Catahecassa, Principal Chief of the Shawanee
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The Shawanoe nation was one of the most warlike of the North American tribes. Little is known of their history previous to the middle of the last century, about which time they emigrated from Florida, under circumstances which lead to the belief that their numbers had recently been much reduced by war. They seem to have been always a restless and enterprising people; for although their former residence was unquestionably upon the sea-coast, they had often penetrated to Tennessee and Kentucky, in their wars or hunting expeditions. On their removal to the west, a portion of them settled in Ohio, and the remainder ascended to Western Virginia and Pennsylvania, Immediately after the peace of 1763, the whole nation, consisting of four tribes, and numbering several thousand warriors, collected upon the Miami, at Piqua, where they remained until they were driven away by the Kentuckians, at the close of the revolutionary war. Their next residence was on the waters of the Maumee of Lake Erie, whence they removed, after the treaty of Greenville, to Wapakonetta, in Ohio; and, finally, a remnant of about eighty souls, to which this once fierce arid powerful nation had dwindled, removed in 1833 to the western shore of the Mississippi.
These extensive wanderings are to be attributed, in part, to the erratic propensities of the Indians; but in many cases they are the result of force, either of tribe against tribe, or of the more operative power of the white man. The Indian nations, when first visited by Europeans, appeared, in many instances, not to have resided long upon the spots where they were found. Since we have had the opportunity of observing their habits, we have seen them continually changing places; but in many cases it has been in pursuit of ‘the game which had receded into the interior; in others, these migrations were caused by conflicts among themselves, but of later years especially, by the wrongs, the injustice, and the power of the white man.
We are not informed as to the cause which drove the Shawanese from Florida; or why, passing over the prolific borders of the Ohio, which are known to have abounded in game at that time, a portion of them should wander to a more northern and less fertile region. Judging, however, from their subsequent history, we may suppose that they were induced by the rumor of wars between the English and French, to approach the scene of action, in search of plunder. We hear of them first, at the memorable defeat of Braddock, in 1755. That battle holds a melancholy preeminence in the annals of border warfare. It was one of the earliest occasions on which the savages dared to attack a regular force; and the entire annihilation of a numerous and well appointed army of European troops, gave them a confidence which led to a long series of disasters. In the hostilities which succeeded, and continued with little intermission for forty years, the Shawanese were among the most daring, audacious, and persevering of our foes. They were conspicuous actors in the sanguinary battle at Point Pleasant, where General Lewis, at the head of a gallant band of Virginians, defended his position successfully against a vigorous and obstinate attack made by a numerous body of savages. In the campaigns of Harmer, St. Clair, and Wayne, they were foremost in every battle; while the early settlers of Western Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio, found them ever the inveterate and uncompromising foes of the white man. They were considered as not only warlike, but treacherous and intriguing; and some of the other tribes accused them of being the instigators of those destructive wars which for many years disturbed our borders, and were not less disastrous to the Indians than to the civilized settlers of the wilderness. They asserted that, after peace had been made, and when the other tribes were disposed to observe their treaties in good faith, the Shawanese would secretly provoke the whites by committing a murder, or by some other act of hostility, in such a manner as to leave it doubtful who was the real offender. The whites, in retaliation, would attack the nearest village, or the first party of Indians who might fall in their way, and all the tribes in their vicinity would become entangled in the war. There might be some exaggeration and some truth in these statements, but there is little question that this nation was daring, restless, and treacherous. They retained this character to the last. During a period of several years preceding 1811, the famous Tecumthe, and his brother the Prophet, kept the frontier in a state of continual alarm by their intrigues and depredations. In the last mentioned year they made an audacious and well-concerted attack on the American army, commanded by General Harrison, and were severely chastised by that intrepid officer; and during the war between Great Britain and the United States, which immediately succeeded, this tribe engaged with alacrity in the British cause, and were continually in the field, until, by the death of Tecumthe, and the loss of many of their warriors, the spirit of the nation was broken down.
