1790 Johnston


Johnston, from Virginia, was captured by the Indians on the Ohio River. He was redeemed by the British officers at Detroit. Johnson, although grateful for his release was still mindful of the fact that the British still occupied Detroit even though it had been ceded to the United States after the Revolutionary War.


At this place we found Mr. Angus McIntosh, who was extensively engaged in the fur trade. This gentleman was at the head of the connexion to which Mr. Duchouquet belonged, who was his factor or partner at Upper Sandusky, as a Mr. Isaac Williams was here. Williams was a stout, bony, muscular, and fearless man. On one of those days which I spent in waiting until we were ready to embark for Detroit, a Wyandot Indian, in his own language, which I did not understand, uttered some expression offensive to Williams. This produced great irriation on both sides, and a bitter quarrel ensued. Williams took down, from a shelf of the store in which the incident occurred, two scalping-knives; laid them on the counter; gave the Wyandot choice of them; and challenged him to combat with these weapons. But the character of Williams for strength and courage was so well known to his adversary, that he would not venture on the contest, and soon afterwards retired.

Lower Sandusky was to me distinguished by another circumstance. It was the residence of the Indian widow, whose former husband I had been destined to succeed, if the Mingo had been permitted to retain and dispose of me according to is intentions. I felt an irresistible curiosity to have a view of this female, and it was my determination to find her dwelling, and see her there, if no other opportunity should occur. She was at last pointed out to me as she walked about the village, and I could not help chuckling at my escape from the fate which had been intended for me. She was old, ugly, and disgusting.

After the expiration of four or five days from that on which we reached Lower Sandusky, our preparations were completed; the boats were laden with the peltry of the traders; and the whole trading-party embarked for Detroit. On the afternoon of the second day, having descended the river into Sandusky Bay, we landed on a small island, near the strait by which it enters into Lake Erie. Here we pitched a tent which belonged to our party. The island was inhabited by a small body of Indians, and we were soon informed, that they were preparing for a festival and dance. If I then understood the motive or occasion which induced this dance, it is not now within my recollection. Several canoes were employed in bringing guests from the main, which is at a short distance, separated from the island by a narrow arm of the bay. We were all invited to the dance by short sticks, painted red, which were delivered to us, and seemed to be intended as tickets of admission. A large circular piece of ground was made smooth, and surrounded by something like a pallisade, within which the entertainment was held. We had expected that it would commence early in the evening; but the delay was so long, that we laid down to sleep in the tent, which stood near the spot of ground prepared for the dance.

About eleven o'clock, we were awaked by the noise of the Indian mirth. One hundred, perhaps, of both sexes, had assembled. Their music was produced by an instrument much resembling the tambourine. Both men and women were dressed in calico shirts. Those of the women were adorned with a profusion of silver broaches, stuck in the sleeves and bosoms; they wore, besides, what is called a match-coat; formed of cloth, confined around the middle of their bodies by a string, with the edges lapping over toward the side, and the length of the garment extending a little below the knees. They wore leggings and mockasins. Their cheeks were painted red, but no other part of their face. Their long, black hair was parted in front, drawn together behind, and formed into a club. The liberal use of bear's oil gave it a high gloss. Such are the ornaments and dress of an Indian belle, by which she endeavours to attract the notice of admiring beaux. The men had a covering around their waists, to which their leggings were suspended by a string, extending from their top to the cord which held on the covering of the waist; and a blanket, or robe, thrown over the shoulders, and confined by a belt around the body, of various colours, and adorned with beads. The women were arranged together, and led the dance, the men following after them, and all describing a circle. The character of this dance differed essentially from that of the war-dance, which I had witnessed on a former occasion. The one was accompanied by horrid yells and shrieks, and extravagant gestures, expressive of fury and ferocity, with nothing like a mirthful cheerfulness. The other, which I saw in this last instance, was mere festivity and lively mirth. The women were excluded in the first, but had an active share in the last; and both sexes were highly animated by the music of the tambourine. An abundant supper had been provided, consisting altogether of the fresh meat of bears and deer, without bread or salt, and dressed in no other manner than by boiling. It was served up in a number of wooden trenchers, placed on the ground, and the guests seated themselves around it. We were invited to partake, but neither the food nor the cookery were much to our taste; yet we were unwilling to refuse their hospitality, and joined in their repast. We were not gainers by it; for when we were faring, not very sumptously, on their boiled fresh meat, without bread or salt, they entered our tent, and stole from our basket, which contained provision enough for our voyage, a very fine ham, on which we had intended to regale ourselves the next day.

