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The Battle of Fallen Timbers

Written by: Timothy J. Shannon, Gettysburg College

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain how and why competition intensified conflicts among peoples and nations from 1754 to 1800
  • Explain how and why migration and immigration to and within North America caused competition and conflict over time

Suggested Sequencing

This Narrative can be used in conjunction with The Royal Proclamation of 1763 and the Treaty of New York, 1790 Primary Source to allow students to explore relationships with American Indians in the early republic.

In the 1783 Treaty of Paris that ended the American War of Independence, Great Britain ceded to the United States its claims to the territory between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. This cession doubled the size of the new nation and created a vast western territory under the authority of the federal government. For many, this frontier symbolized opportunity. Freed from the prohibition that the British Crown had placed on western settlement in the Proclamation of 1763, settlers could now migrate west, establish farms, and create new states there. But many American Indians called this territory home, and European powers still had imperial ambitions in North America. Great Britain did not leave its Ohio Valley forts until after the 1795 Jay Treaty. If the United States were to incorporate this new western territory into itself, it would have to find a way to protect it from potential enemies and govern it effectively.

A map showing the creation of states in 1783.

The map shows the creation of the states in the new nation and the land they claimed as their own after the conclusion of peace with the British Empire in 1783. (credit: “Treaty of Paris Map” by Bill of Rights Institute/Flickr, CC BY 4.0)

Settlers and land speculators were anxious to exploit new western land, but that brought them into direct conflict with the American Indians who lived there. Furthermore, in 1783, several states claimed parts of this new western territory by right of “sea-to-sea” colonial charters granted by the British Crown. After the War of Independence, those states had sold the lands to speculators to settle war debts or given it as bounties to military veterans. These actions led to tensions with American Indians and conflicting jurisdictional claims between the federal government and the states.

During the 1780s, states with western land claims north of the Ohio River gradually ceded them to Congress, creating a single western domain under federal authority. In 1787, Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance, which established guidelines for how the federal government would govern its western territory. On paper, the Northwest Ordinance created a blueprint for orderly and profitable westward expansion, but in reality, life on the frontier was chaotic and violent. Land speculators scrambled to purchase huge tracts of land for resale, while squatters moved west without regard for federal authority or the rights of American Indians. When Britain ceded the trans-Appalachian frontier to the United States in 1783, it made no provision for protecting American Indian claims there. Many of those Indian nations had allied with the British during the war, so the victorious Americans regarded them as conquered enemies and used military threats, alcohol, and bribes to force chiefs into signing land cessions. In this manner, the United States claimed sovereignty over all the western territory ceded by Britain, but it lacked the military power to act on its claim.

The new federal government created by the ratification of the Constitution had enhanced powers to manage the nation’s Indian relations and western territories. President George Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox were anxious to assert federal control over the frontier, but they knew that doing so by force of arms would require more resources than the new nation could muster. Therefore, Knox advised Washington to stop treating western American Indians as conquered enemies and to restore the British practice of dealing with them as sovereign nations.

Knox believed that doing so would enable the federal government to provide for orderly western expansion while at the same time asserting its power over the state governments, land companies, and squatters whose abusive treatment of American Indians so often led to frontier violence. Washington shared Knox’s belief that failing to acknowledge the American Indians’ right to the land “would be a gross violation of the fundamental laws of nature and that distributive justice which is the glory of a nation.” In one of his first diplomatic speeches as president, he assured a group of Seneca chiefs that “The General [federal] Government will never consent to your being defrauded, but it will protect you in all your just rights.”

An image of Henry Knox.

As the first secretary of war, Henry Knox worked with President George Washington to establish a foundation for peaceful relationships between the federal government and American Indians.

Washington and Knox laid the foundation for federal government-American Indian relations for the next forty years. Known as the “civilization policy,” their efforts relied on three initiatives. First, the federal government claimed sole authority to treaty with western American Indian nations for land cessions, thereby limiting the ability of private speculators and state governments to engage in fraudulent purchases. Second, the federal government imposed new regulations on the western fur trade by establishing “factories” at important western posts that licensed traders and controlled prices. Third, the federal government helped Christian missionaries establish churches, schools, and farms in American Indian territory intended to promote the assimilation of Native Americans into the new nation. Supporters of the civilization policy believed that as American Indians learned to live and work like white Americans, they would no longer need extensive lands on which to hunt and would therefore sell those lands willingly to the federal government, allowing for the peaceful incorporation of American Indians territory into the new nation.

