The Encyclopedia of the American Revolutionary War: A Political, Social, and Military History
By: Gregory Fremont-Barnes and Richard A. Ryerson, Volume Editors
Mottin de La Balme, Augustin (1740–1780)
Augustin Mottin de La Balme was one of the mysteries of the American Revolutionary War, but his efforts were not atypical. Rather, they were reflective of the competing forces and unsettled conditions on the war’s western fringes.
Mottin de La Balme’s story began when he joined the American cause early in the war. Even before the French alliance with the United States, several French and other European soldiers were eager to help the American cause. Mottin de La Balme was but one of many freelance soldiers who served in the Continental Army for varying periods of time. His role in the American Revolution became murky when the conflict moved toward its end on the western fringe of military engagement.
Retired from the French army, Mottin de La Balme arrived in America two months ahead of the Marquis de Lafayette, reaching Philadelphia in May 1777. In July, on the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin, Mottin de La Balme became inspector general of American cavalry, even before the official establishment of the inspector general’s office. He was eminently qualified, however, having published his Essai sur l’équitation ou principes raisonnés sur l’Art de monter et de dresser les chevaux, a work on military horsemanship, in 1773. His position seemed secure enough. But after only three months, he resigned his commission to go into business. Perhaps he was disenchanted because the entire Continental cavalry consisted of only four regiments.
In 1780, Mottin de La Balme reemerged from obscurity, heading west. He had some correspondence with George
Washington but was not clearly an agent of the American cause. In Pittsburgh in June, Mottin de La Balme seemed to indicate that he was on a secret mission for the rebels, but in the Illinois Country his speeches suggested that he was solely a French operative. Perhaps he was being careful not to link his cause too clearly to that of the Americans, as the local populace, strongly French, and the Virginia troops had experienced some friction. Mottin de La Balme also led at least some listeners to believe that his force would have Indian allies. For whichever cause, on behalf of whomever, he attempted to start his own little war.
The Illinois Country was a stage where three competing European empires came together in Indian territory, which each set of colonists coveted for its own parent nation. The area had a fairly extensive French history, but there was also a Spanish presence as well as a British one. In the three years before the preliminary Anglo-American treaty of 1782, the European powers and their colonies jockeyed for position in the territory, trying to define the western boundary. There were at least ten different proposals for dividing the territory among France, Spain, Britain, and the rebellious American colonies. The uncertainty of controlling the Illinois Country meant that the rivals were not averse to enforcing their preferences through force. There were at least seven campaigns in Illinois during the war, beginning with the most successful, that of George Rogers Clark of Virginia against the British, whom he believed to be inciting Indian tribes against American frontiersmen. Clark sought to neutralize the British by seizing the towns of Kaskaskia, Cahokia, and Vincennes. There was also a Spanish-sponsored campaign by Eugenio Pourree. And there was the expedition of Mottin de La Balme.
Mottin de La Balme intended to capture Fort Detroit from the British. To do so he sought to collect a French force at Vincennes, Kaskaskia, and Ouieatenon (Wea Town). Leaving Cahokia on 3 October 1780 with a force of 41 men, he went first to Vincennes, then to Ouieatenon, recruiting soldiers along the way. His force arrived at Ouieatenon on 18 October. He had hoped that by then he would have a force of 400 men, but he left there with only 103. Ever hopeful, he thought that he would gain new forces at the Miami town, where he arrived on 26 October.
Four days into his new recruiting effort, Mottin de La Balme happened on the trading post that an agent named Beaubien and his associate LaFontaine, traders from Detroit, kept for the Miami Indians at the Miami town. The post was used to store blankets, firearms, lead, general supplies, and 1,000 pounds of gunpowder. Mottin de La Balme either destroyed the post’s supplies or divided them among the troops present, the troops expected, and the Indians. He did take the traders’ horses. He also waited twelve days for the additional troops, who never came. And he raised the French flag, not an American one.
Learning that Indian warriors were returning to the area, Mottin de La Balme moved his force 16 miles away to Aboite Creek. When Beaubien and Lafontaine returned to find their station robbed, they called on the Miamis for assistance. Chief Little Turtle took up the pursuit, catching the French force during the night of 5 November. The Indians lost five men in the engagement, but they killed thirty, including Mottin de La Balme. Captain Arent Schuyler de Peyster, a New York Loyalist who commanded the British post at Detroit, described the intruding force as Canadians.
Mottin de La Balme’s failure helped ensure that the British and their Indian allies would remain dominant in the upper Northwest, perpetuating conditions that would not permanently change for decades, until a second war with the British and major confrontations with the Indians. The military venture of Mottin de La Balme was but one of many in the unsettled frontier territory during the American Revolution and reflected the turbulence and ambiguity of that theater.
Boylan, Rose Josephine. “Along the Middle of the Said River Mississippi.” Cahokia Beginnings.http://184.108.40.206/Cahokia_Beginnings/Historical%20Journals/historical_1979.htm.
Carter, Harvey Lewis. The Life and Times of Little Turtle. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Waller, George MacGregor. American Revolution in the West. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1976.