reason with the Ohio tribes. Instead, they simply went home again.

A third effort at appeasement was made. In May three formally accredited emissaries, General Rufus Putnam, Colonel John Hardin, and Captain Alexander Trueman, were dispatched to deal directly with the Indians. The burden of their instructions was to pledge the faith of the United States to the Indians “that no additional lands will be required of you.” Hardin and Trueman, traveling through the forest toward the Indian towns, were killed before they even got near them. Prudently, if unsuccessfully, Putnam waited until September to address the Indians from the safe distance of Vincennes.

Finally, in June, Joseph Brant, the most famous and influential of all living; Indians, was enticed to Phil- adelphia by a promise that his meeting with Washington was to be in the nature of a meeting between equals. Eventually Brant reached Philadelphia and was entertained by Washington. He said afterward that the Americans had offered him a down payment of one thousand guineas, double the pension he was receiving from England, and an ultimate reward of£20,000 if he succeeded in arranging a peace with the Ohio Indians. If so, he did not earn it. Upon his return to his home in Canada, instead of going west to see what he could do, he professed illness for the next several months.

None of these desperate pacific appeals had had any immediate effect, but now there came a faint gleam of light from the most unlikely of sources. At the forks of the Auglaize and Maumee rivers in Ohio the Indians were holding the greatest of all Indian congresses. Delegates from tribes as far away as the Gulf of Mexico, the Great Plains, and Canada had assembled to exchange views with their Ohio fellows. Animated by characteristic Indian loquacity, the sessions rolled on through weeks of sonorous oratory. The result was a more vigorous than ever affirmation of the Indian demand that the Ohio be recognized as the permanent boundary between the United States and Indian territory and that the scattering of American settlements north of the river be removed forthwith. However, a certain reasonable time was granted the United States to consider and digest the demand. The United States grasped eagerly at this hint of an armistice and the consequent respite which, it was hoped, might be stretched into the next year.


Wayne, meanwhile, had been organizing his Legion composed of some three thousand of the sorriest recruits with which any commander was ever burdened. Gradually, after months of drilling, they began to look like soldiers. Before he was through with them they were real soldiers. He moved down the Ohio to Fort Washington (Cincinnati), the ill-omened base from which Harmar and St. Glair had marched, patiently observing his instructions to proclaim and observe the armistice, to make no aggressive move, and to see to it that the settlers made none. The West, regarding the twin spectacle of Wayne’s supine inaction and the Administration’s desperate appeals to the Indians for peace, voiced new contempt for the central government.

To take advantage of the glimmer of hope offered by the armistice, Washington had appointed new peace commissioners, who were men of national note: Benjamin Lincoln, Timothy Pickering, and Beverly Randolph. When spring permitted travel they set out for Detroit to establish contact with the Indians. Their task was peculiarly irksome. The murder of Hardin and Trueman had proved it was unsafe to approach the Indians through the hundred miles of forest that comprised no man’s land. Instead, Lincoln, Pickering, and Randolph put themselves under the protection of the English. This they did at Fort Niagara, one of the posts that, though on American territory, was still in the possession of an English garrison. Delays, some calculated, some merely irritating, held them back for months. It was late July before they reached Detroit. The British commander refused them permission to make a nearer approach to the Indian congress, and after all their trying months of travel they were no closer to being in personal touch with the Indians than when they had left Philadelphia.

Their messages to the Indian delegates had to be entrusted to Indian agents of the British—and these, behind the scenes, were striving successfully to assure the mission’s failure. The nub of the offer the commissioners were authorized to make was “such a large sum in money or goods as was never given at one time for any quantity of Indian lands since the white people set their foot on this inland.” The Indian reply was a scornful rejection, which was made the more humiliating in that the noted interpreter was Simon Girty, the American renegade, who interspersed his reading with taunting asides.

Renewal of the Indian war now seemed inescapable, except at the price of complete surrender, but it was already too late in the season for Wayne to wage an effective campaign, and the cold war dragged on into another winter. The next year, 1794, when final decision could not conceivably be longer evaded, found the scene immeasurably darker.

Every tension that had for the past five years beset Washington’s western policy not only still existed but had in the meantime become more difficult, more explosive. With an outburst of revolutionary energy, France had picked a war with almost every major power in Europe, including England and Spain, and was taking tentative steps to regain her former empire in North America. In the United States sympathy with the new French republic divided Washington’s very cabinet as it did the rest of the East. The West was not divided; there, sympathy with France was universal.

