Life of Tecumseh, and of His Brother the Prophet - With a Historical Sketch of the Shawanoe Indians
by Benjamin Drake
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In the private and social life of Tecumseh there were many things worthy of notice. He was opposed, on principle, to polygamy, a practice almost universal among his countrymen. He was married but once; and this union, which took place at the age of twenty-eight, is said to have been more in compliance with the wishes of others than in obedience to the unbiassed impulse of his feelings or the dictates of his judgment. Mamate, his wife, was older than himself, and possessed few personal or mental qualities calculated to excite admiration. A son, called Pugeshashenwa, (a panther in the act of seizing its prey,) was the only fruit of this union. The mother died soon after his birth, and he was left to the care of his aunt, Tecumapease.[A] This son is now residing with the Shawanoes west of the Mississippi, but is not distinguished for talents, or renowned as a warrior. The British government, however, since the death of Tecumseh, has recognized its obligations to the father by the extension of an annual stipend to the son.

[Footnote A: Recollections of John Johnston, and Anthony Shane.]

From his boyhood, Tecumseh was remarkable for temperance and the strictest integrity. He was hospitable, generous and humane; and these traits were acknowledged in his character long before he rose to distinction, or had conceived the project of that union of the tribes, on which the energies of his manhood were fruitlessly expended. He was, says an intelligent Shawanoe, who had known him from childhood, kind and attentive to the aged and infirm, looking personally to their comfort, repairing their frail wigwams when winter approached, giving them skins for moccasins and clothing, and sharing with them the choicest game which the woods and the seasons afforded. Nor were these acts of kindness bestowed exclusively on those of rank or reputation. On the contrary, he made it his business to search out the humblest objects of charity, and in a quick, unostentatious manner, relieve their wants.

The moral and intellectual qualities of Tecumseh place him above the age and the race in which his lot was cast. "From the earliest period of his life," says Mr. Johnston, the late Indian agent at Piqua, "Tecumseh was distinguished for virtue, for a strict adherence to truth, honor, and integrity. He was sober[A] and abstemious, never indulging in the use of liquor nor eating to excess." Another respectable individual,[B] who resided for near twenty years as a prisoner among the Shawanoes, and part of that time in the family of Tecumseh, writes to us, "I know of no peculiarity about him that gained him popularity. His talents, rectitude of deportment, and friendly disposition, commanded the respect and regard of all about him. In short, I consider him a very great as well as a very good man, who, had he enjoyed the advantages of a liberal education, would have done honor to any age or any nation."

[Footnote A: Major James Galloway, of Xenia, states, that on one occasion, while Tecumseh was quite young, he saw him intoxicated. This is the only aberration of the kind, which we have heard charged upon him.]

[Footnote B: Mr. Stephen Ruddell.]

Tecumseh had, however, no education, beyond that which the traditions of his race, and his own power of observation and reflection, afforded him. He rarely mingled with the whites, and very seldom attempted to speak their language, of which his knowledge was extremely limited and superficial.

When Burns, the poet, was suddenly transferred from his plough in Ayrshire to the polished circles of Edinburg, his ease of manner, and nice observance of the rules of good-breeding, excited much surprise, and became the theme of frequent conversation. The same thing has been remarked of Tecumseh: whether seated at the tables of generals McArthur and Worthington, as he was during the council at Chillicothe in 1807, or brought in contact with British officers of the highest rank, his manners were entirely free from vulgarity and coarseness: he was uniformly self-possessed, and with the tact and ease of deportment which marked the poet of the heart, and which are falsely supposed to be the result of civilization and refinement only, he readily accommodated himself to the novelties of his new position, and seemed more amused than annoyed by them.

The humanity of his character has been already portrayed in the pages of this work. His early efforts to abolish the practice of burning prisoners—then common among the Indians—and the merciful protection which he otherwise invariably showed to captives, whether taken by himself or his companions, need no commendation at our hands. Rising above the prejudices and customs of his people, even when those prejudices and customs were tacitly sanctioned by the officers and agents of Great Britain, Tecumseh was never known to offer violence to prisoners, nor to permit it in others. So strong was his sense of honor, and so sensitive his feelings of humanity, on this point, that even frontier women and children, throughout the wide space in which his character was known, felt secure from the tomahawk of the hostile Indians, if Tecumseh was in the camp. A striking instance of this confidence is presented in the following anecdote. The British and Indians were encamped near the river Raisin; and while holding a talk within eighty or one hundred yards of Mrs. Ruland's house, some Sauks and Winnebagoes entered her dwelling, and began to plunder it. She immediately sent her little daughter, eight or nine years old, requesting Tecumseh to come to her assistance. The child ran to the council house, and pulling Tecumseh (who was then speaking) by the skirt of his hunting-shirt, said to him, "Come to our house—there are bad Indians there." Without waiting to close his speech, the chief started for the house in a fast walk. On entering, he was met by two or three Indians dragging a trunk towards the door: he seized his tomahawk and levelled one of them at a blow: they prepared for resistance, but no sooner did they hear the cry, "dogs! I am Tecumseh!" than under the flash of his indignant eye, they fled from the house: and "you," said Tecumseh, turning to some British officers, "are worse than dogs, to break your faith with prisoners." The officers expressed their regrets to Mrs. Ruland, and offered to place a guard around the house: this she declined, observing, that so long as that man, pointing to Tecumseh, was near them, she felt safe.[A]

