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  • A Show of ForceThe Northwest Indian War and the Early American State
  • Kristopher Maulden (bio)

When the federal government assumed newly expanded powers granted by the Constitution in 1789, it faced an urgent challenge to quell continuing violence in the Ohio River valley. The fighting along the river cost settlers an estimated fifteen hundred casualties, two thousand horses through theft, and $50,000 in property damages between 1783 and 1790, and the violence was so extensive that it threatened the United States’ claims to the region itself. As federal judge Harry Innes of Kentucky asserted to Secretary of War Henry Knox in July 1790, settlers in the area lacked “satisfactory account of the intention of Government for our relief ” from ever more frequent Indian attacks. If such attacks continued unrestrained, he warned that settlers would soon conduct their own campaigns “upon the principle of revenge, protection, and self-preservation.” A vigilante campaign on the part of these settlers would, Innes feared, “not only prevent the intended views of Government, but undo what hath been done.” His plea was anxious but quite clear: federal authorities had to wield their new, constitutionally granted powers quickly in the Ohio Valley or risk losing control of it completely.1

Previous scholarship on this conflict in the Ohio River valley has focused largely on military campaigns or on social and cultural experiences among Indians or settlers, but this article will consider the Northwest Indian War (1790–94) as an instrument of policy. Through such a lens, the war emerges as a central piece in creating the early American state. The George Washington administration answered the challenge presented in the Ohio Valley by using its newly granted powers, especially in establishing and funding a standing army. Creating that army enabled the U.S. government to destroy Indian resistance and resolve complaints from citizens of the region, which in turn proved the new government’s potency and demonstrated its legitimacy to the American people and all inhabitants of the Ohio Valley.2

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Harry Innes (1752-1816).

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Overall, the Northwest Indian War had two significant policy effects. First, it established the federal government as the leading political and military presence in the region. Knox and other administration members ended the violence along the Ohio River decisively and guaranteed safety for American citizens and economic interests in the region. Second, federal officials took operational control over the process of Indian war-making in the Ohio River valley, which set a precedent for the rest of the continent. Rather than leave the fighting to frontier whites, like British colonial authorities often did, Knox and the War Department planned, financed, and executed nearly all of the major operations of the war. More importantly, Knox institutionalized anti-Indian violence on the frontier under federal auspices and thereby placed the U.S. Army at the head of westward expansion for the next century.

When the United States gained nominal control over the Ohio Valley in 1783, the new nation inherited a land that was hotly contested and lacked a hegemonic power. American officials and soldiers joined Indian inhabitants, European officials, French settlers, and newly arriving American settlers in the Ohio Valley and the struggle for control of it that was already a half-century old. Throughout the eighteenth century, the region had been a respite for peoples displaced by American colonization. Indian conflicts forced most native inhabitants from present-day Ohio and Kentucky, but by the 1730s, the Delaware, Mingo, Wyandot, and many other members of the eventual Northwest Indian confederacy had arrived there after British colonists disrupted Indian trading and hunting patterns farther east. Similarly, thousands of colonists unable to own land or make their fortunes east of the Appalachians poured into the area after the French and Indian War and occupied lands along the Ohio River and its tributaries (mostly south of the Ohio) in defiance of local Indians and the Proclamation of 1763. The Revolutionary War resolved little among the region’s inhabitants as well. Only around five hundred British troops occupied Great Lakes posts at the outset of the war, while George Rogers Clark’s...