Horsehead Bottom & the Origins of Dunmore's War

Major Frontier War Triggered by Looting of “Thirty Horse Loads of Skins" and Killing of Shawnee Indians

Explore the obscure and forgotten origins of Dunmore's War of 1774, which began with an attack on a long-forgotten Shawnee Indian Village known as Horsehead Bottom, located just north of modern-day Portsmouth, Ohio.

In early April 1774, a 22-year-old George Rogers Clark arrived at the Mouth of the Little Kanawha, where modern-day Parkersburg, West Virginia, is located. This site had been chosen months earlier for the rendezvous. Eighty or ninety male settlers from different parts of Virginia were set to arrive over the next week or so. From here they planned to travel by flatboat and canoe, down the Ohio to what would become Limestone, Kentucky, modern-day Maysville, where they would then follow an old buffalo trace to the bluegrass region.

Clark and the other men had chosen a dangerous alternative route from Daniel Boone, who the previous year had led the first settler party over land and through the Cumberland Gap on the Wilderness Road. Clark and the Virginians instead would descend the Ohio, skirting along an Indian boundary line that had never been fully accepted by the Shawnee and other Ohio Indians who lived on the northern shores of the river.

While waiting for all of the parties to arrive at the mouth of the Little Kanawha, an advance group of surveyors had already descended the river and ran into Indian resistance. According William Crawford’s account of the incident, which he wrote for George Washington soon after the events had transpired, the surveying party was “stopped by the Shawanese Indians.” The Shawnee had been encamped near the mouth of the Scioto, at a place then known as Horsehead Bottom, a small Indian village site on the eastern bank of the Scioto, two miles above modern-day Portsmouth, Ohio.

According to Crawford, “some of the white people” then attacked the encampment and ransacked it, killing “several” Indians and taking “thirty horse loads of skins.” News of the attack on Horsehead Bottom and possible Indian retaliation on another group of Virginian hunters soon reached Clark and the others at the Little Kanawha.

At first, as Clark would later relate, news of these attacks “led us to believe that the Indians were determined on war. The whole party [of settlers] was enrolled and determined to execute their project of forming a settlement in Kentucky, as we had every necessary store that could be thought of.” After some discussion, “the determination was to cross the country” and confront the Shawnee and Indian threat head-on though a second, “surprise” attack on the Indians at the Mouth of the Scioto.

Michael Cresap, a veteran fighter in the colonial Indian wars, counseled against the attack and instead recommended that the men return up river to Wheeling, where a much larger force could be rallied for what they anticipated would be the outbreak of a larger war.

Not all of the men left for Wheeling at once; Cresap and a party of men, on their way to Wheeling, had come across a group of Indians coming down river; fearing hostile intentions, Cresap and his men shot and killed a couple of them; the others escaped and fled over land.

Reports and rumors of war spread through the settlements and all Indians became suspect. Fifty miles below Pittsburgh, at Joshua Baker’s Tavern in what is now Hancock County, West Virginia, settlers launched an unprovoked assault on a small Indian village, which was located opposite Baker’s Tavern, across the Ohio, near the mouth of Yellow Creek. According to William Crawford’s telling, one of the few surviving contemporaneous accounts of the massacre, the settlers “killed and scalped ten, and took one child about two months old.” As related more recently by historian Patrick Spero in his book Frontier Country: The Politics of War in Early Pennsylvania, “the Yellow Creek assault happened [near] Fort Pitt and was particularly brutal. In a premeditated and unprovoked attack, Virginians under the leadership of Daniel Greathouse killed the entire family of Logan, the son of an important Iroquois headman whom imperial officials considered an ally. After his family was butchered — his pregnant sister’s child was reportedly ripped from her womb and ‘stuck on a pole’ — he vowed revenge and allied with the Shawnees and Pluggy, a Mingo who also had strong ties to the Shawnees.”

The one child spared in the massacre, was saved thanks to his being the son of a white frontiersman, John Gibson, who had married Logan’s sister.

Logan vowed revenge and gathered a small group of warriors from among the Shawnee and Mingo of Ohio. In June of 1774, he launched the first of four raids into western Virginia, attacking American settlements. When done, they had taken the lives of an estimated thirty white settlers, men, women, and children. Virginian land speculators were frustrated and they hoped a war with the Ohio Indians would force them to stop their attacks and make land concessions that would open up the region to white settlements.

