Wednesday, May 25, 2011


                               SLAVES AND THE SHAWNEE ON THE OHIO FRONTIER
            In the late 1700s the Shawnee Indians were still bitterly contesting the encroachment of white settlers on their tribal lands.  Although the main Shawnee village was located at "Old Chillicothe" on the Mad River just north of present-day Dayton, Ohio, white settlement along the Ohio River had prompted the Shawnee to increase their scouting patrols in the mid-Ohio Valley.  Under the threat of Indian attacks, Isaac Williams, an experienced frontiersman who had served as a scout for George Rogers Clark in the Virginia Militia before the American Revolution, moved with his wife Rebecca to land given to her by her brothers Joseph and Samuel Tomlinson for serving as their housekeeper.  Fort Harmar, which had recently been completed just across the Ohio River at the mouth of the Muskingum, its tributary, in what is now Marietta, Ohio, offered some protection from Indian raids.
            According to a deposition by Joseph Tomlinson in Chancery Court at Clarksburg, Virginia, he and Samuel had cleared four acres of land opposite the Muskingum River at Williams Station (the present-day site of Williamstown, WV) in the spring of 1771.  They erected a log cabin and in Joseph's words, "planted the first corn...raised by civilized man on or about this area."  At that time the Tomlinsons’ Wood County cabin was the only white man's habitation between Grave Creek, Virginia, and Vincennes, Indiana.  Whether or not the Tomlinson brothers were slave-owners before coming to western Virginia is unclear, but Joseph had owned slaves at Grave Creek when the American Revolution broke out in 1776. 
            The Tomlinsons’ brother-in-law Isaac Williams first came downriver to Williams Station in the early spring of 1785, bringing with him a few slaves to clear land and plant crops to sustain the party through the winter.  He returned to his wife at Grave Creek the following year, then on March 24, 1787, came back to Williams Station with Rebecca to stay.  The permanent settlement of Williams Station also included Isaac's slaves and twelve white tenant families.
            For the next few years, Williams kept a number of slaves working at clearing and planting his land, while he himself spent at least some of his time at his old profession of scouting and tracking Indians.  On one occasion he followed a scouting party of Shawnee who had abducted a teenage girl from a white family who had settled nearby.  Williams traveled down the Ohio River with five other settlers to present-day Little Hocking, where he searched west along the Hocking River for ten miles before he found and rescued the girl and killed the Indians who had taken her.  After hiding from another band of Indians for two days, Williams finally returned the girl to her family.
            Williams, or the labor of his slaves, is also credited with saving the settlement of Marietta during the hard winter of 1788-89 by selling its inhabitants corn.   In 1789 he received a franchise from the state of Virginia to install and operate a ferry between Williams Station and Marietta, and his slave Frank Wycoff often worked the line that pulled the ferry back and forth across the Ohio.
            Tecumseh (1768?-1813), the great Shawnee leader who fought against United States expansion in the Midwest in the early 19th century, was born in Old Chillicothe the son of a Shawnee warrior killed fighting white settlers in the Battle of Point Pleasant during Lord Dunmore's War, between the colony of Virginia and the Shawnee and Mingo American Indian nations in 1774.  Isaac Williams was a Virginia Militia scout during that campaign.
            In October of 1791, a scouting party of Shawnee led by the young warrior-chief, who was about 16 at the time, was patrolling along the Ohio River in Wood County, which the Shawnee still claimed.  Seven miles north of Williams Station, Tecumseh and his Shawnee patrol encountered and captured Wycoff, Williams’ young slave.  He had been searching for horses that had wandered off near Kerr's Island (presently Buckley's Island, in the Ohio River adjacent to Marietta).  The Indians traveled with their captive seven miles north to Bull Creek, where they spotted Captain Nicholas Carpenter and five soldiers driving a herd of cattle toward Fort Harmar, which obtained its military supplies from the U.S. Army Supply Depot in Clarksburg.
            It was growing dark when Captain Carpenter reached Bull Creek, so he decided to set up camp and wait until the next morning before continuing to the ferry crossing.  Even though there had been signs of Indians in the area, there had been no hostile acts for months; perhaps this was why Carpenter did not post a sentry at his camp that night.  It was his last mistake. Tecumseh discovered the camp just before dark and decided to attack early the following morning.  At dawn Tecumseh and his small band of warriors left Frank Wycoff tied to a tree while they crept up and surprised the unwary soldiers.  Wycoff managed to untie himself and rush back to Williams Station to get help, but by the time Isaac Williams and a party of would-be rescuers arrived at Bull Creek, three hours had elapsed and Captain Carpenter and four of his men were dead.  One trooper was still alive but badly wounded.
            This was Tecumseh's first recorded killing of white settlers.  Two decades later in 1813, when he had not only become a great Shawnee warrior chief but Brigadier General in the British forces, he himself was killed at the Battle of the Thames River in Canada by Richard M. Johnson, a future congressman from Kentucky and Vice President of the United States (1837-1841).

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