George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Arthur St. Clair, 1 May 1790

From Arthur St. Clair

Cahokia [Territory N. W. of River Ohio]

SirMay 1st 1790

I have this day communicated to the Secretary of the Department of War all the Intelligence respecting the Indian Affairs that has come to my knowledge and Observation since I wrote to him before,1 and I am very sorry to have it to remark, that they do not wear a very favorable Complexion! That the Ouabush Indians should have taken the Resolution to be guided entirely by those of the Miami Village, is nearly tantamount to a declaration that they will continue their Hostilities;2 if Matters come to that Issue, there can certainly be no hesitation about employing force to reduce them to reason, and I hope the Legislature will not boggle at the Expense, be it what it may; for it is certainly better for a Nation in every Case, to incur Expense, whatever may be its difficulties, than to lose Reputation: and should the Savages be suffered to insult the Government, and murder and rob the People with impunity its credit would be lowered, very much, both with foreign Nations and its own Citizens. The quietly putting up with one Injury seldom fails to prepare the way for the offering another.

My Time, since my Arrival in this Country, has been chiefly taken up with the receiving & examining the Claims of the Inhabitants, which have been presented very slowly; partly from their extreme Ignorance, and partly from their total want of the English Language: The Secretary being little accquainted with the french, I had required a state of their Claims in English, but as not a fiftieth Man can either read or write any Language, I was obliged to dispense with that, and interpret between him and them myself.3 The People are reduced to the lowest Ebb of Poverty—for four Years successively the Country has been laid under Water (for the french Settlements are all in the low Grounds or River Prairies, which are very extensive) which destroyed much the greatest part of their crops in each of those Years; and the last Season a Frost in the beginning of September destroyed nearly all the Corn—They were so much discouraged that, had my Arrival been much longer delayed, the Country would have been abandonned alltogether; perh⟨aps⟩ what had the principal Effect in preventing it was, that on the Spanish side the Lands are naturally less fertile, and had suffered nearly as much from the Innundations. The Spirit of Industry, which however they never possess ⟨in⟩ any great Degree, seems to be reviving, and as the Season advances ⟨mutilated⟩ happily, and they are naturally of a sanguine temper, and look fondly ⟨for⟩ward to better times, their Misfortunes will I hope be forgotten. I have been trying to persuade some of them to quit their Villages, where as Farmers they can never thrive, and establish themselves upon on Plantations in the higher Lands for the Prariries are every where bounded by a steep and high Bank, at the foot of which it is very evident that the Missisippi has sometime run, but they have so perfect a dread of the Savages, that, tho’ they are satisfied of the truth of it, it is impossible to bring them to attempt it; tho the high Lands are both fertile and Healthy, and the Indian Commerce, which was the Resource of their Villages, has entirely forsaken them: I suspect however they dread the Timber, with which it is covered, almost as much as the Savages; having never been accustomed to the clearing or cultivating timbered Lands. If some of the great number of Families that are daily descending the Missisippi, and are, for a time at least, lost to their Country, could be diverted this Way, they would find a Country which would abundantly supply them with all the Necessaries and many of the Conveniences of Life, and without a great deal of Labor; for, even in the interior Country, far from the great Rivers, there are abundance of extensive Prairies, where there is nothing to do but to enclose them and put in the Plough—The Habits of Industry and the knowledge of Husbandry would from them be communicated to the ancient Inhabitants. I do not know whether the design to dispose of this Country, in small Quantities to People who would settle it, has been resumed by Congress or not; but of this I am certain that, while the rage of Emigration continues, it would be good Policy to discharge a part of it here, where the People would become good Subjects⟨,⟩ and form an effectual Barrier against future contingencies: neither is it by any means improbable that when the Advantages which this Country offer come to be generally known, they may turn this Way of themselves, and establish themselves without Authority; if not in the face of it; which would introduce a Spirit of Licentiousness, hitherto unknown here that might not be very easily repressed.

