George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Arthur St. Clair, 6 October 1789

To Arthur St. Clair

[New York, 6 October 1789]


Congress having by their Act of the 29th of September last empowered me to call forth the Militia of the States respectively, for the protection of the frontiers from the incursions of the hostile Indians, I have thought proper to make this communication to you, together with the instructions herein contained.1

It is highly necessary that I should as soon as possible possess full information whether the Wabash and Illinois Indians are most inclined for war or peace—If for the former it is proper that I should be informed of the means which will most probably induce them to peace—If a peace can be established with the said indians on reasonable terms, the interests of the United States dictate that it should be effected as soon as possible.

You will therefore inform the said indians of the dispositions of the general government on this subject, and of their reasonable desire that there should be a cessation of hostilities as a prelude to a treaty—If however notwithstanding your intimations to them, they should continue their hostilities, or meditate any incursions against the frontiers of Virginia and Pennsylvania, or against any of the troops or posts of the United States, and it should appear to you the time of execution would be so near as to forbid your transmitting the information to me, and receiving my further orders thereon, then you are hereby authorised and empowered in my name to call on the Lieutenants of the nearest Counties of Virginia and Pennsylvania for such detachments of Militia as you may judge proper, not exceeding however one thousand from Virginia and five hundred from Pennsylvania.

I have directed Letters to be written to the Executives of Virginia and Pennsylvania, informing them of the before recited Act of Congress,2 and that I have given you these conditional directions, so that there may not be any obstructions to such measures as shall be necessary to be taken by you for calling forth the militia agreeably to the instructions herein contained.

The said militia to act in conjunction with the federal troops in such operations, offensive or defensive, as you and the Commanding officer of the troops conjointly shall judge necessary for the public service, and the protection of the inhabitants and the posts.

The said Militia while in actual service to be on the Continental establishment of pay and rations—they are to arm and equip themselves, but to be furnished with public ammunition if necessary—and no charge for the pay of said Militia will be valid unless supported by regular musters, made by a field or other Officer of the federal troops to be appointed by the commanding Officer of the troops.

I would have it observed forcibly that a War with the Wabash Indians ought to be avoided by all means consistently with the security of the frontier inhabitants, the security of the troops and the national dignity—In the exercise of the present indiscriminate hostilities, it is extremely difficult if not impossible to say that a war without further measures would be just on the part of the United States.

But if after manifesting clearly to the indians the dispositions of the general government for the preservation of peace, and the extension of a just protection to the said indians, they should continue their incursions, the United States will be constran’d to punish them with severity.

You will also proceed as soon as you can with safety to execute the orders of the late Congress, respecting the inhabitants at St Vincennes and at the Kaskaskies, and the other Villages on the Mississippi—It is a circumstance of some importance that the said inhabitants should as soon as possible possess the lands to which they are entitled by some known and fixed principles.3

I have directed a number of copies of the treaty made by you at Fort Harmar with the Wyandots &c: on the 9th of January last to be printed, and forwarded to you, together with the ratification, and my Proclamation enjoining the observance thereof.4

As it may be of high importance to obtain a precise and accurate knowledge of the several Waters which empty into the Ohio on the North West—and of those which discharge themselves into the lakes Erie and Michigan; the length of the portages between, and the nature of the ground, an early and pointed attention thereto is earnestly recommended. Given under my hand in the City of New-York, this 6th day of October, in the year of our Lord One thousand seven hundred and eighty nine, and in the thirteenth year of the sovereignty and Independence of the United States.

Copy, DNA: RG 233, First Congress, Records of the Office of the Clerk, Records of Reports from Executive Departments; copy, DNA: RG 46, First Congress, Records of Legislative Proceedings, Reports and Communications Submitted to the Senate; copy, InHi; copy, NHi: Henry O’Reilly Collection.

1Section 5 of “An Act to recognize and adapt to the Constitution of the United States the establishment of the Troops under the Resolves of the United States in Congress assembled, and for other purposes therein mentioned” (Stat. description begins Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 . . .. 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67. description ends , 1:95–96 [29 Sept. 1789]) authorized the president to call out the militia if it became necessary to protect the frontiers from Indian attack. See also St. Clair to GW, 14 Sept. 1789, and GW to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, 16 Sept. 1789.

