Indiana at 200 (11): ‘Little Turtle’ Led in War and Peace
by Andrea Neal
For 30 years, he was a dominating figure on the Indiana frontier, at first resisting the white man’s encroachment and later giving in to the inevitable. The historian Calvin Young called him “one of the greatest Indian chiefs of all time.”
“Some day we will recognize him as our first great Hoosier and an American of national importance,” wrote Otho Winger, historian and Manchester College president, in 1942.
Indeed, Miami Chief Little Turtle’s name ranks with Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Harrison as a figure all Hoosiers should recognize. He died four years before Indiana statehood, so there’s no way to know if Little Turtle would have embraced or dismissed as patronizing the title “first great Hoosier.”
Known by his people as Me-she-kin-no-quah, Little Turtle was born on the banks of the Eel River about five miles east of modern-day Columbia City. A historic marker at the site lists his birth year as “c. 1747.”
When the American Revolution ended in 1783, Great Britain ceded to the new United States the territory northwest of the Ohio River, including present-day Indiana. Immediately white settlers poured in.
Little Turtle organized a confederation of tribes — including Miami, Potawotami and Delaware — that for a time seemed capable of resisting pioneer migration into their hunting grounds. “He fought back against them in the only way he knew how,” Winger wrote. “With small bodies of Indian warriors gathered from along Eel River and the Wabash, he would make raids along the Ohio.”
This frontier violence was one of George Washington’s thorniest problems when he became president in 1789. In 1790, he assigned Gen. Josiah Harmar to capture the Miami capital at Kekionga near present-day Fort Wayne. Little Turtle’s men stopped Harmar in his tracks. A year later, Gen. Arthur St. Clair led 2,000 soldiers against the natives in western Ohio. It was one of the worst defeats in U.S. military history.
The next time, Washington directed Gen. “Mad Anthony” Wayne to lead an expedition and persuaded Congress to provide him with enough arms and soldiers. Wayne spent the winter of 1793 near Greenville, Ohio, drilling his army for battle. Little Turtle spied on the activities and concluded the natives stood no chance against “a general who never sleeps.” He advised fellow Indians to make peace, but the confederation council disagreed, and Little Turtle gave up his command.
The Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794 destroyed the confederation. Little Turtle and other chiefs signed the Treaty of Greenville, which allowed Americans to settle peacefully into Ohio and Indiana. Hoosiers can learn more about this chapter on Indiana history at the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis.
Little Turtle died in Fort Wayne in 1812 and was remembered with affection by U.S. political leaders. To others, however, his acceptance of federal policy toward Native Americans was seen as a sellout.
Historian Winger took the former view. “He already had the record of defeating more American armies than any other Indian chief. He was now to acquire the greater reputation of being most interested in ways of peace and civilization.”
Directions to Eiteljorg Museum: Street address is 500 W. Washington St., Indianapolis, at the intersection of West and Washington streets.