Engaged continually in war, the leading men of the Shawanoe nation, ever since that people has been known by the whites, were persons of ability and courage. The most conspicuous of those who lived in our own times were Catahecassa, or Black Hoof Shemenetoo, or the Snake, and Tecumthe.
Black Hoof was one of the greatest warriors of his race, and it is supposed that few individuals have ever been engaged in so many battles. He was present at the defeat of Braddock in 1755, and fought through all the subsequent wars until the treaty of Greenville in 1795. Among the Indians none are compelled to go to battle; public opinion is the only law by which any individual is bound to perform military service; and the war chiefs have no authority but such as is derived from the voluntary obedience of their followers. When a warrior conceives himself capable of lead ing an enterprise, he forms his plans, announces his intention, and publicly appoints a time and place at which he may be met by those who may be disposed to join him. When the party is assembled, properly equipped, painted, and prepared in all respects, the leader explains his whole plan, which is usually assented to; if any warrior, however, chooses to make a suggestion, it is listened to with respect, and duly weighed; but after the whole plan has, been concerted, the leader assumes the responsibility of its execution, and his followers render him the most implicit obedience throughout the enterprise. The number, therefore, and the character of the party, are determined by the reputation of him who proposes to take the direction. If the invitation is given by a person of little repute, few accept it, and those few are warriors of inferior note, or youths who are willing to embrace any occasion to go to war; while, on the other hand, the bravest warriors will enlist eagerly under one who has already gained distinction. In other cases, where the leader is respectable, but not eminent, he is followed by his personal friends, or by a small band who may be gained by solicitations, or induced by the prospect of plunder. An ambitious young warrior, who is desirous to become a war chief, but has not yet established any claims to popular favor, will sometimes induce two or three of his friends to accompany him on a hostile expedition; and, if successful, will, on the next occasion, be able to enlist a larger train. The practical effect of this system is obvious. The warrior who, in leading a small party at the commencement of his career, discovers sagacity, coolness, cunning, and patience, gains the confidence of his tribe, and if fortune continues to smile, rises gradually into a partisan of established reputation, while another, equally brave, who betrays a want of talent, sinks into the ranks, and ceases to be regarded as a suitable person to command in war.
The success of Black Hoof, both in planning and in execution, was so great that he gained the entire confidence of his nation, and could always command the services of any number of volunteers. He was known far and wide, as the great Shawanoe warrior, whose cunning, sagacity, and experience, were only equaled by the fierce and desperate bravery with which he carried into operation his military plans. Like the other Shawanoe chiefs, he was the inveterate foe of the white man, and held that no peace should be made, nor any negotiation attempted, except on the condition that the whites should repass the mountains, and leave the great plains of the west to the sole occupancy of the native tribes.
He was the orator of his tribe during the greater part of his long life, and was an excellent speaker. The venerable Colonel Johnston, of Piqua, to whom we are indebted for much valuable information, describes him as the most graceful Indian he had ever seen, and as possessing the most natural and happy faculty of expressing his ideas. He was well versed in the traditions of his people; no one understood better their peculiar relations to the whites, whose settlements were gradually encroaching on them, or could detail with more minuteness the wrongs with which his nation was afflicted. But although a stern and uncompromising opposition to the whites had formed his policy through a series of forty years, and nerved his arm in a hundred battles, he became at length convinced of the madness of an ineffectual struggle against a vastly superior and hourly increasing foe. No sooner had he satisfied himself of this truth, than he acted upon it with the decision which formed a prominent trait in his character. The temporary success of the Indians in several engagements previous to the campaign of General Wayne, had kept alive their expiring hopes; but their signal defeat by that gallant officer, convinced the more reflecting of their leaders of the desperate character of the conflict. Black Hoof was among those who decided upon making terms with the victorious American commander; and having signed the treaty of 1795, at Greenville, he remained faithful to his stipulations during the remainder of his life. From that day he ceased to be the enemy of the white man; and as he was not one who could act a negative part, he became the firm ally and friend of those against whom his tomahawk had been so long raised in vindictive animosity. He was their friend, not from sympathy, or conviction, but in obedience to a necessity which left no middle course, and under a belief that submission alone could save his tribe from destruction; and having adopted this policy, his sagacity and sense of honor alike forbade a recurrence either to open war or secret hostility.
