Blue Jacket: Warrior of the Shawneesby John Sugden
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Blue Jacket (ca. 1743–ca. 1808), or Waweyapiersenwaw, was the most influential Native American leader of his time. He was the galvanizing force behind an intertribal confederacy of unparalleled scope that fought a long and bloody war against white encroachments into their homeland in the Ohio River valley. Blue Jacket was an astute strategist and diplomat who, though courted by American and British leaders, remained a staunch defender of the Shawnees' independence and territory. He fielded large forces (his warriors inflicted greater losses upon the American army than those of Cochise, Geronimo, Red Cloud, Crazy Horse, and Sitting Bull combined), won unprecedented military and diplomatic victories, and during his later years inspired and mentored the legendary Tecumseh. In this arresting and controversial account, John Sugden, the acclaimed biographer of Tecumseh, restores Blue Jacket to his rightful place of prominence in American history.
About the Author:
John Sugden is an independent scholar and a former associate editor of Oxford University Press's American National Biography project. His books include Tecumseh: A Life, winner of the Society for Military History Distinguished Book Award.
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Blue Jacket's People
They called themselves the "saanwanwa." The term has nomeaning in modern Shawnee, but similar words in related (Algonquian)languages signify "southerners," and the tribe may have derived its namefrom an early location on the southern flank of the Algonquian range. Ifnothing else, the Shawnees were great and hardy wanderers.
Like all peoples, Shawnees accounted for their existence in stories thatwere reworked over time, according to changing circumstances and theinclinations of individual narrators. In Blue Jacket's day Shawnee creationmyths may also have absorbed Christian ideas, gathered fragmentarilyfrom contacts with white traders or filtered through other Indians moreinfluenced by European missionaries. These traditions also suggested asouthern connection. A flood, they said, had once destroyed the worldand its original people. Only an old woman was spared, drawn from thewaters clinging to the tail of a panther, according to one version. Hergrief moved the creator, Waashaa Monetoo, the Great and Good Spirit,to fashion a new world. He produced an island, stocked with game andresting on the back of a turtle, and beside a river at its center he placedthe first of his new human beings, the Mekoche Shawnees. This river,which the Indians remembered as the Shawnee River, was somewherein the south and perhaps recalled the Savannah River in South Carolina,near which many Shawnees lived in the late seventeenth century.
The Shawnee "tribe" was reallya loose confederation of villages linkedby a common language and culture, ties of kinship, and a rudimentarynotion of unity. Each village belonged to one or more of the five groupsinto which the Shawnees were divided: Mekoche, Chillicothe, Pekowi,Kispoko, and Hathawekela. Sometimes a town was formed by Shawneesof several divisions, but commonly it was established by one, from whichit took its name. Shawnee history was sprinkled with towns namedPekowi, Chillicothe, and Mackachack (Mekoche).
Shawnees inherited their division from their fathers and proudlycarried the affiliation through life. Linguistic evidence shows that thesedivisions must have splintered from a parent stock, but in Blue Jacket'stime Shawnees believed some of them to have been separate creations.The Mekoches claimed seniority, for they had been the first people madeby the Great Spirit after the flood. They boasted that this conferred uponthem the prerogative of directing the affairs not only of other Shawneesbut also of other tribes:
The Great Spirit who made the four quarters of the world placed us in the middle of it to hold it steady.... The Great Spirit ordered that everything upon and under the earth should obey us.... He put his heart into our tribe [Mekoche division] and made it the chief of all the [Shawnee] tribes, and king over the other [Indian] nations. We then went three times to Heaven, where we were taught the king's song and sang it down to earth. The Great Spirit gave us tobacco also to send to the four winds. He gave us also corn and game. The Great Spirit having done all this for us, we think we have a right to look upon ourselves as the head tribe of all nations.
For their part, the Chillicothes, and perhaps the Hathawekelas, preserveda tradition of having first joined the Mekoches after making ajourney across the sea. The Pekowis and Kispokos seem to have beenregarded as junior divisions of the nation. The Mekoches said the firstPekowi had sprung as a child from the ashes of a fire Waashaa Monetoohad kindled for the Mekoches and had been adopted and raised by thesenior division. Another story maintained that he was formed from thebackbone of an elk slain by the Chillicothes. The Mekoches arrogantlyreferred to the Pekowis as their "younger brothers," in need of adviceand guidance.
