Saturday, May 28, 2016

The murder that started a World War and led to the creation of the United States

The murder that started a World War and led to the creation of the United States

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

Few people can claim to have a major impact on world history.  Those who do are simply in the right place at the right time to do something that tips a world already on edge.  That is the case with Tanachrisson, an Iroquois leader living in the Ohio Valley in the 1740s.

He was born a member of the Catawba tribe, a relatively small group living in what is today western North Carolina.  As a child, he was captured in a raid.  There is some dispute as to whether the Iroquois raided the Catawba or whether another tribe did and he was eventually traded to the Iroquois.  In any event Tanachrisson grew up as a Seneca tribe member, a member of the Iroquois Confederacy, in what is today western New York.
Tanachrisson, the Half-King

The Iroquois had become quite important throughout all of the Great Lakes area by the early 1700's. They had traded with Dutch Settlers in the 1600's and were one of the first tribes to have large numbers of guns.  With this advantage, Iroquois influence took control of a wide number of other tribes, ranging from New England, as far west as Illinois, and as far south as Georgia.

To control this vast region and the many other tribes inhabiting these lands, many Iroquois served as regional leaders.  They ensured that Iroquois policies were implemented among the local tribes, and controlled all negotiations with the encroaching English and French colonies.  Tanachrisson assumed such a role in the Ohio Valley, controlling the Delaware, Shawnee, and Mingo tribes living in that area.  The English called him the "half-king" which was essentially the role of a viceroy, or regent. Essentially, he could make deals on behalf of local tribes, but was always subject to the main Iroquois council in New York.

The Iroquois had a bad habit of selling out the lands of other tribes for profit and forcing the other tribes to accept the deal and move out. They remained most closely allied with the English. Tanachrisson personally profited from such treaties.  He also was no fan of the French.  He told people that the French had boiled and eaten his father.  It's not clear whether that was true or not, but cannibalism among warring tribes in that era did happen.

In 1753, the French began building a series of forts in the Ohio Valley, linking Lake Erie with the Ohio River, asserting control of the entire Ohio Valley.  The English, particularly Virginia, opposed this move and sent a force of about 150 militia to oppose this French incursion.  The Virginia militia leader was a 21 year old kid with no military or political experience.  His main credential was that he came from a relatively wealthy and well connected family and was very eager to prove himself as a soldier.  This kid got the Governor of Virginia to name him a Lt. Col. of militia, with authority to raise a force and lead it into the wilderness to challenge the French.

The new leader, whose name was George Washington, assembled his militia, and negotiated several guides and allies to assist him with his mission.  Washington convinced Tanachrisson and a few of his warriors to join the force.

The invasion was largely a failure.  Washington's troops lacked the necessary food and supplies to operate at full efficiency. They could not move very quickly as they had to cut their way through the forest.  Despite Tanachrisson's assurances, most of the local tribes did not join the English.  Rather, they tended to side with the French, who seemed less likely to move in and populate their land.

The French force at Fort Duquesne (modern day Pittsburgh) was alerted to the slowly approaching English force.  Since France and England were at peace, the French commander deemed it appropriate to send out a small force of men to reconnoiter the enemy, determine if they were a threat, and to deliver a message that they were trespassing on French territory.

Tannachrisson became aware of the French soldiers who made camp just a few miles from the Virginians, and alerted Washington.  Washington had just sent half his force in the other direction looking for the French.  So now with his force divided, he decided to sneak up on the French at night and make contact with them at dawn.

The French had not been on the lookout for anyone.  When English militia formed up in attack lines approached their camp at dawn, they all ran for their weapons and started shooting.  There is a dispute over which side shot first.  The English clearly had the upper hand.  A few people were wounded before the French commander called a halt to the shooting and announced that they were simply there to deliver a message.  Washington and his officers parlayed with the French to hear what they had to say.

At this point, the crisis probably could still have been averted.  The French could have delivered their message and returned to the Fort.  However, as the French commander read his warning to the English, Tanachrisson split open the commander's skull with a tomahawk and bathed his hands in the dead man's brains.  His warriors also killed most of the French wounded before the stunned Virginians could stop them.

Tanachrisson's motives for his attack on the wounded French prisoners is unclear.  According to some witnesses, he indicated that it was revenge for the French killing his father.  A more practical motive was that his authority came from Iroquois control of the Ohio Valley, and the Iroquois were solidly allied with the British.  Tanachrisson was picking a fight in order to keep the local tribes from drifting into French influence and away from his own.  A war would compel the local tribes to back the Iroquois against the French, thus strengthening Tanachrisson's authority and power.

Tanachrisson would not live to see the long term result of his action.  After the attack where Tanachrisson killed the French commander, Washington had proposed that they lead their smaller and poorly provisioned force forward to attack the much larger French force at Fort Duquesne. The half-king attempted to motivate the local tribes to joint them, but they refused.  Without their help, there was no chance of success.  Nevertheless, young Washington wanted to go forward and fight the enemy despite the odds.  The older and more experienced Tanachrisson saw this was folly.  He abandoned Washington, and took his warriors back into central Pennsylvania where they could live safely. Tanachrisson, later commented that Washington was "a good-natured man, but had no experience" was hurdling head-long into a no-win situation.

Tanachrisson was right that Washington's plan of attack was folly which resulted in many of his men being killed and the remainder captured.  Washington, however, survived the campaign and went on to other things.  Tanachrisson, who fled to safety, died the following year from pneumonia.

The result of the massacre of French troops by Washington and Tanachrisson caused the French to send a much larger force to capture the Virginians.  Washington's small attack force retreated and were eventually forced to take a desperate stand.  Many were killed in a battle a few days later. Washington and his remaining force had to ask for terms.  They were permitted to return to Virginia, but only after signing a document taking responsibility for the murder of the French commander whom Tanachrisson had killed.  The French used that document to declare war on Britain, starting the Seven Years War, known as the French and Indian War in America.

That war put Britain into so much debt, that Parliament decided to impose a range of taxes on the colonies.  The resulting dispute over those taxes eventually led to the American Revolution.  That, in turn led to the creation of the United States.  All of this may have unfolded very differently if one Indian had chosen not to kill a few captured Frenchmen one day in 1754.

The day of this posting, May 28, 2016, is the 262nd Anniversary of that attack that changed the world forever.

Listen to a podcast of this episode.

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