browser icon
You are using an insecure version of your web browser. Please update your browser!
Using an outdated browser makes your computer unsafe. For a safer, faster, more enjoyable user experience, please update your browser today or try a newer browser.

The American Frontier in the 18th Century

Introduction: The culture, geography, and military operations under which Joseph Hancock fought in 1777 are well documented. The battles were in recognizable locations with battle scenes in and around the towns and cities along the eastern seaboard of America familiar to most Americans. The frontier to which Joseph Hancock was transferred is not as well known and was vastly different from the military operations on the coast. Therefore, to understand Joseph’s reassignment to the frontier, the context in which he found himself follows. He participated for a short but significant period in a long frontier conflict lasting 60 years.

Geography and demographics:Settlers began occupation of the lands on the west side of the Application Mountains shortly before the Revolutionary War. This included what is now Western Pennsylvania, at the time called Wyoming. Virtue of its original charter Virginia laid claim to Western Pennsylvania, and what is now West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, and Michigan, as well as the uncharted territories west to the Pacific Ocean. The conflicting claims of Pennsylvania and Virginia made for a highly charged political environment on the frontier.

An ill-fated attempt to reach accord with the Native Americans and define the region was articulated in a 1768 treaty made by Sir William Johnson with the Iroquois Nations located primarily in the northeast. This treaty established a boundary from Fort Stanwix in New York to Fort Pitt and from there followed the Ohio River. The area north of this line was preserved for the Native Americans in the region and the area south was opened for settlement. There were major problems with the treaty. The Iroquois Nations were not the sole occupants of this region and in fact did not extend beyond what is today western New York. The Iroquois claimed they had feudal ownership over the entire region. However, the Indian tribes who actually inhabited most of the territory rejected the Iroquois authority. Moving east to west were the following Indian tribes:

Iroquois Nation

Western New York: Seneca (one tribe of six that were part of the Iroquois Nation)

Non-confederated Algonquin tribes

Western Pennsylvania: Wyandotte, Mingo, and Western Delaware

Ohio: Miami

Ohio & Kentucky: Shawnee

Michigan: Mississauga, and Ottawa

Northern Michigan and Canada around Lake Superior: Ojibwa

Wisconsin: Menominee, Winnebago, and Saulk

Illinois: Potawatomi and Kickapoo

The Iroquois Nation tribes did not speak the same basic language as the Algonquin tribes. Historically there had been no cooperation between them. There was no federation among the Algonquin tribes similar to the Iroquois Nations. However numerous sub-tribes formed alliances. When settlement of the frontier became a mutual concern, these tribes ceased warring against each other and gave their attention to a common threat. Another problem with the treaty was that the Shawnee considered their ancestral hunting ground to be south of the Ohio River. Needless to say, these tribes did not consider the Stanwix Treaty legitimate, but, for decades, even as the boundary was disputed, both parties acknowledged it. Only the most desperate or foolish would attempt to settle north of the Ohio until after General Wayne’s successful expedition to remove the Indian threat took place in 1794. It was not until the war of 1812 that the region including Canada was at peace and became as we know it today.

Settlers had been moving over the Allegany mountains and settling in Western New York and Pennsylvania for more than a decade before the Revolutionary War. By 1776 settlers had struck out past Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh) and begun locating in what is now West Virginia and Kentucky, along the Ohio River and its tributaries. Settlers around western New York and Pennsylvania were subjected to Indian atrocities primarily from the Seneca and Mingo tribes. Those further west of Fort Pitt suffered raids from all of the Algonquin tribes.

History of Western Expansion: French traders in the late 17th and early 18th centuries penetrated the regions that are now Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin. They began a vigorous trade with the Native Americans. The French had superior access to the area due to French domination of the St. Lawrence Seaway and the Great Lakes. They built forts at key locations along the seaway, at the straits of the Great Lakes, and at significant fords between navigable rivers to secure trade. British traders began competing with the French by land routes through the mountains in the mid eighteenth century. The British goods were of higher quality and lower cost. The Native Americans were quick to take advantage. The French considered this to be an intrusion into territory they claimed as French. The conflict provoked the French Indian War or Seven Years War between the British and the French.

The War began in 1754. The British won and took over the French forts and trade routes, laying claim to the surrounding territory. The British were not the only nations to make a claim on this territory. The Native Americans also claimed sovereignty over the region. This did not stop the provincial aspirations of Pennsylvania and Virginia, resulting in land surveys being commissioned. These colonial governments chartered land companies to survey and sell Indian lands. Land ownership was totally alien to the Indian culture. Interestingly, George Washington was a big land speculator during this period and purchased various large tracts of land, including a section north of the Ohio River. The tract north of the Ohio was Indian Territory, under the Stanwix treaty. Washington obviously was not concerned about who would ultimately control this land. The mix of opposing interests assured bloody conflict for years to come.

