Henry Hamilton was already a polished soldier when he arrived at Fort Detroit to assume his new title of Lieutenant Governor. Hamilton had served as a British officer during the French and Indian War and rose to the rank of brigade major. However, by 1775, Hamilton wanted to leave the military and assume a civilian post. Thus he was appointed to take command of Fort Detroit and the British claims in the Northwest.
The British, in the early stages of the American Revolution held a tenuous claim to lands in the future Northwest Territory. Along with their 13 colonies along the Atlantic Ocean, Great Britain also laid claim to the land west of the Appalachian Mountains, north of the Ohio River and east of the Mississippi River. However, Hamilton was only given around 300 soldiers to maintain order on the western frontier. Like any good military mind, Hamilton knew he had to find some way to keep the land-hungry American settlers out of the Northwest.
Thus, he armed local Indian tribes north of the Ohio River and sent them on devastating raids into Kentucky, which was now a county of Virginia. Though known as a "Hairbuyer" by George Rogers Clark and others, there is no evidence that Hamilton awarded the Indians with presents if they brought American scalps back to Fort Detroit. These brutal attacks took place throughout 1777, leading the settlers of Kentucky to call it the year of the bloody sevens.
The fighting on the frontier during the American Revolution was vastly different than the fighting in the east. Instead of decisive battles featuring hundreds or thousands of men fighting in open warfare, fighting on the frontier was done mainly through raids by both sides.
These Indian raids caused Lt. Colonel George Rogers Clark of the Virginia militia to call for an attack on the British outposts of Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes. Clark hoped by taking these posts and eventually capturing Fort Detroit, he could better protect American settlers in Kentucky. After Clark's daring campaign captured the outposts, Hamilton called for a counterattack with 500 British regulars, French militia, and Indian tribes to march from Fort Detroit and retake Vincennes and the fort that had been constructed there, Fort Sackville. Hamilton captured the fort on December 18, 1778. Hamilton ordered the French townspeople to take a new oath of allegiance to the British crown.
Hamilton's actions led to a daring counterattack by George Rogers Clark which led to the recapture of the fort by Clark and his combined forces of American militia and French volunteers on February 25, 1779.
As the Americans lay seige to the fort, it was clear to Hamilton that he could no longer hold the post and on the morning of February 25th, he did not raise the British flag over the fort because he wanted to be spared the humiliation of taking it down in front of his enemies. Hamilton was eventually put in chains and sent back to Williamsburg, Virginia as a prisoner.
Hamilton was eventually exchanged and became the the Lieutenant Governor and later Deputy Governor of Quebec, before spending his remaining years as governor of Bermuda and Antigua in the Caribbean. Hamilton was also a talented sketch artist and was known for his sketches of Indian tribes that he came into contact with on the frontier.
Hamilton's legacy today remains mixed. He will always be known as the man who surrendered Fort Sackville to George Rogers Clark, but modern historians have taken a different view of his life. Hamilton kept a journal throughout the entirety of his march on Vincennes, his time at Fort Sackville, and his journey to Williamsburg as a prisoner. It provides the other side of the story. This journal offers invaluable information as we attempt to study this man known as "the Hairbuyer General." Hamilton's journal is available thanks to the Indiana Historical Bureau. Click here for more information.
Last updated: April 10, 2015