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Tecumseh, Shawnee Land, Piqua ShawneeFrom the beginning to the end of Tecumseh’s life, he and his people fought increasing numbers of settlers determined to cross the Ohio River. Settlers invaded Shawnee lands from the south, steadily expanding their sovereignty over all but the northwestern corner of Ohio, a region then known as the Great Black Swamp. For most Native peoples determined to remain in Ohio, the area of the Maumee and Auglaize region, known as “the Glaize,” became a site of resistance to American expansion. By 1785 villages led by two Shawnee leaders, Blue Jacket and Buckongehelas (Captain Johnny), and one Miami chief, Little Turtle, dotted the landscape. Situated within ten miles of each other for mutual defense, seven main towns (three Shawnee, two Delaware, one Miami, and a European trading town) joined forces. In 1790, and again in 1791, these allied villagers defeated American armies. In the second battle, the 1791 conflict now known as St. Clair’s Defeat, in which Tecumseh did not participate, the allied Indians inflicted approximately nine hundred casualties on a force of nearly seventeen hundred soldiers. Amounting to “possibly the worst defeat in US military history,” these victories convinced Little Turtle, Blue Jacket, and Buckongehelas that together they could defeat the Americans and preserve their Ohio homeland. 10 These pan-Indian forces tended to fight against irregular militias, composed of both Kentuckians and Ohioans. For example, Arthur St. Clair, the commanding general of the army during the 1791 defeat, was the first governor of the Northwest Territory.
The victories of 1790 and 1791 proved to be short-lived. After these American defeats, the U.S. government assumed greater control of American expansion, and assigned to General “Mad” Anthony Wayne the task of breaking the allied communities at the Glaize. Wayne was an accomplished leader and a tough-minded disciplinarian who had prepared his troops for battle. Before the main battle, he had the audacity to build Fort Defiance at the traders’ town on the Glaize. On August 20, 1794, Tecumseh, Tenskwatawa, and their brother Sauwauseekau fought Wayne’s army at Fallen Timbers with not many more than four hundred warriors. Sauwauseekau fell in battle while fighting alongside his brothers. The Battle of Fallen Timbers resulted in the devastating Treaty of Greenville (1795), which laid the groundwork for the United States’ ultimate possession of the Old Northwest.11
After Fallen Timbers, President George Washington and his increasingly confident administration enacted a series of land policies that were designed to divest Native peoples of their lands. In 1796, Henry Knox, Washington’s secretary of war, worked with Congress to create a system of government trading houses. Continued under both the Adams and Jefferson administrations, and run by the federal government, these trading houses turned Native peoples into debtors of the United States. Like Washington before him, President Thomas Jefferson recognized that when “debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they [Indians] become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands.” William Henry Harrison, a man widely regarded as “Mr. Jefferson’s hammer,” believed that one white hunter killed “more game than five of the common Indians.” Trading houses and increasing numbers of frontiersmen decimated deer herds, leading to starvation of the Native peoples in Ohio in the first decade of the 19th century.12
As a young adult, Tecumseh lived in villages that had experienced more than two decades of incessant violence. Settlers who once had to cross the Appalachian Mountains to reach them now lived in close proximity. Older chiefs who had struggled against these migrants for decades came to believe that peace and accommodation, rather than continued resistance, offered the best hope for survival. For example, in the aftermath of the Battle of Fallen Timbers, both the Shawnee leader Black Hoof and Little Turtle became convinced that living with Americans, behind a constantly advancing frontier, offered the best strategy for the survival of their people. Approximately eight hundred people lived at Wapakoneta, Black Hoof’s village on the Auglaize River in northwestern Ohio. At the same time, not more than forty Shawnees supported the Shawnee brothers. Their foremost adherents tended to be younger men. Notable exceptions included Blue Jacket, one of Little Turtle’s and Black Hoof’s allies from the wars of the 1790s.13
However ardent their desire to return to their traditional beliefs and values, pan-Indian leaders proposed deep innovations in Indian country. First among them was the idea that a shared history of oppression at the hands of colonizers had enabled Native peoples to reimagine themselves as a race of people, rather than as members of separate tribes. In 1810, when he was at the height of his power, Tecumseh explained that Indians “could never be good friends with the United States until [the Americans] abandoned the idea of acquiring lands by purchase from the Indians, without the consent of all tribes.” Tecumseh argued that tribal leaders no longer had the authority to speak, or to sign treaties, with the United States.14
American officials recognized the threat posed by pan-Indian leaders of revitalization and reform. Historian Sami Lakomäki explains that revitalization movements are “common among colonized peoples around the globe.” Anthropologist A. F. C. Wallace defines these worldwide phenomena as “deliberate, organized, conscious effort(s) by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture.” Tecumseh’s idea of a “more satisfying culture” hinged upon his ability to unite all of the Native peoples of the eastern half of North America. In his own words, Tecumseh aspired to “collect the different nations to form one settlement” in order to “preserve their country from all encroachments.”15
Federal officials ignored these demands and continued to sign treaties, largely in secret, with small numbers of leaders committed to older, tribal understandings of identity and politics. American officials hoped to transform tribes into nation-states modeled after the United States. Jefferson himself consulted with one of Tecumseh’s rivals, Black Beard, assuring him that “if the United States can be of any service in bringing you [the Shawnees] all together in one place, we will willingly assist you.” William Wells, then Indian agent at Fort Wayne, believed that “each nation should be collected together and some regular sistam [sic] of government established among them.” Jefferson, Wells, and Tecumseh’s arch-rival, the territorial governor of Indiana, William Henry Harrison, worked assiduously to defeat Tecumseh by consolidating authority in the hands of tribal leaders sometimes called “government chiefs” because of their desire to live peacefully, as sovereign nations, within the United States. Tecumseh recognized the U.S. strategy, accusing village chiefs of “ruining our Country” by ceding so much land to the Americans.16
