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THE SHOOTING STAR
Saturday morning, 19 September 1807, saw more than the usual air of excitement about the frontier town of Chillicothe, which sat beside the Scioto River and was then the capital of the infant state of Ohio. A great concourse of settlers, many from outlying districts, wound through the streets, between the neat houses of freestone, brick, and painted timber, toward the impressive two-story courthouse where the acting governor was to preside over a most singular session. Some of the men and women crowding into the building that day were mere curiosity-seekers, but others were frightened, frightened for their lives and homes, and they had come for reassurance. For these were troubled times in the backcountry.
About one hundred miles to the northwest hordes of strange tribesmen had been congregating that year at a Shawnee Indian village only recently established at Greenville, on land the tribes had long ago ceded to the United States. Some of those visitors had journeyed great distances, from as far as the Mississippi and beyond the Great Lakes, and it was said that they had gathered to listen to a prophet who had risen among the Shawnees to carry the word of Waashaa Monetoo, the Great Spirit, to the Indians and lead them back to grace. Throughout the year the influx of such large numbers of warriors, from tribes the whites of Ohio hardly knew, had spawned one fear-ridden rumor after another.
Then in the summer a clash between an American and a British frigate at sea had brought Britain and the United States to the brink of war. In the American settlements of the Old Northwest there were many who charged the British with encouraging Indian hostility to the United States and furnishing angry warriors with arms.
Exposed homesteaders in Ohio shuddered at the prospect of British-backed Indian onslaughts upon the frontier, and the sound of tomahawks and scalping knives rattling at their doors. They posted guards and threw up blockhouses, but a hundred white families still abandoned the vulnerable Mad River country.
As the summer faded, acting governor Thomas Kirker had come under great pressure to deal with the Indians at Greenville. William Wells, a choleric Indian agent at Fort Wayne, Indiana Territory, told him to turn out the militia and order the Indians away on pain of having their village burned around their ears. Frederick Fisher, who had been trading at the Indian town for several weeks, repeated indiscreet remarks of the Prophet, including the comment that he could overturn the Americans as if they were a basin of water. And another correspondent impugned the motives of Indians who were supposed to be worshiping the Great Spirit but carried muskets supplied by British traders.
Kirker was only a caretaker governor, and he had little formal education. He could easily have buckled before such an onslaught and thrown a match into a situation already tinder-dry, but he had kept cool and taken good advice. Although he had summoned nearly fifteen hundred militiamen into service, he kept them under close control until his representatives could go to Greenville and see for themselves what was happening.
Now, those representatives had returned, and not alone, for with them had come four chiefs from Greenville, and the day after their arrival they attracted the anxious crowds to the Chillicothe courthouse.
The citizens stared and whispered as Governor Kirker and the emissaries he had sent to Greenville, Thomas Worthington and Duncan McArthur, ushered the four chiefs into the jury box. Two of them, a tall middle-aged Wyandot chief named Stayeghta, the Bark Carrier, but generally known as Roundhead, and a Shawnee named Blue Jacket, took seats on the left of the clerk's seat, which the Governor himself occupied. On Kirker's right sat the two other Shawnees, Panther and a remarkably striking-looking Indian whose name, it was mentioned, meant the Shooting Star. In his own language it was Tecumtha or Tecumseh.
Worthington and McArthur, both well known and respected by their fellow citizens, seated themselves in front of the Indians, but eyes were inevitably drawn to two very different whites stationed close at hand. They were the Ruddell boys, and they were there to interpret. The sons of Isaac and Elizabeth Ruddell, they had been captured as children in Kentucky, when a British-Indian army had taken Ruddell's Station in 1780. Stephen was then only twelve, and his brother Abraham six years his junior. Raised by the Indians, they had fledged into fine warriors, and fought for their adopted people until the wars were ended by the treaty of Greenville in 1795.
Both boys were tall and well formed, but their careers had diverged since the peace. Stephen had taken his Indian foster mother to what is now Missouri, but had returned to Kentucky about 1798 and become it Baptist preacher. Since 1806 he had regularly visited Wapakonela, a Shawnee village in Ohio, proselytizing for the Kentucky Baptist Church. Abe had made a poorer readjustment to white society. He spoke only broken English, and shunned company; his appearance was as wild as any Indian's, with the rims of his ears split for ornaments and trailing on his shoulders. Bizarre the Ruddells may have seemed to some that day, but they certainly enjoyed the confidence of the Shawnee chiefs.
