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Tecumseh - PDF


    The Mystery
of Tecumseh
By Captain David Poyer ’71, USNR (Ret.)
                                                                                             (Though That Wasn’t
                                                                                             His Original Name…)

T    his year marks, to the best of our knowledge, the 140th
     anniversary of the arrival at the Yard of one of the most
readily recognizable icons of the Naval Academy. Every graduate
                                                                      career and how he ended up at the Academy, with occasional
                                                                      sidelights on mythopoeia, history, sculpture, politics and war.

recalls Tecumseh, and the great statue deserves its status as a       Figureheads in Maritime History
landmark and an icon of Annapolis, of the United States Navy          Figureheads and sailing ships … they go together in our
and of Delaware.                                                      imagination.Yet the figurehead may have predated the sail, and
    Of Delaware?                                                      was very probably coeval with it.
    We’ll get to that in a bit.                                           Both in Graeco-Roman and Chinese cultures, the ship was
    At first glance, the figurehead’s history and connection to the   considered a person, or at least a living thing possessed of
Academy seems straightforward. It once graced the bow of a            something resembling a spirit or soul.As such, it was referred to in
man-o’-war, and most former midshipmen are aware myth and             human terms; and part of this personalization seems to have been
superstition have long associated themselves with the figure,         the painting of eyes on the bows, and eventually, specialization of
though they may not be aware of the specifics, beyond calling         some element of the bow into the representation either of a face,
him the “God of 2.0” and remembering throwing pennies at              or of a figure. Most sailors also know that the quarterdeck was
him on the way to exams.                                              once sacred, and that the Romans located a figure of the ship’s
    Yet like most revered objects, there is a deeper story.Tracing    “lares,” or tutelary god, there.1 These may have been the earliest
the provenance, history and career of the statue we know leads        “figureheads,” although they were located aft, not forward.The
us into deep labyrinths of American history. And even beyond          Greeks also placed a figurehead—usually an owl, in the case of the
that, back to the times of the Egyptians,Greeks andVikings.           Athenians—all the way forward in their war galleys, locating it on
    No brief article could explore all the ramifications.The most     the stem just above the ramming beak.2 The Viking Sagas also
authoritative yet still reasonably succinct account has been          mention figureheads on their marauding warships.3
authored by Naval Academy Museum curator James Cheevers.                  The emerging European powers of the early gunpowder era
Beginning with the work Cheevers has established, we will             retained, or perhaps, reinvented the figurehead, placing it in what
attempt to follow the story of how “Tecumseh” originated, his         was called the “head,” a structure external to the hull proper and

                                                                                                                 August 2008            11

projecting ahead of the stem. (This was also convenient for use      in the form of logs.Typically, the artist began by chalking an
as a latrine—the basis of our modern locution of “going to the       outline to block out proportions, then hewed out with an axe
head.”) Governments of this era invested nearly as much effort       various spaces within which the carving would take place.After
and expense in carved and painted ornamentation as on the ships’     placing iron bolts in the rough form for suspension, the artist
batteries. From the 1500s on the Italians (with their galleys),      began the chisel work. Hands and arms were often made
Spanish, Dutch and French competed in the baroque splendor of        separately and fastened with screws.The completed figure was
ship decoration.4 The English picked up the style, though never to   painted, then set on a wheeled stand for delivery to the shipyard
the extent of the French, and Americans inherited that tradition,    or waterfront (in case of replacement of a rotted original).7
though with lesser resources and artistry.
    By the early 19th century the head structure had undergone       USS DELAWARE
significant simplification, reducing dead weight and overhang,       As anyone who’s read the text under it knows,“Tecumseh” was
but the figurehead remained, now mounted at the upper part of        originally the figurehead of USS DELAWARE.
the stem. By this period—the era our piece dates from—the                DELAWARE was laid down at the United States Navy Yard,
figurehead, along perhaps with a national coat of arms at the        Gosport—today’s Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth,VA—
stern, was the last remant of the masses of carved, painted and      as part of our first class of ships of the line, the capital ships of
gilded sculptural ornamentation that had covered men-o’-war          their day.Two years after construction commenced, Congress
for so many centuries.                                               voted to name this class after states of the Union. Lots
                                                                     were drawn to determine which ship would get which
Figurehead Carving                                                   name, and the 74-gun ship due to be launched in 1820 was
Shipcarvers were once familiar figures in American port cities.      named DELAWARE.
Theirs was a specialized craft, but commissions were not so              DELAWARE was launched on 21 October 1820.8 Shortly
dependable that they would turn down other work.Things may           thereafter Commodore John Rodgers wrote to the Delaware
have been different in old Europe, but in the New World              congressional delegation, asking for their suggestion as to an
shipcarvers did not limit themselves to figureheads.They also        appropriate figurehead.
carved exotic tobacco-related figures, circus wagons, and                Three congressmen replied:
ornamental woodwork for homes, public sculptures and public
buildings.5 Notable centers of the art were Boston, Gloucester,         For the proposed head of the ship-of-the-line DELAWARE.
Newburyport, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.6                     Bust of Tamenend, the celebrated chief of the Delaware
The Skillins of Boston and William Rush (1756-1833) of                  Indians, Drapery—a blanket with a belt on which is a
Philadelphia were among well-known shipcarvers of the time.             tomahawk—over the left shoulder a quiver of arrows,
    The neoclassical style of the early 19th century celebrated         one hand resting on a bow and the other holding
gods, goddesses, or Greek or Roman warriors.The wood for                the Calumet.9
figureheads was usually American white pine, bought at spar yards

