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The Baptism of Fire

The populous Indian village of Piqua on the Mad River had prospered during six years of peace. The fertile plains about it had been cultivated in the rude fashion of the Indian, and the corn now stood ripening in the August sun with promise of an abundant harvest. Amid such a scene Tecumseh and his young companions, tired of their play, threw themselves down one evening to listen to the exciting tales of the warriors who lounged smoking in the cool shade. The women busied themselves about the camp-fires cooking the game just brought in by the men. The voices of the Indian girls rose and fell in monotonous song as with nimble fingers they deftly wove the rushes into mats, while keeping a watchful eye upon the little ones who played near by. The few years of peace had given the inhabitants of Piqua a feeling of security, and they did not know that the dark cloud of war even then overshadowed them.

The agents of the British commandant at Detroit had been busy among the Indians seeking to enlist their aid against the revolutionists. And in May of this year (1780) a party of six hundred warriors from the country north of the Ohio, accompanied by a few Canadians, had raided a number of villages in Kentucky, slain many settlers, and carried off horses and prisoners. George Rogers Clark, now holding the rank of colonel in the American army, was on a visit to Kentucky. The frontiersmen rallied about him; and with a body of 970 crack riflemen he crossed the Ohio and advanced on the town of Old Chillicothe. The Indians there had been warned and the town was deserted. The Americans burnt it to the ground and continued their march to Piqua.

At this time there were in Piqua about two hundred warriors and two British agents, Simon Girty and his brother, who had fought under Dunmore against the Shawnees in 1774, and who were now known to the Kentuckians as 'the white renegades.' The appearance of Clark and his raiders on the outskirts of the village took the inhabitants completely by surprise. At the first note of alarm, the women, wild with terror, snatched up their infants and fled shrieking to the woods. Tecumseh and the older children followed, hastily gathering a few treasured possessions. The warriors, awakening the forest echoes with their defiant war-cries, took up their position in an old fort which commanded the river. From the opposite side the Kentucky rifle-men assailed the fort, which, in its decayed and ruinous condition, offered but poor shelter. The Indians quickly evacuated it, but not before several had been killed. While the defenders were occupied by the attack from across the river, a detachment of the enemy crept round through the wood and suddenly emerged at the rear of the village. The red men rushed to the defense of their wigwams, and kept the enemy at bay for some time; but the whites being vastly superior in number, the Indians were defeated with great loss, and the whites applied the torch to the village.

At length, when the cry of battle and the sound of firing had ceased, the women and children ventured to creep forth from their forest shelter. The enemy had gone, but had left a scene of desolation behind. The village was a heap of smoking ruins, and the corn in the fields was laid waste. Bodies of dead warriors strewed the ground, many of them lying stretched before their own wigwams, which they had defended so bravely. A scene of smiling peace had indeed been turned into one of deepest mourning. Content and happiness had fled before the ruthless destroyer, and he had gone forward to the next Indian village on his mission of destruction.

The impression made by this scene upon Tecumseh's youthful mind was enduring. The youth gazed with awe at the dead warriors and watched with childish wonder the preparations for burial. The fallen defenders of Piqua might not have the customary funeral dress, for such things had been destroyed by the fire, but the survivors did what their resources permitted. About the mat whereon each warrior lay were placed his tomahawk, scalping-knife, and other weapons of war. By his side lay his bow and arrow, wherewith to resume the chase with phantom hunters in the Indian paradise. As darkness descended upon the village the women stole out to mourn by the new-made graves. During four nights they faithfully kept long vigil until the lurid light of the funeral fires paled against the brightening dawn. Then, after these last solemn tribal rites had been performed, the Shawnees gathered together their few remaining possessions and followed the trail, leading about thirty miles in a north-westerly direction, to the Great Miami, where they rebuilt their houses.1 A modern American city, with its great mills and costly residences, preserves the Shawnee name of Piqua, and marks the site where these poor Indian fugitives set up their wigwams in the autumn of 1780.

The feud between the Indians and the whites continued with unabated fury. Cheeseekau was now as noted a warrior as his father had been, and became the leading spirit in many fierce frontier encounters. At the camp-fire Tecumseh listened eagerly as his brother told his thrilling tales. So persistent was Tecumseh's plea to be allowed to go on the war-path that Cheeseekau promised to let him taste real fighting in an attack on a party of whites encamped a few miles south of Piqua. The youth, impatient for the fray, set out bravely with Cheeseekau and his warriors, but when the actual horrors of war, with its blood and confusion, burst upon him, he fled from the field. It may be recalled that Frederick the Great, when first under fire, did the same.