On the Pennsylvania frontier the local Jacobin societies fired popular resentment of federal authority to a high pitch: federal mails were seized, federal troops fired upon, federal officials and sympathizers exiled. We have since belittled this insurrection by dubbing it the Whiskey Rebellion (revenue collectors were a class of federal officials whom the populace took the liveliest delight in chasing), but during the most of that excruciating summer of 1794, the federal writ did not run west of the Alleghenies, and some 5,000 armed frontiersmen were practicing the secession that many westerners so long had preached.

As an accompaniment to all this, from the camp of the enemy reverberated a clap of thunder more threatening than any of the distractions in our own ranks. Lord Dorchester, governor general of Canada, announced in a formal address to the Indians that England stood ready to help them maintain the Ohio boundary and, if it proved necessary, to help them eject the American settlers who had crossed it. To lend weight to his words, an English column from Detroit marched into the heart of the Indian country and built Fort Miami on the Maumee River, near presentday Toledo. This was an aggressive invasion of American territory. It was an act of war.

Midsummer found Wayne confronted by a perilous military situation. The Pennsylvania insurrection had cut off supplies and reinforcements from the East. He faced an Indian army that had in the wilderness terrain, where the campaign must be waged, repeatedly demonstrated its invincibility. And even were he to succeed in overcoming that Indian army there stood behind it an English army. War with England was no longer a risk involved in an Indian war. It was a near certainty made clear by England’s official spokesman in North America. However, Washington was never so resolute as when every prospect was darkest. He calmly considered all these dangers, together with the greater dangers of delay, and ordered Wayne to march.

Wayne had no personal doubts about his ability to beat the Indians. His formula for success was simple. He had trained his soldiers until it was second nature for them to wait for commands and to obey commands. Obeying commands, they could never be confused by surprise, always the most effective Indian tactic. And, obeying commands, they would charge and charge and keep on charging until the Indian battle line was broken.

This time Little Turtle, again in command of the Indian forces, did not come out to meet his adversary. For two years he had been observing the new American commander and had decided he was dealing with a foe of a different mettle than Harmar or St. Clair. Moreover, it was Indian policy to make sure that this time England would have to become involved. Little Turtle, therefore, selected a position in a belt of forest where a tornado had felled a tangle of trees two miles wide. The position had the advantage of providing ideal cover for Indian field tactics and the greater advantage of its proximity to Fort Miami. With the battle fought literally in the presence of English troops there seemed no possibility that they might not at some stage be obliged to take an active part in it.

Wayne marched slowly and inexorably northward. He was not dismayed by the defensive strength of the Indian position. He was content that everything should be in their favor so that their defeat would make the greater impression upon them. The battle proceeded exactly as he had so long planned. The Legion, without firing a preliminary shot, charged with the bayonet into the maze of fallen timbers in which the Indians were ensconced and pressed the charge so remorselessly that the Indians’ will to fight was broken along with their battle line.

But the greater test was still to come. With the Legion in hot pursuit the Indians fled to the protection of their English patrons in the fort. The gates of the fort swung closed against them. Everyone, white or red, who saw those closing gates realized the significance. The great English bluff had been called. It had become clear in that single instant, as illuminating as a flash of lightning, that England, too, had been waging a cold war but that England’s purpose had not been so firm as Washington’s and Wayne’s.

Wayne had no need to assault the English fort in order to make the American victory crushing and final. At his ease, he ravaged the Indian towns and cornfields under the eyes of the English garrison and right up to the walls of the fort. Then he withdrew, leaving the Indians permanently disillusioned with their erstwhile English allies and permanently convinced that henceforth their homeland was under the sovereignty of the United States.

Few American battles have been as decisive as Fallen Timbers. It released a deluge of blessings on the young nation. For the first time, the western settlers were stirred by a thrill of pride in their country, and their loyalty to it never wavered again. The Indians, north and south, submitted to the authority of the United States and never thereafter was there an Indian war of strategic significance. England evacuated the Lakes posts and our northwestern border became what it is today. Later Spain opened the Mississippi and with that paved the way for the Louisiana Purchase, for the explorations of Lewis and Clark, and for the sudden westward surge of our frontier.

All in all we have ample reason to remember our first cold war and the way it was won.

The Battle of Fallen Timbers

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