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“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
At village after village in the Northwest Territory, exciting the people with the presence of the Prophet and himself, Tecumseh appealed for their support with thrilling and patriotic oratory. At many places, chiefs who had signed the Treaty of Greenville and wanted no more war with the Americans opposed him, and he suffered many rebuffs. Elsewhere, whole tribes responded with enthusiasm to his speeches, or divided their loyalties between their old chiefs and eager young warriors who agreed with Tecumseh’s appeals.
Tecumseh next turned south and west and in 1809, accompanied by a small band of followers, visited dozens of tribes, from the Seminoles in Florida to the Osages in Missouri. He received attention and sympathy and made many friends; among most of the peoples he visited, he managed to sow the seeds of future action against the Americans. Before the end of the year, he was back in the north and heading into New York State, where he tried in vain to enlist the Iroquois tribes in his alliance. No matter: from Lake Superior to the Gulf of Mexico, he had laid the groundwork for the common defense of the Indians’ country by the greatest military alliance in native history.
While he had been away, the situation had worsened in Indiana. The war scare had abated, but additional pressures were threatening the natives. There were now more than 20,000 Americans in southern Indiana, and if they were to receive statehood, for which they were clamoring, they would have to secure more Indian land on which to support a larger white population. The politically ambitious Governor Harrison was as aggressive as any of the settlers, and during the summer of 1809 he decided to force the Indians into a new cession. He sent his agents to Little Turtle and a host of the older and weaker chiefs and, armed with maps of central Indiana, met them at Fort Wayne in September. Harrison’s letters reveal that he had little conscience in his dealings with the Indians and that he was not above deceit. He “mellowed” the chiefs with alcohol, and after he had placed considerable pressure on them, they proved obliging. For $7,000 in cash and an annuity of $1,750 they ceded three million acres of land in Indiana, much of it owned by tribes that were not even represented at Fort Wayne.
The new cession enraged Tecumseh. While he had been away trying to unite the Indians in defense of the country they still owned, Indians behind his back had sold more of it. He circulated word that Indian country was the common property of all the tribes, and that he and his allies would refuse to recognize the latest piece of treachery. Angry Indians who agreed with him flocked to the Tippecanoe, and in the spring of 1810, Tecumseh had a force of 1,000 warriors at the Prophet’s Town, training to repel, if necessary, any attempt by Americans to settle the newly ceded lands. Early in August, ignoring Harrison’s invitation to visit the President of the United States in Washington, Tecumseh and the Prophet set off determinedly to see the Governor at Vincennes.
The council was tense and dramatic. In a grove near the Governor’s mansion, Tecumseh and Harrison faced one another, both strong, willful leaders of national forces that had met in head-on collision. The two men were proud and suspicious, and as their followers stood nervously in the background, eyeing each other for signs of treachery, the air bristled with hostility. Tecumseh spoke first, beginning slowly, but soon pouring out his words in such swift and passionate flights of oratory that the interpreter had difficulty following.
The Shawnee first reviewed the history of Indian-white relations in the Ohio Valley, and reminded Harrison of every wrong suffered by the natives at the hands of the Americans. Now, he told the Governor, he was trying to unite the Indians, but the American leader was fomenting enmities among them. Tecumseh’s words were lofty and eloquent, but we have only the interpreter’s stilted translation of his ideas.
You endeavor to make distinctions. You endeavor to prevent the Indians from doing what we, their leaders, wish them to do—unite and consider their land the common property … I am a Shawnee. My forefathers were warriors. Their son is a warrior. From them I take only my existence. From my tribe I take nothing. I have made myself what I am. And I would that I could make the red people as great as the conceptions of my mind, when I think of the Great Spirit that rules over all. I would not then come to Governor Harrison to ask him to tear the treaty. But I would say to him, Brother, you have liberty to return to your own country.
Several times Tecumseh turned to his dream of uniting the tribes in order to halt the whites. “The way, the only way to stop this evil,” he told Harrison, “is for all the red men to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was at first, and should be now—for it never was divided, but belongs to all. No tribe has a right to sell, even to each other, much less to strangers, who demand all, and will take no less …” “Sell a country,” he interrupted himself at one point. “Why not sell the air, the clouds and the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?”