A young woman sprinted ahead of the fleeing soldiers on the forest path, her long red hair streaming on the wind as if it were a banner urging them onward to escape their own destruction. As they ran, the soldiers flung their muskets into the underbrush, then their ammunition, their packs, uniforms, rations—anything to lighten their loads and speed their flight. They left behind the wounded who could not help themselves, but not before ensuring that each had a musket charged with powder and ball in order to sell his life as dearly as he could to the Native Americans. Or take his own on his own terms—before they took it for him with war clubs, knives and tomahawks.
This was the scene that greeted eighteen-year-old William Henry Harrison as he stepped ashore from the Ohio River flatboat in November 1791 at the wilderness outpost known as Fort Washington—at present-day Cincinnati, Ohio. Survivors of the massacre—so humiliating that it never received a proper name in U.S. history—staggered out of the woods toward the fort wearing “clothing reduced to rags,” as he described it years later. Their shocked faces and broken bearing showed “the Privations and Suffering encountered.”
Young Ensign Harrison’s stiff new uniform distinguished him from the survivors wearing shreds. The long blue coat with its scarlet lapels and epaulets draped awkwardly over his slight frame and gangly limbs. A long nose protruding from a long face weighted him with a gravity that bordered on melancholy. Yet Harrison was an earnest, energetic, and conscientious young man with an eye toward self-improvement. Both studious in the classroom and engaged in the outdoor world, he enjoyed the natural sciences and steeping himself in the classics. Nothing in his studies, however, had prepared him for the chaos and desperation of the massacre’s survivors as they flung themselves into the muddy safety of Fort Washington’s log stockade after a three-day, hundred-mile flight. Breaking into the outpost’s casks of grog, they drank themselves into a stupor of oblivion and forgetfulness that stretched for days—they hoped forever.
Only months earlier, as a first-year student, he had walked the hushed corridors and reeking laboratories of the young nation’s oldest medical school—the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He was to be tutored by the celebrated Dr. Benjamin Rush, his father’s old friend from the heady days of the Revolution. But Harrison had dropped out and left all that behind for this new life in the wilds. He had not felt a great deal of enthusiasm for extracting human blood in precise quantities, or measuring and weighing the copious discharges of other bodily fluids and excretions—sputum, vomit, urine, feces—emitted by patients left in his care. But such was the career his father had chosen for the seventeen-year-old “Master Billy.” For a student training to be a “physic”—a doctor—following Dr. Rush’s system of medicine, there was no end to the bodily fluids that had to be drawn and catalogued to restore the body’s balance of “humors.” Worse, it was all done indoors.
Harrison family fortunes had fallen since British troops had raided their Berkeley Plantation during the Revolutionary War, burned the family paintings, shot its cattle, and freed many of its enslaved people in retribution for the central role that William Henry’s father, Virginia planter Benjamin Harrison V, had played in launching the Revolution. Profane in speech and Falstaffian in appetite, Benjamin V had proved helpful in lightening the mood at crucial moments during the rebels’ deliberations. After presiding over the final debate of the Declaration of Independence during the Second Continental Congress, Benjamin V had come up to the signing table in the “silence and the gloom” that pervaded the hall that fateful morning in 1776. He famously cracked to Elbridge Gerry, the scrawny Massachusetts delegate lined up next to him: “I shall have a great advantage over you Mr. Gerry when we are all hung for what we are now doing. From the size and weight of my body I shall die in a few minutes, but from the lightness of your body you will dance in the air an hour or two before you are dead.”
While he had escaped hanging, Benjamin V’s finances were squeezed by the British pillaging of Berkeley. Benjamin V, like other eighteenth-century Virginia plantation owners, was part lord of a medieval fief and part corporate CEO of a complex enterprise, its fortunes swinging on the vagaries of weather, European tobacco prices, credit extended (or denied) by London agents, and other factors beyond his control. But during his long absences pursuing revolutionary politics, he could not track Berkeley’s daily business affairs. The plantation’s soil no longer sprouted the best crop after a century and a half of the voracious, nutrient-depleting needs of Nicotiana tabacum. The elder Harrison came to realize that meager profits from the tired lands of one of the oldest and most esteemed Virginia plantations would no longer sustain his family’s lifestyle.