In addition to forts at Detroit, Michilmackanac, and along the Saint Lawrence, the French built forts on the interior of the region at key river locations. This was an effort to bolster their territorial claims by erecting permanent structures inside the region. One of the more important was Fort Duquesne (pronounce do cane), later renamed Fort Pitt by the British. This was the same claimed by the Ohio Company, a land company in Pennsylvania.

In greater detail, George Washington led an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate a claim for the frontier territories on behalf of Virginia in 1754. He approached the fort, was politely hosted by the French, and presented territorial claims from the Virginia Governor. He was respectfully informed, partially as a dodge, that these matters would have to be referred to the Governor of New France. The French provisioned him and sent him on his way. This was the beginning of 60 years of conflict in the region, and a prelude to the French Indian War.

In an effort to claim the western territory the British attempted to capture Fort Duquesne in July of 1755, which resulted in the Battle of the Monongahela, also known as Braddock’s defeat. Braddock marched his army in traditional British columns ignoring admonitions to respect the different methods of warfare the Indian employed. Short of reaching Fort Duquesne, Braddock was attacked by the Indians and overwhelmingly defeated. In command of his rangers George Washington was able to prevent the defeat from becoming a massacre. This battle was part of the French Indian War, which lingered indecisively until 1757 when William Pitt became Prime Minister.

Pitt refocused the Royal Military away from European fronts, concentrating military activities on the New World and India. In a series of brilliant strokes, the British took Forts Duquesne (later renamed Fort Pitt) as well a Ticonderoga, a fort of strategic significance on the Saint Lawrence. In 1759 the British won the decisive battle for control of the Great Lakes. The whipping Pitt gave the French would later benefit the Americans during the Revolutionary War. The French sought any means to avenge their defeat and along with Spanish allies subsequently supported the American Revolution.

The Peace of Paris in 1763 significantly changed political power in North America. The French gave up vast territory. The Native Americans lost their ability to play two European empires against one another. The Iroquois Confederacy east of the Ohio Valley had long been a British ally, however years of conflict in the expanding frontier had changed the balance of power. The British were less concerned about their relations with the Iroquois who had been allied. The larger and more hostile Indian populations were among the Algonquin speaking tribes of the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley. It became acutely apparent they held power in the region that had been traditionally allied with the French. The French penetration did not bring settlers with it. Now that British military power prevailed, the aggressive land-grabbing efforts of the colonists would only get worse. In defiance, an Ojibwa Chief told the first Englishmen that reached Fort Michilimackinac “although you have conquered the French you have not conquered us.” Ottawa Chief Pontiac made it clear to the British that the whites did not understand the Indian way, and based on a vision, determined all settlers should be pushed back over the mountains. This vision included giving up the new traded goods and returning to their previous, more primitive ways. Pontiac’s rebellion (1763 to 1765) was fought to implement this vision, but was defeated. As a result of this rebellion, the British learned that they could not dictate policy and made concessionary agreements with the Native Americans.

Lord Dunsmore’s war was fought in 1774 and resulted in the Treaty of Camp Charlotte, which eliminated the Shawnee claim to their traditional hunting grounds south of the Ohio River. Both sides had begrudgingly begun to recognize the boundary established in the Stanwix Treaty. In the same year, the British drafted an imperial policy known as the Quebec Act that would have combined modern Quebec, Ontario, and the American Frontier Region into one colony. The policy had its merits, particularly by opening access to the waterways for trade, which the settlers failed to appreciate in their obstinacy against the idea. Quite to the contrary, it offended Anglo American settlers for various reasons, not the least of which was allowing the Catholic Church into the region. Moreover under this act the colony would not have a legislative counsel but an autocratic governor instead. The grievance emanating from the proposed creation of this colony was of sufficient merit to be included by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. Shortly afterwards the region became a dark and bloody battleground. The Revolutionary War aggravated the already hostile situation leading to the necessity of committing troops from the American Army to the region.

At the behest of the Continental Congress Washington ordered the Pennsylvania 8th and the Virginia 13th Regiments to the frontier in the spring and summer of 1778. Washington was specifically instructed but reluctant, due to his specific knowledge of its superior fighting ability, to detach the 8th Pennsylvania Regiment from the Pennsylvania Line from the main army to the frontier. Washington put General McIntosh in charge of the Western Department and the aforementioned troops. The original objective was to reduce Detroit and eliminate British influenced Indian attacks on the frontier settlers. It was also politically important to establish formal American presence in the region for territorial claims in any future peace negotiations. Ultimately, active military presence in the region would persist beyond the British surrender at Yorktown.

