TECUMSEH was born in 1768 on the
banks of the Mad River, a petty tributary of the Ohio,
in that brief interval of
dubious peace betwixt the fall of Quebec
and its logical sequel, the American Revolution.
In his childhood days, Pontiac’s
conspiracy of 1763 was still a
new story. A boy, he saw his tribe, the Shawanoes, fighting the American
colonists; he was six years old when his father, Puckeshinwau, fell in
battle. He fled with terrified women and children when, in 1780, the
burning of his native village, Piqua, by the Americans forced the
Shawanoes to seek refuge north of the Ohio. Thus, in his most plastic
years, the story of Pontiac’s great dream was fresh, the victory of the
confederated Americans over the British made a deep impression; and,
the death of his father and the
sufferings of his people nerving him to vengeance, he dreamed dreams and
beheld visions which in later years slowly crystallized into realities.
In the Indian country beyond the
Ohio dwelt many tribes—Shawanoes, Iowas, Mingoes, Miamis, Ottawas,
Wyandottes—all save the last sprung from Algonquin stock. Roving bands
must, from time to time, have visited Tecumseh’s village, their varying
dialects and habiliments arousing the curiosity of the thoughtful youth.
He had heard that still farther away dwelt powerful Indian nations.
In his nineteenth year with his
elder brother, Cheeseekau and a party of Shawnee
braves, he set out on the "long trail." With
the hospitable Mandans they hunted the buffalo of the plains; they lent
their aid to the intelligent Cherokees in their warfare against the
whites; and, mingling with the
Chicasaws, Seminoles and Creeks of Florida, like true soldiers of fortune
helped fight the Americans and the Spaniards. The years thus spent
developed the stripling into a hardy warrior; the death of Cheeseekau
in battle gave him the command ; on his
return to the Ohio in 1790 his party unconscious preparation for his
life work was measurably
The fires of
undying hatred glowed along the always
advancing borders of the western states. The earliest days of English
settlement had sown seeds of enmity; long years of border warfare had
watered the soil with blood. A harvest of bitter hatred ripened. Crude,
daring, adventurous, unsentimental, the Ohio or Tennessee backwoodsman was
trained in a hard school. He learned to fight the Indian as the Indian
fought: and in peaceful dealings evinced a lack of scruple that had not
even the Indian’s just excuse that it was part of a racial inheritance.
With relentless certainty the tide
of white settlement encroached on the hunting grounds. In the years
immediately following the Revolution, numerous councils framed treaties.
In 1778, the first solemn treaty, with the Dela— wares, in return for the
cession of lands, conceded Indian sovereignty beyond the Ohio, and the
right to punish according to Indian custom any whites daring to trespass
on Indian territory. Through the half dozen or more treaties which
followed, each marked by another cession of land, runs the same guarantee
of Indian sovereignty in the lands still left, the same relinquishment of
all white claims, the same declaration that should any white trespass,
"the Indians may punish him or not as they please." Yet each Indian
attempt to assert this solemnly pledged supremacy was the signal for a cry
of vengeance, another defeat, another cession, another pledge made only to
These swift recurring wrongs were
the everyday talk of the councils in which the young Tecumseh sat,
hearkening to the wisdom of his elders. In his bosom they must have
rankled, just as pride must have glowed when, returning from the long
trail, he heard of the destruction of Harmer’s expedition, or when, later,
runners brought word of the defeat of General St. Clair. He must, too,
have seethed with impatience at the lack of indian unity, and the yielding
of individual chiefs to the blandishments of American land-grabbers.
In 1794 came the crowning wrong.
Along the rivers Au Glaize, Lake and Miami the Indians dwelt in highly
prosperous settlements— "like a
continuous village," writes Mad Anthony Wayne with highly cultivated
fields and gardens and the luxuriant corn crops for which the Indiana soil
is still famed. These things hint that the Shawanoes, taught the folly of
war and relying on solemn treaties, were content with
Wayne’s Americans ruthlessly burned
the villages and ravaged the fields; the inevitable treaty, in ceded to
the land—hungry Americans still
more territory. Pathetically the chiefs handed back the proffered treaty
money. "Your settlers come because they are poor," pleaded the spokesman
of eleven tribes. "Give them this money, make them rich, and let them stay
away, and leave us our lands.’’ Wayne insisted; the lands were ceded; the
Indians, fearful yet vengeful, were in mood to receive Tecumseh’s message.
Tecumseh sought a mouthpiece in his
ambitious brother, Laulewasikaw, like himself a potent orator.