12        SHIPMATE
Tamenend                                                                     Over the next century, folk legends accreted around him,
Tamenend—variously spelled Tammanend,Temane,Tamenand,                    and “Tammany” eventually became one of the patron saints of
Taminent,Tameny, and Tammany10—was a chief of the Lenni                  the American Revolution, especially in the Philadelphia area.
Lenapes, a confederation of Algonkian-speakers living roughly            An annual Tammany festival there commemorating his
from Long Island to Cape Henlopen, and along the Delaware                memory spread.Among the patriots, 1 May became an annual
River Valley.11 They had their council fire at Shackamaxon, about        celebration of peace, freedom, and the common man.17 18
where Germantown is now, north of Philadelphia.12 The Lenni              “Sons of St.Tammany” Societies and Halls proliferated, the
Lenape had a complex system of sachem (or chief) selection and           most famous, of course, becoming the Manhattan lodge that ran
representation that some point to as one of the sources of the           a Democratic party machine under “Boss” Tweed.
United States Constitution.
    Tamenend is a figure of some interest in the literature of the       Who Carved Tecumseh?
interaction of European culture with that of Native America.             The Navy Yard contracted the figurehead of Tamenend
John Gottlieb Heckewelder, an early German-American                      specified by the congressional delegation to a Portsmouth
missionary and historian of the Pennsylvania tribes, writes,“The         shipcarver named William Luke.
name of Tamenend is held in the highest veneration among the                  In 1821,William Luke, grandson of a joiner and of a family
Indians. He was an ancient Delaware chief who never had his              of local craftsmen,19 was employed in, or perhaps more accurately
equal. He was in the highest degree endowed with wisdom,                 by, the Joiner’s Department of the Naval Shipyard. He was
virtue, prudence, charity, affability, meekness, hospitality, in short   described by the superintendent of the Navy Yard as a very
with every good and noble qualification that human beings may            competent and steady man, who had agreed to do the work for
possess. He was supposed to have had intercourse with the great          $2.50 per day or $2.00 per day “constant.”20
and good Spirit, for he was a stranger to everything that was                 William Luke was apparently self-taught as a sculptor, what
bad.”13 In 1683 Tamenend and the English Quaker William Penn             he learned from his family aside. No record remains of his being
signed an agreement that Europeans and Indians would live                apprenticed or working with any of the great families or shops
together in peace “As long as the creeks and rivers run and              of the shipcarvers of Boston, NewYork or Philadelphia, and his
while the sun, moon and stars endure.” It guaranteed freedom,            obituary in 1829 read:
peace, fair treatment, tolerance and equality for all inhabitants of
the land, no matter their origin or ethnicity.14                            Though self-taught, and without the opportunities
    Both the letter and spirit of the 1683 treaty were quickly              necessary to acquire perfection in his art, he has left some
broken, and the “Delawares” were pushed west over the next                  specimens that would do credit to the first artists of the
200 years, ending today in Oklahoma,Wisconsin and Ontario.15                country—among which we particularly notice the bold and
Yet Tamanend was still so revered for his integrity, honesty and            animated figure of an Indian Warrior, which graces the head
leadership that he became known after his death around 1698 as              of the DELAWARE....21
“Saint Tammany.”16

