“Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the clouds, and the Great Sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?”
Tecumseh’s 1810 speech to William Henry Harrison, then governor of the Indiana Territory, expressed the anger of many American Indians at US incursions into their country. Tecumseh met with Governor Harrison at the territorial capital of Vincennes, demanding redress of their grievances. Just over three years later, Tecumseh’s defiance remained unbowed, shown in the 1813 speech to his British military ally General Henry Procter during the War of 1812. In the earlier speech, Tecumseh protested the recent Treaty of Fort Wayne (1809), which opened swathes of present-day Indiana to US settlement. He also presented a litany of injustices perpetrated by the United States government since the American Revolution. Tecumseh’s verbal confrontation with Harrison paved the way for armed conflict the following year between Tecumseh’s followers and the US military. Troops under the command of Governor Harrison engaged with Tecumseh’s followers at the Battle of Tippecanoe (November 7, 1811), inflicting heavy losses on the Indians. This conflict continued through the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States, resulting in the defeat of Indian resistance north of the Ohio River. Tecumseh’s 1813 speech to General Procter, his purported ally, protested that British leadership had sidelined Indian concerns in the face of a mutual American adversary.
The War of 1812 was a turning point in American Indian resistance to US expansion. Prior to this war, Shawnee war chief Tecumseh and his brother, Tenskwatawa (commonly known as the Prophet), led intertribal opposition to the spread of US settlement, coming face-to-face with American military power. The speeches presented here demonstrate the power of Tecumseh’s oratory, and were initially written down by eyewitnesses serving on the staffs of Governor Harrison and General Procter. Tecumseh’s alliance with the British General Procter during the War of 1812 came about as a partial consequence of the breakdown in diplomacy between Indian nations and the United States government three years earlier.
Tecumseh’s address to Governor Harrison showcases the gulf that existed between the two men’s political objectives and understanding of the world. While Tecumseh sets a tone of defiance, he also attempts to reach out to Harrison, to persuade him through the use of both logical and emotional rhetoric. Tecumseh emphasizes their equality of status as both political and military leaders, urging Harrison to reveal his intentions openly. While Tecumseh is clearly angry at the treatment of his people, his speech toward Harrison is notably respectful and dignified.
Diplomatic intentions aside, Tecumseh and Harrison inhabited different worlds. Tecumseh’s dramatic appeal—”Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the clouds, and the Great Sea?”—reveals his bafflement at the legal claims of the United States. While Harrison and the federal government understood land ownership in terms of title deeds and property law (a legacy of European common law traditions), American Indians had no comparable legal tradition. Instead, Shawnee and other Indian nations saw themselves as stewards of the land, not outright owners. While all acknowledged traditional hunting, fishing, and farming rights, and believed these could be transferred, Tecumseh shrewdly points out that the American Indian signatories at the Treaty of Fort Wayne “never had a title to sell,” their claims resting upon dubious oral assertions of ownership and sovereignty.
A brilliant orator, political leader, and military commander, the Shawnee war chief Tecumseh is believed to have been born around 1768 near Chillicothe, Ohio. As both a warrior and a diplomat, Tecumseh led American Indian resistance to westward settler expansion in the years immediately preceding the War of 1812. Following the outbreak of hostilities between Great Britain and the United States, he assembled and led one of the largest intertribal resistances in American history. While Tecumseh’s alliance with the British Army was strategically important, Tecumseh’s relations with its military leadership deteriorated over the course of the campaign following the October 1812 death of General Sir Isaac Brock, a brilliant commander and personal friend of Tecumseh. Brock’s replacement, General Henry Procter, lacked his predecessor’s charisma and strategic vision, and Tecumseh accused him of abandoning his Indian allies. One month later, on October 5, 1813, Tecumseh died in combat against United States forces at the Battle of the Thames in Ontario, Canada.
