Originally an Atlantic coast peoples — “Manhattan” is a Delaware word, although “Delaware” itself isn’t — the Delawares or Lenape had with other native peoples removed to an Ohio territory supposed to be reserved against white settlement. It was the fruit of a deal that kept them on the British side (or at least, off the French side) in the Seven Years’ War.
But staying out of it would be a nonstarter during the American Revolution, because said territory was situated right between the British in Detroit and the westward American settlements in the Ohio Valley. Our man William Crawford was on hand to sign the colonists’ 1778 Treaty of Fort Pitt making nice with the Delawares: it’s the first written treaty between the United States and any Native Americans, and like most of that genre it didn’t last long.
The Delawares were okay with letting colonists march through their territory to attack Detroit, but when the U.S. pushed for them to get into the fight themselves — and when frontiersman murdered the pro-neutrality chief — it pushed many Delawares over to the British side. Opinion among their neighbors, the Shawnee, Wyandot and Mingo, likewise tended to range from “hoping to stay out of it” to “allying with the British,” and the latter sentiment was further encouraged by a kindling sentiment among peoples all along the frontier that uniting their efforts was their only hope of holding back imminent Anglo expansion.
Back east, the colonists beat the British at Yorktown in October 1781, more or less clinching independence. Hostilities around the eastern seaboard settled down in the run-up to the war’s formal diplomatic conclusion in 1783.
“Quite otherwise,” said M.M. Quaife in a 1930 address to Ohio’s Wittenberg College* “was the situation west of the Alleghenies. In this area the war was prosecuted with increased vigor and fury throughout 1782, which thereafter acquired the significant designation, the Bloody Year.” It was not a clean fight by any party.
In March of 1782, an expedition by colonials hunting settler-killing Indian raiders resulted in the Gnadenhütten massacre, the wholesale butchery of a settlement of noncombatant Delawares — Christian converts, no less.
In May of that same year, finding Indian raids not deterred, the Crawford Expedition finally set out: a party of officially-blessed volunteer frontiersmen whose object was “to destroy with fire and sword (if practicable) the [Delaware] Indian town and settlement at Sandusky, by which we hope to give ease and safety to the inhabitants of this country; but, if impracticable, then you will doubtless perform such other services in your power as will, in their consequences, have a tendency to answer this great end.” (General William Irvine)
Crawford had come out of retirement for this great end. And he made out his will before he departed.
The expedition came to grief within days, as an attempt to fall back by nightfall from a spot called Battle Island (actually a copse of trees in an open space, not an island in a river) deteriorated into a disordered rout. And though most of the expedition was able to flee safely back to their point of departure, Crawford himself and a few subalterns became separated, and lost.
When Indians picked them up, with Gnadenhütten still on their minds … well, Crawford made out that will for a reason. Most of the lesser prisoners were simply tomahawked and disposed of, but Crawford and a Dr. John Knight were reserved for more fearful treatment.
Knight — who would escape before his own execution — left this blood-chilling description** of his compatriot’s end, under the eyes of the British agent Simon Girty. (Knight later also composed a ballad about the expedition.†)
When we went to the fire the colonel was stripped naked, ordered to sit down by the fire, and then they beat him with sticks and their fists. Presently after I was treated in the same manner. They then tied a rope to the foot of a post about fifteen feet high, bound the colonel’s hands behind his back and fastened the rope to the ligature between his wrists. The rope was long enough for him to sit down or walk round the post once or twice, and return the same way. The colonel then called to Girty, and asked if they intended to burn him? Girty answered, “Yes.” The colonel said he would take it all patiently. Upon this Captain Pipe, a Delaware chief, mae a speech to the Indians, viz., about thirty or forty men, sixty or seventy squaws and boys.
When the speech was finished they all yelled a hideous and hearty assent to what had been said. The Indian men then took up their guns and shot powder into the Colonel’s body, from his feet as far up as his neck. I think not less than seventy loads were discharged upon his naked body. They then crowded about him, and to the best of my observation, cut off his ears; when the throng had dispersed a little, I saw the blood running from both sides of his head in consequence thereof.
The fire was about six or seven yards from the post to which the Colonel was tied; it was made of small hickory poles, burnt quite through in the middle, each end of the poles remaining about six feet in length. Three or four Indians by turns would take up, individually one of these burning pieces of wood and apply it to his naked body, already burnt black with the powder These tormentors presented themselves on every side of him with the burning fagots and poles. Some of the squaws took broad boards, upon which they would carry a quantity of burning coals and hot embers and throw on him, so that in short time he had nothing but coals of fire and hot ashes to walk upon.
In the midst of these extreme tortures he called to Simon Girty and begged of him to shoot him; but Girty making no answer, he called to him again. Girty then, by way of derision, told the colonel he had no gun, at the same time turning about to an Indian who was behind him, laughed heartily, and by all his gestures seemed delighted at the horrid scene.
Girty then came up and bade me prepare for death. He said, however, I was not to die at that place, but to be burnt by the Shawanese towns. He swore by G-d I need not expect to escape death, but should suffer it in all its extremities …
Col. Crawford, at this period of his sufferings, besought the Almighty to have mercy on hi soul, spoke very low, and bore his torments with the most manly fortitude. He continued in all the extremities of pain for an hour and three-quarters or two hours longer, as near as I can judge, when at last, being almost exhausted, he lay down on his belly; they then scalped him, and repeatedly threw the scalp in my face, telling me that “that was my great captain.” An old squaw (whose appearance every way answered the ideas people entertain of the devil) got a board, took a parcel of coals and ashes and laid them on his back and head, after he had been scalped; he then raised himself upon his feet and began to walk round the post; they next put a burning stick to him, as usual, but he seemed more insensible to pain than before.
The Indian fellow who ha me in charge now took me away to Capt. Pipe’s house, about three-quarters of a mile from the place of the colonel’s execution. I was bound all night, and thus prevented from seeing the last of the horrid spectacle. Next morning, being June 12, the Indian untied me, painted me black [signaling his imminent execution -ed.], and we set off for the Shawanese town, which he told me was somewhat less than forty miles distant from that place. We soon came to the spot where the colonel had been burnt, as it was partly in our way; I saw his bones lying among the remain of the fire, almost burnt to ashes: I suppose, after he was dead, they laid his body on the fire. The Indian told me that was my big captain, and gave the scalp halloo.
Detail image (click for the full view) of an illustration of Crawford’s torture and execution. Here’s another.
Counties in both Pennsylvania and Ohio bear Crawford’s name; several historical markers in Ohio chart the course of the ill-starred Sandusky campaign … including a phallic monument at the approximate spot of the burning, just north of the tiny town of Crawford, Ohio. (Map)
* Printed as “The Ohio Campaigns of 1782” in The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, March 1931.
** Here’s another description by another white eyewitness (alleged, anyway), who was taken in an unrelated raid some weeks before.
† A recent mp3 rendition of “Crawford’s Defeat by the Indians” is available for a 99-cent download.
Part of the Themed Set: Ohio.