Edmunds – Tecumseh

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Tecumseh is really interesting in that Tecumseh is one of the few Native American leaders who, even during his time, when he was opposing the United States—and there were military and American politicians opposing him—his opponents really admired him. Tecumseh emerges in the period right after the American Revolution. And he’s part of the Shawnee communities that are desperately trying to hold onto Ohio. And Ohio then falls out of tribal hands in the 1790s. Tecumseh fights in the battles attempting to hold on. The tribes attempt to hold onto Ohio, where they are able to defeat American armies in the 1790s.

But after the Treaty of Greenville then, much of Ohio is gone and this is a very bad period of time for Indian people. Their economic base is shrinking, they’re subject to new White controls, American controls. They find their whole way of life disintegrating. And out of that period then there’ll be some religious movements. Tecumseh then will attempt to unite the tribes in the Midwest, and also in the South, and to forge a coalition against the United States, to say that “we cannot stand individually, tribally, against the United States,” [that] “we need to come together as Indian people and unite and say this land belongs to all of us. It is Indian land. It is not just Shawnee land or Miami land or Creek land or Choctaw land or Kickapoo land. It is Indian land.” And it’s a different perspective in terms of dealing with the federal government than tribal people had followed in the past. There was some precedent for it certainly in the 1790s, and there had been other precedents for it, but traditionally the federal government has sort of picked away at tribal lands by moving some land from one tribe, some land from another. And Tecumseh says this has really got to stop. We cannot allow that.

And so he tries to set up a centralized sort of government in which he would represent, or his followers would represent, tribal people against the wishes of the United States.  Now this will run afoul of some tribal leaders who will say, “well, who are you to speak for my village, who are you to speak for us?”  He had opponents among the Shawnees themselves, but he had sort of the last great stand here, east of the Mississippi, to try and retain tribal lands and tribal ways from the on-rushing American frontier.  And they will fail.

It’s fascinating the way his image has been portrayed. The first, earliest images we have of Tecumseh, the best [is] probably, it’s a portrait we have that is a composite portrait. It’s called the Le Dru-Lossing portrait, and Tecumseh, we really don’t know—probably was never, wasn’t painted during his life, but this was a composite sketch made by a British officer and some other people. And it illustrates, for example, that Tecumseh had, like many Shawnee people or many tribal people at the time had, a ring suspended from his nose, a very small ring that would go across the, his upper lip. It wasn’t a big ring, but [was] very common in the Midwest and other places. He may very well have been tattooed—I’m not really sure—but I do know that he was a man of middling stature, height, and he walked with a limp because his leg had been broken when he was a younger man. He was hunting buffalo in Kentucky and had fallen and he walked with a slight limp.

The first paintings that we have, the first portrayal, the Le Dru-Lossing portrait, illustrates the ring with him. He has a turban on, which is not uncommon. We know that Tecumseh walked with a limp [from] the descriptions of him by some of the early settlers in Ohio. The Shawnee traditions also talk about him being injured as a young man, and there are a series of manuscripts up in the Wisconsin Historical Collection called the Draper manuscripts, which were collected in the 1850s and 60s by Lyman Draper, who was one of the first directors of the Wisconsin Historical Society, where he interviewed people who were still alive in the 1850s and 60s, who could remember, and some of them talk about Tecumseh being injured as a young man and having the limp. So there’s good corroborating evidence here. And it wasn’t a profound limp, but it was a limp.

But as time has gone on, the ring has been deleted as he’s been portrayed. And as people in the late nineteenth century—White historians began to describe him—they describe him as a tall, stately man of light complexion once again, which is obviously a racist situation here. And another thing that’s added to him is that, well really, he may have been of some White lineage—there was some myth associated—that his mother was [or] may have been the descendant of a White captive. And now we know that [is] just myth. That isn’t the case. His mother is a Creek woman. His father is Shawnee. But this is part of the romanticization of Tecumseh.

