Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa

The Northwest Territories, and the New Frontier More or less without Ohio, this was the same land the British wanted to sequester as a new Native American State. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons.

War Hawk ideals were also driven by less noble concerns than impressment, including an open hunger for lands currently occupied by the British supported Native American tribes in the northwest. For the British, the choice to back many of these tribes was simply a practical one that gave them easy access to the lucrative fur trade. Since the days of the 13 colonies they had even drawn up plans for creating a Native American state along the western border of the colonies. The British still nurtured this hope as a buffer along their Canadian boundary, and had maps drawn up including pretty much everything the Americans called the Northwest Territory as their intended new country.[1] It was also another great way to needle and hamstring the Americans, and the British had even kept troops posted on the wrong side of the Canadian border into the 1790’s as a deterrent.

Tecumseh Brent Lossing
“Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mochican, the Pocanet, and other powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, and their graves turned into plowed fields?” — Tecumseh, 1811 Painting by Brent Lossing

Though many of the tribes had resisted overtures from British agents, by the War of 1812 they finally had a firm ally of convenience lined up. The Shawnee Chief Tecumseh had a major chip on his shoulder where the Americans were concerned. He had been a part of the Wabash Confederacy, formed to resist early American inroads into the Northwest Territory from 1785-95. The Confederacy had actually crushed the first American army sent against them at the Battle of the Wabash River in 1791, killing or capturing almost the entire thousand man continental force thrown at them. It had startled the new President Washington into declaring “we are in an actual war!”, in case historians needed another reason to dislike the racial politics of America’s founding fathers.

Unfortunately the Confederacy was too divided between hardliners like Tecumseh who wanted to press the war and others who wanted to negotiate a peace from a position of strength. By the time the war resumed in earnest, a larger American army under the command of “Mad” Anthony Wayne arrived and defeated the Wabash at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. The resulting treaty formally ceded much of Ohio to the Americans, and left Tecumseh feeling that his enemies respected nothing but force. A few years he discovered just how right he was, as United States agent William Henry Harrison began negotiating a new “treaty” to push the tribes out of modern Indiana.

Harrison was adept at playing the tribes off of one another. Using the few who would initially come to terms as a means of driving a wedge between any would be confederacy, along with a healthy dose of bribery, he quickly negotiated the Treaty of Fort Wayne that would force the native groups off of 3 million square acres around the Wabash River, a place he called “one of the fairest portions of the globe”.[2] Tecumseh had a very different take on the treaty,

No tribe has the right to sell land, even to each other, much less to strangers…Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Didn’t the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?…the only way to stop this evil is for the red man to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was first, and should be now, for it was never divided.[3]

Shawnee_Prophet,_Tenskwatawa Charles Bird King
Tenskwatawa. He sadly outlived his brother, but never regained influence after Tippecanoe. Painting by Charles Bird King.

As is the case when any culture faces an existential crisis, the Shawnee experienced a deep spiritual revival. Tecumseh’s younger brother Tenskwatawa spearheaded a call for the return to the old ways as the path to victory. He urged renunciation of European firearms, clothing, and Christianity, and called on the Shawnee and other tribes to purge the lands of the European scourge. The message was a powerful draw, and by 1810 Tecumseh had the nexus of the new Iroquois Confederacy under his command. Unlike his brother, Tecumseh was an able politician and speaker, and he quickly layered on a strategy over Tenskwatawa’s more religious call to arms. However, the revival was cut violently short by Harrison.

At the battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, Harrison’s men surrounded Tecumseh’s fall village while the Shawnee chief was away. Though Tenskwatawa launched a daring surprise attack, his men couldn’t break the larger American force, and Harrison soon burned Tecumseh’s winter food supplies.[4] The battle shattered Tenskwatawa’s image as a faith leader, and left Tecumseh struggling to hold the Iroquois together. Though the U.S. War Hawks made no effort to understand the legitimate grievances of the Native Americans and blamed the British for inciting Tecumseh, in truth he had actually resisted British aid until then. Tecumseh’s goal had been a truly self sufficient confederacy, and now that this was out of reach, he cast his lot in with the British in a war that was clearly just around the corner.

[1] Needless to say, no one had really consulted any of the tribal leaders about this new “nation” of theirs. Briefly in 1791 after the Wabash were on the rise, the British openly toyed with the idea, but the war with France forced them to table it and try to play nice.

[2] Borneman. 2004. 1812: The War that Forged a nation.

[3] Laxer, J. 2014. Tecumseh & Brock: The War of 1812

[4] He would later leverage this technical victory into a successful bid to become the shortest term president in history.


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