Catahecassa was the principal chief of the Shawanoe nation, and possessed all the influence and authority, which are usually attached to that office, at the period when Tecumthe, and his brother the Prophet, commenced their hostile operations against the United States. Tecumthe had never been reconciled to the whites. As sagacious and as brave as Black Hoof, and resembling him in the possession of all the better traits of the savage character, he differed widely from that respectable chief in .his political opinions. They were both patriotic, in the proper sense of the word, and earnestly desired to preserve the remnant of their tribe from the destruction that threatened the whole Indian race. Black Hoof, whose long and victorious career as a warrior placed his courage far above suspicion, submitted to what he believed inevitable, and endeavored to evade the effects of the storm by bending beneath its fury; while Tecumthe, a younger man, an influential warrior, but not a chief, with motives equally public spirited, was no doubt biased, unconsciously to himself, by personal ambition, and suffered his hatred to the white man to overmaster every other feeling and consideration. The one was a leader of ripe fame, who had reached the highest place in his nation, and could afford to retire from the active scenes of war fare; the other was a candidate for higher honors than he had yet achieved; and both might have been actuated by a common impulse of rivalry, which induced them to espouse different opinions, in opposition to each other.
During several years immediately preceding 1811, the British cabinet prosecuted with renewed vigor their favorite policy of exciting the western savages into active hostilities against the United States. The agents of that government traversed the frontier, holding councils with the Indians, and seeking to inflame them by artful harangues, or to bribe them by liberal presents. The success of these intrigues is too well known. The tomahawk and firebrand were again busied in the fearful work of desolation, and a merciless war waged, not against the forts and armies of the American government, but upon the property and lives of individuals, upon the fields and firesides of a scattered population of enterprising farmers.
Tecumthe engaged eagerly in these scenes, arid devoted all the energies of his bold genius to his darling scheme of fomenting the discord which should bring about a general war between the Americans on one side, and the united Indian tribes on the other. Aided by his brother the Prophet a deceitful, treacherous, but cunning man, he endeavored to enlist his own nation in the great conspiracy, but found an insurmountable obstacle in the deter mined opposition of Black Hoof, who, having made a treaty of peace with the United States, resolved to maintain his plighted faith. In vain did Tecumthe intrigue, harangue, and threaten; in vain did the pretended Prophet practice his incantations equally in vain did the British agent spread out his alluring cargo of trinkets and munitions. Black Hoof preserved his integrity; the older and more reputable part of the tribe adhered to him; while the young and thoughtless, the worthless and dissolute, joined by a similar class from other tribes, followed the Prophet to his new town, and commenced a system of robbery and murder, which, doubtless, formed the extreme point to which either he or they had extended their views while the more politic Tecumthe regarded them as a mere banditti, pushed forward to embroil the English with the Americans, and to force the savage tribes into a general war. The firmness with which Black Hoof stood aloof on this occasion, and his success in restraining the majority of his nation, showed alike his prudence, his foresight, and his popularity. His course was honorable to his judgment and his integrity.
