Why the site is important
There is no record of the first European was to see this land. Perhaps it was a solitary fur trader from France who first visited this valley. What we do know, is that by the early 1700’s France considered Ohio to be hers. England was busy establishing colonies east of the Appalachian Mountains, but would soon cast longing glances to the west and send her own fur traders here to do business with the Indians of the Ohio Valley.
It would not be long before the struggle between these two European giants would spill into the land that we call Piqua today. France, with her strength in Canada, and England from her eastern toehold, would both take economic, political, and military actions to win control of this land.
In 1747 a group of Twightwee (Miami) Indians, lead by Memeska, came to the confluence of the Great Miami River and Loramie Creek. Memeska brought his followers to this place called Pickawillany, to be closer to his new friends the English. Memeska was coming to Ohio from Kekionga (Fort Wayne) to put distance between himself and his former French allies of the Great Lakes region. For many years the French had been the dominating force in the Great Lakes fur trade. However, growing dissatisfaction with high prices, poor quality, and short supplies of French goods led Memeska and others to look to the English as a more reliable source of trade goods.
It was not long after the move to Pickawillany that a treaty of friendship between Memeska’s Twightwee and the English was forged in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. On the heels of that agreement came English traders, employed by Pennsylvanian George Croghan, who established a trading station next to the Pickawillany village.
Word spread quickly that English goods were now available at Pickawillany. This brought rapid growth to the village. Indians, not only from the Ohio country, but also the Great Lakes region and westward, came here to do business.
This activity was not lost on the French authorities who viewed Memeska (whom they called La Demoiselle) as a serious threat to their control of the Indian fur trade. Almost from the moment Pickawillany was established, the French had begun planning how best to remove this thorn from their side.
In 1749 French officials in Canada sent Pierre Joseph Céloron and a force of 265 men into the Ohio Valley to reinforce French authority and strengthen their claim to the land. Céloron and his forces traveled through the Ohio country, stopping at key points to conduct ceremonies and burying lead plates claiming the land as French at the mouths of rivers draining into the Ohio. This expedition received cool receptions at best from the Ohio Indians so Céloron made quick work of each stop. Céloron was keenly aware that even as he was reclaiming the land for his King, English influence was growing daily.
On September 13, 1749, after a journey up the Great Miami River, Céloron and his men arrived at Pickawillany. He held out hope of convincing Memeska to return to the French fold. Just as Céloron was approaching the village, several English traders packed their trade horses and left. Céloron found only two traders in the village. They were ordered to leave, which they promptly did.
While Céloron was able to overawe the traders, Memeska was another story. Pickawillany’s population and influence was growing, and Céloron knew he was not strong enough to force a removal to Kekionga. Memeska did promise, “none but good answers” for Céloron. The Frenchman recognized those promises to return to the old homeland in the spring were merely procrastinations. He ended the council with this warning for Memeska:
“Be faithful to your promise. You have assured him of this, because he is much stronger
than you, and if you be wanting it, fear the resentment of a father, who has only too much
reason to be angry with you, and has offered you the means of regaining his favor.”
Céloron, September, 1749
Céloron and his men left knowing they had failed to accomplish their mission. It was shortly after Céloron’s exit that George Croghan and his Pennsylvania traders arrived at Pickawillany to officially establish the English trading post. Soon a brisk trade business was flourishing near Memeska’s village. Because of his friendship with the English traders Memeska was known as Old Briton to his new allies.
In 1750, Christopher Gist, an agent for Virginia’s Ohio Land Company, visited Pickawillany. Gist estimated that in 1750 this new village numbered upwards of 1200 individuals. Traders George Croghan, Andrew Montour, and Christopher Gist were all present at one time or another and brought additional traders. They also helped Memeska improve and strengthen his village.
Early in 1751 Céloron was ordered to employ force to revisit Pickawillany and bring Memeska back to Kekionga. However, being unable to raise the needed men, he did not leave the security of the French headquarters in Detroit.
In the autumn of 1751, a small French force did advance on Pickawillany, only to find most of its residents away on the fall hunt. Even then the French were not strong enough to mount an attack. They did seize some English traders and kill a Twightwee man and woman.
French officials saw their position in Ohio rapidly deteriorating and determined to take the necessary steps to stop this erosion of their control. In March, 1752 they put in motion plans to organize a stronger raid on Memeska and his village.
On June 21, 1752 a force of about 250 Ottawa Indians and French militia led by Charles Langlade attacked Pickawillany. Many of the Twightwee men were hunting, leaving mostly women and children, and a few older men. Also present were Memeska and his family. In addition, several English traders were working at their trading station. The attack was so sudden that many of the women were captured as they worked in the cornfields. Others fled to the village stockade in hopes of protecting themselves. Three traders were cut off, and were forced to seek protection in one of the traders’ cabins near the stockade. These traders quickly surrendered to the invaders without firing a shot in their own defense. To save themselves, they told Langlade how few defenders were inside the Twightwee stockade.
