The Frontier Moves West: Fort Miamis National Historic Site in Maumee, Ohio
Today I visit the site of Fort Miamis, a 1794 British-held fort built to block U.S. westward expansion during the Northwest Indian Wars, the Battle of Fallen Timbers, and the War of 1812.
I talked about the Fallen Timbers battle, battlefield, and monument locations, and now I’ll move five miles northeast up the Anthony Wayne Trail to talk about the final site in this trio of historic parcels in Maumee, Ohio: the British stronghold of Fort Miamis. If you’re traveling there, it’s a separate location from the battlefield and monument, and it’s not (easily) walkable from the Side Cut Metropark where the monuments stand; the fort’s primary access point runs along a freeway and the busy River Road. But it has a small parking lot next to the National Park Service sign in a narrow enclave squashed between bordering local residential developments, so it’s easy to spot if you’re driving, even though there’s no conventional-looking fort there anymore.
The earthen mounds that can still be seen at the Fort Miamis National Historic Site were part of the original earthworks structure built by the British to stem the westward expansion of American settlers in the 1790s and 1800s. The fort was primarily used to stop U.S. military advancements through the Maumee Valley, to solidify American Indian support against the westward-creeping U.S. settlements into the Northwest Territory, to control waterways and supplies on the river, and later, to serve as a British encampment during the War of 1812.
The Northwest Territory in 1794 was designated territory of the United States at the time, but occupied and controlled by American Indians and still claimed by the British, even though the British promised in the 1783 Treaty of Paris to remove all of their soldiers from American soil following Britain’s defeat in the American War of Independence. Under the terms of the treaty, the region south of the Great Lakes and between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers was assigned to the United States. The British, however, refused to evacuate their forts in the region until the Americans honored their own pledges in the treaty, as well, including paying pre-Revolutionary debts that the U.S. still owed to Britain (of which the U.S. was unable to pay at that time), and stopping the ongoing confiscation of Loyalist property. To protect Anglo-American settlers while the U.S. expanded (hastily) westward, President George Washington called on General “Mad” Anthony Wayne to travel through the region with a force of about 3,000 regulars and militiamen to build forts between the Ohio and Maumee rivers. The resistance they encountered culminated in the Battle of Fallen Timbers.
Before Fort Miamis was built, the grounds were used as a French trading post (Post des Miamis) in the late 1600s (possibly 1693); and an archeology study of the grounds revealed that, prior to inhabitation by the French, it was also a site used by the Late Woodland mound builders, c. 900-1200 CE. In 1760, the British occupied an abandoned French trading post and were using the location for fur trading with the Native Americans; the British rebuilt the post in 1763 and again in 1785. But between April and August 1794, British troops and their Indian allies built Fort Miamis on that same strategic point on the north bank of the Maumee River, about fifteen miles from its mouth, at the foot of the rapids that commanded both the land and the river passes of the Maumee Valley, to block Wayne’s expected march on British-held Detroit from his station at Fort Recovery, near the headwaters of the Wabash River.
Fort Miamis was an architecturally significant type of fort rarely built on the American frontier. Constructed after the manner of noted French military engineer Sebastien Vauban, the fort was an earthwork of ditches and embankments reinforced by log stockades and buildings. A map on the site shows what the fort looked like, including four diamond-shaped earthen-walled bastions, cannon openings, officers’ quarters, barracks, a river battery, a supply building, a number of shops, and an abatis—12-inch thick wooden stakes that lined the 25-foot-deep trenches that still partially remain today (varying sources have different numbers for the depth, ranging from 20 to 25 feet, but the node onsite says 25 feet). Though no contemporary plans of the fort remain, it likely looked like this artist’s rendering, based on descriptions:
The outpost housed over 180 British and Canadian troops who manned 14 cannon alongside other superior firepower, including four nine-pounders on the river side, six six-pounders on the land side, two large howitzers, and two swivels, protecting the fort in all directions. Located 55 miles south of British-held Fort Detroit, Miamis provided an additional obstacle to Wayne, and it appeared to be so well-maintained that Wayne didn’t attempt to siege the garrison, even though U.S. troops advanced to within a mile and a quarter of the fort after their victory at Fallen Timbers, where they’d successfully routed the Native Americans.
The British had promised their Native allies that U.S. settlers would be kept from the area, but when the routed Indians retreated to Fort Miamis to be admitted for cover, the British closed the doors and didn’t allow them into the fort. Major William Campbell, the British commander of the fort (which was sometimes referred to as Fort Campbell, named after him), refused to assist the Natives despite promising to do so, 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 (despite the fact that some British Canadians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers had already done just that).
Legend says Wayne followed the routed Natives to Fort Miamis, where he was refused British surrender, so he slowly walked solo around the entire perimeter of the fort within pistol-range, insulting the soldiers behind its walls. The Native Americans watched this brazen action in astonishment from the woods, and though Wayne thought better of attacking the impregnable fort and later retreated to Fort Defiance, his ballsiness—coupled with the unwillingness of the British to provide promised aid—disillusioned the disheartened Indians into giving up and going home. Although American raids in 1794-95 destroyed nearby British storehouses, crop fields, and gardens, the fort itself was never formally attacked. But 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. Britain’s refusal greatly harmed its relationship with American Indians in the Ohio territory, and that would come around to bite British forces in the arse in the War of 1812, when many Natives who had once been British-allied changed over to the American side.
