“These Lands Are Ours …”


Toward the end of his speech, he apparently tried to nettle Harrison. “How can we have confidence in the white people?” he asked him. “When Jesus Christ came upon the earth, you killed Him, and nailed Him to a cross. You thought He was dead, but you were mistaken. You have Shakers among you, and you laugh and make light of their worship.” Finally, he pointed to the United States as a model for the natives. “The States,” he said, “have set the example of forming a union among all the fires [states]—why should they censure the Indians for following it?” Then, declining Harrison’s offer of a chair, he sat down proudly on the ground.

Harrison began his reply by insisting that Tecumseh had no right to contest the sale of land in Indiana, because the Shawnee homeland had been in Georgia. The Indian chief stirred angrily, recognizing the deliberate evasion of his thesis that Indian land everywhere belonged to all natives. As Harrison went on, he became more impatient, and tension among the onlookers began to mount. Suddenly Harrison asserted that the United States had always been fair and just in its dealings with Indians. Tecumseh leaped to his feet and shouted, “It is false! He lies!” As he poured his wrath on Harrison, the Governor unsheathed his sword and started forward. Several whites aimed their guns, and the Indians behind Tecumseh drew their tomahawks. For an instant, a fight seemed imminent. Then Harrison coolly adjourned the council.

The next morning, Tecumseh’s temper had subsided, and he sent his apologies to Harrison. The Governor accepted them, and visited the chief’s camp. Tecumseh was in a good mood, and the two men sat down together on a bench. Gradually, the Indian kept pushing against Harrison, forcing the American to move closer to one end. Finally, as Harrison was about to be shoved off, he objected, and Tecumseh laughed, pointing out that that was what the American settlers were doing to the Indians.

Harrison’s attitude served notice that he intended to keep pressing for more Indian land, and Tecumseh knew that to stop him, he had to hurry his alliances and strengthen the natives’ will to resist. Once more, the Shawnee leader made rapid visits to the tribes of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, delivering passionate pleas for his confederation. On November 15, 1810, he even crossed to the Canadian side of the Detroit River and, at the British post of Fort Malden, addressed a council of Potawatomis, Ottawas, Sauk, Foxes, and Winnebagos. The next year Harrison, believing that the best defense was vigorous offense, decided the time had come to smash the Prophet’s Town and scatter the leaders of Indian opposition.

All he needed was an overt act by the natives to justify his invasion of the Indians’ country, and in July, 1811, he gained his excuse when Potawatomis killed some white men in Illinois. Harrison claimed at once that they were followers of the Prophet and demanded that the Shawnees on the Tippecanoe surrender them to him for justice. In reply, Tecumseh and the Prophet again visited Vincennes for a personal meeting with the American leader. They refused to deliver the Potawatomis, and once more the council ended in an impasse. The Prophet returned to his center on the Tippecanoe, and Tecumseh, accompanied by twenty-four warriors, set off down the Wabash River, bound on a second attempt to unite the southern tribes behind him.

Tecumseh’s second southern journey was a heroic and memorable effort that in five months took him down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the present site of Memphis, through Tennessee to Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, back north again across Georgia to the Carolinas, through the full length of Tennessee to the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas and Missouri, north into Iowa, and eventually back home. Once more, he hurried from village to village, pleading for a united war against the Americans.

His words “fell in avalanches from his lips,” one who heard him said. “His eyes burned with supernatural lustre, and his whole frame trembled with emotion. His voice resounded over the multitude—now sinking in low and musical whispers, now rising to the highest key, hurling out his words like a succession of thunderbolts … I have heard many great orators, but I never saw one with the vocal powers of Tecumseh.” Wearing only a breechclout and moccasins, with lines of red war paint beneath his eyes, the Shawnee stood alone with his followers amid vast, encircling throngs and cried to the Indians to stop their intertribal wars, to unite in a single nation as the United States had done, and to fight together for all their land before it was too late. Old chiefs listened to him uneasily and argued back. They would not unite with old, hereditary enemies. They would not give up their autonomy to strangers. The kind of union that Tecumseh talked about was for white men, not Indians. And besides, it was already too late.

In historic debates with the greatest chiefs of the South, Tecumseh continued to plead his cause. “Where today are the Pequot?” Tecumseh cried to one audience.