The other very important part of it is supposedly his affinity for, or his love affair with, Rebecca Galloway, who was the daughter of a trader in Ohio. And we know that their paths may have crossed, but there’s no evidence at all, no historic evidence at all, that there was any kind of relationship there. But as Tecumseh emerged sort of as the prototype here for what Whites wanted Indian people to be then. This myth originates I think pretty much in the Galloway family. And it first appears around the 1850s, which is about 35 years after Tecumseh’s death. And it becomes embellished as time goes on, so much so that there’s a pageant that’s produced yearly in Chillicothe, Ohio based upon this myth of Tecumseh and Rebecca. And the story is that they were enamored of each other, and he asked her to marry him, and she said only if you will come and live with me, and so he said, well Rebecca I’ve got to go and think about this. And so he goes off into the woods and thinks about it, comes back and says, “I cannot do this Rebecca, my place is with my people.” And so this is true love that never reaches fruition. The facet of his being in love with Rebecca Galloway is also completely a myth. We know that he was married twice. He and his first wife were divorced. He married a woman a little older than he. He produced one son who was then raised by his sister. And his descendants live in the Shawnee region of Oklahoma.

But it’s the kinds of thing we associate with Tecumseh, and there are some reasons for that. First of all, he’s just a remarkable man that appeals to Native Americans and to Whites both. But Whites have almost tried to usurp him. They’ve said, “well, there are these traits that he has that we really admire. And if he has these traits, he’s really got to be—he really can’t be—truly Indian. He’s got to have been influenced heavily by non-Indian people.” And so, as time has gone on then. And he dies. Another interesting thing about him: he dies in the last battle for the control of the Great Lakes, the Battle of the Thames, in October of 1813. And following the battle, his body is never found. And so all of these things that are kind of mystic and romantic, and some people said he survived and he went on, and I really don’t think so. I’m thoroughly convinced that he fell in the battle and was killed by Richard M. Johnson. And he’s buried in a mass grave with his comrades that fell. And I personally think—who am I to say?—that this is probably where Tecumseh would have wanted to be. But it is an image then of the noble savage that Whites liked in the nineteenth century. And there’s a method to their madness here. And once again, if you build up the Native champion here, and you say this was really a phenomenal leader, this was a great leader of men, of great stature—and Tecumseh was, I have no doubt about it. But the ultimate point is that but in the long run, we did beat him. So it’s a way I think for non-Indians in the nineteenth century to say, “well, he was really something, but of course we were able to overcome him.”

As tribal people became less a threat to non-Indian people in the east, then I think White Americans could say, “Well, wasn’t he really something. We really admire him,” etcetera. And they’ve romanticized him. And, for example, the portrait the initial portraits of Tecumseh with the ring in his nose, the ring has been removed, because Whites thought that was sort of savage, and “let’s just take that out, he really doesn’t need that ring.” And we’ve, and as time has gone on then, Americans have basically said, “Well, let’s, all the things that we really like about Indians, we’ll ascribe to him.” And that’s just part of the romantization, I think. By the late nineteenth century Tecumseh has become an American folk hero. William Tecumseh Sherman, the major American Civil War general, and, general who ironically then fought against Native people on the plains, his middle name is Tecumseh, his parents gave him the name Tecumseh. It’s been used for to name an engine. There’s a lawnmower that has Tecumseh engines on it. And the other one is the statue that sits in the yard at the Naval Academy. There is a statue of a Native man that stands in the yard of the Naval Academy at Annapolis. And the midshipmen as they come out touch it for good luck, and supposedly they are touching the statue of Tecumseh. Well, it’s not Tecumseh. It’s essentially a Delaware chief named Tamanend. But as time has gone on, no one knows of Tamanend and everybody knows of Tecumseh, so it’s become Tecumseh-ized. So this is the kind of thing that has taken place, and it’s easy to see why. He’s a very remarkable man.

My name is Dave Edmunds.  I’m the Watson Professor of History at the University of Texas in Dallas.  I’m interested in the tribal people of the Midwest.  I’m interested in Native American biography.

Production credits:

Executive Producer, Loretta Fowler

Assistant Producer, Brian Mornar

Production by Mike Media Group

Image credits:

Treaty of Greenville – Courtesy of Chicago Historical Society (P & S—1914.0001)
Battle of the Thames – Courtesy of Library and Archives of Canada
Le Dru-Lossing Tecumseh composite portrait – Courtesy of National Park Service
Tecumseh without nose-ring – Courtesy of Tippecanoe Historical Association
Tecumseh and Rebecca Galloway Pageant – Courtesy of Scioto Society, Inc./Tecumseh!
Naval Academy statue– Courtesy of Adam Smith

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