1813 : Chief Tecumseh Killed at Battle of Thames

October 5, 2021 all-day

On October 5, 1813, Chief Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames / Battle of Moraviantown. Tecumseh had been a major enemy of Americans settling in the Northwest territory, including Michigan.  As a result of Tecumseh’s death and defeat, Natives were never again considered separate and equal partners in international relations.

The rest of the story:

The real Tecumseh was born circa 1768 in southern Ohio at the beginning of a sporadic but ferociously fought war that did not end until — and largely because — he was killed in 1813. In this conflict his Shawnee, the Miami, the Potawatomi and other nations of the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley region sought to defend themselves against the white settlers pioneering westward across the Appalachians.

Tecumseh was a warrior at 15; later he became a renowned field commander and a charismatic orator. By the early 1800s he had conceived of a Pan-Indian federation. In this union he hoped old tribal rivalries would be set aside so that the indigenous people of the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley could act as one in resisting the advancing whites. From a base on the Tippecanoe River in northern Indiana, he traveled from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico promoting this federation. His ambition was probably an impossible one; the Indian population of this territory was then less than 100,000 and that of the United States nearly seven million. Still, rumors of what he was up to greatly alarmed many frontier whites, including William Henry Harrison, the federal governor of the Indiana Territory. Formerly a Regular Army officer, Harrison negotiated with Tecumseh face-to-face on two occasions and assessed him as “one of those uncommon geniuses who spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things.”

In the fall of 1811 Harrison gathered a thousand men and, when Tecumseh was away, made a preemptive strike against his base on the Tippecanoe. After a brief fight several hundred garrison warriors withdrew from the village. The so-called Battle of Tippecanoe was, in effect, the first engagement of the War of 1812. In that war Tecumseh fought alongside the British because, unlike the Americans, they were not invading Indian lands. In August 1812 Tecumseh, leading a multitribal group of warriors, and a combined force of Canadian militia and British regulars surrounded Detroit. Fearing imminent massacre by “hordes of howling savages,” the aging and ailing Brig. Gen. William Hull surrendered Detroit and his 2,000-man army (Smithsonian, January 1994).

Tecumseh’s warriors soon struck deep into the United States, attacking forts and sending terrified settlers fleeing back toward the Ohio River. Harrison, called back to command U.S. forces in the West, spent nearly a year converting militiamen into passable professional soldiers. In the fall of 1813 he invaded Ontario. The British general, Henry Procter, retreated in panic. Fighting almost continuously for five days, Tecumseh and 600 warriors screened the British retreat, but on October 5 Harrison caught up with Procter at the Thames River near Moraviantown. The British general ignominiously fled; after a single American volley all his regular troops surrendered. Tecumseh meanwhile positioned his exhausted men in a patch of swampy woodland and told them he would retreat no farther. Having finished the British, Harrison sent dragoons and infantry into these thickets. After an hour of fierce fighting Tecumseh was killed, or presumably so. At least he was never again seen alive. For all practical purposes the Indian resistance movement ended in the Northwest.

Warriors who survived the battle told various stories. They had been forced to leave Tecumseh’s body on the field. They had carried him off, either mortally wounded or dead, and buried him in a secret place that whites would never find. As for the Americans, none of those who first overran Tecumseh’s position were acquainted with him. But they found an impressive-looking dead Indian who they were convinced was Tecumseh. Some cut strips of skin from this body, later tanning them for razor strops and leather souvenirs. When people arrived who did know him, some said the battered corpse was indeed Tecumseh’s. Others said it was not. Even Harrison could not positively identify it.

Nevertheless a number of Americans were to claim that they had personally vanquished the Shawnee leader. Most prominent was Richard Johnson, a Kentucky politician who fought at the Thames as a cavalry commander. Whether or not he was indeed “The Man Who Killed Tecumseh,” a great many of his constituents believed he was. With supporters chanting “Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh,” Johnson was first elected to the U.S. Senate and then, in 1836, to the Vice Presidency. With a little help from another catchy jingle, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” William Henry Harrison became President four years later.

man on horse back killing American Indian with battle scene around them

Johnson killing Tecumseh from frieze in the dome of the rotunda of US Capitol.  Filippo Costaggini- Architect of the Capitol.

Beyond the details and the accuracy of the scene depicted—they still are debated 200 years later—in retrospect we do know that on October 5, 1813, Tecumseh’s single-minded mission, a secure Indian homeland, died with him in Ontario, Canada, at the Battle of the Thames. Each “Death of Tecumseh” image allegorically, intended or not, captured not just the last moments of the chief’s life but also the demise of his dream.

Ironically, the same moment in time also symbolized an alternative vision. Colonel Richard M. Johnson, the man who took credit for killing Tecumseh, built a political career on his disputed accomplishment. More than two decades after the war, the colonel became the ninth vice president of the United States aided by the memorable and irreverent slogan, “Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.”


Michigan Every Day

Autumn 1813 : Tecumseh’s Death Launches Artwork and Political Careers, National Park Service.

Alysa Landry, “Native History : Tecumseh Defeated at Battle of the Thames, Indian Country Today“, October 5, 2013.

Bill Gilbert, “The Dying Tecumseh and the Birth of a Legend“,  Smithsonian Magazine, July 1995.

For more information, see Tecumseh : shooting star, crouching panther / Jim Poling Sr. Toronto : Dundurn Press, c2009.

If you like fiction, you may want to read The Frontiersmen: A Narrative by Allan W. Eckert. Description : The frontiersmen were a remarkable breed of men. They were often rough and illiterate, sometimes brutal and vicious, often seeking an escape in the wilderness of mid-America from crimes committed back east. In the beautiful but deadly country which would one day come to be known as West Virginia, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, more often than not they left their bones to bleach beside forest paths or on the banks of the Ohio River, victims of Indians who claimed the vast virgin territory and strove to turn back the growing tide of whites. These frontiersmen are the subjects of Allan Eckert’s dramatic history.

Against the background of such names as George Rogers Clark, Daniel Boone, Arthur St. Clair, Anthony Wayne, Simon Girty and William Henry Harrison, Eckert has recreated the life of one of America’s most outstanding heroes, Simon Kenton. Kenton’s role in opening the Northwest Territory to settlement more than rivaled that of his friend Daniel Boone. By his eighteenth birthday, Kenton had already won frontier renown as woodsman, fighter and scout. His incredible physical strength and endurance, his great dignity and innate kindness made him the ideal prototype of the frontier hero.

Yet there is another story to The Frontiersmen. It is equally the story of one of history’s greatest leaders, whose misfortune was to be born to a doomed cause and a dying race. Tecumseh, the brilliant Shawnee chief, welded together by the sheer force of his intellect and charisma an incredible Indian confederacy that came desperately close to breaking the thrust of the white man’s westward expansion. Like Kenton, Tecumseh was the paragon of his people’s virtues, and the story of his life, in Allan Eckert’s hands, reveals most profoundly the grandeur and the tragedy of the American Indian.

No less importantly, The Frontiersmen is the story of wilderness America itself, its penetration and settlement, and it is Eckert’s particular grace to be able to evoke life and meaning from the raw facts of this story. In The Frontiersmen not only do we care about our long-forgotten fathers, we live again with them.

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