The Battle of Lake Erie:
The Beginning of the End for Tecumseh
And His Indian Confederation
Marianne E. Brokaw
America’s Small Wars
28 November 2016
The American victory against the British at the Battle of Lake Erie played a significant role in the outcome of the War of 1812. Not only did this victory prove the ability and might of a United States navy, still in its infancy, but it set in motion a chain of events that would be the end of the Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, and his dreams of a united Indian Confederation.
This defeat of the British Navy, whom the Indians under Tecumseh had an alliance, sent both the British and the Indians on a retreat north and east into northern Michigan and Canada.
This retreat was fatal to the Indian Confederation and to Tecumseh. Without enough warriors to fight in the skirmishes that occurred during the retreat, the American forces easily gained ground on Tecumseh, his Indians, and the British. On October 5, 1813, Tecumseh made a stand, however, it was his last. Tecumseh was killed in battle fighting to defend his dream of a united Indian Confederation. With Tecumseh’s death also came the death of this dream.
A mere twenty-nine years after formalizing its independence from Great Britain, through the Treaty of Paris after eight years of war, the young republic, the United States of America, once again found itself at war with its former sovereign. A war that started over trade rights and the impressment of American sailors into service for the crown, once again placed the Native Americans in the middle of a conflict that would rob them of their lands. These Native American tribes, including the Shawnee, the Wyandot, the Delaware, and the Chippewa living in the northern region of the United States, the Ohio territory, the Indiana territory, and areas of what is now southern Michigan, allied themselves with either the British in Canada or the Americans to necessitate self-preservation. In the quest for this self-preservation, one Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, continued toward his goal of uniting the tribes of the Shawnee nation. Tecumseh’s attempt, although heroic and strategic, never came to complete fruition.
The Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, pitted the newly established American Navy against the largest and arguably best naval force in the world. The victory of this infant American Navy was the beginning of the end for Tecumseh and his dream of an Indian Confederation. Cultural differences between the natives and their British allies, social issues that disrupted the natives’ daily lives, and poor relations between the natives and the British government, especially Tecumseh and Henry Proctor, were the undoing of an alliance and a confederation and ultimately ended Tecumseh’s life.
Tecumseh was born in the Ohio territory in 1768 near present-day Springfield, Ohio. His father, Puckeshinwa, also a Shawnee chief, was killed in 1774 at the Battle of Fort Pleasant. Tecumseh was virtually left orphaned after his father’s death as historians are unsure as what happened to his mother shortly thereafter. Tecumseh was raised by his older sister, Tecumpease, and trained as a Shawnee warrior by his older brother, Chiksika. Tecumseh’s training and participation in war parties from 1787 until 1790 predominantly encompassed shadowing of American troops who patrolled the frontier. It is likely that as the son of a Shawnee chief much was expected of him. It is also likely that the sense of community encapsulated in a Shawnee village and the loss of his own parents motivated him to unite the Shawnee nation and other natives against a common enemy, the Long Knives, intent on destroying the Indians.
After the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, which opened the north and west Ohio territory to settlers, a treaty in which Tecumseh refused to participate, he spent three years moving himself, his warriors, and his tribe to various places throughout the territory. In 1798 he finally settled his people near the White River near modern-day Anderson, Indiana.
Troubles began shortly thereafter for the Indians with Indiana governor William Henry Harrison. Many tribes including the Delaware and the Wyandot fled east to Greenville, Ohio from 1806 to 1807 and resettled in the territory that the Shawnee had ceded to the United States in 1795. It was after this most recent diaspora forced on the Native Americans that Tecumseh called for tribal unification of the Shawnee nation in 1809.