Virginians were looking for a pretext and in the raids of Logan, they found one. William Preston, a land surveyor and militia leader, noted, “The opportunity we have so long wished for, is now before us.” In response to the outbreak of violence following the murder of Logan’s family, Virginia's governor, Lord Dunmore (John Murray), launched a campaign against the emerging Indian Alliance. The Virginians would go to war against a coalition led by the Shawnee and Mingo, which had warriors from the Delawares, Wyandots, Miamis, Ottawas, and Cherokee.

The Virginians fought their way into Ohio, defeating Indian forces at the Battle of Point Pleasant in early October 1774, and then marched two armies on their villages in the Pickaway Plains, near modern-day Circleville, Ohio. There, under the threat of destroying their villages and crops, the Shawnee and other Indian leaders decided to sue for peace, signing the Treaty of Camp Charlotte, which opened Kentucky up to American settlement.

Famously, Logan refused to join the treaty signing ceremony, but he did announce his intention to end his raids in a speech, which has long fascinated Americans. Logan proclaimed: “I appeal to any white man to say, if ever he entered Logan's cabin hungry, and he gave him not meat; if ever he came cold and naked, and he clothed him not. During the course of the last long and bloody war, Logan remained idle in his cabin, an advocate for peace. Such was my love for the whites, that my countrymen pointed as they passed, and said, Logan is the friend of white men. I had even thought to have lived with you, but for the injuries of one man. Col. Cresap, the last spring, in cold blood, and unprovoked, murdered all the relations of Logan, not sparing even my women and children. There runs not a drop of my blood in the veins of any living creature. This called on me for revenge. I have sought it: I have killed many: I have fully glutted my vengeance. For my country, I rejoice at the beams of peace. But do not harbour a thought that mine is the joy of fear. Logan never felt fear. He will not turn on his heel to save his life. Who is there to mourn for Logan? Not one.”

Logan had mistakenly cast blame for the Yellow Creek massacre on Michael Cresap. And, ever since his lament was published in Virginia newspapers and in Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, it has been the source of contention and wrapped up in the debate over the causes of the war.

While Cresap is no longer blamed for the murders, nor for personally starting the war, explanations of the conflict’s larger causation has shifted to the chain of events initiated by aggressive and violent attacks perpetrated by Virginians. Patrick Spero has argued that the Virginians were the aggressors in what was clearly “an offensive and unnecessary war.” Yet, Virginians at the time described the war as a defensive military campaign brought about by “the commencement of the Indian depredations and hostilities on the western portion of Virginia.” Claiming that Indian attacks on settlers meant that war was “inevitable,” Dunmore asserted that he and the military forces under his command were only taking the necessary “preparations for the same.”

The tragic chain of events that led to Logan’s raids, if traced back to the days right before the Yellow Creek Massacre, began at Horsehead Bottom, near modern-day Portsmouth, Ohio, on the banks of the Scioto River, when a small party of Virginian land surveyors attacked and looted a Shawnee village. This was the spark that lit the frontier conflict known as Dunmore’s War.


C. W. Butterfield, Washington-Crawford Letters, being the Correspondence between George Washington and William Crawford, from 1767 to 1781, Concerning Western Lands (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1877).

James Alton James, editor, George Rogers Clark Papers, 1771-1781 (Springfield, Illinois: Illinois State Historical Library, 1912).

Douglas R. Hurt, The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1720-1830 (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996).

Richard G. Lewis and Walter M. Dawley, "A Map of the Indian Towns, Villages, Camps and Trails in the Virginia Military District and South-Western Ohio" (Chillicothe, Ohio: 1902), Columbus Metropolitan Library Collection.

J. H. Newton, History of the Pan-Handle (Wheeling, WV: Published by J.A. Caldwell, 1879).

Patrick Spero, Frontier Country: The Politics of War in Early Pennsylvania (University of Pennsylvania Press, ), 206-219.

Reuben Gold Thwaites and Louise Phelps Kellogg, editors, Documentary History of Dunmore's War, 1774 (Madison: Wisconsin Historical Society, 1905).

Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region (Cambridge University Press, 357-364.