Retaliation on the Ohio Frontier: John McClelland (52 Ancestors #9)

Life in the wilds of western Pennsylvania and Ohio during the late 1700s was one of retaliation. Whites encroached on the lands of the Native Americans, some of whom would raid the white settlements. After a raid, there would invariably be retribution against Native Americans. And the cycle would go on and on…


The tipping point in this tale was a horrific event in the settlement of Gnadenhutten, in present-day Tuscarawas County, Ohio. Moravian missionaries had converted many families of the Delaware Indians to Christianity. These Delaware tried to remain neutral between the British and the American colonists. In 1781, after a series of raids in Pennsylvania (perpetrated by others), the British ordered the Delaware to leave Gnadenhutten and move to Sandusky in northern Ohio.

Raids from sides continued. In early 1782, a militia led by David Williamson formed in Fayette County, Pennsylvania with the purpose to retaliate against the Delaware. Their target: Gnadenhutten, where some Delaware had returned to gather crops they had left in the fields the autumn before. On 8 March, despite the fact that these Delaware had not been involved in the raids, the militia rounded up 98 Delaware – men, women, and children – and held them overnight. The next day, the militia killed 28 men, 29 women, and 39 children. Two Delaware lived to tell of the massacre.[1]


The atrocities against the Delaware at Gnadenhutten escalated the hostilities between Native Americans and white settlers. In May, General Irvine at Fort Pitt approved an expedition against the Native Americans in the Sandusky area:

“The object of your command is to destroy with fire and sword, if practicable, the Indian town and settlement at Sandusky, by which we hope to give ease and safety to the inhabitants of this country; but if impracticable, then you will doubtless perform such other services in your power as will in their consequences have a tendency to answer this great end.”[2]

Colonel William Crawford was elected to lead the militia. Along with him were four men elected majors: David Williamson (of the Gnadenhutten massacre), Thomas Gaddis, a man named Brinton, and John McClelland, my fifth-great-grandfather.


Map of the Crawford expedition made by Kevin Myers. Downloaded from Wikipedia and used under Creative Commons license.

Crawford’s militia of 480 men began their expedition on 25 May. Their plan was to reach Sandusky undetected and have the element of surprise on their side. The militia didn’t spot any Delaware until after they camped at the ruins of Gnadenhutten on 28 May. After that, the expedition sped up to reach Sandusky before the Delaware scouts could pass along the news of the advancing force.

Just after noon on the 4th of June, Crawford’s troops reached the village at Sandusky and were poised to strike, except that there was nothing to strike against. The village was deserted. Not only had the scouts arrived before the militia did, Crawford’s expedition had been watched ever since it crossed the Ohio River a week and a half before. Their arrival was anything but a surprise.

Crawford and his majors had a decision before them. Should they try to find the Delaware (and likely the Shawnee and Wyandot) or retreat to Pennsylvania? The vote: Press on.

None of them would have predicted the consequences.

A Coming Together and Coming Apart

Crawford’s men turned south to seek the Delaware. At the same time, the Delaware led by Capt. Pipe, followed by a band of Wyandot, were heading north. The meeting was inevitable. Crawford’s men were eventually out-flanked, but the terrain evened the match, with the militia holding a grove when evening fell. Indeed, Crawford and his men felt optimistic.

What Crawford and his majors didn’t know was that the Delaware and Wyandot would soon be joined by the Shawnee and a detachment of British. Weakened by the fighting on the 4th, Crawford’s force found itself outnumbered by the afternoon of the 5th.

With British and Wyandot forces to the north of them and Delaware and Shawnee to the south, Crawford realized that he could not battle his way out, and he issued the order to retreat south with the goal of reaching the Ohio River. The militia held its own until evening began to fall and the retreat started in earnest.

John McClelland and his unit led the forces south. The Delaware and the Shawnee were upon them almost as soon as they started. Crawford’s three other divisions scattered.

It’s here that Ohio history classes focus their attention on Col. Crawford. As the retreat started and forces surrounded the expedition, Crawford’s command scattered, leaving Crawford and a few of his men in the forest. The Delaware captured them two days later. What happened next was the true retaliation for the Gnadenhutten massacre. Crawford, being the leader of the Sandusky expedition, was to be made an example of. Over the next two days, he was beaten and tortured. On the morning of 11 June, he was striped naked and further tortured while tied to a fiery stake. After several agonizing hours, Crawford finally died.

Personal Epilogue

Crawford was not the only white man to die in the expedition. Reports put it anywhere from 50 to 100. Among the dead was John McClelland.

McClelland was in charge the retreat. Normally, the head of a retreat would be a safe position, but with Crawford’s militia being completely surrounded, there were no safe positions. McClelland was wounded trying to lead his unit to safety. Perhaps understanding the severity of his wounds, he gave his horse to John Orr, telling him to “clear himself.”[3]

It isn’t known exactly when or how McClelland died. John Slover, a scout with the expedition, had been captured by the Shawnee. On 11 June, he was taken to a Shawnee village where they showed him the bodies of three white men. Slover recognized William Harrison and William Crawford, (Col. Crawford’s son-in-law and nephew). Slover couldn’t positively identify the third body, but believed it to be that of John McClelland.[4]

The government of Pennsylvania paid special pensions to some of the families of the lost men. John McClelland’s estate received eight pounds, seven shillings, and six pence.[5]

John’s family consisted of his wife, Martha Dale; sons Hugh, Alexander, John, Samuel, and Charles; and daughters Joanna, Jane, and Elizabeth (my 4th-great-grandmother).

