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Little Turtle's famed battle humbled U.S. forces

from the archives of The News-Sentinel

Two hundred years ago this weekend, a desperate battle was fought in what now is the Fort Wayne neighborhood of Lakeside. Known in history as "Harmar's Defeat," the battle might better be remembered as "Little Turtle's Victory." At the least, the conflict should be called the "Battle of Kekionga" - the Indians' name for what is now the Lakeside district, near the point where the St. Marys River joins the St. Joseph River to form the Maumee.

The Battle of Kekionga was fought at that site Oct. 22, 1790. It was an event of the greatest importance to the young nation and to the native populations of the Midwest. This engagement was the first trial at arms for the U.S. Army in the years after the Revolutionary War. It also was a great trial for the assembled Indians, who had gathered at Kekionga to withstand by arms the onrush of white settlement into the "Ohio Country," which included what is now Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and Illinois.

At issue for the United States was the very strength of the federal Congress and President George Washington. At stake, too, was the future of the regular military and the role it would play in the protection of the country.

At issue for the Indians was their very existence as a free people on their ancestral lands. In the Miamis' language, Kekionga means "hair-clipping place," reflecting the warriors' tradition of preparing their top knot of hair in readiness for battle. Native people had been making their summer encampments in the Three Rivers area for thousands of years. Here, the historic Miami Indians came together from their scattered hunting lodges and villages to conduct their annual civil business and carry out warfare.

The climactic events of October 1790 began in the summer months, when Washington ordered territorial commander Arthur St. Clair to send the U.S. Army into the Ohio Country to end the hostilities between Indians and white settlers of the Kentucky regions. St. Clair ordered Gen. Josiah Harmar, commander of the infant U.S. Army, to take a force of regulars and frontier militia and punish the Indians at their stronghold of Kekionga.

Harmar led his 1,500-man force up the Great Miami River and into the heartland of hostile natives, including Shawnees, Delawares, Miamis, Potawatomis, Huron and Wyandots. The plan was to send Maj. John Hamtramck to the west to harass and distract the Indians in the middle Wabash valley while Harmar struck at the main body of the confederated Indians.

By Oct. 18, Harmar had reached his objective at the Three Rivers region, and he began to destroy the Indian villages gathered along the river basins. But the Indians, led by the extraordinary war chief Me-she-kin-no-quah, or Little Turtle, had withdrawn from the villages, preferring to draw the Army into ambushes to the north. One such ambush, at Heller's Corner, successfully wiped out the Army forces under Capt. John Armstrong.

Harmar, who had withdrawn to the area of Nine Mile Run, sent another force. The unit under the command of Maj. John P. Wyllys forded the Maumee River not far from the present-day Coombs Street bridge and began an attack on the Indian village.

But Little Turtle responded with an attack of his own, and the U.S. Army regulars were nearly completely destroyed as they fought desperately in hand- to-hand combat. This happened in the area of today's Tennessee Avenue neighborhood. Only eight or nine soldiers survived.

At the same time, the militia under Maj. James Fontain and the mounted dragoons under Maj. James McMullan, both of the Kentucky volunteers, struck out to the north and east of Wyllys' forces (near the high ground around Delaware Avenue), lost touch with the regulars and were also cut down as they sought to engage the Indians.

Across the St. Joseph River, a Kentucky militia unit had managed to reach a position (by modern-day Lawton Place and along Griswold Drive) from which to trap the Indians unlucky enough to be pushed into the river area by Wyllys' attacks, and there they killed many Miamis. But the Indians managed to cross the river and flank the soldiers, who then fled the Kekionga battlefield to rejoin Harmar's main force.

The Army, while having done great damage to the Indians, had been bested by the Indians of Kekionga and were forced to retreat in defeat to Fort Washington, present-day Cincinnati.

The federal government and the Army were so appalled by the defeat that four years later, in 1794, Gen. "Mad" Anthony Wayne, who finally defeated the Indians in the Ohio Country, chose the anniversary date of the Kekionga battle to dedicate the new (and last) fort he built in the Indian homeland. He gave it his own name, as the conqueror of the natives. Thus it was that Fort Wayne got its name.

--Oct. 20 1990