The Yellow Creek Massacre: Murder and Revenge on the American Frontier

Chief Logan was respected by whites and Indians alike for his pacifism and generosity. So when a renegade group of frontiersmen murdered his entire family, folks were a little upset.
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It was the mid 1700s, and most of the white folks in western Pennsylvania and northern Kentucky were busy hunting, farming, building cabins, or—I don’t know—probably doing a lot of craft projects with pinecones.

It’s fair to say that many of these settlers desired nothing more than their own corner of the world to call home: somewhere they could raise a family, and maybe a place that—if they were lucky—someone would put in a JOANN Fabric store. This is to say, most of these folks had no ill-will toward the American Indians whom they *technically* forced off of the land.

Most, but not all. Some were of a different mind. These were no quiet farmers; no peaceful settlers; no creators of googly-eyed pinecones. These were immoral types with a strong disposition toward violence: men like Daniel and Jacob Greathouse.

Greathouse hated “injens” with such a fervor that oftentimes he would state laconically that he wanted to “go kill a few reds”—and would go out and do just that. He was known by both whites and Indians alike as a rough character you didn’t want to cross. The only positive mention I’ve seen of Greathouse was his assistance to respected frontiersman Simon Kenton during an Indian attack on Kenton’s fur camp. Even in this case, it can be clear that he was mostly just trying to save his own scalp.

If you were to read the history of US/Indian relations in this region over a hundred-year span or so, you would notice a waxing and waning pattern of violence. There would be peace for a few years, then an isolated attack by either a white or Indian fringe group or individual; which sparked a retaliation that roused small parties intent on causing trouble; which erupted in a war; which in turn begot another peace treaty. Then the wheel would slowly start spinning again, with whites settling farther into Indian territory.

At this point in the saga of westward expansion, decades of such pushing and pulling had already taken place, and most Indian tribes in the region had been displaced to the Ohio side of the Ohio River. Among these were the Delawares, Wyandots, Miamis, Ottawas, and the Shawnees. Of all mentioned, the lattermost were of a category all their own. Put simply, the Shawnee were a tribe you didn’t want to fuck with.

They were known for their uncompromising loyalty, wise and inspirational leadership (Tecumseh comes to mind), but mostly—as mentioned—everyone knew about their particular ability to fuck someone up real, real bad. I’ve said for a long time that if I were alive during this time period, I’d be on their side if they’d have me. (Odds are I would end up the Shawnee equivalent of a water boy, but goddammit, I would fetch that water so good for these guys.)

At this time, tensions were starting to tighten: despite a clear definition of borders in the standing treaty and almost a decade of peace, European settlers were encroaching farther and farther into Indian lands.

One would think that Chief Logan, whose village sat along the northern bank of the Ohio River, would be at the forefront of simmering hostility. One would be wrong in that assumption.

Logan was technically a “war chief” (which was kind of ironic, given his peaceful demeanor) but was and is much more commonly referred to as a principle chief. Originally part of the Cayuga tribe, Logan emigrated with a group of followers later referred to as the “Mingos” to escape the endless violence between Europeans and Indians.

As the years passed, Logan held a famously positive reputation among Indians and Europeans alike. If you were to enter Logan’s village, you could rest assured that you would be fed and given quarter regardless the color of your skin.

All of this is important because it really amplifies the abhorrence of the Greathouse family’s actions against Logan—not only to us, but even to those who lived in a society already accustomed to violence and general shitty behavior.

In the spring of 1774, two men hired Captain Michael Myers to guide them to a patch of land along Yellow Creek, across the Ohio River. Given that the land was well within Indian territory, they crossed the river after dark. A short while later, as they sat around a small fire and settled in for the evening, they heard a commotion near the horses. Myers grabbed his flintlock and began creeping through the forest to investigate. In the dim aura of the moon through the tree canopy, he saw an Indian near one of horses. 

The Indian approached the horse and ran his hand along its flank—“What are you doin all the way out here? Poor little fellas. Better put up some posters and see if we can find your mom or dad.”