Laulewasikaw, his sinister aspect enhanced by the loss of an eye, was
reputed a sorcerer. He now retired to the forest solitudes, there spending
his time in meditation, prayer and fasting. Returning, he proclaimed
himself the Tenskawatawa the "Open Door" through which would come
deliverance to the Shawanoes, a messenger sent by the Great Spirit to
proclaim His will to the Indian race.
So lofty a conception, new to Indian
traditions, finds a parallel only in the Messiah of the Hebrew Scriptures.
Tecumseh, keen to analyze all things, might well have fancied in the white
man’s faith the secret of the white man’s triumph, and have sought to
graft that bold concept on the religion of his own race. The Prophet’s
preliminary retirement is distinctly Messianic.
Nor were the principles the Prophet
enunciated at the Great Council at Wapakoneta unworthy his high
pretensions. The Indians must beware of drunkenness — a vision had shown
him the torments of drunkards hereafter — they must eschew the white man’s
ways and live as did their forefathers, must gather in one village, hold
all things in common, and dwell in peace and industry, regarding all
Indians as brothers. "His advice has always been good," an Indian said.
"He tells us we must pray to the Great Spirit who made the world and
everything in it ; not to lie, drink whiskey or go to war, but to live
soberly and peaceably with all men, to work and to grow corn."
This religious veil half hid
political aspirations wherein Tecumseh planned the salvation of his race.
Their territorial rights had been bartered away by individuals, often
without authority to speak for the Indians. To conserve the rights still
left, he enunciated a principle to which he asked the adhesion of all the
Indians of the Ohio that the laud was the property, not of individuals or
even of chiefs, but of all Indians, and could be ceded only by a council
representative of all.
Indian confederacies were not new.
The semi-civilized tribes of Peru and Mexico had attained a highly
organized national life. The Cherokees possessed an advanced form of
tribal government. The Six Nations of the Iroquois formed a tremendous
fighting force. Pontiac, chief of the Ottawas, near kinsmen of the
Shawanoes, had temporarily united the scattered tribes; the leaven of
Pontiac’s idea was still working. Into that old idea, though, Tecumseh
infused the concept of a common nationality, while the Tenskawatawa threw
about it a religious glamor. The conjurings and incantations of the
Prophet, his belt of sacred beans, his exorcisms, mark the lesser and more
superstitious mind; but the ethical principles of the new religion,
sobriety, industry, peace, union and national brotherhood, bear the
impress of the sane logician and farsighted statesman on whom the lesson
of American union had not been lost.
Grudgingly accepted at first by a
few isolated Shawanoe clans, the new religion was acclaimed by the Great
Council. Delawares, Wyandottes, Miamis, Ottawas, Pottawattomies and other
Ohio valley tribes united to establish a village on the Maumee. The
American settlers were quick to take alarm. At a conference with the
governor of Ohio at Chillicothe, Tecumseh, supported by Blue Jacket,
Roundhead and Panther, urged that the only aim of confederacy was peace.
The governor, reassured, dismissed the militia.
This early collision drove home to
Tecumseh the weakness of his scheme. He had framed a confederacy of the
Ohio tribes; now he saw that with the steady influx of whites, his people
must become a red island in a white sea. Quickly his bold mind overleapt
the barrier. East of the Mississippi and south of the Ohio the whites
dwelt ; French, English and Americans had always conceded the prairie and
forest beyond these rivers to be Indian ground. North, south and
west of these natural boundaries, a vast confederacy of all the Indians
would bar the westward progress of the whites. A powerful Indian empire
would find a home between the Mississippi and the Rockies.
For Tecumseh, the years that
followed were filled with ceaseless activity. The Prophet, vain,
headstrong and tyrannical, proved a drag upon the cause. Tecumseh, boldly
relegating him to a minor role, stood forth himself as head of the
crusade. From the Gulf of Mexico to the Red River of the north he preached
to the scattered tribes his new gospel of nationality.
The Americans, beneficiaries of
unjust aggression, watched with suspicious eyes. Through contemporary
American documents glimmer hints of Indian restraint and American
injustice. "The patience of the Indians is astonishing," writes William
Henry Harrison, governor of Indiana. Tecumseh steadfastly counselled peace
— counsels a people historically unscrupulous in their dealings with the
Indians regarded merely as evidence of a like lack of scruple.
