Battleground Back and Front Ground Stories

(This series of posts, called “Battleground Back and Front Ground Stories,” explores the reasons and results behind the battles along the Detroit River and Lake Erie as part of the struggle between the British and Americans for the Northwest Territory. The battles involved include Monguagon, Brownstown, and River Raisin. Most importantly, these posts showcase the roles of the people involved.)


One of the excellent Native American models displayed in the River Raisin National Battlefield Park Museum in Monroe, Michigan.

Arms Race: Native American Mariners and Alliances-#1

When the first Europeans arrived in North America, they bought advanced maritime technology, firearms, and advanced metals technologies into the contest to seize the New World. Their first miscalculation occurred when hardy Native American tribesmen greeted them instead of representatives of the Chinese Empire. Their second miscalculation was underestimating Native American sophistication. Native Americans brought superior sanitation, agricultural innovation and the technology of the birch bark canoe, an invention that ultimately led to the destruction of their culture.

For decades, Europeans depended on boats built with the basic technological elements as their sea going ships to navigate inland waters in the New World and stayed behind the technological curve as a result. When the first French explorers penetrated the St. Lawrence River system in the late 1500s, they were astonished to find Native Americans using boats made of birch bark to travel the smallest streams to the greatest of the Great Lakes. There is no record of the first Native American inventor who came up with the idea of using birch bark as the hull covering for a canoe. The design may have come from the kayaks of the Inuits of the far north who fearlessly sailed their hide covered boats across hundreds of miles of open ocean.

Artists Fran Maedel’s Native American woman at the Museum.

Around 1500 A.D., an inventive Native American or a group of tribesmen built a frame of split cedar or spruce and covered it with large sheets of bark carefully peeled from birch trees. Gradually, the Chippewa, who called themselves the Ojibwa, standardized the classic birch bark canoe. They built their canoes in a variety of sizes and traded some of them to the Ottawa who established a great inland North American trade empire well before the Europeans “discovered” the New World. When the French arrived, the Native Americans had already developed an extensive system of inland trade routes and the technology to exploit them.

Samuel de Champlain and the French Connection

Depending on perspective, Samuel de Champlain’s actions in helping an Algonquian tribes fight their Iroquois neighbors was either a disaster because he initiated 200 years of Iroquois hatred for the French or a coup because he made instant friends of the Ottawa and the rest of the Algonquian tribes who had spent generations under the domination of the hated and feared Iroquois. At one point in his journeys, Champlain abandoned his sailboats and used 24 war canoes that his Indian allies had on hand.

The French quickly adapted the Ojibwa canoe technology. Eventually, French fur traders standardized canoes into three sizes, the canot-any canoe up to about twenty or so feet long; the canot du nord (north canoe)-canoes of about 25 feet long; and the canot de maitre-master canoe, also called the Montreal canoes- canoes of 35-40 feet long. The smaller canoes were used on small and shallow inland rivers and creeks. North canoes – cargo capacity of about three tons- were primary freight haulers on medium rivers. Giant Montreal canoes-cargo capacity of about six tons- were used to transport freight on the largest rivers and the Great Lakes.

The Native Americans also developed war canoes which were painted in symbolic designs, and were once a familiar sight on the Great Lakes. They held at least 15 warriors, some who paddled and some who fired weapons at their enemies. Birch bark canoes had some drawbacks. Although they were relatively tough, their hulls could be torn in rocky rapids and were not practical to use where birch bark for repairs was not readily available.

Basically, Native Americans handed Europeans the seeds of their own destruction when they taught them birch bark canoe technology. Without canoes, the exploration and exploitation of the interior of North America would have taken a very different course and the French and later the British would not have been able to establish the fur trade in North America. War canoes and the Native Americans and voyageurs who manned them were also important weapons in the War of 1812.