The Judges are not yet arrived neither have I the least information about them: their Absence has embarrased me a good Deal, as many Regulations, suited to the peculiar Circumstances of this part of the Country are necessary and cannot with propriety be established but by Law; I have been obliged however, in some Instances, to take it upon myself, after waiting for them as long as possible, and direct them by Proclamation4—I have no doubt of a ready Obedience, for it is the mode to which the People are habituated, but I am sensible, that in so doing, I have gone beyond my proper Powers—My Excuse Sir I hope will be found in the necessity of the Case, and as the good of the People only was in View, I cannot doubt but Laws will confirm them as soon as possible. One of these Proclamations respects a County which I have erected here.5 The Settlements are three princip⟨al mutilated⟩ Cahokia, the Prairie du Rochers and Kaskaskia, with some sm⟨mutilated o⟩nes—not one of those contain a sufficient number of People ⟨mutilated⟩ its being a separate County, (indeed in the whole Country taken ⟨mutilated⟩ have been very much put to it to find proper Subjects to fill the different Offices) and they are at too great a Distance from each other, in present Circumstances, for any two of them to have been joined, I was therefore obliged to divide the County into Districts, and to direct Sessions of each of the Courts to be held in each District, and the Records to be kept in them in the same manner as if they had been distinct Counties: It will be attended with the Inconvenience to one or two of the Magistrates to go to the different Places but it was impossible to concenter the Business of the whole, and confine the Courts to one Place, without putting an entire stop to the Administration of Justice.

In a Letter which I had the honor to address to you from the Rapids of Ohio, I mentioned the Information I had received respecting Mr Morgan in that part of the Country.6 I found that he had been still busier here, if possible: in order to induce the Inhabitants to abandon the Country and follow him, he had a number of Sacks of Earth brought up from the Ance de la Graise, to shew them, and convince them of its very superior Quality; but his chief argument, and that which operated most powerfully, was drawn from that Article in the Constitution of the Territory which ⟨respects⟩ Slaves.7 he assured them, most positively, that they would all be liberated without any Compensation being made to the owners—He pressed them to save them while it was yet in their Power—that the Governor was then on his way, and after his arrival it would be too late—to fly if they had any regard to themselves—they had not a moment to lose: it had the Effect to drive away many respectable Inhabitants, but not the Effect he expected, very few followed him, but they took refuge on the opposite Shore and became Subjects of Spain, which they now very heartily regret—He is now at this Moment sending away the Inhabitants of New Jersey to that Country under printed Passports directed to all civil and military Officers and requiring them to receive them as Subjects of his Catholic Majesty—Major Doughty was shewn one of those by the commanding Officer at the Ance de la Graise, who did not however very cordially accept the Greeting.

By the Ordinance for establ[ish]ing the Indian Department the Superintendant is empowered to appoint two Deputies and a Salary of five hundred Dollars is annexed to the Appointment—Two Deputies, should a good Understanding be brought about with the Indians, is not sufficient ⟨for⟩ this extensive District, and I believe the Salary might safely be ⟨lowe⟩red—Persons equally capable and worthy of trust might be got I think for one half the Sum; for five hundred Dollars will not call off any Persons of much consequence from their other Pursuits, whereas to a Person who has nothing but a farm to attend to, the half of it is a considerable Object—four Deputies would not be found too many, tho hitherto I have appointed but One—but it will not be long before more will be necessary.

While I am speaking of Salarys wi⟨ll yo⟩u permit me Sir to mention that of the Governor—I do assure you ⟨Sir⟩ it is a very inade⟨qu⟩ate One, and I was sensible of it before I took the Office upon me. I suppos⟨ed⟩ that a little management would have secured an increase of it at the last Session of Congress, but where Money was the Object I would never in my life make use of any on my own Account—Whoever undertakes it after me will find that it will by no means support him, in the manner that will be expected, and which the Dignity of Government requires—it is even necessary that a little Splendor should be thrown round it. This is however the most expensive Country in the World—Money they have none, and European Goods, wh⟨ich⟩ are at an excessive Price, is the Measure of that, and of every thing else—Money is the Measure of no one Thing—even Linnen cannot be got washed under three Dollars a dozen Pieces—besides the Person who will be sent to th⟨is⟩ Country in the Capacity of Governor must make some Sacrifices, for which he may reasonably expect some Indemnification, independent of the long and dangerous Journies he must necessarily make both by Land and Water. My Salary I am confident will not support me; and yet I am as careful I think as I can be without Meaness.8

With the most earnest Wishes for your Health and Happiness and the prosperity of the Country under your Government, and with the greatest Respect and Attachment I have the honor to be Sir Your most obedient and very humble Servant

Ar. St Clair

P.S. I have thought proper to explain the Article respecting Slaves as a prohibition to any future introduction of them, but not to extend to the liberation of those the People were already possessed of, and accquired under the Sanction of the Laws they were subject, at the same time I have given them to understand that Steps would probably be taken for the gradual Abolition of Slavery, with which they seem perfectly satisfied.9

ALS, DNA: RG 59, Territorial Papers, Territory Northwest of the River Ohio; Df (incomplete), OHi. Words in angle brackets taken from 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 2:244–48.

Gov. Arthur St. Clair was in Cahokia to carry out the instructions of the Confederation Congress, 20 June 1788, to confirm “in their Possessions & Titles the French & Canadian Inhabitants, & other Settlers on the Mississippi” who had accepted United States citizenship before 1783 (ibid., 3:296). (For the acquisition of this territory by the United States, see GW to St. Clair, 6 Oct. 1789, n.3). In addition his mission in the Illinois country included implementing GW’s instructions to him, 6 Oct. 1789, to acquire “full information whether the Wabash and Illinois Indians are most inclined for war or peace” and to open a dialogue with the western tribes. St. Clair, who was in the east on one of his frequent absences from his post in the Northwest Territory, left for the frontier in December. On 19 Dec. Knox forwarded additional instructions to the governor: “As it is highly probable that you may before this letter can reach you be far down the Ohio it may not be prudent to be very particular in my communication.

“The people of Kentuckey are loud in their complaints of the murders that have been committed in that district during the last summer—The President of the United States has received several letters from the Principal characters in that quarter. While he has directed that they be promised all the protection that he can reasonably afford, he has stated his opinion of the effects of the desultory expeditions into the Indian Country North west of the Ohio—an extract of a letter written by his direction to Samuel McDowell Esqr Chairman of the late Convention of Kentuckey District and dated the 15th instant is as follows

“’The President of the United States has desired that it may be clearly understood to be his opinion that the best foundation for peace with the Indians is by establishing just and liberal treaties with them—which shall be rigidly observed on our parts, and if broken on theirs to be effectually punished by legal authority.

“[’]But irregular and unauthorized expeditions involve the innocent and guilty in equal calamity—make enemies of those disposed to be friends—disgrace government and defeat its designs.

“[’]And further that in future it is his just expectation that no expedition be undertaken agains the Indians North west of the Ohio, but with the approbation of the Governor of the said Territory, and the Commanding Officer of the federal troops who are particularly instructed on this subject. [’]

“The President of the United States is extremely desirous of a general treaty with the Wabash Indians as the only rational foundation of peace—If a treaty of peace was once effected, any partial breaches of it by the Indians could easily be punished—He therefore requests you to use your highest exertions for that purpose” (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 2:224–26). For GW’s correspondence with McDowell, see the Kentucky Convention to GW, 25 July 1789, and Washington’s Memoranda on Indian Affairs, 1789.

On 8 Jan. 1790 St. Clair reached the rapids of the Ohio, and at least by 23 Jan. the governor was at Vincennes. His somewhat halfhearted peace efforts with the western tribes were conducted mainly through intermediaries.

1St. Clair’s letter to Henry Knox is in Smith, St. Clair Papers, description begins William Henry Smith, ed. The St. Clair Papers. The Life and Public Services of Arthur St. Clair: Soldier of the Revolutionary War; President of the Continental Congress; and Governor of the North-Western Territory with his Correspondence and other Papers. 2 vols. Cincinnati, 1882. description ends 2:136–40.

