Tecumseh and the Indian Nation

Tecumseh and the Indian Nation

By Tony Hunter

“Chiksika then showed Tecumseh how to master his inner self, to face danger without fear, bear pain without expression, loss without depression and triumph without boastfulness.”

The life of the Indian Chief Tecumseh is really the story of great conflict between two men: the red man Tecumseh and the white man William Henry Harrison.  These two men could not have been more different.  The red man worked tirelessly for the benefit o his people, who were pulling together to make a stand against the invasion of Indian lands.  His ideals were noble and selfless, his life was devoted to the service of his people.  On the other hand, William Henry Harrison was a land speculator of the worst sort and gave the name “carpetbagger” an even more menacing meaning.  As governor of the Indian Territory from 1800 to 1812, he was personally responsible for dozens of deceitful Indian treaties designed to trick the less powerful tribes out of the little land they still inhabited.  After the conclusion of the American Revolution, a great expansion to the West developed, led by American war veterans who had been given land grants by their grateful government.  The Indians in the Ohio Valley felt the pressure long before the revolution ended and began a series of small scale wars to fend off the white men.  The result was heavy bloodshed on both sides and a gradual withdrawal of the tribes to the west.  Amidst these conflicts Tecumseh grew up and became a warrior.

Shawnee Chief Tecumseh

Shawnee Chief Tecumseh

Tecumseh’s birth is a story in itself.  In March of 1768, the Shawnee nation held a great council of their five tribal divisions, or septs, at the Indian town of Chillicothe in the Ohio country.  Such gatherings had been going on at intervals for five years now.  The main topic of discussion was always the same: what should be done about the encroachment of the whites.  This was a most important event for the Pawnee and the town of Chillicothe swelled to the size of 6,000 men, women and children.  On March 9, the 600 strong Kispokotha sept wound its way through the forests on its way to Chillicothe.  As darkness began to fall, these Shawnee were only a short distance northwest of their destination, but a half-dozen Indians dropped out of the line of march.  One of the Indian women was about to give birth and could not go on another step.  Puckwinwah, the father of the child, aided his wife Methotasa in the birth, as did several Indian women.  The child, born at the edge of the trail, was a healthy boy.  At about the same time in Chillicothe the council was starting and during the opening incantations the Shawnee saw a bright meteor cross the northern sky.  It appeared to be a stone on fire, burning with a green and white flame and arcing as if falling to earth.  The Shawnee gave great meaning to such events in the heavens and declared it a good omen for the start of the council.  At the trail’s edge in the forest, Pucksinwah also saw the meteor only a few minutes after the birth of this son.  According to Shawnee custom he should name the child after some extraordinary event within ten days of the birth.  Puckinsaw did not wait.  He named the child then.  As a youth he had heard stories of great meteors flaming in the night sky, but he had never seen one for himself beyond the common and dim shooting stars.  He had been told by the elders that a great meteor was “the panther, a great spirit passing over to the south where it seeks a deephole to sleep”.  At that moment Pucksinwah named his newborn “Tecumseh,” wich means “the panther passing across.”

As the years passed Pucksinwah became a chief in the Kispokotha sept and raised his family in the Shawnee town of Old Piqua, very near the present-day town of Springfield, Ohio.  Old Piqua was ruled by the Shawnee chief Cornstalk from his home in the village along the Scioto river to the east.  During the early years of Tecumseh’s life, he was under the care of his mother, Methotasa.  She told him many stories about battles the Shawnee had fought against the white man, from the time the French explorer Jacques Cartier first sailed into the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the most recent deaths of warriors who were Tecumseh’s relatives.  Tecumseh also learned from his mother the importance of speaking in the formal council manner using symbolism to excite the listeners’ emotions.  All the stories his mother told him were delivered in such a manner.  He was learning the whole history of his people from them.  The Shawnee did not have a written language but their spoken word was most powerful.

