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Sins of the Founding Father: George Washington, the Indigenous Tribes, and the Decisions that Shaped America’s Future
Sins of the Founding Father: George Washington, the Indigenous Tribes, and the Decisions that Shaped America’s Future
Sins of the Founding Father: George Washington, the Indigenous Tribes, and the Decisions that Shaped America’s Future
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Sins of the Founding Father: George Washington, the Indigenous Tribes, and the Decisions that Shaped America’s Future

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From the bestselling author of Astoria, Young Washington, and an upcoming book about the legendary Shawnee Chief Tecumseh comes a startling, revisionist look at the earliest days of the United States, its first president, and the policies that laid the groundwork for the political and racial divisiveness of today.

A violent clash that sparked outrage and division. A president governed by self-interest and unfettered by the limits of executive power. Fierce debate over the status of non-white people. A Constitution under threat. The crises that have plagued America in recent years are largely viewed as unprecedented events. But they’re not—far from it. The country was first rocked by these seemingly modern-day troubles more than two centuries ago, when the United States was in its infancy and the ink on its governing document was barely dry. At the center of it was our history’s hero, George Washington. 

In the fall of 1791, Washington, just two years into his presidency, was unsatisfied with where the country was going—or not going. Worried about Revolutionary War debt owed to France and an unsettled frontier that left the fledgling country vulnerable to European attack, Washington was determined to expand westward. Through a series of increasingly heavy-handed treaties with Indigenous tribes, the U.S. government claimed bigger and bigger swaths of the vast wilderness west of the Appalachian Mountains. The tribes, many of which rejected the notion that their ancient homelands were for sale, pushed back, hard. They refused to cede territory and launched raids against white settlers who, at the government’s urging, poured into traditionally Indigenous lands. Looking out for the nation’s interests, and his own—years earlier, he had claimed 30,000 acres of this land for himself—Washington decided it was time to act. After a series of small military efforts to subdue the tribes had little effect, he sent a large battalion of soldiers to a compound of Indigenous villages in the Ohio Valley, rich and fertile land that the country, and its president, was hungry for.

The expedition was a disaster for the Americans troops. Some 700 soldiers were killed in a surprise attack in the pre-dawn hours of November 4, 1791. In a symbolic gesture that spoke volumes, Indigenous warriors crammed dirt—the very soil Americans wanted for their own—into the eyes and mouths of their victims. It would be the most devastating loss at the hands of Native Americans in the military’s history, resulting in three times more casualties than at Custer’s Last Stand, a century later.

The ignominious defeat in Ohio was an unacceptable debacle for both the president and Congress, which demanded answers. This prompted a series of controversial debates that eerily foreshadowed questions we struggle with today. How to investigate a president? How much power and autonomy does he have? What is the role of the military during national crises? This all but forgotten battle was a defining moment, with repercussions that echo down the years. It exposed gaping holes in the Constitution and shined a spotlight on the power of the U.S. presidency. Most tragically, it marked the hardening of an attitude toward Native Americans that would allow the U.S. federal government to take over 95 percent of Indigenous lands in the next hundred years. Today, we are living with the consequences.

Both a gripping wilderness narrative and an astute commentary on American politics and history, Sins of the Founding Father takes a fresh and nuanced look our country’s earliest days and its beloved but deeply flawed Founding Father.

Editor's Note

History echoes itself…

Historian Stark provides an insightful look at a little-known yet consequential defeat of U.S. forces by Indigenous tribes in 1791. The fallout from the battle raised questions about executive power that echo today in the Jan. 6 hearings.

Release dateAug 17, 2022
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Peter Stark

Peter Stark is a historian and adventure writer. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller Astoria, along with The Last Empty Spaces, Last Breath, and At the Mercy of the River. He is a correspondent for Outside magazine, has written for Smithsonian and The New Yorker, and is a National Magazine Award nominee. He lives in Montana with his wife and children.

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  • Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    As a history professor, this book is one of the most inaccurate, I have ever read, about a truly great man. It’s as if the author has no grasp of context, or evolution. It’s pathetic. What a shame for any student of history, to accidentally pick up this book, and absorb any of its contents. Just lies.
  • Rating: 1 out of 5 stars
    I started listening to this book thinking it would be about early American/Indian relations. For the first few minutes the author even says that is what it is about. Instead, I get a lecture about Jan 4, 2021 for the preceding 20 minutes.

    5 people found this helpful

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Sins of the Founding Father - Peter Stark


This story, about a little-known battle between American soldiers and Indigenous tribes in the early days of George Washington’s presidency, grew out of research for my forthcoming book on the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, to be published by Random House in 2023, and could be considered a prequel to that work. By a strange turn of modern political and social events, this story, set almost 250 years ago, has surprising relevance today. Its themes—racism, executive privilege, congressional oversight, the limits of the Constitution—were as prevalent in the nation’s infancy as they are now. Indeed, the past is prologue.

