Tribal Resistance under the Leadership of Tecumseh
Although the defeat of the tribes was inevitable given the disparity in technologies and population size, the tribes were not without hope or exceptional leadership. One of their most noble leaders was the Shawnee warrior, Tecumseh, who very nearly united the tribes in a strong confederation, one that might have forced the European-Americans to recognize fixed borders and limit their westward advance. As a young warrior, Tecumseh fought alongside Tory loyalists and Canadians during the European-American war for independence from Britain. During this period he met and became strongly influenced by the great Mohawk chief, Thayendanegea (called Joseph Brant by the Europeans), whose education at a Connecticut mission school served him well in his dealings with the European-Americans. From Thayendanegea, Tecumseh learned the importance of knowing one's enemy; and, over time, Tecumseh came to understand a great deal about how the Europeans and European-Americans thought and acted.
As the Ohio Valley opened to settlement after the withdrawal of British troops, Tecumseh was called upon to defend the territorial claims of his tribe against the encroaching European-Americans. His courage and calm leadership in battles with frontiersmen attracted other warriors to him, despite the fact that he was not himself a chief. In 1794, Tecumseh accompanied the Shawnee chief, Blue Jacket, against Anthony Wayne's army at Fallen Timbers, where the Shawnee were greatly outnumbered and routed by superior firepower. From this engagement, Tecumseh learned that individual tribes had no hope of standing against the growing numbers of European-Americans pouring through the eastern mountains and into the Ohio Valley and elsewhere.
During the next several years, Tecumseh grew angrier and angrier as his people were forced to endure ongoing encroachment onto lands guaranteed the Shawnee by treaty. Tensions on the frontier were increasing, and a council was held at Urbana in the Ohio Valley in an effort to reduce the threat of renewed open warfare. After a number of chiefs had spoken, Tecumseh, aged 31, stood to speak before the assembled tribes:
My brothers, how can our people continue to deceive themselves with their foolish belief in the supposed strength of the white chief Wayne's treaty signed at his fort of Greenville? The only difference between this treaty and the hundreds before it is the boundary line. Each time we have been told, 'This, Indian brother, is the last treaty; the one that will be honored by red men and white alike for all time.' Such lies make the vomit burn in my throat. This is not the last treaty. There will be another. And another after that. And others to follow. And each time it will be the Indians, your people and mine, who will be pushed back, not the whites. ...Think on this, brothers. Put aside our anger. Put aside your fear. Put aside your vain hopes. Think without prejudice of what I have said here and it will become clear to you as it is to me why the very leaves of the forest drop tears of pity on us as we walk beneath. And after you think on it, remember this: any child can snap with ease the single hair from the horse's tail, but not the strongest man, nor the wildest stallion, can break the rope woven of those same hairs.
If the North American tribes were to retain their sovereignty, they must, Tecumseh understood, put aside their intertribal hatreds and unite against the European-Americans. Such a confederation, far weaker than its adversary in its capacity to wage prolonged warfare, had enabled the colonists to emerge victorious against the powerful British empire. With very little active support from even his own tribe's civil chiefs, Tecumseh traversed the continent in an effort to bring the tribes together into a formidable confederation. In the end, this effort failed, primarily because the tribes were unwilling to subordinate themselves to a central authority in command of a permanent military on the European model. The eastern tribes, particularly the Iroquois, had little stomach left for warfare with the European-Americans and were noncommittal. Other tribes could not see past traditional rivalries with one another. As the threat of war grew near, Tecumseh approached the southern Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes and asked them to remember their glorious past while looking realistically to the future:
Where today are the Pequot? Where the Narraganset, the Mohican, the Pocanoket and many other once powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, as snow before a summer sun. In the vain hope of defending alone their ancient possessions, they have fallen in the wars. ...
The annihilation of our race is at hand, unless we unite in one common cause against the common foe. ...
Tecumseh did succeed in establishing a small intertribal village on the Tippecanoe River, attracting hundreds of warriors from many tribes who shared his vision and were anxious to follow his leadership. In October of 1811 and in his absence, a force under William Henry Harrison advanced against this village. A brief battle ensued in which Tecumseh's forces actually bested Harrison's army. However, the renewal of hostilities had come before Tecumseh was ready and the confederation he sought had not yet grown large enough for a sustained conflict. After Tippecanoe, one fierce tribe, the Potawatomi, independently initiated their own campaign against the European-Americans on the frontier; other tribes did the same. The British in Canada were also agitating the tribes and supplying them with arms; and, as the conflict widened Tecumseh recognized that the only hope left for his cause was to once again give his support to the British cause.
During the War of 1812, Tecumseh and around 1,000 warriors from various northern tribes supported the British effort to take Detroit and secure the Great Lakes region. Boldness on the part of Tecumseh and British commander Major General Isaac Brock, combined with the cowardice of the Union general William Hull, yielded an almost bloodless capture of the Union fortress at Detroit in August. Despite this victory, negotiations between the British and Union officials had already resulted in one armistice, and Tecumseh suffered no illusions of British concern for the wellbeing of the tribes. Faced once again with vacillation on the part of the British military command, Tecumseh left the northern war in an effort to bring the southern tribes into the conflict.
In October, Isaac Brock was killed at Niagara. Command of the British forces in North America was then handed over to an arrogant and largely incompetent officer, Colonel Henry A. Procter. Amazingly, as the year 1813 began, Procter did achieve a significant victory over an army of 850 Kentuckians who were advancing against Frenchtown on the Raisin River (some 20 miles south of Detroit). The Kentuckians suffered another serious loss of nearly 500 men when they were ambushed by Tecumseh on their way to relieve Union forces at Fort Meigs on the Maumee River. The British siege of Fort Meigs failed, however, and Procter withdrew his army to the north. Tecumseh's own force then began to dwindle as warriors left for home.
The pivotal engagement of the war occurred not on land but on the waters of the Great Lakes themselves. Union naval forces miraculously won a major victory in September of 1813 on Lake Erie, when admiral Oliver Hazard Perry defeated the British fleet. Soon thereafter, Procter retreated in the face of another advancing army of Kentuckians, a decision that infuriated Tecumseh; yet, short of killing Procter himself, Tecumseh could do nothing to effect a change in British plans. Some 5,000 Union regulars and militiamen under William Henry Harrison recaptured Detroit and pursued the British into the peninsula that separates Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie -- on Canadian territory. Tecumseh decided to stand and fight at Chatham, on the Thames River, ten miles east of Lake St. Clair. This proved to be his final battle, and after his death the will of the northern tribes to resist further encroachments disappeared. One by one, the tribes were removed from the lands of their birth. The Ottawa, the Miami, Mississinewa, Wyandot, Potawatomi all yielded their territories to the oncoming settlers. The Winnebago, Sauk (Sac) and Fox tribes resisted briefly, but also relinquished their lands. Nearly 200 million acres was acquired by the Union as a result of treaties imposed on the tribes. As a consequence, by the mid-1840s there were no indigenous tribes left in what at the time were called the Northwest Territories. The southern tribes fared no better. The Creeks, Cherokee, Chickasaw and Choctaw were all forced off their lands in rapid succession. An injustice of an entirely different sort was perpetrated by the European-Americans in Georgia, assisted materially by Andrew Jackson, against the Cherokee nation.