The Governor opened the proceedings, although one observer thought him "a weak and rather blundering speaker." Then heads turned toward Blue Jacket as he rose to his feet. He was an old man, but fifteen years earlier he had been the most noted war chief of the confederated tribes, and it had seemed as if almost no one could refer to him without adding "the famous Blue Jacket" or "the celebrated Blue Jacket." He had lost none of his skill as an orator since. One witness thought him "an eminently dignified" man "of calm persuasive eloquence," and another saw him as "very grand and stately."
Blue Jacket's words were those of one who remembered how Indians had not only fought their own wars in the past, but been used as military pawns by the French and British. Reviewing the conflicts of sixty years, he said with every appearance of sincerity that he had seen too much bloodshed. "We have laid down the tomahawk, never to take it up again. If it is offered to us by the French, English, Spaniards, or by you, our white brethren, we will not take it."
This seemed to clear up the worries about whether the Indians would support Britain in a war. But what about all those comings and goings to Greenville and its supposed prophet? Blue Jacket began to explain that the Indians wanted to pray, not to fight, but he grew emotional; his voice faltered and he sat down. Governor Kirker was impressed, and said so.
Then the Shooting Star, brother of the Prophet, stood. He looked first at the Governor and then turned confidently toward his wider audience.
In 1807 Tecumseh was not the legend he afterward became, but, dressed in a suit of neatly fringed deerskin, he cut a remarkable figure. No authenticated portrait of him exists, but over fifty descriptions of varying quality help us to form a comprehensive picture of him as he would have appeared to the people of Chillicothe. Over the years everyone who saw him agreed that he was exceptionally fine-looking. It is tempting to dismiss this point as the sort of hyperbole that often surrounds famous heroes, but it was made unrelentingly by many different witnesses. People spoke of Tecumseh as "one of the finest-looking men I ever saw," as "very prepossessing," "noble-looking," and "one of the most finished forms I have ever met." We are compelled to accept that Tecumseh was an unusually impressive sight.
He stood about five feet ten inches--a little over medium height, though his erect carriage made him look taller--and he had an athletic, spare, and well-proportioned frame, with a full chest, broad square shoulders, and finely formed muscular limbs. He exuded energy and activity, and an old leg injury did not prevent him from walking with a graceful, brisk, elastic step. Tecumseh's complexion was light for an Indian. His head was moderately sized, his face oval, and his features were regular, large, and handsome. Beneath a full and high forehead, big dark penetrating eyes flashed dramatically under heavy arched brows. The cheeks were high, the nose slightly aquiline, and the well-formed mouth, when opened, revealed fine white teeth. Although some remembered his features as stern, they were mobile and expressive, and became animated in conversation. Tecumseh spoke fluently in the Shawnee tongue, adding weight to his emphatic and sonorous words with elegant gestures. Watching him in the courthouse, one listener was reminded of Aaron Burr, and marveled at his "impetuous and commanding" speech.
Tecumseh had been to the town before, but it took courage to confront the settlers now, when the air was thick with such dark rumors, and the bitter memory of a recent murder of a white settler had still to be exorcised. Thinking even further back, Tecumseh and Blue Jacket may have remembered one of their old leaders, Cornstalk, He had been assassinated in 1777, visiting the whites on just such an errand of peace as this.
Now words fell from Tecumseh's lips swiftly and forcefully. He was adamant that the Greenville Shawnees meant no harm to the whites. They were there to obey the will of the Great Spirit, as interpreted by the Prophet. Nothing more. It was true that allegations had been made, but these had been the malicious lies of enemies. One such was Black Hoof, head chief of the Shawnees of Wapakoneta. So many of his followers had joined the Prophet that he was left "a king without subjects" who "filled a station of but little consequence." Another was William Wells. Tecumseh's eyes had rested steadily upon the interpreter for much of the time, but when he dwelt upon the United States Indian agent at Fort Wayne they swept angrily across the room. The blood vessels in his forehead swelled, as if in passion, and his voice rose effortlessly to a higher key, startling some of the listeners.
Congress has a great many good men [he said]. Let them take away Wells and put one of them there. We hate him. If they will not remove him, we will! When the Indians are coming in to hear the Prophet, he sets doors to stop them. He asks them, "Why go ye to hear the Prophet? He is one possessed of a devil. I would as soon go to see a dog with the mange." When we want to talk friendly with him, he will not listen to us, and from beginning to end his talk is blackguard. He treats us like dogs.
