The Shawnee Prophet, Tenskwatawa painted by Charles Bird King c.1820 (Wikimedia Commons)

In contrast with other Great Lakes nations, the Lake Superior Ojibwe are often portrayed as not having had a role in the Seven Years War, Pontiac’s War, Tecumseh’s War, or the War of 1812.  The Chequamegon Ojibwe are often characterized as being uniformly friendly toward whites, peacefully transitioning from the French and British to the American era.  The Ojibwe leaders Buffalo of La Pointe and Flat Mouth of Leech Lake are seen as men who led their people into negotiations rather than battle with the United States.

No one tried harder to promote the idea of Ojibwe-American friendship than William W. Warren (1825-1853), the Madeline Island-born mix-blooded historian who wrote History of the Ojibway People.  Warren details Ojibwe involvement in all of these late-18th and early 20th-century imperial conflicts, but then repeatedly dismisses it as solely the work of more easterly Ojibwe bands or a few rogue warriors.  The reality was much more complicated.

It is true, the Lake Superior Ojibwe never entered into these wars as a single body, but the Lake Superior Ojibwe rarely did anything as a single body.  Different bands, chiefs, and families pursued different policies.  What is clear from digging deeper into the sources, however, is that the anti-American resistance ideologies of men like the Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa (The Prophet) had more followers around here than Warren would have you believe.  The passage below, from none other than Warren himself, shows that these followers included Buffalo and Flat Mouth.

History of the Ojibway People is available free online, but I’m not going to link to it. I want you to check out or buy the second edition, edited and annotated by Theresa Schenck and published by the Minnesota Historical Society in 2009.  It is not the edition I first read this story in, but this post does owe a great debt to Dr. Schenck’s footnotes.  Also, if you get the book, you will find the added bonus of a second account of these same events from Julia Warren Spears, William’s sister (Appendix C).  The passage that is reproduced here can be read on pages 227-231.    

The great mix-blooded La Pointe fur trader, Michel Cadotte, was Warren’s grandfather. John Baptiste Corbin (Corbine), traded under him for both British and American companies.

“… no event of any importance occured on the Chippeway and Wisconsin Rivers till the year 1808, when, under the influence of the excitement which the Shaw-nee prophet, brother of Tecumseh, succeeded in raising, even to the remotest village of the Ojibways, the men of the Lac Coutereille village, pillaged the trading house of Michel Cadotte at Lac Coutereilles, while under charge of a clerk named John Baptiste Corbin.  From the lips of Mons. Corbin, who is still living at Lac Coutereille, at the advanced age of seventy-six years, and who has now been fifty-six years in the Ojibway country, I have obtained a reliable account of this transaction…”

“…In the year 1808, during the summer while John B. Corbin had charge of the Lac Coutereille post, messengers, whose faces were painted black, and whose actions appeared strange, arrived at the different principal villages of the Ojibways. In solemn councils they performed certain ceremonies, and told that the Great Spirit had at last condescended to hold communion with the red race, through the medium of a Shawano prophet, and that they had been sent to impart the glad tidings.

Shawano or Shawnee (Zhaawano- or Zhaawani-) means “Southern” in Ojibwe and related languages.  The Shawnee, living in the Ohio Country, were considered the southerners.  The name of Shawano, Wisconsin also means “south.”

The Shawano sent them word that the Great Spirit was about to take pity on his red children, whom he had long forsaken for their wickedness. He bade them to return to the primitive usages and customs of their ancestors, to leave off the use of everything which the evil white race had introduced among them. Even the fire-steel must be discarded, and fire made as in ages past, by the friction of two sticks. And this fire, once lighted in their principal villages, must always be kept sacred and burning. He bade them to discard the use of fire-water—to give up lying and stealing and warring with one another. He even struck at some of the roots of the Me-da-we religion, which he asserted had become permeated with many evil medicines, and had lost almost altogether its original uses and purity. He bade the medicine men to throw away their evil and poisonous medicines, and to forget the songs and ceremonies attached thereto, and he introduced new medicines and songs in their place. He prophesied that the day was nigh, when, if the red race listened to and obeyed his words, the Great Spirit would deliver them from their dependence on the whites, and prevent their being finally down-trodden and exterminated by them. The prophet invited the Ojibways to come and meet him at Detroit, where in person, he would explain to them the revelations of the “Great Master of Life.”  He even claimed the power of causing the dead to arise, and come again to life.