The time soon came when, according to Indian custom, Tecumseh must undergo the solemn ordeal of initiation. He must establish his personal relationship with the unseen world before taking rank as a warrior in his tribe. For this purpose he must go into the solitary woods or ascend some lonely mountain, where, by virtue of fasting, he should receive supernatural help and a revelation of the unknown. He entered alone into the green gloom of the forest. Wild things at which he had been wont to draw his bow now peered at him from the bushes and crossed his path unharmed. For many days he saw the rising sun shine through the dewy woods and watched it sink in splendor below the tree-tops. He slept the tired sleep of youth, and woke refreshed to resume his sacred quest. One day, weary with continual wandering and exhausted from persistent fasting, he threw himself down where a little stream poured its waters into a rocky basin. Lulled by the music of the waterfall, he fell asleep. Then in a dream was revealed to him the unseen world. Suddenly, out of a cluster of stars shot one, brighter than the rest, with shining train. Its brilliance startled him from sleep. About him were the familiar trees, and placid moonlight silvered the waterfall. Across his passive mind flitted half-remembered tales of strange monsters of the sky. The flaming meteor now assumed the crouching shape of a panther about to spring on its prey; now that of a dragon taking its flight across some midnight sky to seek the dark waters of a lake, where it was condemned to dwell, lest it should set the world on fire. Wooed by the slumberous music of the fall, sleep once more closed the dreamer's heavy eyes. Scarcely had he crossed the threshold of this unknown world when the bright symbol again traced its path. So often did the strange messenger appear that he accepted it as the radiant guardian of his destiny. When he returned to his people they were filled with rejoicing that his dream had been of things above, for this augured well. Henceforth they called him 'the shooting star,' or, in their own soft tongue, 'Tecumtha.'

When the elaborate religious ceremonies customary to the initiation of a warrior had been performed, Tecumseh's power of physical endurance was put to a severe test. He presented himself for public torture before the chiefs and warriors of his tribe. Sharp skewers were thrust through the muscles of his back, and from these he was suspended by thongs to a pole. Had he flinched or evinced any sign of anguish during this painful ordeal, he would have been rejected as unworthy to take his place among his tribesmen. With stoic fortitude, however, he endured the torture, and when it was ended took a warrior's rank among his people.

Tecumseh was not content with the narrow territory which satisfied his tribesmen. He desired to explore regions far remote from the hunting-grounds of the Shawnees. The same wandering instinct that had led his father to the Ohio country awakened within him. His fancy roamed beyond the familiar trails and peopled foreign regions with strange tribes. By his eloquence he played upon the responsive minds of his companions until they were fired with the same restless spirit. A wandering life became the theme of general interest as they smoked round the evening camp-fire. When finally fifty of the boldest expressed a desire to go on such an expedition as Tecumseh had planned, a party was organized. With due ceremony Cheeseekau was appointed leader, to decide each day's journey and choose the camping-ground; and he bore with him a tribal talisman to ensure safety and success and to be consulted when they were uncertain as to their course.

