In compiling this list I did my best to find the most well known Native Americans in popular culture as well as the most beloved by historians. I often found the most “famous” Native Americans happen to also be the most “friendly” and least resistant to European globalism. This was not by choice of my own, just an unfortunate reality of the research. In the future I will do a top 5 list on the greatest Native American Warriors to tip the balance a little. Enjoy 🙂
5.) Tecumseh (1768 – 1813)
Tecumseh was a leader of the Shawnee and spent most of his life fighting the Americans from taking his people’s land. Tecumseh was born in March of 1768, right as tensions between the Americans and the British were rising. He grew up in the Ohio Valley where he witnessed the American Revolution first-hand. When the Revolutionary War came to an end, Tecumseh was coming of age. In 1783, the British gave the Americans the Ohio Valley as a part of the Treaty of Paris to end the war. Tecumseh become known as a leader of men, as he assisted Native Americans in keeping land he considered theirs by right. He encouraged Native Americans to deny the more and more popular, English culture. He courageously helped united Native Americans on the frontier to fight the outward expansion of the American States.
“Tecumseh’s War” was the result of his opposition to a treaty signed between the American government and Native American Tribes in the Ohio Valley. Many Native leaders were now teaching submission to the American ways, and Tecumseh was outraged at this position. Initially he confronted the Indian leaders and tribes who signed the treaty but then turned his efforts toward the Americans. In August of 1810, he led four hundred warriors into a confrontation with then Governor and future President William Henry Harrison, the American leader behind the treaties. Tecumseh famously told the Governor:
you have the liberty to return to your own country… you wish to prevent the Indians from doing as we wish them, to unite and let them consider their lands as common property of the whole…. You never see an Indian endeavor to make the white people do this … Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children? How can we have confidence in the white people?
A series of conflicts followed that become known as Tecumseh’s War. Tecumseh continued to resist the Americans and any intrusions they made on the culture of tribes. In 1812, he took the side of the British in the War of 1812 and was killed in the Battle of Thames. Tecumseh’s death had large implications. In negotiations the British wanted the Americans to cede land in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, hoping with this the Native Americans would join together to create a nation that would buffer the Americans and the British who both wanted land west of the region. The Americans resisted this Native American State, and the proposal was dropped. If Tecumseh had been at the negotiations as a representative for the Native Americans, it could have been a game changer. Tecumseh is known by history as a famous preserver of Native American culture and a great leader among a dying population of Native American people.
4.) Geronimo ( 1829 – 1909)
Geronimo “the one who yawns” was born in the Southwest in 1829. Then still Mexican owned land, Geronimo grew up watching his elders fight off expansions from the Mexican people. When he grew to age, he joined the fight with his people. In 1851, a force of Mexican militiamen invaded an apache camp, killing Geronimo’s family. Geronimo was not present for the slaughter of his family, when he returned to the camp he found his Mother, Wife, and three children were among the victims of the attack. This would turn Geronimo into a brutal warrior for his people. He remembered the incident as follows:
Late one afternoon when returning from town we were met by a few women and children who told us that Mexican troops from some other town had attacked our camp, killed all the warriors of the guard, captured all our ponies, secured our arms, destroyed our supplies, and killed many of our women and children. Quickly we separated, concealing ourselves as best we could until nightfall, when we assembled at our appointed place of rendezvous — a thicket by the river. Silently we stole in one by one, sentinels were placed, and when all were counted, I found that my aged mother, my young wife, and my three small children were among the slain.
He joined other Apache men in a string of retaliatory attacks. He later admitted the event of finding his family slaughtered, made him so bitter and hateful of Mexicans, he often indiscriminately slaughtered Mexican people with great revenge in his heart. He felt contempt for Mexicans even more then he would later feel for Americans, who he would also battle against after the Mexican-American War 1848. A war that resulted in his homeland being developed by the Americans instead of the Mexicans.