“Theivin sumbitch,” Myers muttered. He lifted his rifle and shot the man dead. As he reloaded the rifle, the sounds of the forest were deadened by the gunshot. He stored the rod, poured a dash of powder into the pan, closed the lock and pulled the hammer, and then waited among the bushes.

The sound of crickets resumed. Then he heard a rustle. Another Indian came into view, probably coming to investigate the rifle report. Myers fired a ball of lead into him, reloaded and waited until he was sure no one else was coming, and then returned to the campfire.

The three bandits then hurried back across the Ohio to Pennsylvania before the scene was discovered.

Their first stop back in White Guy Country was to Daniel and Jacob Greathouse’s camp. The brothers and their men gathered around and Captain Myers told them all what had happened.

“Y’hear that boys?” Jacob said. “Them injens is’a fix’n to murder ever last one’a us fore tomorrow’s through.”

“That’s right!” The Captain shouted. “These horse-theivin savages will be hungry for blood!”

“Let’s hit em fore they get the chance!” one man yelled.

“That’s right,” said another, “ambush em!”

“I don’t know,” a man named Jenkins said. “Sounds like this captain here’s the one being a peckerhead. He’as balls deep in injen country whuddn he?  Cain’t we turn ‘im in instead, and—you know—not start a whole war over this?”

“Here he goes again,” a grisly frontiersman said before spitting a stream of molasses-colored tobacco juice onto the ground. “Jenkins you had yer way we’d let them red sumbitches steal ever horse we own an’ take our wives to boot.”

Jenkins shook his head. “Well I could mebbe understand if the Injen was stealing a horse in our backyard. But this captain fella took these two dingleberries halfway into Injen lands plannin to start a settlement there. How’d you feel if you saw three Shawnee boys camping out in your back lawn?”

Jacob cradled his rifle in his arms. “You been kicked by a mule or somethin boy?”

“Naw, I’m just saying—”

“Sounds to me like Jenkins here’s turnin native on us.”

“Scalp him!” one man yelled. “Injen lover!”

The crowd rabbled and shouted. Men pulled tomahawks from their waist belts and clicked the hammers on their flintlock rifles.

“You know what,” Jenkins said, backing away from the light of the fire and the angry crowd, “seems like you guys have everything under control here. I’m just gonna uhhh, head on back to my cabin and play some solitaire.”

He slipped into the forest, and the group turned back to Jacob.

“All right,” he said. “Here’s the plan …”

A group of canoes holding thirty-one men slipped downstream on the Ohio River. The men slid them into the mud on the eastern bank and pulled them into the grass until they were hidden. Then they continued on foot.

They crept through the forest until they saw smoke from the campfires in Chief Logan’s Mingo village on the opposite bank. Women crouched along the shores to wash clothes or cooking wares, children chased one another back and forth. Their giggles and shouts echoed across the water as the Greathouse men watched. Silently they retreated from the shore and approached a cabin among a cleared-out section of forest in the island’s interior.

It was a small trading post owned by a settler named Joshua Baker. Indians and whites alike frequented the little trading post to sip Baker’s rum or purchase gunpowder, salt, or other staples. Baker wasn’t home at the time, but his brother-in-law Nathaniel Tomlinson was more than happy to accommodate Daniel and Jacob’s plan once he’d heard what had happened.

A while later, in Logan’s village, the Mingos watched a familiar man cross the river in Joshua Baker’s canoe. “Nathaniel,” said Logan’s brother Taylaynee, whom the whites called John Petty. “How are you?”

Nathaniel Tomlinson stepped out of the canoe. “I’m surely fine, John,” he said. He removed his hat and toyed with it in his hand. “A few of us are settin up yonder at the cabin and we figgured you’ns might be interested in some drinkin and games. Stop on over later and the rum and food are on us.”

This wasn’t at all an uncommon occurrence for the Mingos. They spent quite a lot of time at Baker’s trading post.

