Tuesday, October 5, 2010

October 5, 1813 – Prophet Dies at Battle of the Thames

As the new nation of the United States spread across North America, their frontiersmen encroached on lands that had belonged to the Native Americans for centuries. While Native Americans were quick to adapt to muskets and rifles, the whites carried a distinguishable technological edge. Smallpox had devastated the Native population, killing as much as ninety percent. The remaining Native Americans, outgunned but not outmatched, often formed confederations such as those of the Iroquois and Cherokee for mutual defense as they had in their own wars.

In the Northwest, Tecumseh (translated as “shooting star” or “panther across the sky) arose as a leader to create a grand confederation west of Ohio. His father had died at the Battle of Point Pleasant in Dunmore’s War between Virginia Militia and the Shawnee and Mingo tribes. Tecumseh himself fought routinely against the growing threat of Kentucky militiamen until finally settling in Ohio with his brother, Tenskwatawa, who would become known as the Prophet. An outbreak of smallpox in 1805 would cause a spiritual revival, and Tenskwatawa would be transformed. He had been a slave to alcoholism, but visions from the Giver of Life caused him to give up drink and preach to others to give up all artificial things of the white man.

With the Prophet as the voice and Tecumseh as the leader, the two began a movement that gathered followers in a return to the peaceful times before the chaos of the whites, said by the Prophet to be children of the Great Serpent. They moved westward into the frontier and away from the menace to what became known as Prophetstown, a village at the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers. While treaties with the white men, specifically Governor of Indiana William Henry Harrison, kept clear which lands were open to settlement and which were Native American, the encroachment continued, causing Tecumseh to speak out. All lands were owned by all Native Americans, and so none could be sold without the agreement of all. He threatened rival leaders and rose to prominence as head of a vast confederation in the Northwest. Traveling south, he tried to bring more tribes into his alliance, but the Five Civilized Tribes notoriously turned him down, with the exception of the Red Sticks of the Creek.

Tecumseh and Harrison met on a number of occasions, but their discussions only led to rising tensions and then Tecumseh’s War. In reality, Tecumseh’s brother had started the war while Tecumseh was on his travels, calling for the death of Harrison and the whites to be driven back east. Harrison led an army to Prophetstown and destroyed the settlement in 1811. While this was a serious blow, Tecumseh returned and rebuilt his confederation, finding new allies in the British as America began the War of 1812.

Taking up with British Major General Henry Procter, Tecumseh and his warriors moved into Ontario, giving defense to Canada as Tecumseh’s nemesis General Harrison marched toward Fort Detroit. The British defense of Lake Erie fell, and Procter began a speedy withdrawal. Tecumseh tried to stop the general, noting the defenseless tribes beyond in Michigan. The troops were poorly geared and in bleak morale, and Harrison took up pursuit, finally catching them at the Thames River.

Tecumseh warmed the men by personally shaking hands with every officer and cheering the troops, both British and his own. Procter, however, neglected proper defense, and the battle would prove to be a foregone rout. Tecumseh’s brother Tenskwatawa made to flee, but Tecumseh stopped him with a hand on the shoulder, saying that the Prophet was needed. While the British retreated, the Native Americans fought on until, keeping nervously close to Tecumseh, the Prophet was killed by a round aimed at his brother.

Seeing the death of the Prophet, Tecumseh gave the call to retreat. The battle ended with an American victory, which they celebrated by burning the nearby village of Moraviantown, populated by the Munsee tribe of Christian Native Americans who had no part of the conflict. With enlistments about to expire, Harrison fell back to Detroit, ending much of the warfare in Michigan.

Tecumseh spent a month alone mourning his brother until he emerged from the woods saying that he, too, had been given a vision by the Giver of Life. The Prophet had perished, but he lived on in the next world and would continue to give his words of freedom from the white man’s grasp. Tactically, the battle was a defeat for the Native Americans and their British allies, but it would be a strategic victory as word spread of the Prophet’s death. Coupled with fear inspired by the attack on Moraviantown, Tecumseh’s confederation grew to include nearly all of the Native Americans of the Northwest.

As the war turned against the Americans with British sea-raids and the solid defense of Canada, the southern natives joined in the attack. General Andrew Jackson became famous as a fighter of Creeks, which stalled his march toward New Orleans. When the War of 1812 ended with the British, Tecumseh and Harrison met to discuss what both hoped would be a long-lasting treaty between the US and the Indian Confederacy. Borders were drawn, and Tecumseh led his people in a unified defense on the western frontier of the white man’s America. Native warriors were trained as militia, and white tactics were studied.

The peace continued for over a decade with border squabbles settled by reparations. When Jackson ascended the presidency, however, the burgeoning white pressure to settle erupted into the Great Indian War. Guerilla warfare would drag on for years, solidifying hatred between the two races, but the eventual upper hand would go to the Americans. Tribes would be pushed to the northwest, causing an evacuation of the South known as the Trail of Tears. With final mediation by the British, a new country later to be called Tecumseh was founded west of the Great Lakes, serving to settle President Polk’s border question.

Shortly after the treaty, Tecumseh began the exodus to where his bones would be buried, and the country would settle and prosper. Using British and American political powers to balance one another, the Native Americans would keep pressure up to prevent the encroachment of settlers that had always plagued them. As the Industrial Revolution crept westward, they would become a wealthy land of mines, foundries, and factories in addition to farms, dairies, and orchards. Periodic struggles in the latter nineteenth century would threaten them with extinction, but well regulated militias kept the borders sound.

In the twentieth century, a sort of friendship would start up between Tecumseh and their white neighbors as Americans became fascinated with Native goods, particularly their automobiles. In World War II, Tecumseh would prove a strong ally, producing munitions for the American war effort. After the war, Native industry would begin to decline as cheaper employment could be found internationally. The economic slide spurred renewed internal struggles and interest in the Old Ways, many of which became mirrored with communism. The Cold War brought distrust of Red Tecumseh, which became a land struggling with poverty under the growing political influence of the United States. Many Native Americans have even called for annexation, but they remain a minority.

In reality, Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames. The Prophet had fled, but he would never regain a position in leadership. He went on to assist the United States with the removal of the Shawnee, settling them at a village that would later become Kansas City, Kansas, where he would die in 1836.

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