Blue Jacket



"When Colonel Butler casually asked him who taught him to speak and write English so well, Blue Jacket smiled faintly and replied only that his teachers had been good but that he had later come to despise them."---from Allan W. Eckert, The Frontiersmen

We read in history texts about the conflicts between Shawnee and white settlers. Like Eckert, other writers and historians characterize the era through names like Daniel Boone, Tecumseh, and Simon Kenton; however, we rarely read about Marmaduke "Duke" Van Swearingen, a white man who transcends the image of white settlers at the time. Long before Kevin Costner became Dances with Wolves in Hollywood, Marmaduke became Blue Jacket in Southeast Ohio and led his adopted people to first war then peace.

Marmaduke Van Swearingen was born on January 2, 1753, on a thousand-acre farm in Fayette County, Pennsylvania, according to a copy of his birth record at the Chillicothe Historical Society in Ross County. His parents were John and Katherine Stoll Swearingen, and he was the fourth son of fourteen children. Growing up, Marmaduke had a first hand account of the biased attitudes and experiences of the white settlers. Marmaduke seemed destined to breach the boundary between the settlers and the Shawnee. He had an intense curiosity about the Indian way of life. Their respect for the land and boldness engrossed him. Marmaduke eventually trained himself to become a Shawnee: he learned the Shawnee language from an old trapper who lived among the Shawnee and like many frontier youth, became fond of the wild. Unlike most boys, Marmaduke sympathized with the plight of the Native American and often expressed his desire to live their free life when he reached manhood.
In 1769, while hunting in what is now West Virginia with his younger brother Charles, the 17-year-old Marmaduke encountered a Shawnee hunting party. His knowledge of the Shawnee language was useful in avoiding a fight. After talking for over an hour, it was arranged for Charles to return home unharmed if Marmaduke willingly accompanied the Shawnee to their tribe. There, he was initiated into the Shawnee and given the name Blue Jacket, derived from his blue shirt he was wearing that day.
Marmaduke never lived within the white world again; instead, he became one of the most feared Shawnee warriors. The Indian captive O.M. Spencer described Blue Jacket as "the most noble in appearance of any Indian I ever saw. His person, about six feet high, was finely proportioned, stout, and muscular; his eyes large, bright, and piercing; his forehead high and broad ... and his countenance open and intelligent, expressive of firmness and decision ..." Marmaduke fit so well within the Shawnee nation, he was never identified as a white man. His size, endurance, and intelligence helped him withstand the severe tests of initiation into his Shawnee tribe.

Blue Jacket's specific adopted tribe was the Kispokotha tribe, the war sect of the Shawnee nation. The Kispoko village had approximately 900 Shawnee and dwelt along the Scioto just north of Chillicothe (Chalahgantha). Continuously pushed westward, The Shawnee were in Southeast Ohio when the first settlers arrived. Fiercely, they defended their hunting ground.

Blue Jacket flourished within the Shawnee nation, contributing in the councils and war campaigns from the beginning of his tribal occupancy. Finally in the most ground breaking event, he was named chief of his tribe.

His first major battle occurred on October 10, 1774, at Point Pleasant though he was only in his early twenties. Until 1795 Blue Jacket led his Shawnee people in a defensive war against the invading white man. During this time, his activities ranged from taking up the coat of a British officer to various run-ins with the famous frontiersman, Daniel Boone.

But despite his respect for Boone and others understanding his Shawnee life, Blue Jacket's contempt for the American invasion grew. At a governor's council he was quoted as saying, "From all quarters we receive speeches from the American, and no two are alike. We suppose they intend to deceive us ..." The most remarkable account of Blue Jacket's savageness as a warrior is at the battle of St. Clair on November 4th, 1791, in which he fought valiantly. Ironically, Blue Jacket killed his own brother in the battle, Charles Van Swearingen. This was Blue Jacket's younger brother, a captain of the American forces, whom Blue Jacket saved the day he was taken away by the Shawnee.

The same motive which led Blue Jacket to war, however, eventually led him to seek a peace with the American government. The good of his people was all important. After a staggering defeat as the commander at the battle of Fallen Timbers, Blue Jacket realized that American occupancy in Ohio was inevitable. He became an emissary to those tribes still hostile. He even took up the blue coat of an American officer and helped orchestrate the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, a bond between the Americans and the Indian people that lasted fifteen years. He then relinquished all leadership and retired to Bellefontaine, Ohio, where he died on June 26, 1810.

Blue Jacket returned only once to his original adopted home on the Scioto River. In 1803 a delegation of great chiefs went to the Chillicothe capital at Adena. In the course of the delegation, Blue Jacket met his distant cousin Eleanor Swearingen, the wife of United States Senator Thomas Worthington. Of course neither relative recognized the other. But the incident illustrates the different paths taken by two people of the same race, opportunity, and family. Their lifestyles were determined only by the diversity of their decisions.

Blue Jacket's unique path to greatness among the Shawnee people is still remembered today. The spirit of Blue Jacket and his life lives on in true frontiersmen today. He stands as a reminder that one white man saw more than just greed for land in 18th century Ohio. Blue Jacket saw what was right and took action by giving his lifetime to the Shawnee.


For additional reading on Blue Jacket, please check out these books:

Blue Jacket: War Chief of The Shawnees by Allan W. Eckert

The Frontiersmen by Allan W. Eckert