The River Speaks: Chief Tecumseh takes a stand
(Editor's Note: This interview is part of an oral history project about the Little Miami River in which local participants shared stories they have learned from their families and through their own research. We believe these oral histories are important to understanding local culture. We also recognize that Shawnee history is a complex topic with many facets that are too often overlooked.
We have reached out to Shawnee tribal representatives throughout the region for guidance, and we will approach this topic with care and in depth in new projects in the coming year. In the meantime, we hope you enjoy these oral histories and that you will reach out to us with your thoughts and concerns as we move ahead.
— Neenah Ellis, Executive Director, The Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO)
Lavena Wolf Lichtenfels and Thomas Lavergne share an oral history of the Shawnee people—how they were divided as Americans pushed them from their land, and how Chief Tecumseh took a stand when others wouldn’t. Lichtenfels and Lavergne, who are Shawnee, shared their stories with Hope Taft near the Old Shawnee Principle Village on the Little Miami River…
Hope Taft: So why don't you two tell me a little bit about the Shawnee connection to the river?
Lavena Wolf Lichtenfels: This river would have been the lifeblood of the village. I mean, the heartbeat.
Thomas Lavergne: We're right in the middle of the village, right? The old village, the old town, was right here.
Lavena: So, it was their main mode of transportation, food, trade, the very water they drank, ceremonial significance, and of course, Tecumseh, our greatest chief was born five arrow flights away from here, right over there. He was on his way to the village with his family. And then when his father died, Tecumseh was brought here to the Principal Village with his mother and his siblings, and the Principal Chief raised him. So he grew up right here. There's a sycamore in my neighbor's yard where he would tie his canoe.
One of my favorite stories is when they would go into the river every day for two weeks, right?
Thomas: It was for almost a year.
Lavena: And they would dive in at the end of it and grab an ensoma which would symbolize their heat inside, to keep their warmth and their spirit. And I think he did it right here at this swimming hole. If he was going to dive in somewhere, I think it was right here.
Thomas: Right here in the middle of the village. They made him dive in everyday for a year. In the summer, it was really nice and pleasant. He had to go to the bottom and come back up. But in the winter, he had to learn to break ice. It toughened him up.
But when you were talking about Tecumseh’s father being killed, that was the first split in the Shawnee. That was after the Battle of Point Pleasant. The Virginians came and fought us and Tecumseh’s father was killed. Tecumseh’s mother did not want to stay here anymore, and about half the Shawnee people felt the same. At that time, the Americans were coming, and we didn't want anything to do with them.
Lavena: Was that when Turtle Mother left?
Lavena: So, they just said, 'The heck with it. We're out! We're leaving now!' But then there was a small group that stayed and that included Tecumseh and all his siblings.
Thomas: And that was the first split.
Lavena: The first one, and there was another.
Thomas: But after that, that was pretty much the last of the main exoduses until the removal in 1833, and they removed the three reservations. They removed those people, and our families didn't go. That's why we're still here.
Hope: So, how did you get to stay behind?
Thomas: It started with the Treaty of Greenville in 1795. When it was signed, our Principal Chief Black Hoof signed it, as did Blue Jacket. Tecumseh, who was pretty much then an unknown young man, didn’t want anything to do with it. And he said, 'I'm not following you.' And he just pretty much said, 'Anybody who doesn't want to go with this, come with me, and we'll form a new confederacy.' And that's what he did, and he was a fairly young man at the time. And the chiefs that signed that treaty were very upset with him because he wasn’t following their rules.
Lavena: Tecumseh. That's my biggest thing with him, just being right here. You know he walked this and saw these trees. Being here now as a Shawnee, it's just sacred ground to us. So, I can't do enough to take care of it. It's just part of my being…
That was Lavena Wolf Lichtenfels and Thomas Lavergne, sharing some of the history of the Shawnee people on the Little Miami River. The River Speaks: An Oral History of the Little Miami River is produced at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices. It is a collaboration between WYSO and the Little Miami Watershed Network. It is funded by Ohio Humanities and The Nick and Edna Weller Charities.