It’s time we talked about Tecumseh. There are compelling reasons to study this powerful brother. He organized a movement that was intended to block the westward expansion of the brash, young United States. This October marks two hundred years since he fell in battle. I will make the case that Tecumseh’s thinking provides the best framework for addressing the challenges of our time. The strategic landscape we face in the twilight of US power bears an eerie likeness—when you clear away the static—to the one he faced in its dawn.
We will begin by setting the stage. Next week we will address the geopolitics of Tecumseh’s world and how he responded to its opportunities and limitations. Finally we will bring it into the present. The forces stirring in those days have had two centuries in which to mature. We will consider how his insights might inform our own courses of action.
The effort led by Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa was driven by urgency. Not thirty years had passed since the thirteen colonies had broken with Britain. The trickle of settlers filtering across the mountains into Native territories was becoming a river, in violation of multiple assurances. The Yankee nation had been born to expand. Rebel commander Washington, for example, was part of a group of Virginians with a two and a half million acre land claim in the Ohio Valley. They and other speculators were frustrated at England’s recognition of the Appalachian Mountains as the western limit of white settlement. With England gone, the settlers became increasingly aggressive, their unauthorized incursions backed up, after the fact, by government forces. Tecumseh’s vision was to unite a multi-national Native confederation in the central continent between the Appalachians and the Mississippi, from the Gulf to the Great Lakes, to stem the settler tide.
Tecumseh traced the conflict in the middle continent to the arrival of Europeans two centuries before but its roots went farther back than that. It was the continuation of a process—called the “enclosure of the commons” whereby commonly held lands in Europe were seized by force for the benefit of a wealthy elite. As it overflowed Europe’s boundaries the process became known as “colonialism.” By the early nineteenth century it had reached the middle continent of North America.
Tecumseh crisscrossed the region, from the mountains to the Mississippi, pulling together a broad coalition based on a new paradigm. In the culture of tribal autonomy, Native political bodies (be they at the village/band level or larger associations) treated the Yankees and the European powers as just more tribes on the scene. You could as easily align your people with the Miami or the French, the Cherokee or the Anishinaabe, the US or the Chikasaw depending on how you viewed your interests at the time.
Tecumseh advanced a different analysis. The US, he argued, needed to be viewed as qualitatively different from other peoples due to the distinct internal logic that propelled it. The settler republic believed itself entitled to absorb all territories now occupied by other nations into its agrarian system. Indigenous people were obstacles to be tricked, bribed, displaced or destroyed in pursuit of this destiny. Any promises made by the whites were therefore just tactical maneuvers. If they made a deal with the Creeks it would give them a free hand to dispossess the Choctaw. Then, when they were ready, they would turn on the Creeks. Allying with the US for temporary advantage would be a form of delayed suicide, weakening Native leverage overall and leading ultimately your own destruction.
Land access among the tribes was mediated through a process of continual negotiation; bands settled in each others’ areas or shared hunting grounds or fertile gardening land for periods of years. These arrangements were fluid, responding to weather trends, droughts, political alliances and population changes. Where the whites settled, however, forests were cut down, fences built and roads constructed to bring more settlers, rendering the territory unusable (and off limits) to anyone else. Every advance by the white people was irreversible.
This called for a new politics of unity: whatever grievances there may be among the tribes—and some were long-standing—must be considered secondary to the existential conflict between Native peoples and the insatiable whites. Tecumseh proposed an all-Indian federation throughout the central region, to be pre-figured in the fighting coalition he was constructing. At its core would be a new, collective accountability. No land could change hands without the agreement of all the federated nations; no land could be transferred to the Americans under any circumstances.
Tecumseh and his nemesis, Gov. William Henry Harrison, the US military authority, both saw Native unity as the central issue. Tecumseh sought to build it, Harrison to prevent it. In an 1810 meeting between them Tecumseh spoke his frustration:
“You do not want unity among the tribes, and you destroy it. You try to make differences between them. We, their leaders, wish them to unite and consider their land the common property of all, but you try to keep them from this. You separate the tribes and deal with them that way, one by one, and advise them not to come into this union. Your states have set an example of forming a union among all the Fires, why should you censure the Indians for following that example?”
Tecumseh was a master orator and relentless traveler. As Harrison described him, “No difficulties deter him. For four years he has been in constant motion. You see him today on the Wabash, and in a short time hear of him on the shores of Lake Erie or Michigan, or on the banks of the Mississippi, and wherever he goes he makes an impression favorable to his purpose.”
That impression brought many to his cause but the enthusiasm was not unanimous. Long festering divisions over policy toward the whites were heated to the boiling point. Many communities split into factions. The Red Stick factions (the term originated with the Creeks) joined Tecumseh’s cause while the White Sticks aligned with Harrison. The risks were high. The US promised to honor the land base of any tribe that would take its side in the gathering conflict. Joining Tecumseh would mean sacrificing relative tranquility and access to trade goods—including the firearms needed to satisfy the global demand for furs—and the promised territorial security. If they went to war against the powerful United States and lost it would certainly mean exile and punishment. The Yanks complicated matters further by bribing some leaders into ceding lands to which they had no claim. President Jefferson encouraged his agents to entangle Native leaders in debt and demand land in payment.
Through the lens of white triumphalism, Tecumseh’s movement is taught as one more delaying tactic in a lost cause. The reality was more complex. At the heart of it was the fur trade, a major component of the global commodities market. European monarchies had reasons enough to encourage the failure of the anti-royal upstart republic. International trade added one more. They had a vested interest in preserving the western lands as fur-producing forest and wetland rather than seeing them cleared for farms as the settlers demanded. Only a few years before, Haitian revolutionaries had skillfully played Europeans off against each other in a successful bid to overthrow French rule and the slave system.
The next section will look at the prospects for Tecumseh’s campaign in light of the geopolitics of its time.