John Sugden, an Englishman who holds degrees from the universities of Leeds, Lancaster, and Sheffield, writes with authority about the life of the revered Native American leader Tecumseh. Sugden’s writing is accessible, thorough, and interesting, making his biography of Tecumseh a worthwhile read for anyone interested in Indian and North American history. Sugden is most recently known as the biographer of Sir Francis Drake as the result of his 1990 Sir Francis Drake. Tecumseh: A Life is Sugden’s second book about the chief; his first, Tecumseh’s Last Stand (1985), the detailed story of the Battle of Moraviantown, received good reviews from scholars as well as from the general public.
Sugden writes in the preface to Tecumseh: A Life that while Tecumseh may be one of the most famous of all Native Americans, his life is one shrouded in mystery. Further, according to Sugden, there has been no historically accurate biography written about Tecumseh before this time. Sugden found himself faced with the monumental task of revisiting and reevaluating all primary source documentation; it comes as no surprise that he describes the project as one of thirty years’ duration. However, it was when he combined his work on the primary documents with simultaneous research on the Shawnees of Ohio that he found “much of what had hitherto been mysterious about Tecumseh fell into place.”
Tecumseh: A Life opens in medias res at a gathering in Chillicothe, Ohio in 1807. Sugden suggests that it was at this meeting that Tecumseh became a force with which to be reckoned. He cites contemporary sources that describe Tecumseh as a fine- looking, commanding presence, speaking on behalf of the Indians gathered at Greenville, some one hundred miles northwest of Chillicothe. Indeed, the reason for the meeting was the fear of white settlers that the Indians would join with the British in a new war against the Americans.
After whetting reader interest with his careful descriptions of Tecumseh’s appearance and oratory, Sugden turns his story to the beginning, to the years immediately preceding Tecumseh’s birth. A Shawnee, Tecumseh was born about 1768 in present-day Ohio. The second half of the eighteenth century was a time of rapid expansion of English-speaking settlers into Indian lands. Tecumseh’s family lived at the edge of this expansion, in the territory coveted by white settlers. Consequently, Tecumseh’s youth was a time of bitter and violent fighting between the Native and European Americans. His family was displaced repeatedly, and his father was killed in a fight against the British in 1774.
Sugden interweaves the historical context with the details of Tecumseh’s life, succinctly identifying the major issues facing the Indians at the start of the nineteenth century. In short, their livelihoods, their lands, and their cultures were being threatened. Yet another curse was soon to rear its head. Epidemic disease, largely introduced by white settlers, swept Indian villages throughout the Great Lakes region, leaving many Indians dead or dying. These epidemics set the stage for the emergence of another Native American leader, Lalawéthika (later known as Tenskwatawa), Tecumseh’s younger brother.
Also known as the Prophet, Tenskwatawa claimed that he had been chosen by Waasha Monetoo, the Great Spirit, to cleanse the Indians of their unclean ways. He interpreted the sickness spreading throughout Indian communities to be the result of Waasha Monetoo’s displeasure with the Indians. He called for an end to drunkenness, fornication, and dependence on whites and for a return to traditional Indian culture. Sugden points out that Tenskwatawa’s religious movement was within a well- established Native American prophetic tradition.
Thus, for Sugden, there appear to be three major threads joining together to create Tecumseh’s moment in history: the encroachment of Indian lands by white settlers; the religious conservatism and fervor inspired by catastrophic epidemics; and growing tensions between the governments of the young United States and England.
In response, Tecumseh undertook a long journey that led him from his base in Indiana north into Canada and south to the Gulf of Mexico. The purpose of his journey was to negotiate an alliance. At the heart of his plan was the belief of common land ownership. Tecumseh believed that all tribes shared in the ownership of the land the United States claimed and that no one tribe or individual could sell or give away the land that belonged to all. The purpose of his journey was to persuade the tribes that they needed to form a confederacy for common defense. The formation of the intertribal...
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