TECUMSEH—Native American Hero/Defender of Canada
By Dr. Lorin Swinehart
On the night of March 9, l768, a great meteor streaked across the skies of southern Ohio, heralding the birth of the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh on the banks of a spring near the village of Chalahgawth, not far from the Little Miami River. The heavenly event caused the newborn to be named Panther in the Sky. Possessing outstanding leadership and oratorical skills, he was destined to leave his mark upon history.
Following the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers—a decisive victory for the United States—and the subsequent Greenville Treaty, Tecumseh knew that white invaders would never rest until all Native Americans were dispossessed or eradicated.
Tecumseh, who refused to sign the treaty, later denounced Indiana Governor William Henry Harrison for tricking a group of drunken chiefs into signing a “whiskey treaty” ceding 3,000,000 acres of Indian land. He inspired all Native peoples to form one nation, to stand together against the white man’s perfidy.
Tecumseh’s brother Tenskwatawa, known as The Prophet, a recovering alcoholic, envious of his more accomplished sibling, provided spiritual impetus for his Pan-Indian Alliance. In 1808, they established Prophetstown at the confluence of Indiana’s Wabash and Tippicanoe Rivers, where Native Americans gathered from across the continent to hear the Prophet. Harrison, disliking and distrusting all Indians, kept a close eye upon the activities at Prophetstown. He attempted to discredit the Prophet by daring him to make the sun go dark. Tenskwatawa accurately predicted a solar eclipse, causing his credibility to soar among his followers.
Seeking to consolidate his alliance, Tecumseh travelled back and forth across the South recruiting the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Cherokee, Creek and Seminole. Throughout his sojourn, a comet flared in the skies overhead, affirming to his listeners that Panther in the Sky was a messenger from the Great Spirit. When the Choctaw spurned his entreaties, Tecumseh warned that he would stamp his foot, causing their villages to fall down in ruin.
He had predicted the New Madrid Earthquake of 1811, the worst cataclysm to strike North America in recorded history, wreaking havoc throughout the South and Midwest, even causing the Mississippi to flow northward for a time. Native Americans everywhere were further energized by these mystical occurrences.
In Tecumseh’s absence, Harrison tricked Tenskwatawa into a frontal battle, resulting in the destruction of Prophetstown and all its supplies. Suffering numerous casualties despite the Prophet’s assurance that the white man’s bullets could not harm them, many lost confidence in Tenskwatawa’s powers and began to wander off. With war brewing between the US and Great Britain, Tecumseh now had no choice but to ally himself with Great Britain.
At the time, Britain was fighting for its survival in a lengthy war against Napoleon Bonaparte. Congressional War Hawks perceived an opportunity to seize Canada while Britain was preoccupied, assuming that Canadians would flock to the US banner, regarding the invaders as liberators. However, with a mere 6,000 regulars to defend such a vast territory, the British were forced to rely upon Canadian and Native American forces, a role that both were eager to fill.
Tecumseh commanded all Native American forces, up to 50,000 men, in return for British promises of a Native American homeland occupying the lands between the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Citing violations of maritime law and accusing the British of inciting the Indians, the US declared war upon Great Britain on June 18, 1812.
Poorly trained and led, US forces were repeatedly defeated at Michilimackinac, Fort Dearborn and along the Niagara River. Tecumseh proved himself a master strategist.
At Detroit, utilizing excellent psychological warfare techniques, Tecumseh convinced the aging General William Hull that he was hopelessly outnumbered, causing him to surrender without firing a shot. Michigan, and parts of Maine, Vermont and New York fell to British and Native American arms. The U.S. Army suffered one of its worst defeats ever at Michigan’s River Raisin. Sadly, Tecumseh was not present to prevent the massacre of POW’s.
Not until the failure to take Ohio’s Fort Meigs after two lengthy sieges, because of British General Henry Proctor’s miscalculations, did Tecumseh’s forces meet their first major defeat. At Meigs, Tecumseh, who always despised torture, intervened to prevent yet another massacre of POW’s and chided Proctor for failing to control his men.
On September 10, 1813, a fierce sea battle raged on the waters of Lake Erie. U.S. Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s fleet triumphed, cutting off Proctor’s lines of supply. Harrison’s army moved northward, retaking Michigan and threatening the British stronghold at Fort Malden, Ontario. Proctor was forced to retreat eastward, leaving Tecumseh’s dwindling forces to fight alone.
The subsequent defeat at Moraviantown on Canada’s River Thames was catastrophic. Having prophesized his own death, Tecumseh was killed in the fighting, spelling the end of his Pan-Indian confederacy and the dream of a permanent homeland for his people.
Within thirty years of the death of Tecumseh, nearly all Native Americans were moved west in a series of forced migrations, the most infamous being the Cherokee Trail of Tears.
Today, however, Tecumseh is remembered as a great hero in Canada, where statues and a commemorative postage stamp honor his memory.