Throughout the 1790s and early 1800s the United States sought to organize territory in the west. Often, this required buying land from Native American tribes who occupied the area. These purchase treaties often took advantage of conflicts between different tribes and, sometimes, were negotiated with tribes that did not have any claims to the land in question.
A Shawnee leader named Tecumseh argued that all Native land was owned in common by all Natives and could not be sold by particular tribes. This brought him into conflict with, among others, William Henry Harrison, Governor of the Indiana Territory. This 1810 letter from Tecumseh to Harrison sets out his view of the land.
It is true I am a Shawnee. My forefathers were warriors. Their son is a warrior. From them I take only my existence; from my tribe I take nothing. I am the maker of my own fortune; and oh! that I could make of my own fortune; and oh! that I could make that of my red people, and of my country, as great as the conceptions of my mind, when I think of the Spirit that rules the universe. I would not then come to Governor Harrison to ask him to tear the treaty and to obliterate the landmark; but I would say to him: “Sir, you have liberty to return to your own country.”
The being within, communing with past ages, tells me that once, nor until lately, there was no white man on this continent; that it then all belonged to red men, children of the same parents, placed on it by the Great Spirit that made them, to keep it, to traverse it, to enjoy its productions, and to fill it with the same race, once a happy race, since made miserable by the white people, who are never contented but always encroaching. The way, and the only way, to check and to stop this evil, is for all the red men to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was at first, and should be yet; for it never was divided, but belongs to all for the use of each. For no part has a right to sell, even to each other, much less to strangers — hose who want all, and will not do with less.
The white people have no right to take the land from the Indians, because they had it first; it is theirs. They may sell, but all must join. Any sale not made by all is not valid. The late sale is bad. It was made by a part only. Part do not know how to sell. All red men have equal rights to the unoccupied land. The right of occupancy is as good in one place as in another. There can not be two occupations in the same place. The first excludes all others. It is not so in hunting or traveling; for there the same ground will serve many, as they may follow each other all day; but the camp is stationary, and that is occupancy. It belongs to the first who sits down on his blanket or skins which he has thrown upon the ground; and till he leaves it no other has a right.
Questions to consider:
- What effect has white settlement had on Natives?
- How does Tecumseh’s vision contrast with the European/American idea of private property (ie. “I own a defined piece of land and can do what I want with it”)?