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Little Turtle

Little Turtle

Born 1752 (Whitley County, Indiana)

Died July 14, 1812 (Fort Wayne, Indiana)

Miami tribal leader

Little Turtle was a distinguished war chief of the Miami tribe of Native Americans in the Great Lakes region in the late eighteenth century. He was one of the most successful woodland military commanders of his time and led an intertribal force to victory against two American frontier armies in 1790 and 1791. The battle known as St. Clair's Defeat marked the largest defeat of a U.S. Army force during a single battle in all of the U.S.–Native American wars. The loss exceeded any inflicted on the United States by the British in a single battle during the American Revolution (1775–83).

"We have beaten the enemy twice under different commanders. We cannot expect the same good fortune to attend us always. The Americans are now led by a chief who never sleeps."

Little Turtle, speaking of U.S. general Anthony Wayne

Little Turtle enjoyed this leading role in Native American resistance against American settlement of tribal lands until the superior forces of General Anthony Wayne (1745–1796; see entry in volume 2) triumphed in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. Little Turtle then signed the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, establishing a temporary peace in the region. He spent the rest of his life negotiating land cessions (giving up land by treaty) to the United States in the Northwest Territory. The Northwest Territory included the future states of Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota. Known as a skilled speaker, Little Turtle worked to keep his tribe at peace while he served as an ambassador of his people to the new U.S. government.

A distinguished heritage

Little Turtle was born along the Eel River, about 20 miles northwest of Fort Wayne in Whitley County, Indiana, around 1752. His Native American name was Mishikinakwa (many spelling variations exist for this name), which means "The Turtle." He was called Little Turtle to distinguish him from his father, also called Mishikinakwa. To the Algonquian tribe, a group that included the Miami tribe, the turtle symbolized the earth. The Miami signed documents, agreements, and treaties by drawing a picture or a symbol rather than signing a name. Little Turtle was an Atchatchakangouen Miami, the leading division of the Miami tribe.

Not much is known about Little Turtle's mother, but she was probably a member of the Mahican tribe. His father was a respected war chief among the Miami tribe. He achieved his position through his battle victories against the Iroquois. In 1748, the elder Mishikinakwa traveled to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He was the first Miami to meet with European immigrants and he signed a pact with the English called the Treaty of Lancaster. His family's reputation and connections would help Little Turtle in his rise to leadership, but he had to earn his own position within the tribe through merit.

On June 21, 1762, a raiding party of Chippewa and Ottawas assisted by the French launched a surprise assault on Little Turtle's village. The Miami chief was killed, but Little Turtle showed great bravery during the battle and gained respect among his tribe. The attack left him with a scar along his lower right jaw, from his chin almost to his ear. This was the result of a slashing tomahawk wielded by a French soldier.

Little Turtle would come to prominence as a war chief in 1780 during the American Revolution (1775–83). Little Turtle and the Miami allied with the British and successfully defeated a French detachment led by Augustin Mottin de La Balme (1740–1780). La Balme's forces threatened Little Turtle's village on their march to attack the British post of Detroit. Because they were in Little Turtle's territory, he was put in charge of the Native American attack and proved himself an able commander. By 1790, Little Turtle was the chief military leader of the Miami and principal war chief of the allied tribes, which included the Shawnee, Delaware, Wyandot, and others. This confederacy of tribes in the Ohio River valley shared close ties because of their mutual defensive and economic needs.

Little Turtle's victories

In a 1787 treaty, the hunting grounds of the Miami and their allies had been guaranteed in perpetuity (without end) by the U.S. Congress. Despite this promise, white settlers continued to overflow onto tribal lands. The Native Americans responded with raids and ambushes, which became increasingly violent. Greatly concerned over maintaining control over the region, President George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97; see entry in volume 2) ordered an army into the Northwest Territory to end the Native American attacks.

In October 1790, General Josiah Harmar (1753–1813) led his force of almost fifteen hundred men toward present-day Fort Wayne. He intended to attack the concentration of tribes gathered there and destroy their villages. The frontier army had only three hundred regular soldiers; the remainder consisted of poorly trained militiamen from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky. Some of the backwoodsmen had equally primitive weapons and, therefore, no advantage over the Native Americans. On October 18 and again on October 22, Little Turtle led his alliance of Native American tribes into battle along the Maumee River against Harmar's forces. His style of woodland fighting resulted in extensive U.S. casualties and a full retreat by Harmar's army, who barely saved themselves from a disaster. The defeat stunned the army and heightened the tensions between white settlers and Native Americans.

