History is full of paradigm-shifting battles and conflicts even many history buffs are unaware of. America history is no different, even historians ignore many of the most important battles that made our nation.
Two battles that made America were Fallen Timbers and the sinking of the trade ship Tonquin. These battles set the course of American expansionism and shaped the relationship between the United States and Native Americans.
Yet the attention paid to these battles is minimal. Largely because the reality of those battles blows apart much of our national mythology.
The Battle of Fallen Timbers
The Battle of Fallen Timbers (20 August 1794) was the most important fight between Native Americans and the United States Army.
Everything about Fallen Timbers was important. For instance, Fallen Timbers was the first battle and victory of the Regular United States Army.
Fallen Timbers as the last real opportunity Native Americans had to keep the United States out of the Central and Western portions of North America. Had the indigenous tribes of the Western Confederacy won at Fallen Timbers they could have kept Americans from expanding to the Great Lakes, the Great Plains, the Rocky Mountains, and the West Coast.
Additionally, Fallen Timbers determined which power would control North America; the United States or the British Empire. The Western Confederacy was a client state of the British Empire. Had the Western Confederacy won, most of America’s Midwest and West could be part of Canada.
Fallen Timbers became the proving ground for what became the Regular United States Army. To explain, America’s Founding Fathers resisted the creation of a force of professional soldiers before the Northwest Indian War.
During the Northwest Indian War, or Little Turtle’s War, militia forces were incapable of protecting white settlers from the Western Confederacy. The Western Confederacy was a large alliance of indigenous tribes resisting American conquest of today’s Midwest.
The Western Confederacy’s success forced President George Washington to organize a professional army – the Legion of the United States. Washington put Revolutionary War hero General “Mad Antony” Wayne in command.
After reorganizing and retraining the Legion, Wayne led a methodical campaign in Western Ohio. The campaign ended at Fallen Timbers near Toledo, Ohio, where the Legion and the Kentucky militia defeated a large force of Native Americans commanded by Blue Jacket.
The Forgotten Battle
Strangely for such an important battle, Fallen Timbers ended in under an hour. However, Wayne’s victory was decisive. Moreover, the Legion defeated the indigenous forces in hand to hand combat, largely with bayonets, not rifles.
In the 18th Century, the bayonet was European and American armies’ principal weapon. Regular American infantrymen were masters of the bayonet thanks to the training program the Prussian mercenary Baron Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand von Steuben developed for George Washington at Valley Forge.
After Fallen Timbers, the Western Confederacy was forced to surrender most of the Midwest in the Treaty of Greenville. Moreover, the British abandoned their claims to the southern Great Lakes in the Jay Treaty of 1795.
Ironically, the location of the Fallen Timbers battlefield was lost for 200 years. In fact, they located the Fallen Timbers Monument a quarter mile from the actual battlefield.
Dr. G. Michael Pratt, a college professor surmised the battle’s real location from old maps. Pratt conducted archaeological research at what he suspected was the real Fallen Timbers battlefield.
The research uncovered evidence of the battle including musket battles and a bayonet. As a result of Pratt’s efforts Metroparks of the Toledo Area bought the real Fallen Timbers battlefield and preserved it as a National Historic Site.
Disproving American Mythology
Americans forget Fallen Timbers because it disproves the national mythology of self-sufficient settlers defending the frontier from Native Americans. Instead, the settlers needed professional soldiers to defend them from the Native Americas.
Moreover, the Northwest Indian War disproves the racist mythology that depicts Native Americans as unorganized and ignorant savages. Instead, the Natives were capable of organizing sophisticated political and military institutions and defeating whites on the battlefield.
Another aspect of America’s national mythology, Fallen Timbers calls into question is the pop culture notion that Native American warriors were superior to European soldiers. At Fallen Timbers a modest force of trained American soldiers overcame the cream of the indigenous armies in less than an hour.
Thus the popular view of the American frontier as a brutal struggle for survival between whites and indigenous peoples is false. In reality, the indigenous peoples were usually incapable of resisting American military power. Thus the clearing of the frontier was a government project implemented by professional soldiers not a struggle by settlers.
The image of the US Army as a ruthless imperial war machine crushing poor and low-tech indigenous people is not one Americans enjoy. However, that narrative is closer to the truth than the Western Movie fiction of heroic soldiers and valiant native warriors.
After the Northwest Indian War, the United States always maintained a professional army. Notably, it was the Army that fought and won the Indian Wars in the 19th Century.
The Sinking of the Tonquin
The strangest battle in American history was the destruction of the merchant ship Tonquin in 1811 by Tla-o-qui-aht warriors.
Ironically, the Tonquinwas a private trading vessel owned by the American Fur Company. Moreover, the Tonquin was sunk far from American territory off the coast of Vancouver Island. Therefore, an important American battle took place in what are now Canadian waters.
The real owner of the Tonquin was America’s first tycoon John Jacob Astor. Additionally, the Tonquin’s mission; was peaceful to buy furs from the Tla-o-qui-aht and other native peoples in the Pacific Northwest.
