More than 250 years ago, when our state was a wild frontier, a spot northeast of Piqua was the fault line between two massive geopolitical forces — France and England, which began playing out their dreams of world dominion in the distant forests of Ohio. Today, that field along the Great Miami River is quiet and still, dotted with rolled hay bales and a full mile from the nearest historical marker that explains the bloody clash that happened here.
This was the site of a large Miami Indian village called Pickawillany — a place that became a violent touch point between the European nations in the years leading up to the French and Indian War.
Despite its importance, Pickawillany remains obscure today. The field where it sat is part of the Ohio Historical Society’s Piqua Historical Area, acquired in 1999 and added to the park that is better known for its canal-boat rides. Site manager Andy Hite, who once taught Ohio history to high-schoolers, would like to see Pickawillany be better known.
“You have to see this place in terms of world history,” Hite says. “France and England were bumping into each other as they tried to occupy the same places. It’s kind of funny to think of that when you’re sitting here in the middle of a field in Miami County, Ohio, but whoever controlled North America would end up controlling the world.”
Historians today have fairly little hard information about Pickawillany — how the village was set up, exactly what happened during the battle, or even why the settlement was here in the first place. Hite hopes that some recentexcavation and study done by Hocking College students, under the direction of OHS archaeologists, may provide a few answers. However, he knows it will be a long time, if ever, before all the mysteries in this field are solved.
“You could dig here for years,” he says. “It’s frustrating — we know how important this place was, but we really don’tknow very much about it, or what it looked like.”
The reasons for that are the temporariness of Native American construction, and the sketchy nature of the writing that was done by the few white settlers who were here at the time.
What is known is that a charismatic Miami leader named Memeskia brought several hundred of his people from the Miami homelands around present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Pickawillany in 1748. Why he moved, or why he stopped there is uncertain, though Hite says Pickawillany may have been a small Shawnee settlement. Whoever was there, it’s worth noting that permanent Native American settlement of Ohio was fairly new, starting in about 1720 after a period of some 40 years when historians believe the state was essentially unpopulated. Pickawillany grew quickly, though, as Memeskia built a central wooden stockade that would have been surrounded by wigwam-style homes and extensive farm fields. Christopher Gist, a British surveyor who visited, wrote, “This Town ... consists of about 400 Families and daily encreasing; it is accounted one of the strongest Indian Towns upon this Part of the Continent.”
It was also, soon, an important center of commerce. The Miamis invited English traders from Pennsylvania to come set up shop at Pickawillany. They built a log trading post from which they supplied everything from muskets to brass kettles, which the Indians cut up to make arrow points. Trade thrived, and the English and Miamis were content.
Far away, however, the French were increasingly annoyed. France possessed Canada and had a major installation, Fort Pontchartrain (at what is now Detroit), and its territorial reach extended south toward the Ohio Valley. The British were largely contained at this time on the east side of the Alleghenies. Pickawillany sat squarely in what the French considered to be their land — especially after an expedition in 1749 by Capt. Pierre-Joseph de Celoron de Blainville and 200 soldiers lay claim to the land along the Ohio River for France.
Celoron and his men buried a series of engraved lead plates along the river to stake that claim. Hite says the force encountered Memeskia at Pickawillany and made very clear their objections to the presence of British traders. The Miamis, however, considered English goods to be superior to what they got from the French. Memeskia sent Celoron on his way and let the British stay.
The French had to act.
They found the man to do their dirty work in one Charles-Michel Mouet de Langlade, soldier of French and Ottawa parentage whose mixed blood allowed him to be sent on a mission with a certain amount of deniability. Langlade may have taken the job because he had old bad blood with Memeskia, Hite says. He took a band of about 250 Ottawa, Ojibwa and Potawatomi fighters from near Detroit to Pickawillany.
On the morning of July 21, 1752, while most of the village men were away hunting and most of the women, children and old men were working the crops, Langlade’s force swept out of the forest like a death wind. They scooped up the women and children “with a rush and ferocity that caught everyone by surprise,” as the historian R. Douglas Hurt wrote, and laid siege to the two main structures: the blockhouse of the English traders, and Memeskia’s stockade.
The raiders quickly took the trading post without the men inside even firing a shot. The traders admitted under interrogation that Memeskia’s stockade, into which several of their group had fled and were hiding, was lightly defended, and the raiders turned their attention toward it. The French fired on the stockade throughout the morning and tried to bargain with the defenders. Something like a truce was reached, with Langlade saying he would let everybody else go free if the white traders were turned over.
“The Miamis accepted these terms, hoping for mercy rather than betrayal,” Hurt writes inThe Ohio Frontier. “The Miamis then surrendered five white men, while two others chose to hide under the stockade.” The raiders then killed one trader and Memeskia.
The raiders took five captive English traders and about 3,000 pounds’ worth of English trade goods — about a half-million dollars’ worth, in today’s money — back to Detroit. Hite says the captives were eventually released, and the two traders who hid under the stockade during the siege escaped to the Shawnee village at what is now Portsmouth and provided the account of the battle that has come down to us today.
The French tactic worked. The Miamis abandoned Pickawillany and returned to Kekionga, the Miami settlement at Fort Wayne. The English faded away, and the Indians left in Ohio became accustomed to dealing with the French. Some historians have been quick to dub Pickawillany the “first battle of the French and Indian War,” a designation that seems to elevate the conflict up a few notches on the importance scale. Hite, however, doesn’t go that far. He points out that no regular troops were involved; that the fight resembled an Indian raid more than a pitched European-style battle; and that the real war didn’t start for another two years. Still, the Battle of Pickawillany provided a very serious glimpse of what was to come in just two years — vicious British, French and Indian woodland combat fought on behalf of masters, agendas and missions determined an ocean away. The French and Indian War would run from 1754 until 1763 and end the feud over ownership of America in favor of Great Britain. In some way or other, its earliest shots may have been fired along the Great Miami River.
Bill Pickard, the OHS archaeologist who managed the recent Hocking College student excavation, puts the battle even more simply: “It pushed the British and French over the slippery slope to the big war.”
He and Linda Pansing, his archaeology partner at the historical society, put 14 students to work for two weeks in July to dig up what they believed to be the English traders’ blockhouse. The OHS has been doing X-ray and magnetic imaging work at the Pickawillany site for about five years, trying to get a sense of what might lay under the plow zone waiting to be discovered. Pickawillany’s traces lasted for some time after 1752 — enough that the Miami & Erie Canal builders recorded they had to knock down the east wall of Memeskia’s stockade in the 1830s to dig their watery trench.
Like Hite, Pickard would like to have a sense of how the village was set up and what its buildings looked like. While it makes sense that the English would have built a blockhouse in the stacked-log manner of the day, what the Miamis put up is guesswork. Pickard stresses that Memeskia’s stockade would not have been a fort in the Anglo sense; and Hite suggests that it may have lacked a roof or solid walls. Whatever Memeskia built, it held off musket-firing attackers for several hours.
Pickard’s students found definite signs of the village: glass trade beads, brass arrow points, gun flints, some charcoal, and the dark stains in the earth left by wooden posts, the suggestion of a building of some sort.
“Pickawillany is little known, and an even less-understood site,” Pickard says, “but it actually is a very important site in U.S. and Ohio history. What happened here had worldwide implications.
“Most people don’t know the history, but it was truly the first important thing that happened in Ohio.”
To read Bill Pickard’s blog about the archaeological dig, go to http://ohio-archaeology.blogspot