George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Thomas Jefferson, 29 August 1790

From Thomas Jefferson

Aug. 29. 1790

On considering more fully the question Whether it will be expedient to Notify to Ld Dorchester the real object of the expedition preparing by Governor St. Clair, I still think it will not be expedient.1 for

If the Notification be early, he will get the Indians out of the way, & defeat our object.2

If it be so late, as not to leave him time to withdraw them before our stroke be struck, it will then be so late also, as not to leave him time to withdraw any secret aids he may have sent them. And the Notification will betray to him that he may go on without fear in his expedition agt the Spaniard3 and for which he may yet have sufficient time after our expedition is over.

On the other hand, if he should suspect our preparations are to prevent his passing our territory Those suspicions may induce him to decline his expedition; as, even should he think he could either force or steal a passage, he would not divide his troops, leaving (as he would suppose) an enemy between them able to take those he should have, & cut off the return of those he should carry.

These suspicions too would mislead both him and the Indians, and so enable us to take the latter more completely by surprise; and prevent him from sending secret aid to those whom he wd not suppose the objects of the enterprise thus effecting a double purpose of preventing his enterprize, & securing our own.

Might it not even be expedient, with a view to deter his enterprize, to instruct Govr St. Clair either to continue his pursuit of the Indians till the season be too far advanced for Ld Dorchester to move: or, on disbandg his militia, to give them general orders (which might reach the ears of Ld Dorchester) to be ready to assemble at a moment’s warning, tho’ no such assembly be really intended?

always taking care neither to say nor do against their passage, what might directly commit either our Peace, or Honour.4

Th: Jefferson

ALS (letterpress copy), DLC: Thomas Jefferson Papers; LB, DLC:GW.

GW apparently queried his secretary of state in person about the expediency of notifying Lord Dorchester of the intentions of Gen. Josiah Harmar’s expedition against the Shawnee and Miami Indians, as no relevant letters to Jefferson have been found (see Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 17:131–34).

1On 27 May 1790 Henry Knox provided the president with a summary statement of the situation on the frontiers that concluded: “The result of this whole information shows the inefncacy of defensive operations against the banditti Shawanese and Cherokees, and some of the Wabash Indians on the north-west of the Ohio. The whole amount of these bad people may not exceed two hundred. The idea is therefore suggested that a general statement of the information received should be made to the Governor [St. Clair] and Brigadier-General Harmar. The bad effect it has on the public mind, and the importance and necessity of extirpating the said banditti, if any practical measures can be devised for that purpose.

“That at this distance an expedition of the following description would seem sufficient for the purpose: about one hundred Continental troops and three hundred picked militia, mounted on horseback for the sake of rapidity. The militia to be engaged for thirty days, to commence from the day arriving at the rendezvous. That every thing be in readiness to move at the moment of the arrival of the militia, each class carrying thirty days’ meat and bread along with them. That the disposition be made in such a manner as to get in the rear of the said banditti, if possible. That great care be taken not to act offensively against any well-disposed Indians, although they may not be in alliance with the United States. That the pay and subsistence of the militia, and the hire of their horses, supposing half a dollar per day be allowed each for the hire and risk of each horse, and half a dollar each for the hire of the horses of the troops, and the probable contingencies of the expedition would amount to about thirteen thousand dollars. That the Governor and Brigadier-General Harmar be informed that, upon mature consideration, if in their judgment the said expedition would promise success as to the immediate object of it, tend to strike a terror in the minds of the Indians hostilely disposed, and be highly satisfactory to the people of the frontiers, they are authorized to undertake it immediately, under such regulations of mustering the militia as shall be directed. That if they should conclude it for the public interests to undertake the said expedition, that they take the most effectual arrangements to obtain the militia at the time appointed; and that the militia consist of two majors and four companies of seventy-six non-commissioned and privates each” (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 2:146–47).

Upon receiving his orders, Arthur St. Clair met with Brig. Gen. Josiah Harmar and military contractor Robert Elliot at Fort Washington on 15 July 1790 to organize a two-pronged punitive expedition against the Indian guerrillas at the headwaters of the Maumee and Wabash rivers. St. Clair and Harmar decided to send a diversionary column under Maj. John Francis Hamtramck from Vincennes on 25 Sept. 1790 up the Wabash River while the main army under Harmar would march north from Fort Washington on 1 Oct. 1790 for a direct strike against the villages of the hostile tribes. St. Clair immediately called out the militia of Virginia’s and Pennsylvania’s frontier counties and left for New York to consult with the administration and personally to deliver papers documenting his decision to prepare for war according to previous instructions. He had reached Pittsburgh by 7 Aug. and Philadelphia by 18 Aug. 1790 (GW to St. Clair, 6 Oct. 1789; ASP, Indian Affairs, description begins Walter Lowrie et al., eds. American State Papers. Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States. 38 vols. Washington, D.C., Gales and Seaton, 1832–61. description ends 1:92–95; for the background to the Harmar expedition, see GW to St. Clair, 6 Oct. 1789 and note 2, and St. Clair to GW, 1 May 1790 and source note).