For that reason, and because no word of the attack from Captain Myers had yet reached Logan’s camp, the Mingos accepted the offer. Logan himself was off on a hunting trip, but in the canoes crossing the river to Baker’s cabin that evening were Taylaynee, his sister Koonay, his nephew Molnah, Koonay’s two-year old daughter, and a handful of warriors.

Jacob, Daniel, and their men hid in the back room of the cabin, while the Mingo guests filed onto the lawn from their canoes. Nathaniel offered them liquor. All accepted but Koonay, who was eight months pregnant.

As the day wore on, Nathaniel kept the rum flowing for the Mingos, and a handful of the Greathouse men socialized and took slow sips, until it was clear that the Indians were good and drunk. Taylaynee grabbed Nathaniel’s coat and hat from the porch rail and put them on as a joke.

“Look, I’m a white man,” he said. Nathaniel’s eyes narrowed with contempt as Taylaynee passed him. “Ope—lemme just squeeze on by ya there, partner.” The Mingos laughed. He stumbled down the steps and onto the lawn. He turned back to the porch where Nathaniel stood. “Uhhh, excuse me waiter, can I have the chicken—boiled—and can you not put any salt on it? It was way too spicy last time we were here.” Another wail of laughter.

Nathaniel spat into the dirt next to the steps. “Why don’t we play a little shooting game,” he said. “I’ll set up some targets, and we’ll take turns shooting and see who gets closer to the bullseye.”

He set up a row of targets and counted off several paces. “All right, you fellers line up and shoot, then we’ll give ‘er a try.” He and the other white men stepped back as the Mingos formed a line. A volley of shots erupted from their rifles. When they turned to face Nathaniel, Taylaynee saw that the man’s rifle was leveled at him. A look of confusion fell upon his face the moment before Nathaniel’s flintlock scattered his brains upon the leaves and filled the air with a cloud of smoke.

Before the Mingos could react, the frontiersmen fell upon them. The Greathouse brothers and their men poured out of the cabin. Tomahawks crunched into bone and knives tore at flesh. An acrid blanket of white gunsmoke permeated the forest.

Koonay waddled over logs and branches, trying to make it to the canoes. Behind her, Taylaynee lay dead. His nine-year-old son Molnah was tomahawked and scalped. Visceral cries echoed through the trees. She started to stumble but caught herself, and when she lifted her gaze she saw one of Greathouse’s men before her, his rifle raised. He shot her through the shoulder, and she was grabbed by more of the men. She cried out as they hung her by the wrists and ankles from a leaning tree. Jacob Greathouse approached the screaming squaw, his bone-handled knife clenched in his fist. With a flick of the wrist and a flash of steel, he slit open her belly, and her innards and unborn child spilled onto the leaves below her. Then, as she watched in agony, he scalped the fetus and tossed the tiny corpse onto the ground. He stood for a moment, listening to her sobs and eyeing his work, and then reached forward, slid his knife along her hairline and pulled her scalp loose with a grisly pop.

Within seconds, all the Mingos were dead or dying save one: Koonay’s two-year old daughter. One of the men lifted the screaming child by the legs, intending to “dash her brains upon a rock.” He was stopped because the girl’s father was a white man named John Gibson, whom some of the men knew.

“They’s a’comin!” someone shouted behind him.

Across the brown waters of the Ohio, Mingo warriors were paddling four canoes toward the Pennsylvania shore with determined speed. They’d heard the gunshots and screams.

Jacob ordered the men to creep in along the brush of the bank. When the canoes came into range, they each took aim and fired. The canoes exploded in splinters; men stooped forward or fell from the side. They returned fire into the forest, but the whites had taken cover to reload. Scattered clouds of gunsmoke exploded from the treeline. Logan’s father dug his paddle into the water, determined to reach his son, daughter, and grandchildren. A bullet smashed through his forehead.

As Chief Logan sat miles away in a hunting camp, his father’s lifeblood was churning with river water in the bottom of a canoe and his sister, son, and grandchildren were all already dead. He had just become the last surviving member of his family.