In 1774, when Tecumseh was six years old, the English Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, mounted a military campaign against the Shawnee in the Ohio country.  This campaign was the inevitable result of concessions the British government granted land speculator and trading companies in 1768, the very year Tecumseh was born.  Before these concessions, settlements west of the Appalachians were prohibited; but after they were relaxed Scotch-Irish settlers advanced along the Forbes Road to Fort Pitt, building a string of settlements as they went.  Frontiersmen from Virginia pressed into Indian territory moving northwest toward Ford Pitt along the old Braddock Road.  As more trees fell and more cabins were built, violent incidents between the Indians and whites increased at an alarming rate.  Lord Dunmore’s punitive campaign against the Shawnee started from Ford Pitt in August of 1774.  His goal was to send two columns, one of militia under the command of Colonel Andrew Lewis and one of regular British troops under his command, to attack and wipe out the major towns of the Shawnee nation; including Pickaway, Kispoko Town and Cornstalk’s town.  Colonel Lewis and his 1,100 militia were ordered on a bewildering and difficult rout to the Ohio River.  Some historians believe Lord Dunmore deliberately concocted these orders to make the colonial militia seem foolish and to wear the men down so that in battle they would be defeated and the British troops would have to come to their rescue. The Shawnee were aware of the two military columns being sent against them and held a council of war.  Only a few hours after the council broke up, about 800 Shawnee warriors rode southeast through the Ohio hill country to meet the white men.  On October 9, 1774, Shawnee scouts discovered that Colonel Lewis had made camp on Point Pleasant.  The point was formed by the junction of the Great Kahawha River with the wider Ohio River on the east side of the Ohio.  Lewis had about 800 men with him and 300 more militia were expected in a day or so.  That same evening the Shawnee chiefs made their war plans.  With the falling of night they would cross over the Ohio River in canoes to the north of Point Pleasant and establish a line of battle across the neck of the point.  If they could hold them in this completely surrounded position, the Shawnee would win their largest victory in many decades.  With such a great victory the encroachment of the whites would be delayed for years.

The Indian plan was working well.  Hours before daybreak the Shawnee warriors slipped across the Ohio River and took up their positions in front of Lewis’ camp.  At dawn they moved forward.  Minutes after the alarm in the militia camp was raised both sides were fully engaged.  Over 1,500 muskets and rifles popped up and down the line of battle.  Both sides fought Indian style, taking cover behind trees, rocks and earth mounds.  When a Shawnee saw the opportunity to race forward and use his tomahawk and knife on a militiaman he took it, and many hand to hand fights developed in this manner.  The battle raged on for five hours.  Two of the three militia company commanders were shot down and only Colonel Lewis remained on his feet.  As Tecumseh’s father, Pucksinwah, and his 18 year old brother, Chiksika, fought side by side, a musket ball struck Pucksinwah in the chest and he fell mortally wounded.  Hislast words to Chisika instructed his son to care for his family and teach Tecumseh the ways of a Pawnee warrior.  Just before the firing on both sides began to let up Pucksinwah died in Chiksika’s arms.

Both sides stayed in place and a sporadic musket fire continued until early evening.  Cornstalk then received word from his scouts that the expected 300 militia company was approaching from the rear.  The Shawnee then disengaged and slipped back across the Ohio River without interference.  In the militia camp the soldiers declared themselves the victors, but they had suffered greater damage.  Fifty-two militiamen lay dead along with half of their officers.  Another 88 were wounded so badly they could not continue with the campaign.  The Shawnee only suffered 22 killed and 18 wounded.  Cornstalk led the Shawnee retreat on horseback all the way to the Scioto villages.  Another council was held and it was decided the Shawnee should make peace with Lord Dunmore because his two armies were now marching toward their villages and far outnumbered the Shawnee warriors.  Colonel Lewis and his militia crossed the Ohio River and marched on the Pickaway Plains where a number of the Shawnee villages existed along the Scioto River and Scippo Creek.  Lewis was gathering his men for an attack on the Shawnee when Lord Dunmore arrived with his troops.  Dunmore explained that the Shawnee were willing to make peace, but Lewis would hear none of it.  He continued his march on the Shawnee until Dunmore rode after him and threatened to kill Lewis if he persisted.  Lewis backed down and a new war was averted.  By November of 1774 the new treaty, formalized at Fort Pitt, was in effect.  Once again the Shawnee were forced to give ground.  The Shawnee were now confined to living on the west side of the Ohio River, and were allowed to cross it only to the east for hunting.  The whites promised to stay to the Virginia side of the Ohio River, but as usual these promises were soon broken.  The Shawnee had to accept these terms simply because they were outnumbered.