2Secretary of War Henry Knox wrote Beverley Randolph, governor of Virginia, on 6 Oct. that he had been “directed by the President of the United States to transmit to your Excellency the enclosed extract of a Law enacted by the Congress on the 29th day of September last—And I am further directed Sir to inform you that the state of intelligence from the frontiers has rendered it expedient for the President of the United States to instruct provisionally the Governor of the Western territory to call forth the Militia of the nearest counties for the protection of the frontier inhabitants from the hostile incursions of the indians, limiting the Militia to be so called forth to the number of one thousand from Virginia and five hundred from Pennsylvania.

“The said Militia while in actual service are to receive the same pay and rations as the troops of the United States provided that no charge for pay be admitted as valid unless the Militia shall be mustered by an officer of the said troops to be appointed by the commanding officer thereof.

“It is expected the Militia will be armed and accoutred at their own expence, but to be furnished with ammunition if necessary by the United States.

“Your Excellency will make such use of this information as you shall judge proper, in order to facilitate such orders as the Governor of the Western territory may find it necessary to issue.

“The President of the United States has also directed me to acknowledge the receipt of the letters you were pleased to transmit to him written by Colonel Robert Johnson of Washington [Woodford] County and dated the 22d of August.

“The Measures directed to be taken by the Governor of the Western territory are intended to prevent a repetition of similar depredations stated by Colonel Johnson—And it is to be expected that they will in a great degree be effectual, in conjunctions with the regular troops, who have lately taken a position in force near the Great Miami” (ViHi).

3Vincennes, Kaskaskia, and other settlements in what became known as the Illinois country were acquired for Virginia as the result of George Rogers Clark’s military activities in the area during the Revolutionary War. After Virginia’s acquisition of the area, its inhabitants, mostly French and Canadian, became citizens of the state. When Virginia ceded its western lands to the union, the deed of cession, 1 Mar. 1784, provided that “the French and Canadian inhabitants, and other settlers of the Kaskaskies, St. Vincents, and the neighbouring villages who have professed themselves citizens of Virginia, shall have their possessions and titles confirmed to them, and be protected in the enjoyment of their rights and liberties” (JCC, description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends 26:113–16). By the mid—1780s, other settlers from Kentucky and Virginia had moved into the area and joined the original settlers in inundating Congress with petitions to establish government in the area and settle the confused land questions. See, for examples, the petitions of the inhabitants of Post Vincennes, 26 July 1787, 28 Feb. 1788; petitions from the inhabitants of the Illinois country, 27 Aug., 15 Sept. 1787, all in DNA:PCC, item 48; report of committee of Congress on the petition of George Morgan, 20 June 1788, and petition from the French inhabitants of Kaskaskia, Cahokia, Prairie de Rocher, and St. Philip, 27 Aug. 1787, both in Carter, Territorial Papers, Northwest Territory description begins Clarence Edwin Carter et al., eds. The Territorial Papers of the United States. 27 vols. Washington, D.C., 1934–69. description ends , 2:112–15, 68–70. The question of the Illinois settlements was frequently before the Confederation Congress in the late 1780s. One report, by a committee consisting of James Madison, Abraham Clark, and Nathan Dane, stated that the committee found the inhabitants “disposed to submit to Government and good order, and solicitous to receive their laws and protection from the United States, that for want of criminal laws and magistrates among them to administer their exisiting laws and customs they are subjected to very great inconveniences, and many mere land Jobbers are induced to intrude on their lands and disturbe their possessions, wherefore the Committee are clearly of opinion that Congress ought without delay to provide for the administration of Government” (JCC, description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C., 1904–37. description ends 32:266–69). As the result of the report of another committee on 29 Aug. 1788 Congress resolved that “measures be taken for confirming in their possessions and titles the french & Canadian inhabitants and other settlers at post St. Vincents who on or before the year 1783 had settled there and had professed themselves citizens of the United States or any one of them, and for laying off for them at their own expence the several tracts which they rightfully claim & which may have been allotted to them according to the laws & Usages of the Government under which they have respectfully settled.” The resolution also reserved 400 acres for every head of family (Carter, Territorial Papers, Northwest Territory, description begins Clarence Edwin Carter et al., eds. The Territorial Papers of the United States. 27 vols. Washington, D.C., 1934–69. description ends 2:145–46). When GW took office the matter was still pending.

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