- 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
After the death of Puckeshinwa, a chief named Blackfish, who ruled the Indian town of Old Chillicothe, a few miles from Old Piqua, had adopted Tecumseh into his family, and the boy had traveled back and forth between the two villages, receiving at both places education in personal conduct, oratory, and tribal lore. The murder of Cornstalk enraged Blackfish, and under his leadership the Shawnees commenced a new war of revenge. In 1778, Blackfish invaded Kentucky, struck at some of the settlements, and captured Daniel Boone and twenty-six other whites. He brought the noted frontiersman back to Old Chillicothe, where Tecumseh saw him. Later, Boone escaped.
In 1780, an American army under George Rogers Clark drove the natives from both Old Chillicothe and Old Piqua. The two cities were burned, and farther west on the Miami River the defeated Shawnees, Tecumseh with them, built another city, also called Piqua, which meant “town that rises from the ashes.” Conflict continued, and two years later Tecumseh, as a youthful observer rather than a warrior, accompanied a group of British and Indians in another invasion of Kentucky. Without taking part in the fighting, he watched the Indians try in vain to capture one of the settlements and then saw them administer a severe drubbing to an army of Kentuckians on the Licking River. Soon afterward, he got into his first battle, fighting by the side of his brother Cheeseekau in a small skirmish in Ohio. Cheeseekau was wounded, and Tecumseh was unnerved and fled from the battlefield. That night, he upbraided himself for his cowardice, it would be the last time anywhere that he would show fear.
With the end of the Revolution, the British withdrew offensive forces from along the Ohio River, and the Indians at last accepted as permanent the loss of their hunting grounds to the south. But there was still little peace for them. The flood of westward-moving settlers was increasing, and the newcomers now had their eyes on the rich Indian lands north of the river.
Once more, border warfare blazed. Still in his middle teens, Tecumseh joined a band of Shawnees that tried to halt the white invasion by intercepting settlers’ flatboats that came down the Ohio from Pennsylvania. For a while, the Indians made the route so hazardous that river traffic almost ceased.
After a certain battle on the river, the Indians captured a settler and burned him at the stake. Tecumseh, then about fifteen years old, watched the spectacle with horror. Suddenly he leapt to his feet and made an eloquent appeal that shamed the Indians for their inhumanity. This revulsion at vengeful cruelty was to be a notable part of his personality throughout his life; it was one of the sources of the admiration that white men eventually acquired for him.
In time, Tecumseh became the leader of his own band of warriors. The border conflict in the Northwest Territory had by now become critical for the settlers. In 1790 and 1791 two U.S. Army detachments—one under Josiah Harmar, the second under Arthur St. Clair—were sent out to protect the whites. Both were thrown back by Indians under a Miami war chief named Little Turtle. St. Clair’s defeat, in which Tecumseh particularly distinguished himself, was one of the worst routs ever suffered by an American army, and for a while it spread terror among the whites in the Northwest Territory and halted the flow of new settlers.
Tecumseh followed the victory by leading raids against while frontiersmen in both Ohio and Kentucky. In 1792, upon the death in battle of his brother Cheeseekau, Tecumseh became leader of all the Shawnee warriors in the south. In 1793, he broke off his forays against settlers there to hurry north and help defend the Ohio country against an invasion by a new American army, this one commanded by Major General Anthony Wayne.
The Shawnee Blue Jacket was now in command of all the Indian forces in the Northwest Territory. Tecumseh and his followers were assigned as scouts to follow the American army as it moved north. Wayne advanced from Cincinnati in October, 1793. Eighty miles north, at Greenville, he erected a fort and paused for the winter. But in June Wayne started forward again toward the Maumee River in northwestern Ohio. He had 3,000 men with him, but Blue Jacket with 1,400 warriors decided to engage him.
On August 20, 1794, the two forces met in a large clearing along the Maumee River where a tornado had blown down many big trees. Tecumseh’s scouts began the fight by firing on Wayne’s advance guard, and in the battle that followed, Tecumseh added to his reputation among the indians by his boldness and courage. Throughout the fight among the fallen trees, he was seen wherever the action was most desperate, and even after his rifle jammed and became unusable, he continued to lead and inspire his companions. At the height of the battle, another of his brothers was killed, but there was no time for grief. Wayne’s sharpshooters kept the Indians pinned down behind the trees, his cavalry thrashed at them, and at length the infantry launched a frenzied bayonet charge across the timbers. It scattered the natives and ended the battle that became known as Fallen Timbers. Wayne destroyed every Indian village he could find, built Fort Wayne at the head of the Maumee in Indiana, and retired for the winter to Greenville.