To read about Tenskwatawa’s messengers among the prairie Ojibwe (Saulteaux) and their Cree and Assiniboine allies, check out pages 155-158 of John Tanner’s A Narrative of the Captivity and Adventures of John Tanner (1830) on Google Books.

It is astonishing how quickly this new belief obtained possession in the minds of the Ojibways. It spread like wild-fire throughout their entire country, and even reached the remotest northern hunters who had allied themselves with the Crees and Assiniboines. The strongest possible proof which can be adduced of their entire belief, is in their obeying the mandate to throw away their medicine bags, which the Indian holds most sacred and inviolate. It is said that the shores of Sha-ga-waum-ik-ong were strewed with the remains of medicine bags, which had been committed to the deep. At this place, the Ojibways collected in great numbers. Night and day, the ceremonies of the new religion were performed, till it was at last determined to go in a body to Detroit, to visit the prophet. One hundred and fifty canoes are said to have actually started from Pt. Shag-a-waum-ik-ong for this purpose, and so strong was their belief, that a dead child was brought from Lac Coutereille to be taken to the prophet for resuscitation.

Warren’s characterization of the journey as “foolish,” and his condemnation of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa’s pan-Indian resistance ideology, is consistent with the tone found in much of History of the Ojibways.  Although he was three-eighths Ojibwe himself, and advocated for Ojibwe causes, the book was written for a white American audience.  Like many in his day, Warren thought Indian cultures were doomed and that assimilation was the only hope for Indian survival.

This large party arrived on their foolish journey, as far as the Pictured Rocks, on Lake Superior, when, meeting with Michel Cadotte, who had been to Sault Ste. Marie for his annual outfit of goods, his influence, together with information of the real motives of the prophet in sending for them, succeeded in turning them back.

The few Ojibways who had gone to visit the prophet from the more eastern villages of the tribe, had returned home disappointed, and brought back exaggerated accounts of the suffering through hunger, which the proselytes of the prophet who had gathered at his call, were enduring, and also giving the lie to many of the attributes which he had assumed. It is said that at Detroit he would sometimes leave the camp of the Indians, and be gone, no one knew whither, for three and four days at a time. On his return he would assert that he had been to the spirit land and communed with the master of life. It was, however, soon discovered that he only went and hid himself in a hollow oak which stood behind the hill on which the most beautiful portion of Detroit City is now built. These stories became current among the Ojibways, and each succeeding year developing more fully the fraud and warlike purpose of the Shawano, the excitement gradually died away among the Ojibways, and the medicine men and chiefs who had become such ardent believers, hung their heads in shame whenever the Shawano was mentioned.

Two men of “strong minds and unusual intelligence,” Buffalo of La Pointe (top) and Eshkibagikoonzhe or “Flat Mouth” of Leech Lake. (Wisconsin Historical Society) (Minnesota Historical Society)

At this day it is almost impossible to procure any information on this subject from the old men who are still living, who were once believers and preached their religion, so anxious are they to conceal the fact of their once having been so egregiously duped. The venerable chiefs Buffalo, of La Pointe, and Esh-ke-bug-e-coshe, of Leech Lake, who have been men of strong minds and unusual intelligence, were not only firm believers of the prophet, but undertook to preach his doctrines.

One essential good resulted to the Ojibways through the Shawano excitement–they threw away their poisonous roots and medicines, and poisoning, which was formerly practiced by their worst class of medicine men, has since become entirely unknown.

So much has been written respecting the prophet and the new beliefs which he endeavored to inculcate amongst his red brethren, that we will no longer dwell on the merits or demerits of his pretended mission.  It is now evident that he and his brother Tecumseh had in view, and worked to effect, a general alliance of the red race, against the whites, and their final extermination from the ‘Great Island which the great spirit had given as an inheritance to his red children.’”

From 1805 to 1811, the Shawnee Prophet Tenskwatawa and his brother Tecumseh spread a religious and political message from the Canadas in the north, to the Gulf of Mexico in the south, to the prairies of the west.  They called for all Indians to abandon white ways, unite as one people, and create a British-protected Indian country between the Ohio and the Great Lakes.  While he seldom convinced entire nations (including the Shawnee) to join him, Tecumseh gained followers from all over.  

This picture of Tecumseh in British uniform was painted decades after his death by Benson John Lossing (Wikimedia Commons)

His coalition came apart, however, at the Battle of Tippecanoe on November 7, 1811.  Tecumseh was away recruiting more followers when American forces under William Henry Harrison defeated Tenskwatawa.  Accounts suggest it was a closely-fought battle with the Americans suffering the most casualties.  However, in the end Harrison prevailed due to his superior numbers.

