First Nations and the War of 1812

The First Nations played a significant role in the War of 1812. The peace treaty of 1783, which concluded the American Revolution, was not the first time that their British allies disappointed the First Nations. The ceding of all lands west of the Ohio River to the United States caused shock among the western tribes. The same thing had happened to the Mi’kmaq and Maliseet in the Treaty of Utrecht. The attempt to form some kind of coalition among the First Nations became an urgent political necessity in the face of inexorable American expansionism.

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The significant and often overlooked role of the Six Nations is described in War of 1812 as it explores the events that occurred in the Grand River region of Southern Ontario (produced by the Brantford, County of Brant, Six Nations and New, courtesy War of 1812 Bicentennial Committee).

To this end, 35 nations assembled at Sandusky, in the Wyandot territory of Ohio. Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea) was one of the leaders trying to forge an alliance, on the lines of the Six Nations. The tribes discussed a looser confederacy and agreed to hold the boundary that had been established by the Treaty of Fort Stanwix in 1768. But time and again the Americans showed that they had no intention of honouring Aboriginal rights. Americans assumed that by their declaration of independence they automatically acquired title to all land east of the Mississippi. In the battles that erupted, the First Nations twice defeated the Americans, but the latter rallied a large expedition and destroyed the coalition at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.

In 1807, after the Chesapeake Affair, the British concluded that a fight with the Americans was inevitable. London instructed Governor General Sir James Craig to ensure the loyalty of the western First Nations. With their commitments in the Napoleonic Wars raging in Europe, the British were convinced that First Nations support would be vital in an upcoming war. Despite the betrayals in the past, even the unreliable British looked preferable to the expansionist Americans.

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The events leading up to the War of 1812 and James Madison’s decision to declare war are described, as are the experiences of the First Nations under Tecumseh and the Battle of Tippecanoe (courtesy Phoenix Learning Group).

The Emergence of Tecumseh

After the death of Brant, a new leader emerged, the Shawnee war chief Tecumseh (“Shooting Star”). Tecumseh sided with the British not because he trusted them, but because he saw them as the lesser of two evils. In his mission, Tecumseh was linked with a prophet, his brother Tenskwatawa. Known as “the prophet,” Tenskwatawa’s nativist religious revival prepared the way for Tecumseh’s political intertribal movement. Tecumseh preached that the land belonged to all the First Nations, not to specific groups, and that no tribe had the right to surrender any land. That could only be done with the agreement of all.

Tecumseh was an imposing figure who combined a passionate concern for his people with an acute strategic military sense. His colleague Isaac Brock declared that if Tecumseh were English he would have been a great general. During the War of 1812, some 35 tribal nations fought under Tecumseh, who worked tirelessly to gain the support of the Potawatomi, Ojibwa, Shawnee, Ottawa, Kikapoos and others. He had less success with some, notably the Creeks.

Following the depression in the fur trade after 1808, destitute First Nations turned to the British for help and the British responded generously. Amherstburg became a centre for “gift distribution” of food, clothing, nets, traps, snares, guns and ammunition. Americans were convinced that the British were preparing the First Nations for war. In point of fact the British were far more interested in fostering peace and trade than in war.

In a dispute over First Nations resistance to land surveyors, the Indiana governor William Henry Harrison took advantage of Tecumseh’s absence to attack Prophetstown, at the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers. After some heavy losses from a First Nations attack, Harrison burned Prophetstown to the ground, destroyed the food supply and disinterred the bodies of the dead. Tecumseh was anxious for revenge and impatient in waiting on the British.

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Historian Zig Misiak discusses the role of the Six Nations in the War of 1812, and a new publication on the topic, Western Hooves of Thunder, is introduced (courtesy Zig Misiak).

The War of 1812: A Turning Point

The War of 1812 was a turning point for the First Nations, being the last conflict in northeastern North America in which their participation was important, if not critical. The First Nations were largely responsible for the fall of Michilimackinac on 17 July 1812; the surprise attack had been worked out by Tecumseh. After the victory at Michilimackinac, First Nations flocked to the British cause. Their presence with Brock at Detroit was instrumental in the surrender on 16 August of a superior force. Tecumseh and General Brock rode side by side into the fallen fort. In turn, the fall of Detroit encouraged the Six Nations, who were an important factor in the American defeat at Queenston Heights on 13 October when they appeared in an auspicious moment under the leadership of John Norton (Teyoninhokarawen).

In Indiana, Tecumseh’s forces cut an American force to pieces at Fort Meigs, Ohio, 5 May 1813. But control was slipping away as the Americans destroyed the Creek nation. Meanwhile, an American naval victory on Lake Erie, 10 September, cut the British supply line to Amherstburg, thus endangering First Nations support.

The Iroquois played the central role in the Battle of Beaver Dams, 24 June 1813. According to John Norton, “the Caughnawaga fought the battle, the Mohawk got the plunder and [British general] FitzGibbon got the credit.”

Tecumseh was unimpressed with the new British general who had succeeded Brock, Henry Procter. In retreat Procter decided, perhaps at Tecumseh’s urging, to make a stand at Moraviantown (on the Thames River). The brunt of the fighting fell to the First Nations and they were routed and Tecumseh was killed. No one knows what happened to the great chief’s body. His loss is hard to overestimate and with him went the remains of the nativist movement. Nevertheless, First Nations warriors continued to fight until the end of the war. The Americans saw an opportunity and persuaded some First Nations to join their cause and a group of Seneca fought on the US side at Chippawa July 5, 1814.

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General McArthur’s raid on the Six Nations during the War of 1812 is discussed. The narrator gives historical perspective while visiting present-day sites in the area (courtesy War of 1812: Real People’s History, www.warof1812rph.com).

While the First Nations made valuable allies, they were not always easy for the Europeans to deal with. They had a very different philosophy of war, summed up by the great Sauk leader Black Hawk as “to kill the enemy and to save our own people.” First Nations warriors preferred to rely on stealth and spontaneous attack. They were puzzled and sometimes appalled by European tactics and by the extreme casualties the Europeans seemed to countenance.

During negotiations for the Treaty of Ghent, the British did try to bargain for the establishment of an Indian Territory but the Americans resolutely refused to agree. The most that they would accept was the status quo before the war. This was a profound disappointment and loss for the First Nations, since, despite all their efforts, they were unable to recover lost territory. Three years after the death of Tecumseh, Indiana became a state and began to remove all First Nations from their traditional lands.

In Canada, the War of 1812 was the end of an era in which the First Nations had been able to keep their positions in return for service in war. Soon, with the growth of Upper Canada, the First Nations were outnumbered in their own lands. It was almost forgotten that if not for their support Upper Canada might very well have fallen into American hands.

Author: James Marsh

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