Col. William Crawford
Laurel Highlands/Southern Alleghenies
S. Pittsburgh St. near Wills Rd., Connellsville
October 18, 1918
Colonel Crawford then raised himself upon his feet and began to walk around the post; they next put a burning stick to him as usual, but he seemed more insensible of pain than before." Crawford finally died from his wounds, but not before begging those around him to end his misery with a bullet.
Crawford was not the only American patriot killed in this manner, but his became the most famous case of what contemporaries called the barbaric cruelty of Britain's Indian allies in the War of Independence. The Indians, of course, saw it differently. Ritualistic torture and execution of male war captives had been a part of Indian culture long before Europeans arrived on the scene.
Furthermore, Crawford was a commander of patriot militiamen who had committed their own atrocities against Indian communities on the Pennsylvania frontier. Just a few months before Crawford's death, a band of Pennsylvania militiamen had systematically murdered ninety-six neutral Delaware Indians, all of them Christian converts living in the Moravian mission town of Gnadenhutten.
In western Pennsylvania, the battles of the American Revolution degenerated into this sort of vigilante violence, and each side could justly accuse the other of committing atrocities. After the Revolution, the victorious patriots used incidents like the torture of William Crawford to justify the dispossession of Pennsylvania's Indians, but they conveniently forgot to commemorate incidents like the Gnadenhutten Massacre.
Born in rural Virginia in 1732, William Crawford spent his youth working on the family farm. In 1749, he met George Washington, a young surveyor, who taught him the trade and hired him to survey seven tracts of land, more than 2,000 acres in all, in Fayette County. Like Washington, Crawford wanted to join the military and explore the frontier. That opportunity arrived during the French and Indian War, when he joined the British army.
Impressed with the backcountry of western Pennsylvania, Crawford in 1765 made his home along the Youghiogheny River. Over the next decade, he served as Justice of the Peace in Cumberland, Bedford, and Westmoreland Counties, and distinguished himself as a formidable Indian fighter, most notably in Lord Dunmore's War against the Shawnee of the Ohio Valley in 1774.
During the War for American Independence, Crawford was commissioned colonel of the 7th Virginia and served with distinction at the battles of Trenton, Princeton, Brandywine, and Germantown. In late 1777, he took command of the continental troops and militia in western Pennsylvania. Crawford's reputation as an Indian fighter made him the commander of an ill-fated expedition against the Delaware Indians of Sandusky, Ohio, in the spring of 1782. Unfamiliar with the terrain and unable to replenish his troops, Crawford's army of experienced frontiersman was defeated, and he was among those soldiers taken captive.
Simon Girty, a former Indian captive himself who was then serving as a war captain among the British-allied Indians, witnessed Crawford's death and supposedly laughed in response to Crawford's pleas for mercy. After learning of Crawford's brutal fate on June 11, 1782, the Pennsylvania Packet reported that the state militia was "greatly enraged and determined to have ample satisfaction." The newspaper, however, conveniently neglected to mention that Crawford was tortured in retribution for the Gnadenhutten Massacre. Thus, Pennsylvania's frontier settlers interpreted Crawford's death as unprovoked, which only served to inflame the already strong hostility they felt towards Native Americans.
Gregory T. Knouff, "Soldiers and Violence on the Pennsylvania Frontier," in Beyond Philadelphia:
The American Revolution in the Pennsylvania Hinterland, William Pencak and John B. Frantz, eds. (University Park, PA: Penn State Press, 1998): 183-84.