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“… I Will Stamp On The Ground With My Foot And Shake Down Every House …”
THUS SPAKE THE GREAT INDIAN CHIEF TECUMSEH, PREDICTING— SOME BELIEVED—THE SERIES OF VIOLENT EARTHQUAKES THAT STRUCK THE MIDWEST IN THE WINTER OF 1811–12
December 1975 | Volume 27, Issue 1
James Mooney, in his book The Ghost-Dance Religion, recounts the story of Tecumseh’s prediction, made in a speech to the Creeks at the town of Tukabachi, on the Tallapoosa River, near the present site of Montgomery, Alabama:
“Your blood is white. You have taken my talk, and the sticks, and the wampum, and the hatchet, but you do not mean to light. I know the reason. You do not believe the Great Spirit has sent me. You shall know. I leave Tuckhabatchee directly, and shall go straight to Detroit. When I arrive there, I will stamp on the ground with my foot and shake down every house in Tuckhabatchee.” So saying, he turned and left the Big Warrior in utter amazement at both his manner and his threat, and pursued his journey. The Indians were struck no less with his conduct than was the Big Warrior, and began to dread the arrival of the day when the threatened calamity would befall them. They met often and talked over this matter, and counted the days carefully to know the day when Tecumthé would reach Detroit. The morning they had lixed upon as the day of his arrival at last came. A mighty rumbling was heard—the Indians all ran out of their houses—the earth began to shake; when at last, sure enough, every house in Tuckhabatchee was shaken down. The exclamation was in every mouth, “Tecumthé has got to Detroit!” The effect was electric. The message he had delivered to the Big Warrior was believed, and many of the Indians took their rifles and prepared for the war. … It was the famous earthquake of New Madrid on the Mississippi.
While Tecumseh was away William Henry Harrison marched with an army against the chief’s principal base at Prophet’s Town. The battle of Tippecanoe in November was a stand-off, with enormous losses on both sides, but the slain Indian warriors were irreplaceable. Tecumseh continued his travels, unaware that his military power was already broken. Harrison claimed the victory, but ignorance of the whereabouts of Tecumseh and the battle’s inconclusive character left the border jittery. These events mingled strangely with the earthquakes.
After the shocks of December the inhabitants of New Madrid were told by an Indian in the vicinity that the Prophet had “caused the earthquake to destroy the whites.” Even without such reminders, for some whites the onslaught of the first shock brought immediate thought of the Indian menace and the fear of retribution. According to one witness on a flatboat forty miles below New Madrid, who gave one of several such descriptions:
The first shock took plnce in the night, while the boat was lying at the shore in company with several others. At this period there was danger apprehended from the southern Indians, it being soon after the battle of Tippecanoe. and for safety several boats kept in company. … In the middle of the night there was a terrible shock and jarring of the boats, so that the crews were ail awakened and hurried on deck with their weapons … thinking the Indians were rushing on board. …
Tecumseh clearly recognized the potential usefulness of the earthquakes for his purposes. The white captive John Dunn Hunter recalled his speech as he moved among the Osages on his return trip from the South early in 1812, still ignorant of Tippecanoe:
Brothers …The Great Spirit is angry with our enemies; he speaks in thunder, and the earth swallows up villages, and drinks up the Mississippi. The great waters will cover their lowlands; their corn cannot grow; and the Great Spirit will sweep those who escape to the hills from the earth with his terrible breath.
These words also reached forward in time, expressing an “eschatological vision,” in the words of Hunter’s able editor, Richard Drinnon, that “was a direct anticipation of the Ghost Dance religion decades later.” James Mooney demonstrated long ago that the Ghost Dance doctrine of Wovoka and Sitting Bull was “only the latest of a series of Indian religious revivals” reaching back more than a century and rooted in a dream of redemption “common to all humanity” vhen “crushed and groaning beneath an alien yoke.” The Day of Judgment, made so immediate for many whites by the earthquakes, had its counterpart among Indians who shared in the great religious revival of their time. For Tecumseh, a genuine Arthurian figure in this catastrophic tradition, the earthquakes were a signal that the Great Spirit had finally taken a decisive hand in the affairs of his people. The Indian-White Armageddon was at hand.
George Morgan’s town never became a great metropolis, the rival of any city in the world; instead its fate was to give its name to the catastrophe that destroyed its hopes. Perhaps because they were so soon forgotten in the rush of events, the earthquakes inspired few pieces of creative literature, one of them an epic poem by Henry Schoolcraft, later a leading expert on Indians. The poem, entitled Transallegania, or the Groans of Missouri (1820), is interesting, nonetheless, because it too seized on the theme of retribution for the usurper. In this fanciful account the vast tide of immigration to the West aroused the ire of the King of the Metals, who called all his subjects, the ores and minerals of the earth, to a council in a subterranean chamber to consult on a course of action. The debate became noisy and heated: