No Indian's name is more inseparably linked to the history of Indiana than that of "Tecumseh," and none is more familiar to American readers, but it is remarkable how little is definitely known about this celebrated man.
As to his death, there are three conflicting accounts, each verified by the statements of alleged eye-witnesses. As to his birth, McKenney and Hall give a romantic story of his descent from the daughter of an English Governor of Georgia or South Carolina, who took a fancy to marry a Creek warrior; but the historians of those States do not mention this unusual event, and Benjamin Drake, from whom McKenney and Hall state they had their information, says that this story was concocted by the Prophet to give importance to his family.
Drake probably is right in his statement that Tecumtha was born at the old Shawnee town of Piqua, on Mad River, Ohio ; that his father was Puck-e-shin'-wau (something that drops), a Shawnee of the Kiscopoke clan, and that his mother was Me-tho-a-tas'-ke, Shawnee of the Turtle totem. Her name signifies a turtle laying eggs in the sand.
But Drake says the name is properly "Tecumtha," and that it means "a shooting star." Other authorities say it means "a comet," "a panther leaping on its prey," and "an obstacle in the path." Frank A. Thackery, superintendent and agent at Shawnee, Okla., writes to me: "The proper pronunciation of this name is Te-cum-tha, with the accent sometimes on the first syllable and sometimes on the last, depending on the way in which the word is used. The meaning of the word in the Shawnee language is 'going crossways,' and it is used in the sense of a person crossing your path for the purpose of disputing your passage."
Other Indian authorities give it as "crossing over," "going across," "flying over," any of which explains the origin of the commonly given meanings. Gatschet conjectured that these meanings might be references to the fact that Tecumtha belonged to the Man-e-tu'-wi-mis-si-pis'-si or Spirit Panther totem. Figuratively this totem stands for a meteor or a comet.
There is little truth in the common ideas of the cause of Tecumtha's hostility. He was a warrior, but he was not like the defiant Seminole who is supposed to have said : "
I battle for the love I have
To see the white man fall."
Tecumtha was also a statesman, and his chief end in life was to prevent a wrong to his people. The cause of this originated in the treaty of Greenville. At that time General Wayne forced the assembled tribes to accept a boundary line which gave most of Ohio to the whites and threw the Ohio tribes back into Indiana. The Ohio Indians — Wyandots, Ottawas, Six Nations of Sandusky, Delawares and Shawnees — unanimously asked General Wayne to divide the land between the several tribes. They said, in a formal address, as shown by our own official records, "We wish to inform you of the impropriety of not fixing the bounds of every nation's rights; for, the manner it now lies in, would bring on disputes forever between the different tribes of Indians, and we wish to be by ourselves, that we may be acquainted how far we might extend our claims, that no one may intrude on us, nor we upon them."
But General Wayne declined to do this, and with remarkable disregard of the point of the request said : "You Indians best know your respective boundaries," and urged them : "Let no nation or nations invade, molest or disturb any other nation or nations in the hunting grounds they have heretofore been accustomed to live and hunt upon, within the boundary which shall now be agreed on."
This decision they were forced to accept, and therefore the Ohio Indians were thrown back among the more Western tribes without having any lands set off for them. They mixed largely with the Indian tribes, many of the Delawares and Shawnees making their homes in the hitherto unoccupied parts of southern Indiana, but they advanced the theory that under the new arrangement the land belonged to all the tribes in common, and this was generally accepted.
In 1802 Governor Harrison wrote: "There appears to be an agreement amongst them that no proposition which relates to their lands can be acceded to without the consent of all the tribes."
But the only treaty in which he undertook to get this general consent was the one of June 7, 1803, and its cessions of land were very slight — four miles square at the salt springs in southeastern Illinois, and four tracts each one mile square on the roads from Vincennes to Kaskaskia and Clarksville, for the location of taverns.
