In the last days of Tecumseh, there in the end
There were rumors of invasions, even talks of spacemen
But he couldn’t believe all that he knew would fade
In the ground below the airplanes, Tecumseh were laid
(“The Last Days of Tecumseh”, Grant Lee Buffalo, video on youtube)
It’s frankly surprising how often the world ends. Perhaps not your world, but certainly somebody’s. Modern minds tend to view millennial and apocalyptic warnings with a measure of disdain. Armageddon was scheduled in 634 B.C. (popular opinion was that Rome was to be destroyed 120 years after its founding), 500 A.D. (Jesus was supposed to return based on calculated dimensions of the Ark), 1000 A.D. (predicted by Pope Sylvester II), 1600 A.D. (Martin Luther), 1910 A.D. (the return of Halley’s Comet), 2012 A.D. (end of the Mayan Long Count), and innumerable calendar dates in between, yet the world has merrily kept chugging along. Well, our world at least. Thus, with a self-satisfied smirk at our own modernity, each new prognostication of doom can be summarily dismissed as another in a long line of dates that come and go uneventfully, merging comfortably into what we call history, our seamless narrative that eternally serves to assure us that this too shall pass. What we fail to notice when each apocalypse expires with a whimper, and fails to even substantially interrupt our traditional amusements or TV viewing schedule, is that from someone’s perspective, the world as they knew it, did indeed end. With the death of Tecumseh, the world of the Shawnee Native Americans irrevocably vanished amid signs and portents, signaling the death of a mode of existence, an apocalypse writ small in our teleological frame of reference, yet looming large to those who could only watch as the familiar universe crumbled to dust.
Scholars have suggested that the Algonquin-speaking Shawnee were likely the descendants of the pre-contact “Fort Ancient Culture” that flourished in the Ohio region between 1000-1650 A.D, which in turn was probably related to the earlier mound-building Hopewell Culture that thrived between 200 B.C.-500 A.D. from what is now the Southeastern United States to the southern shores of Lake Ontario. By the time Europeans began snapping up choice real estate east of the Mississippi River, the Shawnee were semi-migratory, periodically moving through lands in Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Western Maryland, Alabama, South Carolina, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. By the 1830’s the Shawnee were pushed west of the Mississippi and into the “Indian Territory” of what would one day be Oklahoma. The mid-17th Century Beaver Wars, pitting the Dutch, English, and Iroquois Confederation against the French and loosely aligned Algonquin-speaking tribes (of which the Shawnee were one) of the Great Lakes region, led to a steady push of the Shawnee west and south, fleeing the rapidly expanding Iroquois. The Iroqouis claimed Shawnee territories in the Ohio Valley as their own, reducing the Shawnee to a dependency of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy (the name taken up by the Five Nations of the Iroquois). The Haudenosaunee Confederacy signed the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768 with the British colonists, marking the Ohio River as the boundary of English possessions over the objections of the Shawnee who actually lived there, and Virginia more or less proceeded to launch an invasion of the Ohio Territory, after violence between the settlers and local Shawnee erupted. With the Treaty of Camp Charlotte in 1774, Shawnee Chief Cornstalk was forced to accept the terms of the earlier Treaty of Fort Stanwix. Things went from bad to worse when the American Revolution amped up. The various Shawnee tribes were divided on whether to support the British, the Colonials, or remain neutral. The Shawnee joined with the Miami in the war that ensued against the United States following the revolution, but after the 1794 defeat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, large parts of the Ohio Territory were given up, and many of the Shawnee tribes fled into Indiana and Missouri. Into this world of endemic warfare, Tecumseh (1768-1813) was born, fighting in both the American Revolution and the subsequent Northwest Indian War (1785-1795).
Tecumseh envisioned a native confederacy east of the Mississippi that could resist the expansion of the United States, and spent a good portion of his life recruiting other tribes to his cause, along with his brother, the Shawnee religious leader and prophet Tenskwatawa. Tenskwatawa urged a return to traditional Shawnee ways, rejecting firearms, alcohol, European-style clothing, and giving up any further lands to settlers, prophesizing a coming apocalypse that would destroy the colonists based on earlier teachings of the Lenape prophets Scattamek and Neolin (who both spearheaded traditionalist revivals). From a multi-tribal community centered on Prophetstown (modern day Tippecanoe, Indiana), the brothers led the resistance and temporarily impeded European expansion westward as more tribes flocked to the teachings of Tenskwatawa and the leadership of Tecumseh. In 1809, Indiana Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison convinced a delegation of tribal leaders to give up some three million acres of land, strongly opposed by Tecumseh, who redoubled his efforts to solidify a native confederacy and resist the incursion of settlers. In his recruitment drives in preparation to side with the British in the War of 1812, Tecumseh gave the following speech to the Muscogee tribe at Tuckaubatchee in 1811.