Fort Miamis had little impact on Wayne’s plans, however. He had no intention of marching on or toward Fort Detroit at the time, and his sole mission was to conquer and remove Ohio’s American Indians along the Maumee River, so Anglo-American settlers could move into that area without further resistance (not the least of which because Wayne was extremely anti-Indian and leaped at any chance to see them eradicated). The fort was later handed over to the U.S. in 1796 under a provision of the Jay Treaty, one of several treaties to come from the aftermath of the Battle of Fallen Timbers that ceded territory to the United States. Wayne then garrisoned the fort, and Americans occupied it until abandoning it in 1798.
During the War of 1812, the by-then-dilapidated fort and its dock facilities were reoccupied by the British under General Henry Procter and the Western Indian Confederacy under Shawnee chief Tecumseh when they unsuccessfully attacked U.S. General William Henry Harrison at Fort Meigs (in present-day Perrysburg, Ohio, about two miles upriver—I’ll talk about Fort Meigs in a future post). The British landed troops and artillery to set up a camp and base of operations at Fort Miamis, but they did not rebuild the sinking fort, only used it as headquarters and a staging area for an encampment. On or near the site of Fort Miamis, the British 41st Regiment of Foot encampment stood during the First Siege of Fort Meigs, from May 1 to 9, 1813, and a plaque is displayed on the grounds that lists the names of the known British privates who lost their lives in the encounter with Harrison, and others (American and British) who died during what is known as Dudley’s Massacre.
American colonel William Dudley’s defeat and massacre is a whole other (unnecessary and preventable) thing that I’ll talk about in an upcoming post, but it has significance to Fort Miamis because it was at this site on May 5, 1813, that American prisoners of war who were captured during the defeat (which happened a short distance away) of Dudley’s Kentucky Militia were shot, tomahawked, and scalped by Native American forces allied with Great Britain. The British marched the American prisoners to Fort Miamis and forced them to run a gantlet of Indians, into and through the ruined fort. Procter did nothing to stop the massacre, but Tecumseh stopped the ordeal upon his arrival and chastised his warriors. When the massacre was over, approximately 40 American prisoners lay dead, alongside British private Patrick Russell of the 41st Regiment of Foot, who was shot when he attempted to intervene and to stop the attack against the unarmed prisoners. A plaque is mounted at the Fort Miamis site to honor Russell. In the end, nearly 650 Americans were killed or captured in what became known as Dudley’s Defeat.
Abandoned again in 1814, Fort Miamis was demolished sometime afterward (though one source says it wasn’t abandoned until 1817, but that date doesn’t seem to bear documentation). The site became agricultural land, followed by public park use. A part of the fort site was acquired by Ohio historical organizations in 1942, and the Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society conducted preliminary excavations in 1953. The Historical Society of Northwestern Ohio placed a marker at the site in 1955 (one source says 1957, but the physical marker onsite is dated 1955, so I believe the latter date to be accurate), and the site of the fort was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, then incorporated into the Fallen Timbers Battlefield and Fort Miamis National Historic Site in 1999, under Public Law 106-164. Today, the site is managed by Toledo Metroparks in partnership with Ohio History Connection, and is an affiliated unit of the National Park System.
Fallen Timbers was an important battle for Ohio because its outcome directly led to Ohio’s statehood, though the site of Fort Miamis is underwhelming as it stands today—some grassy swells and swoops on what is otherwise flat ground about the size of five or six linked yards, backed by a row of visible houses. It’s difficult to imagine a fort here, no matter how you look at it. Archaeological digs in 1982 unearthed nails, wall timbers, bottle fragments, regimental buttons, and other artifacts, but all that remains visible today are the earthwork trenches that were originally dug around the fort in 1794, traces of the earthen walls, and one of the bastion bases. Construction of the hastily assembled fort was also never completed by the British nor by the Americans at any time. The site was an ideal defensive position and outlook post, but the rolling terrain full of hills and dips was unsuitable for longterm durability. The dips had to be filled in and flattened with loose earth that didn’t hold up over time, and this caused instability in the shifting ground beneath the built structures. Some of what looks like trenches today are actually the washed-away areas of what was originally loosely filled in to create a level construction base.
Some of the original historical signage, first placed in 1955, is a little white-centric in its wording (“the Northwest Territory was opened to peaceful white settlement,” right after stating how the Native Americans were forced to sign a treaty they didn’t want to sign, &c.). The highlight of the site—besides knowing that those mounds are the actual remaining part of a 1794 fort—is the wind-up audio box that, for some very difficult cranks on a wheel that will give your shoulder a mighty workout, reads aloud with acted enthusiasm and dialects the firsthand accounts of battle belligerents. The audio box is the only thing onsite to really put you into the shoes and mindset of the soldiers and Indians in their time and place, but I’ll warn you in advance: don’t stop winding the wheel in the middle of the narration, or you’ll lose your place and will have to start over. It’s a bastard of a continuous crank.
There are several maps, brochures, kiosks, and nodes that help interpret the site, which consists of a very short dirt walking path (less than a quarter mile) around the western side of the remaining earthworks, to the treeline along a bluff overlooking the Maumee River. The park is free, open year-round 7 a.m. to dark, and allows on-leash dogs. There are no restrooms, tour guides, visitor center, gift shop, water station, nor staff, but visitors can have their National Parks Passport stamped at the Maumee branch of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library, located just down River Road, right by the marker to the site of Dudley’s Massacre.