settler colonialism ohio river

[The Ohio River Speaks] There Must Be Settler Colonialism in the Water

The Ohio River is the most polluted river in the United States. In this series of essays entitled ‘The Ohio River Speaks,‘ Will Falk travels the length of the river and tells her story. Read the first, second, third, fourth, fifth and sixth part of Will’s journey.


Red Oak Memories

On the banks of the Ohio River, in downtown Warren, PA, I stood under the long limbs of an ancient red oak wondering what this magnificent tree must have witnessed in her lifetime. Red oaks can live for 400 years or more and this one had a circumference of what looked like 25 or 30 feet. Even if she was only 300 years old, she would have witnessed the arrival of European settlers in the area.

I tried to imagine what the scene before me looked like when the red oak was young. The hulking asphalt bridge carrying traffic across the river vanished. When it did, the screeching brakes, honking car horns, and police sirens hushed. The multi-story buildings crowding the opposite shore, with their advertisements painted in loud colors, disappeared. The stone man dressed as a Union officer brashly observing the town’s movements from his perch on an obelisk dedicated to the area’s Civil War casualties disintegrated. From the brass crucifix on a steeple casting a shadow over the river, Jesus ascended to heaven. And, he took the church building with him.

Beyond my vision, the Kinzua Dam was inconceivable and the Allegheny Reservoir was unthinkable. The oil wells’ metal pumpjacks methodically sucking crude oil from the earth like mechanical vampires throughout the Allegheny National Forest were centuries away from invention. Warren’s United Refining Company was unnecessary because no one thought they needed the extravagant energy made possible by petroleum.

With all of the evidence of the town of Warren gone, I saw the red oak’s kin growing thick around me, showering the ground with acorns. I saw towering, straight white pines and thick-foliaged hemlocks. These trees had never heard the haunting sounds metal saws make as they slice their way through forests. I heard the songbird symphonies in their full glory. I watched the intense gaze of blue herons stalking crawdads. I delighted in the flamboyancy of the green herons displaying their plumage. Mergansers and mallards led their downy chicks in wobbly lines up and down the river. Black bear cubs wrestled and climbed trees while their mother eyed trout in the shallows.

I also saw humans. I saw the Senecas and their ancestors who had lived here for thousands of years. I saw adults working on a new canoe that would carry them and their trading goods as far as the MTississippi hundreds of miles away. I saw elders telling teenagers stories to live by. I saw parents let their children swim and splash in the river with no fear of untreated sewage spills, oil refinery pollution, toxic fertilizers, or radioactive fracking wastewater.

The red oak’s and my view of downtown Warren, PA.

The red oak’s and my view of downtown Warren, PA.

There Must Be Something in the Water

These visions slowly drifted away until a blaring train horn brought me fully back to the present. It hurt to be back. I wished I could permanently transport to a time before asphalt bridges, oil refineries, and church steeples occupied the Ohio River basin. I wished I lived here before the town of Warren was built. I yearned for the time when traditional cultures governed these lands. I wished Europeans never found this land.

I began to feel sick to my stomach. I tried to recall if I had eaten something, but all I had eaten all day was an apple and a handful of cashews and almonds. This meal had never given me trouble before.

An acorn fell from the branches and bounced near my feet. The red oak’s branches caught my attention. I saw her leaves turning in the late afternoon sunshine. She glowed with a verdant light – one of the forest’s original colors. She glimmered with memories of times past. Then, a statement echoed in my mind: “There must be something in the water.”

My nausea intensified. It was a hot day and I was guzzling water. I had filled my water bottle up at several public fountains in town. Was something in the water? What was making me sick?

Above me, four flags snapped in the wind. One flag was a blue field with three gold fleur de lis. This was the old, royal French flag carried by French explorers in the area. One flag was the British Union Jack carried by British explorers. The third flag was the one carried by American forces during the Revolution. It showed 13 white stars arranged in a circle on a blue square with alternating red and white stripes. The last flag was the Seneca Nation’s. It was red and displayed the Seneca’s respect for nonhuman life with eight animals in a circle. They were deer, heron, hawk, snipe, bear, wolf, beaver, and turtle.

