4:16 p.m. December 21, 2012

The War Nerd’s Twelve Days of 1812, Day Seven: Tecumseh’s Fall

(Previously: Day Six: Tecumseh’s War Part I)

Tecumseh reminds me of the Grizzly on California’s state flag. They put the bear on the flag as soon as they wiped them out. The hills around San Francisco Bay used to be full of grizzlies, making day hikes an iffy proposition. But once the last grizzly had been shot, they made the perfect symbol for our proud new state and all that crap.

Well, Tecumseh is a big deal in Ohio for the same reasons: he lets those boring Midwesterners imagine they’ve got some link to a wilder past that would give them heart attacks if they actually had to live in it.

Tecumseh was a Shawnee, and the Shawnee territory was the Ohio River Valley, pretty much the current borders of the state of Ohio. But long before Tecumseh came along, the Shawnee were forced out by the Iroquois, who claimed Ohio during the Beaver Wars. Yeah, "Beaver Wars" — and never you mind the jokes. We’re talking about fur-bearing mammals here, Canada’s national emblem. Those amphibious rodents that Walter Sobchack said were illegal within city limits.

It’s actually not as funny as it sounds. In fact, it’s kind of sad, and I’m not one to throw that word around casually. It started with fashion, believe it or not. In the 1600s, beaver skins were big money, because their fur made great hats, glossy and smooth. British and Dutch traders paid the Iroquois, the most entrepreneurial and aggressive of the tribes around New York, to bring back the pelts—paying them with muskets and booze. The Iroquois were smart; they were more interested in the guns than the whiskey. In fact, the Iroqouis did just about everything right, in dealing with the invaders…and they still got wiped out. Like I said in the previous installment, the lesson here is that when the space aliens land, there are no good strategies.

The northeast was like a shot from an atomic collider: the Europeans knocked into the place at lightspeed, and the particles they smashed into spun out creating other knock-on collisions that continued halfway across the continent. The Iroquois were one of the first tribal groups to meet the invaders, but they played it smarter than any other Eastern group, and for a while, they did damn well. They picked the right aliens — the British (the Dutch soon faded out of the picture), instead of the French. They focused on what really mattered: getting guns. They formed a confederation so they couldn’t be picked off, tribe by tribe. And they were grim, scary fighters.

By the mid 1600s, the Iroquois looked like they were becoming an empire. They wiped out their old enemies the Huron, the biggest tribe allied with the French. The Shawnee, who were also allied with the French, were on the Iroquois kill list because they were in the way, taking up good fur-trapping country in the lush river valleys of Ohio. The Iroquois settled in the Ohio Valley, earning the new tribal name “Mingo,” a Lenape word for “traitor.”

The Shawnee fled south. Tecumseh’s family ended up in Central Alabama, where his Shawnee band had settled among the Creeks. It wasn’t until the 1750s that the Iroquois’s decline finally reached the point that the Shawnee could move back to Ohio—and it wasn’t going to be a very long or peaceful stay even then.

This whole history of defeat and dispossession, exile and dreams about going back to the Ohio Country, is full of secondhand European story-echoes. It’s real Hannibal-vowing-revenge-for-his-dad stuff…and that’s part of the problem with talking about Tecumseh. His story got turned into a stew of European dreams and legends, so by now he’s supposed to have made all these speeches that sound like Walter Scott novels and Shakespeare plays and other trash.

Here’s an example from a speech Tecumseh supposedly made. I don’t believe it myself; sounds too much like the way Tacitus has the noble savages, the Germans, talk in his Roman histories (“These Romans make a desert and call it peace,” etc.). Sounds too much like a European schoolboy’s essay on the kind of assignment they used to give their kids, something like, “Write a speech by a noble Red Indian complaining of the wrongs done to his people.” Sounds too much like Jean-Jacques friggin’ Rousseau. Sounds too much like a lot of crap, basically. But if you like that kind of thing, here it is:

“Brothers, when the white men first set foot on our grounds, they were hungry; they had no place on which to spread their blankets, or to kindle their fires. They were feeble; they could do nothing for themselves. Our fathers commiserated their distress, and shared freely with them whatever the Great Spirit had given his red children… The Great Spirit made all things. He gave the white people a home beyond the great waters. He supplied these grounds with game, and gave them to his red children…”

All that stuff about “The Great Spirit” sounds fake to me, sounds like a half-bright preacher translating Calvin to the backwoods, but I guess it’s a matter of taste. If you like Chief Seattle talking ecology, that speech that Social Studies teachers love to put on posters, then you’ll just eat this stuff up.

