(June 21, 1752)
Cry Havoc! and let slip the dogs of war.
The river gurgled. The only other sounds came from the rustle of leaves, the chattering of squirrels, the mating calls of birds, and the occasional barking of dogs. The men crept silently in small groups through the towering forest until they nearly surrounded the town, a collection of pole-and-bark wigwams and log huts and the Pennsylvania traders’ stockaded storehouse. The silent figures carried muskets and tomahawks, with ammunition and scalping knives on cords slung from their shoulders; some of them also had cutlasses. They wore, most of them, no more than moccasins and loincloths, some not even that much, and they had coated themselves with bear grease—a defense against mosquitoes and biting flies, and against an enemy getting a solid grip during a tussle. Each had painted himself in colored patterns according to his own way of projecting fierceness, and most had adorned their hair with feathers and other objects.
The town was Pickawillany, the main English trading post in the Ohio Country. Beside the Great Miami River, it was also the capital of the Miami (Twightwee) Federation, which was in rebellion against the great alliance among the French and the Great Lakes nations. The raiders’ aim was to end the rebellion, drive the English traders out of the country, and teach a lesson about getting in league with l’Anglais to the Miami leader, Memeskia—whom the French called “la Demoiselle” (“Maiden,” in the derisive sense of “Old Maid”) for his perfidy and the English called “Old Briton” for his loyalty.
There were about 250 men in the raiding party, Ottawa and Ojibway (Chippewa) fighters from around Michilimackinac, at the northwest end of Lake Huron, and a few Canadian militia. They followed a handsome and charismatic young man—really little more than a boy but already a proven leader. He was a métis (mixed blood) who had inherited his French father’s flowing black hair and his Ottawa mother’s glittering black eyes. Charles-Michel Mouet de Langlade was his name, a grand one reflecting his status among the habitants of western New France. He enjoyed even higher status among the Indians of the northern Great Lakes.
Langlade had led his men in a flotilla of canoes down the lakes to the French post at Detroit, which they reached in early June. There they gathered intelligence and whipped their spirits up for the campaign. They then paddled on to the Maumee River, stopping at the French post at the head of the portage to the Great Miami before crossing overland to Pickawillany. They ate the boiled meat of sacrificial dogs the night before the attack, their ritual way of acquiring strength, loyalty, and determination.
They had timed their assault well. Ordinarily there would be as many as fifty Pennsylvanians at the town this time of year, but there were only eight because most of the Miami men were out hunting for meat instead of bartering furs. Not enough land had been cleared for farming to feed the town’s population of about 2,000, and the previous year’s crops had failed because of drought. Only about two dozen Miami men, including Memeskia, guarded the place.
The town’s women were in the surrounding cornfields, pulling weeds and planting squash and beans, when the attackers exploded out of the forest, screaming war whoops and firing their muskets. The terrified women fled into the town. Langlade’s men tore across the fields behind the women, pouring into the settlement with hatchets drawn, still screaming. The first rush took down three English traders, two dead, one wounded, before the other five escaped into their stockade. Fourteen Miamis went down before gunfire and slashing blades, among them Memeskia. The women and a few men were prisoners.
After some ineffective sniping back and forth, the raiders called to the English in the stockade, offering to swap the women for the traders, whom they promised not to harm. There was no water in the stronghold, so the Englishmen agreed, and the exchange took place. The trader wounded outside the fort, however, was not worth saving as far as the Indians were concerned. They finished him off, cut open his chest, and passed his heart around, each taking a bite out of it. During this distraction, two of the surrendered traders escaped into the woods, along with a few Miamis.
Ritual cannibalism was a sacred custom among Langlade’s people, and he honored it, formally presenting Memeskia’s corpse to his men. They cut it up, boiled it in a large iron pot, and ate the great chief to ingest his spiritual energy. They also, in this peculiar way, reincorporated him into the French alliance. When they had concluded their feast, they torched part of the town and the trading post, rounded up their captives, and set off back to Detroit and eventually Montreal with scalps and a pile of loot. Pickawillany was left to the blowflies, the buzzards, and its dogs.1
Shock waves spread out in all directions, changing the alliances and attitudes of Indian nations great and small, revising the imperial policies of the French, and rattling the colonies of Pennsylvania and Virginia. In the Old Dominion the news was received with special alarm because Virginians believed that Pickawillany had stood in their own colony. Virginia’s charter claimed its borders ran west to the Pacific and northwest to, in theory, the Bering Strait. The hundreds of traders dealing with the Indians of the Ohio Country had been mostly Pennsylvanians, and Virginians had begun to take steps to counter the “invasion” of Virginia territory by men from the other province.
Now French-allied Indians had taken matters into their own hands, and this was interpreted in Virginia as foreboding a French invasion of the Old Dominion. What should be done about that? The colony’s leaders considered that question for more than a year until they settled on a solution. Implementing that decision fell upon the shoulders of an energetic and ambitious young man—really little more than a boy. His name was George Washington.
© 2011 David A. Clary