31 Oct Indian Fighters
Indian Fighters by William Dean Howells.
In the long war with the Indians, the great battles were nearly all fought within the region that afterwards became our state, and the smaller battles went on there pretty constantly. The first force on the scale of an army sent against the Ohio tribes was that of Colonel Bouquet in 1766; but, as we have seen, the chief object of this was to treat for the return of their white captives. In 1774 Lord Dunmore marched with three thousand Virginians to destroy the Indian towns on the Scioto in Pickaway County. He cannot be said to have led his men, who believed in neither his courage nor his good faith, and who thought that he was more anxious to treat with the savages for the advantage of England in the Revolutionary War, which he knew was coming, than to attack their capital. This was that Old Chillicothe, which has been so often mentioned before, and here Dunmore made peace with the Indians, instead of punishing them, as the backwoodsmen expected. The feeling among them was so bitter that one of them fired through Dunmore’s tent where he sat with two chiefs, hoping to kill all three. He missed, but he easily escaped among his comrades, who looked upon Dunmore as an enemy of their country and a traitor to their cause.
Their spirit, both lawless and fearless, was the spirit of that race of Indian Fighters, as they were called, which grew up on the border in the war ending with Wayne’s victory. It led them into countless acts of daring and into many acts of cruelty, and the story of their adventures is too bloody to be fully told. But unless something of it is told we cannot have a true notion of what the life of our backwoodsmen was. We have seen what they could do when they were at their worst in the Gnadenhutten massacre; but we cannot understand them unless we realize that they not only held all life cheap, but held the life of an Indian no dearer than that of a wolf.
Belmont County was the scene of two exploits of Lewis Wetzel, perhaps the most famous of these Indian fighters. One day he went home with a young man whom he met while hunting, and they found the cabin burnt and the whole family murdered except a girl who had lived with them, and whom the young man was in love with. They started on the trail of the Indians who had done the cruel deed, and came up with them after nightfall sleeping round their camp-fire. The girl was awake, crying and lamenting, and Wetzel had great ado to keep her lover from firing at once upon the Indians. But he made him wait for daylight, so that they could be sure of their aim; and then at the first light of dawn, they each chose his mark and fired. Each killed his Indian, but two others escaped into the woods, while the lover rushed, knife in hand, to free the girl. Wetzel made after the Indians, firing into the air to draw them out of their concealment. Then he turned, loading as he ran, and wheeled about and shot the Indian nearest him. He fled again, dodging from tree to tree till his gun was reloaded, when he shot the last Indian left. He took their scalps, and got home with the girl and her lover unhurt.
In 1782, together with one of Crawford’s men, he fell in with a party of forty Indians about two miles from St. Clairsville. Both sides fired; Wetzel killed one of the Indians, but his friend was wounded and promptly scalped, while four of the Indians followed Wetzel. He turned, shot the foremost, and ran on, loading his rifle. The next was so close upon him that when Wetzel turned again, the Indian caught the muzzle of his gun. After a fearful struggle Wetzel got it against the Indian’s breast, pulled the trigger, and killed him. The remaining two followed him a mile farther, and then Wetzel shot one of them as he was crossing a piece of open ground. The last left of the Indians stopped with a yell, and Wetzel heard him say as he turned back, “No catch that man; gun always loaded.”
Wetzel had fought Indians nearly all his life. When he was a boy of fourteen they attacked his father’s cabin in Virginia, and Wetzel was wounded before he was taken prisoner, with a younger brother, and carried into the Ohio wilderness. One night the Indians forgot to tie their captives, and the two boys escaped. Lewis returned to the camp, after they had stolen away, for a pair of moccasins, and again for his father’s rifle, which the Indians had carried off. They followed the boys, but the young Wetzels got safely back to the Ohio, and crossed the river on a raft which they made of logs.
In 1786 the settlers of Wheeling, who had been troubled by Indians, offered a purse of a hundred dollars to the man who should first bring in a scalp. A party crossed the Ohio, but after some days turned back, leaving Wetzel alone in the woods, where he roamed about looking for Indians. The second morning he came upon one sleeping, and drove his knife through his heart. Then he went home with his scalp, and got the reward.
One of the tricks of the savages was to imitate the cry, or call, of the wild turkey and then to shoot the hunter who came looking for the bird. Wetzel was one day in the woods when this call came to his ear from the mouth of a cave, a place where several whites had been found scalped. He watched till the feathered tuft of an Indiana head appeared from the cave. The call of the wild turkey sounded, and at the same time the sharp crack of Wetzel’s rifle noted the Indian’s death.
