Tecumseh and a united Indian resistance

June 24, 2010

SocialistWorker.org columnist Paul D’Amato tells the story of the Native American leader Tecumseh and his vision of uniting Indian tribes into a single confederation.

TECUMSEH, A Shawnee who grew up in what is now Ohio, was not the first Indian to attempt to organize a confederacy of all Indians in order to resist the westward expansion of settlers. But he is the best known, and perhaps its most brilliant leader, advocate and orator.

Both friends and enemies alike praised him highly. John Johnston, who served as an Indian agent among the Shawnees, ranked Tecumseh as:

among the great men of his race, [who] aimed at the independence of his people by a nation of all the Indians, North and South, against the encroachments of the whites. Had he appeared 50 years sooner, he might have set bounds to the Anglo-Saxon race in the West.

A whole mythology has been built up around Tecumseh, supported by a host of children's books, fanciful histories and "firsthand" accounts--that he, for example, courted and almost married a white woman who taught him the classics, and that he was tall and light-skinned. In fact, he was 5 foot 10 and as dark-skinned as any Shawnee, and his so-called affair has never been corroborated.

A 19th century drawing depicting Tecumseh facing Gen. W.H. Harrison

These were attempts to render him more appealing to a white audience, or attempts by people after his death and fame to work themselves or their family into the Tecumseh legend. But embellishments aren't necessary--Tecumseh was a brilliant leader who made an incredibly inspiring attempt to unite all the Indian tribes within his reach, from Illinois to Georgia, into a great federation of Indians.

Tecumseh, along with his brother, Tenskwatawa (which means "the open door"), a Shawnee prophet who led a religious revival movement, influenced Indians from New York state to the Florida peninsula. That his plan to unite Indians and lead them in a coordinated uprising failed in the end, or that there were other Indian leaders and prophets before him among the Shawnee and other tribes who advocated pan-Indian unity (though on a smaller scale), detracts nothing from the greatness of his design.


BORN AROUND 1768, Tecumseh (whose name probably means either "I cross the way" or "a panther crouching for his prey") grew up amid continual violence--of Shawnees, Miamis, Mingos, Pottawatomies, Creeks, Cherokees and other Indian tribes fighting off the advance of white settlements and white armies into the Ohio River Valley lands (present-day Ohio and Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee.)

Tecumseh grew up watching the steady theft of Indian land. The process is illustrated by Cherokee warrior Dragging Canoe, after Cherokee chiefs were forced in 1775 to sign away much of present-day Kentucky and Tennessee to Daniel Boone, an "explorer" and land speculator:

Where are now our grandfathers, the Delawares? We had hoped that the white men would not be willing to travel beyond the mountains. Now that hope is gone. They have passed the mountains and have settled upon Cherokee land. They wish to have that usurpation sanctioned by treaty. When that is gained, the same encroaching spirit will lead them upon other land of the Cherokees. New cessions will be asked.

Finally, the whole country, which the Cherokees and their fathers have so long occupied, will be demanded, and the remnant of Ani-Yunwiya, "The Real People," once so great and formidable, will be compelled to seek refuge in some distant wilderness. There, they will be permitted to stay only a short while, until they again behold the advancing banners of the same greedy host. Not being able to point out any further retreat for the miserable Cherokees, the extinction of the whole race will be proclaimed.

Should we not therefore run all risks and incur all consequences rather than submit to further laceration of our country? Such treaties may be all right for men who are too old to hunt or fight. As for me, I have my young warriors about me. We will have our lands.

Though they shared a common culture and language, the various groupings of Shawnee lived in scattered locations--in Tennessee and Kentucky, South Carolina, and later Pennsylvania and Ohio. Bands of Shawnee often attached themselves to different tribes, such as the Creek and Cherokee, and lived with them for months or years at a time, and they traveled widely, though by the late 1700s, most Shawnee had settled in Ohio.

They were therefore well placed to become the ambassadors of Indian unity. As Alvin Josephy writes:

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 different fronts.

