|Tecumseh, from life, artist unknown|
One hundred and ninety-eight years ago this week, during the War of 1812, Tecumseh’s warriors and their British allies met defeat by American forces under William Henry Harrison (future president) at the frontier Battle of the Thames, north of Lake Erie near present-day Chatham, Ontario.
During this battle, Tecumseh had taken over leadership of the British, Canadian and Indian forces, the British commander being weak-willed and unwilling to stand against Harrison’s Kentuckians, who numbered more than twice those of Tecumseh. He situated the men in the best defensive position he could find. Harrison’s forces crashed into the British line, routing them entirely, but the Indians under Tecumseh, engaged with the Americans, pushed back and forth, forcing the fight into a swamp. Many men on both sides hear Tecumseh’s voice thunder over the din, and saw him, as he exhorted his forces to hold, wounded over and over. By twilight, he was gone. In the night, the Indians slipped away quietly, taking the body of their great leader with them.
Tecumseh was born a Shawnee in March of 1768 near present-day Dayton, OH. His name was actually Tecumtha, meaning “panther lying in wait,” but whites mispronounced it, interpreting this name to mean “shooting star.” Either meaning applied to Tecumseh, a dynamic man who became the definitive leader of his people.
Tecumseh’s father Puckeshinwa was a Shawnee war chief born in Florida, and his mother Methoataske was probably a Creek from eastern Alabama, illustrating the Shawnee penchant to roam. Shawnees migrated incessantly in small groups, settling here among the Miamis, there among the Chickasaw, then moving on, making it difficult for whites to see them as a single nation. No doubt, this nomadic predilection, giving the Shawnee a strong bond with dozens of tribes from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes, figured largely in Tecumseh’s ability to unite the many nations to defend their territories.
Such defense has a long history, dating to the first days of European exploration and colonization. During the French and Indian War, native tribes banded together with French allies in an effort to stop the migration of English settlers into Indian territories.
Soon after, Joseph Brant, an Iroquois who had been educated by white settlers, had a similar idea, to unite the native nations into a solid political unit to protect native homelands against sale to and settlement by white pioneers. He almost achieved his goal during the American Revolution when he united the seven Iroquois tribes into a single nation and won several concessions for recognition of the Iroquois as a nation by the new United States on their traditional homeland within New York State. But it all turned to ash when most of his people sided with the British. The Iroquois lost their political clout when the British lost the war.
“The long, confused wanderings, marked by numerous alliances with other tribes and constant guerrilla warfare against advancing whites, had made the Shawnees more conscious than most natives of the similarity and urgency of the racial struggles being waged against the settlers on many fronts.” (1)
Tecumseh, a product of this period of constant conflict, continued this idea of unity among the native tribes and nations. He was a Shawnee, but his vision encompassed all Native Americans.
"Where today are the Pequot?” Tecumseh asked in 1811. “Where are the Narragansett, the Mochican, the Pocanet, and other powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man ... Sleep not longer, O Choctaws and Chickasaws ... Will not the bones of our dead be plowed up, and their graves turned into plowed fields?" (2)
Primarily because of broken treaties, he became dreaded for his prowess in leading the Indians against white encroachment on Indian lands, and news of his death in October, 1813, was cause for great exultation throughout the frontier communities.
|Benson John Lossing's depiction, 1868|
As much as whites had feared this powerful Shawnee war chief, many recognized his greatness as a leader. Gen. William Henry Harrison, reporting to Washington after the Battle of the Thames, described Tecumseh as “one of those uncommon geniuses, which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things. If it were not for the vicinity of the United States, he would perhaps be the founder of an Empire that would rival in glory that of Mexico or Peru.” (3)
“He was a brilliant orator and warrior and a brave and distinguished patriot of his people. He was learned and wise, and was noted, even among his white enemies, for his integrity and humanity.” (4)
With the death of Tecumseh, that shining star, Native Americans throughout the continent lost not only their greatest patriot, but also all hope for a sovereign nation separate from the encroaching United States.
1. The Patriot Chiefs: A Chronicle of American Indian Leadership by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., New York: The Viking Press, 1961. p. 138
2. "Poetry and Oratory,"The Portable North American Indian Reader by Frederick Turner III, Penguin Book, 1973. pp. 246–247
3. The Patriot Chiefs: A Chronicle of American Indian Leadership by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., New York: The Viking Press, 1961. p. 131
4. The Patriot Chiefs: A Chronicle of American Indian Leadership by Alvin M. Josephy, Jr., New York: The Viking Press, 1961. p. 132