Despite the pretensions of the Mekoches, all the divisions claimedthe privilege of exercising one function or another on behalf of thetribe. The Pekowis, for example, appear to have claimed the office ofhead war chief. Such monopolies, however, had been weakened by thehistoric fragmentation of the tribe. During the mid-seventeenth centuryit had been located in the valleys of the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers,but shortly afterward marauding Iroquois warriors from what is nowNew York came in search of beaver pelts and prisoners and scatteredthe Shawnees. Some settled the Illinois and others the Savannah andelsewhere, but by the time Blue Jacket was born in the early 1740s mosthad regrouped in present-day Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Alabama. ManyShawnees dreamed of reunifying the nation, but at no time in BlueJacket's lifetime was the ambition fulfilled.
Authority of any kind was limited among the Shawnees, for theywere a liberal and egalitarian people who generally reserved the rightto make decisions to individuals. The chiefs had no standing forces andfew means of coercion at their disposal, and they relied on argument andexample to carry their points. Internal law and order, for instance, reliedless on the chiefs than on a variety of deterrents, including the strength ofpublic opinion and the right of relatives of victims to seek compensationor revenge for grievances. On unusual occasions, when the communityat large was in danger of becoming embroiled in some dispute, chiefsmight intervene, perhaps to persuade offenders to expiate their crimesby making reparations, but generally they did not participate in whatwere considered to be private affairs.
Each village, which is often to say each division, had its councillors,who deliberated in the public council house, and both civil and war chiefs,female as well as male. The leading civil chief had usually inherited hisoffice from his father, and he presided over the town or division in peacetime.Unlike the woman war chief, whose role was largely ceremonial, thefemale peace chief was a considerable force in the village. She supervisedthe work of the women, such as planting and cooking, represented theirviews, and impressed the virtues of moderation upon the war chiefs.Most significant of all the civil chiefs, however, was the head Mekochecivil chief. By reason of his division's claim to superiority, he convenedsuch tribal councils as extraordinary circumstances demanded and waseffectively the tribal civil chief. Sometimes whites referred to him as a"king," but in truth the title was entirely inappropriate to his powersand condition. David Jones, a missionary who visited one such tribalhead chief, Kishshinottisthee (Hardman), in 1773, found him "neitherdistinguished in apparel or house, that being one of the least in town,being about fourteen feet by twelve."
War chiefs such as Blue Jacket achieved their positions by merit,by their proven courage, skill, and fortune in numerous forays againstenemies, but they, too, were usually dependent on the support of theircouncils and the willingness of the warriors to accept their judgmentand leadership. In the field the problems of managing and controllingwar parties of excited young men relatively unamenable to disciplinewere never far away. The war chiefs were, nevertheless, greatly admired,and warfare was a major path by which warriors secured prestige andinfluence. During periods of prolonged conflict they even assumed thepremier responsibility for the community's affairs and sat in front of thecivil chiefs in the council house.
The Shawnees were never numerically strong, even by Indian standards.In Blue Jacket's time their total population probably did notexceed twenty-five hundred, and that was divided among geographicallocations that were sometimes great distances apart. Yet for all that theShawnees enjoyed enormous respect among both Indian and Euro-Americanpeoples, in part because of their ferocity as warriors but also fortheir prestige as intertribal diplomats. The Shawnees had been regularlyuprooted and displaced. Bands of them lived at different times with thesouthern Creeks and Cherokees, the northern Mingoes and Delawares,and the Indians of Illinois, establishing far-flung ties of kinship throughintermarriage. These constant peregrinations also resulted in an efficientcommand of intertribal trade jargons and protocol, an exceptional knowledgeof distant trails and waterways, and a broad perspective of the Indianpredicament. Those Shawnees who colonized western Pennsylvania andreoccupied the Ohio Valley in the eighteenth century, the group to whichBlue Jacket belonged, found themselves fitted by experience, skills, and auseful geographical position between the northern and southern Indiansto turn deft hands to intertribal diplomacy.