Rather than provoke a conflict,
Tecumseh in 1808 moved his town from the Mauinee to the junction of the
Wabash and the Tippecanoe. The settlers were not placated. In Indian
organization they saw the threat of war; in Indian protestations of peace
they saw only trickery. Washington was bombarded with petitions for
troops. Harrison summoned Tecumseh to a conference at Vincennes on August
2, 1810. Attending with a retinue of 400 braves, the chief bore himself
with the haughtiness befitting the spokesman of the Indian people. As was
his custom refusing to speak other than the Shawnee tongue, he declared
that the Indians declined to recognize cessions of lands by individuals,
and that, though the confederacy stood for peace, it also stood for
determined resistance to further encroachments. Harrison was equally
obstinate. The parties reached an impasse ; and the governor, predicting
an immediate uprising, demanded aid from Washington.
Throughout the ensuing winter,
affairs swept on to a crisis. The settlers, fearful of attack, determined
to crush the growing confederacy. The Washington government refused to
sanction attack or send troops. The settlers made incursions; a number of
Indians were killed; still the tribes held firm in peace. At a second
conference Harrison demanded, in disregard of the treaties, the surrender
of two Pottawatomies accused of killing whites on Indian lands, and
haughtily refused to discuss the unauthorized cession of the Wabash
territory. Tecumseh, while steadfastly urging the rights of his people,
argued that a confederacy, able to enforce law among the Indians, must
make for peace. Harrison appeared satisfied.
In August, 1811, Tecumseh with
thirty braves set out for the South. Following the Mississippi, he
penetrated the Texas country, Alabama and Florida. Choctaws, Cherokees,
Creeks and Seminoles, tribes which in after years proved their fighting
prowess, avowed willingness to throw in their lot with their northern
brethren. Harrison bears witness to Tecumseh’s work. "If it were not for
the vicinity of the United States, Tecumseh would perhaps be the founder
of an empire that would rival in glory Mexico or Peru. No difficulties
deter him. For four years he has been in constant motion. You see him
today on the Wabash and in a short time hear of him on the shores of Lake
Erie or Michigan, or on the banks of the Mississippi, and wherever he goes
he makes an impression favorable to his purpose. He is now upon the last
round to put a finishing stroke upon his work." The finishing stroke was
put and Tecumseh, his most ardent hopes realized, turned northward.
While still distant from the Ohio,
ominous rumors reached him, speedily confirmed by terrified fugitives. The
Prophet’s town was in ashes, the Ohio confederacy broken. Harrison,
seizing the opportunity of his absence, had pressed forward with 1,200
men. Met by a deputation from the Prophet he promised a council the
ensuing day; then, yielding to the clamors of his men, in flagrant
disregard of his promise, continued his advance, halting only on the
threshold of the Indian town.
Whether Indians or whites began the
ensuing night engagement is immaterial. Harrison’s invasion of the Indian
territory was in direct defiance of orders from Washington. It also
violated the treaty of 1785, which literally authorized the Indians,
without fear of reprisals from the central government, to destroy
Harrison’s entire force ; and Washington itself was obligated to aid in
driving Harrison from Indian territory.
Tecumseh wasted no time in mourning.
Energetically he set to work to rebuild his confederacy, establish a new
town. To a council at Mathethie, Tecumseh, questioned by Roundhead, head
chief of the Wyandottes, determinedly proclaimed his purpose. "If we hear
of any more of our people being killed, we will immediately send to all
the nations on or toward the Mississippi, and all this island will rise as
one man." The soul spoke bravely, but the body was shattered. Tecumseh’s
own tribe, the Shawanoes, never ardent supporters, rejected his proposals.
The Delawares were hostile; the other tribes were friendly but afraid. His
personal following dwindled to thirty braves, Tecumseh set out for the
British post at Malden.
To Colonel Matthew Elliott, deputy
superintendent of Indian affairs, Tecumseh proffered his services. "Not
for love of King George," writes a British observer, "but because they
hoped to receive from his hands the justice they had sought in vain from
the Americans." To Isadore, chief of the Wyandottes, sent by the American
general, Hull, to urge neutrality, Tecumseh made clear his aims. If the
Long Knives prevailed, the Indians must still suffer; if the British won,
the peace treaty would forever secure their rights to the Indians.
Assigned to help garrison Bois
Blanc, Tecumseh summoned his tribesmen to the impending conflict. War was
declared on June 19, 1812. On July 11, Hull occupied Sandwich, and
American freebooters penetrated as far as Moraviantown. Tecumseh, with 25
Menomince Indians, ambushed Major Denny and 120 American militia sent to
capture Malden, driving them back in utter rout. The capture of
Michillimackinac by the daring Roberts ensued. Tecumseh’s runners,
spreading the glad tidings, summoned the braves to share in the predicted
downfall of Detroit.
