Origin and History
The Miami people (literally “people of the peninsula”) are an Algonquian-speaking nation of six bands: the Atchatchakangouen, Kilatika, Mengakonkia, Pepikokia, Piankashaw, and Wea. Several merged in the early 18th century. The Pepikokia were to be absorbed by the Wea around 1740. The Piankashaw and Wea retaining their distinct identity and became recognised as separate nations in their own right. The Miami initially inhabited a territory around the southern end of Lake Michigan from the St Joseph River to northern present-day Illinois, an area of woodland and prairie.
The first contact with Europeans occurred by 1654, when Pierre Radisson and Jean-Baptiste Des Groseilliers visited them.
After 1649 during the Mourning or Beaver Wars, one band of the Miami people moved west across the Mississippi but returned east following attacks by the Dakota. Other bands took temporary refuge near the mouth of the Illinois River, while some moved north of the Grand River in present-day Michigan to avoid the Iroquois. When Nicolas Perrot visited a palisaded village at the portage of the Fox River in 1671, he found distinct groups of Miami (mostly Crane clan), Mascouten and Kickapoo present.
By 1688 the Miami had returned to their homeland, resisting French attempts to concentrate them as Saint-Joseph. At the beginning of the 18th century the Miami were living in a territory bounded by the Ohio, Wabash, Maumee and Little Miami Rivers. The Miami lay astride, for the French, the best route between Canada and Louisiana. The Piankashaw were intermingled with people from the Kaskaskia and Peoria bands of the Illinois nation on the edge of the Illinois prairies, just over 100 miles from the Mississippi where they became vulnerable to attacks by Chickasaw war parties and to contact with English from the Cumberland Valley.
In 1696 French policy limited the activities of coureurs des bois, or unlicensed traders. Access to Détroit, where they could trade, was both inconvenient and dangerous for the Miami. Those who had settled there moved to join their kin at Miamitown in 1706 due to quarrels with the Odawa and Wyandot. The French policy led the Miami, who controlled the Maumee-Wabash passage and access to the Wabash and Ohio Rivers, with decline of French goods at Green Bay to become important middlemen in the fur trade. They became increasingly reliant on access to English traders, and working through the Iroquois, indirectly supplied Albany with furs. The Miami also escaped French attempts at political and religious control. However, in 1712 Henri de Tonti led a party of Miami warriors to relieve the Meskwaki siege of Détroit . In 1714 French policy reversed and subsequently three important posts were constructed in Miami territory – Forts Saint-Phillipe (later Miamis) by 1722, Ouiatanon and Vincennes about 1718.
In 1727 the upper Wabash Miami accepted a war belt sent by the eastern Lenape and an Iroquois band to attack the British but nothing further occurred after the latter were mollified.
In 1731 at a conference of western nations in Montréal, Governor Beauharnois tried to persuade the Miami to return to the Fort Chicago and Saint-Joseph River areas and away from any visiting British traders from over the Appalachians. The Miami refused. In 1733 Beauharnois sent Sieur Desnoyelles to bring the Miami to Kekionga for a council, again to persuade them to move. Three bands refused to attend and the rest subsequently returned to their current locations but a few remained on the Maumee. However, national councils came to be held at Kekionga.
In 1736 Pierre d’Artaguiette led a small force of French soldiers and Native American allies, including a strong band of Piankashaw down the Mississippi to attack the Chickasaw but were defeated.
Some Shawnee settled amongst the Weas in 1741.
In 1744 King George’s War broke out between the French and British. This led to a naval blockade by the British cutting of supplies of French trade goods. Sieur Charly Saint-Ange paid an annual fee for a monopoly of trade at Fort Miamis and from 1747 to 1750 on the White River. The Miami had no other source of supply and were subject to the extortionate costs set by Saint-Ange. In 1747 the Piankashaw leader, Memeskia (La Demoiselle) led a protest against the system. He moved from Kekionga and established Pickawillany (present-day Piqua, Ohio) on a site just below the junction of Loramie Creek and the Great Miami River, at the beginning of one of the portages to the St Mary River. The site was easily reached by British traders. The action for the French threatened a break from their alliance.
In 1748, some three Miami diplomats from Pickawillany signed a treaty at Lancaster with the Colony of Pennsylvania, by which the British promised to send traders to them. Pickawillany attracted other bands of Miami to settle there and came to be more important than Kekionga as the centre of the Miami nation.
In 1749 Pierre Joseph Céleron was sent with a military force to overawe the Native Americans and drive out British traders. This was unsuccessful. Similarly, a plan to build forts on routes taken by British traders failed when the Lenape and Ohio Iroquois refused to have them built in their territory.