As a child and later a young man, Tecumseh saw his father and brothers fight in various battles against the whites. When Tecumseh was 6, his father, Pukeshinwa, and his brother, Cheeseekau, along with other Shawnees led by Cornstalk, fought a war to defend their hunting grounds south of the Ohio River.

After the Battle of Point Pleasant in 1774, Cornstalk reluctantly signed away Shawnee rights to that land. Tecumseh idolized Cornstalk, so it must have been a horrible shock when, two years later, a mob of soldiers murdered Cornstalk as he was making a friendly visit to the fort at Point Pleasant. In retaliation, Shawnees under the leadership of chief Black Hoof raided Kentucky settlements, and even captured Daniel Boone, who unfortunately escaped.

Tecumseh's Shawnees were forced to move more than once and rebuild their towns after white armies came in and burned their crops and villages. At age 15, Tecumseh accompanied war parties that ambushed settlers moving down the Ohio River.

Shawnee warriors routinely tortured captives. But Stephen Ruddell, a white adopted into the Shawnee who later returned to a non-Indian life, said that after one such raid, Tecumseh made an impassioned appeal to his fellow warriors to renounce torture. According to Ruddell, Tecumseh "was always averse to taking prisoners in his warfare, but when prisoners fell into his hands, he always treated them with as much humanity as if they had been in the hands of civilized people."

Of course, what this account tells us is that Tecumseh treated prisoners with greater humanity than the so-called "civilized" white soldiers and militiamen, who on many occasions wantonly murdered Indian women and children in countless massacres.

Another story is worth telling because it gives an idea of why Tecumseh was so valued as a fighter--and because it reveals his humanity.

While hunting with Ruddell and a dozen or so other Shawnee--men and women--in 1792, Tecumseh's camp was attacked at night by 30 Kentucky rangers pursuing Indians who had stolen horses. The rangers were led by probably the most famous and most accomplished of the frontiersmen, Simon Kenton.

Startled from sleep by the unexpected gunfire as the rangers came crashing into the camp, Tecumseh was able to rally his followers and repel the attackers, who thought that they were attacking a much bigger force. The next day, Tecumseh captured an Irishmen, Alexander McIntyre.

When he and Ruddell were out looking for their horses that had scattered as a result of the previous night's battle, the remaining Indians killed McIntyre. When Tecumseh returned, he was, according to Ruddell, very angry, "telling them that it was a cowardly act to kill a man who was tied."


IN NOVEMBER 1791, 1,000 warriors under the Shawnee chief Blue Jacket, Little Turtle and others overran the army of Revolutionary War hero Arthur St. Clair, which had come into their country to drive the Indians from their homes. It was the single biggest defeat of whites by an Indian army in Native American history. Tecumseh was acting as a scout at the time, and missed the battle.

But the Indians' euphoria over the defeat of St. Clair was short-lived. Three years later, after the Indians were defeated by a much larger army headed by Anthony Wayne at the Battle of the Fallen Timbers, 12 different tribes met at Greenville, Ohio, and signed away almost two-thirds of Ohio, part of Indiana and several other sites, including the places where Detroit, Chicago and Toledo would someday occupy.

Tecumseh, now a respected warrior with his own band of followers, refused to accept what the chiefs had done. At the age of 27, he began to attract groups of warriors from different tribes who agreed with him, and he soon became the dominant Indian leader in the old Northwest.

But he was not alone. Alongside him and crucial in spreading a pan-Indian gospel was his brother, Tenskwatawa, six years younger than Tecumseh.

Like other Indian prophets before him, Tenskwatawa developed his ideas in a period of extreme stress, when the Indians of the Ohio Valley were suffering from European diseases, the onslaught of white settlement and increasing Indian dependence on white manufactured trade goods, for which they had to trade furs from a dwindling supply.

Tecumseh's brother had been an alcoholic, like many Indians driven to this by the stressful conditions of life. Then in 1805, drawing on a long tradition of Indian prophets, but also influenced by Christian revivalism, he had a vision in which he met the "master of life."

He gave up drinking and began preaching a set of ideas that became the underpinning of he and Tecumseh's movement: Indians should give up alcohol, return to traditional Indian ways and reject many of the white's manufactured goods (not, of course, guns). He exhorted Indian tribes not to make war on one another, and he preached that Indians should regain their self-respect and dignity.

