- Historic Sites
“These Lands Are Ours …”
Only Tecumseh came close to uniting the warring tribes, but his British allies and his less visionary people failed him
August 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 5
A couple of days later, over Tecumseh’s objection, Procter lifted the siege of Fort Meigs. The Indian leader was disgusted and two months later forced the British commander to surround the post once more. But Procter was weak and indecisive, and soon afterward he again abandoned the attempt to take the American fort. As opportunities continued to slip away from Procter, the Indians lost faith in his leadership. Finally, on September 13, disaster struck them all in a naval battle on Lake Erie. At Put-in Bay, an American fleet under Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry swept the British from the lake, and cut off Procter’s army from its eastern supply bases.
Aware of his isolation and fearing Harrison, who was now beginning to move against him with a heavily reinforced army, the British commander decided to abandon the Detroit region and withdraw along the northern shore of Lake Erie to join other English troops on the Niagara frontier, leaving the Indians to shift for themselves.
Procter’s duplicity inflamed Tecumseh. Gathering his Indians together on the Fort Malden parade ground, he humiliated the British commander in front of the other white officers, told the natives that the English were flying from the enemy, and later called Procter “a miserable old squaw.”
That same day, Procter began his withdrawal, and in time Tecumseh and his Indians were forced to follow him. The Shawnee was crushed. He had managed to wring from the British general a promise to retreat only as far as the Thames River, about fifty miles away, but as the natives trooped off, leaving behind them the country Tecumseh had worked so hard and so long to save for his people, the chief’s spirits flagged, and he was overcome with gloom. “We are now going to follow the British,” he told one of his warriors, “and I feel certain that we shall never return.”
On September 27, Harrison’s army crossed Lake Erie to Canada and commenced its pursuit of the British. Procter led the retreating army. Tecumseh with the Indians, including a band of Sioux from far-off Minnesota, brought up the rear, holding off advance units of the Americans while denouncing Procter for refusing to stand and fight.
On the night of October 4, he went into camp with the British near the present town of Thamesville, a short distance up the Thames River. They had now reached the line that Procter had promised to hold. But that night, as if he had accepted the final defeat of everything he had lived and fought for, Tecumseh had a premonition of death. As he sat by his fire with his closest Indian lieutenants, all of them men who had followed him loyally for years, he said calmly: “Brother warriors, we are about to enter an engagement from which I shall not return. My body will remain on the field of battle.”
The next morning, Procter again wanted to retreat, and Tecumseh had another bitter quarrel with him, this time threatening to shoot him with a rifle. Finally, the British commander agreed to honor his promise and make a stand at their present location. But it was Tecumseh, the Indian, who suddenly became the leader of the entire army. While Procter issued faint-hearted orders to his British and Canadian units, Tecumseh selected a defensive position where the main highway ran between the Thames River and a wooded swamp. Organizing the field of combat, the Shawnee placed the British in a line across the highway, with the river and swamp protecting the left and right flanks respectively. On the other side of the swamp, he divided the Indians into two groups, putting one of them under his own command as an extension of the British line, and placing the other in a larger swamp that paralleled the highway, and from which the warriors could sweep the road with flanking fire.
As the British and Indians took their positions, Tecumseh hunted up Procter and, in a forgiving mood, tried to reassure him. “Father,” he said, “have a big heart! Tell your young men to be firm and all will be well.” Then the Indian moved along the British line, inspecting the positions of the men and pausing to raise their spirits with friendly words. “He pressed the hand of each officer as he passed,” a British major related after the battle. “[He] made some remark in Shawnee—which was sufficiently understood by the expressive signs accompanying, and then passed away forever from our view.”
At four in the afternoon the Americans appeared down the road. Harrison’s force of 3,500 troops included 1,500 mounted Kentuckians under Colonel Richard Johnson, and two infantry divisions. Against him were 700 British troops and slightly more than 1,000 Indians. Harrison had scouted the English positions and decided to attack with his cavalrymen, sending the infantry after them in close support. As a bugle sounded the charge, Johnson’s Kentuckians galloped forward, shouting “Remember the River Raisin.” Johnson himself led one battalion against Tecumseh’s Indians and sent the rest of his men toward the British lines, which were barring the road. Those horsemen smashed headlong into the English units, and the terrified British gave way at once. Procter, who had been waiting in the rear, jumped in his carriage and fled from the battlefield. His troops, cut to pieces, threw up their hands and surrendered in a body.