With 2,500 troops, Hull lacked the
energy to use them. The British controlled Lake Erie; and Tecumseh’s
braves, ranging the wilderness between Fort Detroit and the Ohio,
intercepted Hull’s supplies and captured his despatches. Early in August,
Tecumseh himself ambushed Major Van Horne, sent from Detroit to relieve a
beef convoy, and secured despatches which, promptly transmitted to Colonel
Procter at Malden, revealed utter panic in Detroit. Van Horne's defeat
impelled Hull to withdraw his last outpost from Canada. At Maguaga an
Indian attempt to ambush a second relief expedition under Colonel Miller
failed, but, in Hull’s own words, "the blood of 75 gallant men could
only open the
communications as far as their own bayonets extended."
General Brock’s arrival from Niagara
was followed by a midnight council. "This is a man," declared Tecumseh to
his fellow chiefs. Overruling his officers, Brock decided to attack
Detroit. "We are committed to a war in which the enemy must always surpass
us in numbers, equipment and resources," he declared and turned to study a
birch—bark on which Tecumseh with his knife had traced a map of the
environs of Detroit.
To Brock's formal summons, Hull
returned defiance. Captain Dixon’s batteries opened fire from the Canadian
shore. That night a thousand Indians under cover of dark— ness surrounded
Fort Detroit. Next morning, while Dixon’s batteries steadily pounded the
fort, Brock crossed the river. Hull, panic—stricken, despatched a flag of
truce. Fort Detroit, the territory of Michigan, the brig Adams, 2,500
soldiers, stand of arms, 100,000 cartridges, cannon, constituted the
spoils. The colors of the 4th United States Regiment, "the heroes of
Tippecanoe," still hang in Chelsea Royal Hospital, trophies of a victory
that could not have been won without Tecumseh’s aid ; yet of the men who
had devastated his village, not a hair was harmed.
"A more sagacious or more gallant
warrior does not exist,’’ wrote Brock, enthusiastically.
What followed Brock’s departure can
be understood only if we first know something of the interplay of
political and military cross—purposes that governed the defence of the
For Tecumseh, possession of Michigan
and the Ohio Valley meant that the ultimate peace would confirm the
Indians in possession of their lands. That idea dominated him throughout.
To the British high command at distant Quebec, the Indians were useful
allies, who, helping to hold Detroit and Malden, would divert part of the
American attack from the British positions farther east. The British
commander, Procter, believed that, adequately reinforced on land and
water, he could, by a succession of swift attacks, maintain his position
indefinitely. His superiors, encouraging him with empty promises of
reinforcements and supplies, seem never to have told him that they
regarded his petty outposts as a forlorn hope, to be held as long as
possible and to inflict as much loss as possible on the Americans with the
minimum drain on British resources.
In January, while Tecumseh was
recruiting warriors on the Wabash, General James Winchester took advantage
of the absence of his superior, Harrison, to move against Detroit. He
ousted a British outpost on the River Raisin. Procter, with 500 regulars
and militia and 800 Indians, by a swift march surprised Winchester at
Frenchtown and captured or destroyed his entire force.
In February, 1813, Captain Perry
took command of the American fleet and set himself to build new warships
at Presqu’lle. Procter saw the danger to British supremacy on Lake Erie,
and urged reinforcements to permit a joint naval and land attack. Failing
this, he undertook a siege of Fort Meigs. He failed to capture that post.
but shattered an American relieving army, thereby delaying the inevitable
advance. In July, an attempt to draw forth the Fort Meigs defenders by
stratagem, failed; and heavy losses were incurred in a British attack on
Fort Stephenson. Procter, returning to Malden, learned that Captain
Barclay had relaxed his blockade of Presqu’lle long enough to permit the
American vessels to cross the bar and enter the lake.
A naval battle could no longer he
avoided. Procter desperately sacrificed the guns of Fort Malden to equip
Barclay’s ships. From the heights below Amherstburg the British with
anxious eyes on September 10 watched till battle smoke obscured the
combatants. Long after the sounds of a conflict ceased the lifting smoke
disclosed Barclay’s crippled ships following southward in the wake of
Perry’s victorious squadron.
Malden was defenceless. To a
council, Procter announced his decision to abandon the post. Tecumseh’s
bitterness found voice in a challenge to the British general to hand over
the guns and ammunition to the Indians and let them hold the frontier or
die in its defence. From a British and military standpoint, Procter had no
alternative; but Tecumseh voiced, not the shrewd judgment of the soldier,
but the heart-break of the patriot who saw his newborn Indian nation
gasping out its brief life. With the Ohio Valley, Michigan, Malden, all
abandoned, his people must be sacrificed in the eventual settlement. The
treaty of Ghent vindicated his prescience.