This problem had plagued Virginia planters since the early 1600s. While it could turn a good profit when sold through London merchants, tobacco quickly exhausted the New World’s soil. They usually solved this simply by acquiring more land deeper into the forest, clearing it with enslaved labor, and planting tobacco to start the process all over again. This cycle imprinted colonial Virginians with a “land hunger,” as it was known, that lured them insatiably inland—westward—from the Atlantic Coast.
For his sons, though, he hoped to break the cycle. Rather than banking on tobacco’s fickle needs, Benjamin V had specified a different career for each of his three sons. The eldest, Benjamin VI, apprenticed with a mercantile house, and the second, Carter, joined the Virginia bar. Youngest son Billy would attend medical school according to his father’s wishes. Billy loved hunting and riding. He lacked the hulking presence of his meat-fed, wine-saturated old man, and was a good student, also unlike his father, who had argued with a College of William and Mary professor and quit. Decades later, William Henry described himself during his youth as just a “stripling”—“tall, thin, and puerile in his person.”
Benjamin V died in 1791, from gout, the “rich man’s disease” that particularly afflicted those who overindulged in red meat and drink. Nevertheless, Billy followed the plan and enrolled in medical school.
But it was not to be. Some weeks after his arrival in Philadelphia, Billy received a letter from his older brother Benjamin VI suggesting that Berkeley Plantation had fallen on hard times and the family inheritance might amount to less than expected. While Billy had inherited three thousand acres, overall the estate could not support his tuition, plus room and board, servants, horses, and other gentleman’s expenses.
Billy Harrison wasted no time. He had just turned eighteen. Dr. Rush tried to persuade him to stay. But now his father was dead and his family lacked funds. In his mind, Billy was free. He considered his options. His father’s old roommate from the Continental Congress, President George Washington, checked in to make sure his friend’s son had employment possibilities. A Harrison relative, Edmund Randolph, offered him a job in the newly created U.S. Attorney General’s office. Yet this new federal office seemed as claustrophobic as a medical lab. He wanted a life of action and adventure.
Patriotism had just then risen to a high pitch. The newborn nation had thrown off British rule a decade earlier, but now struggled to establish its western boundaries. In the peace treaty ending the Revolutionary War, Britain had ceded to the United States all its land claims from the Atlantic Coast one thousand miles westward to the Mississippi River while retaining its colony of Canada. Beyond the Mississippi, Spain claimed the massive stretch of western lands to the Pacific Coast. In an attempt to administer that newly acquired swath between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi, Congress in 1787 designated much of it as the Northwest Territory. At the same time, Congress spelled out a step-by-step process for which pieces of it, as they reached certain population benchmarks, could be converted into states—a recipe for western growth of the nation.
Previously, the Appalachians had loomed as a geographical and political barrier that stymied would-be settlers. Years before the Revolution, the British had unrolled their map of the thirteen American colonies and inked a line along the mountain range’s crest, known as the Proclamation Line of 1763, to prohibit colonial settlers from entering the Ohio wilderness and clashing with Native inhabitants. Gaining its independence from Britain, the infant republic drew no such line—at least at first. A breach quickly opened in the mountain barrier during and after the Revolution. Drawn by hunger for the rich lands beyond, swelling numbers of American settlers migrated from the Atlantic states over the Appalachian Mountains. The tribes who lived there, however, were not eager to see farmers clearing fields on their hunting grounds nor cows and pigs rooting in the forests. As one chief phrased it, the whites’ livestock was “pissing in our springs.”
Copyright © 2023 by Peter Stark. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.