Sunday, May 26, 2024

ARP313 Crawford Expedition

Back in Episode 310, we covered the ongoing war in the west, when militia from around Fort Pitt massacred a Christian community of Moravian Indians and whites at Gnadenhutten, in what is today Ohio.

The militia were upset over repeated attacks on their homes and settlements by various groups of Indians who were being encouraged in such attacks by the British at Detroit.

Planning an Offensive

General William Irvine took command at Fort Pitt just weeks after the Gnadenhutten Massacre.  He had to deal with the fallout from those events, but could not do much about it.  His tiny Continental Garrison was no threat to anyone.  In fact, he feared he and his garrison would be attacked by local militia if they did not share the anti-Indian sentiments that were widely held.

Crawford Expedition
The basis for those sentiments was the fact that the region was in a constant state of alert.  War parties from what is today Ohio, Michigan and Canada, regularly traveled to the area around Fort Pitt where they killed, and often tortured, murdered, and mutilated isolated families on the small farms in the area.  The British and the Indians knew that settlers would continue pushing westward into Ohio unless they could be intimidated by the hostile reception they met. Instead, however, the raids only inspired a series of revenge raids into Ohio.

General Irvine had developed what he hoped would be a plan to put an end to this problem. After he had received orders to take command of Fort Pitt, but before actually taking command, Irvine wrote to Washington with his assessment.

It is, I believe, universally agreed that the only way to keep Indians from harassing the country is to visit them. But we find, by experience, that burning their empty towns has not the desired effect. They can soon build others. They must be followed up and beaten, or the British, whom they draw their support from, totally driven out of their country. I believe if Detroit was demolished, it would be a good step toward giving some, at least, temporary ease to this country.

The Continentals had embarked on the Sullivan Expedition in New York to wipe out Indian villages there a few years earlier.  That did not really end the fighting.  The British in Quebec continued to provide support for Indian and loyalist raids into New York.  Quebec was too large to take.  But Detroit was a much smaller outpost.  If they could remove the British from Detroit, perhaps the Indians would not get stirred up so much.  The problem was crossing Ohio to get to it.

Irvine believed that a Continental army of 2000 men, with five cannons and sufficient supply wagons, could take Detroit and leave a path of destruction through Ohio that would at least greatly reduce the attacks in the region.

William Irvine

While Washington liked the idea of taking Detroit.  Raising an army, however, was out of the question.  Following Yorktown, it had become impossible to get more recruits, supplies, or much of anything. Washington was struggling just to keep an army in the field around New York.  The struggle to feed his army was almost more than he could handle.  With no threat of an imminent offensive by the enemy, a war-weary Congress had given up on trying to get the states to contribute more to the war effort.  There was no way they would contribute to an offensive in the west that had no impact on the security of their home states.  If there was going to be any action, it would have to be locally sponsored.

The local militia around Fort Pitt were still highly motivated to take action.  The action at Gnadenhutten had done nothing to slow down raids.  On May 8, an Indian war party came across the home of a Baptist minister.  Although he was not home, the Indians killed and scalped his wife and children.  Everyone knew that the raids would continue if they did nothing.

About 500 men answered the call for militia.  All of them were volunteers.  They had to provide their own arms, ammunition, and everything else they would need. Their only compensation would be whatever they could plunder from the enemy.  Even so, the men believed in the necessity of countering this ongoing threat, and were willing to lend their support.

William Crawford

Militia Colonel David Williamson had led the militia who had attacked Gnadenhutten a few months earlier.  He would probably be seen as the obvious choice to lead this expedition. General Irvine believed that Washington’s orders prohibited him from leading his small Continental garrison on this expedition.

When the men voted on an officer to lead the expedition, Williamson was up there, but came in a close second.  The militia selected William Crawford to lead them.  

William Crawford
Crawford was an experienced frontiersman.  He had grown up on the Virginia frontier.  Early in life, he had teamed up with a teen-aged George Washington to work on several surveying projects.  Crawford, along with Washington, also joined the Braddock campaign back in 1754 and the Forbes Campaign to capture Fort Pitt from the French in 1758.  When Washington returned home to Mount Vernon, Crawford remained on the frontier, working as a surveyor, farmer, and fur trader.  He regularly had to deal with both friendly and hostile Indians.  In 1774, he fought as a major in Lord Dunmore’s War in what is today West Virginia.

When the Revolution began, Crawford took a commission as a lieutenant colonel in the 5th Regiment of Virginia.  A short time later, Crawford became colonel of the 7th Virginia, replacing Colonel William Daingerfield, who resigned. It’s not clear why Daingerfield resigned, but I have to assume it was because he got no respect.  Colonel Crawford took several other commands during the war, and raised another Continental regiment among the frontiersmen of 1777.  He fought under Washington in the Philadelphia Campaign, specifically at Brandywine and Germantown.

