The bicentennial of the War of 1812 will be widely commemorated in Canada, but not so much in the United States. A good part of the credit, or blame, for this disparity, depending on your side of the border, belongs to the great Shawnee war leader Tecumseh.
The war, once an academic backwater, is now seen as a crucial event in forging three national identities – Canadian, American and the pan-tribal American Indian. Historians are paying renewed attention to the conflict on the western frontier – the Old Northwest for the United States, and Upper Canada for the British. The battles here now look like the culmination of a generation of formidable Native resistance to Euro-American encroachment.
The central figure of the last stage of this fight is Tecumseh, born in Ohio in 1768 and killed in 1813 defending Moraviantown in Canada against an invading U.S. army. He has won grudging respect in United States history. The Kentucky officer who claimed to have killed him was later elected Vice President of the U.S. largely because of that feat. His nemesis, William Henry Harrison, campaigning on his defeat of Tecumseh’s brother at Tippecanoe, became President. But in the coming bicentennial, Tecumseh is slated to emerge as a Canadian national hero.
“With no proper education, no military training, he had come so close to stopping the United States,” says Sherman Tiger (Absentee Shawnee). “And if he had succeeded, the United States might be only half the size it is today.”
The Fight for the Old Northwest
For the Natives of the Northwest Territory, later to become the American states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin, the war that ended in Canada had begun decades earlier along the Ohio River. Although Great Britain abandoned its nominal claim to the region after American Independence, the tribal federations asserted their sovereignty over the territory. An alliance of tribes in Ohio took arms to resist American settlements on their land. In 1790 and again in 1791, they inflicted two of the most severe defeats ever suffered by the United States Army. In one hour of battle on Nov. 4, 1791, Indian sharpshooters led by the Miami (Twightwee) Chief Me-she-kin-no-quah (Little Turtle) annihilated an entire army led by the Northwest Territory Governor Arthur St. Clair. Nearly 700 American soldiers were killed.
The disasters spurred the young republic to an extraordinary military effort. President George Washington devoted 80 percent of the increase in his entire federal budget to preparing the 1794 campaign led by Maj.-Gen. Anthony Wayne, quadrupling his defense spending. Congress also responded with the Federal Non-Intercourse Act, taking Indian policy out of the hand of state governments who were blamed for inflaming hostilities. Wayne, a much better general than his predecessors, decisively defeated the Native alliance in 1794, at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. His peace, the Treaty of Greenville, expropriated tribal lands in south and east Ohio. But it established a line across the state supposedly protecting Indians on the northern and western side against further encroachment.
The treaty lines, however, couldn’t control powerful social forces. A flood of American immigrants into Ohio put constant pressure on Indian lands. Even worse, the impact of border fighting, dislocation, diminishing resources, disease and, most overtly, alcohol severely weakened traditional tribal life.
The turbulence and weak U.S. control in the region across the Greenville Line offered a rich arena for intrigue to British agents who expected the collapse of the untested new country, or at least eventual war with it. The British Indian Department based in Amherstburg, Ont., closely monitored events, providing supplies and arms to the tribes through a network of traders fluent in their languages and often married into them. As tensions waxed and waned, opinion in the United States blamed outbreaks on British instigation, ignoring Native grievances.
These accusations grew into a powerful motive for the War of 1812. Although U.S. histories focus on the maritime causes, such as the British and French commercial blockades and British impressments of American sailors, as well as the spectacular U.S. naval victories, the issue on the western frontier was Canada. If British intrigues from Amherstburg were the cause of Indian unrest, the quickest way to pacify the tribes was to drive out the British.
After 1810, the War Party in Congress called more and more loudly for the invasion of Canada. In the debate on the war, the acerbic John Randolph, Congressman from Virginia, complained, “We have heard but one word – like the whip-poor-will, but one eternal monotonous tone – Canada! Canada! Canada!” In opposing the war, Randolph, a descendant of Pocahontas, made the remarkable statement that the Indians had a just cause; “It was our own thirst for territory, our own want of moderation that had driven these sons of nature to desperation, of which we felt the effects.”