It was Wetzel’s habit in the autumn to go on a long hunt into the Ohio country. Once he went as far as the Muskingum, some ninety miles from Wheeling, when he came on a camp of four Indians. He crept upon them with no weapon but his knife, which he drove through the skulls of two as they lay asleep. The two others struggled to their feet stupefied; Wetzel killed one of them, but the fourth escaped in the shadow of the woods. When Wetzel returned and was asked what his luck in hunting had been, he said, “Not much; I treed four Indians, but one got away.”
These were acts of war, but they were very like mere murders, and one of Wetzel’s exploits could hardly be called anything but murder. General Har-mar in 1779 had invited the Indians to come and make peace with him in the fort near where Marietta now stands. Wetzel and another Indian fighter lay in wait for the envoys who passed from the tribes to the general, and in pure wantonness, shot one. He then took refuge with his friends at Mingo Bottom, where the officer sent by Harmar to arrest him, dared not even attempt it. Wetzel was the hero and darling of the border, where the notion of punishing a man for shooting an Indian was laughed at. But after a while he was taken, and lodged, heavily ironed, in the fort. He sent for the general and asked him to give him up, with a tomahawk, to a large band of armed Indians present, and let him fight for his life with them. Of course Harmar could not do this, but Wetzel won upon him so far that the general had his fetters removed, leaving only the manacles on his wrists, and allowed him to walk about outside the fort. He made a sudden dash for the woods; the guards fired upon him, but Wetzel got safely away; and at a distant point he reached the Ohio. He could not swim, with his hands in irons, but by good luck he saw a friend on the Virginia shore, who came in answer to his signs and set him over in his canoe. Later the soldiers found him in a tavern at Marysville, and arrested him again. He was taken to the fort at Cincinnati, where Harmar was now in command, but he was released by a judge of the court just in time to save the fort from an attack by the backwoodsmen, who were furious that Wetzel should be so persecuted simply for killing an Indian.
One of the stories told of Wetzel’s skill in Indian warfare relates to an adventure he had after his escape from hanging by the soldiers. He was coming home at the end of a hunt in the Ohio woods when he saw an Indian lifting up his gun to fire. Each sprang behind a tree, and each waited patiently for the other to expose himself. At last Wetzel put his bearskin cap on his ramrod, and pushed it a little beyond the edge of his shelter. The Indian took it for his enemy’s head and fired. Before he could load again Wetzel was upon him, and his end had come.
It is not easy for us at this day to understand how a man so blood-stained as this should be by no means the worst man of the border. Wetzel is said to have been even exemplary in his life apart from his Indian killing, which, indeed, was accounted no wrong, but rather a virtue by his savage white friends. In person he might well take their rude fancy. He was tall, full-chested, and broad-shouldered; his dark face was deeply pitted with smallpox; his hair, which he was very proud of, fell to his knees when loose; his black eyes, when he was roused, shone with dangerous fire. He was silent and shy with strangers, but the life of any party of comrades. It is not certainly known how or where he died. Some say that he went South, and ended his stormy life quietly at Natchez; others that he went West, and remained a woodsman to the last, hunting wild beasts and killing wild men.
Lewis Wetzel had two brothers only less famous than himself in the backwoods warfare, and more than once Indian fighting seems to have run in families. Adam Poe and Andrew Poe were brothers whose names have come down in the story of deadly combats with the savages. They are most renowned for their heroic struggle with a party of seven Wyandots near the mouth of Little Yellow Creek, in 1782. The Wyandots, led by a great warrior named Big Foot, had fallen suddenly on a settlement just below Fort Pitt, killed one old man in his cabin, and begun their retreat with what booty they could gather. Eight borderers, the two Poes among them, followed in hot haste across the river into the Ohio country, where the next morning Andrew Poe came suddenly on Big Foot and a small warrior talking together by their raft at the water’s edge. They stood with their guns cocked, and Poe aimed at Big Foot; but his piece missed fire. The Indians turned at the click of the lock, and Poe, who was too close to them for any chance of escape, leaped upon them both and threw them to the ground together. The little warrior freed himself, and got his tomahawk from the raft to brain Poe, whom he left in deadly clutch with Big Foot. Twice he struck, but Poe managed each time, by twisting and dodging, to keep his head away from the hatchet, and as the warrior struck the third time, Poe, though badly hurt on the arm by one of his blows, wrenched himself free from Big Foot, caught up one of the Indians’ guns, and shot the little warrior through the breast. Then Big Foot seized him again, and they floundered together into the water, where each tried to drown the other. Poe held Big Foot under the water so long that he thought he must be dead, but the moment he loosed his hold upon his scalp lock, the Wyandot renewed the fight. They presently found themselves in water beyond their depths, and let go to swim for their lives. The Indian reached the shore first, and got hold of one of the guns to shoot Poe, but luckily for Poe it was the gun he had fired in killing the little warrior.
