Monday, June 20, 2022

Tecumseh And William Henry Harrison at Vincennes (1810)


Tecumseh’s Indian confederacy experienced a bumpy ride during its first few years. Delegations from many tribes came to investigate but left just as quickly. The area around Greenville and on the Wabash could not support so many people. The prophet promised his followers that food would be plentiful. Instead, they starved or were forced to beg for food from the soldiers at Vincennes.

The pan-Indian movement might have disappeared on its own—then and there—if William Henry Harrison hadn’t engineered the Fort Wayne Treaty in September of 1809. It gave Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa the ammunition they needed to grow their confederacy.

The Fort Wayne Treaty snatched nearly three million acres in Illinois and Indiana from the tribes. The Miami (the rightful owners) opposed the treaty for several reasons. First, under the Treaty of Greenville signed in 1795, they were guaranteed the use of the lands around the Wabash. Second, they demanded that Harrison pay them a fair price per acre rather than purchasing the lands as one large parcel. Finally, they objected that the tract’s primary residents were the Weas, and they did not participate in the negotiations. Harrison steamrolled over their objections and purchased the land for roughly two cents an acre when the going rate was $2.00.

The move was classic William Henry Harrison. In Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer, Robert M. Owens said Harrison’s favorite negotiating tactic was including tribes with “little claim to an area.” They were likelier to sell because they had no stake in the game. That’s what Harrison did at Fort Wayne. He negotiated the treaty with the Delaware, Potawatomi, and just one Miami band.

Tecumseh was away when the Fort Wayne Treaty was made. He threatened to kill all the chiefs involved when he learned about it.

Harrison assured Tecumseh that the treaty would not affect his claims to the ceded lands. “If they were found to be valid, the land would be given up or an ample compensation made for it.”

William Henry Harrison called a council at Vincennes in August 1810 to address Tecumseh’s concerns. The chief arrived with 175 warriors armed with war clubs, tomahawks, bows, and arrows.

William Henry Harrison
(From a campaign book published in 1841)

“The Great Spirit gave this great island (America) to his red children,” said Tecumseh. “He placed the whites on the other side of the big water. They were not content with their own but came to take ours.”

Tecumseh insisted the Great Spirit gave the lands “as common property to all the Indians.” The lands “could not, nor should not be sold without the consent of all. All the tribes upon the continent formed but one nation.”

He acknowledged that he threatened to kill all the chiefs who signed the Fort Wayne treaty. He would “not permit the village chiefs, in the future, to manage their affairs, but to place the power with which they had been heretofore invested, in the hands of the war chiefs.”

Harrison replied that the Indians are “not one nation.” They do not “have a common property in the lands.” If it had been the Great Spirits’ intention, “he would not have put different tongues in their heads, but to have taught them all to speak the same language.” Harrison was confident the president supported separate tribal ownership of the Indian lands and would fight for it.

Tecumseh hoped that wasn’t so, but the president would not be injured if it came to war. “He may sit in his town and drink his wine,” said Tecumseh, “while you and I will have to fight it out.”

The warriors sprang to their feet, war clubs in hand. Harrison jumped up and pulled his sword. His assistant, Captain Floyd, drew a dirk, and for a moment, violence seemed imminent. Then just as quickly, the native delegation left.

Tecumseh returned the next day and apologized for his rudeness. However, he clarified that no more lands would be sold.

“The only way to stop this evil is for all the red men to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the never was divided but belongs to all. No tribe has a right to sell, even to each other, much less to strangers who will take all and demand no less.

“The white people have no right to take the land from the Indians who had it first. It is theirs. They may sell it, but all must join. Any sale not made by all is no good.”

He told Harrison: “If the president would give up the lands purchased and agree never to make another treaty without the consent of all the tribes, he would be their faithful ally and assist them in the war he knew was about to take place with England. He preferred being the ally of the Seventeen Fires,” but—it depended upon the Americans’ actions.

Tecumseh's meeting with William Henry Harrison almost
came to blows. (Image circa 1860)

The wheels in Harrison’s mind began to turn as soon as the council broke up. He wrote the Secretary of War that Tecumseh’s “absence affords a most favorable opportunity for breaking up his confederacy.”

As for the prophet, he was “deficient in judgment and talents.” So, it would be easy to destroy him while Tecumseh is away.

Harrison wrote the Secretary of War, expressing his growing concerns over the Native American confederacy. “There can be no doubt of his [Tecumseh’s] intention to excite the southern Indians to war against us. The implicit obedience and respect which the tribes pay him are really astonishing. More than any other circumstance [they] bespeak him one of those uncommon geniuses which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the existing order of things.”

He noted that Tecumseh was a burst of energy—always on the move. One moment he was on the Wabash. The next, he was on the shores of Lake Michigan or the banks of the Mississippi.

After the council at Vincennes, Tecumseh traveled west on a recruiting mission. He visited the tribes in Illinois, Wisconsin, and the western Shawnee living in Missouri. Still, Tecumseh came home empty-handed. His only convert was Shabbona, an Ottawa chief living in northern Illinois. Shabbona promised to visit Prophetstown in the spring.

In July 1811, Tecumseh assured Harrison all the talk about hostilities was unfounded. Instead, the Indians were following the example of the colonies—uniting to further their common interests. But then Tecumseh tipped his hand, saying he intended to travel to Washington to settle his differences with the president when he returned.

While he was away, Tecumseh expected many visitors to his village. He hoped Harrison would prevent whites from settling on the disputed lands to avoid trouble.

Harrison had no intention of keeping white settlers off the Indian lands. Instead, he prepared for war. He asked the Secretary of War to send him the 4th Regiment from Pittsburg. Harrison also requested permission to attack the Indians at Prophetstown should he learn their intentions were hostile. Then, uncharacteristically, he acknowledged the Native Americans had often been mistreated. “I wish I could say the Indians were treated with justice and propriety on all occasions,” he told the Secretary, “but it is often otherwise. They are often abused and mistreated. It is very rare that they obtain any satisfaction for the most unprovoked wrongs.”

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