[Footnote A: On the authority of colonel John Ruland.]

Tecumseh entertained a high and proper sense of personal character—was equally bold in defending his own conduct, and condemning that which was reprehensible in others. In 1811, he abandoned his intention of visiting the President, because he was not permitted to march to Washington at the head of a party of his warriors. As an officer in the British army, he never lost sight of the dignity of his rank, nor suffered any act of injustice towards those under his command to pass without resenting it. On one occasion, while the combined British and Indian forces were quartered at Malden, there was a scarcity of provisions, the commissary's department being supplied with salt beef only, which was issued to the British soldiers, while horse flesh was given to the Indians. Upon learning this fact, Tecumseh promptly called on general Proctor, remonstrated against the injustice of the measure, and complained, indignantly, of the insult thus offered to himself and his men. The British general appeared indifferent to what was said; whereupon, the chief struck the hilt of Proctor's sword with his hand, then touched the handle of his own tomahawk, and sternly remarked, "You are Proctor—I am Tecumseh;" intimating, that if justice was not done to the Indians, the affair must be settled by a personal rencontre between the two commanders. General Proctor prudently yielded the point.[A]

[Footnote A: On the authority of the Rev. Wm. H. Raper.]

But few of the numerous speeches made by Tecumseh have been preserved. Tradition speaks in exalted terms of several efforts of this kind, of which no record was made. All bore evidence of the high order of his intellectual powers. They were uniformly forcible, sententious and argumentative; always dignified, frequently impassioned and powerful. He indulged neither in sophism nor circumlocution, but with bold and manly frankness, gave utterance to his honest opinions. Mr. Ruddell, who knew him long and intimately, says, that "he was naturally eloquent, very fluent, graceful in his gestures, but not in the habit of using many; that there was neither vehemence nor violence in his style of delivery, but that his eloquence always made a strong impression on his hearers." Dr. Hunt, of Clark county, Ohio, has remarked, that the first time he heard Henry Clay make a speech, his manner reminded him, very forcibly, of that of Tecumseh, in the council at Springfield, in the year 1807, on which occasion he made one of his happiest efforts.

Our present minister to France, Mr. Cass, has said, with his usual discrimination, that "the character of Tecumseh, in whatever light it may be viewed, must be regarded as remarkable in the highest degree. That he proved himself worthy of his rank as a general officer in the army of his Britannic majesty, or even of his reputation as a great warrior among all the Indians of the north-west, is, indeed, a small title to distinction. Bravery is a savage virtue, and the Shawanoes are a brave people: too many of the American nation have ascertained this fact by experience. His oratory speaks more for his genius. It was the utterance of a great mind roused by the strongest motives of which human nature is susceptible; and developing a power and a labor of reason, which commanded the admiration of the civilized, as justly as the confidence and pride of the savage." There was one subject, far better calculated than all others, to call forth his intellectual energies, and exhibit the peculiar fascination of his oratory. "When he spoke to his brethren on the glorious theme that animated all his actions, his fine countenance lighted up, his firm and erect frame swelled with deep emotion, which his own stern dignity could scarcely repress; every feature and gesture had its meaning, and language flowed tumultuously and swiftly, from the fountains of his soul."

Another writer, Judge Hall, long resident in the west, and devoted to the study of aboriginal history, has thus summed up the character of this chief:

"At this period the celebrated Tecumseh appeared upon the scene. He was called the Napoleon of the west; and so far as that title was deserved by splendid genius, unwavering courage, untiring perseverance, boldness of conception and promptitude of action, it was fairly bestowed upon this accomplished savage. He rose from obscurity to the command of a tribe to which he was alien by birth. He was, by turns, the orator, the warrior and the politician; and in each of these capacities, towered above all with whom he came in contact. As is often the case with great minds, one master passion filled his heart, prompted all his designs, and gave to his life its character. This was hatred to the whites, and, like Hannibal, he had sworn that it should be perpetual. He entertained the same vast project of uniting the scattered tribes of the west into one grand confederacy, which had been acted on by King Philip and Little Turtle. He wished to extinguish all distinctions of tribe and language, to bury all feuds, and to combine the power and the prejudices of all, in defence of the rights and possessions of the whole, as the aboriginal occupants of the country."