Adam had heard the shot, and he now came hurrying up. His gun was empty, too, and it was a question Whether he or Big Foot should load first: he shot the Indian as he was lifting his gun to fire. But Big Foot was not killed, and Andrew shouted to Adam not to mind him, but to keep the Indian from rolling himself into the water. Big Foot was too quick for them: he got into the current, which whirled him away, and so saved his scalp in death. About the same time another of the party who came up took Andrew Poe for an Indian and shot him in the shoulder. Poe got well of his wounds and lived for many years, proud of his fight with Big Foot, who was a generous foe, and had often befriended white captives among his tribe.
It is told of Adam Poe that five Indians, all rather drunk, once came to his cabin, and tried to force the door open. He sent his wife with the children out into the cornfield behind the house, remarking, “There is a fight and fun ahead,” but when he saw the state the Indians were in, he did not fire at them. He fell upon them with his fists, knocked them all down, and then threw them one after another over the fence, and the fun was ended.
One of the hunters detailed from Wayne’s command to supply the officers with game while the army lay at Greenville in 1793 was the Indian fighter, Josiah Hunt, who died a peaceful Methodist many years afterwards. When he passed a winter in the woods he had to build a fire to keep from freezing, and yet guard against letting the slightest gleam of light be seen by a prowling foe. So he dug a hole six or seven inches deep with his tomahawk, filled it with the soft lining of dead oak bark, and with his flint started a fire. He left two holes at the edges to breathe the flame; then covered the pit with earth, spread brush over it, and seated himself on the heap, with his blanket drawn over his head, and dozed through the night. The Indians had a great honor and admiration for him, and when they came to make peace at Greenville, after Fallen Timbers, they all wanted to see Captain Hunt. “Great man, Captain Hunt,” they said. “Great warrior–good hunting man-Indian no can kill,” and they told him they had tried to find out the secret of his fire, and catch him off his guard so that they could get his scalp, which they felt would have been the highest distinction they could have achieved, next to getting General Wayne’s scalp. He was indeed both hunted and hunter. He never fired at a deer without first putting a bullet in his mouth to reload for an Indian, who might be about to fire on him. When he skinned a deer, he planted his back against a tree, and stood his rifle by his side; from time to time he stopped and listened for the slightest noise that hinted danger. His life had its disappointments as well as its perils. Once he saw three Indians whom he might easily have killed at one shot if he could have got them in range, but they persisted in walking Indian file. If he fired and killed only one, the other two would have killed him; so he was obliged to let them all go. Captain Hunt was a quiet, modest man, very frank and sincere, and seems never to have boasted of his exploits; we have no means of knowing whether he was glad or sorry that those Indians got away in safety. Probably he was not very glad; for though the fighters on both sides could admire, they could never spare one another.
The Indian fighters were commoner in the southern and eastern parts of Ohio than in the north, but there was at least one whose chief exploit had the north for its scene. Captain Samuel Brady, in 1780, gathered a number of his neighbors and pursued a retreating war party of Indians from the Ohio as far as the Cuyahoga, near Ravenna. Here he found that the savages far outnumbered his force, and he decided that it would be better for him to retreat in his turn, and he bade each of his men look out for himself. He discovered that the Indians were pressing him hard with the purpose of taking him alive and glutting many an old grudge against him by torture. But he knew his ground, for he had often hunted there with them in friendlier days, and he saw a chance for his life at a point where another man would have despaired. This was where the river narrowed to a gorge twenty feet wide, with walls of precipitous rock. As he neared this chasm in his flight, Brady gathered himself for the leap and cleared it. He caught at some low bushes where he alighted and pulled himself up the steep, while the Indians stood stupefied. They had now no hope of taking him alive, and they all fired upon him. One bullet wounded him badly in the hip, but he managed to swim a pond which he came to, and to hide himself behind a log near the shore. When the Indians came up and saw the blood on its surface, they decided that he was drowned, and gave up the chase. Some of them stood on the very log that hid him while they talked over his probable fate, and then they left him to make his long way home unmolested.
Duncan McArthur, an early governor of Ohio, though not an Indian fighter like these others, was in many fights with the Indians. In the summer of 1794 he was hunting deer in the hills near the mouth of the Scioto, when two Indians fully armed came in sight. McArthur was waiting for the deer behind a screen or blind near the salt lick which they frequented, and he took aim at one of the Indians and shot him. The other did not stir till McArthur broke from his covert and ran. He plunged heedlessly into the top of a fallen tree, and before he could disentangle himself, he heard the crack of the Indian’s rifle, and the bullet hissed close to his ear. He freed himself and ran, followed now by several other Indians, but he managed to distance them all and reached the Ohio River in safety.
It was war to the death between the red and white borderers. Neither spared the other, except in some rare mood of caprice or pity. A life granted on either side meant perhaps many lives lost, and the foes vied with one another in being the first to shed the blood which seems, as you read their savage annals, to stain every acre of the beautiful Ohio country.