Shawnee War Battle Map

Battle Map

All these things happened when Tecumseh was only six and they made a harsh and vivid impression on his young mind.   He remembered the runner who came from the Battle of Point Pleasant with the news his father had been killed.  The tears and lament of his mother hurt him deeply.  He did not fully understand what death was, but he did know he would never see his father again and the dreaded white man was the reason why.  He believed his father had gone off on a long journey to fight the invaders of his homeland and he could not find his way back to his home.  Pucksinwah, the war chief of the Shawnee, would never be seen again.  It was not long after this tragic news that Tecumseh’s family packed up all their belongings and moved to the town of Chillicothe.  There they would be under the protection of Chief Black Fish who would see Tecumseh was properly trained to become a warrior.  The Chiksika who now was in his late teens.  He would keep his pledge to his father and teach Tecumseh all he needed to know to become a first rate warrior.  Tecumseh was eager to learn the warrior, for he had not forgotten his father’s death and wished to someday avenge him.  Before Tecumseh learned the art of war he was first taught now to sustain himself in the wilderness.  He learned to hunt with the bow and arrow and trap smaller animals with snares and deadfalls.  After he had learned to use his weapons on foot he relearned these skills on horseback, riding at full gallop.  Chiksika then showed Tecumseh how to master his inner self, to face danger without fear, bear pain without expression, loss without depression and triumph without boastfulness.

As the months and years went by, Tecumseh’s training became more complex, advancing from one higher level to the next.  His basic skills were now second nature to him, which freed his mind to handle more difficult matters like planning and decision making.  The woods around Chillicothe were now too tame for further learning.  Tecumseh and Chiksika struck out into the forest on long hunting and fishing trips to the west and south.  They were gone for weeks and covered hundreds of miles.  During the first year of his instruction, 8 year old Tecumseh was summoned by Black Fish and was ordered to strip off his clothes, go down to the Little Miami River and plunge in.  He was told to do this every morning until further notice.  At first the task did not seem too difficult, but when summer faded and the cold winds of winter came from the north, the daily plunge became more painful.  In December ice formed on the river and Tecumseh was forced to break through the ice with a rock before he jumped in.  In January Black Fish called the boy to him and explained he would make one final, important plunge into the river.  He would seek his Pa-waw-ka symbol which would give him power from the Great Spirit in times of exceptional need.  Black Fish told the boy to dive in head first into the river, reach out his hands and grab whatever he came in contact with on the bottom and bring it to the surface.  The boy obeyed and returned with handfuls of river sand, twigs and gravel; but when he laid them out before Black Fish a piece of quartzite rock was also found in the wet mixture.  It was somewhat round and about the size of a robin’s egg.  Black Fish picked it up and examined the rock, then put it in Tecumseh’s hand and told him to keep it with always for this Paw-waw-ka was his contact with the Great Spirit.  It would be the boy’s most important possession throughout his life.  For several weeks Tecumseh spent an hour a day chipping a tiny groove on the surface of the white stone so that he could tie sinew around it to hang the Paw-waw-ka around his neck.

Cornstalk - Shawnee Chief

Cornstalk – Shawnee Chief

The Second Continental Congress met in 1775 and realized that if the Indians in the Ohio country went over to the British side it would be a devastating setback for the Revolution.  The American frontiersmen would be pinned down in a bloody fight for survival against the Indians and could offer no help fighting the British to the east.  To forestall this possibility the Congress quickly set up a committee of Congress for Indian Affairs.  It was hoped this committee could persuade the Indians to at least remain neutral.  The Americans had no idea that the Shawnee had already decided to do this.  The American Congress called a treaty council for all Indian tribes in the Ohio country in the fall of 1775.  About 400 Indians attended the council at Fort Pitt; representing the tribes of the Shawnee, Wyandots, Munsees, Iroquois, Senecas and Delawares.  Although there were many disagreements during the council, most of these tribes pledged to remain neutral.  The result of this treaty council was a general peace over the Ohio frontier which lasted throughout the first year of the Revolution.  During the summer of 1776, the British, at Fort Detroit, were holding treaty councils of their own and making progress in convincing the Indians to fight at their side.  Alarmed by these reports, the Americans sent agents to the Indian villages inviting them to another council at Fort Pitt.  The Indian agent Matthew Elliott was not able to persuade the Shawnee to attend the treaty council.  He did pick up some information which led him to believe that the Ohio country Indians planned to make war on the Americans before the council started.  This report alarmed the entire frontier and it prepared for open conflict, but the Indian war did not take place, at least not at that time.  The second American appeal for a treaty council at Fort Pitt was accepted, and in October of 1776 Delawares, Munsees, Mohicans and Shawnee (the entire Indian group numbering near 650) assembled at the fort.  Once again the American commissioners asked the tribes to remain neutral and again they agreed, but only a few days later the Shawnee and Wyandots began raiding isolated American cabins and soon both were in alliance with the British.  By the summer of 1777, the Shawnee were making full scale attacks upon the American frontier with British aid.  The Americans had failed to keep the Indians of the Ohio country neutral.