Reluctantly agreeing to retreat,
Tecumseh urged resistance to the Americans on landing, at the Canard, at
every vantage point. Procter promised a stand at Moraviantown. Tecumseh,
demanding a private audience, urged an advance party to prepare the
village for defence. The British general was evasive. Tecumseh, gripping
his silver-mounted tomahawk with one hand, with the other fiercely smote
the hilt of Procter’s sword. "You are Procter, I am Tecumseh," he
challenged; but Procter made no answer.
With Malden in ashes and Fort
Detroit a pillar of smoke behind him, Procter left Sandwich on September
27. His men, ill, half-starved, unpaid, were utterly demoralized. In five
days the retreat covered 54 miles of rain-soaked trail. Dolsen’s on the
Thames was to have been fortified; but Procter’s orders had been
disregarded. Procter went ahead, seeking a position suitable for defence.
Tecumseh urged Warburton, the second in command, to make a stand at
Chatham, where McGregor’s Creek joins the Thames. "This is a good place,"
he commented. "It reminds me of my village at the junction of the Wabash
and the Tippecanoe."
At Chatham on October 3 word came
that Harrison’s scouts had engaged the British rear guard. Hasty
preparations were made to resist. Next morning at a second alarm the
British retreated six miles eastward, where Procter joined them. Tecumseh,
bitterly chagrined, held the bridge over McGregor’s Creek till Harrison’s
guns drove the Indians from their position.
One schooner the retreating force
abandoned and set on fire; two others, grounding, were left behind in
flames. Near Arnold’s Mills where Harrison’s men forded the Thames the
Americans captured two bateaux with all the British ammunition. At news of
this disaster the British deserted their half cooked break-fast, halting
only two miles west of Moraviantown.
Men still doubted if there would be
a stand. Tecumseh went to Procter. "Shall we fight the Americans?"
questioned Calderwell, when the chief returned. "Yes, my son," Tecumseh
answered. "Before sunset we will be in their smoke. They are now almost
upon us." Unbuckling his sword, he handed it to his aide, Shaubena. "If I
should not come out of this fight," he said solemnly, "keep this sword,
and when my son is a great warrior, give it to him."
The British formed in two thin red lines across the
trail, their left resting on the Thames, their right on a black ash swale.
Beyond this swale a narrow stretch of solid ground was held by a few
British regulars. In a larger swamp to the extreme right the Indians were
posted. A six pounder was placed to enfilade the American advance; four
others guarded the Moraviantown ford against a turning movement. The hasty
dispositions were shrewdly made.
In the two hours of waiting, Tecumseh passed along the
line, shaking hands with the officers. "Father, have a big heart," he
urged Procter; then passed on to join the Indians. "Be brave, stand firm,
shoot straight," he counselled the old warriors.
Toward 3 o’clock the enemy’s bugle sounded. Johnson’s
cavalry, suddenly appearing, swept down upon the red line. The British
fire emptied some saddles, but the Kentuckians quickly rallied as the
first line deployed. The second line fired an irregular volley. Then the
tide of horsemen overwhelmed the British regulars. Procter desperately
strove to rally them; but, failing, sought refuge in flight.
In the swamp the Indians stoutly held their ground,
repelling the attacks of Desha’s brigade, presently reinforced by the
victorious Kentuckians. Tecumseh ordered a retreat. The pursuing horsemen
became mired, when the Indians turned upon them, their terrible fire
decimating the first ranks. The Americans dismounted, advanced on foot.
Tecumseh was twice wounded early in the fight. Still he
encouraged his men in their desperate resistance. The battle raged back
and forth, the fate of the day for a long time in doubt till a chance
bullet struck the chief in the breast. His son, a lad of seventeen, with
others, still fought on; but gradually the battle yielded and the
defenders, bearing their chief’s body, sought shelter in the deeper woods.
For many days the belief lingered that Tecumseh was
merely wounded, and would come back to lead his people. Harrison's prolix
despatch never mentions —what must then have been doubtful—the death of
Tecumseh. The chieftain vanishes from sight amid a haze of mystery. Even
today his grave is unknown, and unmarked.
On the battlefield patriotic citizens of Thamesville
(once Tecumseh) have erected a memorial boulder. It marks more than the
fall of a chieftain ; it marks the passing forever from national
significance of the Indian race.
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