Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Who's Who?

It has been fashionable lately to make comparisons between America and the Roman Empire. Thinking about this I simply could not miss the fun. If George W. Bush were an emperor, which emperor would he be? Ruminating upon the many tyrants I might choose from, one name stood out from all the rest--Commodus.

From Cassius Dio’s The Roman History, Book LXXIII, paragraph one, we have the following description:

This man was not naturally wicked, but, on the contrary, as guileless (read stupid) as any man that ever lived. His great simplicity, however, together with his cowardice, made him the slave of his companions (Cheney?)….”

Like Bush, Commodus never actually fought in a battle, but enjoyed playing the part of a soldier. And like Bush, he felt himself to be divine, seeing himself as the new Hercules. Bush appears to believe himself on some sort of holy mission and hears the voice of God. Such are a few of the more notable comparisons.

Just to be fair and not play favorites, whom might Clinton resemble? The younger Gordian was among my first thoughts, but Bill lasted just a bit too long and was too successful for a satisfying comparison.

What are your thoughts?

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Celoron at the Scioto

Sometimes, it is not hard to imagine the Ohio River Valley of two centuries past. Brush the buildings from your sight, banish all modern sounds from your thoughts, and the great primeval hills emulate a crater on the dark side of the moon. It becomes a place where the word ‘wilderness’ engenders all the mystery and danger with which that word is pregnant.

In August of 1749, Captain Pierre-Joseph Celoron de Blainville’s flotilla of canoes was filthy and worn. A sharp contrast to the miniature armada that had set out from Quebec only a few months prior. Then they had been decked with colorful banners, his soldiers in their best parade uniforms, shouts of ‘bon voyage’ and coquettish smiles from the fine ladies of La Chine to see them off.

Despite appearances, in a moment of danger Celoron knew only about fifty of his men could be counted upon for action. The remainder were composed of raw recruits, shiny and new like the leaves of spring. Very quickly they found themselves beyond the aid of the refined society into which they had been born, when, not long after their departure the rapids caught a canoe and drowned one of the men on board. This bad omen might presage the future ill fortune to come.

In just five years the whole region would drown in a deluge of blood with the commencement of the French and Indian War. The great forests of the valley would become even more treacherous, as a stage for guerilla tactics and sudden ambushes from the cover the great trees would provide. At that time, the primeval forest must have appeared to the French, as the dense oaks of barbarian Germany did to the Romans when first they crossed the Rhine.

Celoron was charged with an expedition to the Ohio or, “Beautiful River--so little known to the French, and, unfortunately, too well known to the English” as Father Bonnecamp, the Jesuit priest who accompanied them put it. At the main tributaries they would land and place lead markers. These markers were an ancient and dramatic gesture meant to symbolize France’s repossession of the territory.

The planting of a plate was an occasion for that cliché of French exhibitionism that remains a national trait to this day. Gathering his officers about him, the plate was buried and an iron sheet bearing the King’s arms was nailed to a nearby tree . A copy of the plate’s inscription was then signed by the officers and dated, followed, we may assume, by a shout of ‘vive le Roy!’ and a volley of musket fire. For some time the English had been slowly encroaching upon French lands, winning the Indians to their will with the quality and quantity of English goods. This was perhaps the last chance France had to reassert her claim, and such bold declarations, repeated again and again, made an excellent advertisement. [1]

After nearly two months of hard travel, during which they were often obliged to carry their canoes overland where the water was too shallow, or too treacherous; after the various tribes had either fled at word of their coming, or gave them reason to feel uncomfortable, the tiny fleet encountered an Indian hunting party that had recently come from Lower Shawnee Town, their next objective. They warned Celoron of the danger he and his men might face at the mouth of the Scioto, should they arrive without warning. Celoron took this advice to heart, and sent Joncaire with a small party ahead to calm their fears. This Joncaire was one of two brothers[2] on the expedition, born to a French officer and a Seneca woman, and invaluable as mediators.[3]

Celoron was right to be cautious. No sooner did Joncaire’s group step upon the bank, then the Shawnee opened fire upon them. The white flag of France was shot through in three places, and the men were quickly subdued and brought to the council-cabin. A Pawnee, as a mouthpiece for the English, denounced them as soon as they began to speak, accusing the French of treachery and deceit. The youth of the tribe were for their instant immolation, and had it not been for the voice of reason from an old Iroquois chief, they might in short order have been roasted to death. This same Iroquois accompanied them to meet the convoy when it was but a brief distance from the village.

Composed of around eighty to one-hundred cabins, it was certainly one of the largest native settlements they had encountered so far, and must have been in appearance hardly what the word village would imply. It was also on the very fringe of known civilization and, therefore, aid, should they require it. A nexus of Indian and English trade, Celoron may rightly have thought, if he failed there all their travails may have been for nothing.

As the French approached, they were alarmed by the sound of native war cries as the Indians came to the shore in force to display their numbers. Some thousand shots were fired in the air in quick succession, ostensibly as a friendly salute, but Celoron knew it was a warning in disguise, courtesy of the English in the town who had supplied the Indians plentifully with powder and ball.

Keeping his head, he made landfall opposite[4] the village. They returned the salute, and quickly set about building a rude fort for their defense. The chiefs were not long in coming with the pipes of peace and perhaps a worried gleam in their eyes. As if to confirm the native’s worries, some eighty warriors crossed soon after and, with loaded muskets stood only a short distance from the assembled party, giving what must have been the impression of hungry hawks along a hedgerow.

