George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Henry Knox, 27 November 1789

From Henry Knox

War Office November 27th 1789.


I have the honor to submit to you a letter from Brigadier General Harmar dated the 19th of October with several enclosures shewing the State of affairs on the Western Frontiers.1 I have the honor to be Sir, with the highest respect, your most obedient humble servant

H. Knox


1Josiah Harmar (1753–1813) was appointed in 1784 to command the United States Army on the frontier. With his meager force—700 men were authorized for the postwar army but Harmar was rarely able to bring the troops up to complement—he proceeded to establish a chain of forts on the Ohio, and by 1789 construction had reached the Wabash River with the establishment of Fort Knox at Vincennes. Virtually all of the posts were undermanned, poorly provisioned, and vulnerable to Indian attack. They were also powerless to prevent or control the expeditions from Kentucky sent out to avenge the attacks on that region by the Indian tribes north of the Ohio River, expeditions often joined by unruly inhabitants of the settlements that had grown up around the forts. Harmar had a few veteran officers in his command upon whom he particularly relied. These included John Francis Hamtramck (1756–1803), a Canadian who had seen military service with a New York regiment during the Revolution and was now in command at Fort Knox—a post he held for some six years—and Capt. John Doughty, who in the winter of 1789 was engaged in the construction of Fort Washington on the Ohio at present-day Cincinnati.

The enclosure was Harmar’s letter of 19 Oct., written from Fort Harmar, stating that “The Ohio river for this Sometime past has been so Exceeding low that it has been almost next to an impossibility Either to ascend or descend it, but it appears now to be taking a gradual rise.

“The Enclosed Extracts of Maj. Hamtramck’s letters, dated the 29th of July, the 14th & 17th of August, will show the state of affairs in that quarter. I understand that another Expedition has gone forward from Kentucky against the Wabash Indians, the result of which has not yet come to my knowledge. Will you be pleased to give me particular and Explicit directions how to act with the inhabitants of Kentucky? Perhaps they may be secretly authorized to form these Expeditions. It certainly places Major Hamtramck in a most disagreeable situation; & when Head Quarters are properly fixed opposite Licking River, frequent applications will most assuredly be made to me, or at least hints for the few Federal troops to countenance and aid them in their operations; if we do not, numberless censures will be cast upon us.

“By the last accounts from Licking, our works were going on rapidly. Major Doughty writes me he was confined to his bed very ill with the ague & fever; I am hourly Expecting his return.

“The presence of the Governor is very much wanted. You will please observe by the Enclosed copy of a letter from the County Lieutenant of Harrison, in Virginia, to the Governor (the original of which I made free to open, & have in my possession until his arrival) the murders that have been committed by the Savages near Clarksburg” (extract, WHi: Draper Manuscripts, Harmar Papers).

The letters from Hamtramck to Harmar, written from Fort Knox and presumably enclosed in Knox’s letter to GW, are in MiU-C: Harmar Papers, and printed in Thornbrough, Outpost on the Wabash, description begins Gayle Thornbrough, ed. Outpost on the Wabash, 1787–1791: Letters of Brigadier General Josiah Harmar and Major John Francis Hamtramck and other letters and documents from the Harmar Papers in the William L. Clements Library. Indianapolis, 1957. In Indiana Historical Society Publications, vol.19. description ends 178–85, 187. The letter from the county lieutenant of Harrison County, which Knox may also have enclosed, has not been located.

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