Logistics and internal politics prevented the taking of Detroit and reduced the activity in the region largely to a holding action for the duration of the war. However, against all odds, McIntosh made a sincere effort to press Detroit and built Fort McIntosh and Fort Laurens in 1778. Brodhead replaced McIntosh in the spring of 1779 as commander of the Western Department. In 1779, General Sullivan’s expedition up the Susquehanna River and Colonel Brodhead’s nearly simultaneous expedition up the Allegany River resulted in the destruction of Indian crops and dwellings under a policy of scorch and burn. The expeditions did not result in large numbers of Native Americans being killed, but it checked them for a period of time as they repaired the damage. In fact, it may have made them only angrier and more determined to stop and push back white settlement.

Independent of the command at Fort Pitt, militia campaigns were conducted. George Rogers Clark’s campaign with the Virginia militia penetrated deep into Illinois territory and was successful. For the first time, the British began to feel threatened in Detroit. The shame of the Gnadenhutten massacre of peaceful Christian Moravian Indians took place. Then the gruesome defeat of Colonel William Crawford took place during the Sandusky Campaign ending with his savage torture at the stake by the Delaware.

In 1781, the Delaware – the only tribe in the region to support the American effort, changed their allegiance to the British, causing Brodhead to campaign against them. His mission was successful, however the matter ended with a brutal tomahawking of a number of Indian Chiefs after their capture. Whether Brodhead was actively involved or just careless is uncertain, but the murders of these chiefs in addition to accusations of graft and corruption ultimately lead to Brodhead’s undoing by Washington’s direct order, removing him from command of the Western Department in the same year. Joseph Hancock was fortunately discharged from service by this time.

From another perspective, during the early stages of the Revolutionary War military and political efforts were made by the Americans to win over Montreal and Quebec. Americans sought Canadian inclusion in the Revolutionary War believing they would join in fighting for independence, but they were not at all interested. A number of battles took place, culminating in the British defeat in the north at Saratoga in 1777. This defeat however did not deprive the British of control of the waterways, allowing them to stage offensive operations from Detroit. Support for Indian warfare against the settlers continued after the British surrendered at Yorktown. Eventually, as a result of the British surrender and negations with the Earl of Shelburne, concessions in the region turned out to be far than greater than expected. There were several territorial concession options on the table but release of the claim to the Ohio valley and surrounding territory was the least disagreeable to the British. American military presence in the region assured westward expansion was negotiated and became American territory.

The Native Americans who had allied with the British were now left on their own. The colonists under British control in what is now Canada were furious that the source of furs and skins was now under American control and, at best, would have to be shared. Jay’s treaty a 1783 agreement reached to resolve unfulfilled British and American disputes following the Revolutionary War, in pertinent part, evacuated the British from forts at Niagara, Detroit, and Mackinaw. Now that the region was firmly under American control it became apparent to the Native Americans that they had to either accept whatever fate would result from settlement of their territory by the ever-increasing flow of settlers from the east, or take a stand. They choose to take a stand and formed the largest Indian confederacy ever assembled. Engagements took place between 1790 and 1794. The first at Kenionga in 1790 (Fort Wayne, IN) resulted in the decimation of a force led by General Josiah Harmar. Similarly, Major General Author St. Clair received the worst defeat to ever take place on the American Continent at the hands of the Indians at the battle of the Wabash (Fort Recovery, Ohio) in 1791. The success emboldened the Indians spirit to the point that they began to believe they could drive the settlers out. Attempts to make peace with the Indians failed. The Indians reasoned the British had no right to give Indian lands to the Americans, since it was not theirs to begin with, and saw no point in discussions. It should be noted that Joseph Hancock bought his first property on the frontier in 1790 at Maysville, Kentucky.

George Washington, President of the United States, promoted Anthony Wayne to Commander in Chief of the American Army, specifically to address the Indian problem. Wayne prepared an expedition to resolve the ongoing conflict. In his typical disciplined military habits, Wayne trained exhaustively for battle, maintained double pickets to avoid an Indian surprise, held off campaigning until he had the men and supplies he deemed essential, and successfully executed an expedition deep into Indian held territory. Wayne destroyed the Indian Confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 and negotiated the Treaty of Greenville in 1795. The last effort was taken by Shawnee War Chief Tecumseh allied with similarly inclined Wyandotte, Potawetami, and Ottawa Indians. Joseph Hancock was a Kentucky militia officer during Tecumseh’s rebellion. Without British support, the Shawnee were unable to sustain a successful military effort, which ended in the defeat at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. This effectively ended Indian conflict in the region.

