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The American Revolution

During the American Revolution, Detroit served the British as it had the French a generation earlier--as an important staging area for Indian raiding parties. Although the Indians had risen in revolt against the British in 1763, a decade later they understood that an independent thirteen colonies disposed to aggressively settle western lands was far more of a threat to them. Indeed, the British government since 1763 had made significant efforts to limit white settlement and mollify tribal sentiment.

During the war colonialists felt particular animosity toward the British command at Detroit because of the activities of Henry Hamilton, the city's lieutenant governor and military commander. Hamilton not only supplied arms and ammunition for Indian raiding parties but also agreed to pay a bounty for scalps. Kentuckians, who were the particular victims of this policy, labeled him "the hair buyer" and loathed him. It seems to have mattered little that Hamilton did not actively encourage scalping, and was in fact following orders from above. Other British officers in the region also implemented the same policy, but Kentuckians characterized Hamilton as a war criminal. George Rogers Clark, a Kentucky militia officer, eventually persuaded the Americans to undertake a daring plan to put an end to Hamilton's raiding parties by capturing various British outposts in the West. After Clark won several initial victories, Hamilton personally led an expedition from Detroit to stop the upstart Kentuckian. The British expedition failed, however, and in 1779 Clark captured Hamilton at Vincennes. Hamilton spent the rest of the war as a prisoner in Williamsburg, Virginia, while Clark's victory created a new military situation in the West.

As a result of Hamilton's defeat, several of the Indian tribes' loyalty to the British wavered. The Odawa and Chippewa announced their neutrality in the war. The Wyandot, camped near Detroit, announced that they planned to seek a peace treaty with the Americans. The British garrison in Detroit, worried over losing their Indian allies and fearing attack by Clark, decided to abandon the old French fort. They built a new fortress on a hill located behind the town which they believed gave them superior military advantage. The new bastion was named Fort Lernoult after Captain Richard Lernoult, who had succeeded Hamilton as commander in Detroit. It was designed to withstand an attack by an enemy equipped with cannon, a concern that Cadillac, who saw the fort's primary responsibility as resisting Indian warriors, had not taken into consideration when he placed the original fort along the river.

The construction of Fort Lernoult proved to be unnecessary. As in the last war between the French and the British, decisive military action in the East ended the war before an assault came at Detroit. Indeed, instead of retreating to defensive positions in places like Detroit, the British took to the offensive in the West during the closing years of the Revolutionary War. As late as 1783 raiding parties from Detroit continued to travel south to attack American settlements.

Of particular interest during the Revolutionary War was the plight of the Moravian missionaries and their Indian converts. The Moravians, like the Quakers, were pacifists. They had originally migrated from Germany to Pennsylvania. Prior to the outbreak of the Revolution, they had established missions to the Delaware Indians in what is today southern Ohio. When war broke out the Moravian missionaries and their Indian converts attempted to remain neutral. To avoid the conflict, the missionaries and the Delaware moved north, to the shores of Lake Erie. In 1781 a group of "Christian Indians," as the Delaware were often called, journeyed south to their old settlement to harvest the grain they had planted. While they were working in the fields a party of Virginians, who considered all Indians allies of the British, came upon the Delaware, tricked them into surrendering, and then massacred at least ninety of the Indians.

As a result of this atrocity, the missionaries and the remaining Delaware fled north and sought to settle near Detroit where they would be protected by the British army. The community prospered between 1782 and 1786, but as it became clear that the United States would take possession of Detroit, the group moved to southwestern Ontario to remain under the protection of the British.

As the story of the Moravians indicates, the treaty ending the Revolutionary War called for Detroit to be placed under the jurisdiction of the new American government. As part of the treaty, the British promised to withdraw their garrisons from Detroit and other posts in the west. This promise, however, was long ignored. In part Detroit and the other posts were retained to give British merchants time to relocate fur-trading operations. Over time Detroit had come to play a reasonably significant role in the fur trade. As late as 1785 about half of the furs coming to Britain from territories ceded to the United States in the peace treaty of 1783 traveled through Detroit. This number quickly declined, however, as British traders began to relocate their operations to the Canadian side of the river.