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The death of Tecumseh
Marching through time - history symposium (2014)
  • Vivian C. McAlister

In the 1930s, University of Western Ontario surgeon, Dr Edwin Seaborn recorded a series of interviews with members of the Saugeen First Nation to learn about their medical practices. Seaborn used a wax cylinder recording device owned by the medical school. One interview dealt with the death of Shawnee war chief Tecumseh, as told by the grandson of an eye witness to the event. British, Canadian and First Nations' forces retreated eastward up the trail by the Thames River in October 1813. Tecumseh insisted they turn to fight the advancing Americans. The night before the Battle of the Thames, Tecumseh slept in a large barn on Lemuel Sherman's farm in Thamesville. A hole was made in the wall of the barn so that Tecumseh's horse could be haltered beside him. Most of the barn was used as a hospital. Later the victorious Americans would use the barn for the same purpose. General Proctor and his officers stayed in the farm house. At daybreak on the 5th October 1813, before the men had eaten, Proctor moved into position at Moraviantown. American mounted troops quickly broke through and routed the British line of regulars, who immediately fled leaving Tecumseh's force to fight alone. Tecumseh was killed and his body allegedly mutilated. Despite conflicting accounts of Tecumseh's death, it was quickly assumed into American mythology with a frieze painted into the Rotunda of the Capitol and an iconic sculpture displayed at the Smithsonian Institution. Bragging rights claiming responsibility were used by the successful presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison and the unsuccessful one of Richard Johnson. Tecumseh Sherman, later a leading union civil war general, was named for the slain hero. Searching for Tecumseh's grave became an obsession of 19th century America. Seaborn's recording presents a relatively unknown account of Tecumseh's death from the aboriginal perspective. It describes the chief fighting with 'a long knife' on a bridge to his right and his left. Tecumseh's lance snapped close to his grip and he fell after 'a long knife' was run through his shoulder from behind. The witness hid in the water by 'turning himself into a turtle' under a log. He saw Americans take the body of another warrior to a tree and mutilate it. This record contradicts the self serving account of Col. Richard Johnson that is depicted in the Capitol but it is consistent with evidence that Tecumseh's body was secretly protected by succeeding aboriginal generations until it reached its final resting place on Walpole Island. Sharing sacred stories demonstrates a special level of trust between aboriginal people and the white medical community of the early 20th century. The Sherman barn represents one of the first hospitals in Western Ontario. Artifacts collected by Seaborn including the wax cylinders and the Sherman barn boards used to halter Tecumseh's horse probably remain in collections in London, Ontario.

Publication Date
March 29, 2014
Citation Information
Vivian C. McAlister. "The death of Tecumseh" Marching through time - history symposium (2014)
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