With Tenskwatawa discredited, Tecumseh ended up raising a new coalition to fight alongside the British against the Americans in the War of 1812.  He was killed in the Battle of the Thames, October 5, 1813, when the British forces under General Henry Procter abandoned their Indian allies on the battlefield.

After the War of 1812, British traders pulled out of their posts in American territory.  However, the Ojibwe of Lake Superior continued to trade across the line in Canada.  In 1822, the American agent Henry Schoolcraft’s gave his first description of Buffalo, a man he would come to know well over the next thirty-five years.  He described “a chief decorated with British insignia.”  Ten years later, Flat Mouth was telling Schoolcraft he had no right or ability to stop the Ojibwe from allying with the British.  These chiefs were not men who were unwavering friends of the United States for their whole lives.

Buffalo and Flat Mouth lived to be very old men, and lived to see the Ojibwe cede their lands in treaties, suffer the tragic 1850-51 removal to Sandy Lake, and see the beginnings of a paternalist American regime on the newly-created reservations.  Their Shawnee contemporary, Tecumseh, did not live that long.  

Tecumseh’s life and death are documented in the second episode of the 2009 television miniseries American Experience: We Shall Remain.  The episode, Tecumseh’s Vision, is very good throughout.  The most interesting part comes at the very end when several of the expert interviewees comment on the meaning of Tecumseh’s death:

“I think Tecumseh is, in a sense, saved by his death. He’s saved for immortality through death on the battlefield.”

Stephen Warren, Augustana College

“One of the great things in icons is to bow out at the right time, and one of the things Tecumseh does is he never lets you down. He was there, articulating his position — uncompromisingly pro-Native American position. He never signs the treaties. He never reneges on those basic as principles of the sacrosanct aboriginal holding of this territory. He bows out at the peak of this great movement he is leading. He’s there, right at the end, whatever the odds are, fighting for it into the dying moments.”

John Sugden, author Tecumseh:  A Life

For some people, they may call him a troublemaker. And I think that’s because, in the end, he lost. Had he won, he’d have been, you know, a hero. But I think, to a degree, he still has to be recognized as a hero, for what he attempted to do. If he had a little more help, maybe he would have got a little farther down the line. If the British would have backed him up, like they were supposed to have, maybe the United States is only half as big as it is today.”    

Sherman Tiger, Absentee Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma

Stephen Warren and John Sugden indicate that he is a hero because of the way he died. Sherman Tiger seems to say that Tecumseh’s death, in part, is what kept him from being a hero, and that if he had more men, maybe his “vision” of a united Indian nation would have come true. 

In 1811, the Ojibwe of Lake Superior and the upper Mississippi had hundreds of warriors experienced in battle with the Dakota Sioux.  They were heirs to a military tradition that defeated the Iroquois and the Meskwaki (Fox).  A handful of Ojibwe did fight beside Tecumseh, and according to John Baptiste Corbine through Warren, many more could have.  It’s possible they could have tipped the balance and caused Tippecanoe or Thames to end differently.  It is also possible that Buffalo, Flat Mouth, and other future Ojibwe leaders could have died on the battlefield.  

Tecumseh died young and uncompromised. Buffalo and Flat Mouth faced many tough decisions and lived long enough to see their people lose their independence and most of their land.  However, they were there to lead their people through the hard times of the removal period.  Tecumseh wasn’t. 

Ultimately, it’s hard to say which is more heroic?  What do you think?

Schenck, Theresa M., William W. Warren: The Life, Letters, and times of an Ojibwe Leader. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2007. Print.
Schoolcraft, Henry Rowe, and Philip P. Mason. Expedition to Lake Itasca; the Discovery of the Source of the Mississippi,. [East Lansing]: Michigan State UP, 1958. Print.
Schoolcraft, Henry R. Personal Memoirs of a Residence of Thirty Years with the Indian Tribes on the American Frontiers: With Brief Notices of Passing Events, Facts, and Opinions, A.D. 1812 to A.D. 1842. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo and, 1851. Print.
Warren, William W., and Theresa M. Schenck. History of the Ojibway People. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society, 2009. Print.
White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991. Print.
Witgen, Michael J. An Infinity of Nations: How the Native New World Shaped Early North America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania, 2012. Print.