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

At the end of a long gallery in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art there is a ton of marble that, after nearly 20 years of intermittent work, was completed in 1856 by Frederick Pettrich, a German-born, Italian-trained sculptor. The subject is a reclining, heroically proportioned man whose dignified and noble demeanor is unaffected by a bullet hole in the right temple. If the wound and a tomahawk held in the right hand are overlooked, the figure could be that of one of the champions of classical legend — an expiring Hector or Siegfried — who so engaged romantic artists of 19th-century Europe. In fact, the gleaming white sculpture is entitled The Dying Tecumseh, but any resemblance to the mortal Shawnee leader of that name is entirely coincidental. He died in battle and was disfigured by enemy soldiers 25 years before Pettrich began this work. While alive he posed for no known portrait. Nevertheless it is singularly appropriate that this is an imaginary figure, for no one else of Tecumseh's race and few of any other have had such a powerful and abiding impact on the collective American imagination.

The real Tecumseh was born circa 1768 in southern Ohio at the beginning of a sporadic but ferociously fought war that did not end until — and largely because — he was killed in 1813. In this conflict his Shawnee, the Miami, the Potawatomi and other nations of the Great Lakes and Ohio Valley region sought to defend themselves against the white settlers pioneering westward across the Appalachians.

Tecumseh was a warrior at 15; later he became a renowned field commander and a charismatic orator. By the early 1800s he had conceived of a Pan-Indian federation. In this union he hoped old tribal rivalries would be set aside so that the indigenous people of the Great Lakes and Mississippi Valley could act as one in resisting the advancing whites. From a base on the Tippecanoe River in northern Indiana, he traveled from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico promoting this federation. His ambition was probably an impossible one; the Indian population of this territory was then less than 100,000 and that of the United States nearly seven million. Still, rumors of what he was up to greatly alarmed many frontier whites, including William Henry Harrison, the federal governor of the Indiana Territory. Formerly a Regular Army officer, Harrison negotiated with Tecumseh face-to-face on two occasions and assessed him as "one of those uncommon geniuses who spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things."

In the fall of 1811 Harrison gathered a thousand men and, when Tecumseh was away, made a preemptive strike against his base on the Tippecanoe. After a brief fight several hundred garrison warriors withdrew from the village. The so-called Battle of Tippecanoe was, in effect, the first engagement of the War of 1812. In that war Tecumseh fought alongside the British because, unlike the Americans, they were not invading Indian lands. In August 1812 Tecumseh, leading a multitribal group of warriors, and a combined force of Canadian militia and British regulars surrounded Detroit. Fearing imminent massacre by "hordes of howling savages," the aging and ailing Brig. Gen. William Hull surrendered Detroit and his 2,000-man army (Smithsonian, January 1994).

Tecumseh's warriors soon struck deep into the United States, attacking forts and sending terrified settlers fleeing back toward the Ohio River. Harrison, called back to command U.S. forces in the West, spent nearly a year converting militiamen into passable professional soldiers. In the fall of 1813 he invaded Ontario. The British general, Henry Procter, retreated in panic. Fighting almost continuously for five days, Tecumseh and 600 warriors screened the British retreat, but on October 5 Harrison caught up with Procter at the Thames River near Moraviantown. The British general ignominiously fled; after a single American volley all his regular troops surrendered. Tecumseh meanwhile positioned his exhausted men in a patch of swampy woodland and told them he would retreat no farther. Having finished the British, Harrison sent dragoons and infantry into these thickets. After an hour of fierce fighting Tecumseh was killed, or presumably so. At least he was never again seen alive. For all practical purposes the Indian resistance movement ended in the Northwest. But the process that led to the Dying Tecumseh sculpture had already commenced.

The first year of the War of 1812 was a humiliating one for the United States. The nation's political and military leaders badly needed a gaudy victory to restore public morale and their own reputations. Not much could be done with the wretched General Procter. But the defeated Indians were another matter. The first battle reports — later embellished in bloody detail — claimed Harrison's brave boys had overcome 3,000 superb warriors led by the great Tecumseh. Naturally the public was eager to know which American hero had brought down this mighty Shawnee champion. Satisfying that curiosity was — and still is — complicated by what might be called the habeus corpus problem.

Warriors who survived the battle told various stories. They had been forced to leave Tecumseh's body on the field. They had carried him off, either mortally wounded or dead, and buried him in a secret place that whites would never find. As for the Americans, none of those who first overran Tecumseh's position were acquainted with him. But they found an impressive-looking dead Indian who they were convinced was Tecumseh. Some cut strips of skin from this body, later tanning them for razor strops and leather souvenirs. When people arrived who did know him, some said the battered corpse was indeed Tecumseh's. Others said it was not. Even Harrison could not positively identify it.

Nevertheless a number of Americans were to claim that they had personally vanquished the Shawnee leader. Most prominent was Richard Johnson, a Kentucky politician who fought at the Thames as a cavalry commander. Whether or not he was indeed "The Man Who Killed Tecumseh," a great many of his constituents believed he was. With supporters chanting "Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey Dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh," Johnson was first elected to the U.S. Senate and then, in 1836, to the Vice Presidency. With a little help from another catchy jingle, "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too," William Henry Harrison became President four years later.

Frederick Pettrich began work on The Dying Tecumseh in 1837, doubtless much influenced by these political happenings. This was certainly the case with John Dorival, who in 1833 painted the immensely popular Battle of the Thames. In the foreground of an extremely busy battle scene, Johnson and Tecumseh are engaged in hand-to-hand combat. The former brandishes a pistol, sports a dragoon's tall stovepipe hat adorned with an ostrich plume and sits astride a splendid white charger. Tecumseh, on foot, appears to be about seven feet tall, overtopping Johnson's rearing horse. He wears a flowing headdress fabricated from the plumage of at least four or five eagles. Lithographic prints of Dorival's work were purchased and widely distributed by managers of Johnson's Vice Presidential campaign. Other paintings of this battle, quite similar in heroic detail and inaccuracy, came to decorate many a 19th-century barbershop and barroom.

For reasons of obvious self-interest the conquerors of Tecumseh eulogized him first as a "red Hannibal-Napoleon" and then as a man of preternatural sagacity, courage and honor. Typically, the Indiana Centinel, published in Vincennes, editorialized: "Every schoolboy in the Union now knows that Tecumseh was a great man. His greatness was his own, unassisted by science or education. As a statesman, warrior and patriot, we shall not look on his like again.

"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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