When the Army went to Valley Forge, Crawford was transferred to Fort Pitt, where he served under a series of commanding officers there over the next few years.  Due to frustrations, perhaps related to lack of promotion, or to the dearth of funding, or support that Congress gave to the western armies, Crawford retired in 1781.

Despite his retirement, Crawford turned out for service in 1782 when the militia prepared for its raid into the Ohio Territory.  By some accounts, General Irvine encouraged Crawford to lead the expedition and encouraged the militia to vote him into command.  It could be that Irvine, as well as others, did not trust Williamson after Williamson had led the Gnadenhutten Massacre.  It could also be that Crawford’s decades of experience on the frontier, and his years of command in the Continental Army simply inspired greater confidence in the men.

The Expedition

Crawford’s substantial force of 500 militia was not substantial enough to threaten Detroit itself.  He and Irvine decided their target would be a series of Indian towns along the Sandusky River. This would take them deeper into Indian Territory than any Patriot force had gotten during the Revolution, about 175 miles west of Fort Pitt and about 100 miles south of Detroit.

Although the expedition was made up of militia, two Continental officers also went with the group. John Knight served as surgeon on the expedition.   The other volunteer officer was known as John Rose.  In actuality, he was the Baron Gustave von Wetter-Rosenthal, a Russian aristocrat who fled to America after killing a man in a duel.  Rose had fought in the Quebec campaign and was, at the time, serving as General Irvine’s aide-de-camp.

Crawford Expedition Map
The militia left Fort Pitt on May 25, 1782.  They hoped their raid would be a surprise, but that hope was quickly dashed.  The militia were highly undisciplined. Men would leave the column and would fire their guns at wild game during the march.  Rose also noted that Colonel Crawford was not very commanding and often got into arguments with other officers about what actions to take.  A number of the militia lost faith in the mission and deserted before they reached any of their targeted destinations.

Despite the problems, the expedition kept up a pretty good pace.  In just over a week, they arrived near Upper Sandusky, a Wyandot village deep into Ohio country.  On arrival, they found the town abandoned.  The Wyandots had moved about 8 miles to the north.

Although scouts had reached the town, the main army was stills some distance away.  Crawford held a council of war.  Many men believed the town’s abandonment meant that the Indians knew about their approach and were planning an attack.  Many wanted to turn around and go home before it was too late.  Another group under Colonel Williamson wanted to march to the abandoned town and burn it.  Crawford did not want to divide his force, so he took the entire column toward the town and camped overnight.

Before they marched very far, scouts reported a large war party of Native Americans advancing on their position.

The Indians

It turns out that the expedition was no surprise at all for the enemy, and it had nothing to do with the lack of discipline among the militia.  Spies had reported the expedition before it had even left Fort Pitt.  A week and a half before the militia even got started, Major Arent Schuyler DePeyster was aware of the expedition and planning to attack it.  He assembled an army that consisted of a great many Shawnee, Delaware, Mingo, and Northern Wyandot warriors, as well as others, referred to generally as “Lake Indians” by the British.  Also with the group was a company of loyalist cavalry from Butler’s Rangers, the group that had been raised in upstate New York but had been pushed out of there by the Americans.

One of the war chiefs leading this group was a Delaware known as Captain Pipe.  He had grown up in what is today central Pennsylvania.  Pennsylvania settlers had forced his people west into Ohio.  Over the years, he attended several conferences and treaty negotiations at Fort Pitt.

When the Revolution began, Captain Pipe advocated to keep the Delaware neutral and out of the war.  He maintained this view even after General Edward Hand led an expedition into Ohio in 1778, with William Crawford part of that expedition.  The soldiers killed his wife and children.  Despite this, he still granted another Continental force under General Lachlan McIntosh permission to pass through his territory a few months later in another failed attempt to reach Detroit.  When McIntosh tried to compel the Delaware to join him in an effort to destroy Detroit, the Delaware refused, Captain Pipe moved his people further west, where the British held more influence.  Finally, in 1781, when a patriot raid under Colonel Daniel Brodhead destroyed his village again, Captain Pipe firmly allied with the British

Another commander was Dunquat, a Wyandot also known as the Half-King.  Unlike Captain Pipe, Dunquat was a firm British ally from the beginning of the war.  He led a group of mostly Wyandot and Mingo warriors on multiple raids against the American frontier as early as 1777. He had led attacks against Fort Henry and Fort Randolph earlier in the war, and was probably a key leader in the continual raids into western Pennsylvania.  

