“These Lands Are Ours …”

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In its issue of December 2, 1820, the Indiana Centinel of Vincennes, Indiana, published a letter praising a late and much-hated enemy, “Every schoolboy in the Union now knows that Tecumseh was a great man,” it read. “He was truly great—and his greatness was his own, unassisted by science or the aids of education. As a statesman, a warrior and a patriot, take him all in all, we shall not look upon his like again.”

Seven years earlier, frontier communities throughout the territory of the Old Northwest had exulted over the death of the “yaller devil” who had tried to bar white men from the rich lands north of the Ohio River. But with the disappearance of danger, thoughtful citizens, like the Centinel ’s correspondent, had at last begun to realize that a native of soaring greatness had been in their midst. Along the waterways and dirt roads of Ohio and Indiana, settlers who still shuddered with memories of the warfare that had wrested the region from the Indians talked of Tecumseh with admiration, and agreed with the verdict of their own hero, General William Henry Harrison, who had led them against the war chief. Tecumseh, Harrison had reported to Washington, was “one of those uncommon geniuses, which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things. If it were not for the vicinity of the United States, he would perhaps be the founder of an Empire that would rival in glory that of Mexico or Peru.”

Today, 150 years after his death, Tecumseh, as made clear by Glenn Tucker, his most recent and ablest biographer, still looms as the greatest native leader in the long, tragic resistance of the Indians of the United States. A brilliant orator and warrior and a brave and distinguished patriot of his people, he was intelligent, learned, and wise, and was noted, even among his white enemies, for his integrity and humanity. But, unlike all previous native leaders, he looked beyond the mere resistance by a tribe or group of tribes to white encroachments; and here lay his unique greatness. He was a Shawnee, but he considered himself an Indian first, and fought to give all Indians a national, rather than a tribal, consciousness, and to unite them in defense of a common homeland where all might continue to dwell under their own laws and leaders.

In modern days, world opinion which endorses the right of self-determination of peoples might have supported before the United Nations his dream of a country of, by, and for Indians. But the crisis he faced came too early in history, and he failed. His failure meant considerably more than that the main theater of his struggle, Indiana (originally “the country of Indians”), became a white rather than an Indian state. It threw all the tribes back upon their separate resources, as they had been since the beginning of their conflict with white men, and re-established a pattern in which individual tribes or regional confederacies sought hopelessly to cope alone with the invaders. More important, it ended for all time the possibility that an Indian free state or nation might be created within territory won or purchased by the United States from other white governments.

Tecumseh’s story was a tragedy, for in the end it was a white man’s war between the United States and Great Britain that obscured his nationalist cause and made the Americans feel that they were merely fighting a military auxiliary of their enemies. The true nature of his struggle was apparent only after his death, but before that day, his uncompromising leadership, fiery courage, and tireless energy brought the Indians startingly close to victory.

Tecumseh was born in March, 1768, in one of the villages that formed a large, straggling settlement of Indian wigwams and bark cabins called Old Piqua on the bluffs above Ohio’s Mad River, northeast of present-day Dayton. His father, a Shawnee war chief named Puckeshinwa, was a proud, intelligent man who had been born in Florida, and his mother, Methoataske, probably a Creek Indian, was from eastern Alabama. Their birthplaces, far from Ohio, reflected the long, nomadic history of the Shawnees. Their restless, confused wanderings, marked by numerous alliances with other tribes and constant guerilla warfare against advancing whites, had made them more conscious than most natives of the similarity and urgency of the racial struggles being waged against the settlers on many different fronts. To them, the major enemies of all Indians were the English colonists, and from the time of the French and Indian War, when they sided with the French, they were in constant conflict with frontier settlers and with punitive English and colonial expeditions that were sent against them. After the American Revolution, their great numbers and continued resistance made them a prime target of the settlers.

Two events of his childhood and youth intensified Tecumseh’s personal animosity toward the white invaders. One was the brutal murder of his father by frontiersmen near Old Piqua, though by treaty they were forbidden to come north of the Ohio. This episode filled Tecumseh with horror and hate, and he resolved to become a warrior like his father and be “a fire spreading over the hill and valley, consuming the race of dark souls.” Then, a few years later, white men also treacherously murdered Cornstalk, a Shawnee war leader, who had become the youth’s idol.