2A week before Jefferson had written the above letter Knox had instructed St. Clair to notify the British at Detroit of Harmar’s mission. The governor arrived in New York City on 20 Aug. 1790, while the president and secretary of state were still in Rhode Island, and conferred with the secretaries of war and treasury. Knox wrote to St. Clair on 23 Aug. 1790, noting, “the President . . . approves the measures you have taken, for preventing those predatory incursions of the Wabash Indians, which, for a considerable period past, have been so calamitous,” and instructing him: “There are existing jealousies in the minds of the British officers, in Canada, of the designs of the United States respecting the posts to have been relinquished by the last peace. It will be a point, therefore, of delicacy, that you should take measures, by sending some officer or messenger, at a proper time, to assure the commanding officer of the real object of the expedition. That the Shawanese, and some others joined with them, have committed such enormous offenses against the citizens of the United States, as are any longer insupportable; but, to assure him of the entire pacific disposition of the United States towards Great Britain and its possessions.” St. Clair left New York immediately after receiving Knox’s 24 Aug. 1790 orders for General Harmar (ASP, Indian Affairs, description begins Walter Lowrie et al., eds. American State Papers. Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States. 38 vols. Washington, D.C., Gales and Seaton, 1832–61. description ends 1:98–99).

On 15 Sept. 1790 St. Clair arrived back at Marietta, where he met the eastward-bound Winthrop Sargent. Four days later the governor sent a message to Knox by Secretary Sargent, almost two full weeks before the expected departure date of Harmar’s expedition from Fort Washington: “Circumstance however puts it out of my power to forward the letter which I am directed to write to the commanding officer at Detroit by an officer; for he [Maj. John Doughty] has but one at this place [Fort Harmar], I must therefore look out for some private gentleman and engage him to perform that service—I have enclosed a copy of that letter” (Carter, Territorial Papers, description begins Clarence Edwin Carter et al., eds. The Territorial Papers of the United States. 27 vols. Washington, D.C., 1934–69. description ends 2:306–8; for the copy of St. Clair’s letter to the commandant at Detroit, see Knox to GW, 25 Oct. 1790, n.1).

On 19 Sept. 1790 St. Clair sent Return Jonathan Meigs, Jr. (1764–1824), to Detroit with the message. Meigs, a young lawyer who later served as a U.S. senator and governor of Ohio, arrived at the post after a difficult fortnight’s journey. The British commander, Maj. John Smith, received him coolly and replied to his official communication on 14 Oct. 1790. Smith immediately sent warnings to the dozen British traders resident at the chief Miami town of Kekionga, the region’s principal fur-trading post, as well as to their Indian customers (Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 17:134; Sword, Washington’s Indian War, description begins Wiley Sword. President Washington’s Indian War: The Struggle for the Old Northwest, 1790–1795. Norman, Okla., 1985. description ends 98–99).

Since its initial inception, the operation had grown to a 1,453–man force that was impossible to collect and to provision in secrecy. Rumors of the impending expedition circulated in Indian country long before the American army marched from Fort Washington on 26–30 Sept. 1790. The news from Detroit, however, galvanized the inhabitants of Kekionga and the other nearby villages into action. Faulty intelligence provided by British informants that the American force numbered at least three thousand troops persuaded Indian leaders not to make a stand at Kekionga. On 14 Oct. 1790 four hundred warriors began evacuating the town, and they set fire to it the next morning. When the first American troops arrived at Kekionga in the afternoon of 15 Oct., all they found were smouldering ruins and abandoned cornfields. Unaware of the proximity of the warriors under the Miami war chief Little Turtle (c.1752–1812), the undisciplined militia quickly dispersed in search of plunder. Harmar reached the town with the main army in the afternoon of 17 Oct. 1790 and quickly restored order. The next day he sent out an unsuccessful reconnaissance under James Trotter, a colonel in the Kentucky militia, and moved camp to the neighboring Shawnee village of Chillicothe, which had been evacuated but not destroyed by its residents (Sword, Washington’s Indian War, description begins Wiley Sword. President Washington’s Indian War: The Struggle for the Old Northwest, 1790–1795. Norman, Okla., 1985. description ends 102–4). The administration’s attempt to balance its long-term foreign policy initiatives with its short-term military aims on the northwestern frontier guaranteed the failure of Harmar’s expedition. Unwilling to doom the success of Gouverneur Morris’s London mission, which potentially could ensure the ultimate security of the American northwestern frontier by obtaining British evacuation of the posts, the president wished to avoid all potential provocations. See, for example, Knox to St. Clair, 12 Sept. 1790, in ASP, Indian Affairs, description begins Walter Lowrie et al., eds. American State Papers. Documents, Legislative and Executive, of the Congress of the United States. 38 vols. Washington, D.C., Gales and Seaton, 1832–61. description ends 1:100. In this light GW, who had undoubtedly authorized Knox’s 23 Aug. 1790 instructions to St. Clair, took a calculated risk in notifying the British of Harmar’s mission. In giving such orders, he was counting on the ability of Harmar’s forces to outdistance the news that would inevitably issue from Detroit to Kekionga. Although Knox’s instructions had specified that the notice be given in a timely manner, leaving little opportunity for the British to provide advanced warning to their Indian allies, St. Clair acted prematurely, and GW immediately recognized the tactical ramifications (see GW to Knox, 4 Nov. 1790).

3For the president’s concern over a possible British movement across American territory to attack Spanish Louisiana, see GW to John Adams, 27 Aug. 1790, first and second letters.

4No evidence exists that the administration officially informed Lord Dorchester of the Harmar expedition, suggesting that GW heeded Jefferson’s advice. The secretary of the treasury, however, disclosed to George Beckwith, probably on 21 Aug. 1790, that Harmar would be marching against the Indians only and not the northwestern posts, and Lord Dorchester in Quebec received Beckwith’s dispatch containing that news on 11 Sept. 1790, two weeks after Jefferson advised withholding that information from him and almost a month before Meigs presented the administration’s official notification at Detroit (Boyd, Jefferson Papers, description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 40 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950—. description ends 17:133–35).

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