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Croghan's War: A Story About the Origin of Chicago

Croghan's War: A Story About the Origin of Chicago

Автором Jack Wallace

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Croghan's War: A Story About the Origin of Chicago

Автором Jack Wallace

532 pages
8 hours
Dec 29, 2012


It is 1742, and a penniless twenty-year-old arrives in the Northwest Territory. A wild man in the midst of a wild country, George Croghan is the first trader to venture deep into French territory, startling the Seneca Indians with his courage.

As he enters a village on the Cuyahoga carrying a variety of goods on his horses, he soon wins over the Indians with his entertaining Irish stories and easygoing, friendly manner. Instead of killing him, the Senecas build him a trading cabin inside their village where he soon becomes immersed in their daily lives and struggles. Now a part of the tribe, Croghan summons the help of the Hurons, Miamis, and the Senecas, to drive the French traders out of their territory. As the chaos of the French and Indian War swirls around him, Croghan strategizes with the Indians and takes an incredible personal journey that eventually leads to the Massacre at Fort Dearborn in 1812.

Croghans War weaves genuine history around a compelling tale rich in Indian culture, a family tragedy, and a fierce battle that decided the fate of its innocent victims.

Dec 29, 2012

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Jack Wallace earned his MA and PhD in American Literature at the University of Chicago and spent most of his career teaching at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. For years before his retirement, he planned to write a narrative history of Chicago in two volumes. He died in 2006 after completing the first, Croghan’s War.

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Croghan's War - Jack Wallace


The Sandusky Massacre

Nicolas lived in a typical Huron house supported by two A-frames set about twenty-five feet apart with a ridge or roof pole connecting them and resting on the forked apex of each frame. The sides were covered with sheets of flattened bark. There were doorways at either end and these could be closed by rolling down a thatch mat and fastening it at the bottom. On this mild spring day, the mat was raised and Croghan entered with no ceremony except a hand wave to the chief, who was sitting with his two squaws. When the white trader arrived, the women took up their work and scurried out the other doorway. Croghan sat down, Indian style, opposite the chief. Nicolas was about fifty, a big man, taller than average and bulkier, with a large crooked nose and small deep-set eyes. He had a rather dark complexion; his skin was grayish, as if dusted with ashes. He was still a vigorous and resolute chief, but he had slowed in the past year. Or perhaps he was simply more deliberate and solemn, a manner befitting a warrior who is chosen by God to free his people.

Like most great Indian warriors, Nicolas was a war chief, one who earned his position in battle, not by birth (the hereditary chiefs were usually tribal administrators and counselors with little real power). He had fought valiantly against the Fox Indians, long-time enemies of the French. He suffered a stomach wound that put him in agony for many weeks. Even after the Huron witch doctor drew out the ball (the Fox were supplied with British muskets), Nicolas continued to suffer spasms of indigestion, a condition aggravated in part by cheap brandy but mostly by a growing awareness that the French father was devouring his Huron children. As the French lords grew rich on the fur trade, the Indians who fought their battles and hunted their deer lived in crowded huts, thankful for a bit of jerked venison and a moldy biscuit. One feverish day, when Nicolas was sure that his time had come, he heard the Master of Life call to him, Nicolas, Nicolas, you must leave this place and go to Sandusky. Many warriors will follow you, and when the season is ripe you must return to Detroit and drive the French from this land. Nicolas believed the voice, and the fever left him. A month later, in the middle of the night, he led his people out of French bondage, drifting silently down the Detroit River to a new home on the south shore of Lake Erie.

In the interval, Nicolas was in touch with Croghan, who agreed to build a strong house near Sandusky and to provide all the goods the Hurons needed. In return, Nicolas promised to persuade other tribes to begin trading with the British. The partnership was a success from the start. Nicolas was amazed at the plentitude and quality of British goods but what impressed him the most, was the way the Irishman published his rates in advance of the trading.

