My work does not claim to be profound erudition, but it does claim to be a record of what is currently being said about a topic. When teaching, I devised the mnemonic FRESCIPLACT to help children to think into historical corners and avoid single factor explanations. When I applied it to Tecumseh, these are some thoughts it provokes:

F – Foreign and Military: Tecumseh was, first and foremost, a warrior. His dying father called upon Tecumseh’s older brother to make him a warrior. General Brock, who had dined with Nelson and knew military matters, called him ‘the Wellington of the Indians’. He fought in ambushes, sieges and pitched battles. He knew the terror of defeat and flight after the Battle of Point Pleasant; he knew fear as a young man at the Battle of Piqua; he knew victory against the flatboats on the Mississippi; he was part of an Indian victory bigger than the Little Big Horn at Wabash in 1791; he shared in the great Indian defeat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794; in the considerable victory represented by the taking of Detroit in August 1812 Tecumseh and Brock played on Hull’s terror of capture by the Indians. Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that conquering Canada would be ‘a mere matter of marching’: thanks to Tecumseh and Brock the resistance of Canada was stiffened, and it remained independent. Sadly Tecumseh’s present to Brock of a gaudy sash led to Brock’s death eight weeks later when he was shot by a musketeer who singled him out at the Battle of Queenston Heights. Tecumseh had described Procter, Brock’s successor, as a ‘fat animal which slinks away, its tail between its legs’; and he was proved right when Procter slunk away from the Battle of Thames River, leaving Tecumseh to be killed. Procter was subsequently court martialled for his conduct. Procter’s withdrawal was the result of the British naval defeat on Lake Erie. No Indian had a navy. Tecumseh did not succeed in defeating the Americans, nor, although he helped to save Canada, did he create a separate Indian state.

R – Religion and Ideas: Tecumseh revived an idea advocated in previous years by the Shawnee leader Blue Jacket and the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, which stated that native land was owned in common by all tribes, and thus no land could be sold without agreement by all. The doctrine of communal ownership of the land became the cornerstone of his policy. He held that Indian lands were held in common by all Indians and could not be sold or transferred by any one tribe. This was diametrically opposed to the idea held by the white Americans that it was their ‘Manifest Destiny1’ to conquer and possess the lands occupied by the Indians. Tecumse’s brother, known as ‘The Shawnee Prophet’ took up the earlier teachings of the Lenape prophets, Scattamek and Neolin, who predicted a coming apocalypse that would destroy the European-American settlers. He claimed to have had a revelation from the ‘Master of Life’ and experienced a series of visions. The two men preached against cultural assimilation and the ceding of any more Indian land to the whites. His mysticism attracted native followers from many different tribes, especially among the Ojibwe (Chippewa) affiliates. By studying treaties Tecumseh gained an understanding of western ideas of law. In criticising old chiefs who were selling the rights of their people in cession treaties (‘selling the air and the clouds’), he showed understanding of the late eighteenth century world of ‘natural rights’. Tecumseh was one of the few Indian leaders who wanted to, and could, restrain his men from killing captives. He told Procter ‘I conquer to save; you to kill’, showing him to be a more christian2 soldier than his ally.

E – Economic and Financial: The principal economic asset of the Indians was the land. This was directly threatened by white expansion. The tide of settlers had pushed game from the Indians’ hunting grounds, and the Indian economy had broken down. Tecumseh was disgusted by the inequality of the bargains, like selling land for liquor and trinkets, or selling most of present-day Ohio and part of Indiana in exchange for goods valued at $20,000. He wanted Indians to reject white men’s consumer goods, such as firearms, alcohol, and European-style clothing. Not all Indians agreed that contacts with Europeans were wholly bad: the Choctaw chief, Pushmataha, insisted upon adhering to the terms of the peace treaties that had been signed with the USA government. The treaties granted the Indians annuity payments sometimes amounting to large subsidies to the tribes and their chiefs, and liberal distribution of liquor before the negotiations began. The American whites had assets which the Indians lacked: “These white Americans give us fair exchange, their cloth, their guns, their tools, implements, and other things which the Choctaws need but do not make …” Even Tecumseh ‘needed but did not make’ firearms, and went on using them until the day he died.

S – Social and Cultural: A society with cathedrals, steam engines, industrial towns, symphonies, novels, poems and paintings was culturally different from one which tracked buffalo and lived in tents. Europe also had land wars, poverty, drunkenness and disease, and it was these which it was transmitting most successfully to the Indians. Whites might easily ‘ply Indians with whiskey and challenge them to a target shooting contest’ to provoke and then punish them. Unfortunately for Tecumseh the vices came gift wrapped in such things as cloth, and iron tools and implements, which the Indians found that they wanted, but could not make. The ‘noble savages’ proved to have a powerful fifth column of hedonists, technomanes and fashionistas, like the Celts in Toulouse in the first century BC getting drunk on the great new Roman invention, wine. So it has generally been with primitive people everywhere. Even Tecumseh wore western clothes and bought and used guns: he learned to read, and with that skill he read treaties, a very western phenomenon. He out-Christianed the Christians at Fort Meigs. His story is punctuated by several instances in which Indians killed prisoners, and one in which a white man was burned at the stake; the surrender of Detroit took place because Tecumse and Brock played on Brigadier Hull’s probably realistic fear of what the Indians might do to his wife and daughter if he allowed the town to be taken by storm.

