The War of 1812 formally began on June 18, 1812 when President James Madison signed the Declaration of War against the United Kingdom. The war was fought for a number of reasons including trade restrictions, the impressment of American merchant sailors into the Royal Navy, the United States trying to annex Canada, but also because the British were supporting Native Americans in their fight against American expansion.
Let’s face it, many history books miss the main point of the War of 1812 and some even have said the most important thing to come out of the War of 1812 was “The Star Spangled Banner.” The war was in fact a major turning point for Native Americans who were struggling to stop white settlers from encroaching on their land.
In Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, James W. Loewen says “The American Adventure excels, pointing out, ‘The American Indians were the only real losers in the war.’”
After the War of 1812, the United States negotiated more than 200 treaties with Indian nations that involved ceding land, 99 of those resulted in the creation of reservations west of the Mississippi River, reports PBS.org. The Treaty of Ghent—signed on December 24, 1814—ended the war and returned things between the United States and Britain to the way they were before the war.
Loewen also says most history books miss the key outcome of the War of 1812, that in exchange for the United States leaving Canada alone, Britain stopped supporting the American Indians in its fight against the encroaching settlers. “Without was materiel and other aid from European allies, future Indian wars were transformed from major international conflicts to domestic mopping-up operations,” Loewen says.
This isn’t to say Native Americans didn’t win any battles at all after the War of 1812 this was just a major turning point in favor of the United States. The biggest tipping point was Tecumseh, a Shawnee leader who brought Native nations together to fight against encroachment. He brought the nations together around his brother’s teachings. Tenskwatawa—also known as the Prophet—believed the nations had angered the Master of Life and they needed to go back to the traditional Shawnee way of life.
“What Tecumseh is fighting for is the ability of Indian people east of the Mississippi to hold onto their homelands. Their lands are under siege in the period after the American Revolution. The white frontier is moving into the Ohio Valley, it’s also moving onto the gulf plains in the south.” R. David Edmund, a historian, says in We Shall Remain. “Tecumseh says this has got to stop, we have to stand and all realize that we’re in this together… he was a very inspirational man that was able to bring out the very best in those people who supported him and to see beyond any particular tribal affiliation and to realize that this was a struggle that was of greater magnitude.”
In a letter to U.S. General William Henry Harrison in 1810, Tecumseh says: “the only way to stop this evil [white settlement of the Indians’ land], is for all the red men to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land as it was at first, and should be now - for it never was divided, but belongs to all… Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the clouds and the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit [Master of Life] make them all for the use of his children?”
By 1811, there were some two dozen Indian nations following Tecumseh, but to have any chance of protecting their lands against the U.S. an alliance with Britain was needed. That need became even more evident after the Battle of Tippecanoe when Harrison destroyed Tecumseh’s home base of Prophetstown in Indiana Territory, that same year.
Tecumseh’s Confederacy then fought alongside the British to protect Canada from the onslaught of American forces during the War of 1812. Had they not, Canada could look very different today.
“In early August , Shawnee warriors from the Ohio Valley under the great war chief, Tecumseh, fought and won a number of battles with American troops around Fort Detroit,” says The Globe and Mail. “Ontario, and probably a good part of the rest of present day Canada, would now be part of the United States were it not for the native warriors who overwhelmingly came to the defence of the British Crown in the first year of the War of 1812-1814.”
But Tecumseh’s defeat at the Battle of Thames in Canada in 1813 was the beginning of the end for Native nations. Tecumseh was mortally wounded and with his death his confederacy fell apart, as did his vision of driving back the white settlers.
“He had a vision to make sure that Indian way of life was going to continue at whatever cost,” Andrew Warrior, Absentee Shawnee, says in We Shall Remain.
But the tides had turned dramatically for the Native Americans. Many wonder what could have been had Tecumseh not been defeated.
“He and his brother were trying to get the Shawnee people back to their roots and trying to keep their lands from being taken. He was a visionary,” Kevin Williams, Absentee Shawnee, says in We Shall Remain. “And I think today what would have happened if he had succeeded in his plan, it would have changed history.”
And in a way history was changed, by the way it has been presented for so many years. Loewen says the War of 1812 took away part of our history. “As historian Bruce Johansen puts it, ‘A century of learning [from Native Americans] was coming to a close. A century and more of forgetting—of calling history into service to rationalize conquest—was beginning.’ After 1815 American Indians could no longer play what sociologists call the role of conflict partner—an important other who must be taken into account—so Americans forgot that Natives had ever been significant in our history. Even terminology changed: Until 1815 the word Americans had generally been used to refer to Native Americans; after 1815 it meant European Americans.”
We Shall Remain, Episode 2: Tecumseh's Vision, Part 1:
To view the full episode, click here.
This story was originally published June 18, 2012.