2By the late 1780s the Miami were virtually the only tribe in the Ohio country that had not conducted negotiations, however nebulous, with the United States. Led by principal chief Le Gris and war chief Little Turtle, the Miami consolidated other tribes west of the Ohio into what was termed the Miami Confederacy, with headquarters on the Maumee River. The confederacy became the principal opponent of U.S. expansion on the northwest frontier, refusing to accept the terms of the treaties of Fort Harmar (see St. Clair to GW, 2 May 1789) and carrying on a series of raids on American settlements in Kentucky and the Northwest Territory with the support of their client tribes. As early as 1788 Maj. John Francis Hamtramck had noted that “the Nations of the Wabash are well enough disposed to be our friends; but they are menaced by the upper Indians who have ordered them to cease all connection with us” (Hamtramck to Josiah Harmar, 1 Jan. 1788, WHi: Draper Collection, Harmar Papers). In his letter to Knox of 1 May, St. Clair pointed out that “every thing seems to be referred to the Miamies, which does not promise a peaceable issue. The confidence they have in their situation, the vicinity of many other nations not very well disposed, and the pernicious counsels of the English traders, joined to the immense booty obtained by the depredations upon the Ohio, will most probably prevent them from listening to any reasonable terms of accommodation, so that it is to be feared the United States must prepare effectually to chastise them” (Smith, St. Clair Papers, description begins William Henry Smith, ed. The St. Clair Papers. The Life and Public Services of Arthur St. Clair: Soldier of the Revolutionary War; President of the Continental Congress; and Governor of the North-Western Territory with his Correspondence and other Papers. 2 vols. Cincinnati, 1882. description ends 2:136). Sometime in the spring or summer of 1790, St. Clair sent GW a report containing a detailed account of his activities between 5 Mar. and 11 June (see ibid., 2:164–80).

3For examples of the petitions presented to the governor by the French residents of the Illinois country, see 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 2:241–44, 251–57, 261–62, 278–82.

4One of the major problems in administration in the Northwest Territory was the perennial absence of the three judges from their posts. Judges George Turner, Rufus Putnam, and John Cleves Symmes were all elsewhere for varying lengths of time. Winthrop Sargent complained as early as December 1789 that “there has been but Little Attention by the Gentlemen of the Bench to the important Business of their Commission” (Sargent to Knox, 7 Dec. 1789, NNGL). On 2 Feb. 1791 GW wrote a private letter to St. Clair explaining that he understood the problem with the judges but cautioning him against exceeding his executive authority. By 1793 the problem with the judges’ absences still continued, Sargent writing St. Clair on 7 Feb. that “the General Court sit only annually—the Judges thereof are almost always absent—on the morrow there will not be one in the Territory” (O: St. Clair Papers). An even more serious problem was created by St. Clair’s frequent absences at which times his duties were assumed by Winthrop Sargent, the secretary of the Northwest Territory. After much public criticism of St. Clair’s negligence, Jefferson wrote to him in November 1792: “The present situation of the Territory North west of the Ohio, requiring the presence of those to whom the administration of its affairs is confided, I am charged by the President to bring this circumstance to your notice, not doubting but that the public exigencies of your office will over-weigh in your mind any personal inconveniencies which might attend your repairing to that Country” (Jefferson to St. Clair, 10 Nov. 1792, DNA: RG 59, Domestic Letters).

5See 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 3:296–303.

6Letter not found. For George Morgan’s activities at New Madrid, see James Madison to GW, 26 Mar. 1789, n.1.

7Article 6 of “An Ordinance for the government of the territory of the United States North west of the river Ohio” (1787), establishing the Northwest Territory, provided “There shall be neither Slavery nor involuntary Servitude in the said territory otherwise than in the punishment of crimes, whereof the Party shall have been duly convicted: Provided always that any Person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid” (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 2:39, 49).

8The ordinance of 1787 provided that the governor, appointed for a term of three years, should have a freehold estate of 1,000 acres of land while he held his commission. His salary, as superintendent of Indian affairs for the territory, was $800 (ibid., 41, 195).

9St. Clair’s interpretation followed that of Congress. A committee report on a memorial from residents of Vincennes and the Illinois country in September 1788 held that the ordinance “shall not be construed to deprive the Inhabitants of Kaskaskias Illinois Post St Vincents and the other Villages formerly settled by the French & Canadians, of their Right and property in Negro or other Slaves which they were possessed of at the time of passing the said Ordinance, or in any manner to Manumit or Set free any such Negroes or other persons under Servitude within any part of Sd Western territory; any thing in the said Ordinance to the Contrary notwithstanding” (DNA:PCC, item 19, vol. 6).

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