Decisive Moment: Fallen Timbers Battlefield in Maumee, Ohio
Today I visit the site of the Battle of Fallen Timbers, a decisive 1794 American victory over Native American and British opponents that effectively ended the Northwest Indian War, securing the Old Northwest for American settlement.
To understand the Battle of Fallen Timbers, one must first understand both the unfortunate necessities and the unfathomable horrors of American westward expansion in the years leading up to the War of 1812. America had gained its independence with the Treaty of Paris in September 1783, but Native Americans had been kept out of treaty negotiations, and a provision was included that allowed the British to remain in the Northwest Territory until the United States resolved a land issue with the Indians, who had largely been British allies. A decade later, the young nation was still fighting with Europeans and a hostile Western Indian Confederacy over border disputes, squatting laws, fur trading, maritime rights, the inevitabilities of manifest destiny, and control over the Old Northwest Territory. In August of 1794, the dispute over westward settlement came to a head on the battlefield, resulting in what some have called the “last battle of the American Revolution” (though I contend that it was technically quite far after the War of Independence) and in the dispossession of American Indian tribes and a loss of colonial territory for the British military and their allied settlers. The battle is regarded as one of the most significant U.S. military actions in the period between the War of Independence and the War of 1812, and it opened the Northwest Territory, a five-state region unceded by its Native inhabitants, for westward expansion that led directly to Ohio’s statehood in 1803.
On August 20, 1794, American major general “Mad” Anthony Wayne—a Valley Forge veteran handpicked by President Washington and recalled out of retirement to oversee the burgeoning nation’s first professional army after the disastrous defeats of generals Harmar and St. Clair at the hands of the Western Confederacy—led Legion of the United States troops against a British-siding Native American coalition of around 1,500 headed by Miami war chief Little Turtle (Michikinikwa) on the battle site. Other notable belligerents included Ottawa chiefs Turkey Foot (sometimes spelled Turkeyfoot), Egushaway, and Little Otter; Shawnee chief Blue Jacket; Delaware chief Buckongahelas; one of the most famous leaders of the Native resistance, Tecumseh (who later refused to sign the Treaty of Greenville at the end of this battle); alongside Wyandot led by Roundhead, Ojibwa, Chippewa, Potawatomi, Mingo, and a British company of Canadian militiamen (considered by some to be Canada’s first foreign engagement) under Captain Alexander McKillop. To prepare for the battle, the Western Confederacy followed a traditional fasting ritual; an unexpected two-day wait while Wayne built Fort Deposit left the Indians famished and dehydrated before the battle had even begun. When Wayne’s movements, which the British had watched for weeks with much interest, were further delayed by a morning thunderstorm, many of the Indians went home to check on their families, not knowing when the battle would actually start.
Wayne’s forces of about 1,700 regulars and General Charles Scott’s 1,500 Kentucky militiamen—including a 21-year-old William Henry Harrison, and Choctaw and Chickasaw men serving as scouts—marched from Cincinnati, then left Captain Zebulon Pike behind in charge of 200 soldiers at the temporary Fort Deposit near the outcropping of Roche de Boeuf, and marched five miles through poorly drained land, dense forest, and underbrush to Fallen Timbers. There, the mounted volunteer scouts encountered a surprise line of 1,100 warriors from a confederation of Ohio and Great Lakes Indian tribes.
The left wing and flanking militia fell back around the legion’s front guard, and the front guard returned fire with the Indian Confederacy as the Americans pulled back. The Confederacy pursued the retreating front guard, but the Indians were met with a light infantry skirmish line that pushed the warriors back and forced them to hide behind fallen timbers that a tornado had previously felled a few years prior (giving the battle its name). While the American right wing was under heavy fire from the hidden Indians, the left flank of militiamen charged with bayonets and inflicted heavy casualties on the Native Americans, who were forced to flee the field. When Turkey Foot was killed in the battle, the Native Americans retreated to the nearby British-occupied Fort Miamis on the banks of the Maumee River. The British had promised their Native allies that U.S. settlers would be kept from the area, but when the Indians approached Fort Miamis to be admitted for cover, the British didn’t allow them into the fort. Major William Campbell, the British commander of the fort, refused to assist the Natives, unwilling to start another war with the United States, as he had been commanded not to fire upon the Americans unless first fired on by them. The Indians had been betrayed (again) and had to flee the area alone, chased by scouts all the way back to the mouth of Swan Creek.
General Wayne held his position into the afternoon, then set up camp on the high ground overlooking the Maumee rapids, within sight of Fort Miamis. Wayne’s men returned to the battlefield to collect the wounded and equipment and to bury the dead, including the two officers and up to 17 soldiers who were interred before the hard soil conditions prevented the militia from burying any more of their deceased. On August 23, they marched their wounded back to Fort Deposit before abandoning it in favor of Fort Defiance. The soldiers spent several days marching through the area, destroying and burning the nearby Native American villages, crops, and storehouses, then decamped. After withdrawing from the area, Wayne led his army unopposed to the Miami capital of Kekionga (modern-day northeastern Indiana) and constructed Fort Wayne. The Northwest would remain largely peaceful until the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe, when Tecumseh would (rightfully, but disastrously) renew American Indian resistance in the years ahead.
