November is Native American heritage month and as residents of Lincoln County we have been endowed a rich American Indian history. It is the story of the clash between two nations: the gritty and fiercely defiant long hunter and pioneer family, and the bold, brave warriors and tribal villages defending the lands of their ancestors. It is a story of the fateful conflict of differing dreams and principles of many peoples, upon which hinged the fate of our Kentucky Commonwealth and a developing nation.
As we approach the bicentennial of the War of 1812, we should remember the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh and his connection to our county and state. The life of Tecumseh and Kentucky’s role in the War of 1812 is one story that is inseparable.
Tecumseh was born in Old Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1768. A great orator he was, whose voice someone said was the sound of thunder. He gained fame by taking a stand for what he believed was just. He spoke out against white encroachment that was spreading across the Northwest. The very nature of intertribal culture: the varying customs, languages, and scattered geographical location, made each tribe’s disunited status vulnerable to the land hungry U.S. government.
Fighting this, Tecumseh served in battles in the Northwest including the Battle of Fallen Timbers near Waterville, Ohio. Yet his most profound contribution to American history was the continental campaign he waged to recruit numerous tribes to unite and adopt the philosophy of Nativism. The Nativists believed in rejecting European culture and uniting in defense of all tribal lands. A large intertribal confederation gathered at Tippecanoe (near Lafayette, Ind.) in 1809. In the same year, the governor of the Northwest Territory, William Henry Harrison, negotiated land cessions from individual tribes. Tensions mounted between the Nativist faction and the Americans. Tecumseh sought to convince Governor Harrison of the possibility of returning the lands but no agreement was reached. Finally on November 17, 1811, Governor Harrison engaged the Tippecanoe village in an attack, knowing Tecumseh was away. The village was burned and the once hopeful union scattered. Tippecanoe has often been referred to as the first battle of the War of 1812. That fateful battle would compel thousands of Kentuckians to serve in the war, including Colonel William Whitley and Isaac Shelby. More soldiers from Kentucky fought in the War of 1812 than from any other state. American casualties during the war totaled 1,876 and of those, 1,200 were from Kentucky. And many Kentuckians, including Whitley and Shelby, were destined to soon cross paths with the recently commissioned British Brigadier General Tecumseh.
Spring blossoms opened to the Ohio sky and fertile grasslands stretched to the wooded shores of the Maumee River. Yet, there was an uneasy stillness in May of 1813. Governor Harrison had stationed 1,000 troops at Fort Meigs, near Perrysburg, Ohio. British General Henry Proctor positioned for attack with 2,400 soldiers and Native warriors. Then the Americans impulsively attacked the British camp. An explosion of fire ensued, a volley of bullets, the thunder of the cannon. A fog settled on the Maumee River. And 650 Americans were killed or captured. Colonel Proctor stood by as merciless warriors began scalping the first of the 500 prisoners, many of whom were Kentuckians. The pleading cries were squelched only by the distant sound of hoof beats raging toward the murderous scene. Riding up on this horse was Chief Tecumseh. “Stop the killing!” he shouted. “Stop the killing or I will kill you!” The impassioned warrior was enraged by the senseless killing of the Americans, whose principles he had battled for decades. Tecumseh set the remaining 460 prisoners free.
In the Autumn of 1813, a battle on the Thames River in Canada would end Indian opposition in the Northwest Territory forever. Governor Harrison encountered General Proctor’s British regulars along with Tecumseh and his warriors. Heavy fire from Natives within a heavily concealed swampland provoked Americans to dismount their horses and the battle quickly deteriorated to hand to hand combat. Colonel William Whitley was one of the first to die. Isaac Shelby sent reinforcement troops to fight the warriors. In the aftermath, Tecumseh lay dead; the defender of many, the champion of one Native Nation.
Countless Kentuckians came home from the war, the ancestors of the citizens now living in the Commonwealth. These Kentucky citizens are doubtlessly proud of their ancestor’s contribution to the American cause and maybe, just maybe, they owe their very lives to the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh.
Consider donating to a Native American cause through the Stanford Daughters of the American Revolution. For more information, contact Mrs. Joann Bright at (606) 365-2546.
Tecumseh and his link to Lincoln County
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