In the face of American expansionism near the end of the 18th century, it was of the utmost importance for the First Nations to form some kind of coalition. 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.
After the death of Joseph Brant in 1807, a new First Nations leader emerged: Tecumseh (“Shooting Star”), who was part Shawnee, part Creek. Tecumseh sided with the British not because he trusted them but because he saw them as the lesser of two evils. He preached that the land belonged to all the First Nations, not to specific groups, and that no tribe had the right to surrender its land. That could be done only with the agreement of all. Tecumseh worked tirelessly to gain the support of the Potawatomi, Ojibwa, Shawnee, Ottawa, Kikapoo and others.
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. After the victory at Fort Michilimackinac on July 17, 1812, First Nations flocked to the British cause. Their presence at Detroit with Sir Isaac Brock was instrumental in the surrender, on Aug. 16, of a superior force. In turn, the fall of Detroit encouraged the Six Nations, who were an important factor in the American defeat at Queenston Heights on Oct. 13 when they appeared at an auspicious moment under the leadership of John Norton.
In Ohio, Tecumseh and his warriors cut an American force to pieces at Fort Meigs on May 5, 1813. But control was slipping away as the Americans destroyed the Creek Nation. Meanwhile, an American naval victory on Lake Erie on Sept. 10 cut the British supply line to Amherstburg, thus endangering First Nations support.
The Iroquois played a central role in the Battle of Beaver Dams on June 24, 1813. According to John Norton, “The Cagnauwaga fought the battle, the Mohawk got the plunder, and [British General] FitzGibbon got the credit.”
Tecumseh was unimpressed with Henry Procter, the new British general who had succeeded Brock. In retreat after Lake Erie had been lost to the Americans, Procter had 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 in the ensuing battle, 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 nativistic movement.
During the negotiations for the Treaty of Ghent, the British tried to bargain for the establishment of an Indian territory, but the Americans resolutely refused to agree to such a stipulation. 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 land 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 were it not for their support, Upper Canada might have fallen into American hands.
This piece features a portrait gallery of leading First Nations figures in the War of 1812, accessed by a scrollbar of thumbnails. Once a thumbnail is selected, users can view the larger image and learn more about the leading figure in the war.