I’d rather stick to the little we know about Tecumseh’s career as a fighter. He was born about ten years before the American revolution started, somewhere in Ohio—nobody’s even sure where, because the village he supposedly got himself born in didn’t exist at the time he showed up. Lotta legend-spinning in this story.

What’s definitely real is the blood. And it never stopped flowing in the Ohio Valley while Tecumseh was growing up. His father died in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, fighting to push back the Virginian whites invading the Valley. That was the landscape he grew up with: No sooner do the Iroquois roll through, killing everything in their path, than they’re gone too, crushed by the original cueball that started the whole billiard collider, the Anglos themselves. It was like surviving the tribes fleeing ahead of the Huns, only to run into Attila himself. Not much you can do about that except fight and die, run and die, collaborate and die.

Violence was non-stop, even before the next big war, the American Revolution, started. Tecumseh and a few other Shawnee youth took potshots at Yankee river traffic from the banks...Yankee raiding parties attacked his village a half dozen times before he was grown... and smallpox added the wrath of what must’ve seemed like God himself to the wrath of the Anglos, which was already bad enough.

This was the real apocalypse, not the Mayan hippie variant. And in a real apocalypse, you have a couple of options: religion or war. Tecumseh’s brother, Tenskwatawa, turned prophet and preached that some vague global disaster would kill all the invading whites. Tecumseh stuck to more practical solutions. Between them, they had the Shawnee End Times market cornered. They represented what you might call the radical trend in Shawnee reactions; the local Uncle Tom Shawnee, Black Hoof, wanted them out of the way while he tried to “just get along.”

In 1800-1809, the settler pressure led to a series of treaties — more like bribes — that sold most of Shawnee land to the Anglos. There was the usual hopeless confusion about what it meant to sell land, a concept the tribes didn’t really get, and who was entitled to sell them anyway, and what buying them entitled the newcomers to do.

The tribes had never really had to come up with a theory about land ownership. You owned what you could hold, for as long as you could hold it. Tecumseh and his brother were the first to make a formal argument for what the tribes had more or less believed all along: the land belongs to all of the tribes, all the time, for good. You can’t sell it any more than you can sell air or water (people weren’t stupid enough to buy water at that time).

You can imagine how this commie talk went down with the Scots-Irish settlers flooding into the Ohio Country. That pressure erupted into a little war, “Tecumseh’s War,” like an opening act for the frontier war of 1812. In 1811, Tecumseh threatened to kill the settlers’ leader, William Henry Harrison. So Harrison got a thousand armed settlers together and marched to Prophetstown, the HQ of Tecumseh’s weird “prophet” brother Tenskwatawa. When the Prophet’s followers tried a night attack on the whites, they were crushed. So much for the apocalypse, so much for counting on God to solve your problems for you. From that time on, it was Tecumseh’s methods, alliance and war, that the younger and more aggressive Shawnee trusted, not his god-bothering brother.

Even so, they had no hope on their own. And they were realistic enough to accept that fact. There was only one chance: A war between the two most powerful factions of the invaders, the British and the Yankees. And in 1812 that war arrived like the belated answer to the Prophet’s prayers.

Tecumseh did well, early on, getting tribes that had been bitter enemies to line up with him on the British side. The Brits, naturally, were making all kinds of promises to the tribes, none of which they had any intention of keeping—standard great-power sleaze. But they were definitely a better option than the Yankees, who were more like a mob, a very violent one at that. It was the Yankees, not the Brits, who’d killed Tecumseh’s father and run his brother out of Prophetstown. The Brits looked like bleeding-heart human rights activists by comparison.

Tecumseh’s moment of glory came when the British general Isaac Brock laid siege to the American fortress of Detroit in the summer of 1812. Brock was smart enough to realize that the Yankees were scared to death of Injuns and also very confused about how many of them there were (because the truth was that between introduced diseases and constant irregular warfare, there weren’t all that many). Tecumseh had only brought 400 warriors to Detroit. So that ol’ slyboots Gen. Brock, using what may officially rank as the oldest trick in the book of military ruses, had Tecumseh’s warriors march out of the forest, parade past the fort just outside of cannon range, and then do another few laps—the same few warriors, lap after lap. It kinda helped that Detroit was under the command of a freakishly stupid and cowardly general, William Hull, who took one look at what seemed to be a non-stop parade of Injuns, peed his pants and surrendered on the promise that he wouldn’t be scalped.