                                                                                                                  August 2008          13

    And the notice of his death refers to his “untutored                    the left hand is held a slacked bow, and in the right is, in the
genius.”22 But though he might have been untutored, Luke had                attitude of offering, a calumet, or pipe of peace, with the
enough custom to own his own shop, at the corner of Court                   stem outwards; the hair is represented as braided up on the
and London Streets, and “It is said that he executed all the                crown of the head, adorned with red feathers.25
carving at that place for the United States Navy.”23 This is
another interesting comment, as there were apparently three                  Now the mystery begins.This obviously does not conform
shipcarvers active in Norfolk at the time. Did Luke specialize in        to the work we know today, most noticeably in that our
naval work, leaving civilian shipcarving to the others?                  “Tecumseh” is a bust—from the waist up—not a full figure.
                                                                         Some secondary sources say the order was changed to a bust
   However, it is important to note that this first figurehead           before executed,26 but this seems doubtful. If so, why would
(which we will call “Tecumseh I,” following Cheevers’s                   “A Friend” from the Gosport Yard itself—source of the
terminology), is described as a full figure:                             description cited just above—describe it as a full figure in 1829?
                                                                             Where, then, did the Tecumseh we know come from?
     ...his drapery is a rose point blanket, fastened or girdled on
     with a belt of wampum; a hatchet stuck in the wampum; a             The Fate of the DELAWARE
     scalping knife is seen in the folds of the blanket at the breast;   DELAWARE was roofed over and kept in ordinary at Portsmouth
     a quiver of arrows at his back; his position is a little            until 1827, when she was fitted for sea. She made her first
     advancing, resting the left foot against the stump of a tree; in    deployment from 1828 to 1830, in the Mediterranean (Med).
                                                                              As was common in those days, she went through several
                                                                         commissionings, Med deployments, layings-up, and
                                                                         recommissionings in the late 1820s and 1830s.Ten surviving
     Ohio Historical Marker                                              drawings and paintings show her from these years, all with the
     Thanks to Captain Arthur W. Holfield, USN (Ret.), for
                                                                         full-length figurehead at her bow.27 She was placed in ordinary
     pointing out an Ohio Historical Marker recognizing the
                                                                         again in 1836.
     birthplace of Tecumseh.
                                                                              This is a period of eclipse as far as the records go, and a dire
                                                                         one for our history of our hero.The National Archives hold no
                                                                         mention of work on the figurehead during this availability,28 and
                                                                         no shipyard records survive due to the destruction of the Navy
                                                                         Yard twice during the Civil War. DELAWARE apparently came
                                                                         out of her late-1830s refit with a bust-type figurehead. It can
                                                                         readily be assumed that the first figurehead, its soft white pine
                                                                         presumably weathered after years at sea, was replaced at this
                                                                         point.This seems reasonable.29 But by whom, then, was the
                                                                         second figurehead executed?
                                                                              Until now it has been thought that the bust-style figurehead
                                                                         we know as Tecumseh—Tecumseh II, the wooden version
                                                                         preserved at the Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center—was probably a
                                                                         re-execution by William Luke, as he was thought to have still
                                                                         been at the shipyard in 1839. In fact, the legend displayed today
     Legend has it that at the very moment a great meteor
                                                                         in the Visitor Center unequivocally states:
     sailed across the sky in 1768, the Shawnee leader
     Tecumseh was born. To visit the marker, you’ll need to                 Originally carved to represent Tamenand, Chief of the
     visit Xenia, OH, about 15 miles southwest of Dayton.                   Delaware Indians, this wooden bust graced the bow of the
                                                                            third ship of the U.S. Navy named for the State of Delaware

