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Two centuries ago: Tecumseh's freedom speech to the Muscogee people

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On September 20, 1811, Tecumseh rode into Tuckhabatchee, in present day Alabama, the capital of the Muscogee people. Twenty warriors, members of the Shawnee, Kickapoo and Winnebago nations, rode with him. The last months of a tense peace between the United States and the native peoples led by Tecumseh were quickly passing. And the U.S. and Britain were well down the path to war.

Thousands of people watched the dramatic arrival of Tecumseh and his followers. Tuckhabatchee was overflowing with visitors and residents who were in town for the meeting of the Muscogee national council. Big Warrior, Hopoithle Miko and other important chiefs were in attendance. Long time North Carolina politician Benjamin Hawkins, the agent of the U.S. government appointed to the Muscogee nation, came to Tuckhabatchee to serve as the eyes and ears of Washington and to speak up for U.S. interests. A number of white traders were also on hand as well as representatives from the Choctaw, Chickasaw, Cherokee tribes, and even some from the Seminole nation, whose people hailed from south of the U.S. border in Spanish-ruled Florida.

The Muscogee people lived in settlements in what became Alabama and Mississippi, building their towns along the rivers and creeks of that lush territory. Because their settlements were located next to rivers and creeks, whites called the Muscogees the Creeks. Tuckhabatchee was strategically located at the junction of the Tallapoosa and Coosa Rivers.

There was great anticipation in the town about what Tecumseh, the famous Shawnee chief, would say when he addressed them. When he arrived in Tuckhabatchee, he was nearing the end of a journey that had taken him on a long arc from north to south across America organizing the native Confederacy whose purpose was to halt the acquisition of yet more native land by American settlers. He had reason to believe that his message would be well received, by many but not all, in Tuckhabatchee. Although, he came from the distant Ohio country with its markedly different terrain, Tecumseh had personal ties to the Muscogee that made this visit a homecoming as well as a diplomatic venture to win over peoples that were not his own.

Tecumseh stayed at the council for a number of days, but as long as U.S. Indian agent Benjamin Hawkins remained in town, he refrained from speaking. He had no intention of sharing his message to the Muscogee council with a representative of the United States government. Each day, Tecumseh remarked laconically that "the sun has gone too far today. I will make my talk tomorrow." More than a week passed before Hawkins departed. The same evening, with a large multitude gathered, Tecumseh entered the council house and offered a wampum bag and a peace pipe to Big Warrior. Big Warrior smoked before he passed the peace pipe to the other chiefs. Tecumseh stood before the assemblage for a few minutes, looking over the crowd, before he began to speak. Accompanying Tecumseh that memorable evening as he had throughout his long tour was Sikaboo, his interpreter. Sikaboo was a proficient linguist, who spoke Muskogean, Choctaw, and English, in addition to Shawnee. When Tecumseh spoke to a crowd or negotiated with American or British political or military leaders, he did so in Shawnee. His knowledge of English was very limited, and he rarely attempted to speak to whites in their language.

There is no record of Tecumseh's speech in Tuckhabatchee but he had been delivering essentially the same set of remarks on a number of occasions during his tour. We do have a record of his words spoken a few months later, and that gives us a good idea of what he had to say to the Muscogee national council.

Tecumseh was a masterful performer, who punctuated his remarks, with theatrical gestures. He used rhetoric to drive home the points he made and to leave an indelible impression on his listeners.

"Brothers -- We all belong to the same family; we are all children of the Great Spirit; we walk in the same path; slake our thirst at the same spring; and now affairs of the greatest concern lead us to smoke the pipe around the same council fire."

"Brothers -- We are friends; we must assist each other to bear our burdens. The blood of many of our fathers and brothers has run like water on the ground, to satisfy the avarice of the white men. We, ourselves, are threatened with a great evil; nothing will pacify them but the destruction of all the red men."

