Thursday, August 30, 2012

Tacumwah: Chief Richardville’s mother

A second article about Tacumwah by Carmen Doyle

Wallace Brice, in his 1868 History of Fort Wayne gives a detailed account of how Jean-Baptiste Richardville became chief of the Miami Indians:

“A white man had been captured and brought in by the warriors. A council had been convened, in which the question of his fate arose in debate and was soon settled. He was to be burned at the stake, and the braves and the villagers generally were soon gathered about the scene of torture, making the very air to resound with their vociferations and triumphant shouts of pleasure and gratification of the prospect of soon enjoying another hour of fiendish merriment at the expense of a poor, miserable victim of torture. Already the man was lashed to the stake, and the torch that was to ignite the combustible material placed about the same and the victim of torture, was in the hands of the brave appointed to create the flame that was soon to consume the victim of their cruelty. But the spirit of rescue was at hand. The man was destined to be saved from the terrible fate that surrounded him!

Young Richardville had for some time been singled out as the future chief of the tribe, and his heroic mother (Tacumwah) saw in this a propitious and glorious moment for the assertion of his chieftainship, by an act of great daring and bravery, in the rescue of the prisoner at the stake. All eyes were now fixed upon the captive. Young Richardville and his mother were some distance from the general scene, but sufficiently near to see the movements of the actors in the tragedy about to be enacted, and could plainly hear the coarse ejaculations and mingled shouts of triumph of the crowd. At that moment, just as the torch was about to be applied to the bark, as if touched by some angelic impulse of love and pity for the poor captive, the mother of young Richardville placed a knife in her son’s hand, and bade him assert his chieftainship by the rescue of the prisoner. The magnetic force of the mother seemed to have convulsed and inspired the young warrior, and he quickly bounded away to the scene, broke through the wild crowd, cut the cords that bound the man, and bid him be free! All was astonishment and surprise; and though by no means pleased at the loss of their prize, yet the young man, their favorite, for his heroic and daring conduct, was at once esteemed a god by the crowd, and then and thereafter became a chief of the first distinction and honor in the tribe!”

While the dramatic account,which seems designed to be told around a campfire, appears to be about Richardville, the real power is with his mother Tacumwah. She is the one who puts the knife in Richardville’s hand and she is the one who tells him to cut the prisoner free. Tacumwah is also the one who takes care of the former prisoner. She gets the rescued man into a boat and sent to some friendly Indians.

Tacumwah was the major influence on her son. She controlled the portage, a miles long strip of land connecting the Maumee and Wabash rivers. The portage was a profitable one, making her, and later Richardville, wealthy. She retained control of the portage despite a disagreement with Chief Richardville’s father. The Bicentennial Heritage Trail tells how Tacumwah was “the most important woman among the Miami people during the time of the wars between the United States and the Native Americans of the region. Tacumwah was an outstanding businesswoman.”

She was also intelligent. Henry Hay, in his journal from 1790, conveys that Richardville was “very bashful” and never spoke in council- “his mother who is very clever is obliged to do it for him.” Hay also mentions she ran a trading post, and he later purchases a horse from her.

Although Tacumwah is usually only mentioned because of her son being Chief, it is obvious from what Hay and Brice said that she was an important person in her own right, not just as the mother of a powerful man.

Wallace A. Brice, History of Fort Wayne, 1868
Fort Wayne Bicentennial Heritage Trail Guide Map  (Site 51)
Henry Hay, Journal from Detroit to the Miami River, 1790

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