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The Borderland of Fear: Vincennes, Prophetstown, and the Invasion of the Miami Homeland

The Borderland of Fear: Vincennes, Prophetstown, and the Invasion of the Miami Homeland

by Patrick Bottiger

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Published through the Early American Places initiative, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

The Ohio River Valley was a place of violence in the nineteenth century, something witnessed on multiple stages ranging from local conflicts between indigenous and Euro-American communities to the Battle of Tippecanoe and the War of 1812. To describe these events as simply the result of American expansion versus Indigenous nativism disregards the complexities of the people and their motivations. Patrick Bottiger explores the diversity between and among the communities that were the source of this violence.

As new settlers invaded their land, the Shawnee brothers Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh pushed for a unified Indigenous front. However, the multiethnic Miamis, Kickapoos, Potawatomis, and Delawares, who also lived in the region, favored local interests over a single tribal entity. The Miami-French trade and political network was extensive, and the Miamis staunchly defended their hegemony in the region from challenges by other Native groups. Additionally, William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory, lobbied for the introduction of slavery in the territory. In its own turn, this move sparked heated arguments in newspapers and on the street. Harrisonians deflected criticism by blaming tensions on indigenous groups and then claiming that antislavery settlers were Indian allies.

Bottiger demonstrates that violence, rather than being imposed on the region’s inhabitants by outside forces, instead stemmed from the factionalism that was already present. The Borderland of Fear explores how these conflicts were not between nations and races but rather between cultures and factions.


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780803290907
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 11/01/2016
Series: Borderlands and Transcultural Studies
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 328
File size: 1 MB

About the Author

Patrick Bottiger is an assistant professor of history at Kenyon College.

Read an Excerpt

The Borderland of Fear

Vincennes, Prophetstown, and the Invasion of the Miami Homeland

By Patrick Bottiger


Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-9090-7


Facing East from Miami Country

It was a bloodbath. As described by nineteenth-century ethnographer C. C. Trowbridge, two Seneca warriors ran furiously to their village "crying out, we are undone, lost, killed, throw away your kettle and stop the dance!" Yet no one listened. This despite the fact that each Seneca warrior, bloodied and maddened, had a blood-soaked human head swinging from his neck. In their vengeful wrath in retaliation for the destruction of one of their villages, a Miami Indian war party had also cut off the hands, noses, and lips of the two still-living Seneca warriors whom the Miamis had surprised, making sure that the gruesome disfigurement would pierce the other Seneca with deep and unrelenting fear. The intensity of the Seneca celebration over their supposed victory against the Miamis drowned out the desperate cries of their two brethren. Eventually a few Senecas spied the absolute horror before them and screamed for the dance to stop, but the noise of song and drum drowned out their voices. Within minutes, elation gave way to fear. Horrified at seeing the decapitated heads of their friends, the Senecas panicked. As the Miamis recounted years later, "all was horror & confusion" once the Seneca realized what was going on. They threw the kettle aside, scattered in fear, while the dance "changed into raving and horrific extravagancies."

After decades of displacement and suffering, the Miamis had seized the moment. By surprising a Seneca force deep in celebration, the Miamis had found a way to turn the table on their well-armed enemies. No longer would they tolerate the Haudenosaunee destroying their towns, murdering their elders, and ritually eating their children. Like many Indian communities stalked by the Haudenosaunee, the Miamis had no other choice but to respond in kind and to turn celebration into chaos. In doing so, the Miamis had also asserted their right to defend both their brethren and their homeland in the western Ohio Valley. They stood as proud Miamis.

Such violence typified the deep-seated animosities Great Lakes Indian peoples had toward the Haudenosaunee, a confederacy of five Iroquoian peoples responsible for the mid-seventeenth-century cataclysm now known as the Beaver Wars. Fueled largely by a competition over furs (and the access to guns that pelts provided), the violence wrought by the Haudenosaunee had remade the Ohio Valley by forcing Indian peoples to abandon their ancestral homelands and to seek shelter in multiethnic Indian villages throughout present-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Preyed upon by much larger Indian confederacies to their east and west, plied by imperial powers for alliances and trade goods, and confronted with disputes in their own communities, the Miamis used their geographical location and trade power to shape diplomacy and regional violence to their advantage.