Tecumseh and the Prophet
As Randolph, and very few other Americans, admitted, Indians had their own motives in the conflict. And two historic Native personalities, who happened to be brothers, were driving the events. Tecumseh, the famed war leader, was a middle child in the large family of a Shawnee father, Puckeshina, and a Creek mother, Methoataske (Turtle Laying its Eggs). The parents met when a group of Shawnee took refuge in Creek villages in Alabama during the 1750s.
Migration and warfare constantly disrupted the family. The father was killed in battle before the birth of the last children, triplets. After a Revolutionary War incursion in 1779, the mother returned home to her Creek village, leaving most of her children in Ohio to be raised by the older brother and sister. Tecumseh, a well-favored, popular youth, seemed destined for a traditional career as war leader, the role of his tribal division, the Kispothoka. One of the triplets, apparently an unpleasant braggart, grew up with the nickname Lalawethika, the Noise-maker. A failure in hunting and war, he developed into a corpulent alcoholic, before an event that changed the lives of the brothers, and all Indians in the Old Northwest.
One evening in April 1805, while lighting his pipe, Lalawethika collapsed in a trance. Taken for dead, he awoke as his family prepared for his funeral and reported a vision of heaven and hell. The Master of Life had chosen him to save the Indians. Thus began his transformation into Tenkswatawa (Open Door), the Prophet. He preached a return to traditional ways, forbidding whiskey and American merchandise. Americans, he said, had not been created by the Master of Life, but by the Great Serpent, a water-being possibly with ancient roots in the Mississippian culture. By following the Master of Life, and himself, Indians would overthrow American power.
His new religion was what sociologists call a Revitalization Movement, an attempt to restore order to a society under extreme external pressure. It spread rapidly but unevenly, meeting resistance from older chiefs but winning adherents across tribal bounds. Pilgrims from tribes as remote as the Ojibway came to a new settlement established by the Prophet, and run by Tecumseh.
The religion took a big step beyond traditionalism; it preached to all Indians as a single Images Courtesy of the Library of Congress Battle of Tippecanoe. Kurz and Allison print, 1889. Battle of the Thames and the death of Tecumseh, by the Kentucky mounted volunteers led by Colonel Richard M. Johnson, 5th Oct. 1813. Lithograph c1833. people, not just as tribal members. This pantribalism transformed Tecumseh’s outlook, too. Politicizing the movement, he began to argue that the land on the Indian side of the Greenville Line was Indian country owned in common by all the tribes. No single tribe could sell any of it to Americans without the consent of all the other tribes.
A great orator, Tecumseh began to travel far and wide to win tribes to his principles, and to create a grand confederacy to resist United States expansion. He visited the Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison at Vincennes. After a tense confrontation caused Harrison to draw his sword, Tecumseh managed to temporarily allay his suspicions. Harrison was deeply impressed; Tecumseh, he later wrote, is “one of those uncommon geniuses who spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things.” But Tecumseh declined Harrison’s invitation to visit Washington, D.C.
Tecumseh did, however, lead a large delegation to Amherstburg, where the British were playing a delicate game in Indian relations. After a naval incident in 1807 nearly led to war with the United States, British officials in Upper Canada realized they would need strong Indian allies. They worked through Matthew Elliott, an Irish-American Tory exile from Pennsylvania who owned a large plantation in Amherstburg and served, off-and-on, as head of the Indian Department; he had married a Shawnee woman and spoke the language fluently. Elliott kept close ties with Tecumseh and the Prophet and sent supplies to their settlement. Elliot privately was to encourage a war alliance while Britain publicly denied its support. British officers complained that Elliott did his work too eagerly.
Tippecanoe and After
In 1808, Tecumseh and the Prophet had relocated their religious settlement to the far side of the Indiana Territory, by the conjunction of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers. Prophetstown, as it was known, eventually drew nearly 3,000 Indian inhabitants, coming in from the west as well as from Ohio. In 1811, Tecumseh set off on his last great diplomatic journey, to win support from the powerful tribes of the Southeast. The Choctaw and Chickasaw rejected his confederacy, and he had only limited success among his mother’s people, the Creek. Even worse, Harrison saw Tecumseh’s absence as the chance to achieve his long simmering goal of dispersing Prophetstown.