The War of 1812 between America and Britain was the final chapter in the settlement of boundaries between Canada and the United States, which defined the boundaries known today. The Native Americans were relegated to reservations in the region for a period of time. Under pressure by Whites to acquire reservation land for farming, the Indian for the most part was coercively removed and relocated to lands farther west by the mid nineteenth century. White settlement not only removed the native Indian from the land but also stripped the indigenous forest. The exposed lush and fertile ground supported the new economy, the agricultural business of today.

Indian Cultural: The Native Americans in the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes region had, long before the Revolutionary War, become accustomed to improvements in their standard of living through trade. Iron pots and pans, knives, tomahawks, tools, and of course guns, gunpowder, and lead became a necessity. What had been called trinkets such as beads were important for Native Americans to possess since they brought status with the successful receipt of gifts from Western Europeans, an Indian expectation as proper show of hospitality and respect. Ornamentation and western cloths were worn in a display of pride and was similar to the vanity seen in the male custom of body painting. Use of the bow and arrow became a lost hunting and martial art. The French traders penetrated deep into Indian Territory selling these wares but were not intrusive, supplying the Native Americans with useful trade goods that allowed them to live much as the had for centuries, but with improved technology and a higher standard of living.

Prior to white encroachment, tribes in the area often fought against each other, the Shawnees being the most fearsome warriors in the region and most inclined to tribal war. The young Indian brave was respected for good hunting skills but a greater status was attached to warrior behavior. At its greatest extreme, this would entail battle and heroic efforts that would be honored at council meetings extolling the skill and bravery of the individual Indian warrior. War chiefs were drawn from the best warriors.

The Native Americans had religious notions of creation and the ever after. Of particular note in their religion was the god Manitou that provided them abundant land and wild game which was hunted as the main source of food. The Native Americans had great respect for the land and believed that they had a sacred obligation to insure it continued to provide abundance for future generations. The Native Americans never took more from the land than was needed to feed their families. The notion of shooting an animal such as a buffalo for sport or for only the choice meat, leaving the rest to spoil was unthinkable, yet the early settler, seeing such abundance, thought nothing of it. The Native Americans observed this and over time also observed that the buffalo disappeared and hunting parties had to go much farther from camp to hunt food. The settler was a menace to traditional food sources.

The Native Americans had established rites that allowed “adoption” of captives from other tribes. It was an easy transition to apply this to whites, which facilitated their assimilation as captives into the tribe. When capturing many whites at a time, warriors would satisfy their blood thirst and revenge by ritualized killing some of the more important captives, but usually returned to the village with prisoners whereby the women would decide the fate of most survivors. Children would often be adopted and mature men and women taken as spouses. Those for whom there was no use were killed. In this way, as had been the case of Indian captives, the tribe was increased in size to its presumed betterment. If a captive were an officer, notorious Indian fighter, or captured escapee, a much more brutal fate awaited him. A captured escapee, man or women, was automatically burned at the stake to set an example. Men of renowned warrior skills, even though a mortal enemy, would often be spared the stake and told to run the gauntlet sometimes multiple times. If successful in reaching the end of the line, the captive would be allowed to live if adopted. However, if knocked to the ground the poor captive would likely be beaten to death.

Being burned at the stake was an infrequent event. Nonetheless, it put fear in the settler’s hearts that such savage brutality was a possibility. The burning was not a quick process. Fires were built at some distance from the captive slowly barbequing the individual. With very notable captives, the burning would take place at a major Indian village and runners would announce the forthcoming celebration to surrounding villages. Death could take 24 hours.

Settler Culture: The first Euro-Americans to arrive over the mountains and explore lands along the Ohio River were frontiersmen such as Daniel Boone and Simon Keaton. These men and others became famous for the frontier skills, Indian fighting, and encouragement of white settlement in the region. As a young man, Simon Keaton preferred to be in the wilderness alone and would venture far into unexplored lands in what is now western Kentucky. He marveled at what he saw. He found abundant game, vast forests and cane lands. He would often stay in the wilderness by himself through the winter, living off the land and residing in a small lean-to hut. Behind these rugged outdoorsmen came families in search of a life of abundance and prosperity. The desire to own land was a powerful attraction and the stories spread by land companies in the east spoke of untold riches. Some arrived with little or nothing and assumed that if they developed a piece land, they would be granted title. Others came in organized groups, having purchased land from land companies, and started small communities. Many left desperate circumstances, and went west in search of a new beginning or to avoid the law. Some groups were religious communities in search of a promised land.