Tecumseh set off on what would be compared to a modern-day political campaign. He visited tribes in Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois in 1810 and, after doing so, secured the notice of Governor Harrison and other Americans. Tecumseh and his Indian Confederation were viewed as a potentially serious threat as Tecumseh continued politicking in the old west. He visited other tribes in 1811 securing the support of the Upper Creeks of Alabama. He did not, however, secure an alliance with the Chickasaws or the Choktaws. Early 1812 found Tecumseh back on the Tippecanoe River only to find his brother’s settlement, Prophetstown, burned to the ground by Governor William Henry Harrison. It was during the winter of 1811 to 1812 and into the spring that Tecumseh strengthened and built his Indian Confederation. Tecumseh travelled to Amherstburg, the site of the small British stronghold, Fort Malden on Lake Erie, while at the same time American troops headed to northern Ohio and militia forces advanced to reinforce Detroit. In a little over a year, the American Navy on Lake Erie won a decisive battle against the British that not only proved its capabilities but began the unraveling of the Indian Confederation.
Tecumseh was successful in uniting multiple tribes who shared cultural similarities. In early1813, before the Battle of Lake Erie, he strengthened this unification by rallying the tribes around a common cause: their disdain for Governor William Henry Harrison. The British, along with their Native American allies, planned to attack the Americans at Fort Meigs in north-west Ohio. The fort and the Americans were led by now General William Henry Harrison. According to historian John Sugden, emotions ran high among the Indians as they prepared the attack on the Americans at Fort Meigs. The first reason was that most of the Indians had never seen battle. The second reason, and the most significant, was that the “man widely regarded as a major author of their misfortunes” was about to be handed over to them.
Although cultural unifications among the Native American tribes were common, they were not common between the Indians and the British. More often than not, the cultures clashed with a warlike fury. An extreme example of Indian behavior that appalled the British but was not stopped by British General Henry Proctor is recounted in Allan Eckert’s A Sorrow in My Heart. After the battle at Fort Meigs, American soldiers who had surrendered were to be marched to the ruins of Fort Miamis and held under guard. The Americans were stripped of their clothes, forced to march naked, and then run through a gauntlet. The Americans were severely beaten during the march and most died before they could make it to the gauntlet. By the time that Tecumseh received word of the prisoners’ treatment by his warriors, many had been bludgeoned, stabbed, and tomahawked to death.
One of the dead Americans was Colonel William Dudley, commander of the American force. Dudley had been one of the American prisoners brought to the old fort for guarding. He saw General Proctor standing near the prisoners and urgently asked him, “Are you General Proctor?” Proctor, officer-in-charge of the British and Indian force, replied in the affirmative. Dudley claimed, as a prisoner of war, protection from General Proctor. Proctor looked at Dudley, did not respond, and walked away. Dudley was tomahawked in the head by a Chippewa chief moments later. After removing the tomahawk from Dudley’s head, the chief scalped him and cut out his heart.
Tecumseh arrived at the fort a short time later. It was Tecumseh who spoke with the warriors and berated their treatment of the prisoners of war. Allan Eckert states in his book that Tecumseh was quoted as saying to his warriors, “Did we not direct in council that prisoners at our mercy were not to be tortured or slain? . . . You are to fight in battle to desperation, but you are never to redden your hands in the blood of prisoners!” Tecumseh publicly criticized General Proctor for allowing the murder of Colonel Dudley and the torture and murder of other prisoners to occur. Proctor simply replied, “your Indians cannot be commanded.” Per Tecumseh, humane treatment of prisoners was to be followed, not the justice system of the Shawnee. These cultural differences between the Indians and the British, along with Tecumseh’s support of the British rules of war, even when Proctor blatantly, for reasons unclear, put them aside, caused many Potawatomies, Ottawas, and Chippewas to defect and return home to their villages.
The differences between the natives’ cultural views and Tecumseh’s support of British policy continued to plague the confederation. In August of 1813, General Harrison sent an envoy made up of American Wyandots and Senecas to meet with Walks-In-The-Water, the leader of the Canadian Wyandots, at the Brownstown, a Wyandot village. Harrison sent a message asking Walks-In-The-Water to change his allegiance and join the American cause. He hoped that he would be able to split the Indian-British alliance. He knew that Indians had been defecting and that the confederation’s numbers were quickly declining.