In November, Harrison marched a thousand troops to the outskirts of Prophetstown. Never a great warrior, the Prophet decided on a predawn attack, relying on the Master of Life for victory. The battle was something of a draw, but the unexpected casualties demoralized the Prophetstown defenders, and they abandoned the village. Harrison and his men burned the village and its food stores to the ground. The Prophet’s reputation never recovered. When Tecumseh returned, he saw his grand plan shattered and bitterly blamed his brother. But it is hard to see what else could have been done in the face of Harrison’s provocation, and Tecumseh might deserve some of the blame for leaving his base unsecured.
Overtaken by the War
In the coming months, Tecumseh tried to placate Harrison and rebuild his alliance, but they were all about to be overtaken by events far away. On June 1, 1812, President James Madison sent his War Message to Congress. Although most of it dealt with the maritime blockade, he also accused the British for the Indian unrest: “It is difficult to account for the activity and combinations which have for some time been developing themselves among tribes in constant intercourse with British traders and garrisons without connecting their hostility with that influence.” As Congress declared War on June 18, Tecumseh and a party of warriors were on their way to Amherstburg.
Although it was an anticlimax to Tecumseh’s career, his small force was about to play the role that British policy had long contemplated. It joined the defense of Fort Malden near Amherstburg under the command of Major General Isaac Brock, who badly needed reinforcements. A 2,000-strong U.S. force under Governor William Hull had crossed from Detroit into Canada, but the advance stalled. The newly bolstered British-Indian force succeeded in driving the Americans back across the Detroit River and eventually in capturing Fort Detroit. Because of the village’s strategic location, the victory was a decisive one, giving Brock, Tecumseh and their men control over all of Michigan territory. Brock admired Tecumseh’s cunning, telling the British Prime Minister, “a more gallant or sagacious warrior does not exist.” It seemed Tecumseh had finally found a British commander he could rely on.
But it wouldn’t last. Three months after the siege of Detroit, Brock died in combat. His replacement, Major-General Henry Procter, lacked his predecessor’s courage and concern for Indian allies, preferring to withdraw into British territory and defend rather than attack American forces in the Old Northwest. On several occasions, he ordered his troops to fall back without notice to Indian compatriots. Doubt and distrust among the armies crippled morale.
Almost exactly a year after Brock’s death, Americans reclaimed Detroit and invaded Canada. Now under the command of William Henry Harrison, they were advancing on the British and Indian army near Moraviantown, just 80 miles northeast of the recovered fort. On the morning of October 5, 1813, Procter commanded his forces to flee. But Tecumseh refused to turn and run. It would be his last stand.
The dream of an independent pan-Indian nation went with him. The Ottawa leader Naiwish, who had stood with Tecumseh at Moraviantown, summed it up grimly: “Since our great chief Tecumtha [sic] has been killed we do not listen to one another: We do not rise together. We hurt ourselves by it.”
The Myth and The Aftermath
Even today, Tecumseh’s legacy is complicated. “Some of our group considered him more or less a troublemaker, going around and trying to get people to fight instead of promoting peace,” says George Blanchard, governor of the Absentee Shawnees, one of three federally recognized Shawnee tribes in Oklahoma. He says one of the biggest misconceptions about Tecumseh is that he was a true chief. “He didn’t come from the clan that provided ceremonial chiefs. He was a self-proclaimed chief.”
Blanchard says no one in his family really talked about Tecumseh and he didn’t learn about him in the classroom. “When I was in school, there wasn’t that much talk about Tecumseh in the 1950s, or about Indians in general. Even in Oklahoma.”
Sherman Tiger thinks that many of the tribal elders don’t talk about Tecumseh because they believe he never received a proper burial. Since his body was never spoken for, according to tradition, his name shouldn’t be spoken. And it is these traditions – not textbooks or memorials – that are important.
“We’ve held onto our Indian-ness the best we can,” Tiger says. “As long as there are a few people showing up, we’re going to carry on and continue what my grandparents did, and what their grandparents did, and what Tecumseh was fighting for.” For Andy Warrior, former director of the Absentee Shawnee cultural preservation department, the lesson he would like people to learn is this: “The day Tecumseh died isn’t the day the Shawnees died.”