And that, by the way, was the other contender for “Worst American Showing of the War.” I had to give the prize to Bladensburg because that was a full-spectrum clusterfuck, where the troops were as miserable as their commanders and their Founding Fathers... whereas Detroit was purely and simply a command failure. But it’s definitely a good close second for disgusting cowardice and stupidity, and it would’ve won in a less stellar field. Good enough for a Dishonorable Mention, anyway.

That was the high point for Tecumseh. The rest is not so good. The Brits replaced Brock, a good commander, with a coward named Procter, whose brilliant war-fighting plan was to flee to Canada and leave all the Ohio River Valley to the Yankees. Here Tecumseh learned the hard way what happens when small powers put their fate in the hands of big-power allies — they’re at the mercy of the next commander sent from the big power’s capital, no matter how incompetent he is.

Tecumseh supposedly made another of those highly suspect, Shakespearean speeches to Procter, calling him “Father” and begging him to stay and fight for the Shawnee lands, but Procter saw no point. To him, the forest around Detroit was a howling wilderness, without supplies and a secure naval force on the lakes to watch his flank.

You really see why these native-Great Power alliances never turn out well for the native allies in this story. To Tecumseh and his men, this area was home, the most important ground in the world. But to Procter, it was one of the nastier and less valuable parts of a worldwide empire. So he pulled back into Ontario, withdrawing in what, for him, was a sensible move, toward his Canadian base.

Procter was in such a hurry to withdraw that he exhausted his men, ruined his equipment, and ended up facing the American advance with hungry, confused, demoralized forces—the British troops sick of the whole thing, and Tecumseh’s warriors sick at having to abandon the ground they’d come to fight for.

On October 5, 1813, the Americans caught the fleeing force in Southern Ontario and mauled it easily. In fact, it was pretty clear that Procter and his British troops were relieved that they could finally put up their hands and accept POW status. They fired one volley, dropped their muskets, and put their hands up — Napoleonic battle etiquette for “Like, we’re just not into it today, anyway.” The casualties tell the story, as usual: British forces had a mere 12 KIA, 22 wounded, and 600 captured. That’s a force that never wanted to fight in the first place.

Tecumseh and his fighters were into there to fight—and paid for it when the Americans turned all their power on them. Tecumseh died somewhere in this rout. It was a sad death too. Before the battle, Tecumseh rode along the battle line shaking hands with each British officer, as if he thought that would mean something to them. Mistake. Procter, who clearly just wanted an excuse to surrender, lined his men up on flat ground without earthworks; Tecumseh’s men positioned themselves in a swamp where it’d be hard for the US cavalry to charge them.

The battle opened with an American cavalry charge, which was more than enough for the redcoats, who fired that one symbolic volley and reached for the sky. Tecumseh and his men fired for effect, not for show, and inflicted the Americans’ only casualties of the day — including the American cavalry commander, who was hit five times. That meant that they became the focus for American revenge, now that the British contingent had made it clear they were through fighting. American troops converged on the swamp, infantry managing to penetrate where the cavalry had been bogged down. And in the confused brush fight, Tecumseh died.

With his death, the confederation he put together dissolved, and the Yankees were able to make separate deals with the various tribes of the Ohio Country, buying them off one by one until nothing at all was left.

The British totally abandoned the tribes in the negotiations at the end of the war, but on the frontier they’d stopped mattering once Procter blew it at the Battle of the Thames. Losing the British was a disaster for the tribes there, in the same way that losing the USSR was a disaster for Cuba: the counterweight to the great power right at your doorstep (and your throat) was gone.

After Tecumseh’s death, the Indian Wars moved west of the big river, and by now nobody really remembers that a while back, boring ol’ Ohio was like a temperate-zone version of the Congo, with dozens of different raiding parties keeping the dull times off for anyone in the forest.

But Tecumseh had his revenge. Not only did he become a big weepy symbol like the CA grizzly, but the British officer who deserted him in his last battle was properly chastised. Yes indeed: At a court martial in 1814, General Henry Procter was sentenced to six months’ loss of pay. That’ll teach him.

(Next: Day Eight: Lake Fight!)

Back channel chatter

There is a scribble about this dispatch in the backroom, with four contributors.