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The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 1: January 2006


Documents, Artefacts and Imagery

"As long as the powder burnt, to kill and scalp": An Ottawa Chief Talks Plain to the White Man, 15 July 1813

Both the United States and Canada claim to have won the War of 1812 which took place from June 1812 to early 1815, while Britain has largely forgotten it fought the conflict. This being the case, it might be said that the only people who lost the war were the aboriginal nations.

One of these nations was the Ottawa which resided throughout the Upper Great Lakes on both American and British soil. The Ottawa, like many of the aboriginal nations of the American northwest had been fighting against the encroachment of white settlement for two decades before the war and when it started in June 1812, they supported the British and suffered for it as their lands were occupied by American forces and they were forced to flee to Canada.

In July 1813, the Ottawa chief, Blackbird, with 150 warriors, joined the British army which had invested the American position at Fort George at the mouth of the Niagara River. On 8 July, British and Canadian troops and their aboriginal allies ambushed an American patrol outside the fort. The fighting was vicious and casualties were heavy on both sides. During the action Lieutenant Joseph Eldridge of the 13th U.S. Infantry was killed by Blackbird's warriors. American witnesses claimed that he was murdered after being made prisoner and the American commander at Fort George lodged a protest with his British counterpart over this supposed atrocity. That officer asked the superintendent of the Indian Department to investigate the Eldridge incident and, on 15 July 1813, he visited Blackbird to admonish him and to point out that a reward of $5.00 would be paid for each American prisoner his warriors took alive.

Blackbird, whose people had suffered grievously at the hands of the United States the previous autumn, became annoyed and told the white man exactly what he thought of the "Big Knives," or Americans, and the British offer of a financial reward for prisoners. As he spoke through another Ottawa chief who served as an interpreter, Blackbird used the salutation of "Brother," meaning an equal -- if he had spoken directly to the white officer, he would probably have used "Father" to indicate superior standing.

Further research has revealed that Blackbird spoke no less than the truth, both about the Eldridge incident and the atrocities inflicted on his people by American militiamen in 1812 and 1813.

Blackbird's speech can be found in Record Group 10 of the National Archives of Canada.

D.E. Graves


We have listened to your words, which words come from our father. We will now say a few words to you. At the foot of the Rapids [Fort Meigs] last spring we fought the Big Knives, and we lost some of our people there. When we retired the Big Knives got some of our dead. They were not satisfied with having killed them, but cut them into small pieces. This made us very angry. My words to my people [before the action on 8 July 1813] were: "As long as the powder burnt, to kill and scalp," but those behind us came up and did mischief.


Last year [in September 1812] at Chicago and St. Joseph's the Big Knives destroyed all our corn. This was fair, but, brother, they did not allow the dead to rest. They dug up their graves, and the bones of our ancestors were thrown away and we never could find them to return them to the ground.


I have listened with a good deal of attention to the wish of our father. If the Big Knives, after they kill people of our colour, leave them without hacking them to pieces, we will follow their example. They have themselves to blame. The way they treat our killed, and the remains of those that are in their graves in the west, makes our people mad when they meet the Big Knives. Whenever they get any of our people into their hands they cut them like meat into small pieces. We thought white people were Christians. They ought to show us a better example. We do not disturb their dead. What I say is known to all the people present. I do not tell a lie.


It is the Indian custom when engaged to be very angry, but when we take prisoners to treat them kindly. Brother, we do not know the value of money; all I wish is that our people receive clothing for our prisoners. When at home we work and hunt to earn those things; here we cannot. Therefore, we ask for clothing.


The officer that we killed you have spoken to us before about. I now tell you again, he fired and wounded one of our colour; another fired at him and killed him. We wished to take him prisoner, but the officer said "God damn," and fired, when he was shot. This is all I have to say.


[ War of 1812 Magazine Issue 1 ]