Fewer than 100 men died on each side of the brief battle that lasted under an hour (Legion: 33 killed, about 100 wounded. Britain: up to 40 killed, unknown wounded. Indian Confederacy: 19 warriors killed, plus six white men fighting on the Native American side), but the Indians were discouraged by the reported deaths of eight chiefs, the surprising strength of Wayne’s forces, and the lack of promised help from British allies. The legion’s victory led to the signing of the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 and later to Jay’s Treaty, ceding portions of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin from the control of British Canada over to the United States. As a result of the battle, British forces and Indian tribes withdrew completely from the Northwest Territory, which included the areas of the southern Great Lakes, western Ohio, and northeastern Indiana. These treaties did not resolve the underlying issue, however, and British naval power continued to dominate Lake Erie and the lower Maumee River even as the Americans controlled the interior land, leading to the War of 1812 to settle the final jurisdictional disputes of the region.
The site of the Fallen Timbers Battlefield is a partnership between the National Park Service, Toledo Metroparks, and the Ohio Historical Society, and it’s one of three grouped battle and fortification locales in the Maumee, Ohio, area. The entirety of the battlefield sites is a parcel of 187 acres bounded by Interstate 475 to the east, United States Route 24 to the south, Jerome Road to the west, and a railroad right of way south of Monclova Road to the north. There is a sign for a visitor center, but there is no open visitor center, just information kiosks, drinking fountains, and restrooms. When I spoke with the Toledo Metroparks battlefield expert on the phone, she wasn’t certain when (or if) the “planned” visitor center the NPS site mentions would end up coming to fruition since the building is regularly used for events and rentals, at great benefit to the funding of the battlefield and accompanying historic sites. As a result of having no open visitor center, the site has no gift shop nor displayed artifacts, and no working staff, guides, nor employees. The trail and neighboring locales are all completely self-guided. If you are in want of an NPS passport stamp for your book, you will have to visit the Maumee Branch of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, located at 501 River Road (at the site of Dudley’s Massacre), Maumee, Ohio 43537, to receive your stamp (and a battlefield brochure if you’re interested in that) at the front desk.
The Fallen Timbers Battlefield was once thought to be in the location where the Fallen Timbers State Memorial sits today, and that location was declared a National Historic Landmark in the 1960s. Based on a map drawn by a British soldier who was not at the battle, the original site had been passed down through oral histories and misidentification for 200 years, with the most significant area of the battle being unidentified. Archaeological digs led by anthropologist G. Michael Pratt in 1995, however, uncovered that the battlefield was actually located .25 miles to the north, where the planned visitor center and parking lot now stand, leading to a 1.5-mile walking loop (the Northwest Territory Trail) that weaves through and around the actual battlefield and features 17 interpretive historical markers telling about the stages of the fight. The parking lot can be accessed at 4949 North Jerome Road, Maumee, Ohio 43537, and the paved walking trail, which is partially wooded and partially wide open, is free and accessible seven days a week from dawn to dusk. The heavily wooded ravine was a main feature central to the outcome of the battle, and it was left relatively undisturbed for most of its time after the battle, aiding nicely in past and future archaeological digs. The Fallen Timbers Battlefield and Fort Miamis National Historic Site is listed as a U.S. National Historic Site and a U.S. National Historic Landmark, and is registered on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places.
On June 22, 2019, the day I visited the battlefield, it was hot and humid, but the trees provided a decent shady respite for about half the trail that was relatively bug-free. I was pleased to find a water bottle-filling station next to the drinking fountains, though the flavor was … let’s just say interesting. Heavily metallic. There had been weeks of rain leading up to my travels here, so the greenery was lush, and poison ivy was rampant—a good excuse for me to haul out my gaiters, despite the 90-degree heat. I encountered only three other people on the trail at 9:30 in the morning on a Saturday, so it was a peaceful spot. The nodes around the walking trail indicate aspects of battle, landscape, and position, including the Downed Timber Node, which marks the Western Confederacy’s position during the battle and is being interpreted by recreated fallen timbers; the Meadow Node, which marks the area of the U.S. skirmish line and heaviest casualties denoted by the abundance of frog-legged eagle buttons (only worn by Wayne’s legion) that were found in the meadow during 1995 and 2001 archaeological surveys, thought to be the site of intense fighting and mass graves; and the 1st and 3rd Sub-Legion Battle Line, which represents the battle line of the main body of General Wayne’s legion as it moved into position against the Confederacy (each sub-legion was made up of companies of infantry, light infantry, riflemen, and dragoons). Along the way, you’ll find a beautiful ravine and wooded pathways surrounded by stone and earthwork redoubts. It’s a lovely spot for a gory struggle.