Many primary sources inform Sins of the Founding Father. The Papers of George Washington, an ongoing project initiated by the University of Virginia with the Library of Congress, is a staggeringly complete set of edited and footnoted letters, journals, and other Washington papers compiled in dozens of volumes. It is easily accessible to the public through the library’s Founders Online project at founders.archives.gov/about/Washington. This is where I found Washington’s account of his canoe trip down the Ohio River on his 1770 land-speculation venture.

Journals that give firsthand survivor accounts of the 1791 battle at the heart of this story include The Diary of Colonel Winthrop Sargent, The Military Journal of Major Denny, The Memoirs of Benjamin Van Cleve, and General Arthur St. Clair’s many writings in later life, attempting to explain his actions and devastating defeat during the battle. The analysis of Indigenous warfare techniques, as described by a former white captive, was found in An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith: During His Captivity with the Indians in the Years 1755-1759.

The major events that took place on the western frontier of the United States in the 1790s have received comparatively little attention from historians. One who has focused on this era from both a U.S. and Indigenous point of view is Colin Calloway, professor of history and Native American studies at Dartmouth College. Calloway’s The Indian World of George Washington and The Victory with No Name: The Native American Defeat of the First American Army give comprehensive and detailed accounts of the events leading up to November 4, 1791, and George Washington’s interest in western lands and his stance toward Indigenous tribes.

For specific details of the battle, including timelines and diagrams of the movement of Indigenous warriors and U.S. troops, I turned to John F. Winkler’s Wabash 1791: St. Clair’s Defeat. A fascinating and detailed source for this period of American history is Benson J. Lossing’s Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812, first published in 1850. Lossing visited the site of St. Clair’s defeat and interviewed survivors and others with firsthand knowledge.

Many biographies of George Washington were helpful, including the massive, seven-volume George Washington: A Biography, by Douglas Southall Freeman, published in 1948; Ron Chernow’s 2010 biography, Washington: A Life; and Joseph Ellis’s His Excellency: George Washington. I found the detailed account of Washington erupting to his secretary, Tobias Lear, upon hearing of the rout of St. Clair’s forces in Washington in Domestic Life, by Richard Rush.

Various practices currently exist to identify the original inhabitants of the North American continent. In this story, individuals are generally identified by their Native nations. Where this is not possible, I’ve used the terms Indigenous, Native, or Native American. In cases of historical reference, the generic terms Indian and tribe are sometimes used. Also, selections from contemporaneous works have been presented as written, with grammatical and spelling irregularities left intact.

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This story also owes much to Amy Ragsdale. My dear spouse of thirty-five years, she has supported me in every possible way over a long writing career—emotionally, editorially, and sometimes financially. For this work, she has gone far beyond and, in the face of a tight deadline, played a major and highly skilled role in researching, writing, and conceptualizing the story. And so to Amy first, my gratitude, my deepest acknowledgment, and my love.

I would like to extend a special thank-you to Kim Vigue, executive director of the Mitchell Museum of the American Indian, in Evanston, Illinois, and an enrolled member of the Oneida Nation and a descendant of the Menominee Tribe of Wisconsin. Amid her many responsibilities at the museum, Kim found time to read this work and give her comments from an Indigenous perspective. I am honored that she was willing to take on this task. Her advice made it a stronger, more authoritative piece.

Robert T. Tim Coulter—executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center, in Helena, Montana; a member of the Potawatomi Nation; and longtime advocate for Indigenous land rights throughout the Americas—brought his many insights to bear on this project as well. Mark Trahant, editor-at-large for Indian Country Today and a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Nation, offered his invaluable perspective on Native nations and their long view of history. Matthew C. Waxman, a professor of law at Columbia University who specializes in Constitutional issues, war powers, and national security, highlighted ambiguous parts of the U.S. Constitution that are still debated today. Many, many thanks to these experts for their time and interest in this project.

A New Map of Part of the United States of America exhibiting the western territory, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virgnia, etc.

IT WAS STILL PITCH-DARK at 4 a.m. on November 4, 1791, when General Arthur St. Clair ordered his men to turn out from the tents they’d erected on top of a low, wooded bluff in what the U.S. had designated as the Northwest Territory. They had laid on arms all night—slept with muskets close at hand—due to the threat of attack. After giving the usual morning order to parade, St. Clair dismissed the troops early to begin raising a fort where the bluff overlooked a small river called the Wabash. Through either a stroke of luck or

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