You have to wonder if the bodies were still warm when the scapegoating began.
After a three-hour battle, more than 800 U.S. officers, soldiers, and civilians were killed, their bodies piled along the banks of the Wabash River on land that belonged to American Indians. Hundreds more were wounded.
It happened on November 4, 1791, at what is now Fort Recovery, Ohio, as part of the roughly 10-year Northwest Indian War.
The battlefield is just an hour’s drive east of the Ball State campus. There, an intertribal alliance of approximately 1,400 warriors led by Miami chief Mihšihkinaahkwa, also called Little Turtle, and Shawnee chief Weyapiersenwah, also known as Blue Jacket, annihilated an equally numbered force led by Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair.
Known variously as St. Clair’s Defeat or the Battle of the Wabash, it was considered a devastating loss to the Army.
As the blood dried, a narrative formed to explain away the rout. One report blamed a corrupt quartermaster for providing subpar supplies. Others blamed St. Clair for incompetence. Eventually, President George Washington forced the general to resign.
To better understand the battle, Christine Thompson, MA ’09, and others in Ball State’s Applied Anthropology Laboratories (AAL), conducted multiple on-site archaeological surveys and extensively reviewed contemporary journals, diaries, and maps.
Though accounts of American troops’ incompetence and corruption are valid, Thompson sees a more important factor in the outcome of the battle: the strategic, methodical fighting of the American Indians, who executed a cunning plan.
Nine tribes joined forces in the battle of St. Clair’s Defeat. The descendant tribes now number 39, and their headquarters are spread throughout nine Great Lakes and Great Plains states, from New York to Oklahoma.
St. Clair’s Defeat should be a source of immense pride for these tribal communities, said Diane Hunter, MLS ’82, a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, which numbers about 5,500 citizens.
“It shows we were a strong people,” Hunter said. “We knew how to fight. We knew how to defend our land. And it mattered to us.”
Hunter, who lives in Fort Wayne, Indiana, is the tribe’s historic preservation officer. She said that most Miami citizens are probably unaware of the battle.
Teaching our history, in many ways, it fell away. We were just trying to get by from day to day.
The battle’s aftermath
AAL’s research shows that American Indian success at St. Clair’s Defeat stemmed in large part to the alliance’s battle formation.
It aligned in a crescent surrounding the U.S. forces and ambushed at dawn. It was a method the American Indians had successfully used in smaller battles. Then, one by one, they used their muskets to pick off officers. Eliminating military leaders broke down the chain of command. Futile bayonet charges collapsed in disorder. Panic ensued. Soldiers abandoned the fight.
Survivors retreated to Fort Jefferson, 30 miles south.
Witnesses and news accounts failed to credit American Indian intellect, Thompson pointed out. Instead, they described the warriors as savage animals fighting like wild beasts. Dehumanizing them helped maintain the narrative that whites had the right to take the land because they were the superior race.
“It’s the attitude that has pervaded all along toward native people in what is now the United States.” Hunter said. “We were not seen as the kind of people who could have strategically planned a battle with that kind of success.”
Two years later, Gen. Anthony Wayne, Fort Wayne’s namesake, returned and built a fort at the site of the defeat and named it Fort Recovery.
In 1794, Little Turtle attacked again, this time with an alliance of 2,000 men from 12 tribes. This time, American forces held, and the alliance retreated. Historians generally recognize the U.S. government victory at Fort Recovery and at the Battle of Fallen Timbers a month later as the end of the Northwest Indian War and the beginning of Indian removal from the Great Lakes states.
Some Indian families assimilated into white culture. Some chose to move west. Others stayed until forcible removal began in 1830, which included the Potawatomi Trail of Death from northern Indiana to Kansas.
The Miami were forcibly removed from Indiana in 1846. “It was a complicated process of trying to survive,” said AAL director and senior archaeologist, Kevin Nolan.
American Indian children were taken from their families and sent to boarding schools, where white teachers taught them history through the lens of Manifest Destiny, the idea that white Americans were divinely ordained to settle North America.
“The U.S. government tried to erase their culture,” Nolan said.
“It broke the chain of information that had been passed down through the generations.”
A primary goal of Thompson and Nolan’s research is to help restore that chain, and they’re doing it in collaboration with the tribes themselves.
‘Why does this matter?’
Thompson, whose research interests include prehistoric archaeology as well as historic battlefields, quickly turned her focus to Fort Recovery when she joined AAL after earning her master’s in archaeology at Ball State.
Curious about how landscape features and American Indian strategy affected St. Clair’s Defeat, she and her students conducted field work that included metal detector surveys and physical excavations.
The project was a partnership with the Fort Recovery Historical Society and the community of Fort Recovery, with National Endowment for the Humanities funding.
But it has evolved into much more than discovering artifacts and fine-tuning history. AAL’s research won’t just live inside the walls of academia and on the pages of peer-reviewed journals.
“The end product will be a traveling exhibit and presentations created with tribal communities for tribal communities,” Thompson said.
A multidisciplinary team of Ball State students, staff, and faculty from the anthropology and architecture programs, with American Indian humanities scholars and consultants, are designing the exhibit. It will be called, “St. Clair’s Defeat Revisited: A New View of the Conflict.”
By engaging communities, Thompson and Nolan are following a new model of research called community-engaged scholarship. One definition is “applying knowledge for the direct benefit of external audiences.”
The tribal and Ball State scholars hope to have the exhibit finished and on the road by later this year or 2021. It will start in Ohio and then travel to American Indian museums throughout the country, where it has the potential to reach thousands of K-12 students who are members of the 39 tribes.
The very descendants of Little Turtle and Blue Jacket and the rest of the alliance will be able to learn about and be proud of this history.
“It’s humbling,” Thompson said.
Tribal input will make the exhibit more accurate and more relevant to the target audience. It also will provide personal context to the archaeological research.
Only one-quarter of the “New View” exhibit will focus on the battle. The rest will talk about the lead-up, the aftermath, and the persistence of tribes and tribal identity. Tribal input helps answer, “Why does this matter today?”
A new view
Hunter, who is a humanities scholar for the project, said she appreciates that “New View” is a chance to shine the light on native people living today, not just in the past.
The Ball State team did an initial design for the exhibit and organized three meetings, in Oklahoma and Ohio, with tribal nations to exchange ideas and information to co-create the exhibit design.
Sophomore Robin Johnson, an anthropology major from Indianapolis, has combed through diaries and documents to develop content for the exhibit. “It’s important to hear from everyone involved,” she said.
If we only hear from one side, your perspective is skewed. We have to hear the side of the Native Americans.
“A New View” won’t end when the traveling exhibit does. Researchers have amassed so much information that they want it to continue to live on, probably reformatted for new purposes. One possibility is to work with the states of Ohio and Oklahoma to improve classroom materials and curricula.
Many tribal members from Indiana ended up in Oklahoma, and their descendants still live there today. That state’s K-12 history curriculum doesn’t give much detail about how all these tribes ended up in Oklahoma or what their lives were like when they lived in Ohio and Indiana territories, according to Nolan.
“There are all kinds of ideas,” Thompson said. “That’s for all of us to decide. It’s almost endless.”
One thing is for sure. No matter where the content ends up, Mihšihkinaahkwa and Weyapiersenwah will be seen in a brand-new light.