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Colonel Procter's Mission to the Indians

By Carl G. Karsch

Thomas Procter was no stranger to risks. Today we remember him as a master builder whose City Tavern, completed in 1772, was the nation's premier hostelry. (See Charles E. Peterson's article, "Thomas Procter and the City Tavern.") Except for this structure, surprisingly few traces remain of his construction activities. From 1771 to 1773 he took on four apprentices who may well have been employed in completing the Tavern. In January and February, 1774, an advertisement in "The Pennsylvania Gazette" states: "plans for houses by Thomas Procter, house carpenter, north side of Walnut, five doors westward from corner of Second," a location practically in the shadow of the City Tavern. In August he and James Humphreys advertised various lots of ground for sale or rent. Also, they offered "sundry sums of money to be let out at interest, on good security."

To contemporaries, his military career — which spanned the Revolution and continued throughout his life — was far better known. Commissioned captain in the militia of an artillery company in 1775, he advanced to major of a battalion (1776), colonel of a regiment of artillery (1777) and colonel in the Continental Army (1779). He resigned his commission in 1781, was appointed a brigadier general by Pennsylvania (1793), and commissioned in 1794 a major general of militia. Artillery under his command fought at Trenton, the first American victory, and at Brandywine and Germantown, defeats which enabled the British to occupy Philadelphia.

Procter was rightly proud of his military career. Running for the office of sheriff in 1782, he advertised in "The Pennsylvania Gazette:" "Gentlemen, after having served you faithfully for six years in the field as a soldier ... and having again retired to the walk of a private citizen, I offer myself as a candidate for the Sheriff's office." He was elected.

In March, 1791, Procter set out on the least known adventure of his career, and probably the most dangerous. In his journal, he states that his instructions remained sealed for a week after departure from Philadelphia "owing to an intention that no person, not even any of my family, should know what errand I was sent upon."

Here's how it came about. Among President Washington's problems was one dating from the first settlers and destined to bedevil the nation for the next century. Was it possible to reconcile without bloodshed demands of an expanding western frontier with Indian tribes whose land was being taken from them? Almost invariably it was not. As Commander-in-Chief, Washington did not hesitate to retaliate when British regulars and their Indian allies attacked settlements along the Appalachian frontier. Now as President, he envisioned an inexorable expansion across the continent. He preferred peaceful co-existence — if that were possible — to extermination, the settlers' choice. Tribal leaders, including some Procter would meet, visited the capital city more than once to weigh Washington's offers of money and material support in return for peace.

The area then in dispute stretched from Detroit southward through what would become Ohio and Indiana to Kentucky. Already scores of newcomers on isolated farms and in small communities had been scalped. Safety was in proportion to distance from the closest fort. Making matters worse, British agents freely supplied tribes with weapons and encouragement from their fort at Detroit — one of seven maintained in defiance of the treaty ending the Revolution. In 1790, General Josiah Harmar's expedition from Fort Washington, near present-day Cincinnati, was intended to impress warring Indians with American strength. Weeks later, the remnant of Harmar's force struggled back, utterly defeated.

Hardly a good bargaining position from which to talk peace, but Washington wanted to try. The strategy seemed simple. Chiefs of tribes in western New York state — already at peace — would be asked to accompany American representatives and persuade warring Wabash and Miami tribesmen on the merits of living and trading, peacefully, with their new neighbors. Or else.

The President turned the problem over to General Henry Knox, a trusted colleague from the Revolution and now Secretary of War whose temporary office occupied the first floor of Carpenters' Hall. Later he would move to a building underway at Fifth & Chestnut Sts. Knox quickly decided on his man — Colonel Thomas Procter who had fought with Knox in several engagements and lived just a few city blocks from the Hall. More important, he was familiar with the rugged terrain of northwestern Pennsylvania. In 1779, following the infamous "Wyoming Valley Massacre" by British and Indian forces, Washington — despite a perennial shortage of manpower — dispatched a force of 6,000 under General Sullivan to secure the region by destroying Indian towns, crops and orchards and taking prisoners as hostages against future good behavior. Procter's arm of a classic pincer's movement advanced up the Susquehanna valley; the other swung west through the Mohawk valley. Little remained of the Six Nations, a confederation representing what had been one of the most advanced Indian civilizations east of the Mississippi. It was the chiefs who survived the onslaught in which Procter played a major role whom he would have to enlist in his mission.

