FORT RECOVERY — The 100th anniversary of the Fort Recovery Monument will be May 5, celebrating a local history that affects this entire region.
The special events are focusing on the monument itself, said Nancy Knapke, director of the Fort Recovery State Museum and member of the anniversary committee via the Fort Recovery Historical Society.
“The monument was built to honor and in memory of the soldiers who fought and/or died in the Wabash battle of 1791 or the battle of Fort Recovery in 1794,” she said. The monument is the largest tomb of unknown soldiers in the United States.
The history of this area in southwest Mercer County begins in the late 1700s. Settlers of this country kept pushing west, encountering Native American resistance as they went. This came to a head on the banks of the Wabash River near what is now Fort Recovery in 1791. Of the 1,200 soldiers, more than 900 were killed.
The soldiers were slaughtered by a well-organized confederation of 12 to 15 tribes, led by Little Turtle of the Miami and Blue Jacket of the Shawnee, Knapke said.
“That’s why it was such an unusual situation because rarely did you find Native Americans fighting as armies,” she said. “And they inflicted the greatest defeat (in a single battle) ever on the United States Army.”
The settlers killed came from all over the young country from the militias of Pennsylvania, Virginia, New Jersey, Massachusetts and Kentucky. Also killed were about 250 women and children, the families of some of these militiamen who came with their husbands because it was considered safer to be together, she said, “not having any idea what this was going to result in.”
Two years later, Gen. Anthony Wayne and his men built Fort Recovery on the site to send a message, Knapke said. This new group was met with cleaning up the slaughter.
“They were not buried until several months after the battle,” Knapke said. “When the soldiers got there, they put out their sleeping bags and they couldn’t sleep comfortably because they could feel the bones underneath them. … When they came back to bury the remains, they scraped together everything that was strewn about on this 6 to 10 acre battlefield.”
The remains — which had been decimated by exposure and animals — were put into mass graves along the Wabash River. The fort was finished, and a second battle ensued in 1794. About 250 soldiers were successful in holding off about 2,500 Native Americans again commanded by Little Turtle and Blue Jacket. The soldiers who died were buried in mass graves, again along the Wabash.
This defeat led the Native Americans to sign the Treaty of Greenville, which formally marked separate territories of natives and settlers.
“It was the beginning of the end,” Knapke said. “This really was the watershed moment. It really signaled the end of the Indian presence in the Northwest Territory.”
Ohio reached statehood in 1803. Settlers came and eventually formed a village around the fort site. In 1851, boys playing along the Wabash River found bones, Knapke said, which led to the discovery of the long-forgotten mass graves.
The community — and the nation — jumped into action. The village had about 200 residents, and it’s estimated 5,000 people were in town for Bone Burying Day on Sept. 10, 1851, Knapke said. Remains were buried in the village’s cemetery. Descandants of the dead came, as did military officers and political dignitaries. Speakers cried out for a proper monument. It would take almost 60 years to see that come to pass.
“It was an effort by the descendants across the United States and also by the military because this was a great military event here,” Knapke said.
In 1908, President Taft signed a bill into law that included a monument. Two years later, Congress passed the bill and included $25,000 for the monument.
An obelisk, 101 feet tall, was finished in 1912 and dedicated in 1913. It has a large concrete base, which includes a crypt that holds the remains of those unknown soldiers, Knapke said.
Next weekend’s anniversary program will include descendants of those lost soldiers, coming from across the country. A roundtable discussion will be held prior to the anniversary program with those descendants.
The program will feature keynote speaker John Winkler, an attorney who has written “Wabash, 1791” and “Fallen Timbers.” He doesn’t have any ties to the area, Knapke explained, but his love of history has brought him to study the Fort Recovery area. Winkler will also lead a battlefield walk.
“One hundred years later, we are rededicating this so people don’t forget what happened here in Fort Recovery and how this monument came to be,” Knapke said.
People often have a mistaken impression that once America won its freedom, it was “clear sailing,” Knapke said.
“But that absolutely was not true,” she said. “In the early days of the country, there was real concern that the United States would not survive. … When the U.S. Army was virtually destroyed …. there was huge concern by our government that this was just a devasting blow and could result in the end of the country. And not only did our leaders feel this way, but so did those in England and France and Spain, because that for them was all good news.”
During this time, Spain controlled the south, France controlled the west, and England hadn’t given up on ruling us.
“And so they all had their designs on the Northwest Territory, and so for all of them, this was big news,” Knapke said. “That’s one reason why it’s important to do these things like the rededication because we have to remember where we came from and how we got to where we are.”