This was far from comfortable. He ordered the chiefs to send them off before he had recourse to shoot them. The Indians defended their actions as an innocent gesture to show them honor but, when they saw that Celoron was in no mood for such a tribute, the chiefs waived off the braves with all due haste.

They soon after returned to the village to await the morning, and their next audience with the French. If there were any doubt as to the peril the French felt themselves to be in, guards were posted, and the native threat was kept in check under their watch by firelight.

When dawn broke, Celoron once again sent his man, Joncaire, into the dangerous embrace of the Shawnee, and requested their appearance at the camp. The Indians made the seemingly innocent request that the French cross over and enjoy the comforts of the council-cabin. This would not be prudent. Once cut off from the bulk of his men and the stout bulwarks of their defenses, the natives could do with them as they wished and, a fine wig, however well groomed, was of little protection against the tomahawk. Instead, it was argued that, as Onontio (the governor of New France) was their self-admitted father, it was only right the children should come to where the father lit his fire. Seeing it was hopeless to squabble further, the Shawnee relented.

They were quick to make amends for the poor reception he and his men had received the previous day. Giving him a chance to save face, he admonished their change from a “French heart” to an English one. Ten years before they had welcomed one of their countrymen with open arms, but now they were met with suspicion and dread. The English, he told them, were the cause of the rift and would be their ruin should they not have a change of heart once again. He read to them a letter from the governor repeating these warnings with greater authority, and gave them, in the governor’s name, belts of wampum.

To further underline his resolve in the matter, Celoron called all the English in the village to come before him and chastised them for breaking the bonds of peace with their presence on French lands. He made it known that he was in his rights to take them captive and burn the town for the aid the natives had rendered them, but graciously declined to do so as a gesture of goodwill. For reasons already stated, Celoron was well aware that such an act would have been a death sentence for himself and his men. It is likely the English knew this and had a good chuckle under their breath, pretending to listen earnestly to his advice and promise to do as he bid, but as Father Bonnecamp put it: “firmly resolved, doubtless, to do nothing of the kind, as soon as our backs were turned.”

When letters arrived soon after, informing Celoron that his Indian reinforcements from Detroit would not be coming, it was the signal for departure. According to his Journal, the party left on August 26 after about a week of seemingly wasted words. Passing before the village, the Shawnee once again fired a salute. This time the French did not respond in kind. One can imagine, their hearts too heavy for the effort, perhaps with a new understanding of how hearts can change.


1. Though it is believed otherwise, there is evidence to support a plate being buried at the Scioto. The original map of Father Bonnecamp disappeared a century ago; only a copy now remains. All plate locations on the copy are written in English, not French. Bonnecamp was not very accurate in his calculations, as he admits himself, saying that his compass was bad, and the rocking of the boat did not help either. “Can I dare say that my estimates are correct? In truth, this would be very rash.” There is no proof that the Scioto plate was stolen by the Indians and taken to Circleville, as is traditionally told. It appears next in only two letters of New York Governor George Clinton, who claimed it was stolen on the way to the Ohio, not on it, and this from a third party who did not witness the events. Likewise, many discrepancies in the accounts taint their total credibility. Bonnecamp does not mention the burial of one of the plates, and Celoron does not mention the celebration of the feast of St. Louis on the Scioto, whereas Bonnecamp does. Bonnecamp mentions only two men who went ahead to Lower Shawnee Town, yet Celoron outlines a large group that was impossible to overlook. Lastly, it strains credulity to believe a man of Celoron’s character would not bury a plate at the Scioto of all places, especially having sworn to undertake this task in the king’s name.

2. Neither account is specific.

3. Francis Parkman, Montcalm and Wolfe (New York: Library of America, 1983), p. 875.

4. The exact location of Celoron’s camp is not known for certain. It was either in Kentucky or on the east bank of the Scioto River, about one mile west of the current bank.

Selected Bibliography

Bannon, Henry Towne. Scioto Sketches. Chicago: McClurg, 1920.

Bannon, Henry Towne. Stories Old and Often Told. Baltimore: Waverly, 1927.

Dean, Tanya, and W. David Speas. Along the Ohio Trail. Ed. George W. Knepper. Columbus: Auditor of
State, 2001.

Bonnecamps. "Account of the Voyage on the Beautiful River." Ohio History 29: 397-423. Rpt. in
Online Collection Catalog. Columbus: Ohio Historical Society. Ohio History. 2 Mar. 2008.

Blainville, Celoron De. "CELORON'S JOURNAL." Ohio History 29: 335-96. Rpt. in Online Collection
Catalog. Columbus: Ohio Historical Society. Ohio History. 2 Mar. 2008.

Parkman, Francis. France and England in North America. Vol. 2. The Library of America. New York:
Library of America, 1983. 875.

Roseboom, Eugene Holloway, and Francis P. Weisenburger. A History of Ohio. Ed. James H. Rodabaugh.
Columbus: Ohio Historical Society, 1967.

The History of the State of Ohio. Vol. 1. Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical
Society, n.d. Rpt. in The History of the State of Ohio. Ed. Carl Frederick Wittke. Columbus:
Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1941-44.