A few weeks ago, my husband and I decided to go on a weekend road trip – just for the sake of taking a weekend road trip. We planned a route from Columbus to Detroit, through Western Ontario, Toronto, Niagra Falls, and then back home by way of Erie, Pennsylvania.
As we cleared Detroit and crossed the bridge into Windsor, Ontario, I began to notice lots of references to Tecumseh. Soon we were on the Tecumseh Highway, passing businesses, schools, and organizations that were also using his likeness and name. We had lunch at a road stop, and happened upon a Visitors Bureau full of Tecumseh paraphernalia…t-shirts, posters, stickers, and et cetera. I stopped to ask the clerk why Tecumseh was such a popular figure in this region, though given my own history, I should’ve known the answer…
Tecumseh has been a personal hero all of my life. The fascination began when I was told by a family member that my 7x great grandfather stepped off of the boat from Italy and married one of Tecumseh’s daughters, thus making me one of Tecumseh’s many grandchildren. It was a nice tale, but one that I stopped believing by my second quarter of college. An anthropologist friend scoffed at my story and said that every Ohio family was related to some Native American chief or princess. I realized that without any proof, she was probably right.
Stripped of any belief in my supposed Native American heritage, I took an excellent course on Native American religions at Ohio State University. There I learned all about the Western glorification of the “noble savage” – an idealized concept of the “uncivilized” Native who has been spared the corrupting influences of civilization. It’s funny how we Westerners tend to romanticize the very things that we persecute.
I took the time to research a bit and found that there are no documented daughters of Tecumseh, which is no surprise since women don’t really count when it comes to history. But that Italian grandfather of mine? Just this year I discovered that it wasn’t 200 years ago that he stepped off the boat, it was more like 100 years ago. He brought his Italian wife with him, and they were hardly the hero types that I was imagining.
Tecumseh might not have been my great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather, but one does not easily wipe out a childhood of believing the tale. I have read several biographies and seen the play in Chillicothe. There are quotes attributed to Tecumseh that I absolutely live by, and I’ve generally aspired toward being a good leader just like him.
…So it shouldn’t have been a surprise to me when the clerk at the Visitor’s Bureau told me that the site of the Battle of Thames, the place where Tecumseh breathed his last, was just a 10 minute of detour from our planned route to Toronto. The Village of Thamesville had erected a monument in the battlefield, and I learned that an even bigger monument was being planned for the upcoming Bicentennial of Tecumseh’s death this coming October 5th.
Ohio might be the birthplace of Tecumseh, but in Canada, he is a national hero. He’s part of the reason why that little bit of land above Lake Erie is Canadian and not another United State. That kind of enthusiasm toward Tecumseh is something that you have to be in Western Ontario to feel. It’s not something you get out of a book.
So of course, my husband I took the 10 minute detour, found the monument to Tecumseh, took in the site of the Thames River, and snapped a few photos. But that’s not the end of the story.
The journey reminded of a book that’s been on my want list for years: Tecumseh’s Bones by Guy St-Denis. I’ve just spent my holiday break devouring it. And in the process of appreciating St-Denis’s meticulous scholarship, I began to understand exactly how ideas without any basis in truth can evolve into a generally accepted history.
The story of Tecumseh’s Bones takes place in Western Ontario, among the various cities that my husband and I drove through. During the War of 1812, American soldiers, particularly ‘The Kentuckians’, were notorious for mutilating the bodies of Natives slain in battle, so it was desirable for the Natives to carry away their own dead in order for them to be spared such degradation.
Tecumseh fell in the Battle of Thames. The morning after, General (and eventually President) William Henry Harrison was escorted to a corpse reputed to be Tecumseh’s, but it was so swollen and mutilated that it was unidentifiable. Harrison was reluctant to identify the corpse as Tecumseh’s, so he waited several weeks for reports of Tecumseh’s death to be confirmed. Harrison’s hesitance to identify the corpse before him as Tecumseh’s made way for stories of Tecumseh’s secret burial and a mystery surrounding his bones.
St-Denis uncovered no less than four separate accounts made by Natives who purported to have fought alongside Tecumseh in battle and secreted the chief’s body away in the night. All of these accounts were wildly different. Those who supposedly participated in the burial had told their neighbors and their children, who also told their children and neighbors, who then also told their children’s children and so on. 200 years later, “I know where Tecumseh is buried” is a running joke in Western Ontario.
St-Denis documents the numerous attempts to locate Tecumseh’s grave and erect a monument to him. Committees formed to raise money for impressive monuments – cities vied for the honor of hosting them – while Natives led whites stomping around farm fields, forests, swamps, and river banks in search of bones. Skeletons were exhumed, some of them clearly planted…some not even human. And the most romantic accounts told of buried bones where Native leaders took turns keeping vigil, one generation after the next. Chapter after chapter documented one failed attempt after another. History was repeating itself, over and over and over.
At the end of the book, St-Denis concludes that William Henry Harrison probably was looking at Tecumseh’s mutilated corpse the morning after the battle. Tecumseh’s men didn’t secret his corpse away; they simply ran away. Embarrassed by their lack of courage, these Natives seized the opportunity to rewrite history and give the chief a nobler fate. And it was easy for the Canadians to accept these stories because the alternative, imagining one’s hero mutilated and degraded by the enemy, was much harder to accept.
It’s been an apt time for me to digest all of this, as a personal theme for me in 2012 has been about sweeping away my own self-delusions. Lately I’ve also come to understand that there are interpersonal situations in which I may be easily be deluded by others. People lie. People close to us will lie. And sometimes we’ll believe liars because their tales are far preferable to the truth.
It’s tempting to reside in a world of heroes and happy endings, especially when the truth doesn’t seem to serve us at all.