Return Jonathan Meigs [born December 17 (old style) or 28th (new style), 1740; died January 28, 1823], a colonel in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War, was one of the settlers of the Northwest Territory in what is now the state of Ohio. He later served the federal government as an Indian agent working with the Cherokee in Tennessee.
Early life and service in American Revolution
Meigs was born in Middletown, Connecticut, on December 17, 1740, to Jonathan Meigs and Elizabeth Hamlin Meigs, whose thirteen children also included Josiah Meigs. His father was a hatter, and as a young man Meigs engaged in a mercantile business. He married his first wife, Joanna Winborn, in 1764. Before her death in 1773, they had four children, including Return Jonathan Meigs, Jr.. In 1774, Meigs married Grace Starr, with whom he had three children, of whom two survived.
He served in the local militia, achieving the rank of lieutenant in 1772 and promoted to captain in 1774. On April 19, 1775, after the Battle of Lexington, he led a company of light infantry to Boston. There he was appointed major in the 2nd Connecticut Regiment, a provincial regiment of the Continental Army. Later that year, serving as a division (battalion) commander under Colonel Benedict Arnold, he accompanied Arnold on his 1,100-man expedition through Maine to Canada. He kept a journal of the expedition, written with ink made by mixing powder and water in the palm of his hand. Meigs was captured by the British in the assault on Quebec City and imprisoned, but was paroled on May 16, 1776, by British General Guy Carleton as consideration for Meigs's decent treatment of a British prisoner, Captain Law, Carleton's chief engineer. Meigs returned to Connecticut by way of Halifax.
After Meigs was formally exchanged on January 10, 1777, he returned to active service as major of the 3rd Connecticut Regiment of the newly organized Connecticut Line. Meigs was appointed lieutenant colonel of Sherburne's Additional Continental Regiment on February 10, 1777. On May 12 of that year, he was sent to command the 6th Connecticut Regiment when its colonel, William Douglas, became incapacitated by ill health.
One of his most important achievements during the Revolutionary War was leading the Meigs Raid against the British forces in Sag Harbor, New York, in May 1777. With just 220 men in a fleet of 13 whaleboats, he crossed Long Island Sound from Connecticut to Long Island to attack the British fleet at night. The raid succeeded in burning twelve ships and taking ninety prisoners, without losing a single man. The U.S. Congress awarded him a presentation sword for his heroism. Colonel Douglas died on May 28, and Governor Trumbull of Connecticut appointed Meigs the new colonel of the 6th Connecticut on September 10, 1777, to rank from May 12th.
When a Corps of Light Infantry was formed under General Anthony Wayne in July, 1779, Meigs was given command of its 3rd Regiment, which he led at the Battle of Stony Point. Following its disbandment in December, he returned to the 6th Connecticut and became acting commander of the 1st Connecticut Brigade. In that capacity, he put down an incipient mutiny and received the written thanks of General George Washington. On January 1, 1781, the Continental Main Army was reorganized and many of its regiments were consolidated; as a result, the Connecticut Line was reduced from eight to five regiments and four colonels, including Meigs, were retired.
After the Revolution, Meigs was appointed surveyor of the Ohio Company of Associates. In April, 1788, he was one of a party of pioneers to the Northwest Territory from New England who arrived at the confluence of the Muskingum and Ohio Rivers and participated in the founding of Marietta, Ohio. Meigs drafted the code of regulations that was used until the formal creation of the Northwest Territory the following year. Subsequently, he became a territorial judge, a justice of the peace, and clerk of the Court of Quarter Sessions. In 1795, he served the army under General Anthony Wayne, as a commissary of clothing in the western country. In 1799, Meigs became a member of the Ohio territorial legislature, serving until 1801.
In 1801, Meigs went to Tennessee to fill the combined position of agent to the Cherokee Nation and military agent for the United States War Department. Initially his office and the Cherokee Agency were at Fort Southwest Point in what is now Kingston, Tennessee, but in 1807 he relocated these operations to a new post further east, named Hiwassee Garrison. It was near the mouth of the Hiwassee River where it joins the Tennessee River. Charles R. Hicks, a mixed-race and bilingual Cherokee, worked as his interpreter for some time. Hicks later became a chief of the Cherokee.
Meigs' role as military agent ended in 1813 when the Federal soldiers stationed at Hiwassee Garrison were withdrawn, but he remained as Cherokee agent on the Hiwassee River until his death on January 28, 1823. The government's trading or factory operations were linked with Indian relations in the War Department during these years. As Cherokee agent, Meigs promoted the well-being of the Cherokee, defended their rights in treaty negotiations, and encouraged Cherokee efforts to establish a republican form of government. His death was attributed to pneumonia contracted from sleeping outdoors in a tent while accommodating a visiting Indian chief in his own living quarters.
He is buried in the Garrison Cemetery in Rhea County, Tennessee, near the site of the former Hiwassee Garrison.
His son Return J. Meigs, Jr. became an Ohio governor and U.S. Senator. A grandson, Return J. Meigs IV, married Jennie Ross, daughter of principal Cherokee chief John Ross, and emigrated to Oklahoma on the Trail of Tears.
Two Tennessee place names honor Meigs. Meigs County, which was formed in 1836 from part of Rhea County, and Meigs Mountain in the Great Smoky Mountains are both named in his honor.