If the people of Ohio were Eskimos in the ages before history began, and then thousands of years after, but still thousands of years ago were Aztecs, there is no doubt that when history first knew of them they were Frenchmen. The whole Great West, in fact, was once as much a province of France as Canada; for the dominions of Louis XV. were supposed to stretch from Quebec to New Orleans, and from the Alleghanies to the Mississippi. The land was really held by savages who had never heard of this king; but that was all the same to the French. They had discovered the Great Lakes, they had discovered the Mississippi, they had discovered the Ohio; and they built forts at Detroit, at Kaskaskia, and at Pittsburg, as well as at Niagara; they planted a colony at the mouth of our mightiest river, and opened a highway to France through the Gulf of Mexico, as well as through the Gulf of St. Lawrence; and they proclaimed their king sovereign over all.
In Ohio they had a post on the Maumee, and everywhere they had settlements at each of the forts, where there was always a chapel and a priest for the conversion of the Indians. With the French, the sword and the cross went together, but very few of the savages knew that they were either conquered or converted. From time to time they knew that companies of picturesque strangers visited their towns, and promised them the favor of the French king if they would have nothing to do with the traders from the English colonies on the Atlantic, and threatened them with his displeasure if they refused. When these brilliant strangers staid among them, and built a fort and a chapel, and laid out farms, then the savages willingly partook of the great king's bounty, and clustered around the French post in their wigwams and settled down to the enjoyment of his brandy, his tobacco, his ammunition, and his religion. When the strangers went away, almost as soon as they had promised and threatened, then the savages went back to business with the English traders.
The company of Frenchmen who visited our Miami Indians at their town of Pickawillany, on the head waters of the Miami River in 1749, was of this last sort. It was commanded by the Chevalier Celoron de Bienville, and it counted some two hundred Canadians and French troops, officered by French gentlemen, and attended by one of those brave priests who led or followed wherever the French flag was carried in the wilderness. Celoron was sent by the governor of Canada to lay claim to the Ohio valley for his king, and he did this by very simple means. He nailed plates of tin to certain trees, and he buried plates of lead at the mouths of the larger streams. The leaden plates no one ever saw for a hundred years, till some boys going to bathe found them here and there in the wave-worn banks; but if the Indians could have read anything, or if the English traders could have read French, they might have learned at once from the tin plates that the king of France owned the "Ohio River and all the waters that fell into it, and all the lands on both sides." As it was, however, it is hard to see how anybody was the wiser for them, or could know that the king had upheld his right to the Ohio country by battle and by treaty and would always defend it.
In fact, neither the battles nor the treaties between the French and English in Europe had really settled the question of their claim to the West in America, and both sides began to urge it in a time of peace by every kind of secret and open violence. As for the Miamis and their allies among the neighboring tribes, they believed that God had created them on the very spot where Celoron found them living, and when he asked them to leave their capital at Pickawillany, and go to live near the French post on the Maumee, they answered him that they would do so when it was more convenient. He bade them banish the English traders, but they merely hid them, while he was with them, and as soon as he was gone, they had them out of hiding, and began to traffic with them. They never found it more convenient to leave their town, until a few years later, when a force of Canadians and Christian Indians came down from the post on the Maumee, and destroyed Pickawillany.
Celoron came into the Ohio country through the western part of New York. He launched his canoes on the head waters of the Beautiful River, as the French called the Ohio, and drifted down its current till he reached the mouth of the Great Miami. He worked up this shallow and uncertain stream into Shelby County, where he had his friendly but fruitless meeting with the chief of the Miamis. After that he kept on northward to the Maumee, and then embarked on Lake Erie, and so got back to Canada. It could not be honestly said that he had done much to make good his king's claim to the country with his plates of tin and lead. He had flattered and threatened the Indians at several places; and the Indians had promised, over the cups of brandy and pipes of tobacco which he supplied them, to be good subjects to Louis XV., who was such a very bad king that he did not deserve even such subjects as they meant to be. They seem not to have taken Celoron's warnings very seriously, though he told them that the English traders would ruin them, and that they were preparing the way for the English settlers, who would soon swarm into their country, and drive them out.
The Indians did not believe Celoron, and yet he told them the truth. The English traders were often men of low character, thoroughly dishonest in their dealings, and the English settlers were only waiting for the end of the struggle with the French to come and take the Indians' lands from them. If the French soldiers and the French priests had won in that struggle, Ohio and the whole West might now be something like the Province of Quebec as it was then. The Indians would have been converted to the Catholic faith, and they would still be found in almost as great numbers as ever throughout the vast region where hardly one of their blood remains.
But this was not to be. The French built their forts with a keen eye for the strongest points in the wilderness, and the priests planted the cross even beyond the forts. But all around and between the forts and the missions, the traders from our colonies, which afterwards became our states, stole into the country claimed for the king of France. At that time, there was peace between the king of France and the king of England in Europe, and they pretended that there was peace between their nations in America. They were very civil to each other through their ministers and ambassadors, over there, but their governors and captains here never ceased to fight and trick for the ownership of the West. From their forts, built to curb the English settlers, the French set the savages on to harass the frontier of our colonies, which their war parties wasted with theft and fire and murder. Our colonies made a poor defense, because they were suspicious of one another. New England was suspicious of New York, New York of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania of Virginia, and the mother country was suspicious of them all. She was willing that the French should hold Canada, and keep the colonies from joining together in a revolt against her, when she could easily have taken that province and freed them from the inroads of the Canadian Indians. The colonies would not unite against the common enemy, for fear one would have more advantage than another from their union; but their traders went out singly, through the West, and trading companies began to be formed in Pennsylvania and Virginia. While Celoron was in Ohio claiming the whole land for the king of France, the king of England was granting a great part of the same to a company of Virginians, with the right to settle it and fortify it The Virginia Company sent its agents to visit the Miamis at Pickawillany a year later, and bound them to the English by gifts of brandy, tobacco, beads, gay cloths, and powder.
