The Dying Tecumseh and the Birth of a Legend

A sculpture in the Smithsonian collection reveals much about how the Indians of the West were viewed in the early ages of the United States

(Smithsonian American Art Museum)
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"A decade or so after his death Tecumseh had become The Noble — in fact the noblest — Savage. Towns, businesses and children — William Tecumseh Sherman, for one — were named for him. In my own youth, growing up in southern Michigan 30 miles to the west of the village of Tecumseh, it was still widely believed that his was the face that appeared on the "Indian Head" penny. I later learned that the model for this coin was the daughter of a U.S. Mint engraver, but legend generally overrides fact. In addition to sculptures, paintings, woodcuts and other pictographic works, hundreds and probably thousands of articles and books, occasional epic poems and dramas about Tecumseh have appeared since his death. And they continue. Tecumseh literature is now more voluminous than that devoted to William Henry Harrison or Richard Johnson, and nearly all of it is laudatory. Except for Robert E. Lee, sans peur et sans reproche, no other declared enemy of the United States has been so well regarded for so long as has Tecumseh.

Praise for noble enemies — once they are safely out of the way — is part of a long heroic tradition. But with the passage of time the enduring interest in and admiration for Tecumseh has raised a question that has become more troublesome for many Americans. It is: "If Tecumseh and his cause were so noble, why was he killed and mutilated?"

With this in mind it has occurred to me that the sculpture in the National Museum of American Art, the most massive of the many memorials to the man, could be retitled Tecumseh's Revenge.


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