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A Gifted Orator

Indian oratory, like that of most savage races, is poetical and picturesque in thought and expression. It abounds in imagery and is not without touches of pathos and humor. The unlettered Indian has no rich store of written history from which to draw his illustrations. He takes them from Nature's ever-open book the sheltered lake, the winding stream, the storm-swept forest and from the legendary lore of his tribe. Tecumseh was one of the most renowned of a race of orators. The stately Algonquian language displayed its greatest beauty when spoken by him. His eloquence flowed as freely as a mighty river, or again, thundering like a cataract, it swept everything along on its tempestuous tide. Tecumseh's speech can never reach our ears; we cannot see the light flash from his hazel eye or the smile play upon his bronzed cheek. We cannot watch his graceful gestures. His personal presence we may not feel; but behind his recorded words we are still aware of living force and power. We can picture his manly form in its simple attire, as he paces up and down, dominating his hearers by his persuasive speech, convincing their reason, controlling their judgment, compelling their action. None knew the untaught and unteachable art of oratory better than Tecumseh. Throughout his life it ever played an important part, from his first outburst, which was in defense of a helpless captive, until his last appeal to the courage of a British general. Tecumseh acquitted himself gallantly upon the field of battle, where he was always conspicuous for his courage; but in the council-chamber there were also battles to be fought, in which words were weapons, and there Tecumseh was no less conspicuous and successful.

After the arrival of the commissioners and Indian chiefs at Chillicothe the governor summoned them to a great council. Tecumseh was to speak on behalf of the red men. Upon him was centered the attention of all. He spoke for three hours, during which he held his listeners spellbound. He assured them that it was far from his intention to take up the hatchet against the pale-face, but that he would sternly resist any trespass upon his people's rights. Rapidly reviewing all the treaties between the western tribes and the whites, he boldly denied the validity of the Treaty of Greenville. At the same time, he pleaded for conciliation and peace. His speech made a great impression. The governor's fear of an uprising at Greenville was allayed, and the militia, which had been hastily summoned, were dismissed.

Tecumseh's oratory was called into play again in the autumn of 1807, when the Americans were thrown into a state of terror by the murder of a white man near the site of the present town of Urbana. This deed of violence, coupled with the constant increase of the Prophet's band at Greenville, caused the wildest alarm among the settlers. Tecumseh and his brother disclaimed all knowledge of the murder, which had been committed by some wandering Indians, and they agreed to attend a council at Springfield to reassure the whites. The Indians who attended the council were asked to lay aside their arms. Tecumseh haughtily refused, thinking it unbecoming the dignity of a warrior chief. When the request was repeated, the wily Indian replied that his tomahawk was also his pipe and that he might wish to smoke. Thereupon a gaunt American advanced and offered Tecumseh his own pipe. Taking the earthen bowl with its long stern into his fingers, Tecumseh eyed it curiously; his gaze then travelled to the owner, who stood half fearful of the result of this offer. Then with an indignant gesture the chief tossed the pipe into the bushes behind him. Nothing more was said about the tomahawk.

The council was held in the shade of spreading maples. The chiefs and their warriors ranged themselves in a semicircle on the grass. The pipe of peace slowly made its round in token of goodwill. Several chiefs spoke in turn, expressing the pacific intentions of the Indians. Tecumseh referred to the recent murder, and denied that it had been the act of any of the tribes under his influence. He explained that the motive for the gathering of so many red men at Greenville was purely religious, and that all were friendly towards the whites. His wards and manner again carried conviction, and the council terminated peacefully.

The Americans, however, still continued to regard the Prophet's settlement at Greenville as a real menace. During the same autumn came another message to all the tribes under the Prophet's influence from the governor of the territory of Indiana, William Henry Harrison, afterwards president of the United States, and an active and successful leader of the Americans in the War of 1812. The message closed with these words:

My children, I have heard bad news. The sacred spot where the great council fire was kindled, around which the Seventeen Fires and ten tribes of their children smoked the pipe of peace that very spot, where the Great Spirit saw His red and white children encircle themselves with the chain of friendship, that place has been selected for dark and bloody councils. My children, this business must be stopped. You have called in a number of men from the most distant tribes, to listen to a fool, who speaks not the words of the Great Spirit, but those of the devil and of the British agents. My children, your conduct has much alarmed the white settlers near you. They desire that you will send away those people, and if they desire to have the impostor with them, they may carry him. Let him go to the lakes; he can hear the British more distinctly.