In Geronimo’s old age he gave up the nomadic lifestyle his people naturally depended on and decided to submit to a reservation life. Whether he surrendered to this lifestyle unconditionally is often the center of a debate. However, after a series of different captures and battles with Americans he resentfully lived on reservations in Arizona rather than live in a continued fight for the free-moving Apache lifestyle he and his ancestors grew to love. In 1904, Geronimo became a beloved American celebrity. after making an appearance at the World’s Fair where he rode the Ferris Wheel. In 1905, he rode in President Theodore Roosevelt’s Inaugural Parade. After these events, he often made appearances at gatherings where he gave speeches, sold souvenirs and photographs. Geronimo’s resistance to a settled life as a young man, made him famous in his lifetime and after.
3.) Sacagawea (1788 – 1812)
Sacagawea was born in May of 1788 near what is today known as Salmon, Idaho. She was born to the Lemhi Shoshone tribe. During her childhood in the northwest, she likely witnessed more tribe on tribe warfare than Native American children the same age born to more eastward tribes. When she was just 12 years old, she and a group of girls her age were kidnapped in a battle against the Hidatsa tribe. Looking to turn a profit on their prizes, just a year after her capture, the Hidatsa sold her and another Shoshone girl to a Canadian pioneer named Toussaint Charbonneau who lived among the local tribes. This was likely the result of a gambling debt owed to the pioneer beaver trapper. Now just 13 years old and married her destiny was determined by her husband. In 1804, at the age of just 14 she became pregnant with her first child. That same year a party of men came to the area led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark.
These men were a part of a discovery corps put together by the President of the United States, then Thomas Jefferson who had just executed a deal to buy the land from the French government in the famous “Louisiana Purchase.” They approached Sacagawea’s husband about joining their corps as a translator. Lewis and Clark were actually more interested in having his two Native American wives in their party. Toussaint obliged the men and agreed to take his wives with them on their mission to discover and document the land. This proved to be a wise move by the two travelers, though her husband become infamous by history as lazy and clumsy, his wife proved to be worth the hassle. On more than one occasion–despite having given birth to a baby on the journey–Sacagawea proved extremely valuable in their mission through translating, and guiding the men. In one incident she saved her husband from losing an entire boat filled with supplies to the Missouri river. During their trip through the Northwest, with Sacagawea pointing in the right direction, the men were able to amazingly find the very Shoshone tribe Sacagawea had been kidnapped from by the Hidasta. Meriwether Lewis recorded the event in his journal:
Shortly after Capt. Clark arrived with the Interpreter Charbono, and the Indian woman, who proved to be a sister of the Chief Cameahwait. The meeting of those people was really affecting, particularly between Sah cah-gar-we-ah and an Indian woman, who had been taken prisoner at the same time with her, and who had afterwards escaped from the Minnetares and rejoined her nation.
Sacagawea was able to convince her brother and the tribe to trade the men for horses. Which they needed vitally to continue to their goal, the Pacific Ocean. Without the guidance and connections of Sacagawea the white men likely would not have been able to complete this their journey. A journey that has gone down as one of the greatest tales of all of American History.
2.) Squanto (1585 – 1622)
We all remember as children learning about the Pilgrims and the Indians. The Pilgrim’s in a new land, unable to figure out how to grow crops. The story of the struggling winter. Then along comes an English speaking, friendly native that lends the Pilgrims a hand. This native teaches them how to grow corn in sandy dirt and convinces a local tribe to share their yields from hunting, thus saving the starving and desperate community of Pilgrims. The Pilgrims, ever thankful for their salvation, offered a peaceful meal at the next harvest, inviting the tribe to an event that become known as “Thanksgiving.” Squanto was this famous English speaking Indian.
Squanto’s exact birthdate is unknown to historians, however, it is speculated he was born on news years day 1585 or new year’s day 1592 in a Patuxet Village near what is today Plymouth Massachusetts. When Squanto was a just a young man, in 1605, he was captured by an English sailor named George Weymouth. Weymouth was one of many explorers of the time being sent by the Kings of Europe, to the “New World” to find resources and possible places for settlement and development. Squanto and three others were taken back to England where they spent almost 10 years. They were taught English in order to serve as an interpreter on future voyages. in 1614, that voyage took off under Captain John Smith. Yes, that John Smith. When they arrived in what is today known as New England, Squanto took off looking for his old tribe. He was captured by one of John Smith’s Lieutenants and then sold to a Spanish explorer where he was sent back to Europe, this time to Spain.