Tecumseh’s death ended a military career begun more than two decades previously, one that earned him a reputation for personal bravery among allies and adversaries alike. During the so-called Northwest Indian War in the Ohio Valley, he first served in an American Indian force commanded by Miami Indian leader Little Turtle. This force was defeated by US army general Anthony Wayne at the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers. Among Tecumseh’s opponents that day was a junior officer named William Henry Harrison who, as governor of Indiana Territory from 1801 to 1812, became Tecumseh’s principal military and political opponent, and who would, in 1841, go on to become the ninth president of the United States. The 1795 Treaty of Greenville, imposed by Wayne’s victorious military upon American Indian leadership in the wake of Fallen Timbers, ceded most of the future state of Ohio plus additional territory to United States settlement, overriding previous assurances of American Indian land claims north of the Ohio River. The treaty became a common historical reference point for American Indians protesting government oppression and betrayal. Notably, Tecumseh refused to participate in the Greenville negotiations, instead going on to become the leading voice of opposition to subsequent United States treaties negotiated with American Indian leadership.
These two speeches by Tecumseh—though written down by non-Indian observers—are classic examples of American Indian oratory. Among American Indian nations such as the Shawnee, the ability to deliver a rousing and passionate address was a prized skill. Indeed, Tecumseh’s talent as an orator was as much part of his leadership ability as his courage and vision in battle. The impact of his speeches was surely impressive. The dramatic flair of Tecumseh’s rhetoric reflected his oral culture and religious background, and gives vivid contrast to the written, legal, and bureaucratic character of United States and British diplomatic protocol at that time. Tecumseh delivered both speeches under profoundly adverse circumstances, but each showcases his role as the leading spokesman of American Indian resistance in the Old Northwest.
Formal use of language shaped both addresses, reflecting both the values of American Indian culture and conventional styles of address used by Indians. Significantly, Tecumseh addressed Harrison as “Brother,” implying equality of status, but referred to Procter as “Father,” recognizing the British general’s seniority in the chain of command. Such language was never randomly chosen, but reflected political hierarchy. Although representatives of the United States government conventionally referred to American Indians as “children,” Tecumseh saw himself as in no way beholden to Governor Harrison. He regarded himself as a Shawnee warrior, speaking for free and sovereign people. Harrison, by contrast, represented a foreign government with hostile objectives. The mood was tense when Tecumseh (accompanied by a retinue of warriors), met with Harrison and his staff at Vincennes, and the meeting nearly descended into violence. Though bloodshed was only barely averted, both men retained a degree of mutual respect. Harrison described Tecumseh as “the Moses of his family,” acknowledging his charisma in a letter to a colleague. Tecumseh, meanwhile, made clear his grievances were not with Harrison in particular, but with the United States government in general.
Tecumseh’s later speech, to General Henry Procter, reflects a different set of circumstances, and a different personal relationship. Tecumseh’s struggle with Harrison in Indiana had been superseded by the War of 1812, a broader international conflict between Great Britain and the United States straddling international borders. Tecumseh’s frustration at General Procter’s perceived incompetence bubbles to the surface, despite the two men being formal allies, and despite Tecumseh addressing Procter as “Father.” Although acknowledging his authority, and that of “Our great father, the king” (George III of Great Britain), Tecumseh was harshly critical of both Procter and the British government he represented.
While Tecumseh’s speech to Procter was born out of desperation at military failure, his speech to Harrison was a decisive moment in the history of American Indian resistance. First and foremost, it tested the Shawnee leader’s growing authority among followers and potential followers, including many who questioned whether he could unite resistance in the face of rivalries among the tribes. Tecumseh’s denunciation of key American Indian leaders (including old military comrades), for accommodating United States government demands caused additional tensions, reflected in his bold assertions of authority. Following the 1795 Treaty of Greenville, Tecumseh came to hope that Indians could agree to hold their lands in common, united against further territorial carve-ups by the United States. To this end, Tecumseh expressed the radical desire “to bring all the tribes together,” regardless of traditional tribal distinctions. Tecumseh showcased the revolutionary nature of his political leadership and, perhaps with some irony, he drew parallels with the American Revolution, arguing: “Your states have set an example of forming a union among all the Fires, why should you censure the Indians for following that example?” If the original thirteen colonies could put aside their differences to form the United States, he reasoned, why could not the Indian nations achieve similar unity?
