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Was Miami University named for Indian tribe or nearby rivers?

Above: John Cleves Symmes

"There shall be an university established . . . within that part of the country known by the name of John Cleves Symmes’ purchase, which university shall be designated by the name and style of the Miami University"                
Miami University charter, 1809

1809 charter didn’t mention Native Americans

Was Miami University named for Indian tribe or nearby rivers?

Compiled by Jim Blount

Why was the state-chartered institution of higher learning in Oxford named Miami University? Was it in honor of the Indian tribe that roamed the area, or the school’s proximity to two rivers, the Great Miami and the Little Miami?

The name was legislated before there was a building, a campus, a professor, a student or a chosen location. "An Act to Establish Miami University" was passed by the Ohio General Assembly Feb. 17, 1809.

Although not mentioned in that document, it has been assumed for many years that the university name was associated with the Native Americans whose ancestral lands are usually regarded as much of modern Indiana, western parts of Ohio, eastern sections of Illinois and southern portions of Michigan and Wisconsin.

For about 70 years, university teams were known as the Redskins, a nickname that became controversial and was officially dropped in 1997 because it was considered derogatory.

In 1809 lawmakers agreed "there shall be an university established . . . within that part of the country known by the name of John Cleves Symmes’ purchase, which university shall be designated by the name and style of the Miami University . . . ."

Obviously, legislators in 1809 didn’t anticipate locating the university in Oxford, west of the Great Miami River. That would have been outside the Symmes Purchase, also commonly known as the Miami Purchase.

The land Symmes agreed to buy in October 1788 was north of the Ohio River between the Little Miami River on the east and the Great Miami River on the west. Symmes believed he obtained a million acres, extending north to Dayton. He intended to sell the coveted real estate for a profit.

For various reasons, the contract between Symmes and the federal government was altered several times until President George Washington issued a deed Sept. 30, 1794, for 311,682 acres -- not a million acres. Based on that document, the revised northern limit of the Miami Purchase was about a line east and west through Trenton in Butler County. The northern boundary, said the 1882 Butler County history, "commences on the Great Miami River, a few rods north of the mouth of Dick's Creek, below Amanda." [immediately south of Middletown].

The 1794 deed retained part of the 1788 agreement that said Symmes would reserve "one whole township for a university." But Symmes didn’t have a township to spare then.

To provide the promised college township, Congress and President Washington in 1794 granted a 23,040-acre township west of the Great Miami River -- outside the Symmes Purchase -- as the College Township. In March 1810 land sales began in the remote tract, which became the town of Oxford and Oxford Township. Oxford may have been an afterthought when commissioners, appointed by Ohio lawmakers, couldn't agree on a site within the Miami Purchase.

Miami opened as a log-cabin preparatory academy in 1818. Collegiate instruction began Nov. 1, 1824. The first class of 12 men was graduated in 1826.

Why did it take 30 years from the 1794 land grant until 1824 to start the college?

In 1794 it was risky to live in or near the Miami Purchase, or travel through the region. The few people there were more intent on survival than furthering their education.

Settlements had begun in late 1788 on the banks of the Ohio River at Columbia and Losantiville, small villages that eventually became part of Cincinnati. Hunters and trappers venturing a few miles north of the Ohio River could expect violent resistance from the Miami, Shawnee, Ottawa, Delaware, Huron and other tribes that inhabited what became Ohio and Indiana and southern Michigan. They were defending their ancestral territory.

The danger was reflected in a derogatory nickname attached to Symmes’ real estate -- "the Miami Slaughterhouse." That description was in mail sent east by a few early residents and reprinted in eastern newspapers.

It was given credence in 1791 by the fate of the army that built Fort Hamilton. Gen. Arthur St. Clair, also the territorial governor, led a poorly-trained, ill-equipped collection of militia and a few regular army troops out of Fort Washington (Cincinnati) that fall.

Fort Hamilton was the first of a proposed "chain of forts" leading north toward Kekionga (present Fort Wayne, Ind.) -- the home and stronghold of the Miami nation.

A year earlier, in October 1790, the Miami and their allies defended Kekionga from an attack led by Gen. Josiah Harmar, who also had started from Fort Washington. St. Clair’s 1791 campaign was a second attempt to scare or overwhelm the Indians.

The result was the same. St. Clair’s disorganized force was annihilated Nov. 4, 1791, in a battle that was never given a name because of the disgraceful outcome. It is regarded as the worst defeat ever suffered by a U. S. armed force (on the basis of percentage of casualties). The Indian designation for the encounter was appropriate -- "the battle of 1,000 skulls," reflecting St. Clair’s loss. Later, a stockade built there was named Fort Recovery.

In 1792, a third offensive against the Miami and allied tribes began to take shape when Gen. Anthony Wayne took command of the frontier army in the Northwest Territory. For several reasons, including Wayne’s thoroughness in preparing his army, there was no rush for a showdown with the Indians.