Americans ignored the long history of Native reform and revitalization. They preferred to see revitalization movements as the brainchildren of competing empires determined to thwart the United States’ continental aspirations. They could not imagine that Native people themselves could develop such a sophisticated response to American expansion. For example, in February 1803, Secretary of War Henry Dearborn believed that “certain persons among Indian nations . . . were agents from the French or Spanish government” who were trying to “engage the several tribes” in a general war against the United States. General James Wilkinson, who was in 1805 governor of Louisiana Territory, feared a pan-Indian attack. Ironically, it was Wilkinson himself who dreamed of joining forces with another empire. In 1805 he was “secretly on the Spanish government’s payroll” in order to bring new territories into New Spain.17
Among Indians of the Great Lakes–Ohio valley region, Tecumseh embodied a social movement decades in the making. As historian Richard White has written, Tecumseh was “the culmination of the complicated village and imperial politics of the middle ground.”18 Religion was a vital component of the movement. For example, Tecumseh’s brother inspired the pan-Indian movement that Tecumseh later championed. For many years, Tecumseh lived in the shadow of this more famous younger brother, Tenskwatawa, or “the Open Door.” It had not always been so. Prior to Tenskwatawa’s conversion experience, sometime between April and November of 1805, this brother, also known as the “Shawnee Prophet,” had been called Lalawethika, or “the rattle/loudmouth.” He was blind in one eye from a hunting accident as a boy. And while he was coming of age, Chiksika had refused to take him along on his many hunting trips. According to most accounts, he was a failed hunter and an alcoholic who depended on his older brother to feed and clothe his wife and children. Lalawethika embodied the worst effects of colonialism. His circumstances began to improve when he began listening to “an aging shaman” known as Penagashea, or “Changing Feathers.”
After Penagashea died in 1804, Lalawethika fell into a trance so deep that his relatives believed he was dead. Miraculously, he awoke with a vision of reform that featured some of the components of sin and salvation common during the Second Great Awakening in places such as Cane Ridge, Kentucky. Tenskwatawa described an Indian hell in which alcoholics were forced to swallow molten lead for all time. But he also preached that polygamy, hide hunting, and relying on personal medicine bundles were sins. Both the five Shawnee divisions and individual Shawnees possessed medicine bundles that conferred special powers on those who took care of them. In asking his supporters to destroy them, Tenskwatawa asked his followers to abandon their individual power and follow him. For many, this had to have been a terrible choice, because it meant forsaking sacred powers conferred on them during their vision quests. Shawnees regarded their bundles as living beings, other-than-human persons, tasked with protecting the individual and advancing his interests. In abandoning them, Tenskwatawa hoped to lead them into a new way of life. He also demanded that Indian women married to non-Indian husbands must leave them and return to agricultural pursuits. In contrast, Indian men had to abandon domesticated animals, from chickens to cattle, and return to hunting for meat rather than trading. Those who ignored his demands, and continued to believe in their bundles, were often accused of directing the power contained within them against their followers. Witchcraft allegations led to the deaths of Shawnees, Wyandots, and Delawares in both Ohio and Missouri. Those who were killed tended to be tribal leaders, Christian converts, and men deeply invested in trading with the Americans. Such advocates of living in a plural world, behind the frontier, were an affront to Tenskwatawa and the reforms he promoted.19
In 1805 the Shawnee brothers established a new town at Greenville, Ohio, where they intended to consolidate all of the Shawnees and their neighbors in a single, revitalized community. It was a place freighted with meaning. They built their town near the site of the infamous Treaty of Greenville, where Native peoples resigned themselves to American power in the wake of the Battle of Fallen Timbers. Establishing a pan-Indian community there symbolized Native people’s desire to rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of that defeat. But for American officials, Tecumseh offered a more philanthropic rationale. He explained: “The Shawnese have heretofore been scattered about in parties, which we have found has been attended with bad consequences. We are now going to collect them all together to one town that the chief may keep them in good order and prevent drunkenness from coming among them, and try to raise corn and stock to live upon.”20 Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa attempted to build their coalition at Greenville for the next three years. However, living in such close proximity to their Native opponents, as well as traders and government agents allied with them, was not a winning strategy. In the spring of 1808 they moved farther west, on the Tippecanoe River, a tributary of the Wabash River, which granted them easier access to western tribes that were more sympathetic to their cause. By May 1810, Harrison wrote, “The Prophets force at present consists in part of his own Tribe, which has always been attached to him; nearly all the Kickapoos, a number of winebagoes, some Hurons from Detrot who have lately joined him, a number of Potawatomis, 20 or 30 Muskoes or Creeks and some stragglers from the Ottawas. Chippways and other tribes in all perhaps from 6 to 800.”21
In a speech to Harrison in August 1808, Tenskwatawa proclaimed that his supporters “were once different people, they are now but one.” Such rhetoric belied the fact that most of these supporters came from lands to the north and west of the middle Ohio valley. Tribes such as the Kickapoos, Potawatomis, Ojibwes, and Ho-Chunks were central to the revitalization movement. In contrast, tribes in the vicinity of Greenville (1805–1808) and Prophetstown (1808–1811) opposed the reforms.
