The War Nerd’s Twelve Days of 1812, Day Six: Tecumseh’s War Part I
(Previously: Day Five: Rhode Island, The Little State that Wouldn’t)
Tecumseh is maybe the biggest figure of the War of 1812, the one who defines that moment in history. His life was the last chance for the Indian tribes east of the Mississippi — and his death in 1813 marked the last time those tribes would ever matter, or even exist. So he gets two out of my 12 Days of 1812.
In the first part, today’s episode, I’ll talk about the world he was born into: The nightmare Balkan War of the Northwest Frontier in the late 1700s. It’s a scary place, one that most Americans know nothing about. And for good reason — this ain’t the kind of story Hollywood would like.
When I was a kid, Tecumseh was on my list of Indian heroes, along with Chief Joseph, Crazy Horse, and Geronimo. Like every other Okie family, mine had stories about being one-sixteenth Cherokee — and that was a point of pride. Which is weird when you think about it, because we weren’t what you’d call bleeding-heart liberals. To put it mildly.
The one soft spot they had for any “minority” was this all-star list of gloriously defeated Injuns. That’s the key: “gloriously defeated.” Once the aboriginals are safely wiped out, they’re instantly loveable.
Ever hear a song called “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”? Ira Hayes was one of the guys raising the flag on Iwo Jima in that famous photo. And a Pima from Arizona. He came home from WW II, turned drunk, died in a stupid fight over a card game...and it was only after he was safely dead that his glorious career really began, with Johnny Cash himself singing that ballad about how “the white man’s greed” caused all of Ira’s troubles. Not Brando, not some progressive hippie—country singers.
It’s like a kind of imperial necrophilia. I don’t know what else to call it. Once the tribes are gone, you’re sorry; when they’re still around, you’re just scared.
Tecumseh’s life and death show the change from being scared of the Ohio Valley tribes while they were still there, to necrophilizing them after they were exterminated. His death in battle in October 1813, fighting alongside the British against the Americans, was the end of the Sixty Years War. Yes, there really was a Sixty Years War here, A long series of little wars with funny names that amounted to one big war between white invaders and red defenders over what they called “the Northwest” back then, what we’d call “the upper Midwest” now. You only see this Sixty Years War come into focus when you piece together all the little wars that made up a classic irregular war, with short periods of official peace between phases of massacre and counter-massacre:
1754-1763: The French and Indian War: This was the first of the true world wars, and it started with the French and English empires fighting over the Ohio River Valley.
1763-1765: Pontiac’s Rebellion: Named after the chief of the Ottawas, a diehard French ally, not the car; in fact, the car was named after him, a classic example of that Imperial Necrophilia I was talking about.
1774: Lord Dunmore’s War: The pushy white Virginians were pushing west into the Ohio River Valley, displacing the Shawnee, Tecumseh’s tribe. I had a boss who was a Virginian, and dumb enough to brag about it. He used to stand over my desk and once even reached out to straighten my tie, which shows you those bastards are still breeding true.
1775-1783: The Revolution. This one set the pattern for what happened in the War of 1812: The British in Canada encouraged the Ohio River Valley tribes to fight the white Americans, promising them a safe homeland once the rebels were crushed—and then deserted their so-called Indian allies without even hesitating during the peace negotiations with said rebels. Remember the ending of Lawrence of Arabia? Same thing.
And this is where it gets hard to talk about, because we’re all so moral. Or we pretend to be.
Primitive warfare is about massacres. That’s how it’s done. “Battles” don’t make sense, most of the time. Why waste your scarcest resource, your warriors, by using them up against other warriors? Maybe you can afford to do that if you’re a giant agricultural/industrial urban culture that breeds soldiers to spare. Remember Bonaparte’s famous line as he stepped daintily across the corpses after a big battle: “Bah! One night in the brothels of Paris will make good our losses.” Pretty suave, that little Corsican, but you can’t say that if you’re the leader of a so-called Confederation of tribes, when some of those tribes have maybe five hundred members—total.