14         SHIPMATE
   and launched in 1820.The figurehead was carved by William
   Luke at the Gosport, later Norfolk, Navy Yard.                       The Tradition
    In her 1940 book, Pauline Pinckney cited 1839 as the date           the Grade
of Luke’s death. However, this seems to have been an error,             Changed
either on Pinckney’s part or on that of one of her sources, since       Commander Harry
obituary records quoted and checked against the original                Belflower Jr. ’48,
newspapers30 clearly show that the sculptor William Luke died in        USN (Ret.), wrote to
1829, not 1839.31                                                       Shipmate after
    Thus, identification of “Tecumseh II” as Luke’s work seems          reading the December
very unlikely. Perhaps there is a slight chance that Luke did it        2007 issue. In his
previous to his death and it was stored as a spare at the Navy          letter, he noted that
                                                                        a caption below
Yard; or that he was contracted to do a figurehead for a ship that
                                                                        an image of the            Photo courtesy of 1964 Lucky Bag
was subsequently canceled, and that head was used for
                                                                        Tecumseh figurehead
DELAWARE. Shipyards stored quantities of spare parts, and
                                                                        read “God of the 2.0” and he was certain the passing
figureheads were a high-usage item, being often damaged by              grade was 2.5 when he attended the Academy. In fact,
enemy action, collisions and the simple wear of weather on soft         “2.5” was even engraved on his class ring.
pine.32 However, our Tecumseh could more reasonably have                    Midshipmen of the 40s, 50s and 60s decades recalled
originated with one of Luke’s apprentices, one of the other             “back in the day” when they gave Tecumseh a left-handed
shipcarvers in Norfolk, or even a shipcarver in another city—           salute, hoped for a passing grade and wins over Army. In
Navy records show several instances of figureheads being                1946, President Harry S. Truman joined midshipmen in
contracted in one city for ships a-building in another.33               tossing pennies to the “God of the 2.5.”
    A name that was formerly advanced, before the Luke                      However, today’s midshipmen, and even current
attribution was accepted, is that of William Rush of                    presidents, clearly recognize the “God of the 2.0.” In 2005,
                                                                        President George W. Bush mentioned Tecumseh in his
Philadelphia. Rush specialized in busts and did several Indian
                                                                        Commencement Address by stating: “God of the 2.0;
Traders and Indian Chiefs whose descriptions—especially of the
                                                                        I knew him pretty well when I was in school.”
treatment of the bared scalp—do bring “our” Tecumseh to
                                                                            What happened?
mind.34 Rush did a great deal of Navy work, designing all the               Adopting letter grades in 1963 meant that Tecumseh
figureheads for the six-ship frigate class of 1794, and carving         was now the God of C. Converted to GPA, he was the God
four of them himself. His shipcarvings were ordered from as far         of 2.0, which some alums, who continued to refer to God
away as London and Algiers.35 However, Rush died in 1833, so it         of 2.5, took to mean standards had been lowered. Not so—
seems difficult to ascribe the 1840 figure to him either.               tossed pennies still held the same value.
    However, Rush had a number of skilled apprentices—John                  “I can honestly say that the change would have been
Brown of Baltimore, Daniel Train of New York, as well as Rush’s         welcome when I was throwing pennies in Tecumseh’s
own son John.“Tecumseh II” may have been carved by one of               quiver,” said Commander Belflower.
these men, perhaps following a design by his deceased master.
Isaac Fowle’s shop in Boston and Solomon Willard, an itinerant
shipcarver, also did Navy work during this period.36 But so far,     four years before the second version, the bust version, was
no evidence has been uncovered placing any of these carvers in       executed—the great Sauk chief and warrior Black Hawk
the Norfolk area circa 1839-1840.                                    (Makataimeshekiakiak) was captured after the Battle of the Bad
    Probably the most accurate statement we can now make             Axe River and was imprisoned at Fort Monroe, across Hampton
about the authorship of Tecumseh II would be,“Sculptor               Roads from Portsmouth.37 His imprisonment was not airtight,
unknown.” Interestingly, but not necessarily enlightening, is that   and Black Hawk was given tours of the area, was entertained at
in 1833—four years after William Luke died, but presumably           a private home in Portsmouth, and, moreover, was given a tour