Shawnees also advertised their mythological claim to have been thefirstborn of the Indian nations. Waashaa Monetoo had once loved themabove all others, they sometimes said, and given them a piece of his heart,and all other tribes had descended from them. Such pretensions were notalways admitted by Indian neighbors, but some seniority was accordedthe tribe in public discourse. In intertribal councils the Shawnees deferredto the powerful Iroquoian peoples, including the Wyandots, and styledthem "elder brothers" or "uncles," while they addressed the Delawares as"grandfathers." But the many other Indian nations were described by theShawnees as "younger brothers."
The Indian world was typically a world of small villages and decentralizedand democratic political systems and one of narrow horizonsand local concerns, but among those who moved in wider circles, nonewere more accomplished or more universally known than the restlessShawnees.
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The focus of every Shawnee community was the village, even though itwas fully occupied only in the spring and summer. The Indians regatheredto the village after the winter to renew friendships, raise crops, talk, sharethe major ceremonies, and play games. In September the inhabitantsdispersed to family winter camps scattered about the range and hunteduntil the following spring.
The summer village might contain a dozen family houses or as manyas a hundred or more and was erected on high ground, above a riveror stream where the rich bottomlands could be turned into cornfields.Those Blue Jacket knew possessed a variety of houses, of which perhapsthe commonest was still the traditional bark-sided dwelling built arounda rectangular floor plan. The frame consisted of stalwart upright postsforked at the top to support cross-timbers, and at one end an entrancewould be covered by a blanket. One such house, owned by Chief Kakinathuccain 1788, was about twenty feet long and fourteen feet wide. Thesehomes had no chimneys, and smoke from the fires kindled in the centerof the only room escaped through a hole in the roof. But log houses withchimneys also existed as early as the 1760s, reflecting increased contactwith Europeans. Interiors also displayed variety. Some, such as BlueJacket's, were festooned with the spoils of successful hunting, raiding, andtrading, and others were entirely prosaic. A few had European furniture,but there was still a dependence on crude beds, seats, and tables fashionedfrom platforms made of bound reeds or sticks or of poles thrust into theground to support cross-sticks. Skins served as coverings.
Each town was dominated by the huge council house, sometimesmore than one hundred feet long, and used for public meetings andceremonies. Three parallel rows of vertical posts supplied the frame, thecenter row greater in height to form the summit of a pitched roof. Therafters were cross-beams, and the roof and walls were planked. Doorwayswere allowed at each end of the building, and inside logs placed againstthe walls provided seats while the centers were free for fires.
Women were the mainstays of the village. They tapped the maples forsugar in the spring and gathered wild fruits and salt. They used simplehand tools to raise maize, beans, pumpkins, and tobacco in the openfields. They maintained homes and fires, made clothes and implements,and supervised children. They pounded and kneaded the corn, boiling orroasting it or baking it in hot ashes, and prepared meat or fish broughtin by their men. Visitors noticed that European trade was enriching bothdiet and cooking. David Jones breakfasted on chocolate as well as buffaloand beaver tail while among the Shawnees, and Kakinathucca's wife beganher day with portions of deer and turkey, seasoned with dry herbs andfried in a pan with bears' oil. She washed it down with green tea boiledin a copper kettle and served from a teapot in cups and saucers of yellowware.
The small winter camps to which most Shawnees resorted after theharvest were merely temporary shelters. They usually housed one or a fewfamily units, each in a dome-shaped lodge made of skins covering a frameof poles, and from them the men issued to hunt and trap throughout thecold season. Successful hunting was essential to the Shawnees, not onlybecause it supplied meat and other commodities but also because thepeltries were exchanged for the European goods upon which the Indianswere becoming increasingly dependent. Native technologies werenot always supplanted by the invasion of these sophisticated Europeanmanufactures. Even in his prime Blue Jacket would have known deerhoof combs and pails and cups made from gourds, and bows and arrowswere still being used by Shawnees almost a century later. Nonetheless,European goods were flooding into Shawnee villages guns, powderand lead, flints, knives, axes, tools, kettles, containers, baubles, paint,beads, and cloth.