He changed his name to Tenskwatawa (from Laulewesika), joined forces with Tecumseh and set up camp near Greenville, Ohio, the site of the 1775 treaty. His word spread across the Ohio Valley and Great Lakes region, gaining in popularity.

It was at this time that Tecumseh began to develop his vision of uniting all the Indian tribes into a single confederation. He was also influenced in his ideas by the Iroquois confederation, as well as the American Revolution. His plan was to spread the idea of unity, so that if necessary, all tribes could fight together in unison. But he needed time to do this.

In order to prevent a premature conflict, Tecumseh moved his village from Greenville to a site on the fork of the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers in present-day northwest Indiana.

Tecumseh, his brother and a handful of followers then set out to organize the disparate and disunited tribes. Though many rejected his message, he was able by his brilliant oratory to win over the Winnebagos, Ottawas, Menominees and Wyandots, as well as many villages of Chippewa, Delawares, Weas and Peankeshaws. In 1809, he turned south, taking his message to the Creeks, Choctaws and Cherokees.


WILLIAM HENRY Harrison, the governor of Indiana territory, had this to say about Tecumseh in 1811:

No difficulties deter him. His activity and industry supply the want of letters. For four years, he has been in constant motion. You see him today on the Wabash, and in a short time, you 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 purposes.

In 1809, while Tecumseh was away on his mission, Harrison, after "mellowing" them with alcohol, pressured some chiefs from various tribes to cede 3 million acres of Indiana. Angered by the land cessions, hundreds of Indians flocked to Tippecanoe to join Tecumseh, so that by 1910, he could field 1,000 warriors.

In August 1810, Tecumseh and his brother, accompanied by warriors in 80 boats, floated down the Wabash to Vincennes to meet with Governor Harrison. The meeting took place in a grove near Harrison's mansion. Tecumseh spoke first, and the power and passion of his ideas still shine through today:

I am Shawnee. My forefathers were warriors. Their son is a warrior. From them, I take my only existence. From my tribe, I take nothing. I have made myself what I am. And I would that I could make the red people as great as the conceptions of my own mind, when I think of the Great Spirit that rules over us all...I would not then come to Governor Harrison to ask him to tear up the treaty. But I would say to him, "Brother, you have the liberty to return to your own country."

You wish to prevent the Indians from doing as we wish them, to unite and let them consider their lands as the common property of the whole. You take the tribes aside and advise them not to come into this measure...You want by your distinctions of Indian tribes, in allotting to each a particular, to make them war with each other. You never see an Indian endeavor to make the white people do this. You are continually driving the red people, when at last you will drive them onto the great lake, where they can neither stand nor work.

Since my residence at Tippecanoe, we have endeavored to level all distinctions, to destroy village chiefs, by whom all mischiefs are done. It is they who sell the land to the Americans. Brother, this land that was sold, and the goods that were given for it, was only done by a few...In the future, we are prepared to punish those who propose to sell land to the Americans...

[T]he only way to stop this evil is for the red men to unite in claiming a common and equal right to the land, as it was at first, and should be now--for it was never divided, but belongs to all. No tribe has the right to sell, even to each other, much less to strangers...Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?

Tecumseh finally ended his speech by drawing a parallel between what he was doing and what the whites did in the American Revolution: "The states have set the example of forming a union among all the fires--why should they censure the Indians for following it?"

Swords and tomahawks were drawn and a fight almost broke out after Harrison haughtily argued that the Shawnee had no claim to land in Indiana territory because they originally came from Georgia.

Tecumseh came the next morning, and after apologizing to Harrison, sat down with him on a bench. Gradually, Tecumseh kept nudging closer and closer to Harrison, who kept moving, till eventually he was at the edge of the bench. After Harrison objected, Tecumseh laughed and pointed out to Harrison that this was exactly what the white invaders were doing to the Indians.

Tecumseh went on another six-month tour, traveling through Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, back through Tennessee to Arkansas and Missouri, and north to Iowa.