In the morning, we recommenced our progress to Detroit. In our open batteaux we could not venture along the direct course, across a bay of Lake Erie, which would have taken us to a hazardous distance from the land. We therefore hugged the shore, and landed whenever we required refreshment. To this we were in a great degree induced by the multitude of turtles' eggs with which the beach abounded, and which we easily procured in plenty. They were deposited in cavities a short distance below the surface, and their position was discovered by penetrating the sand with a stick. The sand is generally firm; but in those places where the turtles have formed their nests, there is only a thin crust above them, which yields to a slight touch of a stick, and , by the facility with which it is penetrated, shows where the eggs lie. We fried them in bear's oil, and found them very delicious food.

Two or three days after leaving the island where we feasted with the Indians, we gained the entrance of Detroit river, and ascended it to the post of Detroit, on its western bank, then occupied by a British garrison. There I was informed that my friend and brother in misfortune, Mr. Jacob Skyles, had spent several days in concealment from a band of Indians, who had pursued him to that place, after he had escaped from his captivity by a most remarkable series of adventures. I had not obtained the slightest intelligence with respect to him since our separation, and was in the highest degree gratified to learn that he was safe, and on his way into the United States. It would, however, have been an additional pleasure to me, could we have returned into Virginia together, in a state of feeling so different from that which we had experienced when in the power of those captors, from whom we had every thing to fear and nothing to hope. . . .

I staid nine or ten days at Detroit, for a conveyance down Lake Erie. During that time, I enjoyed the warmest kindness and hospitality from Mr. McIntosh and his family. My first reception by his lady and brother displayed on their part a liberality of feeling towards me, which did not abate while I remained, and which will be remembered by me with the deepest gratitude as long as my life shall last. I was badly provided with clothing. Mr. McIntosh supplied me with such as was decent, comfortable, and adapted to the season of the year. I was destitute of cash for my expenses on the long journey homeward, which I was most anxious to commence. A subscription was circulated, I have reason to believe by Mr. McIntosh and his brother James, among the inhabitants of the town of Detroit, which furnished me with a sufficient sum of money for my purposes. The population of the town then consisted of about one thousand persons, according to my present recollection.

A state of things existed at this period, in the country where I then was, which subjected any citizen of the United States, passing through it, to considerable embarrassment. Although nearly seven years had elapsed since the conclusion of the war of independence, which had been ended by the definitive treaty of peace, entered into between the government of Great Britain and the American Congress, in September 1783, one of its important stipulations was yet unexecuted. The correspondence between Mr. Jefferson, when Secretary of State, and Mr. Hammond, the British minister then resident in the United States, contained in General Washington's message to both houses of Congress on the 5th of December 1793, exhibits the ground taken by these agents of their respective governments, on the subject of those infractions of the treaty of 1783 with which each government charged the other. The correspondence itself has been published; and those who desire accurate and extensive information on the topics which it involves, will find ample compensation in the gratification afforded by the display of it of distinguished talents, especially on the part of Mr. Jefferson. The North Western posts, of which Detroit was one, were detained by Great Britain, and her garrisons occupied them, until after the victory obtained by Gen. Wayne over the Indians in that country, and the negotiation of Mr. Jay in 1794.

Many of the Indian tribes had continued hostilities with the United States through the revolutionary war, and for a long period after its conclusion. The detention of the posts, by the British troops, gave them an extensive influence in the surrounding territory; and no man was permitted to pass by those posts, without the consent of the commanding officer, at each of them, regularly declared, by a written passport. In my case, the form usually observed was dispensed with; and Major Patrick Murray, who was the Commandant at Detroit, politely furnished me with a permission to go down the Lakes, which I here transcribe. It was directed to "Officers commanding British garrisons," and expressed in the following words:

"The bearer, Mr. Johnston, of Virginia, had the misfortune last winter to fall into the hands of the Indians on the Ohio; but having been redeemed by some British traders of this post, is now on his way to his home, and is hereby recommended to the protection of all officers commanding British garrisons, through which he may pass.

(Signed) Pat. Murray, Major 60th Reg't

Commanding at Detroit."

(Dated, Detroit, 22d June, 1790.)

My obligation to this officer did not stop here. Several vessels, suited to the navigation of the Lakes, were employed in the transportation of stores, provisions, and other necessaries, to the garrisons of the different posts, and were subject to the orders of their commandants. Major Murray invited me to take a passage in one of these vessels. She was a sloop, called the "Felicity," commanded by Capt. Cowan, and bound for Fort Erie, which was situated on the lower extremity of the Lake, where the river Niagara leaves it. I cheerfully accepted this advantageous invitation, and embarked in the sloop as soon as she was ready to sail.

From: A NARRATIVE OF THE INCIDENTS ATTENDING THE CAPTURE, DETENTION, AND RANSOM OF CHARLES JOHNSTON, OF BOTETOURT COUNTY, VIRGINIA, WHO WAS MADE PRISONER BY THE INDIANS ON THE RIVER OHIO, IN THE YEAR 1790. NY: J.& J. Harper, 1827: 70-75; 84-86.