Cornstalk, who had fought by his father’s side and led the Shawnee in the Battle of Point Pleasant, was Tecumseh’s hero.  In mid October of 1777, runners came to Chillicothe with news that Cornstalk had been murdered by Americans.  The chief and two followers had appeared at the American Fort Randolph, at the site of Point Pleasant, under a flag of truce.  While Cornstalk was talking with the commander within the fort, he and the two warriors were surrounded by soldiers and forced into a room.  A few minutes later soldiers and frontiersmen burst into the room and shot all three Indians with musket, rifle and pistol fire.  Cornstalk, the principal chief of all the Shawnee, fell with nine round balls in his body.  The news of his death sickened and angered Tecumseh.  Two years later, on July 10, 1779 Colonel John Bowman led an American column of 260 in an attack on Chillicothe.  Many of the warriors were away and only 35 were left to defend the village.  The American force burned the village to the ground and killed many of the inhabitants.  This was the first time young Tecumseh saw war close up.  After the Americans withdrew, Tecumseh found his second father, Chief Black Fish, in great pain with a musket ball lodged in his hip.  The chief lingered on for four months and died in October of 1779.  Even though the Shawnee were at war with the Americans, Tecumseh’s training continued.  In August of 1780, when Tecumseh was 12, he accompanied Chiksika on a hunting trip far to the north.  They were away from Chillicothe for several weeks and ranged as far as the shores of Lake Erie.  When they returned to the Shawnee villages they say saw nothing but the ravage of war.

In June of 1780 Captain Henry Byrd, an English officer, led a force of several hundred Indians, most of whom were Shawnee, against two small American settlement forts in Kentucky.  Both Ruddell’s settlement and Martin’s Station were captured with considerable loss of life and dozens of Americans dragged off into captivity.  When news of these two defeats reached George Rogers Clark in Kentucky, he immediately formed an army of 1,000 mounted men and marched them north toward the Shawnee villages.  About a day’s march from Chillicothe, several Shawnee scouts spotted the American column and reported to Black Hoof, who was now principal chief of the Shawnee nation.  The chief only had about 100 warriors on hand and decided to strip the Indian village of value, hide it and make a stand at Piqua Town just 13 miles away.  There he would find more warriors for a proper defense.  All night long the Indians worked at fever pitch to assemble and wrap all the belongs they could not carry with them.  They took them to a deep hole in a nearby marsh and threw the bundles into 15 feet of water.  When the village was cleared of every useful item Black Hoof ordered every wegiwa set on fire and the Indian column then departed into the night.  They arrived at Piqua Town well after dawn and began to prepare their defense.  When Clark’s column of mounted men arrived at Chillicothe on the morning of August 6, 1780 they found nothing but ashes.  Being an aggressive and stern commander,  Clark pushed his men on to Piqua Town and found the Shawnee waiting for him on August 8th.  At 2:00 in the afternoon, as Clark’s men moved into the town, the Indians attacked.  The battle was unequal from the start, for the Shawnee only had 300 warriors in the field while the Americans numbered near 1,000.  The musket and rifle firing up and down the line continued until dark when the Shawnee melted away into the forests.  Clark stated in his report he had 14 killed and 13 wounded and the Shawnee had lost three times the number.  The Americans also used a six pounder brass canyon that wrecked the defenses the Shawnee had thrown up.

When Tecumseh and Chisika returned from their hunting and training trip they found two of the most important Shawnee villages completely ruined and hundreds of acres of crops destroyed.  Again their relatives were among the dead and wounded.  Even though Tecumseh was only 12 and his warrior training was far from complete, he would not wait any longer to fight the enemies who had inflicted so much damage upon his family and people.  The next time the Shawnee met the Americans on the field of battle, Tecumseh vowed to be fighting as a Shawnee warrior.

Shawnee Territory Map

Shawnee Territory Map

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