Along the well-worn trail Cheeseekau started forth, followed in Indian file by his young adventurers, none more eager than Tecumseh. The narrow path, worn smooth by the feet of runners, followed high ground to avoid the dense brush, and led to points where the streams were shallowest and most easily fordable. Every day soon after sunrise the party was journeying through new regions which unfolded beauties ever fresh. At sunset they pitched their tents, lighted their fires, and gathered about them to discuss the day's adventures. Thus they journeyed until they came to the waters of the Mississinewa, in what is now northern Indiana. By its bank Cheeseekau chose a favorable spot whereon to pitch the tents. Here they remained until their interest in the surrounding country was exhausted. Then they took a westward trail. Signs of Indian occupation were everywhere visible. Where the path abruptly mounted a steep ascent, a mound of pebbles would be heaped in the ravine. Each passer-by had cast his tribute on the pile as an offering to good spirits that they might lessen his fatigue in the toilsome climb. At last they reached the broad Mississippi. By its waters the adventurous band remained until the sun had made a complete course. Then they took a southerly route through the Illinois country, where the trail had been made by the countless hoofs of the bison, through whose haunts it led. Presently the prairies stretched before them, and they saw the skin-covered 'teepees' of the dwellers of the plains. They joined a party of Mandans and soon were free to follow with them the exciting chase of the buffalo. A hunting-party was organized and a leader was chosen with due ceremony according to tribal rites. Those engaging in this dangerous pastime were mounted. They spread out so as to form a circle round the dense herd of buffaloes. By this means an equal chance was ensured to each hunter. Turn what way they would, the confused and struggling animals were confronted by hunters with gun and bow. When the sport was at its height misfortune befell Tecumseh. When an infuriated bull escaped from the ring, Tecumseh rode after him in hot pursuit. But his horse suddenly stumbled and threw him heavily to the ground. Those nearest galloped to rescue him from the trampling hoofs of the following herd, but they found him unable to rise, for his thigh had been broken by the fall. He was borne back to camp, and there was carefully tended. Everything known to the Indian doctor's art was done to heal him, but owing to his mishap the band were forced to prolong their stay at the hunting-place. When at last Tecumseh was fit for the trail the party moved southward. After a time they saw the smoke of distant camp-fires. Thereupon Cheeseekau halted his men and dispatched two messengers with a packet of tobacco and a belt of wampum to signify his friendly intent. The rest donned their gala garments and painted their faces in readiness to receive visitors. With the messengers came two Cherokees to conduct the Shawnees to their settlement, where the chief warriors of the tribe welcomed Cheeseekau and his braves. After the calumet had gone the rounds in token of goodwill, the Cherokee chief explained that their hatchet was raised against the white settlers, and that they were on the eve of setting out on the war-path. This was good news for the Shawnees, who promptly agreed to cast in their lot with the Cherokees.

While Tecumseh and his companions were making ready for war, Cheeseekau withdrew to fast and thus to prepare himself to consult worthily the sacred talisman of the tribe. The future was revealed to him in a trance. He saw the Cherokees and his own band, brightly painted for war, move forward to battle under the leadership of a ghostly semblance of himself. Suddenly a musket rang out and a bullet sped from the enemy's line. His wraith was struck full in the forehead and fell to earth in the agony of death. On rejoining his comrades he related his vision and foretold that in the battle about to take place he should meet death. He said also, however, that, if the Indians fought on, victory would crown their efforts.

Cheeseekau remained undaunted by his evil vision, and when the day of battle arrived led his warriors forth as usual. Incited by the Shawnees, the Cherokees fought stubbornly, and success seemed about to be achieved. But at the hour foretold, in the thickest of the fight, the fatal bullet found its mark, and Cheeseekau fell pierced through the forehead. The second part of the prophecy was unheeded. Deaf to Tecumseh's loud avenging cry, and heedless of his rallying shout, the superstitious Indians fled in a panic.

Tecumseh felt keenly the death of his noble brother, who had guided his youthful mind in all things, and deeply his followers mourned the loss of their dauntless leader, who had directed them safely through all their wanderings. Tecumseh was now chosen leader unanimously. For nearly two years he and his comrades remained in the south, taking an active part in many forays.

Exciting incidents were not lacking. For a time Tecumseh's band dwelt near a cane thicket on the Tennessee, whither they had gone in quest of booty. Here they were frequently attacked. On one occasion, under cover of darkness, thirty whites stealthily surrounded the Shawnees, thinking to take them by surprise. Tecumseh was occupied in flaying the last of the day's quarry, when his quick ear caught the sound of their approach. With a shrill war-cry he summoned his sleeping band. Without pausing to consider the numbers of the foe, he charged them fearlessly and his men followed him impetuously. The enemy were routed by the furious attack, and the Indians bore two scalps back to their camp in triumph. By such exploits Tecumseh won great renown among the southern tribes as a warrior. Unlike his followers, he cared little for plunder: his ruling passion was the love of glory.

In the end the adventurers turned their faces homeward. They travelled through West Virginia, crossed the Ohio near the mouth of the Scioto, and visited the Indian villages scattered along that river. And as the verdure of summer was changing into the tints of autumn in the year 1790, they passed familiar scenes along the Great Miami. Tecumseh, who had gone out as a follower of his brother but was now leader, brought eight survivors back to Piqua, where he was received with clamorous rejoicing.

Such apparently aimless wanderings were slowly but surely shaping Tecumseh's life for future action. By his intercourse with the various tribes, by learning their languages and customs, he had gleaned knowledge which was later to be of the greatest use to him; and his widespread reputation as a warrior was to count with telling effect in that great plan and purpose of his life the formation of his Indian confederacy.


See Handbook of American Indians, vol. ii, p. 260.]

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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