By the end of 1751 French received rumours of an attack by the Wea, Piankashaw, Miami, Illinois, Lenape, Shawnee and Ohio Iroquois being planned at Pickawillany. The Odawa moved cautiously going to Pickawillany to seek a peaceful solution. However, Memeskia insulted them and dared them and the French to attack him. Another expedition of about 50 Nipissing warriors and a few from Détroit also failed after the Odawa and Ojibwe threatened to attack them if they harmed the Miami. The Nipissing killed a Miami man and woman, and another warrior near Kekionga on their return. The Miami retaliated by scalping 2 French traders. Further sporadic attacks by both sides occurred in 1752.
Then. on June 23, 1752, the Miami settlement and stockade at Pickawillany was successfully attacked by 240 Odawa and other Anishinaabe warriors, part of the expedition of Sieur Charles-Michel de Langlade, when most of the Miami warriors were away. The only casualties were 7 dead: 3 Miami, a blacksmith, 1 Ohio Iroquois, and 1 Shawnee. The women and children were captured and offered in exchange for the traders. Three of the British were sent out but the Odawa/Anishinaabe managed to seize Memeskia, their objective, in the exchange. He and the blacksmith were killed, scalped, their hearts ripped out and eaten before the stockade, taking their spiritual power for their people. The women and children were freed.
The measured attack on Pickawillany would set in motion events that would lead to war, strengthening pro-French sentiments. That the British did nothing to avenge the attack showed the Miami that the they only wanted land, offering no protection to their Native American allies. The surviving Miami had first turned to the Governor of Virginia and then that of Pennsylvania to no avail. On May 31, 1753 the Pennsylvania assembly voted £200 in condolence presents for the Miami, which did not materialise. The French began building forts on Lake Erie, the Alleghany River and at the forks of the Ohio, Fort Duquesne. The Miami then dispersed to their former villages and by early autumn the Wea and Piankashaw had returned home to the Wabash River professing fidelity to the French and the Miami as a nation. The Miami refused to further trade with the British. British traders fled the region in droves. Added to this a smallpox epidemic caused confusion among the people.
Role during the War
In 1755, 250 Miami warriors accompanied François-Marie Picoté de Belestre of the Troupes de la Marine to Fort Duquesne. From there they took part in the Ambush on the Monongahela, where they attacked along the flanks of the British column winning the day.
In April 1756, 150 Miami warriors joined a raid led by Belestre with a party of 20 Troupes de la Marine and Shawnee allies into the Carolinas, capturing Fort Vause (near present-day Shawsville, Virginia) on the way.
On July 1, 1757, eight Miami warriors from Saint-Joseph arrived for a council at Niagara and then proceeded to Montréal. These men joined the French expedition against Fort William Henry as listed Louis Antoine de Bougainville on July 28. However, on the same day he writes that they left ‘without telling anyone’. They did not come back despite a Potawatomi leader volunteering to go after them to try and dissuade them.
The Miami tried to make peace with the British through a treaty signed with Pennsylvania trader George Croghan in 1757, but after raids by the Shawnee and Lenape against the ‘frontier’, this was rejected by the Virginia legislature.
Later that year there was ‘fermentation and discontent’ among the Miami and Wea at Saint-Joseph due to a smallpox epidemic, brought into the region by Native American warriors returning from Fort William Henry campaign, this coupled with the high prices for French trade goods.
In August 1760, Miami diplomats were present at a ‘good will conference’ held by Croghan and Colonel Henry Bouquet at Fort Pitt (Duquesne).
In December Robert Rogers sent a detachment of Rogers' Rangers under Ensign Robert Holmes to take over Forts Miamis and Ouiatanon from the French. However, the latter was not to be occupied until November 1761 after the Fort Miamis garrison was established.
In September 1761, Sir Jeffrey Amherst was appointed Governor General of British North America and authorised to carry out Indian Policy. which included reducing the costs of trade goods and the ceasing of giving presents, a cultural act of goodwill. There was already lack of trade goods in the Lakes and Ohio country and this policy angered Native Americans, going against the agreed treaty. He also withheld the sale of gunpowder and lead, where families depended on hunting and pelts for trading, and banned the sale of alcohol.
Following a great council at Détroit in July the Miami received emissaries reporting on its outcomes with a war belt. The council found that the British did not act like ritual fathers or brothers and concluded they were potential enemies. Famine and epidemic, rife at the time, coupled with British trade policy, created for the Miami an image of the British as enemies, a malevolent people bound neither by kinship not ritual obligations. In the following year, the Miami were to take part in the war to free allied nations from British occupation of their territories in the Ohio catchment (the so-called Pontiac’s War).
