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The Harmar Expedition of 1790 or
Defeat of the U.S. Army against the Miami Tribe & their Allies
Commander: General Josiah Harmar

Autumn of 1790 - near present day Fort Wayne, Indiana

Source: Fairfax Downey, Indian Wars of the U.S. Army 1776-1865 (1963), pp. 52-54

In Kentucky alone 1000 settlers had been massacred since the end of the Revolution. A boatload of troops, cruising the Tennessee River on a peaceful mission, was treacherously attacked by four canoes full of Shawnees and Cherokee, and most of the soldiers shot. So it went until the killings and depredations compelled the beginning of a revival of American armed force. On through most of the nineteenth century the Indian menace would be the instrument of salvation for every dangerously depleted, postwar United States Army.

So the American 1st Infantry Regiment was organized from the militia of four states, gradually earning the name of Regulars as the men, held together by a sufficient term of enlistment, were trained. Pay for a private had been cut to $3 a month which was reduced to $2 by deductions for clothing and hospital care. Yet soldiers' pride in their profession was born again, and the 1st would prove worthy of that heritage from the Continental Line.

The making of the regiment was by other hands than its commander's. None questioned the bravery of Lieutenant Colonel Josiah Harmar, veteran of the Revolution, but he was a hard drinker and a poor disciplinarian. Futhermore, he knew nothing of Indian fighting and he was about to face one of the red man's great chieftains, Little Turtle of the Miamis, who belongs in the brilliant line that stretched on through Tecumseh of the Shawnees, the Seminoles' Osceola, Red Eagle of the Creeks, Little Crow of the Santee Sioux, and the Apaches' Mangas Coloradas and Cochise.

On September 26, 1790, Harmar with 320 of the 1st and 1133 militia marched from Fort Washington, near present Cincinnati, against the Miami villages. The force included a company of mounted men and three light brass cannon. Not only were the militiamen of poor quality, untrained and reluctant, but they were ill-equipped. Arms were old, and there was a shortage of such essentials as axes and camp kettles. To cap the general mismanagement, a second expedition, which was to have formed a junction, fizzled out when supplies failed.

Little Turtle let Harmar come on and burn a few deserted villages. Then his Miamis and their allies swooped down on the vanguard, caught in a defile. Most of the militia ran for their lives. Some of those mounted excused their flight by picking up a wounded man before they spurred away. A small body of the Regulars alone made a stand and was cut to pieces.

Harmar, halting his retreat to Fort Washington, backtracked and launched a surprise attack. The Indians gave way, but as the disorderly pursuit strung out, they rallied and closed in to kill 183 and wound thirty-one of the enemy, with small loss to themselves. Long poles, festooned with scalps, were carried back to the Miami lodges that day.

The American Army, such as it was, had taken a sound licking, and there was no disguising it or the ineptitude of the whole affair by the whitewash of a court of inquiry gave Harmar. Prestige and the safety of the borderlands demanded another campaign, and it had better be prompt and more effective or the tribes would overrun all the settlements and little forts of the Northwest.

Source: Howard R. Lamar, ed., The Reader's Encyclopedia of the American West , p. 558

The end of the American Revolution did not settle problems between the United States and the Indians in the Old Northwest, and an aggressive Indian policy, which was not backed up by an army of corresponding strength, hastened conflict. When diplomacy failed and western pressure increased, General Josiah Harmar was authorized to punish the Indians. The Harmar Expedition of 1790, however, was an inauspicious beginning, for his army of 1,453 men suffered a series of defeats.

Source: John A. Garraty & Mark C. Carnes, ed., American National Biography, Vol. 1, (1999) pp. 616-617; detail from entry on John Armstrong

[John] Armstrong's military experience was needed in the summer of 1790 as an expedition was being planned to move northwest from Fort Washington toward present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana, to destroy the Miami villages. In a sense the army was caught in a double bind. On the one hand they were responsible for patrolling the sieve like frontier to prevent violations of existing land and boundary agreements; on the other they were looked to for protection when such incursions prompted raids against the settlements. Soldiers had been insulted by the settlers and attacked by the Indian raiders. At the same time the federal troops in the west were treated poorly by the national government, which not only had cut their pay but also had allowed unscrupulous contractors to cheat on provision contracts. Despite all this, the army was willing to fight, but because the number of regulars was relatively small, the expedition had to rely on several hundred militia from Kentucky. The training and leadership of frontier militia worried veterans like Armstrong, who understood the discipline necessary to carry out a successful military campaign. Unfortunately, all that Armstrong feared came true. On 18 October 1790, Armstrong and thirty of his men were detached to accompany a unit of 150 Kentucky militia under Colonel John Hardin in an attack against an Indian settlement on the Eel River. When the native warriors ambushed their pursuers, "from the dastardly conduct of the militia, the troops were obliged to retreat." As Armstrong explained: "Many of the militia [including the commander] threw away their arms without firing a shot, ran through the federal troops and threw them in disorder." This disastrous action cost Armstrong his sergeant and twenty-one of the thirty men he had taken on this expedition. When Armstrong and the remnant were forced to flee for their lives, Armstrong at first hid beneath a fallen tree, then took refuge in the middle of an icy pond for seven hours, and finally slipped far enough away from the enemy camp to build a fire and dry. Only after several days of circuitous movement was he able to rejoin the badly dispirited expedition. Despite this personal military disaster, Armstrong did not blame the expedition's failure on his commander, General Harmar. When Armstrong was called on to testify during Harmar's court-martial in 1791, he attributed his predicament to the collapse of the militia and the military incompetence of Harmar's subordinates.

Source: Allen Johnson, ed., Dictionary of American Biography, Vol. 1, pp. 354-355; detail from entry on John Armstrong

In Harmar's expedition, in October 1790, the first organized effort of the Federal Government to drive the Indians back from the frontier, [John] Armstrong commanded the only regulars engaged in the initial encounter of that campaign, and with them, when deserted by the militia, stood his ground until all but seven of his men were slain. His escape from the field forms a remarkable chapter in the history of western adventure and woodsmanship.

Biography of Col. John Armstrong

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