Little Turtle’s War

A coalition of Native Americans in the Ohio Country fought the United States to retain control of their territory. The coalition inflicted the worst battlefield defeat on U.S. Army troops of any Native American force in history, and it prevented the United States from controlling or developing Ohio for four years.

Summary of Event

On November 4, 1791, Little Turtle was one of the principal chiefs among a coalition of Shawnees Shawnees, Miamis Miamis, Lenni Lenapes Lenni Lenapes (Delawares), Potawatomis Potawatomis, Ottawas Ottawas, Chippewas, and Wyandots in the Old Northwest Old Northwest
Ohio Country (Ohio Country) that defeated an army of fourteen hundred soldiers under General Arthur St. Clair. About 1,200 warriors rallied by Little Turtle, aided by the element of surprise, killed or wounded nearly 950 of St. Clair’s force, the largest single battlefield victory by an American Indian force in U.S. history. The victory was short-lived, however; in 1794, “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s forces defeated Little Turtle and his allies at the []Fallen Timbers, Battle of (1794) Battle of Fallen Timbers. On August 3, 1795, the American Indians gave up most of their hunting grounds west of the Ohio River, by signing the Greenville, Treaty of (1795) Treaty of Greenville. [kw]Little Turtle’s War (Oct. 18, 1790-July, 1794)
[kw]War, Little Turtle’s (Oct. 18, 1790-July, 1794)
[kw]Turtle’s War, Little (Oct. 18, 1790-July, 1794)
Little Turtle’s War (1790-1794)[Little Turtles War]
American Indian-American conflicts[American Indian American conflicts]
American-American Indian conflicts[American American Indian conflicts]
[g]United States;Oct. 18, 1790-July, 1794: Little Turtle’s War[2930]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 18, 1790-July, 1794: Little Turtle’s War[2930]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Oct. 18, 1790-July, 1794: Little Turtle’s War[2930]
Little Turtle
Wayne, Anthony
Blue Jacket
St. Clair, Arthur
Harmar, Josiah

Little Turtle was known as a master of battlefield strategy. Born to a Miami chief and a Mahican (or Mohican) mother, Little Turtle became a war chief of the Miamis because of his extraordinary personal abilities; under ordinary circumstances, the matriarchal nature of the culture would have prohibited a leadership role for him. In 1787, the hunting grounds of the Miamis and their allies had been guaranteed in perpetuity by the U.S. Congress. The act did not stop an invasion of settlers, and by the early 1790’s, Little Turtle had cemented an alliance that foreshadowed later efforts by Tecumseh, who assembled an alliance of several native nations a generation later.

Little Turtle’s principal allies in this effort were the Shawnee Blue Jacket and the Lenni Lenape Buckongahelos Buckongahelos. This alliance first defeated a force of a thousand troops under Josiah Harmar during October, 1790. Harmar dispatched an advance force of 180 men, who were drawn into a trap and annihilated on October 18. On October 19, Harmar dispatched 360 more troops to punish the natives, but the Americans were drawn into a similar trap, in which about one hundred of them were killed. The remainder of Harmar’s force then retreated to Fort Washington, on the present-day site of Cincinnati.

Harmar’s defeat stunned the Army, whose commanders knew that the Old Northwest would remain closed to settlement as long as Little Turtle’s alliance held. General Arthur St. Clair, who had served as president of the Continental Congress in the mid-1780’s, gathered an army of two thousand troops during the summer of 1791 and marched into the Ohio Country. About a quarter of the troops deserted en route; to keep the others happy, St. Clair permitted about two hundred soldiers’ wives to travel with the army.

On November 4, 1791, Little Turtle and his allies lured St. Clair’s forces into the same sort of trap that had defeated Harmar’s smaller army near St. Mary’s Creek, a tributary of the Wabash River. Thirty-eight officers and 598 enlisted men died in the battle; 242 others were wounded, many of whom later died. Fifty-six wives also lost their lives, bringing casualties close to 950—nearly four times the number killed at the Little Bighorn in 1876 and the largest defeat of a U.S. Army force in all of the Indian wars. After the battle, St. Clair resigned his commission in disgrace. Dealing from strength, Little Turtle’s alliance refused to cede land to the United States.

In 1794, General “Mad Anthony” Wayne was dispatched with a fresh army, which visited the scene of St. Clair’s debacle. According to Wayne,

Five hundred skull bones lay in the space of 350 yards. From thence, five miles on, the woods were strewn with skeletons, knapsacks, and other debris.

