Saturday, April 16, 2016

Tecumseh (1768-1813): The American leader who died defending Canada

Americans all know of the Western American Indians, they're familiar with the names of Crazy Horse (Apache), Geronimo (Lakota Sioux), Sitting Bull (Lakota), Red Cloud (Lakota) but know very little about the most successful Indian chief of all, Tecumseh of the Shawnee, one of the eastern tribes. Tecumseh devoted his life to "pan-tribalism", bringing all the eastern tribes together to sit around one fire. In the Ohio valley, tribes like the Potawatomi and Shawnee and in the South, along rivers like the Chickamauga, the Tennessee, the Coosa, there were the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creeks. Here's a good map of the tribes that inhabited (by the tens of millions) what is now the continental US: 

Tecumseh tried to convince the Indians east of the Mississippi, from the Great Lakes on the Canadian border to the tip of Florida, that the Americans were making empty promises to the Indians that they would be left alone on their treaty lands if they agreed to ever more massive land cessions. Tecumseh was right. There was no intention, ever, of honoring a single one of the treaties, indeed, some were broken within only a few years. Tecumseh stood alone as a man of great courage and honor; he was opposed by treacherous and deceitful men, driven by avarice, convinced that they possessed a divine right to "eminent domain" over the entire continent. In the sense that Tecumseh was unable to convince most of the Indians that they could never trust the word of the white man, Tecumseh was defeated by lies. 

Tecumseh was an example of a leader who didn't fall back on force or authority; but led by courageous example and by magnanimity. He was a truly great man, and any one of us would do well to follow his example today. 

John Sugden wrote, in his excellent biography of Tecumseh (I found a copy in our regional library): 

Tecumseh was at his best in times of danger or crisis. He never considered defeat. His courage was legendary. He was a great warrior. He was also an inspirational orator.

Tecumseh was an old-fashioned Indian chief, who care little for material wealth, but distributed what little he had to the neediest of his followers.

– Tecumseh: A Life
   John Sugden, Henry Holt and Co., 1999

Would you consider yours a life worth living if a biographer, 185 years after your death, wrote such a passage about you? Tecumseh was not interested in fame, glory, wealth or power. Those things would only have debased him. 

Tecumseh has always had hero status here in Canada because it is believed that he saved Canada from the invasion by Americans, led by William Hull, in 1812. Hull began an invasion of Canada on 12 July 1812; but encountered resistance from Indians (led by Tecumseh) and withdrew to Fort Detroit on the American side of the river. [ Siege of Detroit ] The Indians used various strategies to make it seem they had a larger army than they did, and it worked. Hull was convinced that he was surrounded by a greatly superior force of bloodthirsty "savages" sand surrendered Fort Detroit to British general Sir Isaac Brock on August 16, 1812. Hull was a good example of the kind of men who opposed Tecumseh in 1812. When it was learned that Fort Detroit was surrendered without a shot, Hull was court-martialed for cowardice and initially sentenced to be shot to death. 

The defeat of Hull's army at Fort Detroit was a humiliating one for Americans, and it caused the Americans to divert resources from the far more strategic area around Niagara and the St. Lawrence river to the East to retake Fort Detroit. The involvement of the American Indians (on the side of the British in the War of 1812) is credited with having saved Canada from annexation by the United States. 

Tecumseh was killed in battle on October 5, 1813 at the Battle of the River Thames, near Moraviantown in Upper Canada (now called Ontario). 

Tecumseh was an American leader of immense courage.  Long live the memory of Tecumseh!