Below the flags, a plaque explained that originally this monument flew only the three imperial flags of the Europeans who claimed this land. Later, the Seneca Nation flag was added. That irony provoked in me a desire to learn the history of how indigenous peoples were pushed off this land. I hoped this would reveal what was in the water.

Settler Occupation Heartbreak

The history of the settler occupation of the Ohio River basin is heartbreaking. White settlers, especially Americans, engaged in decades of ethnic cleansing and genocide to open the region to settlement. This process is called settler colonialism. Historian Patrick Wolfe sums up the goal of settler colonialism as elimination of indigenous populations in order to make land available to settlers. And, in her essential book An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, Dr. Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz elaborates:

“Settler colonialism, as an institution or system, requires violence or the threat of violence to attain its goals. People do not hand over their land, resources, children and futures without a fight, and that fight is met with violence. In employing the force necessary to accomplish its expansionist goals, a colonizing regime institutionalizes violence. The notion that settler-indigenous conflict is an inevitable product of cultural differences and misunderstandings, or that violence was committed equally by the colonized and the colonizer, blurs the nature of the historical processes. Euro-American colonialism, an aspect of the capitalist economic globalization, had from its beginnings a genocidal tendency.”

Air Force officer and Associate Professor of History at the United States Air Force Academy Lieutenant Colonel John Grenier goes so far as to call the extravagant violence perpetrated by Americans against indigenous peoples as the US military’s “first way of war.” He explains in his book The First Way of War: American War Making on the Frontier, 1607-1814:

“For the first 200 years of our military heritage, then, Americans depended on arts of war that contemporary professional soldiers supposedly abhorred: razing and destroying enemy villages and fields; killing enemy women and children; raiding settlements for captives; intimidating and brutalizing enemy noncombatants; and assassinating enemy leaders.”

The Ohio River basin is home to many indigenous nations including the Senecas, Shawnees, Miamis, and Delawares. Americans fought wars of extirpation against all of these nations. Grenier describes why:

“The one constant road block to the settlers’ expansion into the interior of the continent was always the Indians. Thus, if they could eliminate the Indians, the settlers could make North America their own. Limited wars…did little to drive the Indians from their lands. Americans thus chose the most effective means of subjugating the Indians they faced. They sent groups of men, sometimes a dozen, sometimes hundreds, to attack Indian villages and homes, kill Indian women and children, and raze Indian fields.”

When I read this history, the movements happening across the country to remove statues and memorials dedicated to genocidal men came to mind. How can anyone who has read the words of men like George Washington, words ordering Americans to ethnically cleanse the land of indigenous peoples, oppose efforts to remove memorials to these men?

There is Malice Enough in our Hearts

During the American Revolution, for example, Washington wrote instructions to Major General John Sullivan to take peremptory action against the Haudenosaunee (also known as the Iroquois confederacy which included the Ohio River basin’s Seneca) to “lay waste all the settlements around…that the country may not be merely overrun but destroyed…[Y]ou will not by any means, listen to any overture of peace before the total ruin of their settlements is effected…Our future security will be in their inability to injure us…and in the terror with which the severity of the chastisement they receive will inspire them.” Sullivan replied, “The Indians shall see that there is malice enough in our hearts to destroy everything that contributes to their support.”

In this spirit, in 1779, the Continental Congress mustered three armies against the Senecas. Dunbar-Ortiz describes how the three armies scorched “earth across New York and converged at Tioga, the principal Seneca town, in what is now northern Pennsylvania. Their orders were to wipe out the Senecas and any other Indigenous nation that opposed their separatist project, burning and looting all the villages, destroying the food supply, and turning the inhabitants into homeless refugees.” To encourage enlistment in these armies, Dunbar-Ortiz notes that the Pennsylvania Assembly authorized a bounty on Seneca scalps, without regard to sex or age and concludes, “This combination of Continental Army regulars, settler-rangers, and commercial scalp hunters ravaged most of Seneca territory.”