Dunquat had also been particularly protective of the Moravian communities in Ohio.  He had made efforts to move them to safer locations during the war, and was likely particularly outraged when the Fort Pitt militia massacred them only a few months earlier.

Also with the Indians was Simon Girty.  I’ve discussed his background before, but as a reminder Girty grew up on the Pennsylvania frontier.  When he was a teenager at the outbreak of the French and Indian War, his town was raided by Indians who killed his stepfather, and took him prisoner.  He was eventually adopted into the Mingo tribe under great Chief Guyasuta.  After Pontiac’s rebellion, the Mingo were forced to return all of their white captives.  They returned Girty, who did not want to leave and tried to return several times.  When that proved impossible, Girty made a living on the frontier, working as a trapper and a translator.  During this time, he got to know William Crawford.

He acted as a scout during Lord Dunmore’s War in 1774.  At one point, he served under Crawford.  After Virginia Soldiers massacred Indian women and children during Dunmore’s War, Girty left the service and moved into Indian territory.  With the outbreak of the Revolution, he offered his services to the British in Detroit.  He had fought alongside Captain Pipe and Dunquat for many years, taking an active role in attacks on frontier forts and settlements. He strongly supported the attack on the Crawford Expedition in Ohio.

Battle of Sandusky

On June 4, 1782, a group of militia scouts under John Rose encountered a group of Delaware warriors under Captain Pipe.  They fought a running retreat as the outnumbered militia slowly fell back while fighting off the attackers.  Just when it looked like the militia scouts might be overrun and massacred, Crawford showed up with reinforcements to push back the Delaware.  

Crawford’s militia drove the Delaware back out of the woods and into an open prairie. There, Captain Pipe linked up with Dunquat’s Wyandot warriors.  This led to a three and a half hour battle between the two groups.  As it got dark the Indians withdrew.  That day, both sides lost five killed.  The Americans also had 19 wounded to the Indians’ 11.  

Both sides spent a sleepless night, clutching their weapons and fearing a night attack.  There was no attack, although men on both sides took time to scalp fallen enemies and steal their clothing and other personal items.  Fifteen militiamen deserted during the night, fleeing back to Fort Pitt. 

Battle of Sandusky
The next morning, fighting resumed.  The Indians were firing from 200 to 300 yards away with muskets, meaning there was little chance they would hit anyone.  Militia leaders believed the Indians were holding back because they had suffered heavy losses the day before.  In fact, the Indians were simply amusing the enemy, while waiting for reinforcements.  The Americans also observed that Butler’s Rangers were fighting alongside the Indians.  Even so, Crawford believed he could launch a night raid after dark and surprise the enemy. 

As the Americans watched the Indians fire at them from a distance, a group of about 140 Shawnee warriors slipped around the American line, effectively surrounding their camp.  Rather than attack after dark, the Americans decided, at that point, it would be better to slip away and retreat once the sun went down.  

That night, many of the militia rode off on their own, leaving the larger army divided.  The men also left behind many of their wounded, wanting to make a faster escape.  Crawford did his best to collect the wounded and keep the militia together in a single unit, but saw all that falling apart.

The following morning, the Americans had returned to the abandoned Wyandot village that they had found a few days earlier.  About half the militia had fled, reducing their numbers to less than 300.  A smaller group of Indians attacked the force, causing more of the militia to flee.  Colonel Williamson managed to mount an organized defense that drove off the attack, but leading to another three militia killed and eight wounded.

Over the next week, small groups of militia made their way back to Fort Pitt.  The main force under John Rose reached Mingo Bottom, just west of Fort Pitt, on June 13.  Indian pursuers managed to capture and kill a few stragglers.  In total, the militia suffered probably between 70 and 150 casualties.  We have that big spread, because numbers on frontier battles are just terrible.


There are no good numbers on exactly how many militia were killed outright or captured during the retreat.  We only have a few stories from survivors.  A scout named John Slover was captured with two other soldiers.  They were taken to a Shawnee town where they were forced to run a gauntlet. One of the prisoners was painted black, meaning the Shawnee had marked that man for death.  The men were badly beaten in the gauntlet.  The man marked for death was torn up with tomahawks and had his heart stuck on a pole outside of town.

Slover also recognized the bodies of three other prisoners.  These were Major McClelland, as well as Colonel Crawford’s nephew and his son-in-law.  The heads of these men were also stuck on poles just outside the village. Slover and the other prisoner were separated and sent to different villages.  They were expected to be burned at the stake.  Slover managed to escape on a stolen horse, which is the only reason we have his story.