Little Turtle had more respect for Wayne than he had had for Harmar or St. Clair, calling Wayne “the chief who never sleeps.” Aware that Wayne was unlikely to be defeated by his surprise tactics, Little Turtle proposed that the Indian alliance talk peace.

A majority of the warriors rebuffed Little Turtle, so in late June or early July he relinquished his command to a Shawnee, most likely Blue Jacket (although some scholars say it was Turkey Foot). In April, 1790, Blue Jacket had refused to attend treaty councils that he feared would cost his people their lands. His forces were defeated by Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. Afterward, Blue Jacket signed the Treaty of Greenville and the Fort Industry, Treaty of (1805) Treaty of Fort Industry (1805), ceding millions of acres of native land.


Stripped of their lands, many of Little Turtle’s people sank into alcoholic despair. The aging chief continued to lead them as best he could. In 1802, Little Turtle addressed the legislatures of Ohio and Kentucky, urging members to Native Americans;effects of whiskey trade on pass laws forbidding traders to supply natives with whiskey. He said that whiskey traders had “stripped the poor Indian of skins, guns, blankets, everything—while his squaw and the children dependent on him lay starving and shivering in his wigwam.” Neither state did anything to stop the flow of whiskey, some of which was adulterated with other substances, such as chili peppers and arsenic.

Little Turtle died July 14, 1812, at his lodge near the junction of the St. Joseph River and St. Mary Creek. He was buried with full military honors by Army officers who knew his genius. Harrison, William Henry William Henry Harrison, who had been an aide to Wayne and who later defeated Tecumseh in the same general area, paid Little Turtle this tribute:

“A safe leader is better than a bold one.” This maxim was a great favorite of [the Roman] Caesar Augustus . . . who . . . was, I believe, inferior to the warrior Little Turtle.

For almost two centuries, local historians placed the site of the Battle of Fallen Timbers along the Maumee River floodplain near U.S. Highway 24, near present-day Toledo, Ohio. A monument was erected at the site, even as Native Americans contended that the battle had really occurred a mile away, in what had become a soybean field. In 1995, to settle the issue, G. Michael Pratt, an anthropology professor in Ohio, organized an archaeological dig in the soybean field. Teams of as many as 150 people excavated the site, which yielded large numbers of battlefield artifacts, indicating conclusively that the Native American account of the site was correct.

Further Reading

  • Carter, Harvey Lewis. The Life and Times of Little Turtle: First Sagamore of the Wabash. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987. Includes a detailed description of the battle with St. Clair’s troops from Little Turtle’s perspective.
  • Edel, Wilbur. Kekionga! The Worst Defeat in the History of the U.S. Army. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1997. Focuses on a crucial battle of Little Turtle’s War—the Miami Indians’ devastating attack on American soldiers at the Kekionga Indian village in 1791. Edel chronicles the two-centuries-long conflict between Native Americans and European settlers that led to the battle and describes the settlers’ eventual revenge.
  • Gaff, Alan D. Bayonets in the Wilderness: Anthony Wayne’s Legion in the Old Northwest. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. Military history recounting Wayne’s campaign against the Indians in the Ohio River Valley. Includes information about the Battle of Fallen Timbers and the Treaty of Greenville.
  • Hamilton, Charles, ed. Cry of the Thunderbird. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1972. Extensive quotations from some of Little Turtle’s speeches.
  • Porter, C. Fayne. Our Indian Heritage: Profiles of Twelve Great Leaders. Philadelphia: Chilton Books, 1964. Little Turtle is one of the twelve leaders discussed.
  • Sword, Wiley. President Washington’s Indian War: The Struggle for the Old Northwest, 1790-1795. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985. Discusses the battles that the U.S. Army fought with Little Turtle’s alliance, in the context of United States politics of the time.
  • Winger, Otho. Last of the Miamis: Little Turtle. North Manchester, Ind.: O. Winger, 1935. Concise sketch of Little Turtle’s life and his attempts to forge a Native American confederation in the Ohio Valley.
  • Young, Calvin M. Little Turtle. 1917. Reprint. Fort Wayne, Ind.: Public Library of Fort Wayne and Allen County, 1956. A sketch of Little Turtle’s life, including the St. Clair battle.

Tuscarora War

Fox Wars

Walking Purchase

French and Indian War

Cherokee War

Pontiac’s Resistance

Lord Dunmore’s War

Indian Delegation Meets with Congress

Fort Stanwix Treaty

Battle of Fallen Timbers

Code of Handsome Lake

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American Indian-American conflicts[American Indian American conflicts]
American-American Indian conflicts[American American Indian conflicts]