By Blue Jacket's time the European influence had been of long standing.Horses, introduced by the newcomers, and some manufactures hadreached the Shawnees even before they made extensive contacts with thecolonists. They came through other Indians middlemen, who livedcloser to the white settlements. During the seventeenth and eighteenthcenturies the tribe had trafficked directly with the Spaniards, French,and English, and from his earliest days in the Ohio Valley young BlueJacket became accustomed to seeing Pennsylvania traders coming acrossthe Allegheny Mountains with packloads of merchandise to barter fordeerskins, beaver pelts, and other furs in the Indian towns. They oftenmarried Shawnee women, accepting the obligations that went with kinship,fathered mixed-bloods, and kept permanent homes in the villages.In 1773 Jones found them in almost every Shawnee settlement on theScioto: Moses Henry at Chillicothe, Alexander McKee at Crooked Nose'sTown, John Irwine at Blue Jacket's Town, and Richard Butler at theKispoko village.
Perhaps the most obvious evidence of this trade was to be seen inthe appearance of the Shawnees. They still dressed in a time-honoredaboriginal style. Men often wore the scalplock along the crown, particularlyin wartime, and they tattooed and painted themselves. Theirnoses were pierced to accept rings and their ears punctured or split tocarry ornaments. But from head to foot both sexes reflected the Europeantrade. Leggings, breechcloths, skirts, mantles, and turbans were no longermade from animal skins but of imported cloths, linen, woolens, andcotton calicos. European shirts of linen and cotton had replaced thetraditional deerskin tops, and glass beads and ribbons were being usedfor decoration instead of quills, bones, shells, and wood. Shawnee menand women garbed themselves in trade silver bracelets, armbands,brooches, gorgets, and necklaces and they carried implements andtools they had bought from whites. Muskets, knives, tomahawks, andpipes were all part of the merchant's display.
The fur trade unquestionably enriched the material culture of theShawnees, and it slotted neatly into their existing economy, dependingas it did on the winter hunt. Yet it carried penalties, some almost imperceptiblein their growth, others sudden and ferocious. It sharpenedthe acquisitive instincts of what was still a relatively egalitarian people,gnawing at their economic communism and ethic of sharing. Goodswere still readily dispensed as gifts, most of the harvests went into publicstorehouses, and whatever food a family possessed was at the disposalof others. "Nothing is too costly or too good to be set before a friend,"wrote one observer. "What one has is freely set before another, and inthis way all they have is soon entirely consumed." But the fur trade wasencouraging a new kind of Shawnee, an individualist who accumulatedproperty in the style of the whites and whose home reflected a fatterliving. As yet these modern Shawnees were few, but Blue Jacket wouldbecome their exemplar.
Materialism had other consequences too. It made the Shawnees increasinglyreliant on white traders, who supplied the desired manufactures,and it undermined self-sufficiency and independence. Politically,while the French, Spanish, British, and later people from the UnitedStates were still competing for empires in America, the Shawnees couldavoid a dependence on any one uncertain ally, but as soon as Europeanpower receded, the Indians began to lose their freedom of action. Inaddition, the demand for trade goods encouraged the Indians to degradetheir environment by overhunting. This problem was compounded bythe advance of white settlements from the east. Homesteads denudedthe habitat for wildlife, and most of the white settlers supplementedtheir farming by hunting. As early as 1752 Shawnees blamed the scarcityof game in Pennsylvania for their recent migration to the richer huntinggrounds of the Ohio Valley.
More immediately, by fraternizing with whites, Shawnees importedinto their villages two commodities that threatened to tear them apart;strong liquor and new diseases against which their bodies had developedfew biological defenses. Shawnees acknowledged that "strong drink wasmade for white men, as they know how to use it, but it makes Indianscrazy," and sometimes they took precautions before indulging in drinkingbouts. Weapons might be removed or some warriors detailed to remainsober to police any disorder. But drunkenness and violence were notthe only symptoms of the liquor trade. Imprudent Indians squanderedtheir possessions to buy spirits, and frequently the returns of rigorouswinter hunts, needed to pay for trade goods, were exhausted on liquor.In 1729 a Shawnee delegation had to abandon a visit to the governor ofPennsylvania because they had sold their provisions for rum. Attempts tocurb this damaging traffic were never successful, although Pennsylvaniaprohibited the trade in 1722, and chiefs periodically declared they wouldbreak open any kegs brought into the nation. Too many Indians simplyfound it irresistible, and there were always traders, Indians as well aswhites, who were willing to profit by satisfying the demand.
