In presentations I have given I often refer to the destruction of Pickawillany as the “first thing” to happen in Ohio. It should be obvious even to the casual observer that such a statement is an over-simplification of facts and that much has taken place in Ohio since the last Ice Age. However, it is perhaps the first episode of particular importance in the history of Ohio for which there are detailed first hand accounts and other contemporary writings. These include official documents of the French and English Colonial Governments as well as the journals and memoirs of individuals central to the history of Pickawillany including Christopher Gist, George Croghan, William Trent, Celeron de Blainville and Charles Langlade. Over the years historians have argued the significance of the destruction of Pickawillany to include everything from much ado about nothing to the opening salvo of the French and Indian War. Like many things, the truth is likely somewhere in the middle although the destruction of Pickawillany certainly did nothing to assuage the hostilities that had festered between the French and English since 1690 and the sacking of Schenectady by the French. The accounts of those events west of the Alleghenies contemporary with Pickawillany are often underrepresented if not actually overlooked in the written histories of that period. It could simply be that the events themselves just seem too sketchy to determine a particular relevance in the overall picture. However, affairs that become the stuff of history do not happen in a vacuum and it is necessary to examine and connect related historic events to see why in this case a small English trading post in the middle of the Ohio Country was more likely than not an important factor in those events leading up to the French and Indian War – what in a geo-political sense Winston Churchill referred to as the First World War.
The roots of the struggle between the French and English for control of North America can in fact be traced back as far as the 16th century to the basic divergent French and English philosophies relating to how domain in the New World could best be achieved. English colonies were established in America following the precepts set forth by Richard Hackluyt in his 1584 treatise A Discourse on Western Planting. Hackluyt was an English writer and geographer who had collected and translated earlier narratives of adventure and discovery beginning with the Greeks and Romans. His studies would lead him to become a strong advocate of western expansion of English power as a foundation for building a world empire. In “Discourse” Hackluyt outlined the exact steps England must necessarily take to rightfully achieve its proper status of a global power. Among other considerations, he propounded that the primary purpose for colonial expansion was for the benefit of the mother country as a source of raw material to be sent to back to England and returned to the colonies and traded elsewhere in the world as finished goods. To facilitate this basic tenant the physical location of the colonies was of prime importance in order to allow for the easy passage between the colonies and the mother country and the economic exchange of raw materials for finished goods. This rationale explains how the first English colonies in the new world came to be clustered along the coast and throughout the waterways of the eastern seaboard of North America. Additionally, large portions of local populations, both male and female, should be removed from England to the colonies to increase and maintain a significant English presence in North America. All the while the focus would remain the strengthening of England’s world position. As population in the colonies increased it was expected that they would expand into the west taking English influence with them. In terms of how the English dealt with the native and other European populations, interactions that did not ultimately benefit English interests should be kept to a minimum if not entirely discouraged. The primary duty of a colonist was to provide service to the Mother Country.
On the other hand the French approach to settlement in North America was as close to a polar opposite to that of the English as it could get. The French did not want colonies per se but sought rather to establish French territories in North America: to create a French nation abroad. To this end the French chose to pursue a policy of Pays D’en Haut, literally translated to the “land above” or the “up country” referring to the Great Lakes Region beyond the settlements in the St. Lawrence Valley. This concept was said to have originated with Samuel Champlain who envisioned a totally new population in the “up country” created by the intermarriage of French and Indians. By the 17th century the French saw themselves as being on the verge of becoming a preeminent power on the European continent and were skeptical about depopulating the homeland by creating large English styled colonies in the New World. Instead, the French would send small contingents of young men to North America to intermarry with the Indians while gaining entry into Native kinship groups to the benefit of French commercial ends. At the same time this would allow the Native groups to recover from losses of male members due to warfare and disease. In essence this policy would create a new French overseas nation not wholly French or Indian but a combination of the two. In order to control North America the French would become North America and North America would become French.
