There are many things that can be used to describe the Shawnee leader Tecumseh. Hero, Legend, Warrior, Hunter. Like many who fought in the war, Tecumseh’s name only became larger after his death, following in the line of those like Perry, Harrison, Brock, and Secord. But war was in Tecumseh’s blood, despite him wanting nothing more than peace. Born in the latter half of the 1760s in the Ohio Valley, he was born into conflict. His true name, Tecumethe, meaning shooting star, was given to him as he was born under such an astrological sign, however history has named him Tecumseh. The Shawnee had been forced to live at nomads, scattered across the United States after the American Revolution, for they had sided with the British, and that alliance had done little for them, landing them in the ever expanding American people.
Tecumseh would spend his life on the receiving end of American manifest destiny. Treaty after treaty, conflict after conflict he found himself pushed further and further away. But it was in this conflict that Tecumseh came into his own, becoming known for his prowess as a warrior and hunter, and the object of desire to women. But when the Northwest Indian Wars ended with the Battle of Fallen Timbers and the Treaty of Grenville, the leader was again forced off their land.
But he had a vision, inspired by the work of fellow native, and British hero of the American Revolution, Joseph Brant, Tecumseh and his brother, Tenskawatawa began to gather the displaced natives together forming a confederacy at the settlement of Prophetstown near the Tippecanoe and Wabash River. It was there action that put them in direct conflict with the newly created Indiana Territory’s governor, William Henry Harrison. While they did not directly attack American settlers, they did conduct raids against them. Harrison had been tasked with gaining land titles from the native occupants, and the teachings of the two Shawnee leaders was not helping in this. But neither side wanted conflict. But with the signing of the Treaty of Fort Wayne, Tecumseh went to finally meet with Harrison in 1810. His ultimatum, nullify the treaty or there would be war. Harrison refused to back down, so Tecumseh went to Fort Amhurstburg to meet with the British. England was already on rocky ground with the Americans following the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, but provided weapons and ammunition. It was Tecumseh’s constant trips to gather more tribes to his cause that both saved and damned him. While he was away, Harrison at the front of 1,000 troops went to Prophetstown in an attempt to find a peaceful resolution to the situation. However the battle that ensued saw the settlement of Prophetstown destroyed. Tecumseh had no choice but to head north.
It was at Fort Amhurstburg that Tecumseh met a man who he both saw as his equal but the man who saw him as an equal, General Isaac Brock. Together the two leaders organized and executed the capture of Fort Detroit. This action not only ralleyed the British and Canadian forces, but had native warriors flocking to the banner of Tecumseh, and Brock’s promise to turn over what was the Michigan Territory to the natives as a land of their own. But this also gave Brock a much needed weapon against the Americans, fear. Warriors fought alongside British and Canadian troops in every theater of the war, and even launched their own attacks throughout the United States in the name of Tecumseh. But with the death of Brock in October of 1812, Tecumseh soon found himself at odds with the officers that followed. The notable one being Henry Procter who was given command of the British forces in the west.
There was conflict between the two right off the bat, with the disaster at the River Raisin, to Procter’s poor handling of native allies at the first siege of Fort Meigs, where Tecumseh told Procter to put on petticoats, in effect saying that Procter was unworthy of command. The conflict between the two effectively destabilized the British control over the west, giving Harrison exactly what he needed. Failures at Fort Meigs (twice), and Fort Stephenson and the eventual loss of Lake Erie would box the two men in. While Tecumseh wanted to stay and fight, he eventually had no choice but to follow Procter to Burlington Heights, but continued to push the British to turn and face the enemy rather than run, tail between their legs. It would be at Moraviantown that Tecumseh be given his chance. Procter and the British would run after a single volley leaving the warriors to their own brief but bloody fight. Tecumseh would meet his end on the banks of the River Thames, shot by an officer under General Harrison.
The death of Tecumseh killed the already failing confederacy, and the dream of a single nation and territory that the natives could call their own. However the legend of Tecumseh did nothing but grow after his death. While the his body was never recovered several claimed to have it. Memorials and monuments sprang up on both sides of the border, he was a hero in both Canada and the United States. There’s even a whole township named after him in western Ontario, not to mention a historic highway, the Tecumseh Parkway which guides drivers from Fort Amhurstburg (Fort Malden now) out to the battle site for the Battle of the Thames. But it begs the question, what if Tecumseh and Brock had survived the war, the Treaty of Ghent made no mention of the native allies, and history has marginalized their role at the best, vilified them at worse. And while it’s hard to point finger and a single person or event, the War of 1812 set the stage for the treatment of the native population for the rest of the 19th century and well into today.
Written with Files from:
Guidebook to the Historic Sites of the War of 1812 Second Edition by Gilbert Collins – 2006 The Dundurn Group Publishers
Tecumseh and Brock: The War of 1812 by James Lexer – 2012 House of Anasi Press Inc.