The end of the Revolutionary War did not ease the violence Americans employed against the indigenous peoples of the Ohio River basin. Grenier writes that, in March 1791, Secretary of War Henry Knox (the namesake of Knoxville, TN), directed Brigadier General Charles Scott to recruit 500 Kentucky mounted rangers to destroy Miami towns along the Wabash River, a major tributary of the Ohio. Scott sacked two of the Miami’s largest towns, captured 41 women and children, and then issued the following threat to the Miami:

“Your warriors will be slaughtered, your towns and villages ransacked and destroyed, your wives and children carried into captivity, and you may be assured that those who escape the fury of our mighty chiefs shall find no resting place on this side of the great lakes.”

The Shawnees received the same treatment. Dunbar-Ortiz recounts how George Washington charged alcoholic Major General “Mad” Anthony Wayne (the name sake of Fort Wayne, IN) with destroying the Shawnees. Wayne marched into what is now northwestern Ohio and established Fort Defiance. He then made this ultimatum to the Shawnees: “In pity to your innocent women and children, come and prevent the further effusion of blood.” When the Shawnee leader Blue Jacket refused submission, Wayne’s forces began destroying Shawnee villages and fields and murdering women, children, and old men. At Fallen Timbers, on August 20, 1794, the main Shawnee fighting force was overpowered and Wayne’s men created a 50-mile swath of destruction while laying waste to Shawnee houses and cornfields. Wayne and his men carried on for three days after the battle.

Photo of a painting depicting the Battle of Fallen Timbers taken by the Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office , I doubt the Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office endorses my work. My use of this image should not imply that the Office does endorse my work.

Photo of a painting depicting the Battle of Fallen Timbers taken by the Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office, I doubt the Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs Office endorses my work. My use of this image should not imply that the Office does endorse my work.

The history of the American invasion of North America is filled with stories like the ones described here. It would take pages upon pages to represent this history in its entirety. Anyone attempting to understand the reality of American history needs to contemplate what Dunbar-Ortiz points out: “The objective of US colonialist authorities was to terminate [native nations’] existence as peoples – not as random individuals. This is the very definition of modern genocide.”

Macutté Mong and the Wabash River

The following stories finally showed me what was in the water that made me feel so sick.

George Rogers Clark is considered a hero of the American Revolution. He was likely a psychopath. Outside of Vincennes, IN, in February 1779, Clark demanded the unconditional surrender of the British inside Fort Sackville. When Henry Hamilton, Fort Sackville’s commander, refused to accept Clark’s demands, Clark showed what Grenier characterizes as “the Americans’ darker side.”

Hamilton described the events in his journal. Clark had four Indian captives. He ordered these four men taken into the street in front of the fort’s main gate where the fort’s occupants could watch. Hamilton reported:

“One of [the Indians] was tomahawked either by Clark or one of his officers, the other three foreseeing their fate, began to sing their death songs, and were butchered in succession. A young chief of the Ottawa nation called Macutté Mong one of these last, having received the fatal stroke of a tomahawk in the head, took it out and gave it again into the hands of his executioner who repeated the stroke a second and a third time, after which the miserable being, not entirely deprived of life, was dragged to the river and thrown in with the rope about his neck where he ended his life and tortures.”

When Hamilton continued to argue for lenient terms, Clark began to wash his hands and face “still reeking” in Macutté Mong’s blood and threatened to put the entire British garrison to death if it did not surrender immediately. Hamilton opened the fort’s gates the next morning.

When I read that Macutté Mong was thrown into the Wabash River, I realized that what was left of his brutalized body was carried south towards the Ohio River. I did not know how long it takes rivers to break down human bodies. I did not know how far a body’s materials might be carried by a river, either. But, I did know that matter can neither be created nor destroyed.

Macutté Mong’s body was no doubt recycled by the Wabash and Ohio rivers over the centuries. Some of his body was likely eaten by fish and insects who in turn were eaten by other fish, insects, birds, and animals. His bones likely sank into the riverbed, reunited with the bones of countless primordial marine organisms that form the white limestone southern Indiana is famous for. His blood stained the water until the river could wash enough of it away. And, in this way, Macutté Mong was spread throughout the watershed where he was murdered. I was born in southern Indiana, not far from where Macutté Mong was dumped into the Wabash River. Ever since I encountered Macutté Mong’s story, I have been haunted by the possibility that a part of his body – no matter how minuscule – became part of my body.