When Logan returned home, he was devastated by the news—and confused that his white friends could do something so terrible when he had offered them nothing but kindness and friendship throughout his life.

He vowed he would have his revenge.

A council was held among the Mingos and the Shawnee on the banks of the Scioto River. The Shawnee refused to go to war for the time being, but Logan could not allow the whites to go unpunished.

All along the banks of the Ohio river, Mingo warriors sneaked up to cabins or ambushed groups of hunters. Logan demanded ten white scalps for every one of his people who’d been slain.

The raids of course sparked a retaliation by the whites. Colonel Michael Cresap announced that the British government would pay for each scalp it received. Greathouse and others stayed busy over the following weeks, murdering every Indian they found—peaceful or otherwise. Cresap himself conducted raids into the Ohio country.

Lord John Murray Dunmore raised a militia force, which descended the Ohio River and destroyed seven Mingo villages. Fortunately most of them had been abandoned after their scouts had seen the approaching army, although their homes and winter crops were burned to dust.

Lord Dunmore’s War apexed with The Battle of Point Pleasant in October 1774—only four months after the conflict began. A thousand Pennsylvanian militiamen confronted less than five hundred Shawnee and Mingos under Chief Cornstalk along the Little Kanawha River and sent them reeling into the Ohio interior. Lord Dunmore’s army trekked into the Ohio territory and demanded a treaty.

The tribes were invited to parley near the Scioto River, but Chief Logan refused to attend. Instead he recited a speech to frontiersmen Simon Girty and Simon Kenton under a large elm tree north of present-day Chillicothe, Ohio. (“Logan’s Elm” grew until 1964.) The speech, known as “Logan’s Lament,” later became famous and was included in works by Thomas Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt. It’s about the saddest thing you can imagine. Poor Logan, who offered nothing but kindness to everyone, received only heartbreak and betrayal in return:

 

I appeal to any white man to say if ever he entered Logan’s cabin hungry and I gave him not meat; if ever he came cold or naked and I gave him not clothing.

During the course of the last long and bloody war, Logan remained idle in his tent, an advocate for peace. Such was my love for the whites that those of my own country pointed at me and said, ‘Logan is the friend of the white man.’ I had even thought to have lived with you, but for the injuries of one man.

Colonel Cresap [he mistakenly thought Cresap was responsible at this time], the last spring in cold blood and unprovoked, murdered all the relatives 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 harbor the 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.

The Greathouse family may have escaped capture and justice along the banks of the Ohio in spring 1774, but they couldn’t escape it forever.

In 1791, almost fifteen years after Jacob and Daniel Greathouse murdered Chief Logan’s family, their nephew Jonathan Greathouse was moving his family westward, along with about sixteen other settlers. They had just crossed the Ohio River when they found themselves surrounded by a Shawnee war party.

“Howdy fellers,” Jonathan Greathouse said. “Just making ma’way downstream, don’t mean ya no trouble.”

A Shawnee warrior spoke up from the back. “Hey, aren’t you that Greathouse guy whose brothers murdered Chief Logan’s entire family for basically no reason?”

“Uhh, no, my name’s uhh—Great … lodge. Greatlodge.”

“No … no you’re definitely that Greathouse guy.”

Let’s pause for a second and talk about the odds of this:

During that time, the Shawnee captured countless boats floating down the Ohio and kidnapped or killed their occupants, in accordance with conflicts still taking place until the short-lived peace that came four years later with the Greenville Treaty. But of all the boats, of all the people, they came across this particular dude. And of all the war parties, this one in particular held a Shawnee warrior who just happened to recognize Greathouse.

The Indians wanted to be sure of his identity, so they sent a runner to fetch someone who was said to have met Greathouse on a few occasions. We are left to ponder the poor excuses Greathouse was offering up to the warriors while this time passed—“Gee, this Greathouse feller sure sounds like a nasty one. Again, I’m not him, but boy I surely do hope you find him. Me, I’m headed down to Bible Camp, yessiree.”

