Desktop Travel Notes, by Rob Colby
It’s been on my list for years. I’ve got to get over to the Fort Recovery State Museum and see the Battle of the Wabash and Battle of Fort Recovery Walking Tour. I knew about it since Ohio Humanities helped fund the digital mapping part, executed by archeologist Christine Thompson and her team at Ball State University. I remember seeing the final version and appreciating the range of digital content and interpretation of how the landscape shaped the military confrontations. But I never actually found the time to get over to Fort Recovery, or even to spend a quiet hour in an immersive desktop travel experience.
Ohio’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order was just the chance I needed to take a desktop excursion. But here I will make a confession. Not having grown up in Ohio, there are some episodes—major episodes—of US history that have occurred in this state that I’m not deeply familiar with. Those that involve American Indian history have often left me struggling to align current historical research and American Indian heritage with the simplified version of Native American history I encountered the last time I studied the topic—in high school. Eighteenth-century questions of who owned the lands of western Ohio are as relevant as who owns the history today. I’ve learned enough to understand that episodes involving American Indian heritage in Ohio are complex and often contested. I struggle to place specific events in a larger context, since large historic constructs can topple as easily as stand firm against renewed scrutiny.
So, with all this stewing in my head, I prefaced my visit to the Fort Recovery digital tour with a reminder of the 1783 Treaty of Paris (that excluded American Indians as signatories) and the basics of the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, that led to the 1789 Treaty of Fort Harmar, among other vexed treaties. Then, I made myself a big cup of tea and sat down in front of my computer to take a digital tour of the Battle of the Wabash and Battle of Fort Recovery (1791-1794).
I appreciate how the digital tour allows the user to explore the mapped space of the battles and to follow the story as it unfolds, like a self-paced documentary. Compelling primary source documents feature in each episode as well as digital versions of the wayside interpretive panels, like an animated textbook. Thompson and her team worked closely with federally-recognized tribes with ties to these battles, such as the Shawnee, so the history includes American Indian perspectives.
Most of the attention is rightly paid to the Battle of the Wabash, the November 4, 1791, victory of an alliance of Miamis, Shawnees, and Delawares led by Little Turtle (Miamis) and Blue Jacket (Shawnees) over US Army forces led by Major General Arthur St. Claire. The Battle of Fort Recovery on June 30, 1794—an attack on a supply train—preceded the more significant and decisive defeat of the alliance at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, on August 20.
This engaging digital panorama is enriched by artists’ renderings—some made at the time to document the battles, others—illustrations from much later—to meet the demand for a romantic version of American Indian history: a heroic native people fighting bravely against their inevitable demise. The images I found most compelling were actually those that were the most familiar. Each episode includes a present-day photograph of the relevant Fort Recovery landscape, of the kind you might expect to see throughout the Midwest: municipal parks with storage sheds and sweeping expanses of mowed grass, downtown streetscapes, the reconstructed Fort Recovery historic site. But what you don’t see are people. Whether by happenstance or design, the photographs are depopulated. All around, you find evidence of human occupation, the built environment, elaborate infrastructure, roads, even cars. But not a single person. Here is the world that has sprung up over the centuries since the last of the American Indians were removed, and a haunting reminder, in absentia, of the people who once called it home.