October 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 5
Overrated There are any number of Indian leaders in the pantheon of American history who vie for this doubtful distinction—for instance, the irascible Lakota medicine man Sitting Bull, who got so much more credit than he deserves for the destruction of Custer’s command, immediately leaps to mind—but in the end 1 believe the award for most overrated Indian leader must go to Tecumseh (1768P-1813). Without doubt a highly intelligent and charismatic influence among the tribes of North America, the Shawnee leader pleaded for unity among the tribes from the Midwest to Florida and rejected the degeneracy of encroaching white civilization. A man of strong moral fiber and a superb orator, he clashed with the territorial governor William Henry Harrison and finally joined with the British and briefly ravaged the Northwest during the War of 1812. But the fierce campaign against the United States ended with Tecumseh’s death at the Battle of the Thames. White and Indian relations suffered for decades afterward, and the resulting legacy of fear, mistrust, and betrayal can be laid squarely at Tecumseh’s door.
Underrated This is again a difficult choice and made more so by a candidacy that includes both Chief Joseph and Spotted Tail. But I would nominate Red Cloud (1822-1909). A turbulent, controversial, and wholly disagreeable figure among the Sioux (Lakota as opposed to Nakota or Dakota), Red Cloud was responsible for the death of the OgIaIa Lakota leader Bull Bear in 1841, resulting in an intratribal feud that exists to this day. Despite his prickly nature and decided unpopularity, Red Cloud managed to unite the Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho in opposition to the U.S. government’s attempts to push a road through northeastern Wyoming. He forged an alliance among the local tribes that for two years made that part of the United States the most dangerous area on the continent. After a series of bloody engagements, which included the Fetterman massacre, the Wagon Box Fight, and the Hayfield Fight, an exasperated U.S. government finally sued for peace. The road in question, known variously as the Bozeman Trail and the Montana Road, was closed, and the three forts along its route —Reno, Phil Kearny, and C. F. Smith—were abandoned, then burned by the victorious tribes within sight of the evacuating troops. While the peace this concluded did not last for long, the treaty signed at Fort Laramie with Red Cloud remains the only one that ceded every point to the warring tribes while taking nothing in return. Red Cloud’s accomplishments thus remain unparalleled in American history.