As their revitalization movement gained momentum, Governor Harrison fueled Tecumseh’s and Tenskwatawa’s popularity by confronting Native peoples between 1803 and 1809 with the most aggressive series of treaties they had ever encountered. His treaty making culminated with the Treaty of Fort Wayne, which ceded more than three million acres of land along the southern Indiana-Illinois border and east-central Indiana.22 These treaties galvanized his opponents, and Tenskwatawa became more and more bellicose. Harrison sent spies such as Michel Brouilett and John Tanner in an attempt to gauge the prospects of war. The Prophet discovered them and responded by telling Harrison “that his people should not come any nearer to him, that they should not settle on the Vermillion River—he smelt them too strong already.” Prophetstown became a prominent resting place for Potawatomis, Kickapoos, Sauks, Meskwakis, and Ho-Chunks on their way to consult and trade with the British at Amherstburg. To accommodate the traffic, village dwellers built a large dwelling they dubbed “The House of the Stranger.”23
Like most Americans, Harrison believed that the British were ultimately responsible for all anti-American actions on the frontier. He could not imagine that Native peoples acted on their own. In his opinion, they were little more than British pawns. And so, in an 1810 letter to Secretary of War William Eustis, he wrote, “I have as little doubt that the scheme originated with the British and that the Prophet is inspired by the superintendent of Indian affairs for Upper Canada, rather than the Great Spirit, from whom he pretends to derive his authority.”24
Between 1808 and 1811, Tecumseh traveled far and wide in search of people willing to join the revitalization movement. He visited the Sauks and Meskwakis in Illinois and Iowa, and his own kinsmen at Cape Girardeau, Missouri. But his central aim remained the unification of southern and northern tribes into a grand confederacy. Like so many Shawnee leaders before him, including Peter Chartier in the 1740s and, more recently, Black Beard in the first decades of the 19th century, Tecumseh had a deep connection with the large confederacies of the Southeast, and the Creeks and Cherokees in particular. His awareness of southeastern protocols, combined with his mother’s Creek lineage, gained Tecumseh favor among the Creeks. He arrived at Tukabatchee in mid-September, just in time for the meeting of the Creek national council. And it was here that Tecumseh competed for the Creeks’ attention with Benjamin Hawkins, the southern superintendent of Indian affairs. Hawkins advocated a “civilization plan” that included slave ownership, stock raising, and the privatization of land. In public speeches, Tecumseh asked his allies to “unite in peace and friendship among themselves and cultivate the same with their white neighbors.” But in Hawkins’s recollection of Tecumseh’s visit, he demanded that the Creeks “kill the old Chiefs, friends to peace; kill the cattle, the hogs, the fowls; do not work, destroy the wheels and looms, throw away your ploughs, and everything used by the Americans.”25 Small numbers of Creeks did travel with Tecumseh and fight with him during the War of 1812. But more importantly, Tecumseh helped to ignite the Redstick War of 1813–1814, a Creek civil war over Hawkins’s civilization plan that Tecumseh’s Creek supporters ultimately lost.
During Tecumseh’s travels, Tenskwatawa became the leader at Prophetstown. Aware of Tecumseh’s absence, Harrison seized the opportunity and marched north from Vincennes, along the Wabash River, to Prophetstown. Warriors tracked his army’s progress and, on November 6, sent a delegation in an attempt to forestall combat. But inside Prophetstown, the diverse inhabitants of the village called for war. Tenskwatawa headed their demands, and chose to initiate conflict with Harrison’s army in the predawn hours of November 7, 1811. The Battle of Tippecanoe lasted approximately two and a half hours. After their initial surprise, Harrison’s men rallied, and Tenskwatawa’s men retreated from the battlefield. When the dust settled, approximately 35 warriors had been killed. In contrast, 62 Americans had been killed and another 126 wounded.26 When Tecumseh learned of the battle, he threatened to kill Tenskwatawa. Indeed, their movement never again obtained the same level of support. Harrison’s men’s burned food stores and made it difficult for Prophetstown to rise to power once more. However, by disbursing Tecumseh’s and Tenskwatawa’s followers, Harrison vastly expanded the field of combat between settlers and Native peoples. The revitalization movement fragmented, but it did not fall apart.