When Harrison’s delegation arrived at the Brownstone, it was not prepared to find Tecumseh and his brother at the council with Walks-In-The-Water. Also in attendance, was the British Indian agent for Canada, Matthew Elliot, friend of Tecumseh. Walks-In-The Water, while meeting with Tecumseh, his brother and Elliot, pretended to rebuke Harrison’s message requesting an alliance. However, after Tecumseh and his party left the council meeting, Walks-In-The-Water secretly told Harrison’s messengers that he was prepared to change allegiance and support the American cause. As a political realist, Walks-In-The-Water had a very strong motive for this change of allegiance. He knew that the best side to be on was the side of the victor. The defections of the Indians from the confederation due to cultural differences would leave the British weak. Walks-In-The-Water saw America as the victor.
Various social issues also led to the disintegration of the alliance between the British and the Indians and also led to defection of some from the confederation. Prior to the beginning of the war, the governor general of Canada, James Craig, recognized that it was imperative to a British victory to secure and obtain tribal allegiance from the Native Americans. Craig knew that Indian assistance would make a difference when Great Britain went to war with America. Also, Craig wanted to keep the natives from going on the offensive. With these political strategies in mind, Craig sent the Indian agent from British Canada, Matthew Elliot, to meet with Tecumseh in November of 1810.
The British were aware of the fact that the American movement west into Indian territory was causing hardships for the Indians. Game was becoming scarce. Elliot and other British agents arranged for the delivery of supplies. These supplies were delivered to the Indian camps by the use of pack trains. This act of generosity was more than simple charity. It was to secure the allegiance of the Indians. Ironically, the increase in the number of Indians fighting for the British meant that there were not enough supplies for the British troops and the Native Americans allied to the British. This lack of rations also induced a defection of hundreds of warriors and their families.
A further complication had its foundation in both cultural and social settings. The traveling of Indian women and children alongside their warriors was a long-standing cultural norm. However, it became a social issue for two reasons. First, the British did not have enough rations and supplies for both the British soldiers and the Indian warriors alike. Therefore, there certainly would not have been enough rations for the women and children also. Second, according to Sugden, although the women and children are rarely mentioned in the primary sources, they were the ones responsible for the breakdown of the camp, packing of supplies, and organization of transportation.
Although cultural differences and social problems played a part in the downward spiral of Tecumseh’s Indian Confederation, the most significant issue was the lack of strong British leadership. Tecumseh did not share with General Henry Proctor, the man responsible for leading the British troops and the Indians on retreat after the American victory on Lake Erie, the same positive relationship he had previously enjoyed with British General Isaac Brock.
General Brock was a career soldier. In 1802, he was assigned to Canada. He was aware of the tensions between the United States and Great Britain. Tecumseh and Brock would meet ten years later in August of 1812 early in the war. The two shared a mutual respect that immediately developed into friendship. The comradery the two shared was short-lived. Brock was killed on October 13, 1813 leaving Tecumseh devastated.
The relationship between Tecumseh and Proctor lacked mutual respect and never developed into a friendship such as Tecumseh and Brock shared. It was a relationship of openly displayed mutual animosity. There was little that Tecumseh and Proctor could agree on, therefore, they could not unite for the common cause of defeating the Americans in the northwest campaign during the War of 1812. Additionally, unlike Tecumseh, Proctor could not reconcile Indian and British cultural expectations with one another. The relationship between Tecumseh and Proctor was strained from the beginning, but it was the Battle of Lake Erie that confirmed for Tecumseh that Proctor was lacking as a leader.
Proctor had boasted to Tecumseh on numerous occasions regarding Britain’s naval might. With those boasts in mind, Tecumseh was surprised when Navy Captain Robert H. Barclay, the commander of the British Fleet in Amherstburg, made no attempt to attack the American ships commanded by Commodore Oliver H. Perry. Proctor made excuses to Tecumseh for Barclay’s lack of offensive. One reason for the British delay was that the ships were being repaired and manned. Proctor assured Tecumseh that the British would engage in battle as soon as the ships were ready.
The Battle of Lake Erie commenced in the morning of September 10, 1813. The United States Navy was anchored at Put-In-Bay near present day Sandusky, Ohio when a lookout sighted six British ships to the northeast just before dawn. The American fleet, comprised of nine vessels, was inexperienced but Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry made the decision to the take the offensive and sailed the American navy toward the British.
