‘Tecumseh’ lecture kicks off War of 1812 commemoration

Hamiliton Journal News

Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013

By Richard Jones

Staff Writer


Now that the commemoration of the Great Flood of 1913 has abated, the Colligan History Project has moved on the bicentennial of the War of 1812, often called “the second American war for independence.”

The Colligan Project’s fall programming, titled “American Wars and American Life,” began last week with a presentation by Gregory Evans Dowd, professor of history and American culture at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the author of “A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1915.”

In his talk, “The Tecumseh Legend as History,” Dowd set out to explore and expose a pair of myths that have sprung up around Tecumseh, well-known for bringing different tribes of Indians together as they allied themselves with the British and Canadian forces.

The first legend he called “Tecumseh, the Shawnee Federalist.”

In this legend, Tecumseh was a rare Native American nationalist, a genius struggling against ancient local tribalism so they could unite against the United States.

Dowd explained how some historians have conflated the motivations of Tecumseh with that of his brother Tenskwatawa, who was known as the “Shawnee Prophet” and advocated a return to ancestral lifestyles.

“That is how many U.S. officials in the South at the time saw him,” Dowd said. “They saw him as the leader of a religious movement hostile to the United States just like his brother.

“Andrew Jackson called him the ‘emisarry of the prophet,’ so Jackson thought that Tecumseh had been sent by the prophet to the South,” he said.

The second legend Dowd called “Apocalypse 1812.”

“According to this set of stories, so dramatic was Tecumseh’s struggle over the future of North America that even heavens and the very bowels of the earth entered the fray with a solar eclipse, a brilliant comet and a series of profound earthquakes,” he said.

While these celestial events did indeed take place during the time of the War of 1812, it is ridiculous to think that Tecumseh would have been able to predict them as a way of uniting the Indian people against the United States.

“These stories are more legend than history,” Dowd said. “They resonate more with the racial assumptions of Victorian Americans and with Christian notions of false prophecy than they do with a historical record, but they contain a nugget of truth.

“If I were to be taken to task as being a wise-guy historian taking cheap shots at fine scholars who made real contributions to our field, I’d have to say that’s in some sense true,” he said.

“Legends have cultural power, because they serve purposes other than getting the past right, we should be aware of legends that pass for history even when that legendary tradition is an earth-shakingly good story,” Dowd said.

Subsequent programs in the series will explore local stories from the War of 1812 and the War for the Great Lakes, but the myth-busting will continue in the final installment, “Don’t Give Up the Ship!: Myths of the War of 1812,” featuring historian Dan Hickey, Wayne State College.

“American Wars, American Lives: The War of 1812 in the West”

Upcoming Events

  • “Oliver Hazard Perry, Hero of Lake Erie,” a dramatic performancy by Jeremy Meier, Owens Community College. 7:30 p.m. Sept. 24, Harry T. Wilks Conference Center, Miami University Hamilton.
  • “The War for the Great Lakes: A Symposium,” featuring Andrew Cayton, distinguished professor of history, Miami University; George Ironstrack, Myaamia Center, Miami University; Larry Nelson, editor of “Northwest Ohio History”; G. Michael Pratt, dean and professor of anthropology, Miami University; David Skaggs, historian, Bowling Green State University. 7:30 p.m. Oct. 8, Wilks Conference Center.
  • “Heritage Stories of the Miami Valley,” featuring historian Jim Blount, moderated by Shaun Higgins. 7 p.m. Oct. 23, Miami Hamilton Downtown, 221 High Street.
  • “Don’t Give Up the Ship!: Myths of the War of 1812,” featuring historian Dan Hickey, Wayne State College. 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19, Wilks Conference Center.

For more information, visit http://www.colliganproject.org or call 513-785-3230

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