His journal, published 85 years later by the "Pennsylvania Archives," is a highly readable, first-person account of travel on nothing more than rough tracks, of food that Indians considered delicacies, and negotiations bearing a striking resemblance to modern diplomacy. With a travel advance of $600 from General Knox, Procter and his traveling companion, Capt. M.G. Houdin purchased a horse, saddlery, "pocket compass, best kind, tin box and oil case; also two small books and one quire of paper." The last item would be devoted largely to the journal, with almost daily entries recording experiences and accounting for every shilling spent.

Departure was March 12 "under a heavy rain." In just a few days less than three months, Procter and Houdin would travel some 1,300 miles, following riverside trails wherever possible. Their route can still be traced on a state map which identifies rivers. Better yet is an 18th-century map available at www.mapsofpa.com/18thcentury/700.jpg. Leaving Philadelphia, they took the Germantown road to Reading, then the north branch of the Schuylkill river and across Blue mountain (first of the Appalachian ridges) to Berwick on the Susquehanna. Owing to high water, they left the river and crossed a mountain pass, "arriving at 11 o'clock at night at Wilksburg." The farther north they traveled, the worse the weather. (March 24): "We were obliged to encamp this afternoon under a very heavy storm of rain, thunder and lightning, and what is very remarkable, the snow was in general fifteen inches deep on the ground." The next day: "...heavy rain as usual, our horses worn down and ourselves more than commonly fatigued; had naught to eat ourselves or for our horses... To save our horses we have traveled on foot more than half the way from the town of Reading."

Procter records both the beauty of his surroundings and its earlier associations. "Encamped this evening at Buttermilk falls. This cataract falls eighty feet [to the river]; the place where it issues on the top of the mountain is about six feet in width, and its current is so strong that [it would be] sufficient to serve many mills at one time. This place I had the opportunity of examining minutely when going on the expedition with General Sullivan in the year 1779, at which time I had the command of 214 vessels on the Susquehanna, taking with me provisions and stores of 6,000 men." Several days later, having passed Tioga Point, Procter "reviewed the ground on which the British and Indians were entrenched for better than a mile... I saw many traces made by our round and grape shot against them, and a large collection of five-and-one-half inch shells, which I had the pleasure of formerly causing to be exploded amongst them."

Now Procter and Houdin turned west along the "warriors' trail" to the Genesee river and the first Seneca town, where an Indian runner brought bad news. Near Fort Pitt (now Pittsburgh) several Delaware Indians had been killed by militia from Virginia. Those who escaped took revenge by scalping 17 settlers. Worse, Cornplanter and several chiefs returning from a meeting in Philadelphia with the "Great Chief of the Thirteen Fires" had to take refuge in Fort Franklin (near Oil City) from the incensed militia. Procter tried to turn events to his advantage by traveling by canoe down the Allegheny to Fort Franklin, where he hoped to persuade Cornplanter and his chiefs to leave on their peace-making mission immediately, saving hundreds of travel miles. The Seneca chiefs' reply: documents given them at Philadelphia as well as Procter's from General Knox would have to be put before the entire Six Nations at a council fire to be lighted at Buffalo creek, approximately the site of Buffalo, New York.

A tight schedule was about to fall apart. It would be nearly two weeks before chiefs could gather at Buffalo. At the same time, General Arthur St. Clair was awaiting word on Procter's success — or lack of it — before leaving Fort Washington on a second military expedition against tribes which defeated Harmar. He kept St. Clair up-to-date by the best express service then available — trusted Indian runners.