Another trait in the character of this Indian is highly creditable, and indicates a perception of the social virtues not usually found in savage life. He lived forty years in harmony with one wife, and reared a numerous family, whom he treated with kindness, and by whom he was greatly beloved. The policy of the Indians, in this respect, is not fully understood. They permit, but do not in general encourage, polygamy. There is no law nor custom among them which forbids a plurality of wives; but they do not consider it creditable for any man to marry more women than he can sup port; and it is even considered a proof of weakness for a warrior to encumber himself with too large a family. The capacity to support a family differs among them, as with us, though not to the same extent. Their chief dependence for food being on the chase, the most expert hunter is best able to provide a subsistence; and the evils of poverty are most severely felt by those who are lazy, physically weak, or destitute of sagacity in finding game. Those who have established a reputation in war or in hunting, have each a small train of friends and defenders, composed of their sons and nephews of youth who attach themselves to an experienced man for the benefit of his counsel or protection, or of the improvident, who need a leader. When a distinguished warrior, therefore, speaks of his young men, he alludes to this train of relatives or pupils, who support him in his quarrels, and follow him to the chase; while a chief employs the same form of expression in a more enlarged sense, as applicable to the young warriors of his nation. This explanation affords a key to one of the sources of the slight distinction in rank which exists among the Indians. Distinction in war or hunting draws around its possessor a band of two or three, or sometimes more, devoted followers, who, in a society where force is often the only law, increase the power of their leader, while they add to his wealth by attending him in the chase, and thus increasing his means of procuring food. A warrior of this rank may, with propriety, grace his wigwam with several wives, and may even require the services of more than one to carry home his game, and perform the drudgery of his numerous family; while the improvident or unsuccessful hunter, or a youth who must rely entirely upon himself, may not venture to indulge himself with the same liberality. These distinctions are closely observed by the Indians in every tribe with which we are acquainted, and nothing more certainly provokes their contempt than the marrying an un reasonable number of wives. Black Hoof, as we have seen, was satisfied with one; Tecumthe had but one at a time, while the hypocritical Prophet, who, from laziness or incapacity, was not an active hunter, maintained a number of wives, who were supported by the contributions which he artfully levied upon his credulous followers. The two former were respected as men, even by their enemies, while the ‘latter, as soon as he ceased to be sustained in his imposture by his politic and manly brother, sunk into disrepute. He died recently in Missouri.
An intelligent gentleman, who spent many years among the Shawanese, in the discharge of public duties, and was often accompanied in long journeys through the wilderness by Black Hoof, describes him as a lively, agreeable, and instructive companion. On one of these occasions, he shot a deer when he was more than ninety years of age. He preserved his eyesight to the last, and never used or needed glasses, nor was known to be sick.
He was a small man, about five feet eight inches in height, well proportioned and active, and had a remarkably intelligent countenance. He died at Wapakonnetta in 1831, at the age of from one hundred and five to one hundred and twelve years.
There was a peculiarity in the eloquence of this chief which distinguished him from the speakers of his race, who are usually grave and monotonous. He generally commenced his public harangues with some pleasant, facetious, or striking remark, thrown out to please his audience, and gain their attention. He would play awhile around his subject, until he saw the rigid features of the stern warriors around him beginning to relax, and then dive into it, becoming more earnest as he proceeded, until at last the whole energy of his vigorous mind was concentrated into a powerful and well-digested effort.
It would be unjust to omit a feature in the character of Catahecassa which reflects upon him the highest credit. The practice of burning prisoners at the stake was not only prevalent among the western tribes, but was, we think, resorted to with the greatest frequency, and attended with the most brutal circumstances, during the wars in which the Shawanese bore a conspicuous part, and in which Black Hoof was a prominent leader. They did not sacrifice them to the Great Star, or any other favorite deity, as among the Pawnees, but generally in revenge for their losses or their wrongs. Notwithstanding the determined hostility of this chief towards the whites, he invariably opposed that atrocious custom, and has often declared that he never witnessed such occurrences but twice, on both of which occasions he was present accidentally. We are happy to record, that the more intelligent of the principal men of the Shawanese coincided in condemning these shocking cruelties. Tecumthe was never known to insult a prisoner; arid on several occasions during the last war, he upbraided the British officers for their cruel treatment of captive Americans. Another Shawanoe chief the aged Biaseka, or the Wolf, once returned home after an absence of several months, and finding the village nearly deserted, was informed that the people were engaged in burning a prisoner, beyond the precincts of the town. Without communicating his intentions, he loaded a pistol and proceeded to the spot. The wretched captive was bound to the stake, the torch ready to be applied, and a ferocious multitude eagerly waiting to glut their savage appetite with the miseries of the victim. The chief passed through the crowd without speaking to any one, and, approaching the prisoner, placed the pistol to his head, and blew out his brains coolly remarking, that he disapproved of the torture of a defenseless person, and had prevented it by dispatching the captive.