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Edwin L. Sabin

Brigadier General Tecumseh (1812–1813)

The Rise and Fall of a Star

In Vincennes, the white chief, Governor William Henry Harrison, had grown tired of the insults and defiance from the Prophet. He took nine hundred regulars and rangers, to visit the Prophet's Town, himself, and see what was what.

He camped within a mile of the sacred place, on a timber island of the marshy prairie seven miles north-east of the present city of Lafayette, Indiana. During the darkness and early daylight of November 7, this 1811, he was attacked by the Prophet's warriors. He roundly whipped them in the hot battle of Tippecanoe.

The Prophet had brewed a kettle of magic, by which (he proclaimed to his warriors) he had made one half of the American army dead, and the other half crazy. During the attack he sat upon a high piece of ground, and howled a song that should keep his warriors invisible and turn the bullets of the white men.

But something was wrong with the kettle, and something was wrong with the song; for the Americans fought hard when surprised, and none seemed to be dead; and of the one thousand Shawnees, Winnebagos, Chippewas, Kickapoos, forty were killed by the bullets and many more wounded.

Of the Americans, thirty-seven were killed and one hundred and fifty-two wounded. They pressed on to the town, and burned it in spite of the Great Spirit.

"You are a liar!" accused a Winnebago, of the Prophet. "You said that the white people were dead or crazy, when they were all in their senses and fought like demons!"

When Tecumseh arrived with his good news, the Indians were scattered. In his camp the "Prophet" was being hooted at by even the children. Tecumseh was so enraged with his brother for not having somehow kept the peace until the time for war was ripe, that he seized him by the hair of the head and shook him until his teeth rattled.

To Governor Harrison, Tecumseh announced that he was well-minded for the visit with the President.

"If you go, you must go alone, without any company of warriors," replied the governor.

"I am a great chief, and I will not go in such a shameful fashion," said Tecumseh. So he went to Canada instead.

Now the game was up. The Prophet had proved to be no prophet from the Great Spirit. The Indians felt cheated, and were not afraid to speak boldly.

Councils were held by twelve tribes, together. Band opposed band. The Delawares, the Miamis, the Kickapoos, most of the Wyandots, were for peace with the Americans, and for letting the British alone. So were the Potawatomis; they accused the Prophet of leading them falsely.

Captain Elliott, the traitor and British agent, threatened to have the Wyandots arrested for their talk.

The band of Canadian Wyandots touched the British war-hatchet; so did Tecumseh and the Prophet. The war between the white people had commenced.

Between-the-logs brought a message to the Canadian Wyandots, from Head Chief Crane, of all the Wyandots. They were to come back to their hunting-grounds.

Round-head of the hostile Wyandots spoke.

"Tell the American commander it is our wish that he should send more men against us. We want to fight in good earnest."

The British agent Captain Elliott spoke. "Tell my wife, your American father, that I want her to cook the provisions for me and my red children more faithfully than she has done. If she wishes to fight with me and my children, she must not burrow in the earth like a ground-hog. She must come out and fight fairly."

Between-the-logs answered valiantly, in behalf of Chief Crane the wise man:

"Brothers! I entreat you to listen to the good talk I have brought. If you doubt what I have said about the force of the Americans, you can send some of your people to examine it. The truth is, your British father tells you lies and deceives you.

"And now, father, I will bear your message to my American father. You compare the Americans to ground-hogs. I must confess that a ground-hog is a hard animal to fight. He has such sharp teeth, such a stubborn temper, and such unconquerable spirit, that he is truly a dangerous animal, especially when in his own hole. But, father, you will have your wish. Before many days you will see the ground-hog floating on yonder lake, paddling his canoe toward your hole; and then you may attack him to suit yourself!"

This council was held at Brownstown, beside Lake Erie, south of Detroit. Nobody cared anything about the Prophet—he was no warrior. But an invitation was sent to Tecumseh, in Canada, across the Detroit River.

"No," he answered. "I have taken sides with the king, my father, and my bones shall bleach upon this shore before I will recross that stream to join in any good words council."

The Wyandots privately told Between-the-logs that the most of them were being held prisoners by the British; but that they accepted the belt from Head Chief Crane, and would return to the Americans as soon as possible. And they did.

Tecumseh, however, had made up his mind. He was an honest enemy. There never was anything half-way about Tecumseh. His promised army of five thousand warriors had shrunk to less than one hundred; only thirty of these were with him, but he set about getting more.