In Spain he was taught the Catholic faith and eventually was able to convince the religious men to send him home. Before he was to set sail back home he was sent to England where he lived with a shipbuilder name John Slany. Slany taught Squanto yet even more English and helped him make sail to Newfoundland, in eastern Canada just north of his home in New England. In 1619–when he was somewhere in his early 3o’s–Squanto was able to meet back up with Captain John Smith and make his way back home. He had been held captive for almost 15 years when he finally reached the coastline of his New England. He soon found his tribe the Patuxets, and almost all of their neighbors had been wiped out by disease brought over to them from the Europeans. Squanto moved in with what was left of the local Native American tribes the Abenaki and the Wampanoag.
In 1620 the Mayflower arrived, hoping to make peace and trade with the English settlers, Squanto was introduced to the colonist through Massasoit, an Wampanoag Chief. His English speaking abilities must have seemed like providence to the religious Pilgrims as Squanto was able to teach them enough to make it through the tough New England winters. Squanto worked diligently, though sometimes unsuccessfully, as an ambassador for the Native Americans building alliances with the Pilgrims. If not for Squanto the Pilgrims fate would likely have become a mystery to history much like a group known as the Roanoke Colony in the 1580’s. Because of Squanto the Pilgrims were able to successfully settle the eastern shoreline, creating and developing a thriving town, Plymouth, Massachusetts, that still exists to this day. In 1622, Squanto mysteriously become ill with a fever and a bleeding nose, some think he was poisoned. He shortly thereafter died. The leader and Governor of the Plymouth Colony recorded the terrible event.
Here [Manamoick Bay] Squanto fell ill of Indian fever, bleeding much at the nose, which the Indians take as a symptom of death, and within a few days he died. He begged the Governor to pray for him, that he might go to the Englishman’s God in heaven, and bequeathed several of his things to his English friends, as remembrances. His death was a great loss.
Squanto is famous for being the sole saviour of the first Pilgrim settlement in the New World.
1.) Pocahontas (1596–1617)
The Pocahontas tale has been made famous as a love story. Though the truth is much different. She never fell in love nor is their evidence to suggest she regretted not having fell in love with the famous captain and leader of Jamestown John Smith. The fame she garned in her lifetime, was not for one of resistance of European Values. Nor–like say Squanto–was she an advocate for peace between settlers and Native Americans. Pocahontas was known and famed in her lifetime for having taken a whiteman for a husband and being completely submissive of European values.
Pocahontas was born with the name “Matoaka” she was known as Amonute and by the end of her short lived life she took the English name Rebecca. Pocahontas was the daughter of a Powhatan chief that was the leader of a confederacy of tribes living in what today is known as Virginia. In 1607, at 10 years old, she is famously known for having saved the life of an English captive, Captain John Smith. As told by John Smith (some historians believe him to be telling a wise tale) Pocahontas put her head on Smith’s head right before her father raised a club to kill him.
In 1613, Pocahontas was captured by the English and held for a ransom. During this time she converted to Christianity, and took the English name Rebecca. She was offeredd an opportunity to go back with her tribe but refused. She chose to abandon the Native American culture and adopt the English lifestyle. Shortly after she married a man who smuggled tobacco seeds to America and had begun to amass a great fortune as a result. In 1615 she gave birth to a son named Thomas Rolfe.
In 1616, Pocahontas traveled to England for Jamestown. Her role here was to attract investors willing to develop the New World. She was touted to London as a great example of the “civilized savage.” She was dressed fantastically, become somewhat of a celebrity and even attended parties put forth by royal courts. Shortly thereafter Pocahontas died in Gravesend, England. Pocahontas lived a life where she became famous for abandoning her people and their ways. That life has subsequently been romanticized, over and over again, by storytellers, book writers, and filmmakers who have made her an international myth rather than a real human being.