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Tecumseh's Great Earthquake

topic posted Sat, February 24, 2007 - 3:21 AM by  Unsubscribed
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Tecumseh's Great Earthquake

Back in the late 18th Century, America had not moved much further west than the east bank of the Mississippi River. Just about everything west of the Ohio River Valley was a wilderness, and only the bravest of souls dared trespass there. About the only white men were the mountain men and fur trappers. It was the home of the wildest of creatures, man or beast. Among the bravest of men were the Shawnee, and their greatest warrior was Tecumseh. In 1811, he swore to wipe out an entire Creek village with just the stamp of his foot, and on 16 December of that year, his vow came true. It is the strangest prophecy in Native American legend.

Tecumseh was the greatest Indian warrior in American history, and his greatness was truly his own, unassisted by science or the aids of education. He was a statesman, a warrior, and a patriot…"one of the uncommon geniuses which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things." By 1846, American historian, Henry Trumbull, had stamped him as "the most extraordinary Indian that has appeared in history." He was learned and wise, and was noted, even among his white enemies, for his integrity and humanity. He was a Shawnee, but he considered himself first an Indian, and he fought to give all Indians a national, rather than a tribal, consciousness. His hope was to unite them in defense of a common homeland where they might all continue to dwell under their own laws and leadership. The fact that he failed meant considerably more than the state of Indiana becoming a white rather than an Indian state. It meant that all the tribes were thrown back upon their separate resources, as they had been since the original encroachment of the white man. More important, it ended for all time the possibility that an Indian free state might be created within the territory won or purchased by the United States.

Tecumseh was born Tecumtha about March 1768, and his name in the Shawnee language can be interpreted as "panther lying in wait." The white man pronounced it Tecumseh and understood that it meant "shooting star." His place of birth was in one of the villages that formed a large, straggling settlement called Old Piqua on the bluffs above Ohio’s Mad River, northeast of present-day Dayton. He was the son of a Shawnee war chief named Puckeshinwa, who had been born in Florida. His mother was Methoataske, probably a Creek, from eastern Alabama.. The fact that his parents were both born far from Ohio reflects the nomadic, restless migrations and tribal divisions of the Shawnee, and it probably accounts for the reason why white contemporaries failed to conceive the Shawnee as a single nation.

Tecumseh came from a large family. One brother, Cheeseekau, was born in eastern Alabama before his parents began their long migration to the Mad River. Along the route, two sisters and another brother were born. Tecumseh was the fifth child, born shortly after the family arrived in Old Piqua, and after him came another sister and two more brothers, including the powerful Tenskwatawa, who was to become a famous medicine man known as "the Shawnee Prophet."

The Pontiac War had just ended when Tecumseh was born, but the defeat of the Indians had encouraged settlers to begin moving west of the Alleghenies, and soon the Shawnees were engaged in trying to hold their hunting grounds in Kentucky, as well as their village sites in Ohio. Border warfare spread like wildfire, and by the time Tecumseh was six years old, the skirmishing had erupted into a formal conflict known as Lord Dunmore’s War, between the Shawnee and the colonist of Virginia. In the battle, both sides lost heavily, and to save his people, Shawnee chief Cornstalk agreed to a peace. He surrendered the Shawnee claims to lands south of the Ohio River and allowed the Virginians to move into Kentucky.

Tecumseh received his formal training in broken white man’s promises shortly after the end of Lord Dunmore’s War. Despite the fact that Dunmore had acknowledged Indian rights to the country north of the Ohio, frontiersmen continued to invade it, and one day a band of them accosted Puckeshinwa in the woods and shot him in the breast. When he did not return that night, Tecumseh and his mother went searching. The found him dying, and learned what had happened. It filled Tecumseh with horror and hate, and he resolved to become a warrior like his father. A few years later, white men murdered Cornstalk, who had become Tecumseh’s idol. Cornstalk’s death shocked Tecumseh and again filled him with hatred for the white men. It loosed him upon the land.

After the death of his father, a chief named Blackfish from the nearby Indian town of Old Chillicothe adopted Tecumseh into his family. Traveling back and forth between the two villages, Tecumseh learned everything about tribal lore, personal conduct, and oratory. In retaliation for the death of Cornstock, Blackfish started a new war of revenge. In 1778, he invaded Kentucky, struck at some of the settlements, and captured Daniel Boone and twenty-six other whites. Although Boone later escaped, Tecumseh witnessed the dramatic events of the fierce border war that raged through Kentucky and Ohio, and it heightened his instincts against the whites. With so much fighting, coupled with the upheaval of the American Revolution, many Shawnee abandoned the area and fled westward across the Mississippi River to settle in what is now Missouri. Among those who left was Tecumseh’s mother, who left her son in Ohio in the care of his older brother, Cheeseekau.

