Blue Jacket: The Legend of a Great Shawnee War Chief
He led the greatest defeat in American history by a Native American but remains little known.
Most Americans will at least have heard of the great Shawnee chief, the mighty Tecumseh. But very few know of Blue Jacket, Tecumseh’s Shawnee predecessor, who began the fight to save Shawnee lands from the white juggernaut moving West.
Blue Jacket was born “Weyapiersenwah” of Shawnee parents in 1743 in a small tribal village on Deer Creek in what is today the Appalachian region of Ross County, Ohio, near present-day Chillicothe. present-day Chillicothe.
Little is known about the early life of Blue Jacket. He first appears in written historical records in 1773 by a British missionary who visited his Shawnee village. He was already a grown man of thirty and a war chief by then.
A curious legend grew up around Blue Jacket many years after this death that he had been in fact a white boy kidnapped and adopted by the Shawnee during the Revolutionary War. The legend held that Blue Jacket was, in fact, Marmaduke Van Swearingen, a young white man who later chose to stay with the Shawnee. The legend took hold in 1877 by a biographer and grew in detail and grandiosity. Even a major biographer in the later 1960s, Allen Eckert, wrote the legend as truth. But recent historians and DNA analysis from descendants of both Blue Jacket and Marmaduke Van Swearingen had disproved the legend and proven that Blue Jacket was, indeed, a full-blooded Shawnee.
As a young war chief in the 1770s, Blue Jacket allied himself with the British in the Revolutionary War against Colonists from 1775-1883. When the British lost, the Shawnee not only lost much of their land in what is today the state of Ohio, but also lost a strong ally. After the Revolutionary War, white settlers poured into the Ohio territory, called the Northwest Territory.
In 1791, Blue Jacket built a strong confederation of various tribes with Miami Chief Little Turtle. In November of that year, about a thousand Shawnee, Miami and Delaware Indians defeated a large American expedition of 2,000 soldiers—twice the strength of the Native forces—led by Northwest Territory governor, Arthur St. Clair. To this day, St. Clair’s Defeat, also called the Battle of the Wabash, remains the single greatest victory by Native Americans over U.S. forces. President George Washington forced St. Clair to resign.
The spectacular victory of Blue Jacket and Little Turtle was short-lived however. The new U.S. government and white settlers were greatly alarmed at St. Clair’s shocking defeat. President Washington raised a new professional army led by General Anthony Wayne. On August 20, 1794, Blue Jacket’s confederation clashed with Wayne’s army on the Battle of Fallen Timbers, named so because the fight took place in a forest recently devastated by a tornado, just south of present-day Toledo, Ohio. The U.S. forces greatly outnumbered Blue Jacket’s warriors by nearly three to one. Blue Jacket was defeated and forced to sign the Treaty of Greenville, which ceded nearly all of Ohio to U.S. citizens.
In Blue Jacket’s twilight years, he saw the rise of another mighty Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, who would take up the fight for Shawnee land and survival and, like Blue Jacket, also seek to unite tribal forces against the white juggernaut. Tecumseh would be successful in combining the mightiest force of tribal solidarity in North American history.
See below for the link to Notes from the Frontier post about Tecumseh.
• Tecumseh, The Great Shawnee Chief
“Blue Jacket: The Legend of a Great Shawnee Chief” is a new post and was first posted on Facebook and NotesfromtheFrontier.com on Saturday, August 7, 2021.
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