The Shawnee in the War of 1812
by Richard Williams
Tecumseh, a Shawnee, is perhaps the best known of all Indian participants of the War of 1812.
The Shawnee probably originated in the Ohio Valley, although there is much doubt as to their ancestral home. Their name is a Delaware word meaning “Southerners.” They had at one time or another villages in South Carolina, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Alabama, and Ohio. They were considered a roving people although they practiced agriculture wherever they located their villages. They spoke an Algonquin dialect and were woodland in their culture and habits.
By the early nineteenth century the Shawnee were living in three separate locations. Some were with the Creek in Georgia and Alabama, some were on the Cumberland River in Tennessee and some were with the Delaware on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Due to white pressure on the lands and intertribal disputes the Cumberland and Susquehanna Shawnee joined together north of the Ohio River in the 1750s.
The Shawnee were allies of the French during the French and Indian War, fought in 1763 with Pontiac against the British; and some were involved in Lord Dunmore's War of 1774. They became British allies during the American Revolution and led many forays against American settlements in Kentucky.
Not all of the Shawnee were enthusiastic supporters of the war effort. During the 1770s and 1780s a large group left the Ohio valley and moved across the Mississippi River into Missouri. This group eventually became known as the Absentee Shawnee. They split again after 1803 with a large faction moving south to Texas.
The Ohio or Eastern Shawnee continued their resistance until the defeat of the allied Indian nations at Fallen Timbers in 1793. At the Treaty of Greenville in 1795 they were forced to cede most of their land to the American government. The Ohio Shawnee split into three groups, two of which stayed in Ohio. The third group, the Anti-Greenville faction, moved west to the Wabash River in Indiana. It was during this time that the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh emerged as a commanding figure among the Ohio River tribes.
Tecumseh was born of a Shawnee father and Creek mother about 1768 near the Mad River of Ohio. As a teenager he fought against the Americans during the Revolution and was a participant at Harmar’s defeat, St. Clair’s defeat (Kekionga), and the Battle of Fallen Timbers. He was against the signing of the Greenville treaty and was part of the faction that moved west to the Wabash River.
About 1805 Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, “The Prophet,” began their effort to organize all of the Indian tribes into a confederacy that would resist any further sale of Indian land to white governments. The Prophet preached a return to the traditional Indian way of life and a rejection of all things white, including liquor. Tecumseh traveled from Indian nation to Indian nation trying to unite them into a single front opposing white land aggression. With some tribes he was very successful, and with others he received little support. By 1811 Tecumseh’s main village, located on the Tippecanoe River, contained over 700 warriors, mostly Kickapoo and Potawatomie tribes, with some Delaware, Sauk, Winnebago, Wyandot, and Creek. Very few Shawnee followed the preachings of Tecumseh or the Prophet. This large village posed such a potential threat to American expansion that the Indiana Territorial Governor, William Henry Harrison, led an expedition against it in the fall of 1811. Harrison was trespassing on unceded land and forced the united warriors to resist his trespass. The ensuing battle was a draw, but Harrison did destroy the village at Tippecanoe. Harrison struck while Tecumseh was far to the south preaching to the Creek. When Tecumseh returned, his confederacy was shattered and he led his followers to Canada.
During the War of 1812, Tecumseh led his warriors during the campaigns at Detroit and Fort Meigs. Most of his forays were successful and as victory followed victory, more warriors joined him in Canada. At one point before the British retreat back into Canada Tecumseh led over 3000 Indian warriors. When British General Henry Proctor decided to lift the siege of Fort Meigs and return to Canada, many of the Indian allies deserted. Tecumseh forced the British to make a stand along the Thames River and during the ensuing battle, he was killed. About 700 Indian allies followed the British retreat to the east and Lake Ontario. They played little role during the final months of the war. Many eventually returned to their homes in the Ohio valley.
Except for the few Shawnee who followed Tecumseh at Tippecanoe the nation generally adopted a neutral stance during the war. The Ohio faction declared their neutrality early in the war and were able to remain on their lands until 1831, when they were forced to move to Kansas and Oklahoma. The Shawnee living in Missouri were largely neutral, but some did assist the Missouri militia against northern Indians who were raiding into Missouri. They too eventually were forced to move west to Kansas and Oklahoma. The nation has remained separated until this day.
Reprinted by permission from The Territorial, vol. 1