Tecumseh was absent from Greenville when this message was received, and it fell to the Prophet to make a reply. He was sorry, he said, that his father listened to the advice of bad birds. He denied that the Indians had any intercourse with the British, or that they desired anything but peace and to hear the words of the Great Spirit.

Early in the spring of 1808 Tecumseh and the Prophet, with their band of followers, left Greenville and set out in a westerly direction, across what is now the state of Indiana. Land had been granted to them by the Potawatomis and Kickapoos on the banks of the Tippecanoe, near its junction with the Wabash, and here they intended to make a new town, which should be the headquarters of their proposed confederacy. No more desirable spot could have been chosen. It was almost central in relation to the tribes they were endeavoring to bring together, and it had convenient communication with Lake Erie by means of the Wabash and Maumee rivers, and with Lake Michigan and the Illinois country by way of the Tippecanoe and other connecting waters. On one side an almost impenetrable stretch of wilderness formed a natural defense. From this position, also, Tecumseh was able to watch carefully the country from which he wished to exclude white settlers.

The Prophet's influence soon extended Among the neighboring tribes, and the American authorities again became alarmed, the more so as they learned that among his followers warlike sports were now being practised along with religious rites. To counteract the effect of such reports the Prophet sent a message to Governor Harrison to say that he had been misrepresented, and followed it up by a personal visit along with a number of his followers, to explain his attitude towards the Americans. The visit lasted for a fortnight and frequent conferences took place between Harrison and the Prophet. The governor also questioned many of the Indians, but could learn nothing from them derogatory to their leader. Desiring to know to what extent the Prophet's teachings controlled his followers, he tempted them with liquor, but they remained true to their vow of total abstinence.

Before taking his leave Tenskwatawa thus addressed himself to the governor:

I told all the redskins, that the way they were in was not good, and that they ought to abandon it. That we ought to consider ourselves as one man; but we ought to live agreeably to our several customs, the red people after their mode, and the white people after theirs; particularly that they should not drink whisky; … do not take up the tomahawk should it be offered by the British, or by the Long Knives; do not meddle with anything that does not belong to you, but mind your own business and cultivate the ground, that your women and your children may have enough to live on.

I now inform you, that it is our intention to live in peace with our father and his people for ever.

This harangue ended with the customary begging for presents, after which the Prophet and his company took their departure.

Meanwhile Governor Harrison was planning to take more territory from the Indians and add it to the United States. By a treaty with some of the tribes made at Fort Wayne on September 30, 1809, he obtained a tract of about three million acres, extending nearly one hundred miles on each side of the Wabash. By this treaty the Indians found that they were deprived of much of their best hunting-ground. Their indignation rose to fighting pitch, and many who had been holding back now accepted Tecumseh's scheme of a great confederation by means of which they might, with some hope of success, battle for their rights. The powerful Wyandots, keepers of the great wampum belt of tribal union, turned to the Prophet. Many of the lesser tribes followed their example, and refused to recognize the American claims to this newly ceded territory. For lands acquired under various treaties, the Indians were receiving from the Americans certain annuities in goods. That year, when their annual portion of salt arrived at Tippecanoe, the Indians refused to take it and drove the boatmen away. They accused the Americans of deception, demanding that the land should be given back, and that no more should be taken without the unanimous consent of all the tribes.

War between the British and the Americans now seemed inevitable, and everything pointed to an alliance between the British and the Indians of Tecumseh's confederacy. British interests required that the confederacy should not be weakened by premature outbreaks. Gifts of clothing, food, and weapons were lavishly bestowed upon Tecumseh, who was encouraged to unite the tribes, but not to declare war until word came from Canada. 'My son,' said a British agent, 'keep your eyes fixed on me; my tomahawk is now up; be you ready, but do not strike until I give the signal.'

The governor of Indiana, desiring to learn the Prophet's strength and, if possible, to avert war, sent the following message to Tippecanoe:

There is yet but little harm done, which may be easily repaired. The chain of friendship, which united the whites with the Indians, may be renewed and be as strong as ever. A great deal of that work depends on you the destiny of those who are under your direction depends upon the choice you may make of the two roads which are before you. The one is large, open and pleasant, and leads to peace, security, and happiness; the other, on the contrary, is narrow and crooked, and leads to misery and ruin. Do not deceive yourselves; do not believe that all the nations of Indians united are able to resist the force of the Seventeen Fires. I know your warriors are brave, but ours are not less so; and what can a few brave warriors do against the innumerable warriors of the Seventeen Fires? Our blue coats are more numerous than you can count; our hunters are like the leaves of the forest, or the grains of sand on the Wabash.