                                                                                                               August 2008             15

of the shipyard, during which he was shown DELAWARE during        drydock for breaking up.42 In 1873, after a period of private
one of her refits.38 Extant portraits of Black Hawk, and          contracting for salvage work,Asserson was appointed
similarities of features between them and the sculpture we        Superintendent of Improvements at the Navy Yard and
know, lead one to the question, did whoever sculpted              Assistant in Charge of Reconstruction.After having studied the
“Tecumseh II” meet or sketch the celebrated chief while he was    extant records in the National Archives, Cheevers states,“He
in Portsmouth? And was our “Tecumseh” actually modeled after      (Asserson) is credited with sending the preserved figurehead of
the features, not of a peacemaker, but of a bitter enemy of the   DELAWARE III to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis.”43
United States?                                                    Asserson, who retired as a rear admiral, is buried at the Naval
     At any rate, DELAWARE now carried the figurehead we          Academy Cemetery.
know at its stem.After her overhaul, she sailed for the Brazil         The figurehead’s arrival in Annapolis is generally dated to
station in 1841, then did another Med deployment. She             1868, which would mean it was removed during the initial
returned from this in 1844, was decommissioned again that         raising of the vessel, but establishing this date is difficult.
March, and went into reserve in Norfolk until a fiery date        Unfortunately no Annapolis newspapers seem to have survived
with destiny during the Civil War.39 Along with several other     from that year, and the Naval Academy archives contain no
aging men-o’-war, DELAWARE was burned and sunk on 20 April        references which speak to the event.
1861 in a conflagration that consumed much of the Navy                 However, it may have been that its arrival was no “event” at
Yard, to deny its use to the advancing forces of the newly        all. Sending old Navy figureheads to the Naval Academy was a
declared Confederacy.40                                           common custom at the time; usually they first landed on the
                                                                  porch of the old Seamanship Building;44 several figureheads
From Hampton Roads to Annapolis                                   preserved here and there about the Yard today date from this
The Navy Yard was burned twice during the Civil War, once by      period. It was a time when figureheads themselves were passing
the Union, again by the departing Confederates.When peace         into oblivion and sailors began to realize they were remnants of
came, numerous wrecks and scuttled vessels had to be cleared      a swiftly passing age of sail.45 If this is the case, there would have
from the long-disputed Hampton Roads and the Elizabeth            been no “event” to record when the one from DELAWARE
and James Rivers.                                                 arrived.The figure we know as “Tecumseh” seems merely to
    In 1866-68, contractors from Baltimore and Norfolk were       have been the one which gained the most notoriety in later
engaged to raise and clear the wrecks of PENNSYLVANIA,            days, and thus became simply the best known of many.
DELAWARE, RARITAN and COLUMBIA. Superintending them was
Ensign Peter Christian Asserson, a Norwegian immigrant who        Subsequent History at the Academy
had served in many naval campaigns in the war and                 The figurehead was eventually mounted on a brick pedestal
commanded several warships.41 A Navy Yard logbook records         outside the old Gunnery Department.As it was labeled only as
that the DELAWARE wreck was floated, went aground, and lay        the figurehead of DELAWARE, the midshipmen proceeded to
aground until early 1870, when she was raised again and put in    salute it and give it various nicknames.The one that stuck was

16       SHIPMATE
“Tecumseh”—a Shawnee chieftain who died in battle against           persisted for generations, and as a work of early American
United States forces in 181346—and also “The God of 2.5,”           sculptural art it has few equals.
referring to the then-passing grade.                                     May St.Tammany scowl down on many more generations
     Of interest in the acceptance of the name may be that          of midshipmen! a
another figure from around the same period, a figure known as            David Poyer ’71 is the author of many bestselling novels of the
Seneca John, was carved by Arnold Ruef of Tiffin, OH, and           Navy and Marine Corps, including The Return of Philo T.
stood in front of a cigar store there for many years. It was        McGiffin, The Threat, and Korea Strait. His next book will be
nicknamed “The Tiffin Tecumseh” by the townspeople.47 Could         The Weapon (St. Martin’s Press, this December).
“Tecumseh” have perhaps been the generic name for any                    Many thanks to Robert W   .Baker ’53;Commander Brian Horais ’71,
cigar-store figure? And thus, been applied by midshipmen of the     USNR (Ret.);and to Cathy Neri,parent of Midshipman Brian Neri ’10,
1890s not in awe, but in irreverence?                               for collecting and sharing the many photos of Tecumseh for this article.
     The figurehead was certainly not treated gently by                  Footnotes on page 113.
midshipmen of that era, being moved and “very much broken”
one Halloween, and even set afire. Rot was discovered as early
as 1889, when it was removed and repainted, and returned to
its pedestal.48
     Tecumseh II was moved to its present position in 1906, after
the rebuilding of the Academy at that period, and replaced with
a bronze copy (Tecumseh III) in 1930, the work paid for by the
Class of 1891.The much-abused and internally dry-rotted
Tecumseh II was restored in 1970 with synthetic resins and
plastic,49 and currently is exhibited on the second deck of the
Visitor Center.The replica, of course, remains the focus of
“T Court” and accepts his painting and adornment prior to
sports contests and other major events with his customary
resigned grimness.
     Certainly more research remains to be done on this
fascinating subject. It would be intriguing to finally determine
exactly who executed the most famous version of Tamenend,
the figurehead we know as Tecumseh II. Despite the loss of
records and the erosion of time, such mysteries, as Edgar Allen
Poe once said,“...are not beyond all conjecture.” But whoever
produced it, produced a masterpiece. Its iconic power has

                                                                                                                  August 2008           17

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