All prices were based on the value of a buck—that is, the hide of full-grown male deer. Thus, one buffalo skin was worth two and a half bucks, one spring buck was worth half a buck, six ermine pelts were worth one buck, and so on. The conversion of pelts to manufactured goods was likewise fixed and posted. For example, the Indians could buy a metal hatchet by paying half a buckskin, one beaver pelt, or three ermine pelts. In this way the Indians knew where they stood and could not be cheated by shifting prices and the rigged scales commonly used by French traders. The Ohio Indians had named Croghan the Buck, and now the Hurons and all pro-British tribes around the Great Lakes honored him with that name. When the Sandusky Indians sent messengers to their hungry brothers in the west, they said, Do not be afraid to leave your villages; the Buck is in your road and will provide for you.

On this particular day, Nicolas welcomed Croghan, saying, May all be well with my brother. Then he offered Croghan a puff from his pipe and they smoked for several moments in silence, passing the calumet back and forth between them. Nicolas also offered a cup of rum, which Croghan declined. He knew the chief would feel bound to drink with his guest and that it would hurt his stomach. Croghan opened their visit in the indirect manner of Indians who liked to come to a point roundabout, the same way they liked to attack an enemy.

I have received this day a message from Turtle that says he will help us build a trading station in his village. His Miamis will naturally support us against the French.

That must be so, said Nicolas, for the Master of Life has chosen the Hurons to drive the French out of our land.

Croghan nodded reverently at the chief’s mention of the Master of Life and went on. Now that Turtle is with us, I think Coldfoot will follow, especially when I arrive in his village with many presents. I leave tomorrow for Kekionga. Will I carry a message from Chief Nicolas to Chief Coldfoot?

After a moment, Nicolas said, Tell my brother that the pack is strong only when all the wolves run together.

Good. But is it not true that the smell of blood will draw a distant wolf to the hunt?

Nicolas barely nodded his head but Croghan knew they were thinking on the same track. If Nicolas made a bold strike against the French, Coldfoot would feel bound to join forces with his Miami friends, Turtle and Memeskia. Croghan now came directly to the question of the French traders.

I am wondering, he said, how you account for those Frenchers putting up here in Sandusky, and with a heavy load of furs. Sure now they have not been in Detroit these two years passed.

For several moments, Nicolas said nothing. He puffed his pipe and stared grimly through the smoke. The Master of Life has clouded the eyes of the French traders.

I think you are right, Chief, Croghan nodded. For God knows the Frenchers to be greedy rascals. What do you think they gave the poor Indians for that fine load of furs? Nothing but ragged blankets, I warrant, and a pot of watered brandy. When I see how the French treat my Indian brothers, I say it is more like stealing than honest trading at all.

The Hurons know how to deal with thieves, Nicolas said quietly. The French traders will not see the sun rise.

They deserve to die, Croghan solemnly agreed, and their execution will bring honor to my brother Nicolas. The Miamis will know, he is the chief of chiefs, and the other tribes hereabouts will fight with him against the French.

It is well that we agree on this matter.

That goes without saying, Chief, but it is a private agreement. As to the beach party tonight, the Buck must know nothing about it.

Nicolas studied Croghan with a thin smile. White men like to show white hands.

It’s all in the way of business, said Croghan. I am a trader, not a war chief. But if it happens that the Hurons discover a fresh supply of furs, I will exchange them at the regular rate.

Nicolas nodded. Do the British have a rate for French scalps?

They are not in the book, but if you come across any, I know a party who will pay a fair price.

Late that afternoon, when the sun was sinking behind the western shore of Lake Erie, Gabriel came to Croghan’s cabin. The Irishman pointed to a jug of rum on the porch table. Take it, Gabriel, and share it with your Huron brothers. They are going hunting later tonight. It’s a sound sleep I will have, knowing that you are with them. But remember, this is the Hurons’ show. For the record, the British trader George Croghan and his Senecas know nothing of this business.

I understand. When darkness falls over the lake, Gabriel and his Seneca brothers will be Hurons.