At the same time Washington and Knox were putting the civilization policy in place, they were also using diplomacy and military force to dispossess American Indians who resisted federal authority. During the 1780s, the Cherokee warred against settlers moving westward from Virginia into Kentucky and Tennessee. Federal agents negotiated the Treaty of Holston with the Cherokee in 1791 to end these hostilities, guaranteeing federal protection of remaining Cherokee lands and annual payments or annuities of money and goods intended to help the Cherokee adopt European methods of farming. This treaty helped end bloodshed that had plagued the southern Appalachian frontier since the 1770s. By restoring peace, it speeded American migration to Kentucky and Tennessee, states that entered the union in 1792 and 1796, respectively. The treaty also started a process of political and economic transformation for the Cherokee, who were dispossessed of their land during the early nineteenth century.

The federal government had much greater difficulty restoring peace north of the Ohio River. In several treaties negotiated during the 1780s, federal agents had extracted land cessions to eastern Ohio, but most of the Delaware, Shawnee, and Miami peoples who lived there regarded these treaties as fraudulent, and they warred with migrants who began streaming into this country. In the fall of 1790, Washington and Knox ordered General Josiah Harmar to lead a retaliatory expedition against the Ohio Indians.

Harmar marched a force of approximately one thousand militiamen out of Fort Washington (modern Cincinnati) into what is now northeastern Indiana, hoping to deal a decisive blow to the Miami and Shawnee tribes. Instead, the Miami chief Little Turtle led an attack that inflicted heavy casualties on the U.S. forces and resulted in a court martial for Harmar. A year later, General Arthur St. Clair repeated Harmar’s effort, leading an army of about fourteen hundred troops into Indian territory along the Wabash River. On the morning of November 4, 1791, Little Turtle led another assault on the U.S. soldiers, this time with even more devastating results. St. Clair’s militiamen ran from the enemy, and more than half of them were killed or wounded in the battle and retreat. It was the single worst defeat American Indians ever dealt to a U.S. army.

A rendering of Chief Little Turtle.

Chief Little Turtle made one of the most successful attempts at American Indian resistance to U.S. expansion. This rendering of him is undated.

After the disastrous campaigns led by Harmar and St. Clair, President Washington put General “Mad Anthony” Wayne in charge of a much larger army known as the Legion of the United States. Unlike Harmar’s and St. Clair’s forces, the Legion was made up of professional soldiers who went through extensive training before facing battle. In 1794, Wayne led a new expedition into western Ohio to attack Miamis, Shawnees, and other American Indians still hostile to the United States. These Indians expected to receive aid from their former British allies, who remained in forts along the Great Lakes despite having ceded that territory to the United States in 1783.

In June, a large American Indian force led by Little Turtle and the Shawnee chief Blue Jacket attacked Fort Recovery, an American post at the site of St. Clair’s defeat, but the garrison held out. This attack prompted Wayne to advance his troops into the Maumee Valley two months later. The Shawnees and their allies took their position at a site where trees felled by a violent storm provided natural defenses. At the Battle of Fallen Timbers that followed, Wayne’s troops withstood the Indians’ fire and then dispersed them with a bayonet charge. The surviving Indians retreated to Fort Miami, a nearby post still occupied by the British, but the commander there refused his assistance because he did not want to start a war with the United States.

A year after the Battle of Fallen Timbers, Little Turtle, Blue Jacket, and other Ohio Indians made peace with Wayne and the United States in western Ohio under the Treaty of Greenville. Abandoned by their former British allies, the Ohio Indians ceded to the United States most of present-day Ohio and strategic locations along the Great Lakes, including Detroit. In return, federal agents agreed to pay them annuities of cash and goods. Also in 1795, Britain finally agreed to evacuate the disputed forts in the Northwest Territory as part of a treaty negotiated by President Washington’s special envoy John Jay. Jay’s Treaty and the Treaty of Greenville were the twin diplomatic successes that sealed the military victory won by Wayne a year earlier at Fallen Timbers.

A painting, showing several people in colonial dress meeting with three people dressed in draped fabric and feather headwear.

This depiction of U.S. delegates meeting with American Indians to sign the Treaty of Greenville was painted around the time of the treaty’s signing in 1795. Chief Little Turtle speaks to the U.S. delegates while an interpreter (kneeling) records his words.

The peace secured by the Treaty of Greenville made possible Ohio’s rapid settlement and admission to the union in 1803, but American Indians continued to feel pressure from western settlers along the nation’s frontier. Led by the Cherokee, several southern Indian nations embraced the civilization policy and transformed their methods of agriculture and government, but state governments pressured them to give up their sovereignty and lands. West of the Appalachians, federal agents used debts American Indians accrued in the fur trade to extract additional land cessions. The Shawnee, led by the war chief Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa (also known as the Shawnee Prophet), encouraged other western American Indian nations to unite in militant resistance to white encroachments on their way of life. These tensions culminated in a new wave of frontier violence during the War of 1812 that ultimately made Washington’s and Knox’s vision of peaceful and orderly frontier expansion unattainable.