Disease was a weightier matter still, especially smallpox, which ravagedvillages wholesale, leaving gaping wounds in tightly knit interdependentcommunities such as those of the Shawnees. Even before Blue Jacket'stime the tribe may have been severely weakened by European diseases.Shawnees remembered there had once been a sixth division, the "Shauwonoa,"and that the number of tribal clans or totems had fallen fromabout thirty-four to a dozen. These reductions were probably the workof disease, warfare, and dispersal, and the remnants of those groups wereabsorbed into those that were vigorous and surviving.
The onset of a serious epidemic and its apparent invulnerability to allthe sacred powers the Indian doctors could command also raised powerfuldoubts about the tribe's spiritual standing. For Shawnees believedthat everything on earth was controlled by deities or spirits. Successand well-being testified that the spirits were looking upon them withfavor, whereas disasters such as virulent pestilences indicated that thespirits had been offended and the tribe was being punished. Guilt-riddenintrospection, a search for the sources of offense, and reforms werecommonly the result.
No Shawnee could afford to ignore the wishes of the spirits, for thiswas an intensely religious people.
When Shawnees died and were buried, their souls traveled westwardto the edge of the world, where the sea touched the sky. There theyfound a path to another realm, above the roof of the world. It was thehome of a benign white-haired ancient who exercised ultimate power onearth: Waashaa Monetoo, the Great and Good Spirit. He was assisted,Shawnees believed, by Waupoathee and her grandson. She it was whohad persuaded Waashaa Monetoo to restock the earth after the flood,and she was visible to humans as the moon.
Young Shawnees were taught that the Great Spirit had once favoredtheir tribe above all others. He had given them part of his heart and abundle of sacred objects that could be used to summon supernaturaladvice and assistance in moments of difficulty. Since then, Shawneessupposed, they must have fallen from grace because their tribe had becomeso fragmented. But the tribal sacred bundle was still there, attendedby appointed custodians, who consulted it as a source of influence andwisdom. Daniel Boone evidently saw it among the Chillicothes in 1778and thought it "a kind of ark, deemed among their sacred things." Morethan fifty years later another observer described it as a large gourd withthe bones of a deer affixed to its neck.
Waashaa Monetoo and the grandmother were the supreme Shawneedeities, but other wondrous beings also shaped the world, including thesun, the star people, the four winds, the great bird that created thunderand lightning, and Earth Mother, who determined the fruitfulness of thesoil. And innumerable minor spirits existed, in places and all living things,all of them capable of furthering the business of life if they were courtedand pleased or of inflicting harm if they took offense. Indeed, individualShawnees possessed their own personal guardian spirits, identified inadolescence during vision quests in which the youths fasted and meditated.These tutelar spirits, commonly conceived to be animals, madethemselves known through dreams, hallucinations, or some revelatoryevent. Shawnee people kept the identities of their particular guardianspirits secret, but they carried fetishes of them in private sacred bundlesand appealed to them for help and protection.
The Shawnees also recognized spirits that were constitutionally evil,among them Motshee Monetoo, the Bad Spirit, who had the powerto possess living organisms, and the great horned water monsters. It ispossible that Motshee Monetoo had been belatedly incorporated intoShawnee mythology as an echo of the Christian devil and that the serpentswere older embodiments of evil. Whatever their origin, Shawneesbelieved that medicine made from the remains of such water monstershad been preserved. Witches, who could be men or women, harboredthis medicine in their personal sacred bundles and used it to invokesupernatural powers for malicious purposes. The baleful influence ofwitches was almost universally admitted by the Shawnees. It was entirelylogical to suppose that if holy men and doctors could solicit sacredpower in aid of the community, perhaps to bring good fortune or curesickness, and if everyone could apply for assistance to guardian spirits,then wickedly disposed persons might require evil spirits to help themcause illness and death.
Excerpted from Blue Jacket by JOHN SUGDEN. Copyright © 2000 by John Sugden. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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(Helen Hornbeck Tanner, coauthor of The Peopling of North America: The Visual Atlas of the Great Migrations into North America, from the Ice Age to Ellis Island and Beyond)
Meet the Author
John Sugden is an independent scholar and a former associate editor of Oxford University Press’s American National Biography project. His books include Tecumseh: A Life, winner of the Society for Military History Distinguished Book Award.
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