C – Constitutional and legal – The Indian tribal system was based on traditional rites and customs specific to each tribe. The tribes were ancient rivals and peoples whose languages were unintelligible to one another. Tecumseh had a vision of uniting the tribes against the Americans and forming an Independent Nation of Native Americans East of the Mississippi, under British protection. He conceived of an alliance of all remaining native people, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, from the prairies of the Midwest to the swamplands of Florida. Occasionally tribes had united, as in the Iroquois Confederation, but there was no tradition of large confederations. He had some success: recruits came from an estimated fourteen different tribal groups, including the Seneca, Wyandot, Sac, Fox, Winnebago, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Chippewa, Ottawa, Delaware, Miami and, of course, Shawnee.. But his plan was several bridges too far for many of the other Indians. The Shawnee leader Black Hoof and the Miami war chief Little Turtle wanted to maintain a peaceful relationship with the USA. They urged cultural adaptation and accommodation with the United States. Indians like them had driven Tecumse’s brother’s followers away to Prophetstown, and were among those who opposed the settlement when it was in being. In 1813 he made another long journey to arouse the tribes, which resulted in the uprising of the Alabama Creeks in response to his oratory, though the Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Cherokees (three of the ‘Five Civilized Tribes’) rebuffed him. (12) The painful disagreements about Tecumseh’s achievement are evident: I found that for the War of 1812 he assembled ‘the most formidable force ever commanded by a North American Indian’ on one source and ‘a small band of warriors’ in another. “

I – Individual and Random: Any military career is heavily dependent on luck. Napoleon should, by any reasonable calculation, have fallen at the Bridge of Arcola in 1796. Tecumseh similarly dodged the missiles until he reached the Thames River. His merits are alleged to have included oratory; magnanimity; resilience; persistence; bravery; intelligence; there was an ‘ardour of expression in his eye … that could not fail to endear him to the soldiers’ hearts’. It was fortunate for him that the American War of Independence and the War of 1812 enabled him to benefit from the division between the Europeans. The death of Brock, and the demerits of Procter worked against him.

P – Points of View: The world is currently divided between a conservative right which is generally happy with the status quo and a progressive left which thinks that nothing will be right until the evils of capitalism and imperialism have been rooted out. Tecumseh stands in the crossfire. For the conservatives he is a remarkable, but ultimately Palaeolithic figure who took on the modern world and lost. For the progressives he is a hero, a representative victim of a minority ethnic group fighting heroically against its genocide by frontiersmen, archetypal European imperialists. One expects to find his errors and failures stressed by the conservatives and omitted by the progressives, and his merits and successes to be hagiographically represented by the progressives and belittled by the conservatives. You can find examples of all of these in my piece on him. The omission by all of ‘Manifest Destiny’ shows that the centre of historical gravity has moved to the left so that this idea, characteristic of European thinking in the late nineteenth century, is now unmentionable. No doubt if it were proposed on Twitter now it would be deemed hate speech and banned. Clearly there were divided opinions about Tecumseh among contemporary Indians.

L – Language: Any topic which is part of this historiographical battleground will be dotted with linguistic landmines. It will be no good my saying that ‘Indians’ is universally understood and less cumbersome than ‘Native Americans’ or ‘First Nations’, because the progressives will insist that those terms should be used to suggest that possession was nine points of the law and the cowboys were, despite their white Stetsons, therefore the baddies. My use of English spelling will put some backs up. My description of Tecumseh as ‘Palaeolithic’ will provoke outrage. On another tack, Tecumseh’s famous ‘oratory’ is puzzling because of his lack of command of English, and the linguistic patchwork of the Indian tribes.

A – Alternative Hypothesis: if we were faced with an essay title such as “‘Tecumseh was an Indian Hero’ – Discuss’” we should have to show that the facts supported an alternative form of words such as that ‘Tecumseh was a hero to many Indians’. This would be an ‘alternative hypothesis’. This echoes the classroom environment from which I come.

C – Concepts: Cause, Change and Comparison: When looking at the story of Tecumseh we can reflect on the chain of events which brought about the plight in which he found himself. We shall mull over what it was that gave the Europeans the appetite and ability to cross the seas of the world and establish themselves in new places. Were the Palaeolithic First Nations (an oxymoron) doomed in a Darwinian sense to be ground under the heels of a culture with machine produced firearms? Could the Indians have retained a presence east of the Mississippi with better handling? Is there any way in which the death of Tecumseh and the plight of Chief White Halfoat in Catch-22 could have been avoided? With whom should Tecumseh be compared? Spartacus? Wat Tyler? Gandhi?

T – Time: Tecumseh fought a fight in his time, of his time. The debate on Tecumseh in the era of Trump is of our time, and could well be an issue in the Presidential election of 2020.

1 None of my googled sources mentioned this.

2 Deliberately not capitalised


[bibliography of sources available upon request]

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