That decisive battle came Aug. 20, 1794, at Fallen Timbers, near present Maumee and Toledo in northwestern Ohio. Wayne’s army was victorious, but a treaty with several tribes, including the Miami, wasn’t completed until almost a year later.

The Treaty of Greenville was concluded Aug. 3, 1795 -- almost a year after Washington had bestowed the college township that became the foundation for Miami University. Congress didn’t appropriate the money promised to the tribes in the treaty until May 6, 1796.

Besides money, there were numerous attempts to placate the Indians. For example, Little Turtle, the talented Miami war chief who masterminded the humiliation of Harmar in 1790 and St. Clair in 1791, visited President Washington in 1797 and returned to the nation’s capital within a few years to confer with the second and third presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Because of his willingness to cooperate with the government, Little Turtle became an outcast among other tribes. The friction and suspicion between the Native Americans and recent settlers in the Ohio region didn’t end with the Greenville compact.

In fact, by 1809, when the university was chartered, there were strong signs peace was about to end on the Midwest frontier. Ohio-born Tecumseh, a Shawnee leader, had been advocating opposition to cooperation for several years. He had no desire to emulate Little Turtle’s coexistence transition.

Tecumseh’s ability to arouse several tribes was a factor leading to the War of 1812, in which the U. S. opposed the British and their Indian allies, who hoped to regain their Ohio land. Although fighting was north of the area, Southwestern Ohio residents lived in fear of Indian attacks for nearly four years. Some Miami allied with Tecumseh, while others remained loyal to the U. S. or were neutral during the War of 1812.

In 1809, those seeking to end the Indian menace in the area -- and take more of their land -- seldom called them "redskins." The prevalent synonym then, and for several decades in the 1800s, was "savage" -- not a term that reflected respect.

The mistrust, passions and events of the 1790-1815 period made it unlikely that white residents within Symmes’ Miami Purchase, or elsewhere in Ohio, would tolerate naming a new state-sanctioned university after the Miami Indians, or any other tribe.

There isn’t any evidence to the contrary -- except a popular university mascot created more than 75 years after the Miami tribe had been evicted from the Midwest by the federal government.

The movement to end the Redskins moniker didn’t cite the 1809 charter reference to "that part of the country known by the name of John Cleves Symmes’ purchase" -- then also called the Miami Purchase or the Miami Lands. Instead, it was based on a 1990s declaration that "the Miami tribe of Oklahoma can no longer support the use of the nickname Redskins" for Miami teams.

Sept. 25, 1996 -- after years of controversy -- Miami University trustees yielded to political correctness and ended the debate about the nickname. Trustees completed the purge April 18, 1997, when RedHawks (officially one word with a capital H) was chosen as the replacement, effective June 30. 1997.

There’s uncertainty about the birth of the Redskins designation. Some date its start to 1931; others to 1914 or the late 1920s -- not to the "Old Miami" of the 1824-1873 era.

In 1914, during Miami’s first homecoming football game, a historical pageant included an Indian war dance. "This may be one of the first recorded times that an Indian reference was specific to the Miami. It focused on their defeat," noted Miami University, 1809-2009, Bicentennial Perspectives (2009), edited by Curtis W. Ellison (pp. 162-163).

A university athletic web site says: "Use of the nickname Redskins for Miami athletic teams dated back to the 1930-31 school year, when the Miami alumni magazine, then edited by the school's lone publicity man, Ralph McGinnis, announced the new nickname as successor to Big Red, which had caused confusion with Denison University teams.

"A similar tag had popped up in a 1928 story in the Miami Student that referred to the ‘Big Red-Skinned Warriors,’ but the switch wasn't made for another three years," according to the web site. "For a time in 1931, Redskins and Big Red were used interchangeably in The Student. Prior to 1928, teams had been referred to as The Miami Boys, The Big Reds or The Reds and Whites."

During much of the 20th century, the university logo was a representation of a Miami warrior, a symbol still cherished by Miami alumni and sports fans who opposed the 1996-97 transition from Redskins to RedHawks.

Considering the circumstances in 1809, reading the charter and the lack of documentary evidence then linking the school to the tribe, it is likely that Ohio legislators were thinking of the Little Miami and Great Miami rivers, and the land between them, when they named Miami University more than 200 years ago.

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Jim BlountJim Blount's local history books are available in Hamilton at the Butler County Historical Society, 327 N. Second St.; Tom's, 135 Main St.; Ross Ave. Barber Shop, 907 Ross Ave.; in Fairfield at Pleasantree Gift Shoppe, 702 Nilles Rd.; and in Shandon at Books in Shandon, 4795 Cincinnati-Brookville Rd. For mail orders, call Books in Shandon, 513-738-2962. The columns are posted monthly on the Lane Libraries Web site and are also available via email subscription. A searchable archive of these columns, including Mr. Blount's columns from the Journal-News dating back to 1988, is available at www.lanepl.org/blount.htm.

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