By the time of the destruction of Pickawillany in 1752 there had already been a series of three wars for empire between the French and English for control of North America. These were King William’s War, 1690-97, Queen Anne’s War, 1703-13 and King George’s War, 1744-48. All three of these conflicts were based in old world politics and other emptying European treasuries and getting a lot of people killed they did little to settle anything. A case in point is the conclusion of King George’s War and the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 whereby each power had restored to it what it possessed before the war. As can be expected the Native Americans became entangled in these basically European affairs and were typically forced to choose sides often to the determent of tribal and other societal affiliations. However, the common currencies for both the French and English in their dealings with the Indians were trade goods such as muskets, iron hatchets, knives, kettles and a large variety of trinkets and other novelty items. These commodities were primarily used as barter in the fur trade although strategic alliances were often bought, sold and maintained through their well-calculated distribution. English goods were often seen to be of higher quality and more plentiful than those of the French and their supply seemed to be more dependable although shortages caused by military reversals suffered by the French during the later stages of King George’s War did little to offset the appearance of price gouging on their part. Regardless of their source, quality or dependability of supply it was soon apparent that trade goods had become the basis of existence for many Native groups as far as their material culture is concerned. It should be realized that in the span of only a few generations Native populations went from their traditional mixed economy based on hunting, gathering and agriculture to an economy based on the exchange of mercantile goods. The Indian groups of eastern North America literally went from the Stone Age to the industrial age in less than 100 years. By the end of the first third of the 18th century nearly all Native groups had become accustomed to if not dependant upon European goods at the expense of their traditional ways and there was no going back. By the middle of the 18th century one of the more prominent locations for the barter of goods between the Natives and Europeans was the English trading post referred to as Pickawillany. Although it was in existence for just a few years it quickly became a major player in the trade goods “war” and just as quickly it came to a violent end.
The site of Pickawillany is located on the western bank of the Great Miami River at the confluence of the Great Miami River and Loramie Creek in northern Miami County, Ohio. It is situated on a broad level terrace about 12 meters above the normal river flow. Since its purchase by the State of Ohio in 1999 the site has been included as a part of the Piqua Historical Area State Memorial and overseen by the Ohio Historical Society. The Piqua Historical Area is a 200+ hundred acre living history site centered on the pioneer homestead of John Johnston, an early 19th century political figure, U.S. Indian Agent and agriculturalist. A prehistoric Native presence in that general location goes back several thousands of years as evidenced by the types of flint projectile points and other stone tools found on the site of Pickawillany and in surrounding fields as well as by the presence of two Woodland Period earthworks not too far distant from the site. At first glance Pickawillany appears to have been ideally situated based solely on terrain and its proximity to a major water course. Although this may be true, there are other aspects in Pickawillany being where it is (or was) to be considered. In geographic terms Pickawillany occupied an important location as the southern terminus of three key portages or carrying places that provided access between the Ohio/Great Miami River systems and Lake Erie and other points to the north and west through the St Mary’s, Auglaize /Maumee and Wabash River systems. Traveling by water from the east and the headwaters of the Ohio River toward the western Great Lakes it would have been almost a necessity that passage from one region to the other would have to be made via Pickawillany. In purely strategic terms it is not Forks of the Ohio but its local importance as a key point of access between the Ohio River and the upper Great Lakes region should not be overlooked or underestimated.
Traditionally Pickawillany has been looked at as principally a Miami Indian town, founded in the late 1740’s. It’s unclear exactly when the entity that came to be known as Pickawillany was came into existence, but considering its location and other factors described above there is indication that there was almost certainly some sort of semi-permanent Native residency at that location that predates the traditional founding date of 1747 by many years if not decades. Linguistically the word Pickawillany is thought to be of Shawnee derivation roughly translating to “Place of the Ashes”. The same linguistic root appears in Ohio place names such as Piqua and Pickaway as well as Peckew, one of the five Shawnee clans or septs. This would seem to suggest that whatever type of settlement was possibly Shawnee and not Miami in origin. However, what is known is that in 1747 the Miami Indian Chief Memeskia rebelled against the French for the lack of “proper tribute” (trade goods) and burned the French trading post of Ft Miamis near his village of Kekionga (present day Ft. Wayne, Indiana). Shortly thereafter he moved his band southeast and settled them at the place known as Pickawillany. To be continued…