The United States in Tecumseh’s day was bold and brash but untested, its survival far from assured. It had only won independence with backing from the Dutch, Spanish and (decisively) the French governments. Europe’s shadow still lay deep over the Americas. Any developing conflict offered a wedge for Europe to pursue its interests just as conflicts in Europe offered leverage for organized interests on the ground.
In the wake of the recent Haitian Revolution, plantation rebellions had spread around the Caribbean and even to the mainland. Fearing the spread of the contagion the US had imposed a trade embargo on the rebel island and banned talking drums – an instrument of the revolution—from its own plantations. Haiti had also provided refuge and support to Simon Bolivar whose movement was in the process of toppling Spanish rule and whose politics of independence—unlike those of the US—were abolitionist.
Tensions were already on the rise in the new republic between a mercantile/small farm north experiencing population pressures and a southern cotton-growing export economy facing soil exhaustion. The only safety valve available for these pressures would be expansion into Native lands across the mountain range. Indeed, the issue of land use in newly conquered territories would cause the nation to violently implode forty years later.
The fledgling US military could handle limited conflicts with individual Native nations. The prospect of a protracted war against a united front of all the tribes on its western flank was a more worrisome matter. Committing the forces necessary for an all-out conflict could leave the republic open to British re-invasion (which, as it turned out, was not long in coming). It would require long, exposed supply lines through vast stretches of hostile country. Its troops would face a highly mobile foe, continually resupplied by a supportive populace and potentially armed by France or England by way of Canada and New Orleans. For the Natives side, the standard of success merely required keeping the settler state from succeeding for long enough. The US, on the other hand, would have to subdue and occupy a quarter of continent while protecting the original colonial base from its old enemies. The alliance it would face—as Tecumseh ambitiously envisioned it—could conceivably field up to 50,000 warriors. A large territory, openly hostile to the US would also be an irresistible magnet for refugees from the slavery system—as would soon be illustrated in the Seminole wars. A number of Blacks and whites did fight on Tecumseh’s side as the coalition grew in breadth. His personal secretary was a Metis man of reported Scottish/Pottawatomie descent.
As Tecumseh traveled among the nations he emphasized not only the relentless destruction wrought by white expansion but also the closing door of opportunity. Already precious decades had been lost while the settler republic grew in strength and purpose. By the time each Native nation had learned the truth the hard way, it would be too late. The issue must be forced now, before a new world order was imposed upon the land – one with no Indian people on it.
In November 1811, Harrison’s forces attacked and burned Tecumseh’s administrative headquarters, Prophetstown, at the confluence of the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers. The leader was away recruiting allies. Tenskwatawa—a spiritual but not a military leader—led the defenders as best he could but the element of surprise and insufficient ammunition contributed to their defeat, the destruction of their base and the loss of their winter stores. Although Prophetstown would be rebuilt, the alliance never recovered. The pace of conflict increased throughout the territories after that but to Tecumseh the movement was still in its preparatory phase, not yet ready for war. Harrison would ride his victory at Tippecanoe straight to the White House.
When the new Madrid earthquake shook the south and Midwest a month later it brought a new influx of recruits to the cause, convinced now of Tenskwatawa’s prophesies. It was never enough. Open conflict began just as US/British tensions reached the breaking point and Tecumseh brought his forces into alliance with the Brits. A savvy strategist, he was not naive about his new partner’s reliability but he had little choice but accept its earnest promises of mutual support. He would fall in battle near Chatham, Ontario after his British allies abandoned the field. Britain would soon settle with the US, making no provision for its Native allies.
Elements of the alliance continued the fight for a time. Some traveled to the Florida wetlands to play a role in the Indian/African resistance known as the Seminole wars. The US wasted no time in seizing all the land of the tribes that had sided with Harrison’s. Its vision brooked no distinction between hostile Indian and friendly Indian; there was only vulnerable Indian. With the Native front broken, the white tide flowed west.
Tecumseh never envisioned the expulsion of white settlement from North America. His, more modest, goal was to stop the damage from spreading. Had his federation solidified it would have still faced an ascendant power incapable of bowing to limits. Unfettered by a feudal past, US capitalism was aggressive and dynamic. Philadelphia merchants, bloated from war profiteering during the independence struggle, were sending ships across the world in search of commodities to purchase and markets to corner. Within decades new technologies—the railroad, the Gatling Gun and the barbed wire fence—would transform the dynamics of war and of land occupation. The past was not coming back.
Nor did he seek to create a Native republic to compete with other nations on their terms. Even the fur trade was not a certainty. It was viewed by some much the way tribal gambling is seen today: a source of income and political leverage but also an engine of division and decline. Already it was taking a toll on animal populations. Tenskwatawa considered it a threat to traditional subsistence practices, a cause of fierce competition among tribes and an entry point for alcohol (he had himself been alcoholic until he had the vision that transformed him into “The Prophet”).
A powerful, united resistance would nevertheless have reshaped the political geography of the west, incorporating greater Native influence and a more meaningful reservoir of sovereignty. The recognition of defeat by Sitting Bull’s generation would codify a reversal of fortunes: now Native people were confined to isolated enclaves in a sea of white settlement (a system later echoed in the S. African bantustan system). This arrangement nonetheless represented a concession to continued Indian resistance. Instead of pursuing the dissolution of the tribes, a US exhausted by the devastation of the Civil War preferred to settle than face endless rebellious flare-ups, disrupting its imperial ambitions. Even after a century of white predation, lands under formal Indigenous control comprise 2.3% of the US land area, or 55 million acres and even larger swaths of Canada. The strategic surrender of the post-civil war Indian leadership secured for the people oases of cultural sovereignty, however degraded, from which mass Indian resistance would one day reemerge.
It would be seven generations before Tecumseh’s vision of pan-Indian unity would find expression in such organizations as the American Indian Movement, Women of All Red Nations and the Indian International Treaty Council. As in Tecumseh’s time, the new leadership emerged from outside the official structures of its time. By then the circle of fires had expanded. These groups would find common cause with the descendents of enslaved workers, settlers and immigrants from throughout the empire. The African-American rebellion against the post-slavery system of racial exploitation had lit the fire for insurgent movements all across the map, Indian country included.
The aftermath of those movements, coming as US power reached and passed its peak, would set the stage for today’s emerging movements. In our time, as the enclosure of the commons enters its final, farcical stage, the spirits of Tecumseh and Harrison face each other once again, embodied in a new alignment of forces that so much resembles the old. In our final installment, we will examine how this is so.