A siege of the stockade was laid down, and the defenders were informed if they would surrender the traders and their goods, the attackers would leave Pickawillany. Inside the stockade, with several defenders wounded and water supplies exhausted, the defenders agreed to the terms they had been offered.
Neither side honored their agreement. Five of the seven traders in the stockade were surrendered. Gunsmith Thomas Burney and trader Andrew McBryer were hidden and later escaped to carry the news of the attack to the English at Lower Shawnee Town (Portsmouth). One of the five surrendered traders had been wounded. As soon as he was seized, he was stabbed to death, scalped, and his heart ripped from his chest and eaten. Memeska, having taken refuge in the stockade, now faced a similar fate. The French authorities saw him as the cause of most of their problems in Ohio, and the primary agent for the English. It was time to pay up. Before his remaining followers, including his wife and son, he too was killed, boiled, and his body eaten by his attackers. The surviving traders and their goods were gathered and marched to Detroit. With this defeat, the Pickawillany thorn was at last removed from the French side.
Following this defeat, the surviving Twightwee did move back to Kekionga and Pickawillany was not occupied as a village site again. After the removal of the Twightwee, the Shawnee eventually moved into the Miami Valley in the late 1750’s and began establishing some of their villages in the region.
The French and Indian War (1754-1763) saw European rivals France and England continue their ongoing struggle for military superiority. This time the conflict started in America. When the dust had settled and the treaties signed, England had won the round; and with it, control of the land north of the Ohio River. They also inherited the challenge of dealing with the growing friction between the Indians already occupying the land of the Ohio country, and the settlers who wished to move there. English control was to be short-lived, however. In 1775, England’s American colonies rebelled and fired the “shot heard round the world.” 1775 was also the year that John Johnston, the man with whom this land is most often associated, was born in Ireland.
By the time of the American Revolution, the Shawnee Indians had established themselves in the upper Miami valley. They had named one of their villages Upper Piqua, and it was located slightly south of the old Twightwee village of Pickawillany. This village, as well as many others, was visited by George Rogers Clark and his American army in 1782 as his forces destroyed Indian villages and burned crops, in an attempt to remove the Indian and English threat from the west in this new chapter of struggle for control of the land.
The 1783 Treaty of Paris gave this land to the United States of America. It now fell to this new country to address the problems faced as still more settlers from several of the thirteen eastern states began to establish settlements in the Ohio country. It would not be long before war clouds would once again swirl in the west.
In 1790 General Josiah Harmar advanced an army north in an attempt to quiet the Indian attacks on American settlements. Harmar’s army was defeated and chased back to Cincinnati. A similar fate, with even worse results, befell General Arthur St. Clair in 1791 when Miami chief Little Turtle routed the American army at the first battle of fort Recovery.
General Anthony Wayne was the next American ordered to bring an army north to face the Ohio Indians. In 1793, on his march to Fallen Timbers, Wayne built a supply post south of the old Twightwee village on the Great Miami River that he named Fort Piqua. It was here in 1793 that an eighteen year old John Johnston first visited the land he would one day call home. Johnston was driving a supply wagon for Wayne’s army, having come west for some adventure. Johnston also became acquainted with Wayne’s aide de camp, William Henry Harrison. After Wayne’s 1794 victory and the signing of the Greene Ville Treaty in 1795 not only did the clouds of war part over Ohio, but also Johnston headed east once again.
Johnston found employment in Philadelphia and took up residence in the home of Abraham and Roxanna Robinson. While working in the War Department in 1802, Johnston gained an appointment as the factor (storekeeper) at the Fort Wayne Indian Agency. He also gained a wife when he and sixteen year old Rachel Robinson eloped. Their honeymoon was a trip by horseback to Fort Wayne and Johnston’s new assignment.
Johnston had vowed in 1793 to acquire the land on which Fort Piqua was built, and in 1804 he was able to realize his dream. Beginning in 1808 he initiated the development of his Upper Piqua Farm. In that year he constructed a massive double-pen log barn (that still stands today) and a two-story log cabin, that was eventually replaced with a large brick home.
In 1809 Johnston was appointed to the position of Indian Agent as well as factor at Fort Wayne. His friend, and then Indiana Territorial Governor, William Henry Harrison elevated him to this new job. Johnston held both posts until 1811. In that year he resigned from the Fort Wayne Agency, citing ill-health and a desire to become a “gentleman farmer”, and moved his wife and family to his Upper Piqua Farm.
The eruption of the War of 1812, and the fear of being forced into a two front war with both the English, and the Indians, led to Johnston’s appointment as Federal Indian Agent for the Shawnee Indians in western Ohio. His first charge was to gain a pledge of neutrality from the Indians in this new war with England. This task, already difficult given the Indian dislike for most Americans, was complicated further by General William Hull’s surrender of the American army in Detroit without firing a shot. Johnston and others, including Ohio Governor Meigs, was finally able to negotiate the agreement at the Council of Piqua in August, 1812.