It took the American vessels approximately three hours to maneuver into a position that was favorable to engage the enemy. Shortly before noon, the HMS Detroit, commanded by British Commander Robert Heriot Barclay, fired the first shot missing the flagship of Commodore Perry, the Lawrence. However, its second shot was true and sent the Lawrence staggering. The battle of Lake Erie was truly underway.
For three hours, the two navies battled. The young American navy was barely hanging on. However, the British had also been hit hard, incapacitating the commanding officers of each ship. Perry took advantage of the lack of experienced leadership left at the helms of the British fleet, surrounded it and forced a surrender.
Meanwhile, Tecumseh and his warriors watched the exchange from a distance. From certain vantage points, they saw smoke from the gunpowder. They heard the artillery. Once again assured by Proctor that the British Navy would be victorious, Tecumseh and his warriors awaited the outcome.
The HMS Detroit was surrendered to the Americans on September 10, 1813. This surrender marked the Battle of Lake Erie as a victory for the United States and sent the British contingency retreating up the Detroit River east into Canada. However, it was eight days before Tecumseh learned this bitter truth of the American victory from Proctor during a council. In addition to this staggering news, Proctor also informed the council that Harrison and his large army were preparing to invade Canada. Proctor proceeded to inform the council about his strategy going forward. The British soldiers and their allied Indians were to retreat to the Niagara frontier to meet up with other British forces. Tecumseh delivered a passionate speech that has been cited numerous times by historians. In this speech Tecumseh addressed Proctor as Father and urged, almost demanded, Proctor to take a stand. This passion came from a strong belief in honor and pride, neither of which he felt Procter possessed. Historian Ethel Raymond observes in her book Tecumseh that “To fly before the enemy without striking a blow seemed to him [Tecumseh] the action not of warriors but of cowards.”
Tecumseh’s eloquent speech did not sway Proctor. He continued with the retreat. As a result, approximately two hundred Shawnee, Delaware, and Wyandot warriors defected to the American side. Others simply went home. Proctor was quoted by Sugden as saying, “The trouble was that Tecumseh and his Indians had a poor grasp of naval warfare, and they clamoured for an attack on Fort Meigs instead.”
In late September, one group of three thousand Indians including women and children and accompanied by the British retreated toward the Thames River north of Lake Erie in Upper Canada. Tecumseh stayed behind and watched Harrison and his troops advance. When he realized that Harrison was getting close, Tecumseh left to rejoin the retreating party. On October 1, Tecumseh caught up with the British and Indian party only to find that approximately half of the three thousand had deserted and returned to Michigan. During the retreat, Main Poc, a Potawatomi chief from the Kankakee River in Illinois, led a substantial number of Potawatomic, Sacs, Fox, Ottawa, and Chippewa Indians into Michigan. There they seized property and awaited the battle. The plan for this group had been to retreat into Canada if the Americans won. If Tecumseh and the British were victorious, Main Poc and his warriors had planned to attack the retreating American soldiers.
Throughout the retreat, Tecumseh had urged Proctor on multiple occasions to make a stand pointing out the benefits of using the natural waterway to provide a separation between Proctor’s retreating troops and the advancing American force. Proctor refused multiple times. Finally, after many defections Tecumseh once again urged Proctor to make a stand or the Indians would continue to defect. Proctor agreed. The stand was to be made at on October 5, 1813 at McGregor’s Falls on McGregor Creek.
After three days of slow travel through mud and rain, Tecumseh arrived at the forks where McGregor Creek met the Thames River to find that the British had prepared absolutely no fortifications. Tecumseh berated Proctor for this lack of preparation. The British soldiers had lost confidence in Proctor. Morale was low amongst the British troops and their native allies. Harrison’s men were in pursuit, and only five hundred warriors were still with Tecumseh as over one thousand had deserted over the previous month. British troops, Native American warriors, and other Native Americans had lost faith. In addition to previous poor planning, Proctor was forced to move the battle downriver closer to Moraviantown to make better use of the swampy thickets for protection. He wanted to make a stand but not moving would have left his injured troops and any camp followers open to an attack by Harrison’s mounted troops.