In return for this the United States was to distribute 150 bushels of salt annually among all the tribes, and to give free ferriage to all of the Indians at the ferries that might be established on these roads. This treaty was signed by three Shawnees, but in no other of Harrison's treaties did any Shawnee join, or any Wyandot, or any Ohio Delaware, and apparently they were not consulted at all, although by 1806 he had negotiated five other treaties for the cession of about 46,000 square miles of land in Illinois and southern Indiana.
These treaties were made with the "chiefs and head warriors" of various tribes, and four of them had only five Indian signers each. It was these treaties that raised the wrath of Tecumtha and his sympathizers, for not only did none of the Ohio Indians consent to them, but none received any part of the compensation, although the Indiana and Illinois Indians had shared equally in the compensation at the treaty of Greenville. It was clear that the Shawnees and other Ohio Indians were being shut out entirely; and when the treaties of 1809 were made, by which 3,000,000 acres were added to the cessions, Tecumtha became defiant and said that these treaties should not be carried into effect.
It was then that Tecumtha came to Vincennes and had his dramatic interview with General Harrison. He came to Vincennes on August 12, 1810, with a retinue of 75 warriors, and for several days there were interviews and councils between him and Governor Harrison. On the 20th an open- air council was in progress before the Governor's residence. Tecumtha made a long speech in which he urged that the treaties had been made by but few people, and that they had no right to dispose of the common heritage. He threatened vengeance on the chiefs who had signed the treaties if they were not rescinded, and he charged Harrison with having incited the trouble. He said :
"It is you that are pushing them on to do mischief. You endeavor to make distinctions. You wish to prevent the Indians to do as we wish them, to unite and let them consider their lands as the common property of the whole. You take tribes aside and advise them not to come into this measure; and until our design is accomplished we do not wish to accept your invitation to go and see the President. The reason I tell you this is, you want, by your distinctions of Indian tribes, in allotting to each a particular tract of land, to make them to war with each other. You never see an Indian come and endeavor to make the white people do so. You are continually driving the red people ; when, at last, you will drive them into the great lake, where they can't either stand or work." He declared that the warriors represented the will of the Indians, and that unless the treaties were rescinded he would call a great council of the tribes to deal with the treaty chiefs.
At the close of his speech Governor Harrison began to reply. He was dwelling on the uniform justice which the United States had shown in its dealings with the Indians, when Tecumtha sprang to his feet and denounced the statement as untrue, and charged that Harrison and the United States had cheated and imposed on the Indians. With defiant gesticulation he said to the interpreter, Barron, "Tell him he lies." Barron hesitated and sought to soften the expression, but Tecumtha reiterated, "No, no. Tell him he lies." But the stir interrupted the proceedings. Several of the warriors arose and stood in a threatening attitude. General Gibson, Secretary of the Territory, who understood the Shawnee language, directed Lieutenant Jennings to advance with the guard of twelve men, who had stood at a little distance. As soon as order was restored Tecumtha's words were translated, and Governor Harrison indignantly reproached him for his conduct, and ordered him to return to his camp, saying that the council fire was extinguished and he would hold no further communication with him. Abashed by this firm stand, the Indians sullenly withdrew.
With cooling time, Tecumtha realized that he had made a diplomatic blunder. In the morning Barron visited him in his camp, and found him very desirous of a further inter-, view and an amicable settlement. Governor Harrison consented to the interview on condition that Tecumtha would apologize for his insult, and in the afternoon the council was resumed. With perfect dignity, but in a respectful manner, Tecumtha disclaimed any intention to offer insult, and explained that he had perhaps been misinformed as to the sentiments of the white people, who, he had been told, were divided in their opinion as to the treaties ; but he said he knew they already had more land than they could use, "as he had sent some of his men to reconnoiter the settlements, and had found that the lands towards the Ohio were not settled at all." Governor Harrison then asked him to state explicitly - whether the Kickapoos would accept their annuities under the late treaty, and whether the surveyors who might be sent to run the boundary line, under the treaty of 1809, would be interfered with. To this Tecumtha responded that he was authorized to say that the Kickapoos would not accept their annuities; and, as to the boundaries, "I want the present boundary line to continue. Should you cross it, I assure you it will be productive of bad consequences." The council was then brought to a close.