The American tribes were remnants, ghosts of that they’d been in 1491. Nobody’s sure how many people were living in the Western Hemisphere before the Europeans started fraternizing over here, but it might’ve been as many as fifty million. But that was a huge growth from a tiny gene pool; only a few Siberians had made it across the land bridge to start that population. So the tribes had basically zero genetic diversity, and the very second the first Spaniard sneezed on the North American mainland, the viruses started spreading by trade routes, marriage swaps, flea markets, you name it. Natives who were hundreds of miles inland died of European diseases, without ever meeting or even hearing about those Europeans.
The great American wilderness hadn’t been anywhere near as wilderness-y until the epidemics did their job. By the time they were done, most of the bigger, more urbanized tribes of the inland valleys were gone. Only a few remnant bands were traipsing around, sticking to smaller groups, living a more hunting-based life. And however you want to admire those hunter-gatherer folks—they make great documentaries, sure, but they’ve got one weakness: They don’t breed enough soldiers.
At the Battle of Fallen Timbers, remember, the chiefs had worked very hard to do the smart thing: combine forces for once against the invaders. Not easy to do when inter-tribal warfare is your main rite of passage, but they did it…and they still only managed to assemble a miserable 1500 warriors. That’s not even one division in conventional terms. When you recall that by 1861, the Union Army alone enlisted 2,200,000 men, you get some idea of the hopelessness of hunter-gatherer, or even subsistence-agriculture societies trying to face up to agri-industrial giants. It just can’t be done, and if you try to meet them in battle you’ll not only lose, you’ll look plain ridiculous doing it.
So you do the smart thing: you go for the settlers’ vulnerable outposts, try to convince them it’s not healthy to move out of their impregnable urban hives. That strategy has at least a chance of short-term success, because terror is the greatest force multiplier (to use Army jargon) ever invented. One well-staged massacre, with the rumors that follow it, can empty a whole district with what are actually much lower casualties than you’d have to inflict by something like, say, napalming or carpet bombing every settlement in the area.
Except that the settlers they’re fighting against have the same idea, human minds being what they are, “a dark and bloody ground.” So they’re looking for your villages too, especially when your warriors are away and there’s an easy massacre to be had. The Ohio landscape — that same place that seems like the most boring part of the whole country now — saw some of the weirdest massacres on the planet, Congo included. Take the Gnadenhutten Massacre of 1782, a classic mess that happened in the middle of the Revolution, in the chaos as tribes divided among themselves over how to deal with the big war between British and Yankees.
It’s a classic mind puzzle here, and it’s worth remembering what happened in case space aliens ever land on earth and we have to face the same choices that the Indians faced. The Lenape, an Eastern Ohio tribe, had three options: side with the British, side with the Yankees, or try to stay neutral. They couldn’t flee, because they’d already done that. The Lenape were originally an East-Coast tribe who’d gone west to escape the swarming, infinite Yankee hordes.
The one wild card available to them was these pacifist German missionaries, the Moravian Brothers. The Germans were the hippie peaceniks of the Frontier. It was the Anglos who solved all their problems with a gun, whereas the Germans were full of the “Peace of Christ.” That was a peace which passed all understanding, like preachers love to say. It was especially beyond the understanding of the bone-mean Scots-Irish settlers who’d lost family to the cycle of massacre and counter-massacre and tended to see Injuns as vermin to be exterminated.
Some of the Lenape allied with the Brits, some with the Yankees, and some ran to the peace of Christ, huddled with the German peaceniks and shunned war.
And none of those strategies worked. That’s the lesson here: When the aliens land, there is no good strategy.
The big Lenape village, Coshocton, had already been destroyed by Yankee militia. The peacenik Lenape who hugged onto the Moravian Christians were forced by other Lenape allied to the British into a settlement located inside the British-controlled zone, called “Captive Town.” (They weren’t as squeamish about words back then.) The problem with life in Captive Town—well, one of several problems—was that there was no food. So a party of about a hundred Christian Lenape snuck back to their villages, which were now in the hands of Yankee frontier militia, to see if they could bring some of the crops they’d raised back to their families in Captive Town. They got caught by a raiding party of Yankee settlers. By “raiding party” I really mean “mobile massacre squad.” Let’s call it straight, that’s what they were, and they operated on both sides. But for sheer bloodlust, no tribe can match a bunch of Ulster Presbyterian settlers who’ve just sat through a three-hour sermon on the torments of Hell. So the Lenape were out of luck.