When the American army burned Old Piqua and Old Chillicothe in 1780, the Shawnee built another city, also called Piqua, which meant "town that rises from the ashes," on the Miami River. By the end of the American Revolution, the Shawnee accepted as permanent the loss of their hunting grounds south of the river in Kentucky, but with the flood of westward-moving settlers, all eyeing the rich land north of the river, Tecumseh knew it was only a matter of time before there would be trouble. He began to plan his life’s work.

Tecumseh believed the only way to halt the white expansion into Indian territory was to forge the various native tribes into a single military alliance. In pursuit of that alliance, he traveled tirelessly, meeting with nearly every tribe east of the Colorado Rockies. By all accounts, he was a noble man, full of intelligence, heroism, and charisma. Standing nearly six feet tall, he had great energy and piercing eyes. An American army captain called him "one of the finest looking men I ever saw."

Tecumseh managed to unite many tribes under his command and prepare them for war, but in 1811, while he was away in the south, his brother Tenskwatawa instigated a fatal battle. Although Tecumseh had commanded that no military battles take place in his absence, the Shawnee Prophet, seized by religious fervor, prophesied immunity to the white man’s weapons. Tenskwatawa incited his companions to attack.

The battle took place on 7 November near what is now Lafayette, Indiana. The Indians were camped at the juncture of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers, and the American soldiers, under the command of William Henry Harrison, were nearby. In the battle of Tippecanoe, the loss of Indian lives was enough to constitute convincing refutation of the prophet’s prediction that the Great Spirit would make the soldiers’ bullets fall harmlessly at the feet of the Indians.

During Tecumseh’s journeys in the summer and fall of 1811, when he left his brother in command of the forces in the north, he went to Alabama to gain the support of the Creek Indians. At the town of Tukabachi, on the Tallapoosa River, near what is now Montgomery, he met with Chief Big Warrior. The two exchanged pleasantries and objects of accord, and although Big Warrior pledged his support of Tecumseh’s endeavors, Tecumseh detected insincerity. He told Big Warrior that he suspected the Creek chief of having white blood. He told the Creek that he would go directly to Detroit, and when he got there, he would "stamp on the ground with my foot and shake down every house in Tukabachi."

Tecumseh then stormed out of Big Warrior’s camp and headed northward. When he returned home from the south, he found his forces scattered and his dream undone. So great was the shock that he lifted his brother up by the hair and nearly shook him to death. Tecumseh now had little choice but to leave for Canada, where he joined the British in their attempt to retake the Northwest Territory. He became a brigadier general in charge of England’s Indian allies, but his cause was lost, and he died in battle during the War of 1812 (a war which actually ended in 1815 - Tecumseh died in 1813).

After Tecumseh’s departure, the Creek Indians were frightened. Tecumseh was an imposing figure in his own right, and his brother was widely thought of as a great prophet. The Creek were terribly afraid that Tecumseh’s prophesy would come true. His threat was not scorned or laughed off. Instead, full of dread, the Creek counted down the days that it would take Tecumseh to return to Detroit.

Early in the morning of 16 December 1811, the Creek village of Tukabachi came crashing to the ground, while the inhabitants ran about shouting wildly that Tecumseh had reached Detroit. Not only that, but the Mississippi River ran backward, fissures opened in Missouri, buildings shook in Atlanta, the ground rolled like the sea in Illinois, landslides swept the countryside of Arkansas, windows rattled in Washington, D.C, chimneys fell down in St. Louis, furniture slid across floors in Cincinnati, and church bells rang in Louisville. For on that date, the day that Tecumseh returned to Detroit, was the day on which the Midwest was mightily shaken by a sudden slippage of the Earth’s plates. It was the first day for the series of shocks cumulatively known as the New Madrid earthquake, the largest recorded earthquake in North American history.

Today, across the state of Oklahoma, the dispersed descendants of the Shawnee chief’s warriors live among other and more numerous tribes, forgotten by most Americans. But Tecumseh’s prophecy to the Creek people has never been forgotten. Tecumseh was the greatest of all the American Indian leaders, a majestic human being who might have given all the Indians a nation of their own…if they had only believed.
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