Review Questions

1. What did Secretary of War Henry Knox suggest to President George Washington in regard to American treatment of American Indians?

  1. That the government begin assigning American Indians to reservations
  2. That the government continue fighting American Indians
  3. That the United States create a strong trade relationship with all American Indians nations
  4. That the United States treat American Indians as sovereign nations

2. For most Americans in the 1780s, the region west of the Appalachian Mountains meant

  1. conflict with American Indians
  2. land speculation
  3. opportunity
  4. uncertainty

3. After the conclusion of the American Revolution, in regard to the land west of the Appalachian Mountains, the federal government most needed to

  1. sell the land to private investors so the national government would have revenue
  2. displace “unfriendly” American Indians
  3. convince states with land claims in the region to give up their claims
  4. divide the region into territories with the intention of creating states

4. A major result of the Treaty of Greenville was that

  1. American Indian nations were forced onto reservations
  2. the British were forced from their forts in the Great Lakes region
  3. other American Indian nations began to adopt the civilization policy
  4. more warfare occurred between the United States and American Indian nations

5. As a result of the Battle of Fallen Timbers, American settlers were able to peacefully make land claims in

  1. Kentucky
  2. Michigan
  3. Ohio
  4. western Pennsylvania

6. Hostilities between the United States and the Cherokee in the 1780s ended with the

  1. forced march of Cherokees to western reservations
  2. signing of the Treaty of Holston
  3. signing of the Treaty of Greenville
  4. American alliance with the Delaware, Shawnee, and Miami nations

7. American settlers were free to settle in the trans-Appalachian region after

  1. the Proclamation of 1763
  2. the Treaty of Paris in 1783
  3. the Treaty of Holston
  4. the Treaty of Greenville

Free Response Questions

  1. Explain how the United States’ acquisition of the land west of the Appalachian Mountains through the 1783 Treaty of Paris affected relationships between American settlers and American Indians.
  2. Explain the “civilization policy” Washington and Knox adopted for relations between American Indians and the federal government. What was the rationale for this policy?

AP Practice Questions


There shall be perpetual peace and friendship between all the citizens of the United States of America, and all the individuals composing the whole Cherokee nation of Indians, . . .


That the Cherokee nation may be led to a greater degree of civilization, and to become herdsmen and cultivators, instead of remaining in a state of hunters, the United States will from time to time furnish gratuitously the said nation with useful implements of husbandry, and further to assist the said nation in so desirable a pursuit, and at the same time to establish a certain mode of communication, the United States will send such, and so many persons to reside in said nation as they may judge proper, not exceeding four in number, who shall qualify themselves to act as interpreters. These persons shall have lands assigned by the Cherokees for cultivation for themselves and their successors in office; but they shall be precluded exercising any kind of traffic.”

The Treaty of Holston, July 2, 1791

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. Based on the excerpted treaty, the United States adopted a policy towards American Indians that it believed would

  1. force American Indians off their land when the federal government deemed it necessary
  2. allow American Indians to maintain their traditional lifestyle
  3. bring progress and modernity to American Indian nations
  4. provide independence and self-reliance to American Indian societies

2. How were the sentiments in the excerpt a continuation of English and American policy toward American Indians?

  1. The English and Americans wanted the land occupied by American Indians.
  2. The English and Americans believed their way of life superior to that of American Indians.
  3. The English and Americans wanted to change American Indians into wage laborers.
  4. The English and Americans wanted to maintain separate societies from those of the American Indians.

3. Which group of Americans was most affected by the Treaty of Holston?

  1. New England trade merchants
  2. Frontier settlers in the Northwest Territory
  3. Investors interested in building a canal linking the Hudson River to the Great Lakes
  4. Plantation owners

Primary Sources

Treaty of Greenville, 1795.

Washington, George. “Third Annual Message to Congress.” October 25, 1791.

Washington, George. “Sixth Annual Message to Congress.” November 19, 1794.

Washington, George. “Seventh Annual Message to Congress.” December 8, 1795.

Suggested Resources

Calloway, Collin G. The Victory with No Name: The Native American Defeat of the First American Army. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Ellis, Joseph J. American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic. New York: Knopf, 2007.

Sadosky, Leonard J. Revolutionary Negotiations: Indians, Empires, and Diplomats in the Founding of America. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2009.

Wood, Gordon S. Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

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