The Miamis continued this behavior throughout the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century, working diligently to deflect violence wrought by European colonialism by incorporating traders, missionaries, and diplomats into their communities. The Ohio Valley was in reality a no-man's-land for non-Indians, a place where French, British, and American imperialists imagined themselves to be sovereign despite having limited influence over both Indians and Euroamerican settlers. With each failed colonial thrust, the Miamis responded. When the British and French fought over trade with the Miamis in the mid-1740s, the Miamis made sure to trade with both groups, never completely isolating one or the other in order to maintain European competition for the Miami market. When British emissaries ventured into the Illinois country in midcentury, the Miamis constructed an umbrella of protectionism over these agents to facilitate a broader system of reciprocity. And when the British and American rebels fought to displace each other from Miami country during the Revolutionary War, the Miamis did not fully engage in the conflict, for it was obvious that British and rebel claims to sovereignty — no matter the victories they imagined themselves to have won — were empty.

By forging trade and kinship connections with Native and non-Native interlopers throughout the 1700s, the Miamis built a system of reciprocity that was as much cultural as it was economic. This spirit of reciprocity was readily apparent at Kekionga (present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana), the Miami cultural capital. One could visit the Miami settlement and expect to see numbers of Lenapes, Shawnees, Potawatomies, French, and British living in relative peace, trading and interacting within Miami parameters of diplomacy. Miami leader Le Gris (although "very polite in manner") acted like a "general or commandant" by ordering French children to assist him and by determining in which traders' homes Indian visitors would lodge. Le Gris tempered his authoritative nature by providing meat — turkeys, deer, bison — for non-Native visitors at Kekionga, often only expecting some rum in return. Expectations for proper behavior extended outside of Kekionga as well. Traders felt the need to meet with Miami leaders to learn the proper etiquette "when they went into the Interior Parts of the Indian Country" to trade.

One American soldier described Kekionga in 1790 as made of "several tolerable good log houses, said to have been occupied by British [and French] traders; a few pretty good gardens with some fruit trees, and vast fields of corn in almost every direction." A Miami leader commented that Kekionga was a "glorious gate which the Miamis had the happiness to own, and through which all the good words of their chiefs had to pass from the north to the south, and from the east to the west." Central to their success were able leaders such as Pacanne, Le Gris, and Little Turtle who deftly navigated decades of complicated imperial and intertribal diplomacy to maintain and expand Miami influence in the Wabash-Maumee Valley.

Surviving the Beaver Wars and the subsequent spread of disease and refugees in what one scholar has called the "social and cultural transformation" of the Great Lakes region was contingent on a number of factors. The fate of the Illinois Confederacy, a grouping of thirteen Algonquian Indian communities that dominated present-day Illinois and portions of eastern Missouri, Iowa, and northern Arkansas during the seventeenth century, loomed large; the combined onslaught of smallpox and warfare had ravaged that group, thinning their numbers from ten thousand to one thousand by 1770. Yet the population of the Miamis remained stable during the same time period, and within the first few decades of the eighteenth century, the Miamis were able to assert themselves along the Wabash and Maumee Rivers. They periodically raided Indian communities for goods and expanded their agricultural production. As the Beaver Wars ended and the fur trade became a liability, Indians and Europeans alike sought to trade at Miami villages such as Kekionga where they could enjoy relative stability. The Miamis could use such trade to secure their influence from the St. Joseph River of modern-day Indiana and Michigan to the Maumee River in present-day Ohio and down the Wabash River to present-day Vincennes, Indiana.

Oral traditions reflect the centrality of the western Ohio Valley to the Miami people. Although contemporary Miamis connect their emergence as a people to the St. Joseph River, the Miami-speaking communities of the Weas and Piankashaws left their kinsman in the late seventeenth century and migrated southwest along the Wabash. Oral tradition states that the Miami peoples at St. Joseph were so numerous (close to three thousand people) that migration of a part of the tribe was necessary. The Miamis at Kekionga, the Weas at Ouiatenon, and the Piankashaws at Vincennes developed a vast trading network along the Wabash and Maumee Rivers. Here, according to the ethnographer C. C. Trowbridge, the Miamis were "very industrious." One Frenchman remarked that although the Miamis lived among Potawatomies, Wendats, Sauks, Foxes, and others, the Miamis were the "long residents at the place." One scholar has more recently framed Myaamionki (place of the Miamis) by differentiating between a core area (the Wabash River corridor) and the hinterlands surrounding it (an area bound by lands east of the Illinois and north of the Ohio and Scioto Rivers) that were shared by a variety of different Native communities. He, too, considers both of these geographical areas as Miami ancestral homelands.