In the predawn dark of the next day, April 11, four of the French traders slept soundly, while the fifth, Louis Trillot, kept watch over the furs that were stacked on the beach between the lake and the French encampment at the foot of the dunes. Trillot, drowsy from a good dinner and a bottle of claret, kept himself awake by calculating the francs he would collect for his share of the furs and the good time he would have tomorrow night in Detroit, the best fort in the west for fine wine and fancy women. He remembered a plump barmaid, a dark-eyed metis. That was two years ago. Maybe she was not available. It did not matter. A trader with a fresh load of furs had plenty of women on call. Louis fancied their shape and feel as his gaze lingered on the curve of the sand dunes, which in his erotic fancy, seemed to heave and sigh in the pale moonlight. Behind him, he heard the waves softly splash on the beach, a sweet and harmless sound. In April the water was still brutally cold, not the season for a midnight swim. Trillot did not think any danger could come from the lake, and even if he had turned in that direction, he would have seen nothing sinister on the shimmering surface of the lake, only a log bobbing gently on the incoming waves.

Motionless as a piece of driftwood, Gabriel lay on the wet shore, catching his breath from a long swim in frosty water. After a moment, still numb with cold, he began to inch his way up the beach until he was in the shadow of the pile of furs that lay between the French campsite and the lake. He got in a kneeling position and detached the bow that was tied on his back. From the quiver on his belt he removed an arrow, bronze tipped (forged in England, buried in France!). While most of the Lake Indians no longer used the bow for hunting, it remained an important weapon. Among other advantages, the bow was silent. Concealed behind the mound of furs, Gabriel watched and waited. When the Frenchman looked east toward the rising moon, his features in profile, Gabriel released his arrow. He did not see the kill but heard a soft thud followed by a gurgling sound, as when water is spilled from a narrow-necked jar. Gabriel dropped his bow and quiver, drew his knife, and raced across the sand toward the encampment. His brothers, concealed behind the dunes, now charged from the opposite direction, their tomahawks rose over their heads. When Gabriel arrived, Louis Trillot was already dead, an arrow through his neck. By now the other Frenchmen were awake, but the Indians fell upon them before they were disentangled from their blankets. The Hurons carried off four scalps and the furs, which were later sold to Croghan. Gabriel took the scalp of Louis Trillot, a souvenir for the Buck.

The murder and robbery of the five French traders caused a great hue and cry throughout the Great Lakes, especially in nearby Detroit. The killers were never caught or identified, but they were assumed to be Hurons from Nicolas’ village; it was later rumored that Croghan’s Senecas were also in on the kill. One French trader wrote that Croghan by force of presents and lies, excites all the Indians against us, insinuating into their minds that we are not in a condition to furnish them with any supplies. An English trader named John Patten claimed that Croghan actually bribed the Indians to kill and rob the Frenchmen. Croghan’s sole motive, Patten wrote, was to engross the whole trade and scare the French from dealing with the Indians. Publicly, the Irishman denied all charges, but he sent Governor Hamilton some presents from Lake Arey, including two strings of wampum and the scalp of one of the French traders. Croghan concluded his letter to Governor Hamilton with these hopeful words: The Ingans dwelling of the borders of Lake Arey were always in the French interest till now, but this spring almost all the Ingans in the woods have declared against the French.

The Huron Conspiracy

Shortly after the massacre, Nicolas called a meeting to lay out his campaign against the French. Besides Nicolas and his newest ally, Coldfoot, the principal players were Memeskia and Turtle. Memeskia, which means Dragonfly (La Demoiselle in French), was the fiercest of the rebel chiefs. Although he was over sixty in 1747, he was still a vigorous warrior, a small well-built man with a smoothly muscled and supple body—a dancer’s body with a dancer’s grace and poise. His features were fine and regular, feminine some might say—an impression heightened by the way he dressed. Everything about La Demoiselle, from the lace cuffs on his red satin jacket to the gleaming white heron feathers in his glistening black hair, was comme il faut. But if, in part, he resembled an elegant young maid, he was mostly a dragonfly—swift, colorful, and deadly. When he broke with the French, he ceased to be La Demoiselle and became Old Briton, a name he is usually given in history books and which I will use from now on.