A Final Irony

The thing about retribution and retaliation is that it is inexact. David Williamson, the man who led the militia at Gnadenhutten – the travesty that set so much of this in motion – made his way safely back to Pennsylvania.

Ohio Historical Marker, Wyandot County. Photo by Amy Johnson Crow, 30 April 2006.

Ohio Historical Marker, Wyandot County. Photo by Amy Johnson Crow, 30 April 2006.

A Clarification:

Although the Fayette County, Pennsylvania county history and the Butterfield account refer to it as the Sandusky expedition, the events took place near present-day Upper Sandusky, not the present-day town of Sandusky, which is on Lake Erie.

[1] Ohio History Central, “Gnadenhutten Massacre,” online, accessed 3 March 2014.

[2] History of Fayette County, Pennsylvania, With Biographical Sketches of Many of Its Pioneers and Prominent Men, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: L.H. Everts, 1882), p. 94. [NOTE: Pages 86-114 cover early raids by and against Native Americans, the Gnadenhutten massacre, and the Crawford expedition.]

[3] Butterfield, C.W. An Historical Account of the Expedition Against Sandusky Under Col. William Crawford in 1782 (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke, 1873), p. 221. [Available on Internet Archive.]

[4] History of Fayette County…, p. 108; Butterfield, p. 346.

[5] Butterfield, p. 248.

18 thoughts on “Retaliation on the Ohio Frontier: John McClelland (52 Ancestors #9)

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      Thanks, Elizabeth. I visited the site a few years ago. It was sobering to think of all that happened and how many people died because of a series of poor decisions.

  1. Vera Marie Badertscher

    What a dramatic story. I once attempted to read The Bloody River, history of early Ohio, and gave up in despair at its unending violence. My ancestors waited until Ohio was more peaceful before they trekked westward.

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      Have you read Follow the River by James Alexander Thom? It’s based on the story of Mary Draper Ingles who was captured by the Shawnee in Virginia and taken to southern Ohio. Beautifully written.

  2. larrytom2

    Yes, a very powerful story and very well written. Retribution and retaliation unfortunately are stories that are written again and again in the history of the march of European settlers across our continent!

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      Thanks, Larry. You’re right — the stories of this cycle of violence repeat across this continent. History does keep repeating, doesn’t it…

  3. Anne B Wagner

    My Irish Quaker ancestors lived near Pittsburgh from 1703-1798. I’ll never understand how people survived the raids and attacks–of course many did not–but what kind of personality could scrape out a living and produce a family and crops under the circumstances? Eventually my ancestor, Thomas Fawcett, crossed the River in 1798 and settled what is now East Liverpool. Why did they come? That is always the beginning of the research and the story.

  4. Schalene Dagutis

    Amy, what a story! And well told. I can relate. I had an ancestor captured by Indians in the Yamasee War in South Carolina and several who died in a battle in what is now West Virginia. It’s important to remember what our ancestors endured, as well as the people they displaced.

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      Thanks, Schalene. It’s hard to imagine what people on either side of the fight went through. So much upheaval and uncertainly in their lives.

  5. Shelley Bishop

    Fascinating story, Amy, and beautifully written. You’ve brought this tragic episode to life in a way that history books rarely do. And now you’ve got me thinking. I’m descended from James Orr of Fayette County, PA, whose wife was Mary Dale. Wonder if my Mary Dale Orr and your Martha Dale McClellan might have been related in some way?

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      Cousin Shelley!! I also descend from James and Mary (Dale) Orr! They are my 5th-great-grandparents; I descend through their son James. I’m not sure how Martha (Dale) McClelland fits in, but I’m sure she does. We must compare notes sometime! :-)

  6. Colleen Scott Groman

    Thank you for the interesting story. My ancestor, William Nemons (1745-1782), was also killed during the Sandusky Raid. His body was never found but other soldiers reported seeing him shot and then picked up on the back of a horse by another soldier. Neither soldier made it back to Pennsylvania.

    He left a wife, Letitia Huston Nemons, and two small daughters, Isabel Nemons and Margaret Nemons.

    I was not aware the government of Pennsylvania paid special pensions to some of the lost men. I will attempt to find this information which may prove very helpful as I have been unable to find earlier information regarding William Nemons and Letitia Huston.

    1. Tom Kudlawiec

      My wife’s gggg-grandfather was William Nemons.His daughter Isabella married Moses Bebout who was my wife’s ggg-grandfather.William was killed by Indians on the retreat from Sandusky.There isn’t a lot of info on the internet about him but he does show up on some muster rolls.The surname is sometimes spelled Nimmons or Nemmons.He is mentioned in a narrative as being with lead scout John Slover when he was killed.

  7. Debra

    A very sad episode in history. I lost a relative who was a native inhabitant of Gnadenhutten in the massacre, Joseph Shabash. My Ohio ancestors were mostly Native Americans struggling to survive the pressure of European settlement.

    1. Amy Johnson Crow Post author

      Of all of the raids that happened back and forth throughout the region, one would be hard pressed to come up with one more horrific than what happened at Gnadenhutten. Even Gen. William Irvine, who was in charge of the American troops in the area, was appalled by the action of Williamson and his men. It’s a sad twist of history that it was Crawford who burned at the stake and Williamson made it back safely to Pennsylvania.

  8. Jade

    Amy, this is a pretty solid perspective. One of my ancestors was along on this one in Thomas Carr’s Company. Some of the relatives / neighbors of folks in this Company had disappeared in August, 1781 in what later was called “Lochry’s Defeat.” I suspect that some who went to Sandusky in May, 1782 were thinking they might recover lost relatives (all who were ambushed in Aug. 1781 were captured or killed, and word did not come back to SW PA until the following summer).


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