Following Hull’s surrender, command of a new western army was entrusted to Johnston’s friend, General William Henry Harrison. Harrison advanced this army north from Cincinnati and established headquarters for a short time at Camp Piqua, on Johnston’s land. This military presence allowed Miami County residents to breathe a little easier as rumors of impending Indian attack was a constant part of life on the Ohio frontier during the war.
The end of the War of 1812 did not end Johnston’s duties as a Federal Indian Agent. With his Upper Piqua Farm as his base, he operated several sub-agencies from which he worked to improve the life for those Indians who still called Ohio home after the war. Johnston had gone so far as to bring Quaker missionaries to western Ohio in hopes of teaching the Indians European farming practices. He was also instrumental in establishing a gristmill run by Indians that was quite profitable. Throughout his years of service he was known among both Indians and whites as an honest and caring individual. Johnston also had the task of negotiating many of the treaties that saw Indian land in Ohio shrink to virtually nothing. Johnston held his agency position until 1829. With Andrew Jackson’s election to the Presidency, Johnston the Whig, was replaced by Jackson the Democrat, with a more politically friendly agent.
Following the War of 1812, Ohio saw a movement to improve internal transportation. Road building began in earnest at this time, however; a way to move large quantities of goods, mainly farm produce, quickly and cheaply, was of primary concern. For many years people like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson had envisioned an America criss-crossed by a vast system of canals. In 1825, after the completion by New York of the Erie Canal, Ohio broke ground for her own canals. It was the hope of the State Legislature that with completion of the canals in Ohio, farmers would be able to ship their goods to more lucrative markets.
To oversee the construction of this new transportation system, Ohio appointed a seven member Canal Commission. John Johnston was one of the seven named to this Board. Through his work not only was the Ohio-Erie Canal constructed through central Ohio, but also the Miami-Erie Canal became a part of the landscape of western Ohio. By 1837 the Miami-Erie Canal had been completed north to the confluence of the Great Miami River and Loramie Creek. The opening of the canal to Piqua in July was a gala affair that featured the return of William Henry Harrison to Miami County.
The canals of Ohio did exactly what they were built to do: farmers could, by 1845, ship goods to markets more cheaply; items came to areas such as Piqua at a much lower cost; businesses grew along the canals; economic prosperity brought more people to western Ohio. Thanks in large part to the efforts of John Johnston, Piqua and Miami County now had an outlet to the world.
Johnston’s involvement with Whig politics lasted as long as the party. He was an active supporter of Henry Clay in his bids for the White House, even campaigning from horseback for his candidate. In 1840, Johnston had rejoiced in the election of his old friend William Henry Harrison to the American Presidency. Harrison, like others before him, wished to see the Indians remaining east of the Mississippi River relocated further west. In 1841, John Tyler, Harrison’s successor, entrusted former Indian Agent John Johnston with the task of negotiating a treaty to remove the last Indians, the Wyandot, from Ohio. The treaty was completed and signed March 17, 1842. The summer of 1843 saw the Wyandot leave their Upper Sandusky homes for the last time:
“The remains of this once flourishing tribe – the last of the Aborigines of Ohio – passed
through our village on Thursday afternoon on their way to their new homes west of the
Mississippi. Although most appeared contented and happy, and seemed to bear the labor
and exposure to the heat and dust with stout hearts; yet it was a melancholy spectacle”
Bellefontaine, Ohio July 13, 1843
This treaty was Johnston’s last official act. Yet throughout the remainder of his life he maintained interests in a myriad of things. As he had done since he moved to Miami County, he encouraged growth of the area, stressed the need for quality education, and constantly looked for ways to improve the methods employed by farmers of Miami County. During the latter years of his life, until his death in 1861, he took on the role of an elder statesman in Ohio. Johnston contributed much written material on the history of an earlier Ohio from the prospective of one who had truly been an influence on the events of which he wrote.
Johnston had once said that, “I was born on the eve of the birth of a new nation [America], and I fear I shall pass away on the eve of its death as well.” Even during the American Civil War, although Johnston was no longer living, his Upper Piqua Farm entered onto the stage of history’s events once again. From July through October, 1862 Camp Piqua was located at Upper Piqua. It was here that the 94th and 110th Ohio Volunteer Infantry both were mustered into service, and received their first training before leaving to see that Johnston’s prediction of the fate of America did not come true. Josiah L. Hill, an enlistee in the 110th O.V.I. from Fletcher, Ohio had this to say about his first day in camp:
“Went into camp at Piqua on the Johnston farm assigned to good quarters in the upper story
of the old farm house the boys got the blues think it no fun had my umbrella stole go out on
dress pariad make a poor appearance”
August 22, 1862
This land, that today, we call the Johnston Farm & Indian Agency State Memorial has indeed been “a window into time.” Here you can visit and walk on the same soil as those figures who have long been studied as a part of the history of Ohio actually trod, you can relive events that are a part of Ohio’s past. This is a place where some of the things that have made Ohio what it is today have taken place.