The Shawnee

He [Tecumseh] came of one of the most energetic and warlike of the Indian tribes. The Shawnees have always been a restless people, more adventurous than any other Indians. They belong to that family of Indian nations known as the Algonquin…The history of the Shawnees, even after the settlement of America, is wrapped in obscurity. They moved about so incessantly, and were so often divided in their migrations, that we are unable to track the various divisions. Some are of the opinion that the Eries, who are said to have been destroyed by the Iroquois in very early times, were none other than the Shawnees before their wanderings began. Certain it is that when we first hear of them in early documents, they seem to be divided, wandering, and of uncertain habitation. We hear of a war which was being waged against them by the Iroquois at the time of Captain John Smith’s arrival in America in 1607. They were at that time located to the west of the Susquehanna, and on its banks. De Laet mentions them as on the Delaware in 1632. They are also said to have been located at the South, and to have come from near Lake Erie. We can only reconcile these conflicting accounts by supposing them to have already divided into several bands, some of which were in motion, for other authorities place their seat, in the latter part of the seventeenth century, in the basin of the Cumberland River in Kentucky. Later they are found on the Wabash, where Tecumseh long afterward made a new settlement, and in 1708 they are spoken of as removing from the Mississippi to South Carolina. The Swanee or Suwanee River, in Florida, derives its name from a party of Shawnees who had come from north of the Ohio.

Yet another authority speaks of a tribe of Shawnees that had been wandering for four years in the wilderness, and who were then returning to the country of the Creeks. From all of which we gather that the Shawnees were in the earliest times what they proved to be later—a people of restless energy, without fixed unity or local habitation, very energetic and warlike, breaking into small bands and reuniting again. Colden, in 1745, said that “the Shawnees were the most restless of all the Indians,” and that “one tribe had quite gone down to New Spain,” or Florida.

It is inferred that the Shawnees were present at that first beneficent treaty of peace and friendship negotiated by William Penn in 1682. But there is no assurance of this fact, for to Penn and his associates but just arrived, all Indians were simply Indians, and the treaty makes no mention of their nation or names. It is quite probable that the Indian languages were at that early day so imperfectly understood that the treaty itself was apprehended by the savages more in its peaceful import than in its details. The presence of the Shawnees is inferred from the fact that in Penn’s later council with the Indians in 1701, we find Wapatha, a chief of the Shawnees, expressly mentioned as representing his people; and in 1722, in conference with the whites, the Shawnees are said to have exhibited a copy of the first treaty, though the two treaties of Penn may have been confounded. About 1698, nearly seventy families of Shawnees, with the consent of the government of Pennsylvania, removed from Carolina and settled on the Susquehanna. They perhaps found remaining there that portion of their tribe which was contending with the Iroquois in the time of John Smith, unless the Iroquois succeeded in quite driving them out. And these from Carolina may have been some who had been expelled in the wars in which they were almost always engaged, returning again to an old home.

In the year 1706, Thomas Chalkley, a minister of the Society of Friends, found Shawnees and Senecas living at Conestoga, near the Susquehanna. He relates that one of the tribes had a woman among the chiefs. “On informing them of our views in this visit to them,” he says, in his quaint Quaker way, “they called a council, in which they were grave, and spoke one after another, without any heat or jarring.” Observing that there was a woman present who took part in all deliberations, the missionary inquired of the interpreter how it came that a woman was admitted to council. He answered that some women were wiser than some men—a proposition not difficult even for white people to accept. This “ancient, grave woman” spoke much in council and gave her influence heartily in favor of the missionaries, so that good Thomas Chalkley adds that “the poor Indians, and in particular some of the young men and women, were under a solid exercise and concern of mind.”

As early as 1684 there were Shawnees in the West, allied with the Miamis, and yet we afterward hear of Southern Shawnees expelled from Georgia emigrating to the West, and building a village at the mouth of the Wabash. They applied to the Delawares, who gave them territory in the valley of the Wyoming [PA], whither part of them removed. In 1742, the famous Count Zinzendorf, the leader of the Moravians, had a very curious adventure with these Indians. He went to Wyoming determined to try to introduce Christianity among them. He was not well received; the Indians suspected him of seeking their lands, and some of them determined to assassinate him privately. He sat in his tent at night, with a small fire to keep him warm. The heat of the fire had warmed into activity a rattlesnake, that stretched itself across his leg the better to feel the fire, but the pious Count was too deeply engaged in meditation to observe the reptile. The Indians raised the blanket which served as door to his tent, but seeing the venerable missionary sitting wrapped in devout reflections and peacefully unconscious of the presence of the snake, they were seized with superstitious terror. They hurriedly returned to their village and told their associates that the old man was under the special protection of the Great Spirit, for they had found him with only a blanket for a door, and had seen a large rattlesnake crawl over him without doing him any harm.

Soon after this the latter abandoned the Wyoming and settled with those Shawnee tribes that had remained in the valley of the Ohio. It was here, in their villages on the Miami, the Scioto, and the Mad River, that they became involved in the savage conflict that raged so long between the Indians and the white settlers, in which border warfare Tecumseh was cradled, educated, and spent his life.

Tecumseh and the Shawnee Prophet: Including Sketches of George Rogers Clark, Simon Kenton, William Henry Harrison, Cornstalk, Blackhoof, Bluejacket, the Shawnee Logan, and Others Famous in the Frontier Wars of Tecumsehs̕ Time, pp 15-20


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