In March 1782, three years after Clark used four Indian men to intimidate the British in Indiana,  Delawares living along the Tuscarawas River at a Moravian mission in Gnadenhutten, Ohio were rounded up by a Pennsylvania settler militia under the command of David Williamson. These Delawares, who had converted to Christianity, were told they were being evacuated for their own safety. Then, the militiamen searched their belongings to confiscate anything that could have been used as a weapon. The militiamen accused these Delawares of giving refuge to Delawares who had killed white people and condemned them all to death.

The condemned Delawares spent the night praying and singing hymns. In the morning, the militiamen marched over ninety people – forty-two men, twenty women, and thirty-four children – in pairs into two houses and slaughtered them methodically. Daniel K. Richter, in his book Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America, found that one killer boasted he had personally clubbed fourteen Delawares to death with a cooper’s mallet. After killing these fourteen people, he handed the mallet to an accomplice and announced, “My arm fails me. Go on with the work.”

The Tuscarawas River flows into the Muskingum which flows into the Ohio. I never learned how these Delawares were laid to rest. But, considering the wanton cruelty the Pennsylvania militiamen demonstrated while slaughtering the Delawares, it is easy to conclude the militiamen used the Tuscarawas River to dispose of their dirty work.

I couldn’t drive the images of Macutté Mong pulling the tomahawk from his head or the cooper’s mallet falling on Delaware heads from my mind. The death songs sung by the men George Rogers Clark murdered drifted across time and space to give me nightmares. I heard the Delawares singing hymns in the distance. I saw skulls shattering. Clark’s man hesitated when Macutté Mong handed him the tomahawk back. The man swinging the cooper’s mallet grunted as he tired. Mangled bodies piled up. Blood spilled across floors, washed from door frames, and swirled with river currents. Crimson pools slowly expanded in formerly clean river water.

Shattered souls spill like blood

These visions taught me what the ancient red oak I stood under in Warren, PA was trying to tell me when she suggested there must be something in the water.

Some violence is so heinous that it shatters souls when it destroys bodies. Shattered souls spill like blood. Some of the shattered souls seep into the soil and make their way into groundwater. Some of the shattered souls flow with surface water to mingle with streams and rivers. These shattered souls contaminate water with the metaphysical equivalent of chemical carcinogens. They poison water with grief and dread.

Shattered souls litter the North American continent. When you confront this history, it is difficult to envision any water untainted by the horrors of settler colonialism. And, when you drink water polluted with shattered souls, you may get sick. Symptoms include a nagging angst, inexplicable grief, spiritual discomfort, the urge to flee, and sometimes physical nausea. There is no cure for this sickness. But, you will find relief facing the violence that shattered these souls, searching for the truth, and working to ensure that settler colonialism never shatters souls again.

Buildings crowding the river in Warren, PA.

Buildings crowding the river in Warren, PA.

This painting depicts Henry Hamilton’s surrender to George Rogers Clark at Fort Sackville near Vincennes, IN. Hamilton’s surrender came after George Rogers Clark tomahawked four native men to death at the fort’s gate to intimidate the British.

This painting depicts Henry Hamilton’s surrender to George Rogers Clark at Fort Sackville near Vincennes, IN. Hamilton’s surrender came after George Rogers Clark tomahawked four native men to death at the fort’s gate to intimidate the British.


Will Falk is the author of How Dams Fall: On Representing the Colorado River in the First-Ever American Lawsuit Seeking Rights for a Major Ecosystem and a practicing rights of Nature attorney. Rights of Nature advocates work to transform the legal system so that it recognizes the “personhood” of natural beings. For the rest of 2020, Falk will travel through the Ohio River Basin asking the Ohio River the two questions he asks any client who steps into his office: “Who are you?” And, “What do you need?”

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