In the Old Fort News, Volume 21, Issue 3, published in 1958, Rex Potterf offered an article about Chief Little Turtle. As we head toward the anniversary of Little Turtle’s death, here are offered some words from that article. (Words in parentheses are for clarity for the reader.)
“General Washington saw him (Little Turtle) as a very good friend; he presented him with a sword…..General Washington also presented Little Turtle with a medallion; its obverse bore a picture of General Washington and its reverse a likeness of Little Turtle.
“During the weeks which Little Turtle spent in Philadelphia (1796-97 as a house guest of Washington), he saw everything that could possibly interest him. He became familiar with urban merchandising and craftsmanship, which caused him to have an increasing respect for the white man. His observation of these skills and procedures, however, caused him to feel that the white man’s civilization was not for the Indians.”
Potterf describes Little Turtle as having the “mentality of a genius” but no formal schooling and thus knowledge acquired by the experience of living the life of an Indian. He also “manifested many strange inconsistencies in his convictions and his conduct.”
Little Turtle did not believe individual Indians or tribes could cede land to the American government and that any treaty made with the United States by a tribe was not binding on other tribes. But he did sign the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 and said he would never break it.
“He also believed that whenever Indians took up white man’s ways they weakened and enervated themselves; he felt that the manners and customs of the whites which the Indians had adopted and accepted were responsible for their downfall….” But in his later years Little Turtle "rapidly assimilated the elegant manners of civilization. His manner of eating was that of the white man, as were likewise his carriage, his garments, and his food.”
Potterf described Little Turtle as a Chief of the Miami in this manner:
“The Miami Indians had two kinds of chiefs—civil chiefs, who were often hereditary, and war chiefs, who were selected by popular vote. These latter leaders were always selected on the basis of their merit. Little Turtle became the leading war chief of the Miamis. Not only was he the leading war chief of the Miamis, but the surrounding tribes, such as the Piankeshaws and Weas, looked to him for military guidance, leadership, and counsel.”
Little Turtle achieved a number of victories over American forces led by Harmar and St. Clair and raiders led by LaBalme. Little Turtle had definite skill in strategy as is evidenced by these words:
“With rather great confidence in the outcome, Little Turtle approached his problem. He first assembled the Indians, (“having personally visited many neighboring tribes and sent emissaries into Wisconsin and Illinois”) who had come from different quarters, on a plateau along the St. Mary’s River some ten miles southeast of present-day Fort Wayne. He divided his men into several different groups or messes. He designated one fourth of these messes to hunt for game or vegetables; they were to assemble the food in the late afternoon, when the Indians were to be fed these provisions. He thus employed a very practical method of living off the country…..”
Little Turtle’s defeat of St. Clair’s forces “was unparalleled in the past, and never at any time since has the American army suffered so relatively serious a defeat. The nearest comparable defeat was the destruction of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor in 1941….”
One might say the battle appears to have changed Little Turtle as a man and a warrior.
“…..The terrible slaughter sickened him. When he realized that the whites could not possibly retrieve their defeat, he ordered his men to cease fighting and stop pursuit of the Americans. Historians have often wondered why he did not follow up his defeat and utterly destroy the American forces…..Little Turtle saw all the bloodshed on that day he ever wanted to see….Almost fifteen hundred American soldiers who survived that day owed their lives to the fact that Little Turtle ordered his men to stop the slaughter.”
Potterf says that Little Turtle “was far ahead of his time in his attitude toward war….About 1791, when he was still only forty-three or forty-four years of age, as we have seen, he came to the conclusion that war was not the way to settle difficulties. He thought wars were unproductive and should be avoided at all costs….”
But Little Turtle also knew that the Indians were no match for Gen. Anthony Wayne’s forces. “He foresaw that Indian victories over the Americans were at an end and that in the future the Indians had little hope of defeating them. Little Turtle now became an appeaser and an advocate for peace….This policy of cultivating the Americans was very distasteful to Little Turtle’s friends and neighbors. They soon regarded him as a traitor or worse….”
Little Turtle’s stance in relation to fighting Wayne was not popular, to say the least, and led to his fellow warriors turning against him.
“Little Turtle had been the chief war leader of the Miamis for fourteen years; he had led them since that night when he slew LaBalme and his eighty soldiers down on the Aboite River. His tribesmen now repudiated him; they stripped him of all military authority. Now he was only one more Indian warrior. Little Turtle’s courage had been impugned—the worse humiliation a warrior can suffer. He resolved to go into battle the next day and fight with every ounce of his strength. Always an able warrior, he fought like a tiger on that fatal day, but the Indians were defeated. Wayne vindicated Little Turtle’s judgment.”