On the next day, Governor Harrison, accompanied only by Barron, visited Tecumtha's camp, where he was politely received, and another long interview was held, but without different result. Tecumtha restated his position, and when Governor Harrison assured him that his claims would never be admitted by the President, he replied:
"Well, as the great chief is to determine the matter, I hope the Great Spirit will put sense enough into his head to induce him to direct you to give up the land. It is true, he is so far off he will not be injured by the war. He may sit still in his 'town, and drink his wine, while you and I will have to fight it out."
This closed the conferences of 1810, but, in June, 1811, Governor Harrison sent a message to Tecumtha and The Prophet, warning them of the consequences of hostilities. To this Tecumtha replied, protesting that no hostilities were intended, and saying that he would come to Vincennes in hope of a peaceable adjustment of all differences. In July the Indians began to assemble about twenty miles north of Vincennes, and when Tecumtha joined them they numbered about 300, of whom one-tenth were women and children. This gathering caused apprehension, and Governor Harrison sent a message disapproving it. Tecumtha replied that he had only twenty-four men in his party, and "the rest had come of their own accord; but that everything should be settled to the satisfaction of the Governor, on his arrival at Vincennes." To be prepared for any emergency, the militia of the county, amounting to 750 men, were called out, and guards were stationed about the town.
It was charged, and generally believed by the whites, that Tecumtha contemplated treachery. At this time about the only friends the Indians had in southern Indiana were the Shakers, who had a settlement some fifteen miles north of Vincennes. They had a mission to the Shawnees in 1807, and apparently were on much the same friendly terms with the Indians as the Quakers have usually been. The Indians who accompanied Tecumtha assembled near their settlement. One of the leading Shakers made this record:
"These were trying times with us. We had use for all the wisdom and patience we possessed. These hungry creatures were about us nearly three weeks, singing and dancing to the Great Spirit. Some of the time there were upward of two hundred, all peaceable, showed no abuse to any one, would drink no whiskey, and never to our knowledge took to the value of one cucumber without leave. Nor could we discover in them the least hostile symptoms, still declaring their innocence, grieved that the people would not believe them — saying to the people: 'Look, see our squaws and children. We do not go to war so. We only come here because the Governor sent for us.' But notwithstanding all this the people moved into forts and into town, bag and baggage, all around us. Oh, how often did my soul cry out within me, Lord, God ! What can ail this people ? Surely the prophecy of Esdras is fulfilled upon them. Wit has hid itself from them, and understanding withdrawn itself into its secret chamber."
But whether treachery was meditated or not, Tecumtha was resolute in his opposition to the treaties. It was a hopeless situation. On the one side Tecumtha contended for the same principle that we maintained in the civil war — that the Indian lands belonged to all the Indians in common and that no one tribe could dispose of any part of it without the consent of all the tribes. On the other hand, Governor Harrison held, as he stated to the next Legislature:
"Are then the extinguishments of native title, which are at once so beneficial to the Indian, the Territory and the United States, to be suspended on the account of the intrigues of a few individuals? Is one of the fairest portions of the globe to remain in a state of nature, the haunt of a few wretched savages, when it seems destined by the Creator to give support to a large population, and to be the seat of civilization, of science, and of true religion ?"
But the existence of these two theories on a frontier, even without formal war, meant trouble. There were scarcely any Indian hostilities in the Northwest from the treaty of Greenville until 1803, but in the decade following southern Indiana was the scene of many a bloody tragedy. Prowling bands of warriors fell on defenseless settlers, killing men and carrying women and children captive. And many of the whites did not hesitate to kill an Indian at any favorable opportunity, without regard to his hostile or peaceable attitude.
The danger was so great and so constant that the territorial authorities caused blockhouses to be built at various points, and maintained companies of rangers, who patrolled the established lines of travel to protect immigrants. It was Indiana's notable period of border warfare, and when it ended the white man's theory was triumphant — established by blood and steel.
