“Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mochican, the Pocanet, and other powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man … Sleep not longer, O Choctaws and Chickasaws … Will not the bones of our dead be ploughed up, and their graves turned into ploughed fields?”
Although he fought on the side of the British in the War of 1812, it’s clear that Tecumseh, the Shawnee War Chief, had no love for any white man and respect for only a few. Major General Isaac Brock was one of the few. “This is a man,” said Tecumseh on meeting Brock for the first time.
Brock reciprocated: “A more sagacious and gallant Warrior does not, I believe, exist. He was the admiration of every one who conversed with him.” He must have meant it, for he knew very well that Tecumseh wasn’t there because he loved the British. He was there because, by the thread of an alliance with Britain, dangled his last hope of forging an independent Native Nation in the heartland of North America.
For Tecumseh, the War of 1812 was another battle in a very long war against the whites. It was a continuation of the French and Indian Wars, and then Pontiac’s War. There were atrocities on both sides during that conflict, but the most notorious was Governor General Jeffrey Amherst’s authorization to distribute among the Natives, blankets that had been infected with smallpox.
The Royal Proclamation of 1763 that ended Pontiac’s War gave the tribes to the south of the Great Lakes a breather. That lasted until the end of the Revolutionary War and the US picked up where Britain had left off.
For the defence of Upper Canada, General Brock had only 5200 regular army troops and maybe 14,000 militia—when their crops didn’t need tending. Muddy York (Toronto) was barely more than a village. America, by then, had some 3 million people. Upper Canada had perhaps 70,000 and most of them were immigrants from the US with relations and friends on the other side of the border.
To make matters worse, the War was not popular. For Brock, it was either use Tecumseh and his 10,000 warriors or lose the War.
Ironically, Tecumseh’s former enemy now held the key to his dream of establishing an Aboriginal nation in a huge tract of land that would include what is now Illinois and all of Michigan. That dream would come true only if the British won.
As for the British, they now they found themselves allied with the very same nations they fought against in the French and Indian War and in Pontiac’s War. For both men, as they stood in Amherstburg and looked across the river at Detroit, the enemy of their enemy was their friend.
Nevertheless, Brock and Tecumseh worked well together. The Major General brought his cannons and Tecumseh brought his stratagems. He had his warriors march through a gap in the trees and circle around again and again. The Americans in Fort Detroit saw what they believed were thousands of savages just itching to do them all manner of atrocities. The American general surrendered quickly and unconditionally.
Brock was dead at Queenston Heights a few months later and Canada almost certainly would have been over-run had it not been for the Mohawks at Beaver Dams, or the Ojibway and Mississaugas covering the army’s retreat at York, and Tecumseh’s forces in a dozen different battles and skirmishes.
In October 1813, Tecumseh was killed as he and his men covered the ignominious retreat of Brigadier General Proctor out of Amherstburg and up the Thames River with the American army nipping their heels.
The British began sending regular army troops. And none too soon, because the Aboriginal alliance melted away after Tecumseh’s death.
The Treaty of Ghent put everything back the way it was before the War. Neither Britain nor America gained territory. There was no mention of a Native Nation. But America had a new national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and Canada was a step closer to becoming a nation.
Tecumseh? He was buried by his friends where he fell, somewhere near Muncey, just south of London. He was dug up by a Canadian doctor a few years later. His bones now lie beneath a crumbling cairn in Bjekwanong on Walpole Island.
We seem to want to forget Tecumseh and his contribution to the formulation of Canada, or at least downplay it. Maybe that’s because we know, in our hearts, he did not fight for our sake. Maybe it’s because, in our national conscience, we recall the push for surrenders of a different kind—for land this time. And maybe it’s because we recall that only a decade or so after the War, we began building a gulag of residential schools—one of the first in Mount Elgin, not far from where Tecumseh fell.
A telling footnote
Samuel Peters Jarvis (yes, of Jarvis Street in Toronto) rode through the gates of Fort Detroit with Brock and Tecumseh in a ceremony of victory. Twenty-five years later he was part of the Family Compact in Upper Canada and Chief Superintendent of the Indian Department. In 1845 he was found to have stolen from Ojibwa trust accounts that held money from the purchase of their lands. And there were stories about how he and his friends raped or seduced Native women aboard their steamer, the Simcoe. Their boat was named in honour of John Graves Simcoe, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada from 1791-96, and the man credited with bringing British justice and administration to the colony.
- Born Shawnee in March 1768 in what is now south western Ohio.
- At his birth a huge meteor streaked across the sky. He was named Tecumseh, ‘The Panther Passing Across’ sometimes translated as ‘Shooting Star’.
- His father was killed by the British in 1774.
- His village was attacked at least five times by the British, then the Americans.
- At 15 he became leader of a guerrilla band attacking river traffic on the Ohio.
- With his younger brother, Tenskwatawa (“The Open Door” but also known as The Prophet), Tecumseh united warriors from various tribes from Lake Huron to Florida in battles against the Americans.
- In 1812, he joined forces with Major General Brock to take Detroit.
- He died October 5, 1813 at the Battle of the Thames, in south western Ontario.
© David McLaren July 2012
A version of this article appeared July 14, 2012 in the Forum section of Sunmedia’s newspapers.
Alan Corbiere, Anishinaabe historian from M’Chigeeng on CBC North, July 16, 2012
(or click here to go directly to the interview).
Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812.
Pierre Berton, The Invasion of Canada 1812-1813.
James Laxer, Tecumseh and Brock.
Re-writing history: forgetting Tecumseh in 1812 celebrations, Huffington Post.
Remember the native warriors during War of 1812 bicentennial. James Bartleman in Globe & Mail.
Contemporary Article on Tecumseh at ‘Access Genealogy’.
Contemporary Article on Tenskwatawaw, The Prophet, at ‘Access Genealogy’.