Along the Heritage Trail

Villain in the making

Hamilton encouraged Indian attacks

By Tom Castaldi
On being named lieutenant governor of Detroit, Henry Hamilton arrived at his new position in November 1775 after a risky journey through American rebel lines while the city of Montreal was under siege. He was the first to hold that position as a result of the Quebec Act of 1774, which had reorganized the governance of the region. All of Quebec, including the newly added Northwest, was under military control. Even though Detroit reported to Montreal, the outbreak of the American Revolution changed strategies. As a result, Hamilton became a very powerful personage in the old Northwest.

Hamilton has come down through American history books as a villain.  However, historian William A. Evans wrote of Hamilton in 1978, “He was vigorous and authoritative, qualities generally lacking in important British commanders during the Revolution. He actively encouraged the Indians within his area of control to pursue a policy of continual attack upon the frontier. The Indian attacks inflamed the frontier and enraged the Americans.” Even though the Indians carried on a war no different than in previous decades, the victims needed a villain. Hamilton became the villain of the American frontiersmen, known as “Hamilton the Hair Buyer.”

Departing Detroit in 1778, Hamilton traveled down the Detroit River to Lake Erie and came up the Maumee to present-day Fort Wayne. Using interesting and clever means, he crossed a drought-stricken portage to move his army westward to the Wabash River near present-day Huntington. Along the route he meant to attract the native people to his cause, eventually mustering a force of 600 men, of which 550 were native warriors. One record preserved on the river expedition in a journal kept by an officer in the party was a speech he gave to a gathering of chiefs from various tribes. “Whenever the Enemy of the King entered their ground … he would com (sic) and assist them and drive the enemy out of their Country,” Hamilton told them.

Now the king heard that the American rebels had come and, as promised, was determined to drive them out. Hamilton could not resist demeaning the Americans, saying, “the English, French and Spaniards was all Senceable (sic) – But that the long knives were fools.” Hamilton showed a great deal of military ability as well as wilderness savvy. He took the precaution of sending out his warriors ranging in front and on his flanks, thereby exposing virtually all of his enemy’s scouts. Once the British approached Vincennes, the American commander Captain Leonard Helm was taken by surprise with no notion what was about to descend on him.

After the December 1778 attack at Vincennes, the French inhabitants who had recently shifted their allegiance to the Americans now shifted back to the British. Helm had renamed the site Fort Patrick Henry, but after the surrender the name became Fort Sackville under the British flag. 

Long periods of dry weather turned to drought, making Hamilton’s river sortie down the Wabash difficult. Weather conditions changed to rain followed by a deluge that flooded the entire region of Vincennes. At this point, Hamilton felt his position secure against an American counter attack. Sending his Indian allies home, Hamilton ordered the Detroit militia back to their base, leaving the Vincennes garrison with about 80 men.

Of course, that opened the way for George Rogers Clark’s famous surprise operation, marching fewer than 200 men over 200 miles across a frozen swamp, often in waist-deep water. Eighteen days later Clark and his men retook Vincennes from Hamilton and his British troops. Once again, the French inhabitants returned their allegiance to the Americans.

Tom Castaldi

Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi, a retired Essex vice president, hosts "On the Heritage Trail," which is broadcast at 6:35 a.m. and 8:35 a.m. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM, and "Historia Nostra" heard on WLYV-1450 AM.

Posted: Thu, 04/26/2012 - 10:20 am
Last updated: Wed, 05/23/2012 - 3:09 pm