Why the War of 1812 was a turning point for Native Americans

Just three decades after the United States broke free from Britain with the American Revolution, the two nations engaged in battle again in the War of 1812. But this time, the combatants most at stake were probably a third group: the Amerindians. .

By the time the war broke out, the fledgling American nation had grown aggressively westward, bringing the native peoples and their ancestral lands under relentless attack. Seeking military allies to help protect their territory, most Native Americans chose to fight alongside the British. Indian warriors, many of whom rallied around the powerful and charismatic Chief Tecumseh, played a crucial role in many battles.

The outcome of a protracted and bitter conflict between Great Britain and Napoleonic France, the War of 1812 pitted the English naval superpower against its former colony, a country in its infancy. After independence, the relationship was not going well. The United States resented Britain’s oppressive trade restrictions, designed to prevent the fledgling nation from supporting the French war effort. Americans also didn’t like the way their merchant seamen were kidnapped and forced to serve in Britain’s Royal Navy.

For its part, Britain sought to curb the territorial growth of the United States, particularly in the direction of Canada, its last colonial foothold on the North American continent. The British viewed Indian Territory as a crucial buffer against American aggression and had already shown support for an increasingly militant tribal coalition along the Great Lakes border.

In June 1812, US President James Madison signed a declaration of war against Britain, starting the War of 1812. For Indigenous peoples who had seen their homelands regularly usurped by white soldiers and settlers, war would be their last and best chance for the outside army. aid and a turning point in their struggle for sovereignty.

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Tecumseh played a key role

Tecumseh, Chief of the Shawnee, is best known for his efforts to unite American Indian tribes against white westward expansion and for his leadership in the War of 1812.

In the early years of the 19th century, Native Americans and First Nations peoples (indigenous peoples of Canada) had to choose which powers to align themselves with and which to fight against. The atrocities committed against Native communities by American colonists in the name of Manifest Destiny—the idea that God commanded them to spread democracy and capitalism to the “new” continent—predisposed many Native warriors to the British.

After the declaration of war, Shawnee Chief Tecumseh quickly joined the fight, says Donald Fixico, a distinguished professor of history at Arizona State University.

Tecumseh, born in frontier territory in the Ohio Valley, had long held an open grudge against American military forces, which killed both his father, Puckeshinwa, in 1774 and years later his older brother and mentor Cheeseekau. As a teenager, Tecumseh joined his tribe’s warlord, Blue Jacket, to fight the American army. In 1791, Tecumseh helped defeat General Arthur St. Clair’s forces at the Battle of Wabash. But a decisive loss at Fallen Timbers in northwest Ohio in 1794 resulted in a treaty forcing the Indians to cede much of Ohio territory to Michigan. Tecumseh refused to sign, believing that no tribe could own the land.

“Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the land? he once proclaimed in a speech. confidence in white people…especially when such great acts of injustice have been committed by them against our race? »

In 1808, with his brother Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh founded Prophetstown, a Native village (in present-day Indiana) centered on traditional Native values ​​and ways of life. Hoping to unite the native people against invading white settlers, Chief Shawnee organized a multi-tribal alliance across the Ohio Valley. Seeking to expand it, he traveled widely among other tribes in the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley, going as far north as Canada and as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. Using interpreters, the charismatic speaker convinced many to put aside previous differences to unite against the looming threat to their land, culture and freedom.

According to Fixico, warriors from more than a dozen nations answered Tecumseh’s call, from Peoria and Ottawa in the north to Muscogee and Creek in the south: “Even if you couldn’t understand his words, you could understand his feelings.

All of his passionate recruiting served Tecumseh well. On August 16, 1812, he and his Indian army joined British forces under Sir Isaac Brock to inflict a crushing loss on the morale of the American army during their siege of Fort Detroit. The victory gave the British and their Native allies firm control of the territory around the Great Lakes and pushed the frontier boundary eastward, at least for a time.

READ MORE: When Native Americans were slaughtered in the name of ‘civilization’

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Tecumseh’s death shatters Indian unity

After fighting several more battles on the side of the British, including the capture of Fort Meigs in 1813, Tecumseh fell at the Battle of the Thames.

General Isaac Brock, a British commander who had counted on Tecumseh’s support, said of the leader: “I believe there is no such thing as a wiser or more valiant warrior.

William Henry Harrison, who as Governor of Indiana had clashed with Tecumseh in tense territorial negotiations – and then led American soldiers to burn Prophetstown in the famous Battle of Tippecanoe – was both scared and respect for Chief Shawnee. He called him “one of those rare geniuses, who arise from time to time to produce revolutions and overthrow the established order of things”.

Tecumseh’s death dealt a severe blow to Native American morale and halted the tribal momentum in resistance to American westward expansion. Disheartened by the chief’s death, many Indigenous nations ceded their territories and moved to government-mandated reservations. And as in previous and subsequent wars, the cash-strapped U.S. government, unable to pay its own soldiers, instead distributed tracts of former Indigenous territory to white veterans in the form of land grants.

Other Indigenous Fronts of War

General Andrew Jackson and Creek warlord William 'Red Eagle' Weatherford after the defeat of the Red Rod at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama, 1814.

General Andrew Jackson and Creek warlord William ‘Red Eagle’ Weatherford after the defeat of the Red Rod at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in Alabama, 1814.

For many Native Americans from Canada to the Deep South, the war fomented disruption and division.

Early in the war, when much of the British army was busy fighting Napoleon’s troops, American forces wasted little time attacking Canada. Accidentally caught in the crossfire: the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, the only First Nations community that straddles the Canada-US border along the St. Lawrence River. Their territory became the scene of several skirmishes. And while some chose the American side of the conflict, many warriors from Akwesasne and neighboring Kahnawake recruited by the British were credited with helping to prevent the American conquest of Canada.

“Akwesasne was a strategic location for American and British forces,” writes historian Darren Bonaparte, tribal preservation officer for the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe. “There were a number of individuals who found themselves in the fight, some of them paid the ultimate price.”

Further south, in Alabama, the war escalated into inter-tribal conflict among the Creek. One faction, the Red Sticks, had taken inspiration from Tecumseh in resisting American intrusion, while another faction, the Lower Creek, generally supported the United States. Jackson and his 3,300-strong militia, which included Cherokee and Lower Creek warriors, fought back at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, decimating several Red Stick towns.

The disaster effectively crushed indigenous resistance in the region. In the ensuing Treaty of Fort Jackson, the Creeks ceded more than 20 million acres of their homeland, nearly half of present-day Alabama.

READ MORE: Broken Treaties with Native American Tribes: Timeline

The end of the war and the indigenous resistance

The final blow to the Indigenous peoples would come after the war ended, when the Treaty of Ghent was signed on December 24, 1814. With the conflict essentially ending in a draw, the Americans and British agreed to return to the status quo pre-war. . In doing so, the British abandoned their Aboriginal allies. Without financial and military support, indigenous resisters had much less success in defending their homeland.

After the war, the United States began to pick up the pace of its treaties with various Indian nations, negotiating over 200 agreements that resulted in the massive surrender of Indigenous lands and the creation of reservations across the country. Those who did not voluntarily leave their ancestral lands were forcibly removed and pushed on murderous journeys such as the Southern Tribal Trail of Tears and the Navajo “Long March”.

As many historians have pointed out, with the War of 1812 ending in a draw, the only real losers in the conflict were the Native Americans.

Nohemi M. Moore