Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Matthew Elliott, British Indian Agent and Militia Colonel

In my profiles of people connected with the War of 1812 in the Northwest the figure of Matthew Elliott looms large. From Pontiac's Rebellion to the Battle of the Thames he was involved in all the major white-Indian conflicts in the region. This is a brief sketch of his career, taken mostly from his entry in the always-helpful Dictionary of Canadian Biography.
  • Born c. 1739 in County Donegal, Ireland
  • Settled in Pennsylvania 1761. Served as a volunteer with British forces suppressing Pontiac's rebellion in 1763.
  • Traded with Shawnee Indians along the Scioto River, in the Ohio country.
  • 1774 acted as emissary on behalf of Shawnee during Lord Dunmore's War.
  • 1776 American (Continental) representative to Indians to Delaware and Shawnee peoples. Arrested as a spy by the British but soon released on parole.
  • 1778 served as British scout at Vincennes. 
  • 1779-82 based out of Detroit, fought in various actions in Kentucky and Ohio country, including Crawford's Defeat and Blue Licks. Associated with a company of Butler's Rangers operating from Detroit during this period.
  • Following the Revolutionary War, Elliott established a prosperous farm near Amherstburg, staffed in large part with slaves he had kidnapped from Kentucky settlements in the war.
  • 1790 became assistant to Indian Superintendent at Detroit Alexander McKee. Active British emissary to Indians along the Maumee Valley.
  • Present at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 as an observer.
  • Friend of Moravian missionaries, who helped them establish a settlement on the Thames River called Moraviantown in 1792. 
  • 1796-97 Named Indian Superintendent at Amherstburg. Dismissed for alleged corruption and disagreements with local military authorities. 
  • 1808 Reappointed Superintendent. Worked to counter American influence among Northwest Indian nations.
  • 1811 Allegedly instructs Indian allies to wait for his signal to commence war on United States.
  • War of 1812, served as Lt. Colonel of the First Essex militia regiment, served in most of the frontier battles. Lost son Alexander during the war. Farm is burned by Americans.
  • 1813 Following the Battle of the River Thames, retreated to Burlington, Upper Canada and continued to fight.
  • Died of illness 7 May 1814.
  • Notably, had two sons by a Shawnee woman, and later married a Sarah Donovan in 1810 and had two more sons before his death.
Most American accounts of this era identify Elliott as a sort of bete noire of American settlers in the west, and claim he pulled the strings behind many of the Indian battles and massacres. That much is doubtful, but he had a large influence on the Indians of the Northwest. In charge of the Indian agency, he controlled their supply of powder and shot, as well as manufactured goods such as tomahawks, knives and blankets, which were distributed as gifts.

 Although his official instructions were to keep the Indians neutral until their aid was needed for the defense of Canada, it's not hard to imagine that him and other Indian Department die-hards were acting independently and prepared to start a war in order to secure their allies from American expansion and assert their trading rights in the region. The British garrison commander at Amherstburg reported that his estimates of how many Indians would join the British cause in time of war with America were overly optimistic. He thought that as many as 4,000 warriors would flock to the British cause. In the event, many thousands of men, women and children became dependent on British supplies during the War of 1812 as the Americans burned them out of their villages, and it became more than the thin Crown supply lines could bear.