Chief Turtle was, in Croghan’s estimate, the most level-headed and reliable of the rebel chiefs. Nicolas was not in good health, and his mind was sometimes disordered by mystical premonitions. Old Briton was hot tempered and cruel, even for an Indian. Coldfoot was gentle and indecisive. Turtle—a thickly built, short-necked, leather-skinned warrior with a flat Asiatic face and small narrow eyes—was wise, resolute, and reflective. If the conspiracy succeeded and the French were driven out, Croghan hoped he could arrange things so that Turtle would be the principal chief at the treaty table.

Besides Nicolas, Old Briton, Turtle, and Coldfoot, a surprise visitor to the war council in Sandusky was Chief Longjump of the Lake St. Claire Hurons, who while seemingly loyal to France were secretly in league with Nicolas. In recent months two separate hunting parties of Lake St. Claire Hurons had visited Detroit, where they were welcomed as friendly Indians. A mutual trust was now established, and Captain Celoron would suspect nothing the next time Chief Longjump and his hunters were guests at the fort. But this time the Hurons would get up before dawn, slaughter the French soldiers in their beds, and open the gates to Nicolas and his men. As soon as Detroit was captured, the Seneca runner, Gabriel, would carry the news to the rebel chiefs already in position to attack the French forts in the south—Old Briton at Fort Miami (now Fort Wayne, Indiana), Turtle at Fort Ouiatenon (Lafayette, Indiana), and Coldfoot at Fort Vincennes. If this plan succeeded, the chain of French forts connecting Montreal to the Mississippi would be a charred ribbon and England would have control of the northwest.

Nicolas told his allies that the plan was revealed to him by the Master of Life. It is a dandy scheme, said Croghan, and as good as the one the Greeks pulled off when they sacked the great city of Troy. Nicholas did not know about the Trojan horse, but he nodded his approval when Croghan explained that this famous strategy was also divinely inspired. The gods were against Troy, Croghan explained, and it is only natural that they will be against Detroit, a rich fortress in the hands of perfumed tyrants.

The Huron Conspiracy, sometimes called the Conspiracy of Nicolas, was, in fact, a good plan and would have succeeded except for an untimely disclosure. Even Captain Celoron later admitted that Detroit would have been lost if he had not been warned by a Jesuit priest who himself discovered the plan by sheer accident. The priest was stationed in Detroit, but once a month he went to hear confessions in the Huron village on Lake St Claire. If he had gone a week earlier or a day later, he would have been none the wiser, but he happened to go the day before the Hurons were to visit the fort. The penitent who exposed the plot was a Huron squaw, a widow and a new convert to the Catholic faith. When she overheard her son boasting to a friend about the brave part he would play in the capture of Detroit, the poor mother was worried to death. She knew it was a mortal sin to betray their French father and that if her son were killed in the battle, he would certainly be cast into hell and tortured by devils more cunning than the Iroquois, with no end to the pain or any hope at all.

For all her fears, the woman did not intend to betray her son or the other tribesmen. She went to the priest to confess her own sins, but in the dark and snug closet of the confessional she quickly fell under the spell of the priest’s disembodied voice. He was gentle and mild with her when she confessed her little sins, but he guessed there was something unspoken. And what else is troubling you, my child? he asked. Now the woman was trapped. She knew it was a great sin to lie to a priest in the confessional. She mumbled and evaded. The priest assured her that he was bound by a solemn oath not to reveal what he heard in the confessional. She started and faltered but eventually confessed what she knew about the conspiracy. The priest was shocked, but he kept his composure; he told her not to worry about her son. Evil men propose many things, he said, but nothing comes to pass that is contrary to the will of God. He then blessed the woman and assured her that the Virgin Mary, Mother of God, would not let a good woman lose her only son. The squaw went away with renewed hope and faith, and Father Bordeaux, in keeping with God’s will, hustled off to Detroit to warn the French commandant. The priest did not think he had sinned. He absolved himself, confident that it was better in God’s eyes that one priest break his vow than for Detroit to fall into the hands of Protestants (for surely the British were behind the devilish scheme).

