During this week of July 4, we remember the founding of our country and the people who founded our nation. But 10 days from Independence Day we will be reflecting upon an early resident of our area—Chief Little Turtle. In Volume II, Issue No. 1 of the Old Fort News, published in March1937, editor Willis Richardson and other writers took a look at this historical figure. We publish here excerpts from that article.
“Little Turtle, Traditional and Historical”
“Much of the information concerning Little Turtle is traditional to such an extent that it becomes almost mythical. The exact date of his birth cannot be definitely determined. The places he lived, the expeditions he made, the attacks he led, and many other items of that nature are indefinite because there were no written records kept. We get the best knowledge of Little Turtle and his characteristics after the establishment of the Federal government. The official reports from the campaigns of Harmar, St. Clair, and Wayne contain accounts of Little Turtle. From the historical point of view his life may be divided into the following divisions: (1) Period before 1789, (2) 1789 to the treaty of Greenville in 1795, and (3) his retired life at Ft. Wayne from 1795 to 1812.”
You may see “portraits” of Little Turtle at the History Center and in books and other publications, but the only known official portrait was painted by Gilbert Stuart at the request of President George Washington. It is believed that no copies of the painting were ever made and the original was destroyed in 1814 when the British burned Washington, D.C. John Collias painted what some call a reproduction of the Stuart portrait but this, at the time of the writing of the original article, had not been confirmed. We do know, however, that Little Turtle wore a “necklace” made of bear claws.
John A. M. Lung described Little Turtle’s appearance in “Western Adventure”, published in 1836 at Dayton, OH:
“The leader of the Indian army at the time of St. Clair’s defeat was a chief of the Missassago tribe known by the name of Little Turtle. Notwithstanding his name he was at least six feet tall. His aspect was harsh, sour and forbidding, and his person during the action was arrayed in the very extremity of Indian finery, having at least twenty dollars worth of silver descending from his nose and ears.”
Samuel C. Drake in “Aboriginal Races of North America”, published in 1838, described Little Turtle as “six feet high, of a very sour and morose countenance and apparently very crafty and subtle.”
“Me-She-Kin-No-Quah (Little Turtle)
by Otho Winger”
“Little Turtle was the greatest of all Miami chiefs. In the estimation of many writers, he was the greatest chief of all the American Indians. He was a native of the present state of Indiana. Some day we will recognize him as our first great Hoosier and an American of National Importance.
“Little Turtle was born at his father’s village on Eel River in 1751. While there has been some question as to where this village was located, the author accepts the findings of S.P. Kaler and others who made a careful study and located it on the main branch off Eel River, five miles east of Columbia City. Aquenackque, father of Little Turtle, was a chief of great renown at this village years before his more illustrious son was born.”
Little Turtle became a hero of the Miami and its acknowledged tribal leader when he and the other men of the tribe surrounded and massacred the forces of the adventurer LaBaume, who was in the area of Kekionga—now Fort Wayne—taking possession of furs that the Native Americans had acquired.
After this event, Little Turtle spent much of his time at Kekionga, alarmed that the “white man” was coming into Kentucky and territory along the Ohio. LaBaume had traveled up the Wabash from Vincennes to this area.
Seeing that the “lands of his fathers” were being taken over by the “white man”, Little Turtle led yearly expeditions against pioneer settlements along the Ohio. This was the only method he knew to hang onto what he felt to be the property of his people.
“When Washington became president, one of his greatest problems was how to protect the frontier settlements against these Indians of the North West. In 1790, he sent Gen. Hamar with an army to capture Kekionga, but Little Turtle defeated two sections of this army and made the whole expedition a failure. In 1791 President Washington sent Gen. Arthur St. Clair with the largest army ever sent to fight the Indians. Again Little Turtle, at the head of the warriors of the North West, completely routed St. Clair and massacred most of the army at what is now Ft. Recovery, Ohio.
“After this series of defeats at the hands of Little Turtle, many Americans were willing that the Indians should retain the Northwest Territory. President Washington was not willing for he saw that if the Indians kept it, Great Britain would soon have possession and annex it to Canada. Washington had great difficulty to get congress to vote men and supplies for another army. When he secured these he appointed Gen. Anthony Wayne as leader. The result was bound to be different from previous expeditions. Little Turtle himself advised the Indians to make peace for, he said, ‘The Americans now have a general who never sleeps.’”
