Westward Expansion and the Big Bottom Massacre

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A Brief History

On January 2, 1791, Lenape and Wyandot Native Americans massacred 12 to 14 White settlers near what is now Stockport, Morgan County, Ohio.  The incident is part of what is known as the Northwest Indian Wars in the “Ohio Country.”  The American Revolutionary War (1776-1783) had been fought in part because of the British in London demanding the American settlers refrain from moving West of the Appalachian Mountains, notably via the Royal Proclamation of 1763.  We have previously written about the problems, legal, moral and otherwise, with the settling of the New World and the interaction between Native American (aboriginal) people and European settlers, explorers and trappers.  Likewise, we have reported on numerous incidents of battles between European/American settlers and Native American people.  Sadly, there are many, many such incidents known to History.

Digging Deeper

The desire of Americans to move ever Westward was insatiable.  New lands and “elbow room” beckoned settlers that wanted their own chunk of land, with uncrowded pristine surroundings and unspoiled natural resources.  Obviously, this desire was in direct contrast with the desires of Native American people that wanted to keep and maintain the land they already had to live on while they farmed, hunted and gathered to make their living.  In fact, many of the Native Americans in the Ohio Country had already been displaced from their ancestral homelands in the East, lands already taken over by European American settlers.  Other conflicts such as the Coshocton Massacre (1781) and the Gnadenhutten Massacre (1782) had already shown the dangers of frontier living for European Americans and the dangers of encountering European Americans for Native Americans.  Murders, raids, and massacres were perpetrated by both sides.

The Lenape, or Leni Lenape people were an example of such a displaced nation.  Originally populating the area of New York/New Jersey/Eastern Pennsylvania, they had been uprooted by European settlement and had migrated West of the Appalachian Mountains.  (Today they find themselves in far away Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and parts of Ontario.)  During the Beaver Wars of the 1600’s, the Lenape found themselves not only outgunned by the European settlers, but also by their fellow Native American tribe, the Iroquois.  Like many Native American people, the Lenape were devastated by European introduced illnesses, notably Smallpox.  The English American colonists continued to attack and pressure the Lenape people even after the French and Indian War (1754-1763), often killing Lenape on sight.  Animosity on the part of the Lenape toward European Americans was quite understandable.  The establishment of the United States government brought new treaties between the Lenape and the US government, but not a lasting peace.  For a while, the Lenape got along with the Americans, even supplying scouts and goods during the later stages of the American Revolution.  Living in the Ohio Country kept the Lenape out of conflict with Americans, until Westward Expansion said otherwise.

The Wyandot people were originally from the North shore of Lake Ontario and the Georgian Bay region of Lake Huron in the Ontario and Western Quebec region of Canada, and are also known as the Huron people, Huron Nation, or Wendat.  Like the Lenape, the Wyandots were displaced by European American settlers and the Iroquois Native American enemies of their people.  The Wyandot moved South of the Great Lakes seeking new lands, where they encountered and fought with other Native tribes already living in the region.

Conflict broke out in 1785, known as the Northwest Indian War, a conflict between numerous Native American peoples and the United States.  The Native Americans were often aided by and urged on by British authorities in Canada.  Also known as Little Turtle’s War or the Ohio War, the conflict lasted until 1795 and is generally regarded as the first of the “Indian Wars” between the US and Native peoples.  During the fighting, each side lost an estimated 1000+ killed.

American settlers decided to set up a settlement in Southeastern Ohio on land not specifically authorized for settlement, creating an intolerable issue with Native people.  An attack on the Big Bottom settlement seemed imminent, and a few weeks before the attack Colonel William Stacy ice skated up the frozen Muskingum River for 30 miles in order to warn his sons at the settlement of the impending attack!  The attack against the 3 dozen or so White settlers at Big Bottom resulted in the deaths of 9 men (plus another that died later in captivity), 2 women and 2 children from among the White settlers.  John and Phillip Stacy, the men warned by Colonel Stacy, were among those killed in the raid.  At least 2 other settlers were taken prisoner.  Casualties among the Native raiders are unknown.

The United States reacted predictably to the news of the massacre, and redoubled efforts to stamp out Native American hostilities, culminating in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, effectively putting down Native attacks for the time being.

Conflicts between the United States and Native American people would continue throughout the next century plus, until finally the Native Americans were decisively defeated at Bear Valley, Arizona in 1918.  A few minor skirmishes remained to be fought, ending with the Posey War in 1923 (attacks on Native Americans by Mormons, with no White casualties) and the Apache Wars that ended in 1924 (1933 in Mexico).  Usually, the Bear Valley battle is considered the last real battle of the US Indian Wars, a tragic and sad chapter in the history of America.

The ambivalence of Americans toward Native American people is astounding.  On one hand, Native Americans are often portrayed as noble and oppressed people that rightfully own the land, and at other times those same Native Americans are portrayed as savages that did not “deserve” to own such a rich land that they were under-exploiting, leaving it for White Americans to “properly” develop and use the country.  Should Native Americans be left to live their traditional, basically stone age lives on primitive reservations in conditions of poverty?  Or should they be integrated into general society, where their Native ways, religion and customs would disappear in a form of genocide?  The answers are hard to grasp, as the goals are kind of mutually exclusive.  If you know the answers, please share them with us!

Question for students (and subscribers): Did the Wyandot and Lenape raiders have a right to attack the White settlement at Big Bottom?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Divine, Lloyd. On the Back of a Turtle: A Narrative of the Huron-Wyandot People. Trillium, 2019.

Vizzi, Greg, and Dick Quiet Thunder. The Original People: The Story of The Lenape Indians. Nature’s Wisdom Press, 2014.

The featured image in this article, a drawing of the blockhouse at Big Bottom on the w:Muskingum River upriver from w:Marietta, Ohio, the site of the massacre of January 2, 1791, from the book of historical fiction by Henry C. Watson, Nights in a Block-House (J. B. Lipincott and Co.: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1856), is in the public domain in the United States. This applies to U.S. works where the copyright has expired, often because its first publication occurred prior to January 1, 1924, and if not then due to lack of notice or renewal. See this page for further explanation.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.