The rest of the story of the Huron Conspiracy is anti-climactic. Celoron apprehended and disarmed the scheming Hurons as soon as they arrived at the fort. When Nicolas’ warriors, hiding in the neighboring woods, learned what happened, they were beside themselves with anger and frustration. A few ran forward and began shooting at the French guards on the parapets. The French returned fire and killed three Indians before Nicolas restored order and made a hasty retreat. Gabriel ran swiftly but with a heavy heart to tell the Miami chiefs that Nicolas had failed. At Fort Miami, an impatient Old Briton had already started his attack, but as soon as Gabriel arrived with the bad news, Old Briton called off the siege and returned to Kekionga. Later Turtle and Coldfoot withdrew their forces without firing a shot. The rebellion had failed.

In Detroit, Celoron gave the Lake St. Claire Hurons a good scolding, and after they repledged their loyalty to France, he sent them home. The squaw who confessed to Father Boudreau welcomed her prodigal son with open arms and soon persuaded him to become a Catholic. If it was a good thing, she said, to have a French father in Versailles; it was better to have a French God in Heaven.

When the other Sandusky rebels heard of Nicolas’ failure they sent envoys to Detroit to ask forgiveness. Since Coldfoot had not played an active part in the rebellion, it was safe for him to remain in Kekionga and resume trade with the French. Nicolas, Old Briton, and Turtle had gone too far to expect to be forgiven. They prepared to flee before Celoron organized an expedition to burn them out. Croghan was also forced to flee. His trade on Lake Erie was ruined, and there was a hundred-pound bounty on his scalp. He took a day off to get drunk with Gabriel and to curse his lack of foresight.

I am hard set to know how I failed to tell the Hurons not to allow a priest in their village at such a time, he said to Gabriel. Don’t I know that the confessional is as good as a torture chamber when it comes to squeezing secrets and no noise at all or blood to mop up afterward. It will be noted that Croghan, though a Dubliner, was no Catholic but a Church of England man from his cradle to his grave.

After a few days of drinking and cursing his luck, Croghan regained his usual optimism, but he could not do anything for Nicolas. The Huron chief believed that the Master of Life had abandoned him, and his depression deepened when he learned that the Huron plot was foiled by a Jesuit priest. Did that mean the French God was stronger than the Indian God?

‘Tis no such thing as that, said Croghan. The luck went against us, but it’s no more than a temporary setback. Look at the economy; it ain’t changed a bit, now has it? The French are still short on goods and we’re long. We must relocate; that’s all. I’m going to Philly to hook up with Tostee and get a new load of supplies and, then go down in Miami country where the French won’t bother us. I reckon Old Briton and Turtle will come in. Why not join us? We’ll start over. But Nicolas shook his head and looked sour.

There’s no start-up left in this old Indian, said Croghan to himself.

A few weeks later Croghan heard that the French in Detroit had been reinforced from Montreal and were preparing a punitive expedition against Sandusky. It was time to move out. On the last day, after the Hurons had put a torch to their village, Croghan walked on the beach with Nicolas, smoking what would be their last pipe. When I get things worked out with Old Briton and Turtle, I will let you know. Croghan spoke for the sake of friendship and old times. He saw that Nicolas was ill and discouraged. The old chief did not even reply to Croghan’s invitation but stared straight ahead to where the waves broke on the shore and withdrew with a hissing sound. They walked a little longer and then turned back. Except for the smoke rising from the burning village behind the dunes, the sky was clear and the lake sparkled in blue and silver. When they stopped to shake hands, Croghan saw the shadow of death on the old warrior’s face. They made perfunctory promises to meet again, but they both knew better. Nicolas was dead within the year.

