American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Tecumseh

The Shawnee Tecumseh (ca. 1768–1813), was a major military leader and alliance builder who sought to stop European-American expansion into the Ohio Valley area early in the nineteenth century, after alliances led by Pontiac and Little Turtle had failed. For a time, Tecumseh assembled an alliance that posed the last major obstacle to Anglo-American expansion across the Ohio Valley westward to the Mississippi River.

Tecumseh was born about 1768 near present-day Oldtown, Ohio. He fought as a young warrior at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. Tecumseh's influence grew rapidly as he came of age, not only because of his acumen as a statesman and a warrior, but also because he forbade the torture of prisoners. Immigrants and Tecumseh's Native American allies trusted Tecumseh implicitly.

Tecumseh was raised from birth to make war on the encroaching European-Americans by his mother, Methoataske, whose husband, the Shawnee Puckeshinwa, had been killed in cold blood by immigrants when Tecumseh was a boy. Tecumseh and his mother found him dying. As he watched his father die, Tecumseh vowed to become like "a fire spreading over the hill and valley, consuming the race of dark souls" (Johansen and Grinde, 1997, 383). A few years later, Tecumseh's hatred for the immigrants was compounded by the murder of Corn-stalk, a Shawnee chief who had been his mentor.

By the turn of the century, as the number of non-Indian immigrants grew, Tecumseh began to assemble the Shawnees, Delawares, Ottawas, Ojibwas, Kickapoos, and Wyandots into a confederation with the aim of establishing a permanent Native American confederation that would act as a buffer zone between the United States to the east and English Canada to the north. One observer recalled Tecumseh as a commanding speaker. His voice was said to have "resounded over the multitude, his words like a succession of thunderbolts" (Johansen and Grinde, 1997, 384).

Rallying Native allies with an appeal for alliance about 1805, Tecumseh urged all Indians in the area to unite as brothers, as sons of one Mother Earth. He scoffed at the idea of selling the land. Why not sell the air? He asked. The sale of land, to Tecumseh, was contrary to the ways of nature. He tried to unite the southern tribes by appealing to history:

Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pocanet, and other powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, as snow before the summer sun. Will we let ourselves be destroyed in our turn, without an effort worthy of our race? Shall we, without a struggle, give up our homes, our lands, bequeathed to us by the Great Spirit? The graves of our dead and everything that is dear and sacred to us? I know you will say with me: never! Never!" (Armstrong, 1984, 45).

Tecumseh told representatives of southern Native nations that they faced extinction: Our broad domains are fast escaping from our grasp. Every year our white intruders become more greedy, exacting, oppressive, and overbearing. Before the palefaces came among us, we enjoyed the happiness of unbounded freedom, and were acquainted with neither riches, wants, nor oppression. How is it now? Wants and oppression are our lot. Dare we move without asking, by your leave. Are we not being stripped, day by day, of the little that remains of our ancient liberty? Do they not even kick and strike us as they do their black-faces? How long will it be before they will tie us to a post and whip us, and make us work for them? Shall we wait for that moment or shall we die fighting before submitting to such ignominy? (Johansen and Grinde, 1997, 384).

Territorial governor (and U.S. Army general) William Henry Harrison tried to undermine the growing strength of Tecumseh's Native alliance by negotiating treaties with individual Native nations. Because only a portion of each nation's warriors elected to follow Tecumseh, Harrison found it easy enough to find "treaty Indians" among those who did not elect to fight. By 1811, Harrison had negotiated at least fifteen treaties, all of which Tecumseh repudiated.

Harrison's wariness of Tecumseh's power sprung from a deep respect for him. "The implicit obedience and respect which the followers of Tecumseh pay to him is really astonishing and more than any other circumstance bespeaks him [as] one of those uncommon geniuses, which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and to overturn the established order of things," said Harrison. He continued: "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 Mexico or Peru. No difficulties deter him" (Hamilton, 1972, 159).

Tecumseh was particularly galled by Harrison's choice as his territorial capital the village of Chillicothe, the same site (with the same name) as the Shawnees' former principal settlement. The name itself is anglicized Shawnee for "principal town." At one treaty council, Tecumseh found himself seated next to Harrison on a bench. Tecumseh slowly but aggressively pushed Harrison off the edge of the bench, then told him that this was what the immigrants were doing to his people. They were being slowly squeezed off their lands. During his last conference with Tecumseh, Harrison bid the chief to take a chair. "Your father requests you take a chair," an interpreter told Tecumseh, to which he replied, defiantly: "My father! The sun is my father and the Earth is my mother. I will repose upon her bosom" (Gill, 1987, 14). Tecumseh then sat, cross-legged, on the ground.