The Prophet his brother was down at the Fort Wayne agency in Indiana. "Open Door" had partly explained away his failure in the battle of Tippecanoe. His wife, he said, had touched his medicine and spoiled its power, before the battle, and he had not known.

Tecumseh sent a rider with word for the Prophet to remove all the Indian women and children to the Mississippi, and to bid the warriors strike Vincennes. He himself would join, if he lived, in the country of the Winnebagos—which was Wisconsin.

Delawares, Senecas, Chief Crane's Wyandots and the majority of the Shawnees themselves refused to rise against the Americans. The other Indians waited for stronger signs. But they did not need to wait long.

Tecumseh's star became fixed in the sky—he won the first battle of the war and won it for the British. Commanding seventy Indians and forty soldiers he whipped an American force at Brownstown.

In a second battle there, although the Americans were not captured it was Tecumseh again who held his position longest. As reward, he was promoted to brigadier general in the army of the king.

The Americans surrendered Michilimackinac. The American big chief, General Hull, retreated out of Canada.

Runners from Brigadier General Tecumseh spread the news. The Indians waited no longer. The Potawatomis rose, the Miamis rose, the Ottawas and Winnebagos and Kickapoos rose. Sioux of Minnesota and Sacs of Illinois hastened forward. General Tecumseh ruled.

To the Miamis and Winnebagos was assigned the task of taking Fort Harrison near present Terre Haute of Indiana; to the Potawatomis and Ottawas, aided by Tecumseh and some English, was assigned the task of taking Fort Wayne.

But the Shooting Star's old foe, William Henry Harrison, was out upon the war trail again. He lifted the siege of Fort Wayne. The attack upon Fort Harrison also failed. From now on he and Tecumseh fought their fight, to a finish.

This fall and winter of 1812 Tecumseh traveled once more. From Canada he journeyed south across a thousand miles of forest, prairie and waters clear to the Indians of Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama. He did not now come with word from any Prophet, to make the red people one nation and a better nation.

He came as a British officer, to bid the Southern Indians join the king's standard, and fight the Americans into the sea while he and the English did the same work in the north.

He distributed bundles of red sticks for them to count—one stick a day. With the last stick, they were to strike.

The Creeks and Cherokees were persuaded, and strike they did. A bloody trail they made, which many rains did not wash clean.

Back to the war in the spring of 1813, Tecumseh brought into camp six hundred fresh warriors from the Wabash. Now two thousand fighting men obeyed his orders alone. His command frequently out-numbered the British command. He was not a general in name only; he knew military strategy—"he was an excellent judge of position," admitted the British officers. He was consulted in the war councils.

The British thought much of him; the Americans were obliged to think much about him. But the star of Harrison also was marching on. The two stars came together, in the trail.

Tecumseh with his Indians, and the British General Proctor with his soldiers besieged the troublesome American general at Fort Meigs, near by the battle field of Fallen Timbers. So again the two rival chiefs were face to face.

An American detachment was surprised and captured. The Indians commenced to kill and torture. General Proctor looked on. Tecumseh heard and rushed to the scene. He had given his word to General Harrison, two years ago, and he was furious at the insult to his honor.

Defending the prisoners with knife and tomahawk, he sprang for the British general.

"Who dares permit such acts?"

"Sir, your Indians cannot be controlled."

"Begone!" roared Tecumseh. "You are unfit to command; go and put on petticoats."

After that he openly despised General Proctor. He sent a note in to his American foeman:

"General Harrison: I have with me eight hundred braves. You have an equal number in your hiding place. Come out with them and give me battle. You talked like a brave when we met at Vincennes, and I respected you; but now you hide behind logs and in the earth, like a ground-hog. Give me answer. Tecumseh."

But General Harrison knew his business, and carried on to the successful end.

That end was not far distant. General Tecumseh and General Proctor together failed to take Fort Meigs. General Proctor ordered a retreat. General Harrison followed on the trail. General Tecumseh hated to retreat. At every step he was abandoning Indian country.

The retreat northward to Canada continued. Tecumseh was fighting the battle of his people, not of the English; he wished to go no farther.

He proposed to his warriors that they leave for another region, and let the Americans and British fight their own war.

"They promised us plenty of soldiers, to help us. Instead, we are treated like the dogs of snipe-hunters; we are always sent ahead to rouse the game."

