Wars don’t start overnight, we all know that. They’re usually years, sometimes decades, in the making. If I can use the same metaphor that is so apt for WWI, gunpowder is slowly added to the keg until finally, after every effort to remove that gunpowder, a spark sets it off. Lord Dunmore’s War is no different.
The origins of what Dunmore’s War represents, a war for control of the Ohio Valley, can be traced as far back as the 1750s. Prior to that point, both the French and English claimed the Ohio Valley, but neither had a strong need to enforce that claim. That all changed as both the North American colonies began to expand. The French began to see our valley as a vital route between the colonies of Canada and Louisiana. They fortified the valley and formed strong alliances with Native American tribes, alliances based on respect. The British, on the other hand, saw the valley as a region to be conquered if the colonies were to continue their westward expansion.
You can probably guess what happened next. The British built a fort of their own (which was quickly surrendered to the French), formed a weak alliance with the Mingo, and politely asked the French to leave. At least, it was polite at first. That went out the window when Virginian militiamen and Mingo warriors under Colonel George Washington “accidentally” killed the French commander. This marks the beginning of the French and Indian War.
Over the next nine years, the French and British fought traditional “line up and hope you hit someone” battles at Fort William Henry and Montreal, among others. The problem is that this occupied virtually the entire British army in North America and left the frontier undefended. The Native American seized this opportunity and launched raids into every colony from Vermont to the Carolinas. In Virginia, there were numerous raids against frontier settlements, the worst of which were Draper’s Meadow and Kerr’s Creek. The raids only showed signs of ending with the Treaty of Paris in 1763.
Had the British treated the Native Americans with respect, as the French had, the war would’ve ended then and there. Instead, they treated them as conquered subjects and fortified the Ohio Country, and the tribes responded with force. Over the next two years, a united Native American Confederacy decimated the frontier. Entire settlements were wiped from the map, and estimates place the death toll around 2,000. The colonists responded by attacking any Native American they saw, regardless of tribe. To ease tensions, King George III issued the Proclamation of 1763, setting the border between the colonies and tribes at the Allegheny Mountains. It worked, at least for a time.
For the next decade, there was a relative peace on the frontier. The colonists were still angry at largely having been denied access to new land, the Native Americans were still angry at the British occupation of the region, and occasionally a lone settler or hunter was killed for having gone too far across the imaginary border, but there was no war and no settlements were destroyed.
The British Government even tried to fully resolve the problem by buying the land. In 1768, Sirs William Johnson and John Stuart, the Crown’s Superintendents of Indian Affairs, bought the rest of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Kentucky from the Cherokee and Iroquois in the Treaties of Hard Labour and Fort Stanwix, respectively. There’s only one problem. Neither of those tribes lived in the Ohio Valley! The treaties completely ignored the Delaware, Miami, Mingo, Ottawa, Shawnee, and Wyandot tribes.
There is a reason for this. The Iroquois and Cherokee had conquered the Ohio Valley during the Beaver Wars of the 1650s, and they drew their border at roughly the Kanawha River. In theory, the local tribes were placed under their control, and the land was rightfully purchased by right of conquest. Practically, there was really no way for the Iroquois and Cherokee to take possession of the land from their homes in New York and the Carolinas, and thus, it was not theirs to sell. Suffice it to say that the British believed they had rightfully purchased the land that is now West Virginia.
I’ll continue next week with how this purchase made everything so much worse.
Information from Alan Taylor’s “American Revolutions.”
Chris Rizer is president of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society.