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Stoking the Fires – The Rise of Tecumseh

In 1809 James Madison became the President of the United States.  He was focused on expanding his territory north to the Pole and this made his northern neighbours a bit nervous.  To make things worse, the 1810 elections saw a substantial group of so-called War Hawk politicians sent to Congress.  Things were looking bad.

Meantime, also in the U.S., settlers were pushing westward and with the help of the military, they were pushing the native Indians ahead of them.   The Indians were equipped with firearms and the settlers blamed the British for arming the Indians and inciting them to fight the Americans.  This was, of course, a self-serving excuse to deflect blame from themselves for invading the Indian lands.  It was true that the Indians did acquire a few muskets through normal trade, mostly with the American agents, as the British forces in North America were so poorly equipped that they had no surplus guns to give to Indians.  But that did not stop the charges from inflaming the American population.

In 1810, the American government “purchased” about three million acres of Indian lands.  It was a controversial deal because the purchase was made from a tribe that did not “own” all the land.  Tecumseh was the charismatic leader of the Shawnee peoples in the U.S.  His tribe, amongst others, opposed the deal.  He said about the deal:

“No tribe has the right to sell, 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 way, 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.” We gave them forest-clad mountains and valleys full of game, and in return what did they give our warriors and our women? Rum, trinkets, and a grave. Brothers — My people wish for peace; the red men all wish for peace; but where the white people are, there is no peace for them, except it be on the bosom of our mother. Where, today, are the Pequot? Where, today, are the Narrangansett, the Mohican, the Pakanoket, and many other once powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and the oppression of the White Man, as snow before a summer sun.”

Hoping to be able to halt the westward migration of the settlers, Tecumseh drew together an Indian confederacy that would be strong enough to resist the white men.  He travelled as far south as Tennessee pleading for and demanding assistance from the other tribes.  In the meantime, his brother, a medicine man known as the Prophet, was teaching a return to the old ways and giving up the habits and customs they had learned from the white men.

In 1811, disturbed by the potential hostility of the Indians, Governor Harrison of the Indiana Territory sent for troops and called out his militiamen. Determined to take a firm grip on the situation, he marched with a thousand men in the direction of the Prophet’s village on the Tippecanoe River. Contact was made by the militia with the Indians and arrangements were completed for a sit-down. Unfortunately, the Prophet decided to attack the American camp while the troops were sleeping, During the ensuing battle the Indians were routed and the village burned.

Tecumseh returned from his southern trip to find the village in ruins, his warriors scattered and his brother making weak excuses for the defeat. Tecumseh was so angry that he shook the Prophet by the hair of his head. Years of careful planning and organization had gone up in smoke.

Early in June 1812, Tecumseh, accompanied by a small group of his followers, left the Indiana territory and joined the British at Amherstburg, on the Canadian side of the Detroit River.  The War of 1812 was about to begin.