Oh, the settlers were all democratic about it. That’s what distinguishes your Anglo ethnic cleanser from your lesser breeds: Before the Anglo squad starts tomahawking their victims, Robert’s Rules of Order will be carefully observed. So the raiding party held a vote, which was fair and open by all accounts, and passed a resolution, something like: “Resolved: That we shall have a good rest and tomorrow morning we shall scalp the Lenape to death.”
Which they did. The Lenape spent the night singing the Christian hymns those ridiculous German peaceniks had taught them (when the aliens land, you always try to learn their magic formulas). It didn’t do any good. One hundred men, women and kids were tied up, stunned with mallets like steers, and then “fatally scalped” with tomahawks. I’m not sure what “fatally scalped” means, exactly. What they usually say about scalping is that it wasn’t fatal in itself, but the victim tended to resist it to the point of death, so a scalp was a fair proof you’d killed. At any rate, two scalped Lenape children survived.
The militia followed the rules of primitive warfare — as in there ain’t none. They looted the villages after killing the Lenape, taking any metal objects they could find. Metal was always useful on the frontier, beating your ladles into swords, yea and your plowshares into musket barrels.
In all, the score was 28 Lenape men killed, 29 women, and 39 kids. When the story got out, there was a sort of RNC vs. Free Republic argument among the Yankees: The brass was annoyed, feeling that this was not proper war, but the grassroots was all in favor. Nobody was brought to trial. Many of the settlers who took the lead in hacking the Lenape captives to death had lost family in native raids. It wasn’t a nice war on any side, though my sense is that like I said, you just can’t match those Ulster Presbyterians in a massacre contest. You sure don’t find a lot of Pacifist Christians among those people. They hit first, and prayed after.
Tecumseh came straight out of this nasty war of massacre and counter-massacre. His father was killed by Yankee invaders during Lord Dunmore’s War, one of the series of small wars that made up the big Sixty Years War. The Shawnee, Tecumseh’s tribe, were trying to push back against the Virginians pushing them out of Ohio—where they’d fled from earlier territories to the east and south.
The Shawnee took the British option for dealing with alien invasion. It was a sensible option — the British were a government, an administration, rather than a tribe proper, at least after the Yankees detached themselves in 1775. That meant that if you sided with the British, you could deal with officers and bureaucrats whose word had a chance of holding for a while. Which wasn’t the case with the Yankees, who were a tribe more than an administration. Time and again, you’d make a deal with the Yankee leaders, and then the Free Republic rank and file, always more bloodthirsty than their leaders (at least til Andy Jackson came along) would erupt in their old tomahawking, burning, pillaging ways. You were better off with the British—until they decided to make their own deal, at which point they had a bad habit of conveniently dumping their “brave native allies” in the sulfuric-acid soup without a qualm.
Like I said: No good options when the aliens land.
And that was the world Tecumseh was born into. The trend was already real clear by the time he got born in 1768. He’d have been about six when his father was killed by the Yankees. And by the time he was 15 he joined a band of hardcore young Shawnee committed to pushing back the Yankee tide. It was a brave move and had as good a chance of working as any other — which was nil, zip, nada. But Tecumseh had a good try, which I’ll cover in the next episode.
After his death, that was white land, like it or not. Which made him tragic instead of scary. To show you how tragic Tecumseh got the instant he was safely dead, take Gen. William T. Sherman. That “T” stands for “Tecumseh.” Sherman was born in Ohio, on the same ground Tecumseh’s Confederation had fought for, and his dad admired the dead chief so much he named his son after him.
(Next: Day Seven: Tecumseh's Fall)