Tecumtha did not live to see the end, but he never gave up his cherished hope. It was not without reason that he charged Governor Harrison with trying to make war between the Indian tribes, for the Governor's policy alienated the Indiana tribes from Tecumtha. They received the annuities and other compensation for the lands, whose sale he opposed, and there were very few of them in arms against the Americans, either at Tippecanoe or in the war of 1812.
Realizing that his forces were not sufficient for successful war, disappointed repeatedly in his efforts to secure Indian allies, he hailed with joy the advent of war with the British and enrolled with them. One can easily imagine the chagrin with which he saw these allies being driven back by the Americans, and can understand the bitterness of his speech to General Proctor at Malden, when the latter was preparing to retreat. His life-long dream came back as he begged Proctor to turn the arms and ammunition over to the Indians and let them stay and fight.
"Listen," said Tecumtha, "when war was declared our Father stood up and gave us the tomahawk, and told us that he was then ready to fight and strike the Americans — that he wanted our assistance and that we would certainly get our land back that the Americans had taken from us. * * * Father, you have the arms and ammunition which our Great Father sent for his red children. If you have an idea of going away, give them to us. You may go, and welcome. Our lives are in the hands of the Great Spirit. We are determined to defend our land, and if it be His will, we wish to leave our bones upon it."
And undoubtedly he went into the battle of the Thames with that feeling — with the conviction that the supreme hour had come when all must be won or lost, and gave his life as the crowning sacrifice of his life's effort.
And yet this concession of Tecumtha's honesty of purpose is no reflection on Governor Harrison, but only a presentation of the different point of view. Harrison always warmly resented every charge of unfairness on his part. At the treaty of 1814, he was especially urgent that the Indians should point out any matter in which he had ever deceived them or done them injustice.
At that time Harrison said as to Tecumtha's position : "
After the treaty was made the Prophet and his brother, who had no right to participate in it, began to propagate the principle that the whole of the lands on this continent were the common property of all the tribes and that no sale could take place or would be valid unless all the tribes were parties to it. This idea is so absurd and so new, too, that it could never be admitted by the Seventeen Fires, either on their own account or on that of the tribes who live near to them and whose rights they have guaranteed ; and you all know, for you were present at the discussion between Tecumseh and myself, on the subject of those lands, that this was the only claim he was able or ever attempted to set up."
Very true. Tecumtha offered a claim that was of no value under our laws, but under this construction the Ohio Indians were the only ones who ever surrendered their old homes to our Government without receiving some territory that they might call their own, elsewhere. Under it they were made absolutely homeless, except as they might be tolerated by the other tribes.
It is not strange that they did not take this view, nor that they protested against it. Looking back now, it is not hard to do them this justice. Indeed, when contemplating such a life as Tecumtha's, one may easily sympathize with the sentiment of Wendell Phillips as to the Indian:
"Neither Greece, nor Germany, nor the French, nor the Scotch, can show a prouder record. And instead of searing it over with infamy and illustrated epithets, the future will recognize it as a glorious record of a race that never melted out and never died away, but stood up manfully, man by man, foot by foot, and fought it out for the land God gave him against the world, which seemed to be poured out over him. I love the Indian, because there is something in the soil and climate that made him that is fated, in the thousand years that are coming, to mold us."
There are few Americans who have not accorded admiration to Tecumtha's manly character, but perhaps none has paid higher tribute than Charles A. Jones, the Cincinnati poet, in whose poem to "Tecumseh, the Last King of the Ohio," occur these stanzas :
Art thou a patriot? — so was he — His breast was Freedom's holiest shrine ;
And as thou bendest there thy knee, His spirit will unite with thine; All that a man can give, he. gave —
His life — the country of his sires From the oppressor's grasp to save — In vain — quenched are his nation's fires.
Oh, softly fall the summer dew, The tears of Heaven upon his sod, For he in life and death was true,
Both to his country and his God ; For, oh, if God to man has given,
From his bright home beyond the skies One feeling that's akin to Heaven, 'Tis his who for his country dies.
Source:True Indian Stories By Jacob Piatt Dunn 1908
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