American Indian oratory tended to draw heavily on historical arguments, and Tecumseh’s speeches were no exception. His speech to Governor Harrison, especially, furnished a sophisticated historical framework for American Indian grievances against the US government. Tecumseh acknowledged Harrison’s assurances of good faith toward his people, but doubted their worth, given the long track record of government abuses and settler atrocities to that time. Tecumseh invoked the memory of the Gnadenhutten massacre (1782), when a colonial militia slaughtered nearly one hundred of “the Jesus Indians of the Delawares” in eastern Ohio during the Revolutionary War. Settlers seeking to avenge attacks by other American Indians in the region murdered these Christian converts “even as they prayed to Jesus,” disregarding their transparent innocence and professed pacifist beliefs as members of the Moravian Church. None of the perpetrators was ever brought to trial.
Whether or not Tecumseh consciously modeled his speech on the American Declaration of Independence is unknowable, but there are striking rhetorical parallels. As Thomas Jefferson had done in the 1776 Declaration, Tecumseh sought to build a historical argument for the independence of his people—in this case from the United States, rather than the British Empire. This case was based upon previous betrayals of trust, violations of treaty law, and outright atrocities. He chose the American flag as a symbol of such broken promises, noting that even after the Shawnee’s “beloved chief Moluntha” signed the Treaty of Fort Finney (1786) with the federal government, and later appeared clutching the American flag, he was murdered by an American militia captain. Moluntha was just one of many American Indians killed by the Americans, but as Tecumseh pointed out, “No American was ever punished, not one.”
In keeping with American Indian rhetorical convention, Tecumseh returns to the analogy of the family to describe American Indian relations with their British and American neighbors. The motif of the Indian hatchet, buried at the Treaty of Greenville (1795), balances the symbolism of the American flag. By burying the hatchet, noted Tecumseh, the Indian signatories transferred their allegiance from the protection of the British Crown to that of the United States. In consequence, “The Americans said they were our new fathers . . . and would treat us well.” This form of adoption, it should be noted, took place more than a decade after Great Britain recognized United States independence (1783), and illustrated the complex nature of American Indian foreign relations in the years following the American War of Independence. It should be noted that Great Britain, from its colonial base in Canada, continued to arm and support American Indian warriors throughout the Midwest until United States forces crushed their resistance during the War of 1812.
Tecumseh’s speech held little hope that American Indian conflict with the United States could be resolved peacefully. Instead, its goal was twofold: to demonstrate Tecumseh’s authority and leadership among fellow American Indians, regardless of tribal affiliation, and to meet Harrison with righteous anger. While Tecumseh was clearly confrontational, he reserved his greatest anger for those American Indian leaders who collaborated with the United States government in surrendering American Indian lands, and threatened them with his vengeance. Urging Harrison to “wipe out” the Treaty of Fort Wayne and return the lands to the Indians, Tecumseh stated that the governor would otherwise “have had a hand in killing” those chiefs who had signed. Tecumseh made good on his threat, his warriors eventually killing several American Indian collaborators in reprisal for Harrison’s policies.
Short of revoking the treaty, Tecumseh’s demands of Harrison were straightforward: “I want to know your intentions,” he insisted. “I want to know what you are going to do about taking our land.” Tecumseh’s directness of speech mirrors his expectation that Harrison, as one military veteran facing another, would respond to appeals to honor. “I am a Shawnee! I am a warrior!” Tecumseh reminded him, emphasizing his willingness to take up the hatchet in defense of his people and their lands.
“Listen to your children!” Tecumseh appealed to General Henry Procter in September 1813. “You have them now all before you.” The hatchet, symbolically buried at Greenville in 1795, had since been taken up again, and Tecumseh’s forces joined with the British Army in waging war against the United States. Viewed from the British and American perspectives, the War of 1812 was arguably a military stalemate; viewed from the Indian perspective, it was a catastrophe. Tecumseh would be killed in the conflict, and the intertribal alliance he had formed against the United States decisively crushed.
