CM . . .
. Volume XVI Number 20. . . .January 29, 2010
Canadian readers of a certain age may remember Tecumseh as a great native warrior who allied his people with the British and Canadians in the War of 1812 against the American forces. As was the case of General Isaac Brock, Tecumseh’s death in battle helped to cement a place in Canadian history books. In this biography, journalist, biographer and memoirist Jim Poling Sr. does all readers a great service by telling Tecumseh’s story in the context of his doomed vision to unite the American Indians into a confederacy that could stop the invasion of their homelands and loss of their way of life as American settlers swept into Native lands south of the Great Lakes and west of the Appalachians. In Poling’s telling, Tecumseh’s death at the Battle of Moraviantown in Upper Canada marked the end of Indian resistance to American expansion into the Old Northwest.
Tecumseh, whose name means Shooting Star, was likely born in the spring of 1768 in a Shawnee settlement, Kispoko, along the Scioto River, a tributary of the Ohio River south of Lake Erie. Tecumseh’s father was a war chief of the panther clan, and Tecumseh’s family included a sister and four brothers, one of whom was a white child captured a few years earlier during a raid on settlers in West Virginia. Stephen Ruddell (Big Fish), another Indian captive from Kentucky, became Tecumseh’s blood brother and lifelong friend, and it is his Reminiscences of Tecumseh’s Youth that the author often draws upon for some of his accounts of the life and times of Tecumseh.
Poling occasionally makes use of recreated dialogue but prefers to develop his narrative without resorting to this style of recreation. Poling clearly describes the tumultuous world that Tecumseh was born into where Indian males were raised to be warriors and hunters and whose lands were constantly threatened by white politicians and entrepreneurs like those behind the Ohio Company that wanted to obtain Indian lands cheaply by treaty or force or both in order to make room for expanding white settlement. This use of the land was inconsistent with the native way of life with its reliance upon hunting in mature forests, small-scale farming, migration, and communal rights to property. Skirmishes between natives and American militias and frontier settlers, and squabbles between tribes could easily end in death. In fact, Tecumseh’s father was killed when he was a boy of six, and his older brother took over the role of instructing his brothers in the art of warfare and led raids on settler outposts until he, too, was killed in the fall of 1792.
Tecumseh’s younger brother, who recreated himself as the Prophet Tenskwatawa and leader in the Indian revivalism movement, played a curious role in drawing natives to Prophetstown in the Ohio valley and facilitated Tecumseh’s efforts to build a native confederacy during the first decade of the nineteenth century. William Henry Harrison, the American governor of the new Indiana Territory, was insatiable in his quest to negotiate land treaties for vast regions of the northwest. Tecumseh challenged the validity of these treaties and earned Harrison’s enmity and respect. Harrison’s decision in 1811 to attack and destroy the settlement at Prophetstown while Tecumseh was away building support for his confederacy served to convince Tecumseh that his only hope of stopping further American expansion was to ally his confederacy with the British in Canada.
Poling strives for balance, avoiding hagiography while emphasizing Tecumseh’s generosity and personal code of ethics with his disdain for torture and burning of captives and the killing of women and children that sometimes was conducted by native warriors. In Poling’s telling, Tecumseh emerges as a noble warrior and leader, but one who could not prevent independent natives from attacking settlers. Harrison emerges as a crafty, ambitious leader determined to put an end to the Indian problems once and for all. General Brock, who recaptured the British fort at Detroit in the summer of 1812 with Tecumseh’s assistance, is portrayed as a decisive military leader and one of the few who fully grasped Tecumseh’s goals and who respected and supported Tecumseh and his Indian allies. Following Brock’s untimely death, the British and Indian forces experienced some victories against the Americans, but the Americans’ naval supremacy on Lake Erie set the stage for an invasion of Canada and the retreat of the British forces. Tecumseh’s death at the Battle of the Thames at Moraviantown in October of 1813 would ultimately lead to the death of the Indian confederacy and the dream of an independent Native homeland in the Ohio valley.
Like other volumes in the Quest Library, this volume includes an extensive chronology of Tecumseh and his times printed beside a complementary column chronicling Canada and the world. There is a serviceable index that includes subentries under Tecumseh, a good bibliography that includes urls for older works that have been digitized, a half-dozen portraits of figures from the biography and even a couple of maps that are appropriate. Overall, this is a very good biography and resource for studying Tecumseh’s period of history in the American northwest and the role that native peoples played in the War of 1812. One complaint worth noting is that Poling devotes too much time to discussing the so-called “Tecumseh’s Curse” that saw Harrison, elected President of the USA in 1840 and all future presidents through Kennedy elected in a year ending in “0,” die in office.
Val Ken Lem is the Collections Evaluation and Donations Librarian and subject liaison for History, English and Caribbean Studies at Ryerson University in Toronto, ON.
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Copyright © the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.