War Canoes and British Fur Traders

After the American Revolution, the British had maintained their old Indian alliances through the activities of military garrisons and Indian agents and regularly distributed presents as part of these efforts. The British Indian Department in Amherstburg played a vital role on the Detroit River. Experienced and resourceful people such as Simon Girty, Matthew Elliott, and Alexander McKee, veterans of the Revolutionary War led the Amherstburg Indian Department which sought the allegiance of the tribes in the Northwestern Territories and their loyalty in case of a war with America.

The efforts of Girty, Elliott, and McKee and other Indian Agents made Fort Amherstburg a supply center for the Indian tribes and their main source of food, cloth, tools, weapons and ammunition. The success of these Indian Agents just across the river irritated Americans who felt that the Amherstburg Indian Department was interfering with internal American affairs. The parade of war canoes paddling down the Detroit River inflamed many . Americans and the policies of the Amherstburg Indian Department pushed the United States and Great Britain closer to a confrontation.

As the year 1811 drew to a close, the Indians of the Great lakes region were increasingly armed and restless, due in large part to the influence of the Amherstburg Indian Department. M. Lothier, agent for the Michilimackinac Company, wrote on January 13, 1812, that the Indians in the territory where his company traded were all unhappy with the American government and that if a war between the British and Americans happened “every Indian that can bear arms would gladly commence hostilities against the Americans.”

Tecumseh Sides with the British

Shawnee Chief Tecumseh emerged as the most prominent British ally. Like the Amherstburg Navy Yard and the British and Americans, the Indian involvement in the War of 1812 was rooted deeply in previous wars and Indian alliances. Both the French and British had divided and exploited Native American alliances during the French and Indian War and the American Revolution had proven disastrous to Native American alliances and lands. The Western Confederation of the Revolutionary War which had begun as a purely Indian political organization had gradually become absorbed into a European alliance despite the efforts of its earlier leaders like Joseph Brant to keep it separate.

After the Americans won the Revolutionary War, they continued to appropriate Indian lands and destroy Indian villages and the Confederation had been forced to move to the Huron/Wyandot village of Brownstown or Sindathon’s Village at the mouth of the Detroit River, a move that confronted the issue of the Confederation’s relationship with the British. The move also came with a price for the Indians. Joseph Brant and the Iroquois demanded that the Huron or Wyandot make a clean break with the British before they would agree to light a council fire at Brownstown.

After the Sandusky villages of the Wyandot were destroyed by their enemies, they moved the council fire to Brownstown. Walk-in-the-Water and seven other of the Wyandot chiefs petitioned the United States on February 5, 1812, and won a fifty-year possession of Brownstown and Monguagon. Wa;lk-in-the-Water lived at Brownstown and commanded the Wyandot warriors.

Tecumseh, Tenskwatawa, and Tippecanoe

Tecumseh led a force made up of several Indian tribes including Ottawa, Shawnee, and Pottawatomie in their role in the War of 1812. Although he was born just outside the present day town of Xenia, Ohio, he eventually settled in what is now Greenville, Ohio where his younger brother Tenskwatawa or “The Prophet” lived. In 1805, Tenskwatawa led a religious revival urging Native Americans to reject the ways of the white man and warning them not to cede any more land to the United States.

Following the self-destructive thread in their history, the Indians did not agree among themselves and a Shawnee leader Black Hoof opposed Tenskwatawa and worked to maintain a peaceful relationship with the United States.  Eventually Tenskwatawa and his brother Tecumseh established a series of multi-tribal villages under their leadership, first at Greenville and later at Tippecanoe, that remained largely but not entirely outside the network of American alliance chiefs.

Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa were involved in the Shawnee movement to resurrect the confederation council fire at Brownstown. Tecumseh revived an old idea of Blue Jacket and Mohawk leader Joseph Brant which stated that all tribes commonly owned Indian lands and that no land could be sold without them all agreeing to the sale. The movement also involved an effort to restore an alliance between the Brownstown allies, the Cherokee, the Sauks and the Fox to resist the Americans.