However, Astor put a regular U.S. Navy officer; and war hero, Captain Jonathan Thorn in charge of the Tonquin. Thorn had no experience in dealing with native Americans or the fur trade. Why Astor put Thorn in charge of a trading expedition is unclear.
Mr. Astor’s Fur Empire
The Tonquin’s innocent trading was part of a far larger scheme of American expansion. Astor wanted to create an American fur-trading empire in the Pacific Northwest.
The lynchpin of Astor’s empire was the settlement of Astoria on the Columbia River in modern Oregon. Fort Astoria was the first American settlement on the West Coast.
Astor’s hope at Astoria was to emulate the Dutch settlement at New Amsterdam. The Dutch West India Company created New Amsterdam to trade with Native Americans. New Amsterdam became New York, America’s largest city and Astor’s adopted hometown.
Astor was trying to facilitate American conquest of the West Coast by creating a Pacific Rim equivalent of New York. The plan was to use Astoria as a base from which ships could haul furs to China.
American furs; particularly sea otter pelts, were valuable luxury goods in 19th Century China. Sailors could trade furs for large amounts of valuable merchandise, such as porcelain and tea, in Chinese ports. Astor planned to ship the Chinese goods to New York or London and sell them.
Second, Astoria’s location was terrible. A four-mile long sand bar across the river’s mouth, made it hard to sail into the Columbia. There were better locations for cities on the West Coast, however foreign powers controlled those locations.
Notably, the Spanish already occupied San Francisco Bay and the British had claimed Puget Sound the site of modern Seattle and Vancouver. Ultimately, when Americans built a city in Oregon; Portland, they located it inland not at Astoria near the Coast.
Despite the terrible location, the Tonquin succeeded in the first part of its mission. Astors’ traders founded Astoria with the help of a few Hawaiian settlers. Strangely, The Tonquin brought the first Samoans to the West Coast when Thorn hired a few Hawaiian fishermen and swineherds to work in Astor’s settlement.
After dropping the settlers and fur traders off at Astoria, Thorn sailed north in The Tonquin to trade with the tribes on Puget Sound. Ironically, Puget Sound was theoretically British territory in 1811. However, the natives were unaware of the British claim to their homeland.
Incompetence and Victory
In Cayoquot Sound on Vancouver Island, Thorn proved his incompetence as a naval officer, by making an elementary mistake. Thorn allowed a group of armed Tla-o-qui-aht, or Clayoquot, natives to come aboard the Tonquin to barter for furs.
A fight broke out and the natives killed Thorn and overwhelmed the unarmed sailors. In contrast, the Clayoquot were armed with fearsome war clubs which could be deadly at close range.
However, 19th Century naval swords or cutlasses were more than a match for Tla-o-qui-aht war clubs. Yet the crew of the Tonquin had no cutlasses. In fact, Captain Thorn; the supposed naval hero, was not wearing his cutlass. Instead, Tla-o-qui-aht oral tradition claims the Captain was armed with a pocket knife.*
Predictably, the natives massacred the unarmed sailors. Historians think the surviving crew blew up the Tonquin’s powder magazine to keep the Tla-o-qui-aht from seizing the ship.
Stupidly, Thorn could have avoided the deadly brawl and saved his ship by trading with the natives on shore or arming his sailors. Thorn the naval officer let potential enemies with weapons board his ship and exposed an unarmed crew to danger. Nobody knows if it was racism or carelessness that caused Thorn’s oversight because historians think all of the Tonquin’s crew went down with the ship.
Bizarrely, the Tla-o-qui-aht won a major victory against American imperialism and thwarted Astor’s ambitions in the Northwest without realizing it. Without The Tonquin, Astoria had no defense against the British.
Selling the Empire
In 1813, Astor’s traders sold Fort Astoria to representatives of the British North West Company to keep the Royal Navy from seizing it during the War of 1812. The British renamed Fort Astoria Fort George after their King, George the Third.
America’s conquest of the Pacific Coast had to wait until settlers began coming over the Oregon Trail 25 years later. John Jacob Astor went on to become America’s richest man and first tycoon but his greatest ambition was thwarted.
Had Captain Thorn not allowed the Tla-o-qui-aht onto the Tonquin. American history could have been very different. When the pioneers came over the Oregon trail they could have found a thriving city on the Columbia rather than Native villages.
American history ignores The Tonquin sinking because it was a native American victory enabled by white stupidity. Additionally, the Astoria venture shows frontier settlement as a commercial enterprise to make money by exploiting a natural resource; fur, rather than the opening of virgin lands by free pioneers.
Moreover, the Tonquin’s sinking reveals that the so-called virgin lands were already inhabited by indigenous peoples with a complex culture and some military capabilities.
Finally, the reality of Americans refusing to fight and selling an important settlement to the British to avoid certain destruction reeks of cowardice. No people wants its heroic ancestors to be self-serving cowards.
*SeeAstoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson’s Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival By Peter Stark pages 210-211 for a full account of the Tonquin’s sinking.