General Arthur St. Clair (1736–1818) was then given command of the army's offensive, and he gathered a force of two thousand men during the summer of 1791. They advanced toward the Maumee River and built Fort Hamilton and Fort Jefferson along the way for added security. St. Clair's army was plagued by problems from the start. Their progress was hampered by the weight of eight field artillery pieces as well as a large group of camp followers. This group included the soldiers' wives and children, along with an assortment of carts and pack animals. St. Clair's forces experienced cold, snowy weather; morale was low, and many of the troops deserted the army.

Little Turtle's Native American scouts, including the young Shawnee warrior Tecumseh (1768–1813; see entry in volume 2), kept him informed daily of the army's movements. The tribes obtained support from several other tribes in the area and were well supplied with guns and ammunition by British traders. On November 4, 1791, the multitribal force under Little Turtle surprised St. Clair near the Wabash River. After three hours of battle, the U.S. forces experienced an overwhelming loss—half of the troops were killed or wounded. St. Clair's defeat was the single greatest U.S. setback in all of the Native American wars.

Defeat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers

St. Clair's defeat electrified the frontier. Some in the Native American confederation believed that they could now win the battle for their land. Even British diplomats began to anticipate that the United States might have to yield ground. There was talk of creating a Native American buffer state in the Northwest Territory that would separate the British and American possessions. But President Washington's administration was determined to hold the Northwest Territory, and they moved forward despite criticism from various sides. Washington's political enemies were opposed to strengthening the military, because they did not believe the Constitution gave the president the power to do so. Easterners also strongly criticized the war against the Native Americans, regarding Washington's military action as expensive and unjust.

Washington ordered a third army into the field. This one was three thousand strong and led by General "Mad Anthony" Wayne, a hero of the American Revolution. Wayne ordered the construction of a series of forts to protect his army and store their supplies. The forts served as staging areas for future attacks against the Native Americans. While Wayne organized his forces and gathered the supplies needed for battle, Little Turtle began lobbying for peace. He approached the Native American confederacy of tribes with a warning about the new American commander's capabilities. Little Turtle wanted to negotiate for peace while the Native Americans were still in a position of strength following their victories. He did not want to wait until utter defeat, knowing that they would then surely lose everything.

Little Turtle had a healthy respect for Wayne and refused to take the primary leadership role with the Native Americans against him. He was relieved of command and replaced by the Shawnee leader, Blue Jacket (c. 1745–c. 1810). The two chiefs disagreed about the best way to oppose Wayne's army. Blue Jacket's plan was adopted, but Little Turtle agreed to lead a small party of Miami into battle. As a brave of distinction, the Shawnee Tecumseh took command of a party of his tribe in the engagement as well. By August 1795, Wayne was prepared to strike and moved toward the Maumee River. The Native Americans prepared to attack him at an area known as Fallen Timbers, so named because a big storm, possibly including a tornado, had knocked down many trees there.

On August 20, 1794, the two sides met in the Battle of Fallen Timbers. This time the Native Americans suffered hundreds of casualties, while the whites had only a few. The Native Americans had believed that the British would protect them in their retreat after the battle, but they found the gates shut at nearby Fort Miami. The fleeing warriors were killed, and the U.S. soldiers then marched through Native American country, destroying villages, trading posts, farms, and crops in a swath 10 miles wide.

The Treaty of Greenville

After their defeat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794, the Native Americans realized that the Americans were now the dominant force in their country. The time to talk peace had arrived. This was especially true after November 19, 1794, when the United States signed the Jay Treaty with the British. This pact gave American authorities control of all military posts held by the British on the American side of the Great Lakes by the year 1796.

On August 3, 1795, almost a full year after the Native Americans' defeat at Fallen Timbers, General Wayne called a general council with Native American tribes of the Old Northwest of the Ohio River. They met at Fort Greenville in present-day Ohio and laid the foundation of a general peace. The majority of Native Americans were tired of war and boundary disputes and being caught between the two opposing white powers. The chiefs of the allied tribes signed the Treaty of Greenville with the belief that they could now return to hunting and fishing in their traditional territories, enjoy a peaceful trade, and raise their crops and families in peace. Little Turtle and the other Native Americans gave up most of their land north of the Ohio River in exchange for a guarantee of land farther west.

Little Turtle was one of the last to put his name to the treaty, declaring he would be the last to break it. He never fought again. Little Turtle continued his policy of cooperation with the United States and became a great advocate for peace. Little Turtle promoted a farming lifestyle among his people and strongly urged abstinence from alcohol. On one trip to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he met President Washington during the last days of his presidency. Washington presented Little Turtle with a sword and gun and arranged to have his official portrait painted.