In 1718 Jacques-Charles Sieur de Bleury Sabrevois visited Miamitown where he considered then men ‘barely dressed’ but well tattooed.
At the time of writing there is no specific written description of Miami dress known to the author from the mid-18th century. The following is surmised:
Around 1720 Miami men’s hair was described as being cut to within one inch of the head and left hanging only one little tress about a foot long either on the right or left side. The 1778 image of Pacanne, shows his head shaved, in this case leaving a strip of roached hair at the crown of the head running into a braid, which was plaited which is wrapped and clubbed up at the back of the head.
It is likely that feathers and other items were worn in the scalplock according to the man’s spiritual experiences. Paccane also has some form of drop, possibly of silver rings, attached to his hair. Alternatively, this may be a similar strap over the head joining the detached helixes of the ear either side of the head.
A circular roach of red dyed deer hair sewed around a woven base secured with a bone spreader may have been worn. It is fixed to the head by passing a scalp braid through the spreader and secured with a wooden pin to the head. Mounted in on the spreader was a bone or wood socket into which a single eagle feather was fixed so that it could revolve with the wearer’s movement.
Tattoo and Paint
Tattooing of the face and body was much practiced by Miami men as an alternative to painting. In the early 18th century Antoine Denis Raudot stated that youths were tattooed from the shoulders to the heels and as soon as they reach twenty-five, they had their stomachs, sides and upper arms tattooed so that their entire bodies were covered. Tattoos in the form of some animal, such as an eagle, a snake or other figure were likely to have been ingrained with powdered charcoal. Linear patterns were also probably used extensively.
It is likely that warriors painted their faces and bodies with personal, predominately red and black paint prior to entering combat.
Ears and Nose
Miami men had pierced ears. In addition, potentially some Miami men may have detached the helix of the ear as did those men of nations to the east of them. Earrings were made of silver, brass and sometimes tin. These could have pendant solid silver ball and cones or thin sheets of brass cut into triangles for example.
Some Miami men pierced the septum of the nose and wore a silver ring through it, which itself could have a silver, shell or tin pendant dangling from it.
Ornaments and Necklaces
Necklaces of wampum, imitation wampum or glass beads were likely to have been worn. Pendants could have consisted of large shells and silver disc. As allies of the French silver officer’s gorgets were also likely to have been issued to war leaders.
Silver bracelets and armbands were probably worn.
Breechclout and Apron
The primary item of dress for Miami men was the breechclout. J. C. Bonin recorded of Native American men in the Ohio catchment although likely to be applicable to the Miami that ‘The loincloth is made of deerskin or cloth obtained from Europeans. It is a quarter or third cloth that the men wind between their legs. The piece of cloth is held in place around the hips with a cord. The two ends of the loincloth are folded over in front and in the back, with the end in front longer than the one in the back.’
Miami men are likely to follow the fashion for half leggings, fitted tightly to the leg with double flaps or wings hanging feely down the outside. Some had a single flap at the back with the front stitched on the inside forming the outer seam of the legging. Each flap may have been decorated with ribbon, edge beading, broaches and braid. (In the 1740s silk ribbons were added to inventories of Ohio valley traders. From 1754 traders from Pennsylvania stocked silk ribbons for the fur trade. Miami women were among the first to develop and apply cut ribbon appliqué, perhaps as early as 1750) Obviously, these were for best wear and that on the trail plain half or full leggings of blue or red cloth, or buckskin could be worn.
Garters were worn below the knee. Garters were made of woven bison hair or probably from woollen fibres typically dyed red with white bead patterns incorporated into the weave of or of deerskin.
The porcupine was absent from Miami territory so it is likely that garters or other items were less often decorated with quillwork. The Miami are likely to have obtained porcupine quills in trade.
Miami moccasins were made of smoked buckskin. These probably had a puckered centre seam along the instep. Men’s moccasin cuffs are likely to have been split at the heal.
A European shirt of linen or cotton, cut in contemporary European fashion, obtained from French traders, were popular and could be daubed with vermillion and grease to waterproof it over the shoulders.
Broaches of silver, replacing those of copper or brass, became increasingly abundant to the Miami from around 1740 in adorning clothing. There several designs of broach. The simplest and most numerous was a ring across which a tongue extended like a buckle. This is affixed to cloth by pinching the material up so that the tongue penetrates it twice and when drawn back holds it firmly in place. Smaller ones can often line the edges of breechclouts, etc. whilst those of larger diameter decorated the upper body of shirts. Another very common broach fixed in the same manner is a circular ornate disc perforated with punched out or embossed regular patterns which can have embossed or crenulated edges sometimes known as a round buckle.