Tecumseh was asked what he meant when he said he would remove Wells, and sensing the concern he softened his tone. The Indians would simply ignore him, he said. He explained that the Shawnees intended to leave Greenville shortly, and asked help for a new establishment he was planning. He needed a store, where the Indians could obtain necessary trade goods, and a reliable agent. Tecumseh suggested Stephen Ruddell as the perfect appointment.
Tecumseh performed with the panache of a born orator, and John McDonald, who witnessed the speech, remembered its decisive effect:
When Tecumseh rose to speak, as he cast his gaze over the vast multitude which the interesting occasion collected together, he appeared one of the most dignified men I ever beheld. While this orator of nature was speaking the vast crowd preserved the most profound silence. From the confident manner he spoke of the intention of the Indians to adhere to the treaty and live in peace and friendship with their white brethren, he dispelled as if by magic the apprehension of the whites. The settlers immediately returned to their farms, and the active hum of business was resumed in every direction.
The meeting lasted for several hours, into the late afternoon, and was an unqualified success for the Indian speakers. They did not neglect to complain of American encroachments on native lands, but throughout they stressed their commitment to peace. A local newspaper enthused about their frequent appeals to the Great Spirit "for the rectitude of their intentions and the truth of what they advanced," and lauded the chiefs' "manly, firm and majestic deportment," their "familiar, unassuming and engaging" manners, and the "cool, dispassionate and rational" arguments.
Certainly Governor Kirker had no more doubts. He dismissed the militia, and on 8 October wrote to President Thomas Jefferson, passing on Tecumseh's objections to Wells and his other requests for support. The Indians, said the Governor, had given "every satisfaction I could ask ... I sincerely believe these people are injured ... for there does not appear on strict examination anything against them. On the contrary, their lives are peaceable and the doctrines they profess ... are such as will do them honor."
Tecumseh and his friends did not return to Greenville immediately, but bunked for a few days at Worthington's farm, Adena, which occupied a hill in the woods, half a mile or so north of Chillicothe. It was a spanking new freestone residence, with two stories and two large receding wings that accommodated the kitchen and servants. The chiefs must have been impressed.
Worthington's family remembered Tecumseh as a plainly dressed, quiet man, but he had no English and they got little from him. Sometimes he accompanied the other Indians into the town during the day. Often, however, he seemed lost in thought.
Now that the summer had almost gone, the leaves were softly turning to flame and the woods were at their best. Possibly they stirred memories in the Shawnee leader, for this was no ordinary country to him: it had been his first home. Coming from Greenville he had shown Worthington and McArthur a place on the Mad River, a little to the northwest, where he had lived as a child, but his earliest memories were of the Scioto. It was here, to the neighborhood of the original Chillicothe, a Shawnee town for which the Americans had later named their own settlement, that Tecumseh's parents had come from the south almost fifty years before.
Within the short space of Tecumseh's life the Shawnees had lost most of this land. They had been driven west from the Scioto to the Great Miami, then north into central Ohio toward the Maumee, and now their villages occupied scattered sites in Michigan and Louisiana Territories and Ohio. With their land had gone dreams of reunifying their broken tribe on the Ohio, their ancient home, along with much of their importance and independence, and part of their traditional way of life. As far as some Shawnees were concerned, the tribe's misfortunes could only mean that they had also lost the benevolence of their creator, Waashaa Monetoo. An inexhaustible tide of white settlement was forcing upon them simple but brutal options. Change, and live the American way, or retreat.
Tecumseh's visit to Chillicothe was itself but one of many protests the Shawnees had registered against the process. He was making a plea for coexistence, one of his last. He wanted the Americans to respect the right of the Indians to live and worship in peace as they wished, free from the interference of United States officials and unfriendly tongues.
A small protest this, two Shawnee voices raised in the courthouse of a growing frontier town, but it was not without significance. For Tecumseh's patience was being exhausted fast, and in just a few years he and the United States would be on a collision course. Despairing of reconciliation, the Shawnee chief would be orchestrating the most ambitious Indian resistance movement ever mounted against English-speaking peoples tit North America.
