Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership

by R. David Edmunds
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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 565

Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership was published by historian R. David Edmunds in 1984. The book traces the life of Tecumseh, a Shawnee man who would rise to become the leader of a movement for Native unity against American encroachment in the Ohio Valley. The main thrust of...

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Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership was published by historian R. David Edmunds in 1984. The book traces the life of Tecumseh, a Shawnee man who would rise to become the leader of a movement for Native unity against American encroachment in the Ohio Valley. The main thrust of the book is to attempt to put the life of Tecumseh in context, and the first chapter is a brief recounting of the history of the Shawnee. Edmunds traces their history to a people known as the "Fort Ancient" people, who flourished in the Ohio Valley between 1200 and 1650. Due to the importance of the Ohio Valley to French traders, English settlers, and especially the Iroquois, the Shawnee found themselves at the center of nearly constant conflict. Born in 1768, Tecumseh came of age in an era of war. As a young man, he participated in the wars against American settlers and armies led by George Rogers Clark, Arthur St. Clair, and Josiah Harmar. He was at the disastrous defeat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, an event recounted by Edmunds in chapter 2. In the process, he became a leader, and in chapter 3, entitled a "Culture Under Siege," Edmunds reveals how profoundly traumatic these changes were for every aspect of Shawnee life. White settlers, merchants, and others swept into the Ohio Valley, and, as Edmunds observes, by "1800 it was obvious that the traditional Shawnee socio-economic system no longer could adjust to the many changes sweeping through the Ohio Valley." In the next chapter, he relates how this cultural tragedy led to calls for a spiritual revival by Tenskwatawa, sometimes known as the "Prophet." Tenskwatawa was Tecumseh's brother, and he called for a total rejection of white ways, especially alcohol. His activities, supported by Tecumseh, sparked fears among Americans, who also suspected the British of providing material support. In fact, Edmunds argues that Tenskwatawa's religious movement was at least as important as Tecumseh's attempts to develop military and political unity among the Native peoples of the Ohio Valley and beyond. But after the 1809 Treaty of Fort Wayne, Tecumseh "cast off his mantle as 'the Prophet's brother' to assume the dominant position in the movement." This treaty gave a great deal of land to the American government and confirmed Tecumseh's warnings that negotiations with the Americans would lead to the extinction of a Native presence in the Ohio Valley. After this event, he had begun to make headway in putting together a Native alliance system, or perhaps even a confederation, that would resist American expansion. In 1811, the Prophet was responsible for a massive defeat of Shawnee forces at Tippecanoe, where American troops under William Henry Harrison won a significant battle and destroyed supplies. This event meant Tecumseh was the undisputed leader of the Indian movement, with the Prophet more or less discredited. In chapter 7, titled "Red Ascendancy," Edmunds describes Tecumseh's decision to side with the British in the War of 1812, which saw him win several victories alongside British general Isaac Brock. He continued to fight alongside the British, even goading them into action against the Americans, until he was killed at the disastrous Battle of the Thames. In the final chapter, Edmunds addresses some of the mysteries surrounding Tecumseh, including his death at the hands of Richard M. Johnson, his visits to Creek and Choctaw territory, and the false claims that he was appointed an officer in the British Army.

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