After 1800, great sections of land were steadily ceded to the United States by Native American tribes. As Little Turtle and other Native American leaders signed away their rights to tribal lands, more and more white settlers pushed westward into traditional Native American territory. Large numbers of Native Americans were being pushed off their land. Not all Native Americans agreed with the Treaty of Greenville or with the authority of individual Native Americans and tribes to sell their land without the approval of others. Some Native Americans began to talk of revenge and recovery of the lost lands. Little Turtle and Blue Jacket were still the leading chiefs among the northwestern tribes. Little Turtle was committed to peace, but Blue Jacket favored Tecumseh's plan of uniting all the tribes in one confederacy and fighting back.

Little Turtle was of the opinion that the Native American tribes were no longer a match for America's military strength. He argued that without considerable aid from Britain, the Native Americans were likely to lose even more of their lands if they took the offensive. Little Turtle opposed Tecumseh's plan because he considered it dishonorable in view of the Treaty of Greenville. Despite repeated efforts by Tecumseh to enlist his support, Little Turtle remained an advocate of peace. His counsels kept the majority of Miami from actively joining Tecumseh. Nonetheless, Tecumseh diligently pursued his plan of uniting the tribes and was encouraged and supported by British agents. They warned the Native Americans that to make peace with the United States would mean starvation, poverty, and removal from their land. The resulting tensions affected the course of Native American relations with the United States and Britain on the eve of the War of 1812 (1812–15). By 1812, President James Madison (1751–1836; served 1809–17; see entry in volume 2) could no longer tolerate Britain's support of Native American resistance. America had several other grievances against the British, and Madison decided it was time to act. He asked Congress to declare war against Britain.

A bitter end

With the declaration of war, the Native Americans faced familiar alternatives. They could ally with the British, who had deserted them in the past, or give aid to the United States, a nation that seemed intent on consuming their lands. At this critical time in history, Little Turtle died. The Miami tribe lost the chief who had directed their destiny for decades. His loss was mourned by all, including Tecumseh. Little Turtle's death occurred on July 14, 1812, at the Fort Wayne home of his sonin-law, William Wells (see box); the cause of death was gout (a disease of the joints). Little Turtle was buried with full military honors by the American government. Buried with him were several of his prized possessions, including the sword given to him by President Washington.

Tecumseh was soon killed by American forces in October 1813. Although several war chiefs tried, none could match Little Turtle's stature after the War of 1812. In 1818, the United States forced the Miami tribe to give up their last lands in Ohio. Many settled in Indiana, but in the late 1820s they were moved yet again, this time to Kansas.

William Wells

Little Turtle married twice in his life, but the names of his wives and the marriage dates are unknown. He had four children with his first wife and one child with his second. Little Turtle also adopted a young, redheaded white youth who had been captured by the Miami in 1784. His birth name was William Wells (1770–1812), but his Native American name was Apekonit. The custom of adopting captives was not unusual, and those adopted were most often treated like family. Wells spent several years among the Miami tribe as one of their warriors and led a group of Miami in the battle against U.S. forces commanded by General Arthur St. Clair. Wells married Little Turtle's daughter, Wanagapeth, which means "A Sweet Breeze."

In June 1793, Wells asked to return to the people of his birth, and Little Turtle reluctantly approved of the reunion. Wells offered himself to the U.S. government as an interpreter and expert on the Miami tribe and other tribes with whom he was familiar. He became the U.S. Indian agent for the region at Fort Wayne. His orders were to issue payments promised by treaties, promote "civilization" among the Native Americans, and generally further American interests in the Northwest Territory. He was given a large farm in the area, and his wife came to live with him there. In 1797, Wells and Little Turtle traveled to Philadelphia to meet President John Adams (1735–1826; served 1797–1801; see entry in volume 1). Shortly after Little Turtle's death in 1812, Wells died while defending a Kentucky relative at Fort Dearborn (present-day Chicago, Illinois).

For More Information


Anson, Bert. The Miami Indians. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970.

Carter, Harvey L. The Life and Times of Little Turtle: First Sagamore of theWabash. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1987.

Johansen, Bruce E. Shapers of the Great Debate on Native Americans— Land,Spirit, and Power: A Biographical Dictionary. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2000.

Johansen, Bruce E., and Donald A. Grinde Jr. The Encyclopedia of NativeAmerican Biography. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

Web Sites

"Little Turtle." Ohio History Central. (accessed on August 16, 2005).

"Little Turtle (Miami)." Shelby County Ohio Historical Society. (accessed on August 16, 2005).

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