Little Turtle was born along the Eel River about 20 miles northwest of present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana. His father Mishikinakwa was a Miami chief, but since his mother was Mahican, he earned his own position within the tribe through merit.
In November 1780, during the American Revolution, Little Turtle, an ally of the British, successfully defended his village against a French detachment under Colonel Augustin Motin de la Balme.
Following American victory over the British in 1783, more and more settlers began arriving in the region and squatting on Indian lands. The Indians of the Old Northwest responded with many raids, and it is estimated that 1,500 settlers were killed from 1783 to 1790.
In 1790, President George Washington ordered an army into the field under General Josiah Harmar to move on Kekionga, the Miami homeland near present-day Fort Wayne where Shawnee, Lenni Lenape (Delaware), and Huron (Wyandot) now were living, to pacify the militant bands. Militiamen from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky made up most of the force of 1,453 men, with only 320 regulars. The force organized at Fort Washington (present-day Cincinnati, Ohio).
Little Turtle of the Miami was principal war chief of the allied tribes. Blue Jacket and Catahecassa of the Shawnee were also leading war chiefs, as were Buckongahelas of the Lenni Lenape (Delaware), and Tarhe and Half-King (Dunquat) of the Wyandot.
Little Turtle encouraged a strategy of concealment and swift, small strikes to confuse the enemy. He also advised his men, after an ambush, even without any losses, to retreat further into the wilderness, and to burn some of their own villages in order to make the retreat convincing. Once the soldiers were weary and far from their supply base, Little Turtle then ordered attacks. On October 18 and 22, 1790, along the Maumee River, the allied tribes routed Harmar's force, inflicting more than 200 casualties.
General Arthur St. Clair was given the command of the army's offensive. In the fall of 1791, he mustered an even larger force at Fort Washington. Then, heading for the Maumee River, he built new bases for added security, Fort Hamilton and Fort Jefferson. The Indian warriors surprised St. Clair and his 2,000 men on the upper Wabash River, in the Battle of Mississinewa, on November 4, 1791, killing many, then retreated into the forest. The soldiers fell for the ploy and split up into groups. Those who chased the Indians were picked off. Then the Indians surrounded the remaining troops and pressed the attack. After three brutal hours, when the count was taken, there were only a few Indian casualties. But St. Clair's force had 900 casualtiesroughly 600 dead, 300 woundedthe greatest single defeat of U.S. forces in all the Indian wars.
Washington ordered a third army into the field, this one 3,000-strong under General "Mad" Anthony Wayne, a Revolutionary War hero. Wayne took two years to organize and train this force before sending it into battle. His men built new, better-equipped posts, Fort Greenville and Fort Recovery. Little Turtle sent his men against Fort Recovery on June 30 and July 1, but they were repelled.
Little Turtle now counseled peace rather than face this huge and well-disciplined force. His advice was ignored and even ridiculed, and he gave up his command to the Shawnee Blue Jacket, leading only a small party of Miami into battle.
In 1794, the army advanced cautiously, camping near the Indian force along the Maumee River. Wayne delayed a strike for three days. When some of the warriors had departed to find food, he ordered a surprise attack. In the Battle of Fallen Timbers on August 20, the Indians suffered hundreds of casualties, and the whites only a few. Some of the fleeing warriors tried to take refuge among the British at Fort Miami, but were refused admission and slaughtered by Wayne's men. The soldiers then marched through Indian country, destroying villages and crops.
A year later, on August 3, 1795, Little Turtle and other chiefs of the allied tribes signed the Treaty of Greenville. The Indians ceded much of their territory, including more than half of Ohio and other tracts for the construction of forts. In exchange they were guaranteed land further west.
Little Turtle never fought again. He signed later treaties at Fort Wayne in 1803 and 1809 and at Vincennes in 1805, and he traveled to eastern cities on numerous occasions during which he was lionized. In Philadelphia in 1797, he met George Washington; Thaddeus Kosciuszko, the Polish general who had helped the rebels in the American Revolution, presented him with a set of pistols; Gilbert Stuart painted his portrait. Little Turtle received an annuity from the government for his diplomacy on behalf of William Henry Harrison, and even built a house in his village on the Maumee. Despite repeated efforts by Tecumseh to enlist his support, Little Turtle remained an advocate of peace. He also encouraged farming among his people, smallpox vaccinations, and abstinence from alcohol.
Little Turtle died of complications from gout while under the care of an army doctor at Fort Wayne, Indiana. Peshewa succeeded him as principal chief.