The Battle of the Thames commenced in mid-afternoon on October 5, 1813. Tecumseh was finally getting the offensive stand that he had repeatedly advised Proctor to take. Harrison and his American soldiers hit the British and the Indians hard. Harrison sent his mounted troops against the British first in the hope that the British would sound retreat. The British forces fell apart in less than five minutes. The natives continued to battle until their leader, Tecumseh, was mortally wounded. The death of Tecumseh demoralized the Indians, and the battle simply slowly disintegrated.
Without Tecumseh to lead them, the Indian Confederation also disintegrated. Tecumseh had not named a successor and the Indian Confederation made no attempt to appoint one. Some of the warriors who fought alongside the British, including those who had previously deserted, remained in Canada. According to historian R. David Edmunds, these new Canadian Indians only “half-heartedly supported the British.”
Cultural differences between the British and the Indians played an important role in destruction of the Indian Confederation. For example, the Indians were accustomed to using their own justice system to seek justice for crimes committed by Indian against Indian and crimes committed against Indians by outsiders. Their oftentimes violent “eye for an eye” type of justice was not acceptable to the British. Tecumseh’s alliance with the British required him to adhere to the British terms of justice and rules of war. This adherence to British cultural norms was clearly not acceptable to some of the warriors. Some Indians defected following Tecumseh’s chastisement of their behavior after the battle at Fort Meigs.
There were also social issues that played a role in the fall of the confederation. The need to provide food and protection to their followers played a role in alliances made between Indian leaders and the warring factions. Early in the war, many Indians made alliances with the British in order to receive food and other rations. At the end of the conflict that took place in the Ohio Territory, Indians left the British because promised food and rations were no longer available. The cultural expectations placed by Native American tradition on the Indian women and children to follow the warriors quickly meshed with the issues of little to no food and supplies to create even more social problems.
However, the most significant cause for the fall of the Indian Confederation was the poor planning by the British leadership. Because Proctor could not reconcile Indian and British views to each other, he was unable to communicate effectively with Tecumseh. This lack of effective communication led to an arrogant manner of decision making. Additionally, Proctor’s lack of communication with Tecumseh, during and after the Battle of Lake Erie, established a relationship that harbored little to no trust, admiration, or respect.
Tecumseh was a seasoned warrior with experience not only in dealing with Americans but, most importantly, in leading his warriors. Tecumseh knew that his warriors would respond most effectively to the offensive warfare. Proctor was reluctant to take a stand against the enemy. The reasons for his reluctance to take a stand are unclear. Proctor’s reluctance may have come from his anticipation of a successful retreat. Or, as Tecumseh claimed, Proctor was a coward. Unfortunately, by the time that Proctor changed his strategy, most of the warriors had either defected to the American side or had simply returned home. The failure of Proctor, as the leader of the campaign through the northern Ohio territory into Michigan and Canada, was significant to the collapse of the confederation.
The death of Tecumseh was the mortal blow to the Indian Confederation. The Indians that were still alive after the Battle of the Thames had little reason to continue the fight. They had no leader to follow. Those Indians who had retreated and gone home had no reason to rejoin the fight. The Indians knew that with Tecumseh’s death and the defeat of the British their best option was to either alliance with the Americans and hope for the best or travel even further west in the hope of finding peace.
“I Pledge”, Marianne E. Brokaw
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 Allan Eckert, A Sorrow in Our Heart: The Life of Tecumseh (New York: Bantam Books), 640. General Proctor’s name in earlier texts is spelled Procter. Proctor was chosen for this essay because of its reoccurrence in later published works.
 National Park Service, ‘Perry’s Victory & International Peace”, National Park Service , accessed November 7, 2016, https://www.nps.gov/pevi/learn/historyculture/battle_erie_detail.htm Commodore Perry was also identified in texts as Captain Perry and Master Commandant Perry. The title of commodore was chosen for this essay because of its appearance in most texts cited for this research paper.
 Eckert, A Sorrow, 642.