It may be truly said, that what Hannibal was to the Romans, Tecumseh became to the people of the United States. From his boyhood to the hour when he fell, nobly battling for the rights of his people, he fostered an invincible hatred to the whites. On one occasion, he was heard to declare, that he could not look upon the face of a white man, without feeling the flesh crawl upon his bones. This hatred was not confined, however, to the Americans. Circumstances made him the ally of the British, and induced him to fight under their standard, but he neither loved nor respected them. He well understood their policy; they could not deceive his sagacious mind; he knew that their professions of regard for the Indians were hollow, and that when instigating him and his people to hostilities against the United States, the agents of Britain had far less anxiety about the rights of the Indians, than the injuries which, through their instrumentality, might be inflicted upon the rising republic. This feeling towards the whites, and especially to the people of the United States, had a deeper foundation than mere prejudice or self-interest. Tecumseh was a patriot, and his love of country made him a statesman and a warrior. He saw his race driven from their native land, and scattered like withered leaves in an autumnal blast; he beheld their morals debased, their independence destroyed, their means of subsistence cut off, new and strange customs introduced, diseases multiplied, ruin and desolation around and among them; he looked for the cause of these evils and believed he had found it in the flood of white immigration which, having surmounted the towering Alleghenies, was spreading itself over the hunting grounds of Kentucky, and along the banks of the Scioto, the Miami and the Wabash, whose waters, from time immemorial, had reflected the smoke of the rude but populous villages of his ancestors. As a statesman, he studied the subject, and, having satisfied himself that justice was on the side of his countrymen, he tasked the powers of his expansive mind, to find a remedy for the mighty evil which threatened their total extermination.

The original, natural right of the Indians to the occupancy and possession of their lands, has been recognized by the laws of congress, and solemnly sanctioned by the highest judicial tribunal of the United States. On this principle, there is no disagreement between our government and the Indian nations by whom this country was originally inhabited.[A]

[Footnote A: 6 Wheaton's Reports, 515.]

In the acquisition of these lands, however, our government has held that its title was perfect when it had purchased of the tribe in actual possession. It seems, indeed, to have gone farther and admitted, that a tribe might acquire lands by conquest which it did not occupy, as in the case of the Iroquois, and sell the same to us; and, that the title thus acquired, would be valid. Thus we have recognized the principles of international law as operative between the Indians and us on this particular point, while on some others, as in not allowing them to sell to individuals, and giving them tracts used as hunting grounds by other tribes beyond the Mississippi, we have treated them as savage hordes, not sufficiently advanced in civilization to be admitted into the family of nations. Our claim to forbid their selling to individuals, and our guarantying to tribes who would not sell to us in our corporate capacity, portions of country occupied as hunting grounds, by more distant tribes, can only be based on the right of discovery, taken in connection with a right conferred by our superior civilization; and seems never in fact to have been fully acknowledged by them. It was not, at least, admitted by Tecumseh. His doctrine seems to have been that we acquired no rights over the Indians or their country either by discovery or superior civilization; and that the possession and jurisdiction can only be obtained by conquest or negociation. In regard to the latter, he held that purchase from a single tribe, although at the time sojourners on the lands sold, was not valid as it respected other tribes. That no particular portion of the country belonged to the tribe then within its limits—though in reference to other tribes, its title was perfect; that is, possession excluded other tribes, and would exclude them forever; but did not confer on the tribe having it, the right to sell the soil to us; for that was the common property of all the tribes who were near enough to occupy or hunt upon it, in the event of its being at any time vacated, and could only be vacated by the consent of the whole. As a conclusion from these premises, he insisted that certain sales made in the west were invalid, and protested against new ones on any other than his own principles.

It must be acknowledged that these views have much plausibility, not to grant to them any higher merit. If the Indians had been in a nomadic instead of a hunter state, and in summer had driven their flocks to the Allegheny mountains—in winter to the banks of the Wabash and Tennessee rivers, it could scarcely be denied that each tribe would have had an interest in the whole region between, and as much right as any other tribe to be heard on a question of sale. The Indians were not shepherds, wandering with their flocks of sheep and cattle in quest of new pastures, but hunters, roaming after deer and bison, and changing their location, as the pursuit from year to year, or from age to age, might require. We do not perceive a difference in principle in the two cases; and while we admit the difficulty of acquiring their territory on the plan of Tecumseh, we feel bound also to admit, that as far as its preservation to themselves was concerned, his was the only effective method.