The reality of surviving on the frontier even without Indian attacks was a serious matter. The first year was critical. A bad crop or a bad winter could wipe out a family. In addition, Indian raids often deprived them of their livestock, their children, and their lives. Yet they kept coming. There were periods of relative calm but the tensions brought on by the mass migration of settlers would lead to many bloody conflicts. Naturally, the settler loathed the Indian, and the Indian loathed the settler. Regretfully this occasionally led to the deaths of friendly Native Americans including chiefs further aggravating a bad situation.

The government agents and the leadership of the Western Division of the Continental Army were presumably more enlightened, respectful of the Native Americans and attempting to make peace. They were largely successful with the Delaware Indians during the Revolutionary War. However the rest of the Indian tribes preferred to resist the onslaught of settlers and sided with the British. The Native Americans believed the British had less land avarice and were a more steadfast source of trade goods on which they had become dependent. During the War, the Native Americans remained on the British side.

Some settlers were isolated from one another and in extreme danger at times. Most lived in some type of community with a fortified blockhouse for defense in case of attack. Small forts were built in some of the larger communities. Many women and children spent years within the confinement of forts and blockhouse communities, fearful of being captured or killed. The men tended fields in armed groups. There was not much but toil to occupy their time. Even if they had the ability, there was little or nothing to read. Communal social skills were an imperative. Many settlers considered going back and would have done so if there had been a place to go back to. Men could be reckless and quick to mount attacks to retaliate against Indian raids on fellow settlers. Women were much more cautious and put some temperance in male aggressiveness. Frontier settlers personified the rugged individualist much admired philosophically at the time.

Criminal elements not withstanding, the settlers developed their own sense of law and order and appointed natural leaders to positions of authority. Necessity wrought social cohesiveness, often influenced by Christian beliefs. All shared an indissoluble sense of independence and a strong contempt for governmental interference. They believed they could take care of their own business. On the other hand, the civilized world along the seacoast was of the opinion that settlers were as wild and savage as the Indians. It was known that frontier heroes had learned the Indian methods and skills and used them to their own advantage. Furthermore, it was widely believed that people were not capable of living a civilized life without some form of government to prevent lawlessness. The settlers among themselves proved otherwise.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, many Native Americans were resigned to the fact that it was only a matter of time before the Euro-Americans would succeed in taking their lands. Alternatives for the Native Americans were few, for they were not at all interested in the white man’s ways of farming, which they saw as degrading for the male and fit only for women. Moreover, the concept of land ownership was a total anathema to them. It made no matter since the settlers would never accept coexistence, much less assimilation, of the Indian into white society. One culture would lose.

Economics: Trade goods for furs and hides originally attracted the French to the region and continued to be the primary form of commerce at the time of the Revolution. The “Interior French” or the French traders, who intermarried within Indian tribes, had essentially infiltrated the Indian culture and in many cases became powerful, influential and rich. These French infiltrators used and were used by the Native Americans to enhance their economic power and prestige. The Frenchmen became Indian, if they were not born Indian, and participated in the Indian culture, customs and ceremonies while maintaining some of there own. Of cross cultural importance was learning Indian languages by the Interior French. By speaking both French and Indian, these men became powerful brokers. They were essential to the French trade and later made their services available to the British after the French Indian War. They often became chiefs within the tribal system and participated in tribal meetings. The Interior French had great influence in establishing Indian alliances against the settlers.

Settlers lived by substance farming, a different economy. Initially the lands that were settled were forested requiring extensive labor to clear. An acre of uncleared land was worth approximately $1.00. Often settlers with no capital to purchase property would work to clear land and be paid in kind, giving them a start. Labor was much more dear than land, and an acre of cleared land would bring approximately $5.00 or 5 acres of uncleared land. Farming formed the basis of the settler economy. By the turn of the 18th century grain would become the primary export of the region. However, this economic transition was in direct opposition to the Indian economy based on hunting and trapping. In addition to the offensive taking of sacred hunting land the settlers were also taking their share of game from the land to supplement their food supply. As game became scarce, settlers would break the Stanwix Treaty, form hunting parties and cross the Ohio. This increased the distrust and hatred between settler and Indian, eventually leading to the exclusion of one economy for the other. George Washington’s policy on the matter after the Revolutionary War virtually assured the Indian would be systematically bought or forced out of their land by perpetual “permanent” treaties as the frontier pushed westward.