Tecumseh also was angry over Harrison's treaty of September 30, 1809, with the Delawares, Potawatomies, Miamis, Kickapoos, Wea, and Eel River peoples. For $8,200 in cash and $2,350 in annuities, Harrison had laid claim on behalf of the United States to roughly 3 million acres of rich hunting land along the Wabash River in the heart of the area in which Tecumseh wished to build his Native confederacy. When Tecumseh and his brother, also a Shawnee war chief, complained to Harrison that the treaty terms were unfair, Harrison at first rebuked Tecumseh by saying that the Shawnees had not even been part of the treaty. The implicit refusal to recognize Tecumseh's alliance angered the Indians even more. Realizing that Tecumseh's influence made it politic for him to do so, Harrison agreed to meet with him. At a meeting on August 12, 1810, each side drew up several hundred battle-ready warriors and soldiers. Harrison agreed to relay Tecumseh's complaints to the president, and Tecumseh said that his warriors would join the Americans against the British if Harrison would annul the treaty.

Nothing came of Harrison's promises, and, the following year, bands of warriors allied with Tecumseh began ranging out of the settlement of Tippecanoe to terrorize nearby farmsteads and small backwoods settlements. Harrison said he would wipe out Tippecanoe if the raids did not stop; Tecumseh said they would stop when the land signed away under the 1810 treaty was returned. Tecumseh then journeyed southward to bring the Creeks, Chickasaws, and Choctaws into his alliance. Tecumseh carried the message that he had used to recruit other allies:

Brothers—When the white men first set foot on our grounds, they were hungry. They had no place on which to spread their blankets, or to kindle their fires. They were feeble; they could do nothing for themselves. Our fathers commiserated with their distress, and shared freely with them whatever the Great Spirit had given his red children. They gave them food when hungry, medicine when sick, spread skins for them to sleep on, and gave them ground so that they might hunt and raise corn. Brothers—the white people are like poisonous serpents: when chilled, they are feeble, and harmless, but invigorate them with warmth, and they sting their benefactors to death (Johansen and Grinde, 1997, 385–386).

Tecumseh failed, for the most part, to bring new allies into his alliance. While he was traveling, the command of the existing alliance fell to Tecumseh's brother, Tenskwatawa, who was called The Prophet. On September 26, 1811, Harrison decamped at Vincennes with more than 900 men, two-thirds of them Indian allies. He built a fort and named it after himself on the present-day site of Terre Haute, Indiana. Harrison then sent two Miamis to The Prophet to demand the return of property Harrison alleged had been stolen in the raids, along with the surrender of Indians he accused of murder. The Miamis did not return to Harrison's camp. The governor's army marched to within sight of Tippecanoe and met with Tenskwatawa, who invited them to make camp, relax, and negotiate. Harrison's forces did stop, but set up in battle configurations, as The Prophet's warriors readied an attack.

Within two hours of pitched battle, Harrison's forces routed the Indians, then burned the village of Tippecanoe as Tenskwatawa's forces scattered into the woods. Returning to the devastation from his travels, Tecumseh fled to British Canada, where, in the War of 1812, he was put in command of a force of whites and Indians as a British brigadier general. Harrison's forces met Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames, in what is now Ontario, east of today's Windsor. Tecumseh was killed during that battle on October 5, 1813. After it, some of the Kentucky militia who had taken part in it found a body they thought was Tecumseh's and cut strips from it for souvenirs. His warriors, who had dispersed in panic when Tecumseh died, said later that they had taken his body with them. Having committed twenty thousand men and $5 million to the cause, the United States had effectively terminated armed Indian resistance in the Ohio Valley and the surrounding areas.

Bruce E. Johansen


Further Reading
Armstrong, Virginia Irving. 1984. I Have Spoken: American History Through the Voices of the Indians. Athens, OH: Swallow Press.; Eckert, Allan W. 1992. A Sorrow in Our Heart: The Life of Tecumseh. New York: Bantam.; Edmunds, R. David. 1983. The Shawnee Prophet. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.; Edmunds, R. David. 1984. Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership. Boston: Little, Brown and Company.; Gill, Sam. 1987. Mother Earth: An American Story. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.; Hamilton, Charles, ed. 1972. Cry of the Thunderbird. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.; Johansen, Bruce E., and Donald A. Grinde, Jr. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Native American Biography. New York: Henry Holt.
 

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