In its support he displayed in council the sound and logical eloquence for which he was distinguished—in war the prowess which raised him into the highest rank of Indian heroes.

At what period of his life he first resolved upon making an effort to stop the progress of the whites west of the mountains, is not certainly known. It was probably several years anterior to the open avowal of his plan of union, which occurred in 1805 or '6. The work before him was herculean in character, and beset with difficulties on every side; but these only quickened into more tireless activity his genius and his patriotic resolution. To unite the tribes as he proposed, prejudices must be overcome, their original manners and customs re-established, the use of ardent spirits utterly abandoned, and finally, all intercourse with the whites cut off. Here was a field for the display of the highest moral and intellectual powers. He had already gained the reputation of a brave and sagacious warrior, a cool headed, upright and wise counsellor. He was neither a war nor a peace chief, and yet he wielded the power and influence of both. The time had now arrived for action. To win savage attention, some bold and striking movement was necessary. He imparted his plan to his brother, a smart, cunning and pliable fellow, who adroitly and quickly prepared himself for the part he was appointed to play, in this great drama of savage life. Tecumseh well understood, that excessive superstition is every where a prominent trait in the Indian character, and readily availed himself of it. Suddenly, his brother begins to dream dreams, and see visions, he is an inspired Prophet, favored with a divine commission from the Great Spirit; the power of life and death is placed in his hands; he is the appointed agent for preserving the property and lands of the Indians, and for restoring them to their original, happy condition. He commences his sacred work; the public mind is aroused; unbelief gradually gives way; credulity and wild fanaticism begin to spread in circles, widening and deepening until the fame of the Prophet, and the divine character of his mission, have reached the frozen shores of the lakes, and overrun the broad plains which stretch far beyond the Mississippi. Pilgrims from remote tribes, seek, with fear and trembling, the head-quarters of the mighty Prophet. Proselytes are multiplied, and his followers increase in number. Even Tecumseh becomes a believer, and, seizing upon the golden opportunity, he mingles with the pilgrims, wins them by his address, and, on their return, sends a knowledge of his plan of concert and union to the most distant tribes. And now commenced those bodily and mental labors of Tecumseh, which were never intermitted for the space of five years. During the whole of this period, we have seen that his life was one of ceaseless activity. He traveled, he argued, he commanded: to-day, his persuasive voice was listened to by the Wyandots, on the plains of Sandusky—to-morrow, his commands were issued on the banks of the Wabash—anon, he was paddling his bark canoe across the Mississippi; now, boldly confronting the governor of Indiana territory in the council-house at Viacennes, and now carrying his banner of union among the Creeks and Cherokees of the south. He was neither intoxicated by success, nor discouraged by failure; and, but for the desperate conflict at Tippecanoe, would have established the most formidable and extended combination of Indians, that has ever been witnessed on this continent That he could have been successful in arresting the progress of the whites, or in making the Ohio river the boundary between them and the Indians of the north-west, even if that battle had not been fought, is not to be supposed. The ultimate failure of his plan was inevitable from the circumstances of the case. The wonder is not that he did not succeed, but that he was enabled to accomplish so much. His genius should neither be tested by the magnitude of his scheme, nor the failure in its execution, but by the extraordinary success that crowned his patriotic labors. These labors were suddenly terminated in the hour when the prospect of perfecting the grand confederacy was brightest. By the battle of Tippecanoe—fought in violation of his positive commands and during his absence to the south,—the great object of his ambition was frustrated, the golden bowl was broken at the fountain; that ardent enthusiasm which for years had sustained him, in the hour of peril and privation, was extinguished. His efforts were paralyzed, but not his hostility to the United States. He joined the standard of their enemy, and fought beneath it with his wonted skill and heroism. At length the contest on the Thames was at hand. Indignant at the want of courage or military skill, which prompted the commander of the British forces to shrink from meeting the American army on the shore of lake Erie, he sternly refused to retreat beyond the Moravian towns. There, at the head of his warriors, he took his stand, resolved, as he solemnly declared, to be victorious, or leave his body upon the field of battle, a prey to the wolf and the vulture. The result has been told. The Thames is consecrated forever, by the bones of the illustrious Shawanoe statesman, warrior and patriot, which repose upon its bank.

In whatever aspect the genius and character of Tecumseh may be viewed, they present the evidence of his having been a remarkable man; and, to repeat the language of a distinguished statesman and general, who knew him long and intimately, who has often met him in the council and on the field of battle, we may venture to pronounce him, one of those uncommon geniuses which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions, and overturn the established order of things; and, who, but for the power of the United States, would, perhaps, have been the founder of an empire which would have rivalled that of Mexico or Peru.




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