Tecumseh died before the war’s outcome, but his speech to Procter revealed the dire straits of his final weeks. The war brought him close to killing or capturing his old foe Harrison in northern Ohio, but British incompetence instead resulted in humiliating defeat. Procter’s May 1813 attempt to flatten the American outpost of Fort Meigs with heavy artillery failed, as Harrison had been allowed time to improve the defensive wooden ramparts with a complex system of earth mounds and trenches. Tecumseh’s experience of siege warfare was unhappy, contrasting with the skirmishing style preferred by American Indian warriors. As Tecumseh put it, “It is hard to fight people who live like ground-hogs.” Meanwhile, the situation remained desperately uncertain, as the US Navy disrupted British supply lines on Lake Erie. Indeed, Procter had called the meeting with Tecumseh to discuss the Americans’ recent naval inroads, and to propose a tactical withdrawal. Tecumseh would have none of it. “The Americans have not yet defeated us by land,” he noted, “neither are we sure that they have done so by water.” To underline this point, he added that the fate of “our father with one arm” (Captain Robert Barclay, regional commander of the British Royal Navy) was still unclear (Barclay was wounded and captured by the Americans, but survived).
Tecumseh sought to shame Procter into offensive action. He reminded Procter that his followers had joined with the British to defend their homeland, but were now being called upon to defensively retreat into Canada. Recounting the history of their alliance, Tecumseh reminded Procter of the noble promises made by the British, and contrasted them with the disappointing realities. As in the speech delivered to Harrison, Tecumseh makes use of the symbol of the hatchet to punctuate the timeline of his narrative, beginning with the American Revolutionary War, when “our British father gave the hatchet to his red children.” Then, when the War of 1812 broke out, “our father stood up and gave us the tomahawk” again, and, as Tecumseh reminded Procter, the British had promised they “would certainly get us our lands back, which the Americans had taken from us.” Military defeat for Tecumseh and his allies meant the certainty of lands lost and lives uprooted once again, as the British had encouraged them to take with them their wives and children, promising they would be well taken care of. Procter’s symbolic responsibility as a father would be doubly significant, therefore, even if Tecumseh did not remind him that he represented “Our great father, the king.” Tecumseh’s comparison of his British ally “to a fat dog, that carries its tail upon its back, but when affrighted . . . drops it between its legs and runs off” signals his disdain, contrasting Procter’s supposed dignity as a representative of the British Crown to his actual embattled position as a retreating commander.
Tecumseh’s speech inspired his followers, but it failed to convince Procter to press the offensive. It would also be the last major speech of Tecumseh’s life, before his October 5, 1813, death in battle. As Procter’s forces withdrew in disarray into Canada (accompanied reluctantly by Tecumseh’s followers), American forces under Harrison’s command intercepted them near the Thames River in Ontario, Canada. In the ensuing battle, the British and their Indian allies were routed. Tecumseh fought bravely, but was eventually killed by Kentucky militia (Richard Mentor Johnson, later vice president of the United States under Martin Van Buren, claimed to have shot him in person). Procter escaped with his life, but was sentenced by a British court-martial to disciplinary suspension of six months for his mishandling of the campaign. As a result of Harrison’s victory at the Thames, American Indian resistance in the Great Lakes region of the United States effectively crumbled.
The most powerful theme in both of Tecumseh’s speeches is that of American Indian sovereignty: an idea that both justified armed resistance and—Tecumseh argued—invalidated previous treaties signed by Indian leaders under dubious legal circumstances or through coercion by the United States.
Departing from the example of previous American Indian warrior coalitions, Tecumseh sought to abolish tribal distinctions between his followers, emphasizing a common Indian identity. Tecumseh’s vision of American Indian sovereignty was radical, based on the idea that all Indian nations hold their land in common, and that further American incursion into Indian country should cease. As Tecumseh told William Henry Harrison: “You do not want unity among tribes, and you destroy it. You try to make differences between them.” Indeed, a common tactic of American treaty makers was to bribe and cajole representatives of Indian nations whose ownership claims to the territory under negotiation was at best marginal. This was illustrated by the 1809 Treaty of Fort Wayne, secured by Harrison, according to the language of the treaty, “between the United States of America, and the Tribes of Indians called the Delawares, Putawatimies, Miamies, and Eel River Miamies,” and which ceded some three million acres of Indian territory in Indiana and Illinois to the United States. Although many of the major American Indian nations residing in this territory were excluded from negotiations, and even though groups such as the Potawatomie had only marginal claims to the land, Harrison used the appearance of intertribal consensus to justify the terms of the treaty. By contrast, Tecumseh regarded its American Indian signatories as traitors, whose “chiefs only spoke a claim,” but who “never had a title to sell.”
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