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Tecumseh — The Man Who Launched a Thousand Lies, Myths and Legends

If Jarvis Brownlie could have dinner with any person, living or dead, Tecumseh would probably top the list.

“He had a sort of personal flare — but more than anything, he was a man with purpose, vision and conviction, in a way you just don’t meet that often,” explained Brownlie, a history professor at the University of Manitoba who has written numerous papers about the legendary Shawnee chief who fought alongside the British during the War of 1812.

Born 250 years ago, Brownlie says Tecumseh had a uniquely strong influence on Indigenous, American and British relations during the early 1800s. Even so, few Canadians know much about him — or, what they think they know is often wrong.

For although there are plenty of romanticized accounts of his life — and death on the battlefield on October 5, 1813 during the fighting on the Thames River not far from Niagara Falls, Ont. — Tecumseh’s true story is far more nuanced, complicated and surprising.

Can you separate the man from the myth? Take this test to find out.

True or False?

Tecumseh was born and raised in present-day Canada.

False. Tecumseh (pronounced Tech-kum-thai), said to mean “goes to one place from another” which references a shooting star, was born in 1768 probably close to present-day Springfield, Ohio. For most of his life he called the Ohio and Indiana area home, although he travelled extensively. One trip took him down to what is now Florida. Eventually he travelled north and into Upper Canada to negotiate and form alliances with British officers, but he was definitely more strongly connected to the lands south of the 49th parallel.

He stood up against American settlers’ western expansion and attempted to preserve Indigenous lands and vanishing culture.

True. Tecumseh grew up in a time of turmoil and chronic border fighting between the indigenous armies and American soldiers. The American settlers wanted the fertile and animal-heavy hunting ground lands. The indigenous communities, who were already there, were not willing to give them up and resisted being moved further and further west. In fact, Tecumseh’s own father and one of his brothers were killed during this time. Tecumseh fought in some early skirmishes too, attacks on settlers coming into the Ohio Valley area. With treaties, came some peace.

Yet it didn’t always last long. Later, William Henry Harrison, a general at the time, engineered a series of land deals with a number of tribes in order to acquire about 60 million acres — in one case for about one-third of a penny per acre.

Tecumseh, by then a Shawnee chief, refused to take part. It was his belief that no one band or chief had the authority to sell land to the Americans. In fact, it was his strong conviction that all Indigenous lands were considered common property of all Indigenous people. Building an Indigenous confederacy — a pulling together of all bands — became his life’s work.

Tecumseh was the best-known person in his family at the time.

False. Actually, that would have been his brother, Tenskwatawa, who became a prominent religious leader known as The Prophet. Tenskwatawa predicted that divine intervention would save their people from their oppressors. He also believed their troubles with the white settlers stemmed from the fact that Indigenous bands no longer practiced their original religion. Later, he believed that one of the only ways to beat the settlers was to fight in battle against them. His ideas caught on and he gathered followers to a village he created called Prophetstown.

But it was Tecumseh’s amazing oratory skills that brought his brother’s philosophies and beliefs to the masses, and created a political movement. Tecumseh spent years travelling on recruiting missions and spreading the word. His speeches could last for hours and were forceful, full of reasoned facts and even poetic.

“Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the clouds, the great sea as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?” he once proclaimed.

Meanwhile, the British had heard about The Prophet and knew he would be a person who might be useful to them. They were recruiting Indigenous allies during a time of tension with the Americans around 1807. Authorities looked for a few Indigenous leaders who could be trusted with confidential information and, in return, promised aid during ongoing battles. They even promised to return land to them someday.

Apparently the British did not know of Tecumseh’s existence, so when he showed up in Fort Malden (Amherstberg), Upper Canada in his brother’s place, they were surprised. But soon Tecumseh made an impression on the British stationed there, one calling him a “very shrewd, intelligent man.” Eventually they began to see him not as the “Brother of The Prophet” but as a leader in his own right.

Tecumseh and Sir Isaac Brock, the British commander in Upper Canada, were friends.

True. It certainly seems that way. Although legend states that Tecumseh once rode beside Brock as they prepared to successfully attack Detroit — and even wore a sash that Brock gave him as a sign of respect — there’s no true proof of that. Even so, there are plenty of written accounts of the men’s high opinion of one another.

Tall and fearless, Brock’s bravery appealed to Tecumseh. And Brock once wrote of Tecumseh, “A more sagacious or a more gallant Warrior does not I believe exist.” He also agreed with Tecumseh that an Indigenous state south of the Great Lakes should be created.

So Tecumseh is a Canadian War of 1812 hero, right? He became a military leader for the British, after all.

True and false. Tecumseh wanted to defend Indigenous territory — not Upper Canada or British land. He knew if his people lost their land, their freedom would follow. So while the British used Indigenous armies to fight the Americans, Tecumseh fought alongside the British of Upper Canada to further his own cause.

In a sense, it was a case of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” If the British had not offered to give back some of the land that the Americans bought from individual chiefs, it is unlikely Tecumseh would have been a part of the military. It wasn’t until after he was killed in a botched battle on Oct. 5, 1813 — the British commander, Brigadier General Henry Procter and his remaining men broke and ran leaving Tecumseh’s 500 men to fight about 3,000 Americans — was he held up as a war hero for Canada. Until then, he had been considered a highly respected ally, warrior and leader.

Today, his legacy lives on, although Brownlie admits he’s unsure how Tecumseh would feel about being claimed as an iconic Canadian hero now.

“I think he would find that pretty ironic. He did devote his life to trying to stop colonization — he didn’t want this continent to become a settler colony,” he says. “And Tecumseh certainly would not have expected to be lionized by the settlers.”

Even so, the fact that Tecumseh’s legacy continues is heartening explains Brownlie.

“I actually think it’s great that Tecumseh is still known and that he’s being commemorated,” he says. “He was an extraordinary man.”

Commemorate Tecumseh’s Legacy

Fuelled by a desire to protect his Indigenous homeland and the freedom of his people, Tecumseh (1768–1813) is remembered as one of the great military leaders of the War of 1812. Today, his beliefs, triumphs and sacrifices are woven into the complex fabric of this nation’s history.

On the 250th anniversary of his birth, the Royal Canadian Mint is commemorating his life and lasting legacy as a legendary Shawnee leader and respected warrior with a 14-karat gold coin.

Artist Bonnie Ross has drawn from various visual and written sources to present an ideal portrait of the legendary Shawnee chief. Presented in three-quarter profile, Tecumseh is depicted in his traditional Shawnee clothing (as described by one of Sir Isaac Brock’s men) with the King George III medal worn around his neck. The area above his right shoulder has added significance — it includes the sites of several major conflicts involving Tecumseh, including the Battle of the Thames where he was slain in 1813.

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