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Authors: James Laxer

Tecumseh and Brock

BOOK: Tecumseh and Brock

Tecumseh & Brock

The War of

James Laxer

Copyright © 2012 James Laxer

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This edition published in 2012 by
House of Anansi Press Inc.
110 Spadina
Avenue, Suite 801
Tel. 416-363-4343
Fax 416-363-1017


Laxer, James
Tecumseh and Brock / James Laxer.

Includes bibliographical references.

1. Tecumseh, 1768?–1813. 2. Brock, Isaac, Sir, 1769–1812.
3. Canada—History—War of 1812. 4. United States—History—War of 1812.
5. Canada—History—War of 1812—Participation, Indian. I. Title.
FC442.L394     2012 971.03'4     C2011-908635-2

Library of Congress Control Number: 2011945361

Cover design: Alysia Shewchuk
Cover images: Tecumseh: Benson John Lossing, c. 1868;
Sir Isaac Brock: George Theodore Berthon, Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, KB, c. 1883, Government of Ontario Art Collection, Archives of Ontario
Map adaptation: Alysia Shewchuk

We acknowledge for their financial support of our publishing
program the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, and the
Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund.


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To Sandy, Michael, Kate, Emily, and Jonathan


In this book, I have chosen to use the words “natives” and “native peoples” when discussing indigenous peoples in both the United States and British North America. The terms “First Nations” and “aboriginal peoples,” while commonly used in Canada, are not regularly used in the United States. The usual reference today in the United States is either to “Native Americans” or to the specific group
to which the author is referring, such as “Shawnees.” The word “Indian”
is used when it appears in a quote from the writings of the period.


Two Wars in One

“No tribe has the right to sell land, even to each other, much less to strangers . . . Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Didn't the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children? . . . The only way to stop this evil [loss of land] is for the red man to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was first, and should be now, for it was never divided.”

fused to become one during the War of 1812. The first was the American campaign to seize the land of native peoples along the western frontier. That can be called the Endless War. The second conflict, properly called the War of 1812, was the one the United States fought against Great Britain. The U.S. prevailed in the first war but failed to win the second one. As a consequence, the native peoples lost their lands to the Americans, while Canada avoided being conquered and annexed by the U.S.

Central to the drama are two men: Tecumseh and Isaac Brock. Although both fought and died on Canadian soil, neither had any particular attachment to Canada. Tecumseh was a Shawnee warrior, born near the Ohio River, whose consuming passion was the establishment of a native state on American territory. Brock was a career soldier in the British army who would have preferred a posting in Europe, where he could be involved in the war against Napoleon. Their backgrounds and life experience could not have been more different. But they were both warriors, and they recognized something in each other that drew them to unite their forces in the summer of 1812, thereby altering the history of the North American continent. The American heroes who emerged from the war — Andrew Jackson, Davy Crockett, William Henry Harrison, Commodore Oliver Perry, and Thomas Macdonough — were patriots, fighting for their country. Tecumseh and Brock were different. Neither was a patriotic Canadian. Neither was a Canadian at all. But without meaning to, they placed themselves among the founders of a country that one day would span the continent.

Though George Washington left office in 1797 with a warning to Americans to avoid “foreign entanglements,” the United States could not avoid European power struggles. France and Britain were the principals in a titanic trial of strength, embroiled in a series of conflicts that can correctly be deemed the world war of the era. The wars began during the French Revolution, before the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. From 1803 to 1815, during the Napoleonic Wars proper, Bonaparte's France ruled a continental empire that waged war against Britain's far-flung global empire.

Especially in the early years of the Napoleonic Wars, the French army was the world's most effective land-based military machine. The Royal Navy, however, was not only the supreme force on the seas, it was the world's largest and most advanced industrial organization. For the British, keeping the sea lanes open for the shipment of vital materials and preventing a French army from crossing the English Channel were matters of life and death. The Royal Navy was Britain's wooden wall.

In what the French and the British regarded as the lesser theatre of war, in North America, a showdown took shape that was intimately connected to the one in Europe. On June 18, 1812, when the fledgling United States of America declared war against Great Britain, the political and military leaders of President James Madison's administration had only one strategic plan of attack: invade Canada. The abundant farmland of Upper Canada, wedged between the St. Lawrence–Great Lakes waterway and the rocky uplands of the Canadian Shield, was an inviting target for Americans
who saw land as the means to wealth. This fitted well with the political
urge to throw the British out of their last strongholds on the continent. Even American political leaders who did not aspire to the annexation of Canada felt sure that they could seize and hold Canadian territory as a bargaining chip, forcing the British to come to terms on a host of issues.

