Review: "Tecumseh" by John Sugden
- From the November 1998 41st Newsletter:
Book Review: Tecumseh - John Sugden
This book is a major reassessment of every facet of Tecumseh's life, based scrupulously on historic & "reliable" records. In a sense, it is the first reliable history of Tecumseh's life ever written. In it, the real Tecumseh emerges, shorn of the innumerable stories and legends that his near-mythical status as the "noblest Indian" gave rise to.
As to the stories, let me give an example from the start & finish of his remarkable life.
From the start: the name "Tecumseh" (proper pronunciation: "te-cum-the", not "te-cum-see", but that ain't gonna happen...) means "panther in the sky" in Shawnee: leading later commentators to speculate that a comet appeared in the sky on the day of his birth and this extraordinary event was what he was named for: "marked out" as it were, for greatness. As it turns out, Tecumseh was born in to the Panther clan of the Kispoko sect of the Shawnee, and all of his relatives had names linked in some way to a "panther" motif.
How does one react to information like this? Well, NOT having this "extraordinary" birth story to increase his prestige amongst the tribes only made his achievements in unifying them in resistance to the Americans all the more remarkable. Basically, my reaction to story after story that was debunked was much the same: Tecumseh the legend was a pretty cool dude, but Tecumseh the real man tackled immense problems and issues, showed almost unbelievable self-discipline and leadership skills, made the odd mistake - often disastrous - but always bounced back: the man was tireless in his quests, and focussed in a way that is hard to imagine. Tecumseh the man was much greater than the simplistic legends have ever made him out to be. My respect for him, which was high to start with, was rachetted up to a plane I didn't know even existed.
From the end: the legend has it that his body was spirited off the battlefield at the Thames: and buried in a secret grave. Unfortunately, the simple and undeniable fact of the matter is that the body was not rescued , but was foully mutilated by American militiamen. Understandable, perhaps, given the context and passions of the time; but definitely not one of the finest shining moments in U.S. military history. As a British officer examining the scene of an atrocity in Bosnia stated recently, "the persons who did this are not men..."
About 1/3 of Sugden's book dwells directly on aspects of the War 1812 but the other 2/3rds set the stage for the war in the west. Ever think that Harrison was a bit of a jerk? There's more than enough information in this book to back up your opinion to the hilt! In fact, I always thought that he was a competent jerk at least, but some aspects of his policies were quite foolish. I guess we all have our good and bad days... October 5th 1813 was, unfortunately for the 41st, a "good day" for Harrison...
I was also surprised to learn that Tecumseh could not speak English well and never spoke it on important occasions, so any "speech" of Tecumseh you have ever come across is a translation from the Shawnee. And we all know that most speeches lose something in the translation.
So don't take any review of this book as definitive: this is one that you have to read and form your own opinion of if you are serious about learning of the war in the western theatre.