Eventually the runner returned with the warrior who confirmed Greathouse’s identity.

Frontiersman Simon Kenton was among those who discovered the site of the massacre. The Shawnee war party had worked its way along the river, destroying everything in their path. Kenton found the first few dozen settlers, under the command of John May, shot, scalped, and chopped to pieces with tomahawks. The scene only got worse when he discovered Jonathan Greathouse’s party. The entire group had been tortured to death. Most—including the children—were stripped naked, tied to trees, and beaten with hickory switches. They were then scalped, and fires were built at their feet until they were dead.

The worst was saved for Greathouse and his wife.

They were stripped and beaten with branches and switches to within an inch of their lives. They had not forgotten the brutal scene near Logan’s village—of Koonay tied to the tree with her belly spilled open.

Several warriors held Greathouse and his wife. They sliced a two-inch incision just above their pubic bones and pulled out the lower end of their intestines, which they cut loose and tied to trees. They then forced Greathouse and his wife to walk around their trees in a circle by prodding them with red-hot sticks pulled from a fire. Inch by inch their entrails slid from their stomachs into gruesome spools around the trees. Mrs. Greathouse collapsed at the bottom of her tree after a little over half of her intestines had been pulled out from her walk and she was scalped.

Jonathan stumbled around the tree in agony until all of his intestines and then his stomach had been removed from his body and were wrapped around the tree. They tied his neck to the tree, high enough that he could still stand, and ripped open his stomach cavity even further with their hands. Then they shoveled hot coals into the open cavity and left Jonathan Greathouse to die.

History is messy and obdurate. The perfect ending to this story would have been Daniel and Jacob Greathouse hanging from those trees along the Ohio many years after their terrible crimes were committed. Really, the perfect story would have been that none of this happened at all. But it did.

One year after Daniel Greathouse committed these murders, he died of measles. Jacob Greathouse died of a gunshot wound two years after that, ambushed by Indians in the Foreman Massacre at Grave Creek.

Some have claimed that it was Jacob Greathouse caught along the bank of the Ohio in 1791, including Allan W. Eckert in his book, The Frontiersmen. This has been mostly proven false by accounts written at the time of Jonathan’s death—further corroborated by accounts of Jacob’s death in the massacre at Grave Creek many years prior.

As one might expect, Chief Logan never recovered from the loss of his family. For the rest of his life he sustained the battle to avenge their deaths, and eventually allied with the British during the American Revolution. He became an angry drunk, and most of his later life is shrouded in mystery. In 1780 he got into an argument with some settlers in a bar along the shores of Lake Erie. He stepped outside to leave, and one of them buried a tomahawk in the back of his head. 

As the entire period was such a bloody and terrible time, it would be easy for episodes like the Yellow Creek Massacre to fade into our collective memory as one more stain upon the soil of our country. There are no heroes in this story, which is not uncommon during the period. In an era when brutal violence was answered with more brutal violence, forces of untainted “good” were few and far between. Tecumseh stands out as an exception, and some whites were certainly better than others.

More than anything, this story has stood out to me as an example of a time when humankind regressed to somewhat of a state of prehistoric tribalism. “Frontier justice” is a phrase used to describe scenes such as the one Simon Kenton discovered of Jonathan Greathouse and his group of settlers. It’s the closest we’ll get to a resolution of some kind in this story of senseless murder and racism.

SOURCES

Letters from Yellow Creek:

  • Apr 25, 1774 Proclamation of Earl Dunmore
  • Extract of a Journal of the United Bretheren’s Mission on Muskingum, 1774. From February 21st [April 30th] to May 20th, 1774.
  • 1774 – Letter: Crawford/Neville Interviewed a Member of Greathouse Party Present at “Battle of Yellow Creek”
  • 1774, May 8 – Letter: No. 24. William Crawford To Washington
  • 1774, May 27 – Letter: Dorsey Pentecost for John Connoly, to Capt. Joel Reece

Hurt, R. Douglas. The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1720-1830. 

Eckert, Allan W. The Frontiersmen

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