"Brothers -- When the white men first set foot on our grounds, they were hungry; they had no place on which to spread their blankets, or to kindle their fires. They were feeble; they could do nothing for themselves. Our fathers commiserated their distress, and shared freely with them whatever the Great Spirit had given his red children. They gave them food when hungry, medicine when sick, spread skins for them to sleep on, and gave them grounds, that they might hunt and raise corn."

"Brothers -- The white men are like poisonous serpents: when chilled, they are feeble and harmless; but invigorate them with warmth, and they sting their benefactors to death. The white people came to us feeble; and now we have made them strong, they wish to kill us, or drive us back, as they would wolves and panthers."

"Brothers -- The white men are not friends to the Indians: at first they only asked for land sufficient for a wigwam; now, nothing will satisfy them but the whole of our hunting grounds, from the rising of the setting sun."

"Brothers -- The white men want more than our hunting grounds; they wish to kill our warriors; they would even kill our old men, women, and little ones."

".....Brothers -- We must be united; we must smoke the same pipe; we must fight each other's battles; and more than all, we must love the Great Spirit; he is for us; he will destroy our enemies and make his red children happy."

We do know that in his stirring address at Tuckhabatchee, Tecumseh drew on his close ties to the Muscogee people. "Oh, Muscogees!" he shouted. "Brethren of my mother! Brush from your eyelids the sleep of slavery, and strike for vengeance and your country!"

When the Shawnee Chief called on his audience to join him in the struggle and spoke of his ties with them, the effect was overwhelming. A thousand warriors raised their tomahawks in the air.

All through Tecumseh's address, Big Warrior sat with a disapproving frown on his face. At the end of his talk, Tecumseh searched out those who had appeared unmoved during his speech and then he fixed his gaze on Big Warrior. Pointing his finger toward the Muscogee leader's face, he told him: "Your blood is white: you have taken my talk, and the sticks and the wampum, and the hatchet, but you do not mean to fight: I know the reason: you do not believe the Great Spirit has sent me: you shall know: I leave Tuckhabatchee directly, and shall go straight to Detroit: when I arrive there, I will stamp the ground with my foot, and shake down every house in Tuckhabatchee."

The first to reply to Tecumseh was William Weatherford, a mixed blood Muscogee, who was also known as Red Eagle, a man who would play a vital role over the next few years. He was far from convinced by what he had heard. If Tecumseh was so set on war with the whites, Weatherford demanded to know, why had he not already led the northern tribes into battle against them. Tecumseh replied that all of the native peoples needed to come together in the struggle at hand. Weatherford shot back that the Shawnee Chief's suggested path would lead to war with the United States and that the native peoples could no more count on the British than on the Americans. Relying on the British for military assistance would be sheer folly.

There were others who rejected Tecumseh's suggestion of a native alliance against the United States. During a conversation with Cherokee leaders later that evening, one chief warned Tecumseh that if he carried his message to Cherokee country, he would kill him.

Tecumseh did win adherents to his cause, however. His words stirred many of the warriors present. The Muscogees faced their own struggle to halt the seizure of their lands by the Americans and the words of Tecumseh would be remembered by them during the perilous events to come.

The Shawnee chief departed for the north. The prophecy he had hurled at Big Warrior was not forgotten. Some of the Muscogees counted the days, calculating how long it would take Tecumseh to reach Detroit. In the early hours of December 16, the day when the Muscogees had reckoned he would complete his journey, the earth trembled as the first waves of the most powerful series of earthquakes, of which there is a record, struck the eastern United States. Every house in Tuckhabatchee was shaken to the ground. "Tecumseh has got to Detroit!" was the message on the lips of many Muscogees on that day.

The earthquake was felt as far away as New York City and southern Canada. For a short time, the mighty shock, to be followed by further quakes over the next four months, caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards.

That the earthquakes struck is an indisputable fact. And it is no less a fact that many Muscogees connected the trembling of the earth with Tecumseh's prophecy and drew the conclusion that the Shawnee chief's call to arms must be heeded.

This is an excerpt from the upcoming book by James Laxer titled Tecumseh and Brock: The War of 1812, to be published in the spring of 2012 by House of Anansi in Toronto. It was first posted on James Laxer's blog.

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