In defiance of the white warriors of Ohio and Kentucky, I have traveled through their settlements, once our favorite hunting grounds. No war-whoop was sounded, but there is blood on our knives. The Pale-faces felt the blow, but knew not whence it came. Accursed be the race that has seized on our country and made women of our warriors. Our fathers, from their tombs, reproach us as slaves and cowards. I hear them now in the wailing winds. The Muscogee was once a mighty people. The Georgians trembled at your war-whoop, and the maidens of my tribe, on the distant lakes, sung the prowess of your warriors and sighed for their embraces. Now your very blood is white; your tomahawks have no edge; your bows and arrows were buried with your fathers. Oh! Muscogees, brethren of my mother, brush from your eyelids the sleep of slavery; once more strike for vengeance; once more for your country. The spirits of the mighty dead complain. Their tears drop from the weeping skies. Let the white race perish. They seize your land; they corrupt your women; they trample on the ashes of your dead! Back, whence they came, upon a trail of blood, they must be driven. Back! back, ay, into the great water whose accursed waves brought them to our shores! Burn their dwellings! Destroy their stock! Slay their wives and children! The Red Man owns the country, and the Pale-faces must never enjoy it. War now! War forever! War upon the living! War upon the dead! Dig their very corpses from the grave. Our country must give no rest to a white man’s bones. This is the will of the Great Spirit, revealed to my brother, his familiar, the Prophet of the Lakes. He sends me to you. All the tribes of the north are dancing the war-dance. Two mighty warriors across the seas will send us arms. Tecumseh will soon return to his country. My prophets shall tarry with you. They will stand between you and the bullets of your enemies. When the white men approach you the yawning earth shall swallow them up. Soon shall you see my arm of fire stretched athwart the sky. I will stamp my foot at Tippecanoe, and the very earth shall shake (Claiborne, 1860, p59).
While Tecumseh was away from Prophetstown in November 1811 spreading the word, Harrison and Tenskwatawa clashed at the Battle of Tippecanoe, forcing Tenskwatawa’s retreat and the burning of the village. Tecumseh, unable to convince the Muskogee of Alabama to join him gave a stern warning before he hurried to Detroit to aid British Major-General Sir Isaac Brock in forcing the city’s surrender as the War of 1812 got underway.
Your blood is white. You have taken my talk, and the sticks, and the wampum, and the hatchet, but you do not mean to fight I know the reason. You do not believe the Great Spirit has sent me. You shall know. I leave Tuckabatchee directly and shall go straight to Detroit; when I arrive there, I will stamp on the ground with my foot, and shake down all the houses in Tuckabatchee (Eggleston, 1878, 209-210).
Apparently, the Great Spirit was listening. Roughly the same time that Tecumseh arrived in Detroit, around December 16th, 1811, the first of the New Madrid earthquakes struck with an epicenter in Northeast Arkansas, felt across more than 3 million square kilometers. The New Madrid quakes were thought to have been at least a 7 on the Richter scale and the most powerful earthquakes in the eastern U.S. in recorded history. Needless to say, at least some of the Muskogee took that as a sign and headed off to join Tecumseh. Tecumseh was killed in the 1813 Battle of the Thames in Ontario, and the native coalition he had formed did not survive him. The rapidly dwindling Shawnee were pushed out, forcibly relocated, and driven to Oklahoma and Kansas. Today there only roughly 7000 Shawnee left, primarily residing in Oklahoma, of a people who once roamed from Canada to Georgia, probable descendants of inhabitants who had occupied the land for at least 1600 years. The world as they knew it truly ended for the Shawnee in 1813. The final battle of the apocalypse came and went, jotted down as a historical footnote as “Tecumseh’s War”.
Next time you are faced with someone else’s millennial expectations or predictions of an impending Armageddon, while you can rest easier knowing that you’ll probably still be around doing the same old thing when the terrible deadline passes without remark, the odds are that some unfortunate’s reality just imploded while you were making dinner. Perhaps this is why it sometimes seems as if we crave the end of the world. We see our norms, beliefs, convictions, and those cherished things we cling to and once gave order to our lives changing from one generation to the next. Stuck as we are in our comfortable patterns of thought, we read these as oracles of the end times, and wonder how the world could possibly go on without us. As G.K. Chesterton observed, “If we could destroy custom at a blow and see the stars as a child sees them, we should need no other apocalypse”.
Claiborne, John Francis Hamtramck, 1809-1884. Life and Times of Gen. Sam. Dale, the Mississippi Partisan. New York: Harper & brothers, 1860.
Eggleston, Edward, 1837-1902. Tecumseh And the Shawnee Prophet: Including Sketches of George Rogers Clark, Simon Kenton, William Henry Harrison, Cornstalk, Blackhoof, Bluejacket, the Shawnee Logan, And Others Famous In the Frontier Wars of Tecumsehs Time. New York: Dodd, Mead and company, 1878.