By the early nineteenth century the primary source of resistance to the Americans and the one that Tecumseh would ultimately rely on did not come from Brownstown, but from the villages in Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin made up of Kickapoos, Sauks and Fox, Chippewas, Winnebagos, Menominees, and western Potawatomis. For a short time in 1812 and 1813 in the closing days of the peace before the Americans declared war, the British and the Algonquians resurrected an alliance on the middle ground. Tecumseh’s rebuilt confederacy merged into a British alliance in the War of 1812.

“Tecumseh’s War”

After the Americans declared war on the British in June 1812, “Tecumseh’s War” became part of that struggle. Because of American-Native American events like the Treaty of Greenville and the Battle of Tippecanoe, the American effort to neutralize British-Native American cooperation backfired and Tecumseh and his followers became more firmly committed to an alliance with Britain. For a time, the British strategy for the defense of western Canada was a joint British-Algonquian strategy.

In August 1812, Tecumseh joined British Major General Sir Isaac Brock in forcing the Americans to surrender Fort Detroit. Tecumseh demonstrated his military prowess in this endeavor. Brock advanced to a point just out of range of Detroit’s guns and Tecumseh ordered his warriors to parade from a nearby wood and circle around to make their numbers seem larger. Brigadier General William Hull, the commander of Ft. Detroit, surrendered because he feared at massacre from the large Indian force.

The British had devoted much time and effort to consolidating their Indian allies. John Askin wrote from Michilimackinac in June 1813 that he was actively recruiting Indians from the Michigan side of Lake Huron including the Chippewa from the Genesee Valley and the Detroit area Indians. He and other British agents and traders persuaded many of the Indians that “the lives of their children” depended on British success in the War. 29

Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory in the Battle of Lake Erie in the fall of 1813 cut British supply lines and forced them to withdraw from Detroit. They burned all public buildings and retreated into Upper Canada along the Thames Valley. Tecumseh followed, fighting rearguard actions to slow the United States advance, but the British were defeated and Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames

The British and Canadian accounts of the War of 1812 feature numerous mentions of Indian allies and the important part their canoes and maritime back up played in the battles and daily skirmishes. One of the few of the American mentions of Native Americans taking part in battle occurs in the account of Dr. Usher Parsons aboard the Lawrence. He said that when the battle of Lake Erie was raging most severely, “Midshipman Lamb came down with his arm badly fractured. I applied a splint and requested him to go forward and lie down; as he was leaving me, and while my hand was on him, a cannon ball struck him in the side, and dashed him against the other side of the room, which instantly terminated his sufferings. Charles Pohig, a Narragansett Indian, who was badly wounded, suffered in like manner.”

As was always tragically true in European-Algonquian relations, British imperial goals superseded Native American interests. After Tecumseh died at the Battle of the Thames, his alliance died with him. The imperial contest ended with the War of 1812 and the pivotal role of the Indian did as well. Native Americans were no longer a major threat or asset to an empire or republic. Fortunately for Tecumseh, death released him from long years of exile and a legacy of American defeat and domination.


Raymonde Litalien and Denis Vaugeois. Champlain: the birth of French America (McGill: Queen’s University Press, 2004) p 45.

J. B. Mansfield, ed., History of the Great Lakes. Volume I ( Chicago: J. H. Beers & Co., 1899) p. 211-236.

The Canadian Canoe Museum; Reflections, “Those Marvelous Ojibwa built birch bark canoes,” Roger Matile, Ledger-Sentinel, Oswego, Illinois. November 9, 2006

Historical collections. Collections and researches made by the Michigan pioneer and historical society … Reprinted by authority of the Board of state auditors. Volume 16 FROM MR. ASKIN-Indians, p. 76. Clark Historical Library. Central Michigan University

“Navigation a Century Ago,” Detroit Free Press, August 30, 1863.

A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815(Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993

Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great lakes Region, 1650-1815 (Cambridge University Press, 1991) p.433.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s