Blankets, Robes and Diplomat’s Ensemble
Trade blankets, usually of blue or red woollen cloth, which could be decorated with bands of ribbon. Skin robes, commonly of buffalo, were worn for warmth. Those for best wear were painted, possibly similar to those of the closely related Illinois, and embroidered with red and white quillwork.
In 1749 La Demoiselle distributed blankets of black and red cloth (as well as secret flags, belts, pipes, and strings of red painted wampum) to all bands of the Miami to persuade them to trade with the British. To counter this the French Governor General resorted to giving ‘a complete chief’s ensemble’ to Miami leaders. For some principal men certain items remained a symbol of their role amongst their people, particularly when dealing with Europeans who would have recognised the status of the wearer by his dress. Hats and coats of European origin and of higher quality marked men as diplomatic mediators. Pierre Pouchot, the French engineering officer, writing in the 1750s describes, ‘… a shirt almost black, and powdered red, a waistcoat laced or with tinsel glazing, a laced coat unbuttoned, a cap untied, sometimes a wig put on wrong side before...’
Miami warriors are likely to have hung from the belt holding the breechclout their mirrors and their tobacco pouch, which could be the skin of an otter, beaver, cat or bird taken off whole and tanned, into which they put their pipe tobacco and steel.
By the beginning of the Seven Years War the standard trade muskets that armed the Miami were manufactured in France at the Tulle arsenal. The .62 calibre ‘fusil de chasse’ or hunting musket has a 44-inch octagon-to-round barrel and the lock plate is marked with the name of the arsenal spelt as TVLLE. The Miami also obtained firearms from Euro-American traders based in Pennsylvania. These trade guns were short, light flintlock muskets of .66 or smaller calibre, called fusils, fuzee or fuke and were approximately similar to the later ‘Northwest gun’.
A powder horn and a shot pouch would have been worn over the shoulder and high up under the arm to minimise them flapping about whilst moving. Shot pouches were often made of woven fibre with white bead patterns woven into the threads; bags of deerskin of black dyed skin with quillwork and white bead edging with a fringe of metal cones filled with red dyed deer hair. The panel of these bags could be decorated with quilled geometric designs and with images of thunderbirds or underwater panthers. Straps were likely to have been of deerskin, woven fibre or possibly woven wampum or imitation wampum. A knife was carried in a sheaf, which could be decorated with geometric quillwork, hung around the neck.
A tomahawk or warclub was carried stuffed through a belt or sash at the back or on the hip. Woven woollen sashes were wrapped twice around the waist with the fringe hanging down before. Pouchot describes, ‘The men wear a belt about six inches wide, made of wool of different colours, which the Indian women make very neatly, with flaming designs. They hung to this belt their mirrors and their tobacco pouch, which is the skin of an otter beaver, cat or bird, taken off whole and tanned, into which they put their pipe tobacco and steel. They have also a pocket like a wallet, for carrying their balls and lead for hunting and war. They carry their mirror and tomahawk upon their hips.’
Anson Bert, The Miami Indians, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970, pp. 3-63.
Callender, Charles, Miami: in Trigger, Bruce G. and Sturtevant, W. C. (eds), Handbook of the North American Indians, Volume 15, Northeast, Washington: Smithsonian Institute, 1978, pp. 681-689.
Hamilton, Edward (trans. and ed.) Adventures in the Wilderness: The American Journals of Louis Antoine de Bougainville, 1756-1760, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990, pp. 152-154.
Hartman, Sheryl, Indian Clothing of the Great Lakes: 1740-1840, Ogden: Eagle’s View Publishing Company, 1988, pp.63.
Hughes, Ben, The Siege of Fort William Henry: A Year on the Northeastern Frontier, Yardley: Westholme Publishing, LLC, 2014, pp. 154-155.
Kinietz, W. Vernon, Indians of the Western Great Lakes 1615-1760, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1977, pp.168-169.
McDonnell, Michael A, Masters of Empire; Great Lakes Indians and the Making of America, New York: Hill and Wang, 2015, pp.145, 153-159, 188-189.
Pouchot, Pierre, Memoir Upon The Late War In North America, Between The French And English, 1755-60. Volume II, Alpha Editions, 2021, pp. 49, 189-191.
Ritzenthaler, Robert E. & Pat Ritzenthaler, The Woodland Indians of the Western Great Lakes, Milwaukee: Milwaukee Public Museum, 1983, pp.74.
Sleeper-Smith, Susan, Indigenous Prosperity and American Conquest: Indian Women of the Ohio River Valley, 1690-1792, Williamsburg: The Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture & Chapell Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2018, pp. 57, 70, 107, 181.
Larry Burrows for the initial version of this article