As his brother, the Prophet, acknowledged, Tecumseh planned a mighty Indian confederation, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Tecumseh was "a great general," the Prophet told the artist George Catlin, "and nothing but his premature death defeated his great plan." Whereas most Indian resistance in the three centuries after 1600 was relatively local, Tecumseh believed that the lands and cultures of all Indians were endangered by the advance of powerful white civilizations, and he worked on a national scale.
Tecumseh was by no means alone in his understanding that powerful external threats demanded greater unity and strength from historically disparate and diverse native peoples. Far from it, for before and since Tecumseh far-seeing leaders and groups have worked toward the same end. The Mohawk Joseph Brant labored hard to unite the Indians of the Great Lakes and the south against American land hunger at the end of the Revolutionary War, and at the same time a southern mestizo, Alexander McGillivray, was attempting to centralize power among a loose collection of Indian towns known as the Creek confederacy. In the following decade the Shawnees Blue Jacket, Red Pole, and Captain Johnny were putting together a shaky but large confederacy of northwestern tribes to defend the Ohio country, and in so doing they inherited a tribal tradition that was already old. They were the direct forerunners of Tecumseh. Almost a century later, long after Tecumseh had passed from the scene, the Hunkpapa war chief and mystic, Sitting Bull, made a belated attempt to bring members of the Lakota Sioux and other tribes together to check the American sweep toward the Rockies.
Tecumseh, nevertheless, stands out. Not for the originality of his purpose and principles, but for the sheer breadth of his vision and the energy, determination, courage, and ability he put at its service. His was a task of staggering difficulty. Divided by language, culture, and intertribal enmities and jealousies, the Indians were also politically decentralized. They had no powerful executive capable of controlling their people through police and courts, as had the Americans or the British. Even tribal authority was either weak or nonexistent, and the powers of chiefs of any description were extremely limited.
In their quest for unity, all Indians wrestled with these problems. Brant relied solely upon the power of his logic. McGillivray tried to enforce compliance by threats and coercion, and by controlling the distribution of trade goods among the Creeks so that supporters were rewarded and opponents penalized. Tecumseh strengthened his arguments with religion, building upon the foundations laid by his brother, the Prophet.
By comparison with Tecumseh, the Prophet may have looked unimpressive, with his hangdog look, reduced frame, and disfigured right eye, and his talents certainly blazed less brightly. But he was a crucial figure in Tecumseh's plans. Indeed, it was he, not Tecumseh, who had founded their reform movement. He said he was the medium of the Great Spirit, chosen to show the way to salvation, and he warned the Indians about the adverse effects of contact with the whites and taught them pride in their native identity and traditions. Increasingly, Tecumseh politicized and militarized the movement, and became its driving force, but the Prophet remained important. For long he was the principal figurehead. He threw divine sanction behind Tecumseh's plan, picturing the confederacy as the wish of the Creator. Waashaa Monetoo would help overthrow the Americans, and would punish those Indians who refused to listen.
The difficulties confronting the brothers were greater far greater than those faced by the founding fathers of the American republic, or by any European statesman, but combining strong religious and political appeals, the two made surprising headway, Their influence radiated from Indiana, in greater or smaller measure, as far northeast as the state of New York, south into the Florida peninsula, westward as far as Nebraska, and north deep into Canada. They forced the United States to mobilize thousands of soldiers, who at one point were simultaneously embattled with followers of the brothers on the shores of the Great Lakes, the banks of the Mississippi, and the margins of the Gulf coast. And Tecumseh's help was instrumental in the survival of British Canada during the War of 1812.
Ultimately, the brothers lost. They did not--could not--halt the misfortunes overwhelming their people. But they left a mark upon the times.
Those who watched Tecumseh in Chillicothe that day in 1807 recognized a spectacular orator, but few would have predicted the astonishing future of the tall Indian leader. Like the meteor for which he had been named, Tecumseh's star climbed suddenly and steeply, burned brilliantly but briefly in the darkness, and was then blotted out forever in the gunsmoke and war cries of his final battlefield. With his defeat an era in Indian history--the period during which the tribes had helped decide the fate of great international powers struggling to possess North America--came to an end. Yet such was the impression Tecumseh made, upon grateful friends, beaten allies, and victorious enemies alike, that he lived on in folklore, story, and rhyme, at home and overseas, and became one of the most legendary figures of the American past.
Tecumseh died in Canada. He had spent most of his life fighting for the broad sparkling blue reaches of the Ohio River, which he loved. But his story did not begin there. It started in the sultrier climes of what is now Alabama, in the lands of the Creeks.