The allied tribes, who had their capital at Pickawillany, numbered some two thousand in all. The Miamis themselves are said to have been of the same family as the great Iroquois nation of the East, who had beaten their rivals of the Algonquin nation, and forced them to bear the name of women. But many of the Ohio Indians were Delawares, who were of the Algonquin family; they were by no means patient of the name of women, and they and their friends now took the side of the French against the English. When at last the West, together with the whole of Canada, fell to the English and there presently began to be trouble between the American colonists and the English king, all the Indians, both Iroquois and Algonquins took part against the Americans. A little victory for either side, however, with gifts of brandy and tobacco, would turn their savage hearts toward the victors; and one must not be too confident in saying that the Indians were always for the French against the English, or always for the English against the Americans.
In fact, one must speak mostly of the Indians in words that have a double sense. The old explorers, missionaries, soldiers, and traders all talk of nations, towns, villages, kings, half-kings, queens, and princes, but these words present false images to our minds. Calling the chief town of the Miamis at Pickawillany their capital gives the notion of some such capital as Columbus or Washington; but if we imagine the chief town of the Miamis as it really was, we see some hundreds of wigwams in straggling clusters along the banks of the river, in the shadow of the ancient woods, or in the sunshine of the beautiful meadows, as the earliest white visitors to Ohio called the small prairies which they came upon in the heart of the forests. We see a large council house of bark, as nearly in the midst of the scattered huts as may be, where the Miamis hold their solemn debates, receive embassies from other tribes, welcome their warriors home from their forays, and celebrate their feasts and dances. We see fields bordering the village, where the squaws plant their corn and beans, and the maple groves where they make their sugar. Among the men and boys we see the busy idleness of children, all day long, except when the grown-up children go out upon a hunt, or take the warpath. Sometimes we see an English trader coming with his merchandise and presents, or a captive brought in to be tortured and burnt, or adopted into the tribe.
The tribes in the Ohio country were far abler than those that the English first met to the eastward, and they were fiercer than the fiercest which the Americans have at last brought under control in the plains of the Far West. Pitiless as Sioux and Apache and Comanche have shown themselves in their encounters with the whites in our day, they were surpassed in ferocity by the Shawnees, the Wyandots, and the Miamis whom the backwoodsmen met in a thousand fights, a century or a century and a half ago. The Ohio Indians were unspeakably vicious, treacherous, and filthy, but they were as brave as they were vile, and they were as sagacious as they were false. They produced men whom we must call orators, statesmen, and generals, even when tested by the high standards of civilization. They excelled us in the art of war as it was adapted to the woods, and they despised the stupid and wasteful courage of the disciplined English soldier. Till the white men studied war from them they were always beaten in their fights with the red men, and it was hardly the fault of the Indians if the pioneers learned from them to be savages: to kill women and children as well as armed men, to tomahawk and scalp the wounded, to butcher helpless prisoners. But this befell, and it is this which makes many of the stories of Ohio so bloody. We must know their hideous facts fully if we would know them truly, or if we would realize the life that once passed in the shadows of our woods.
The region that we now call Ohio was wonderfully varied and pleasant. The many rivers that watered it cleared their space to the sky where they ran, and here and there the meadows or prairies smiled to the sun in grass and flowers. But everywhere else there was the gloom of forests unbroken since the Mound Builders left the land. The long levels that bordered the great lake at the north, the noble hills that followed the course of the Beautiful River, the gently varied surfaces of the center, and the southwest, the swamps and morasses of the northwest, were nearly everywhere densely wooded. Our land was a woodland, and its life, when it first became known to the white man, was the stealthy and cruel life of the forest. Where the busy Mound Builders once swarmed, scanty tribes of savages lurked in the leafy twilight, hunting and fishing, and warring upon one another. They came and went upon their errands of death and rapine by trails unseen to other eyes, till the keen traders of Pennsylvania and Virginia began to find their way over them to their villages, and to traffic with the savages for the furs which formed their sole wealth.
All is dim and vague in any picture of the time and place that we can bring before us. There are the fathomless forests, broken by the prairies and rivers; there are the Indian towns widely scattered along the larger streams throughout the whole region; there are the French posts on the northern border, with each a priest and a file of soldiers, and a few Canadian farmers and traders. Under the cover of peace between the French king and the English king, there is a constant grapple between the French soldiers and the English settlers for the possession of the wilds which shall one day be the most magnificent empire under the sun; there are the war parties of Indians falling stealthily upon the English borders to the eastward; there is the steady pressure of the backwoodsman westward, in spite of every hardship and danger, in spite of treaties, in spite of rights and promises. These are the main features of the picture whose details the imagination strives to supply, with a teasing sense of the obscurity resting upon the whole. It is all much farther off than ancient Rome, much stranger than Greece; but it is the beginning of a mighty history, which it rests with the children of this day, and their children after them, to make the happiest and noblest chapter in the history of the world. It is a part of that greater history, and I should like my young readers to remember that the Ohio stories which I hope to tell them are important chiefly because they are human stories, and record incidents in the life of the whole race. They cannot be taken from this without losing their finest meanings.