"You got us into this war by your promises," retorted the Sioux and the Chippewas. "You have no right to break us."

Any appeal to Tecumseh's honor was certain to win; he stuck. Then American ships under Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry fought British ships under Commodore Barclay, on Lake Erie, and gained a great victory.

From an island near shore the Tecumseh warriors peered eagerly, to the sound of the heavy guns.

"A few days since you were boasting that you commanded the waters," had said Tecumseh, to General Proctor. "Why do you not go out and meet the Americans? They are daring you to meet them; you must send out your fleet and fight them."

Now, after the battle, the British general asserted:

"My fleet has whipped the Americans, but the vessels are injured and have gone to Putin Bay, to relit. They will be here in a few days."

Tecumseh was no fool. He had before caught the general in a lie. Here at Fort Malden opposite Detroit he challenged him in a hot speech.

Father! Listen to your children. You have them now all before you.

The war before this, our British father gave the hatchet to his red children, when our old chiefs were alive. They are now dead. In that war our father was thrown flat on his back by the Americans, and our father took them by the hand without our knowledge. We are afraid that our father will do so again.

Summer before last, when I came forward with my red brothers, and was ready to take up the hatchet in favor of our British father, we were told not to be in a hurry—that he had not yet decided to fight the Americans.

Listen! When war was declared, our father stood up and gave us the tomahawk, and told us that he was then ready to strike the Americans—that he wanted our aid—and that he would surely get us our lands back, which the Americans had taken from us.

Listen! When we were last at the Rapids [Fort Meigs] it is true that we gave you little assistance. It is hard to fight people who live like ground-hogs.

Father, listen! Our ships have gone out; we know they have fought; we have heard the great guns; but we know nothing of what happened. Our ships have gone one way, and we are much astonished to see our father tying up everything and preparing to run away the other, without letting his red children know what it is about.

You always told us to remain here, and take care of our lands; it made our hearts glad to hear that was your wish. You always told us you would never draw your foot off British ground. But now, father, we see you are drawing back, and we are sorry to see our father doing so without seeing the enemy. We must compare our father's action to a fat dog, that carries its tail upon its back, but when frightened, drops it between its legs and rims off.

Father, listen! The Americans have not yet defeated us by land; neither are we sure that they have done so by water.

We wish to remain here, and fight the enemy, should they appear. If they defeat us, we will then retreat with our father.

At the battle of the Rapids [Fallen Timbers] last war, the Americans certainly defeated us; and when we returned to our father's fort at that place, the gates were shut against us. Now instead of that, we see our British father making ready to march out of his garrison.

Father! You have got the arms and ammunition which our great father sent for his red children. If you have an idea of going away, give them to us, and you may go and welcome. Our lives are in the hands of the Great Spirit. We are resolved to defend our lands, and if it be his will, we wish to leave our bones upon them.

General Proctor writhed under this speech, but he had to swallow it. He might have done better by taking council with Tecumseh and attacking the Americans at the instant of their landing on the Canadian shore. The Indians would have fought very hard, even yet, for him. But he ordered the retreat again, he burned Fort Malden, and marched inland up the Thames River of southwestern Ontario.

Tecumseh went unwillingly. His Indians were down-hearted. General Harrison crossed from Detroit, and pursued. Tecumseh felt the sting.

"We are now going to follow the British," he said to Jim Blue-jacket, son of old Chief Blue-jacket, "and I believe we shall never return."

He rode with General Proctor in a buggy, and suggested several places that looked good for making a stand.

Once General Proctor agreed. It was indeed an excellent spot, where a large creek joined the Thames.

"We will here defeat General Harrison or leave our bones." he declared.

That was a talk right to Tecumseh's liking.

"When I look upon these two streams they remind me of the Wabash and the Tippecanoe of my own country," he said hopefully.

But after Tecumseh had gladly arranged his warriors, General Proctor decided to leave them as a rear guard and to march on with his soldiers. The Americans brought up ten cannon, and Tecumseh was wounded in the left arm, and the Indians had to retreat, also.

On the fourth of October, which was a few days afterward, at another good place Tecumseh said that he would go no farther into Canada. This was British soil, not Indian soil. Unless the Americans were whipped and the trail home was opened, how were his Indians ever to help the other Indians fight?

On the morning of the next day, October 5, 1813, he and General Proctor made their battle plans.

