Tecumseh (Shawnee Chief)
Indian chief, Leader of the Indian forces in the War of 1812
Born: (estimated) 1768 around present region of south central Ohio
Died: October 5, 1813 in Battle of Moraviantown , outside of what is now Thamesville Ontario
The traditional Shawnee nation was an Algonquian speaking people who ranged south of the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi towards the Appalachian Mountains. Early settlers from the New England and east coast colonies had interacted with the Shawnee as the immigrant communities expanded. The Proclamation of 1763, arising from Britain’s victory in the Seven Years War recognized the region beyond the Appalachians and extending to the Gulf of Mexico as the homelands of indigenous peoples, to be protected for their exclusive use. However, when the American Revolutionary War officially ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, native lands were no longer inviolate. Settlers staked claims within the north western frontier, leading to inevitable bloody confrontations.
Tecumseh was born around 1768 into the Kispolo clan. At the time of his birth, his father was a chief of a band living near what is now the Scioto River in south central Ohio. The Shawnee pushed back against encroachment on their hereditary lands. Both Tecumseh’s father and one brother were killed in skirmishes with American militias. During the 1790s, three major resistance battles occurred in the Ohio region. Tecumseh fought in the latter two, distinguishing himself as a bold warrior.
By the turn of the century, Tecumseh himself was a chief of a band which he relocated to the headwaters of the Mississinewa. During this same time, another brother, called the Prophet by the Americans and British, experienced a vision that led him to preach the need for native peoples to reject the influences of the white man and return to the old traditions as a first step to overthrowing their oppressors. Tecumseh encouraged followers of The Prophet to unite to fight for aboriginal interests.
In Upper Canada, British forces sought to cultivate good will among the native peoples and build alliances with them in order to gain their co-operation against competing colonizing powers. The Americans accused the British as being responsible for native unrest. The first recorded account of Tecumseh meeting with the British is during his visit to Fort Malden (Amherstburg) in 1808. He told Indian Department officials at that time he had no wish to be involved in a war between the British and the Americans.
Through 1809, Tecumseh met with the Senecas, the Wyandots and the Iroquois of eastern Ohio and New York State regions. His attempts to gather support for a pan-native confederacy and fight back against encroachment met with limited success. His main followers remained among the Shawnee, Potawatomis, Ojibwas, Ottawas and other tribes south of the Great Lakes towards the Ohio River Valley.
William Henry Harrison, governor of the territory of Indiana (Ohio), was Tecumseh’s nemesis and main instigator of land appropriation within Tecumseh’s tribal area. In November 1811, while Tecumseh was travelling, Harrison launched an attack on Tecumseh’s village near Tippecanoe, levelling the native settlement. On his return, Tecumseh led the survivors across the river at Detroit to seek provisions from the British at Fort Malden.
By mid June 1812, the United States had declared war against Great Britain. In July General William Hull, governor of the Michigan Territory, commanded an American invasion into the Western District of Upper Canada resulting in the occupation of Sandwich Town. This time Tecumseh and his warriors were ready to lend their support to the British.
The American regiments’ weakness lay in the extended route needed to bring provisions to the troops in Canada. On August 5, Tecumseh’s band ambushed a supply convoy near Brownstown Ohio. Hull withdrew his soldiers across the border on August 8. The next day, warriors led by Tecumseh and another chief, Roundhead, enjoined by a Canadian militia and British regulars attacked again, this time to battle American soldiers sent to protect another provisions convoy moving south of Detroit.
Issac Brock, commander of the British regiments in Upper Canada arrived in Fort Malden on August 13. Surviving correspondence suggests Tecumseh and Brock viewed each other with great esteem having found themselves to be like-minded in battle strategies. Together they prepared an attack on the fort at Detroit. Their show of force, which was more strategic than actual, convinced General Hull to surrender without fighting.
During the subsequent winter, the actions and location of Tecumseh are not certain. But by April 1813, Tecumseh and Roundhead rejoined the British forces, this time under General Henry Procter, to attack American forts in Ohio. The siege against Fort Meigs was successful, but later offensives were not and heavy casualties were suffered.
In September it was learned that General William Henry Harrison was planning to invade the Western District. Tecumseh wanted to stand and fight the Americans when they arrived, but Procter ordered the abandonment Fort Malden, and retreat to a more defensible position further up the Thames river.
Americans caught up with the British on October 5, on swampy ground outside of Moraviantown, near the present day community of Thamesville. The British soldiers formed into their lines, but broke ranks after the first volley, leaving Tecumseh and only 500 warriors to face the nearly 3,000 invaders. Tecumseh led the charge but was felled by a shot. In the immediate aftermath the slain were left on the field of battle. What became of Tecumseh’s remains is unclear and has been a source of controversy over the years. Some claim Tecumseh was buried at the site; others report his body was taken away and buried elsewhere. No conclusive evidence has been found.
Many Canadians now viewed Chief Tecumseh as brave hero for the Canadian side of the War of 1812. Tributes to his memory include a cairn erected by the Soldier’s Club on Walpole Island, a Canadian National Historic Sites monument near the battle site, outside of Thamesville, and a town in Essex County named for him. But if Tecumseh himself was to describe his achievements, it is likely he would point to his role in the fight for the retention of ancestral lands and the native way of life.
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Marsh, James H., rev. By Marshall, Tabitha. “Tecumseh”. The Canadian Encyclopedia. [online] (Historica Canada) URL: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/tecumseh , accessed May 5, 2016.
St. Denys, Guy. Tecumseh’s bones. (Montreal & Kingston : McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005).