Tecumseh monument at Battle of Thames, Canada.
I live in the neighborhood of great events. You probably do too. Among life’s little joys for me is a trip to find those events in the landscape; a thermos of hot coffee, my camera, a serious stack of maps, reference books, choice tunes on the hifi and a meander through the city streets and rural lanes of southeast Michigan, and sometimes a whole lot further. Revolutionary road trips have long been my favored way to spend my own time.
Revolutionaries tends to take sides, and take sides historically as well. Leave ‘objectivity’ to the hegemons. A lot of what I look for are the things that appeal to the left-wing activist; sites of strikes, heroic last stands, scenes of eventful gatherings, graves of martyrs, old homes of radicals and the like. Signposts of resistance.
It’s not just the sites I’m looking for, but also the landscapes they sit in. Those landscapes have been shaped by this, relatively recent, class society like everything else. From the brick and mortar of the historic home, to the layout of cities, to the course of rivers and vegetation, so many products of the laws of capitalist accumulation. However, they were built onto a landscape already made. Where and when many of the villages and cities, roads and crossings of southeast Michigan were placed was entirely determined by prior actions of Indian peoples. Recently, I thought to look for something like the footsteps of the Shawnee leader Tecumseh, who fought in the area as a leader in a Confederacy of Indian peoples.
A few weeks ago I decided to wind my way down from Ypsilanti to the mouth of the Huron River at Lake Erie. That river is one of those landscape features whose course has been altered by the expansion and needs of capital. A year-long obsession with the River’s, and region’s, late Indian history led me to try and follow, as close as possible, the river.
The river has gone through many changes, most noticeably through the use of dams and mill races from the earliest white settlement. In his desire to control all the sources of power around him, Henry Ford bought up a huge portion of the Huron River for its potential water power. To get to Lake Erie by way of the river requires one to pass multiple dams and flooded zones (some of which buried the farming lands of the Potawatomi, the area’s last Indian inhabitants) until south of Belleville.
Relatively unaltered through miles of Metroparks, mostly reclaimed farmland, but some old industrial sites as well, the Huron flows past the old Wyandotte reservation north of Flat Rock. Perhaps I’ll write about that story in the future, it’s worthy of a post all its own.
I ended up skirting the river and driving through the collection of subdivisions and soon to be divided farmsteads and fields, four-way stops of gas stations and strips of parking lots with shops attached. It was about here that I decided to put on the new Swans CD and listen to the 30 minute cacophony on Toussaint Louverture; an escape more than a provocation.
The particular suburban landscape here isn’t really suburban at all (sub of what urban?), but the kind of hodge-podge you get when the deciding factor on location is which old farm is up for auction and where the closest on ramp to a major road is. Ugly doesn’t begin to describe it. Oppressive might.
That’s was not what I was looking for; my goal was Hull’s Trace, a historic road that lies under the current Jefferson Avenue for much of its length in this part of Michigan. Hull’s Trace was named after General William Hull, who, during the War of 1812, was placed in charge of relieving Detroit and securing a supply line through what was then largely held by Indians allied with Tecumseh’s Confederacy.
In a few short weeks in the summer of 1812, 200 US soldiers hacked their way from Urbana, Ohio to Fort Detroit in Michigan.
In this part of the continent, the period of the War of 1812, was really a continuation of the Northwest Indian wars of the 18th century. Like the period of the Revolutionary War, when many Native Americans allied themselves with the British against the Colonies, who expressly proclaimed in their Declaration of Independence that among their reasons for revolt were the Crown’s refusal to allow them to take Indian lands deemed off-limits after the Indian rebellions of 1763 and that the Crown “has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages…”
Growing up in Ohio, Tecumseh was unavoidable for a young person fascinated with history and I have visited many of the places associated with him, including the Tecumseh Motel, a rundown place that sits on the on the site of his birth village. Last year, a comrade and I drove to Canada, just after the bicentennial anniversary, to visit the site of Tecumseh’s final stand. There he fell, along with many others including Roundhead, after yet another British betrayal at the Battle of the Thames in October, 1813. An affectingly desolate place in late fall.
Tecumseh’s forces were arrayed around Detroit and included warriors from a dozen nations, but to isolate Detroit they needed the support of the Wyandot villages along the Detroit River, and Hull’s Trace. Walk-in-the-Water, a head man in these villages, was convinced to join the Confederacy by Tecumseh and his leading Wyandot supporter, Roundhead. Detroit was cut-off.
After a series of mostly successful battles by the Confederacy in the summer of 1812, US forces at Detroit surrendered to the combined Indian and British army on August 16. One needs to be reminded that, far from being rolled over, Native Americans won many spectacular victories, especially in the old Northwest, where two generations of resistance inflicted the greatest casualties on the US military by any Indian forces in history.
Detroit area, 1812
I wanted to find where the road and villages were, then take Jefferson up to Detroit following the route of Hull’s Trace. I had heard that a portion of the road, a corduroy section, had been exposed at the mouth of the Huron after the Great Lakes dropped a few feet in 2000. This area along the lake is mostly now protected parkland and small homes. The mouth of the Huron was long the home to various industries, but is now a place to put in for game fishing on Lake Erie.
For nearly two hundred years the road has been built upon, with a successive set of transportation technologies imprinting their needs on the route. But just a few feet under concrete and the semi trucks racing their hauls to warehouses and factories lay the very road walked upon by Tecumseh, Roundhead, Main Poc and the hundreds of others who united and fought to regain Indian lands lost across the Appalachians and retain an independent Indian polity in the face of American genocide and conquest.
When I found it, I ended up staying the whole afternoon until dusk, falling my way through the underbrush, soaking wet looking for anything and everything that might inform what I was seeing. For hundreds of yards rows of hewn logs (this area along the Lake was swampland and it was necessary to lay logs down for the carts and soldiers to travel) jutted from the side of the road bed into a channel of the Huron River.
The first thing I noticed was the size of some of the logs, clearly belonging to a very different forest than the one I was looking at. The parklands and reserves we take for granted as ‘natural’ would have been as alien in some ways as our cars and factories to peoples of two hundred years ago.
Wood demands touch, especially worked wood, and I felt many of the logs as I hopped from dry spot to dry spot, sometimes successfully. Impossible not to think of the shoes that trod those logs, the armies that crossed them, the wares and ideas, messages and something like hope that Indian peoples brought with them that summer on this very wood, felled from the forest that some knew so intimately.
Facing east there is no good sunset over this part of Lake Erie, just across from the remains of the road. But I ended up there on a cloudy and unremarkable dusk. A historic marker sits in a parking lot at the mouth and gives some information on the road. None of it captured what that road meant, for a moment in the summer of 1812, in the strategy, and hope, of the last collective Indian military resistance in the region.
The defeat of which, the following year, would mean removal and the opening of the land to speculators and a flood of American settlers, and eventually the landscape we live in today, including the nearby Woodland Beach subdivision, which is neither.
The struggle for Indian self-determination is hardly over, and despite all, the genocide ultimately failed. However, the independent Indian world that Tecumseh and the people who won this road sought to defend is no more.
Took the long way home, back roads all the way and listened to the baseball game, wishing I could travel back in time with a knapsack full of ordinance strong enough to make a difference. Some folks place their hopes in imagined futures; I certainly have mine. But I place all of my fiercest wishes in imagined pasts.