Although the Miamis had linguistic ties to the Illinois and suffered their fair share of displacement, the former were fewer in number and thus better able to handle the disruptions wrought by the Haudenosaunee. Rather than compete solely for finite resources such as furs, the Miamis favored trading corn in particular and other foodstuffs such as bison and deer. According to a French report from 1718, they grew a special corn that was "unlike that of our tribes at Detroit" in that it was "white ... with much finer husks and much whiter flour." By concentrating their efforts on subsistence goods needed by both friend and foe, the Miami positioned themselves in a way that made it difficult for any one group to displace them. More important, corn was central to Miami customs and traditions, so by allowing Europeans and Indians to participate in the corn trade, the Miamis used European trade missions to reinforce their sovereignty.

Corn was not a mere crop to the Miamis; minjipi, or "corn spirit," played an important role, for they believed that minjipi determined the success of their bison hunts and safety as a people. The Miami seasonal calendar and many traditions, including celebrations marking the three annual communal harvests, revolved around corn. One French-to-Miami/Illinois dictionary authored by a Jesuit priest in the late seventeenth century listed "over 71 variously inflected lexical forms related to corn," while only citing 32 terms for tobacco.

Although Miami women were increasingly marginalized from diplomatic and trade negotiations, they nonetheless played a central role in the functioning of diplomacy. Women were central to the production of corn; they controlled the planting, harvesting, and processing of thousands of bushels a year, which became more pronounced after the Beaver Wars. They were in charge of and facilitated the distribution of goods that were necessary for diplomacy to take place. Such actions allowed the Miamis to shape an interdependent trade network. Miami agricultural surpluses fed refugee Indian communities, fur traders, and even diplomatic councils.

As early as 1715, Europeans were orienting themselves around Miami corn. According to a report filed to the French minister in 1715, when the corn "so completely failed at Detroit," the French sent a small deputation "to the Miamis to buy some." Corn and other grains could also play a key role in diplomacy. One scholar notes that "the agricultural surplus produced by Native women also supported military operations in the western Great Lakes." French voyageurs described the vast amounts of food available and the important role that women played in agricultural diplomacy. One Frenchman remarked, "Indian women daily brought in something fresh, we wanted not for watermelons, bread made of Indian corn ... and other such things." More significantly, foodstuffs Native women provided would then be used to facilitate diplomatic negotiations and agreements through important community gatherings and feasts, such as when Le Gris's wife prepared a thirty-pound turkey for the English traders at Kekionga. Their capacity as agriculturalists and horticulturalists was empowering. Women could exert influence in terms of how trade was negotiated, and this influence was long-lived, lasting into the nineteenth century. If wronged, Native women could even persuade their communities to abandon alliances with European powers.

Most importantly, the centrality of women and agriculture in Miami society provided insurance against the volatile fur trade by providing the Miamis with a commodity (corn) that was needed by various Native and non-Native peoples. According to Governor Vaudreuil in the fall of 1716, the English, too, sought commercial relations with the Miamis, offering them merchandise at half the price of the French. Vaudreuil realized that pro-English Indian couriers were "incessantly sending" the Miamis offers to "gain them over" to English trade, and he hoped they would remove from English influence. Despite Vaudreuil's pleading, the Miamis did not abide.

That the Miamis enjoyed such influence over trade does not necessarily suggest that they adopted European norms. In fact, the control of Kekionga and trade along the Wabash River reflected the continuity in Miami customs. Even as late as the 1770s, the lieutenant governor of Detroit, Henry Hamilton, wrote of the important role that Native women played in regional affairs. In recording his venture south to Fort Sackville in Vincennes, Hamilton described Methusaagai's (an Ojibwe leader) envoy to the Miamis when he delivered a belt from "the Women living upon the lakes ... exhorting them to work hard with their hoes, to raise corn for the Warriors who should take up the Axe for the Father the King of England." Agriculture was power. By controlling corn, the Miamis — and in this case Miami women — could facilitate both their cultural and diplomatic stability. This was especially important and evident at places such as Kekionga. By controlling movement through the portage, the Miamis managed trade, and while the Miamis allowed outsiders such as the French and British to move goods, European traders did so in line with the Miamis' wishes. If not, Europeans risked at best an abandonment of this convenient alliance and at worst a violent display of Miami power that might be aimed at the destruction of their settlements.