Croghan met Gabriel at the top of the dunes. The other Senecas were going with Nicolas’ Hurons to resettle in Cuyahoga. Gabriel was staying with the Buck. They traveled light on two horses and took the south trail to Kekionga instead of going east on the Great Trail. They stopped in first at Coldfoot’s house, where they were treated with the chief’s kindly hospitality. He was a large, good-natured man with a round handsome face which glowed like sunlit bronze. Unlike Nicolas and Old Briton, Coldfoot did not run off his wife and children when he had a white visitor. And he had only one wife, a plump, sweet-faced woman with four children, three girls and a boy, all less than ten years old, who skipped about the large cabin as friendly and lively as puppies. Croghan gave them candy and patted their heads. They were pretty young things, clean-faced and free of lice and foul odors. Only after the family meal did Coldfoot’s wife and children withdraw, leaving the chief to confer with the white trader.

I know my brother has made peace with the French, Croghan began, but that is not a good solution for your people. Coldfoot would be wise to move south with Old Briton and Turtle. You have the word of the Buck that you will be well supplied with British goods. It won’t take long, a year at most. Then we will be stronger than we were in Sandusky.

That is possible, said Coldfoot, but in the meantime my people must eat. It is little we get from the French, but it is more than nothing. You say you will be strong, but you failed to capture Detroit. You call yourselves our brothers, but where are the British troops to fight for the British trade?

That is a fair question, Chief, and I promise you that next spring my friend the governor of Pennsylvania will make a treaty with the Miamis, promising a free and open trade backed by British arms.

Coldfoot thought for a moment and then nodded. When that day comes, we will talk again.

Croghan next stopped at Old Briton’s camp, which was outside Kekionga on the Maumee River. The crusty old chief had decided to move his people to Pickawillany, also called Pick’s Town (now Picqua, Ohio), on the Great Miami River, about 150 miles south of Sandusky.

Can the Buck bring supplies there? he asked.

All you need, said Croghan.

The need will be great. If Old Briton is at Pickawillany, many Miamis will follow.

I believe it. Croghan nodded. I assume that Turtle is still with us.

Yes. We have spoken. Turtle will move his people to Pickawillany and build a strong house for your supplies.

I had hoped no less, said Croghan, but I am afraid Coldfoot is sticking with the French.

Old Briton shrugged and smiled. Coldfoot has a slow foot. He will follow us when the time comes.

I agree, said Croghan. You leave the supplies to me. Pickawillany is a good location. Better than Sandusky. The French in Detroit will not stretch their arms into Miami territory.

If they do, we will cut them off, said Old Briton.


The Huron Conspiracy alerted the French to the growing danger of British infiltration in the Great Lakes region, but they did not have the power, in either goods or guns, to do much about it. Although the French in Detroit destroyed the rebel base in Sandusky, Croghan and Old Briton, drawing increasing support from the Miami tribes, soon established a more powerful trading station in Pickawillany. Situated a little north of the junction of the Great Miami River and Loramie Creek, Pickawillany was the virtual hub of the trade routes connecting Lake Erie to the Ohio River. The village itself was a little over halfway down the central corridor (the Maumee-Auglous-Great Miami Rivers) between Sandusky and present-day Cincinnati. About twenty miles northwest of Pickawillany were the headwaters of the Wabash (the Wabash-Maumee corridor to Evansville, Indiana). About the same distance east of Pickawillany was the Scioto River (the Sandusky-Scioto corridor to Portsmouth, Ohio). If Pickawillany rebels could gain control of these rivers, they could succeed where Nicolas had failed—that is, they would cut off the French from their forts on the Mississippi.

With this objective in mind, Croghan persuaded the Pennsylvania commissioners to meet with Chief Turtle and Chief Assapens (Old Briton’s nephew) in Lancaster. On June 11, 1748, the Miami chiefs signed the Treaty of Lancaster, agreeing to trade with Croghan at Pickawillany in exchange for British protection and a promise that the British would not settle the Ohio

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