"Shall we fight the Americans, father?" asked Sagaunash, or Billy Caldwell. He was half English and half Potawatomi, and acted as Tecumseh's secretary, to translate Shawnee into French or English.

Tecumseh was gloomy. He had no faith in the British general.

"Yes, my son. Before the sun sets we shall be in the enemy's smoke. Go. You are wanted by Proctor. I will never see you again."

He posted his men. Then he addressed his chiefs.

"Brother warriors! We are about to enter a fight from which I shall not come out. My body will remain." He handed his sword and belt to a friend. "When my son becomes a great warrior, and able to use a sword, give him this."

Then Tecumseh stripped off his red uniform coat, bearing the gold epaulets of a British brigadier general. He was to fight as an ordinary Indian, in buck-skin hunting-shirt.

There were nine hundred British soldiers and one thousand Indians. They were well stationed. The left flank, British, was protected by the deep Thames River; the right flank, Indian, was protected by a soft swamp. The Americans of General Harrison came on. They numbered three thousand: one hundred and twenty United States regulars, the rest Kentucky volunteer infantry with one regiment of mounted riflemen under bold Colonel Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky.

Tecumseh would have given a great deal to whip this doughty General Harrison who had come out of his "hole" at last. There were old scores between them. But, as Between-the-logs had warned, "a ground-hog is a very difficult animal."

General William Henry Harrison of Virginia knew how to fight when in his "hole," or fort—and he knew how to fight when out of his "hole," and he knew Indian fighting as well as white fighting.

Here were three brigadier generals—Harrison, Tecumseh, and Proctor.

But the battle was soon over. General Proctor had made the mistake of posting his soldiers in open order. General Harrison's eye was quick to note the weakness. He let the Indians alone, for a few minutes, and sent the right of the mounted backwoodsmen in a charge against the British.

The horses broke clear through, wheeled—and the deed had been done. The British soldiers threw aside their guns, to surrender; General Proctor dashed furiously away in his buggy.

Headed by Colonel Johnson himself, the left companies of the mounted riflemen now charged upon Tecumseh. The infantry followed.

The Indians had small chance, but they fought well. Tecumseh waited until they could see the flints in the American rifles. Then he fired, raised the Shawnee war-whoop, they all fired, and rushed with their tomahawks to the encounter.

Yes, they fought well. Their close volley had killed many Americans. The horse leader, who was Colonel Johnson, had been wounded; the horse soldiers were fighting on foot, because the swamp had entangled the horses' legs. The American infantry barely stood fast, under the first shock.

Tecumseh's voice had been heard constantly, shouting for victory—as before him old Annawan the Wampanoag and Cornstalk the other Shawnee had shouted. Suddenly the voice had ceased.

A cry arose instead: "Tecumseh is dead! Tecumseh is dead!" And at that, as a Potawatomi afterward explained, "We all ran."

Some people said that Tecumseh had charged with the tomahawk upon the wounded Colonel Johnson, and that Colonel Johnson had shot him with a pistol, just in time. Some people denied this. Colonel Johnson himself said that he did not know—he did not pause to ask the Indian's name, and did not stay to examine him! There was quite an argument over the honor—but Tecumseh did not care. He was lying dead, in his simple buckskin, and for a time was not even recognized.

A gaudily dressed chief was mistaken for him, until friendly Indians with General Harrison stated that the great Tecumseh had a ridge on his thigh, from a broken bone.

By this he was found, after nightfall. He was brought to the camp-fires, where a circle of the Kentuckians gathered about him, to admire his fine figure and handsome face. He had been a worthy foeman.

So Tecumseh quit, at last. He never could have lived to see the white men pushed across the Ohio, and all the red men occupying the West as one nation. That was not written of his star, or any other star.

But he left a good reputation. He had been of high mind and clean heart, and he had fought in the open. The British adjutant-general at Montreal issued public orders lamenting his death and praising his bravery. The British throne sent his young son, Puck-esha-shin-wa, a sword, and settled a pension upon the family, in memory of the father.

The Prophet received a pension, too. He stayed in Canada until 1826, when he moved down among the Shawnees of Ohio again. He long out-lived his greater brother, and died in the Shawnee village in present Kansas, in 1837. He posed as a prophet to the very last.

As for General William Henry Harrison, who had broken them both—borne onward by his nickname "Old Tippecanoe" he became, in 1841, ninth President of the United States; and on his reputation of having "killed Tecumseh," Colonel Johnson already had been a vice-president.