More bad news. Alighting from their horses at Buffalo, Procter's group learned the British from Fort Erie and Fort Niagara had already dispatched agents to warn warring tribes not to assist the Americans. Moreover, a quick survey of the local Indians showed "they were far better clothed than those in towns at a greater distance owing entirely to the immediate intercourse they have with the British, being 30 miles distant from Fort Niagara and six from Fort Erie... The chiefs have to look up to them for almost their daily subsistence." So devoted to the British was one chief that he "was fully regimented as a colonel, as belonging to some royal regiment, and equipped with the best pair of epaulettes."

Chiefs were pleased to honor their guests with feasts. One deserved special mention in the journal: "The village lay about three miles east of Buffalo ...Inhabitants appeared to be well clothed, particularly their women, some of which were dressed so richly with silken shroud, etc. and ornamented with so many silver trappings, that one suit must be of the value of thirty pounds... The feast consisted of young pigeons, some boiled, some stewed, and the mode of dishing them up was, that a hank of six were tied with a deer's sinew around their necks, their bills pointing outwards; they were plucked, but of pin feathers there plenty remained; the inside was taken out, but it appeared from the soup made of them, that water had not touched them before. The repast being the best I had seen for a long time, I ate of it very heartily..."

At another village Procter witnessed preparations for burying the chief's daughter. "...A number of the mourners appeared under the greatest distress by their cries, during which time all their heads were covered with shrouds. When they uncovered themselves, I [discovered] they had shed not one tear. This [recalled] attending wakes in the old country, with the native Irish, where the rich hire old women to lament the loss of the deceased..."

Two weeks later, after interminable speeches and councils, Procter was ready to quit. The message from British agents, meeting privately with the chiefs was clear: you and the Americans will be killed if you venture westward. Then came a total surprise. The council of women, which had great influence on tribal affairs, reversed their leaders' decision. "Now the elders of our women, considering the greatness of your business, have said that our sachems and warriors must help you over your difficulties, for the good of them and their children..." The chiefs then named their delegation to accompany Procter. Because time was so short, the group would have to travel by ship the length of Lake Erie to Sandusky rather than overland. And the British commander at Fort Niagara would have to grant his permission, a stumbling block the chiefs must have foreseen. Naturally, he said no.

Defeated, Procter lost no time on the journey home. Hiring relays of Indians with canoes, he traveled down French creek to the confluence with the Allegheny at Fort Franklin then to Fort Pitt, "having completed in five days and two nights, going by land or water from Buffalo, 411 miles... Set out from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia on the evening of the 29th of May and arrived in Philadelphia the 7th day of June."

Two months later General St. Clair and a force of 1,400 left Fort Washington to subdue the same tribes which humiliated Harmar. St. Clair fared no better. Two-thirds of his men lay dead or wounded, including 35 officers. Not until three years later did a much more daring and well organized general, Anthony Wayne, bring peace after his resounding victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. In the treaty the United States gained 25,000 square miles of what would become Ohio, Indiana and Michigan; the Indians received $20,000 outright and the promise of $10,000 annually — provided they refrained from torching newcomers' homes and lifting their scalps.

Procter's military career was not yet over. In 1794 as a brigadier general in the militia he commanded a regiment accompanying Washington in suppressing the Whiskey Rebellion in western Pennsylvania.

As a commissioned officer in the Continental Army, he was an original member of The Society of the Cincinnati, of which his former commander-in-chief was the first "president general."

On March 16, 1806, Procter, 67, died at his home on Arch Street between 4th and 5th and was buried with military honors in the church yard of Old St. Paul's Episcopal Church on south 3rd Street, one block from the City Tavern. Two colleagues from the Carpenters' Company — Robert Smith and William Dillworth — erected the church in 1760. Although the original headstone is weathered beyond recognition, a small plaque erected by the Montgomery Lodge No. 19, Free & Accepted Masons — successor to the Lodge of which Procter was "worshipful master" — marks the grave. Also, at the entrance to the churchyard, a second plaque summarizes the contributions of this master builder and patriot to his adopted nation.

Carpenters' Hall, 320 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia, PA 19106
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