Do not think the red coats can protect you; they are not able to protect themselves. They do not think of going to war with us. If they did, you would in a few moons see our flag wave over all the forts of Canada.

To this the Prophet made no direct reply, but said that Tecumseh, as his representative, would visit the governor shortly.

True to this promise, early in August 1810, Tecumseh, with four hundred warriors grotesquely painted for the occasion, swept down the Wabash in canoes. Captain Lloyd, then at Fort Knox, writes of their passing:

The Shawanoe Indians have come; they passed this garrison, which is three miles above Vincennes, on Sunday last, in eighty canoes. They were all painted in the most terrific manner. They were stopped at the garrison by me, for a short time. I examined their canoes and found them well prepared for war, in case of an attack. They were headed by the brother of the Prophet (Tecumseh), who, perhaps, is one of the finest-looking men I ever saw about six feet high, straight, with large, fine features, and altogether a daring, bold-looking fellow. The governor's council with them will commence to-morrow morning.

Tecumseh and his warriors encamped at Vincennes, the capital at that time of the territory of Indiana, where many had assembled for the council, which was fixed for August 12. At the hour appointed Tecumseh, attended by forty followers, proceeded to the governor's house. Seated in state on the portico was the governor, surrounded by judges of the Supreme Court, officers, and citizens. About forty yards from the house Tecumseh halted abruptly. An interpreter advanced with the request that the chief and his warriors should take seats on the portico. To this Tecumseh signified strong disapproval, saying that he preferred a neighboring grove. The governor objected that there were no chairs there. 'The earth is my mother, and on her bosom will I repose,' was the rejoinder. The chief carried his point, and chairs for the governor and his suite were removed to the grove.

Tecumseh put forth all the powers of his eloquence. He traced the course of relations between the two races from the time when only the moccasined foot of the red man trod the wilderness. He depicted vividly the evils suffered by his race since their first contact with the whites. The ruthless destruction of his birthplace, the sufferings of his childhood, the conflicts of his early manhood all these he passed over in rapid review. And he closed his address by contending that the Treaty of Fort Wayne was illegal, since it had not been agreed to by all the tribes, who constituted a single nation and who had joint ownership in the land. Governor Harrison in his reply disputed Tecumseh's statement that all the Indians were as one nation, using as his main argument the fact that they spoke different tongues. He contended that if the Miamis desired to sell their land, the Shawnees had no right to interfere. On the following day he inquired whether Tecumseh intended to prevent a survey of the disputed land. The chief replied that it was the intention of the united tribes to recognize the old boundary only, and that, while he had no desire to provoke war, he would oppose further aggression. If the Americans gave up this land, he would serve them faithfully; if not, he would cast in his lot with the British. The governor promised to notify the president of Tecumseh's views, without holding out much prospect of a decision to surrender the land to its former owners.

'Well,' returned Tecumseh, 'as the great chief is to decide the matter, I hope the Great Spirit will put enough sense into his head to induce him to direct you to give up this land. It is true he is so far off he will not be injured by the war; he may sit still in his town and drink his wine, while you and I shall have to fight it out.'

In the following spring (1811), when the Americans were distributing the annuity of salt to the Kickapoos and Shawnees, the Prophet's Indians at Tippecanoe, on being offered their share of five barrels, forcibly seized the whole boat-load. This angered the Americans, who were further incensed by the murder on the Missouri of four white men by two Indians of the Potawatomi tribe. Tecumseh, who was absent at the time either on a hunting expedition or for the purpose of strengthening his confederation, was summoned to Vincennes shortly after his return. He arrived on July 27, attended by a party of three hundred warriors. The governor referred to the recent seizure of the salt by the Prophet's warriors and demanded an explanation. Tecumseh replied that it was indeed difficult to please the governor, since he seemed equally annoyed if the salt were taken or rejected. When asked to deliver up the Indians guilty of the murder, he replied that he had no jurisdiction over them, since they were not of his town. The white people, he said, were needlessly alarmed at his active measures in uniting the northern tribes; for he was but following the example which the Seventeen Fires had set him when they joined the Fires in one confederacy, and he boldly declared that he would endeavor also to unite the various tribes of the south with those of the north. The land question he hoped would be left in abeyance until his return in the spring.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Chronicles of Canada, Tecumseh, A Chronicle of the Last Great Leader of his People, By Ethel T. Raymond, Toronto, 1915

 

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