A white observer of one speech recorded Tecumseh saying:

That people will continue longest in the enjoyment of peace who timely prepare to vindicate themselves and manifest a determination to protect themselves whenever they are wronged. Where today are the Pequot? Where the Narrangansett, the Mohican, the Pokanoket and many other once powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, as snow before a summer sun...

Will we let ourselves be destroyed in our turn without making an effort worthy of our race? Shall we, without a struggle, give up our homes, our country 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 cry with me, Never! Never!

Again, he got a mixed response. But to the supportive Creeks, he gave a bundle of red sticks, and told them that when he gave the word, they were to throw away one stick each day, and be ready to fight when the last stick was gone.


BUT TECUMSEH'S great plan of a coordinated fight never came to fruition. While he was away, Harrison put an army together and attacked Tippecanoe, temporarily scattering its inhabitants. Tecumseh angrily broke with his brother, who he felt had mismanaged the fight, and sent him away.

Though it was not a major military defeat, Tecumseh feared that Harrison's attack would provoke an uncoordinated border war before he was ready--and that is exactly what happened. Though they fought without the coordination that Tecumseh had hoped for, angry bands attacked settlers up and down the frontier.

His dream for a great pan-Indian uprising disrupted and broken, Tecumseh took his followers and sided with the British when the War of 1812 broke out, commanding at any given time between 1,000 and 3,000 warriors, fighting around the region between Lakes Erie and Huron, south of present-day Detroit.

Tecumseh turned out to be a brilliant military leader and strategist, well trusted by the main British commander, General Brock. His leadership helped the British win several decisive battles. But while Tecumseh was fighting for his people's very existence, the British were fighting a half-hearted war and were ready to abandon the Indians once they were no longer useful.

When Brock was killed, a weak-willed, inexperienced officer named Procter, for whom Tecumseh had nothing but contempt, replaced him. Procter had a reputation for looking the other way while his Indian forces massacred prisoners. When Tecumseh got word that his warriors were massacring prisoners after a successful battle against Kentucky volunteers, he raced to the scene and convinced the Indians present not to kill any more prisoners.

After a series of desultory defeats and lost opportunities, Procter finally decided to call a retreat. Infuriated, Tecumseh demanded a council to speak to Procter, and there in front of an array of Indian warriors and British officers and soldiers, berated the general, comparing him to "a fat animal that carries its tail upon its back, but when affrighted, it drops it between its legs and runs off...We are determined to defend our lands, and if it is his will, we wish to leave our bones upon them."

The British were fighting a colonial war. Tecumseh's people were fighting for freedom. The two were incompatible.

Try to imagine it: an Indian leader berating a "civilized" British officer in front of a whole crowd of people. Tecumseh convinced Procter to stay and make a defensive fight, but the next day, the British fought half-heartedly. Procter beat a hasty retreat, and most of his men surrendered en masse. Only Tecumseh's forces, fighting against heavy odds, stood their ground and fought bitterly.

Writes Josephy:

As the Americans [under Harrison] pressed into the woods and through the miry underbrush, the battle mounted. Over the din, many men could hear Tecumseh's huge voice, shouting at the Indians to turn back the Americans. "He yelled like a tiger, and urged his brave to the attack," one of the Kentuckians later said. Other men caught glimpses of the Shawnee leader, running among the Indians with a bandage still tied around his injured arm.

In the closeness of the combat, the Americans hit him again and again. Blood poured from his mouth and ran down his body, but the great warrior staggered desperately among the trees, still crying to his Indians to hold. The dream of an Indian nation was slipping fast, and as twilight came it disappeared entirely. Suddenly, the Americans realized that they no longer heard Tecumseh's voice, or saw his reckless figure.

Tecumseh's bid for freedom was powerful, but by the time he tried to carry it out, the odds were stacked against him. By the early 1800s, settlers vastly outnumbered Indians, who were dependent on the settlers or on other European powers for the very guns necessary to fight for Indian freedom.

But the fact that victory in the struggle was a long shot does not detract from the greatness of Tecumseh and the power of his vision. His arch-enemy, Governor Harrison, rightly called him "one of those uncommon geniuses, which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things."

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