Wayne made great preparations for the coming battles and with militarily sound maneuvers, defeated the Indians at Fallen Timbers, OH on August 20, 1794. The next year the Indians were forced to sign the Peace of Greenville, giving much of the North West to the United States. Fort Wayne, erected in the fall of 1794, was included in this treaty.
According to a different source, Little Turtle had urged his comrades to consider a peaceable conclusion to the fighting. From “Little Turtle’s Oration Before the Battle of Fallen Timbers”:
“We have beaten the enemy twice under separate commanders. We can not expect the same good fortune always to attend us. The Americans are now led by a chief who never sleeps; the night and the day are alike to him and during all the time that he has been marching upon our village notwithstanding the watchfulness of our young men we have never been able to surprise him. Think well of it. There is something whispers to me, it would be prudent to listen to his offers of peace.”
But the council did not accept his viewpoint and Little Turtle withdrew from active command, fighting the next day as a private warrior.
It should be noted that no authentic source for this quote could be located at the time of the writing of this article on pages 7-8, Vol. II, No. 1, OFN.
Back to Winger’s narrative:
“Little Turtle reluctantly signed the Treaty of Greenville but he declared that he would never break it. He never did. He spent the last seventeen years of his life in peace with the Americans. 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.
“With Williams Wells, his son-in-law, as interpreter, he went to Philadelphia in the spring of 1797. He called on President Washington who bestowed upon him many honors fitting a great chief. He presented him with a sword, a gun, a medal of peace and had his picture painted by the noted artist Gilbert Stuart. While in Philadelphia, Little Turtle was the guest of many leading Americans and some prominent Europeans. Among the latter was the Polish general, Kosciusko, who gave him valuable presents.”
Little Turtle went on to be a pioneer in several aspects of integrating the life of the Indians with those of the Americans. President Thomas Jefferson impressed upon Little Turtle the benefits of vaccinations. Little Turtle had himself vaccinated and brought serum back to the area for his tribe.
Because hunting as a means of making a living had ceased to be practical by this time, Little Turtle accepted money from Congress to introduce his people to farming. With help from the Quakers, he hired a teacher of agriculture and began experiments in farming on the Wabash and Eel Rivers.
Realizing the harm of liquor to his people, he became an early temperance worker, working to get state legislatures and Congress to prevent the sale of whiskey and other intoxicants to the tribes.
Little Turtle spent his later years in a government built home at the Eel River post and at the home of Wells, near Spy Run in Fort Wayne. He was mistrusted by the Indians because he maintained the peace agreement of the Treaty of Greenville and accepted favors from the government. He was viewed “as too much in favor with the white man. On the other hand his insistence on rights for the Indians caused many white men to dislike him. He opposed Tecumseh and all of his plans. So long as he lived he kept the Miamis at peace with the Americans. After the death of Little Turtle, William Henry Harrison wrote that he had shown loyalty and friendship to the United States and had rendered valuable services on many occasions.”
Little Turtle died on July 14, 1812 at Wells’ home. Although military honors were paid to him by officials and residents of Fort Wayne, no monument was erected and the exact site of his grave forgotten over time. When a grave was discovered at 634 Lawton Place in 1912, while excavation work for a new home was underway, identification of implements and trinkets in the gravesite led most to assume the grave was Little Turtle’s. The artifacts now belong to the Allen County-Fort Wayne Historical Society and many are on display in our museum. Little Turtle’s body was re-interred and properly marked and the site can now be accessed by anyone interested in this part of Fort Wayne’s history.
Otho Winger, who wrote the portion of the article quoted above, was president of Manchester College and studied Indiana Indians in general and Little Turtle in particular, leading to his being recognized as an authority on the topic. He wrote several books including “The Last of the Miamis”; “Little Turtle or Me-she-kin-no-quah” and “Frances Slocum, the Lost Sister Among the Miamis”.
You can see a number of Native American artifacts exhibited at the History Center and upon occasion at the Chief Richardville House, 5705 Blutton Road. The house is open the first Saturday of every month May-November from 1 to 4 p.m. Check our website for more information on admission charges or call 260-426-2882.
You can find many back issues of the Old Fort News on sale in our gift shop as well as books featuring Native American and area history topics. The last Saturday of July we will be part of the downtown Shopping Trolley tour and many items will be on sale for 75% off, celebrating the 75th anniversary this year of the founding of the Old Fort News.
Now’s the time to indulge your passion for history.