Two colonies stood out as objects of conquest: Lower and Upper Canada, the colonies that constitute present-day southern Quebec and southern Ontario, respectively. These great inland colonies, with their long and exposed borders with the United States and their populations living close to the frontier, provided American strategists with a plethora of possible invasion routes. U.S. forces could march north up the military pathway along Lake Champlain, cross the border, and close in on Montreal, or they could move down the St. Lawrence from their base at Sackets Harbor, on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario. Either of these routes would allow the Americans to seize both shores of the river and effectively choke off the British from moving soldiers and supplies farther west. Alternatively, the Americans could strike vulnerable Upper Canada with its population of less than one hundred thousand European settlers. They could send a flotilla across Lake Ontario to attack the major British base at Kingston or the less well defended capital of Upper Canada, York (now Toronto), or they could mount an assault at the mouth of the Niagara River. They could attack the British along the Niagara Frontier, dispatching troops in boats across the swift-flowing river. Or they could invade the vulnerable southwestern extremity of the colony with a crossing of the Detroit River. Over the course of the war, as it turned out, the Americans tried almost all of these invasion routes in their efforts to occupy Canada.

Several burning issues drove the Madison administration to declare war on Britain. Years of interference with American ships on the high seas by the Royal Navy had driven political leaders and commercial traders into a state of chronic exasperation. No less important was the hunger of Americans in the new states of the interior — Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee — to seize the land of native peoples.

Before the U.S. declaration of war against Britain, native peoples were already at war with the United States to halt the advance of American settlers onto their lands. The Endless War had smouldered for decades, since well before the American Revolution. During the first decade of the nineteenth century, the Shawnee chief Tecumseh made himself the pre-eminent leader of a great native confederacy, whose goal was to halt the settlers, keep land for the natives, and win back land already seized.

Tecumseh and his allies were fighting for a way of life that depended on the control of land. The clash between the native peoples and the Americans was a clash of civilizations. The settlers believed in individual ownership of land. On a plot, they could set up a homestead, start a farm, and raise animals. A settler family could produce the food it needed to feed itself. Or it could raise a crop or tend cattle or sheep to sell to nearby dwellers in towns. In the South, a family could acquire a vast stretch of land, move slaves onto it, and produce a tobacco or cotton crop to sell to a national or an international market.

Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, widely known as the Prophet, had an entirely different conception of land. For them, the land was not a private holding. It was the terrain on which villages and tribes could live, the women cultivating the fields to raise crops while the men fished and hunted. They did not want to give up their way of life and remake themselves as second-class American homesteaders. They carried a map of North America in their heads that was completely at variance with those of the Americans and the British. On their map were the territories of peoples who had lived on the land long before the white man.

Tecumseh's life spanned several critical episodes in the long nar
rative of the natives' struggles to protect their lands from the invasions of white settlers. That narrative began with the first arrivals of Europeans in the New World. By the early eighteenth century, virtually all of the native peoples in North America were caught in the web of relationships created by the French, British, and Spanish penetrations of the continent. The wars between the European powers drew native peoples into alliances with the French, the British, or the Spaniards, and against the natives who ended up on the other side. Native peoples fought one another for territory, sometimes carrying on traditional hostilities but often compelled to migrate — and therefore clash — by the encroachment of settlers and the waxing and waning of European imperial projects.

Tecumseh would find an unlikely comrade-in-arms in a British general named Isaac Brock. Born in 1769 into a prominent commercial family on the Island of Guernsey, off the north coast of France, Brock was a career British soldier who devoted himself heart and soul to the defence of Canada because it was a part of the British Empire. The stakes for Upper Canada were exceptionally high. Established by the British Parliament under the Constitutional Act of 1791, Upper Canada had a settler population of a mere one hundred thousand people by 1812. A frontier territory with only a few villages and towns, it had a fluid political culture at the outbreak of the war. Unlike Lower Canada's overwhelmingly French-speaking three hundred thousand inhabitants, whose society had existed for two centuries, Upper Canadians were mostly recent immigrants from south of the border and from Britain.

The genuine United Empire Loyalists who followed the British flag north arrived soon after the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1783, which ended the American Revolutionary War. The Loyalists were strongly attached to the British Crown and were hostile to the new American Republic. However, immigrants from the United States who arrived over the following two decades, the so-called “Late Loyalists,” came primarily for land. They exhibited no particular antagonism toward the U.S. and had no special attachment to Britain. The War of 1812 changed all that. Out of the war, the Upper Canadians took shape as a people alongside the long-established French Canadians. Farther east, the peoples of the Atlantic colonies, with the exception of newly founded New Brunswick, had developed identities over the course of their histories. In New Brunswick, which was carved out of the territory of Nova Scotia in 1784, thousands of Loyalists established new homes for themselves.

Brock did his duty in the colony, all the while longing for the day when he would be transferred from a backwoods corner of the imperial realm to participate in the “big show” in Europe against Napoleon.
What distinguished Brock from the other leading British commanders in Lower and Upper Canada was that he understood the imperative of sustaining the alliance with the native peoples. And he knew that the alliance depended on an offensive war. Tecumseh's determination to go on the offensive against the Americans suited Brock strategically and temperamentally. Tecumseh and Brock understood each other. Together, they could do what neither could do alone.

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