Colonel Crawford and Dr. Knight got separated from the main army during the retreat.  When a larger band of Delaware encountered them, Crawford and Knight surrendered.  Several other men with them fled into the woods. The Indians chased them down, killing and scalping them.

Crawford was taken to a Wyandot village where he met up with Simon Girty. Girty informed him that the Indians wanted revenge for the Gnadenhutten massacre and were not inclined to show mercy.  The following day, Captain Pipe arrived.  He ordered Crawford and several other prisoners painted black and carried to another town.  Four of the prisoners were tomahawked to death and scalped during the journey.  When they arrived at the new town, all the other prisoners, except Crawford and Knight, were tomahawked to death and scalped.  The warriors taunted Crawford by slapping his face with the scalps of his former comrades.

Crawford execution
The Indians wanted to make Crawford’s death a spectacle.  Captain Pipe, accompanied by a group of Delaware warriors, gave Crawford a "trial" with Girty serving as interpreter.  They asked if Crawford played any role in the Gnadenhutten Massacre, which Crawford truthfully denied. Another Delaware woman recognized Crawford as a leader from a 1778 campaign in which Captain Pipe’s brother and mother had been killed.  Even if he hadn’t been at Gnadenhutten, he was an Indian killer and was condemned to death by fire.  

The following day, more than 100 Delaware gathered to observe Crawford’s fate.  Captain Pipe and Dunquat were both present, as was Simon Girty and another British agent.  Girty offered to pay a ransom to save Crawford, but it was refused.  

Crawford was first stripped naked and beaten.  Warriors shot him with blanks, burning his skin with the powder residue.  They cut off his ears and pressed burning coals against his skin.  They forced him to walk across burning coals.  Crawford begged Girty to shoot him and end his misery, but Girty could not interfere.

After several hours, Crawford lost consciousness.  The Indians scalped him and put hot coals on his head.  The pain caused him to revive briefly.  He was forced to walk a bit more before his body was finally pushed into a fire and burned.  Again, the only reason we have this account is because Dr. Knight witnessed it.  The following day, Knight was bring carried to another village for execution.  Along the way, he managed to bash his captor with a log and escape into the woods.  After weeks of making his way through the woods, he managed to make it back to Fort McIntosh.


The failure of the Crawford Expedition only emboldened Indian attack from the Ohio territory.  We’ll get into some of those in a future episode.  

Next week, we return to Philadelphia as the Continental Congress adopts the Great Seal.

- - -

Next Episode 314 The Great Seal 

Previous Episode 312 Huddy-Asgill Affair

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Further Reading


William Crawford:

Brown, Paul Reconstructing Crawford’s Army of 1782

Quaife, M. M. “The Ohio Campaigns of 1782.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, vol. 17, no. 4, 1931, pp. 515–29. JSTOR,

The Crawford Campaign, 1782: American Strategy:

The Crawford Campaign, 1782: Birth of an Expedition:

The Crawford Campaign, 1782: Rout, Retreat, and Recovery

The Crawford Campaign, 1782: Captivity, Torture, and Execution:

Burning Colonel Crawford:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Boyd, Thomas Simon Girty, The White Savage, New York: Minton, Balch & Co. 1928. 

Brackenridge, H. H. Narratives of a late expedition against the Indians: with an account of the barbarous execution of Col. Crawford, Philadelphia: Francis Bailey, 1783. 

Butterfield, Consul W. An Historical Account of the Expedition Against Sandusky Under Col. William Crawford in 1782, Cincinnati: R. Clarke & Co. 1873. 

Butterfield, Consul W. The Washington-Crawford Letters, Cincinnati: R. Clarke & Co. 1877. 

Butterfield, Consul W. History of the Girtys, Columbus: Longs College Book Co. 1950. 

Paul, James A Narrative of the Wonderful Escape and Dreadful Sufferings of Colonel James Paul, after the defeat of Col. Crawford, when that unfortunate commander, and many of his men, were inhumanly burnt at the stake, Cincinnati: Spiller, 1869. 

Stone, William L. ”Journal of a Volunteer Expedition to Sandusky, from May 24 to June 13, 1782The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 1894.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Brusman, Denver and Joel Stone (eds) Revolutionary Detroit: Portraits in Political and Cultural Change, 1760-1805, Detroit Historical Society, 2009 (borrow on

Glickstein, Don After Yorktown: The Final Struggle for American Independence, Westholme Publishing, 2015. 

Sterner, Eric The Battle of the Upper Sandusky, 1782, Westholme Publishing, 2023. 

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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