Europeans recognized the potential power of the region and their inability to harness it. The Sieur de Vincennes remarked that he was "not in condition to prevent [the Miamis] from trading with the English, because it would be necessary to bring them altogether," that he did not possess the merchandise to appease them, and that the French garrison was "too feeble to constrain this nation." His inability to "bring them altogether" reflects the localized nature of Miami society, that they did not function as one cohesive group, and that by refusing to function as one group, the Miamis gave preference to whom they pleased and enjoyed the independence that the regional trade provided. Furthermore, no substantive destruction of the trade network occurred during the eighteenth century. Few in number, French and British traders could not risk alienating themselves from the very people who made trade possible. One Frenchman remarked that the region bound by the Wabash was "one of the more important ones of [New France], since it is a barrier to obstruct the advance of the English." The British, too, recognized the potential might of the western Ohio Valley. Sir William Johnson, the British superintendent of Indian affairs, described the area as "one of the finest Corn countries in the World" that could supply the various forts throughout the region, along with Florida and Louisiana. Aware of the imperial competition between Britain and France, the Miamis successfully imposed a set of limits along the Wabash-Maumee corridor that forced outsiders — Native and otherwise — to adjust to Miami needs. In some cases, the Miamis even demanded that the French lower prices.

Controlling the Portage

The location of the Wabash and Maumee Rivers provided a central thoroughfare through which trade goods and people could travel from the Great Lakes south to the Ohio River and then into the trans-Mississippi West. The Wabash ran on a southwesterly course, stretching nearly five hundred miles from present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Vincennes. Some seventy miles south of that town, the Wabash emptied into the Ohio River. This made it possible for boats to navigate from Lake Erie on the Maumee River to Kekionga, the major trading center of the Wabash-Maumee Valley, then down the Wabash River to Vincennes, and eventually into the Illinois country. It was a fluid waterway except for an eight-mile portage connecting the Maumee to the Wabash River. This key portage is where the Miami established Kekionga, guaranteeing contact with any trade missions from Detroit or Pennsylvania. It was also a place of residence, where traders could live and profit. Veteran trader and diplomat George Croghan described "forty or fifty cabins, besides nine or ten French houses," and "soil rich and well watered" framing the town. Traders and settlers could buy and sell corn, cloth, guns, liquor, and pelts that they had collected from Canada to Illinois.

Such a world was not always peaceful, but in most circumstances, the Miamis managed violence to their benefit. When war broke out between Britain and France in King George's War during the 1740s, the Miamis were quick to use the violence to expand their trade interests, even if that meant attacking their fellow Miamis. For instance, Memeskia, the Miami leader at Vincennes, abandoned his pro-French Miami community and attacked a pro-French Miami community at Kekionga in 1747 in order to court British influence and trade. Memeskia stopped short of destroying the pro-French community and instead convinced its residents to move to Pickawillany, a pro-British Miami settlement numbering close to two thousand people. The British made the apt decision to welcome Memeskia. Although such behavior might lead one to believe that the Miamis were pawns of the French and British, this was not the case. The violence that Memeskia created at Kekionga was not about destruction, but about control. One Frenchman reported that the Miamis who had been living at Kekionga "promised ... to abandon their village to settle them at Pickawillany." As the population of Memeskia's community grew, so too did his standing with their British trading partners. In fact, the British planned to build two forts on "each side" of Memeskia's settlement that would also include a blacksmith for his use.


Excerpted from The Borderland of Fear by Patrick Bottiger. Copyright © 2016 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
1. Facing East from Miami Country,
2. The National Trinity,
3. Prophetstown for Their Own Purposes,
4. Vincennes, the Politics of Slavery, and the Indian "Threat",
5. The Battles of Tippecanoe,

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