Another view of a famous statue at the U.S. Naval Academy

The Tecumseh statue at the U.S. Naval Academy gazes toward Bancroft Hall, the Midshipman dormitory. Midshipmen offer a left-handed salute in tribute to Tecumseh, and they toss pennies his way for good luck in exams and athletic competitions.

In Annapolis, at the heart of the U.S. Naval Academy, stands a statue of the famous Native American chief, Tecumseh. This bronze figure has become an informal deity of sorts, where Midshipmen perform rituals in hopes of achieving passing grades. This statue, and the subject it represents, have a fascinating history.

According to the Naval Academy Museum and Smithsonian records, the current statue is a bronze replacement of a wooden figurehead sculpted by William Luke of Norfolk in 1821. Representing Chief Tamanend, or “Tammany”, the figurehead graced the prow of USS Delaware. Launched in 1820, Delaware was a ship-of-the-line, a formidable fighting vessel carrying 74 cannons, overshadowing USS Constitution. As such, the ship served as the flagship of the Mediterranean fleet and of the coast of South America. In the Civil War, Delaware was scuttled when Confederates seized the Norfolk Naval base, but the wooden figurehead was salvaged and brought to the naval academy during the tenure of Admiral Porter after the war.

After serving in the elements for a century, the wooden statue had deteriorated. The Class of 1891 funded a bronze replica that was cast from the original at the Naval Gun Factory at the Washington Navy Yard. While the buildings around it have changed, the statue holds its position in the heart of the academy.

Over time, the name of the statue changed from Tamanend, or Tammany, to Tecumseh, both the names of historic Native American leaders. Tammany had been a Sachem of the Lenape tribe, who collaborated with William Penn in treaties that enabled Pennsylvania to develop. What little has been recorded about Tammany suggests he was a wise and temperate leader who dealt with Penn and the Quaker colonists in good faith. It may seem obvious that the naval academy would prefer to enshrine a famous War Chief over a passive Sachem; yet, when the figurehead was carved in 1821, Tecumseh had only been dead for less than a decade, and he was not yet a figure of popular reverence in Early Republican America. Allied with the British in 1812, he had led a coalition of tribes in bloody warfare against the young military of the United States. Hence, it would be odd to honor him at this time, when the wounds from that conflict had yet to heal. However, why would one wish to place the visage of a peaceful Native America leader on a major warship?

Tammany’s reputation for wise, peaceful leadership inspired a uniquely American movement at the time of the American Revolution. Indeed, during the early part of the struggle, the Sons of Liberty and the Society of Saint Tammany were inseparable, and admiring colonists dubbed him “Saint” Tammany, the Patron Saint of America. After the revolution, when the citizens of the new United States were looking for a unique identity free from European structures, Tammany societies, a network of fraternal, patriotic organizations arose, championing democratic government and opposing aristocracy. Many Founding Fathers, including Benjamin Franklin, John Dickinson, Benjamin Rush, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson were members. The Society was known for the celebrations on May 1, or Saint Tammany Day.

It appears Saint Tammany Day was an American version of May Day. Both featured raucous celebrations with feasting, drinking, and dancing around a Maypole. However, the Tammany Society celebrations included speeches and ceremonies that reflected limited knowledge of Native cultures. The participants, who were mostly white and male, dressed in native clothing and created their own rituals, recitations, and customs. They paraded in public in single “Indian” file. Most of the sacred dialog was an odd mixture of native words, but some were from the actual Micmac tongue. Some rituals focused on gathering around a council fire, burying the hatchet for peace, and smoking a six-foot-long pipe. Our modern perception would be that such rituals and customs are forms of “cultural appropriation,” insulting to Native Americans. However, this does not appear to be the view at the time among native peoples or the citizens of the new United States.

Tammany societies’ roots

It appears that the Tammany societies’ roots predate the American Revolution. While the historical record is spotty, is seems the societies grew out of gentlemen’s hunting and fishing clubs dating as early as the 1730s. Over a generation later, May Day celebrants honored “Saint Taminia” at Annapolis. The revelers wore bucktails in their hats and the colonists dressed as Indians and danced in the Indian style with a war song and whoop. In the 1770s, the clubs became more anti-royalty in attitude and blended with the Sons of Liberty. In their speeches, “King” Tammany became “Saint” Tammany, or a protective guardian spirit for America. Perhaps it was no coincidence that acts of defiance against authority, such as the Boston Tea Party and the Whiskey Rebellion, involved protestors dressed in Indian costume.

When spring finally came to the Continental encampment at Valley Forge in 1778, Washington permitted a Tammany Day celebration. One New Jersey regiment combined the Indian costumes, with bows and arrows, with the fife and drums in a parade of merriment. Drinking and dancing followed.

After the war, the societies became more mainstream, and took the form of a fraternal patriotic organization throughout the former colonies. Although they began in Philadelphia, they spread west to the Ohio Country, south through Virginia, down to Georgia, and north to Rhode Island. The Governor of Georgia, Edward Telfair, was made the Grand Sachem at the Tammany Day celebration in Augusta in 1790. Their festivals were accompanied by parades of the local militia, and featured their rituals and speeches inspired in Native rhetoric.

George Washington effectively used the Tammany Societies in peace negotiations with some western tribes. In 1786, the Tammany Society hosted Cornplanter and a delegation of Seneca in Philadelphia before they went on to address Congress, and their eloquent speeches were recorded. Washington also asked the Tammany Society to greet the Creek delegation in 1789. An exhibit of treaties, currently on display at the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian, depicts this visit. The Natives seemed impressed by these courtesies, and negotiations were successful.

With today’s sensibilities, it may be hard to believe the Native leaders were not offended. However, 200 years ago these actions held a different meaning than they do to us today. Before the Revolution, when the Crown ruled Pennsylvania, colonial officials were seldom accommodating in their dealings with Native representatives. Many colonial officials did not learn Native languages or provide interpreters. So, when the Tammany members greeted the Indian delegation, they may have perceived these actions as an attempt to engage with Native culture and communicate in earnest.

Changing relationships

A few decades later, relationships with Native leaders on the western frontier were poor and negotiations failed. By the War of 1812, American militias and regulars were hard pressed on the western frontier. They suffered bloody engagements with Tecumseh and his Indian confederation. Sympathies with Native Americans and their customs became suspect. Even before the sculpting of the figurehead that would make its way to the naval academy, the military fame of Tecumseh was beginning to eclipse the following of Saint Tammany.

In spite of the involvement of many of the nation’s elite Founding Fathers and politicians, the societies generally appealed to working class men. Their vision of what America should be focused on — an idealized version of Native societies, as opposed to the monarchies of Europe — stood in political counterpoint to the Federalist Party. America’s political elite looked to ancient Greece and Rome to provide models for our new county. We can see their vision today in the classism of Federal period architecture.

In New York City, the society melded with the Colombian Order at the dawn of the 19th century. As it became more political, and as meetings were held in secrecy, it turned into the infamous corrupt political machine known today as “Tammany Hall”.

These societies rose and fell without substantial involvement from Native peoples. Dennis Coker, the Elected Chief of the Lenape Indian Tribe of Delaware, does not recall any tribal memories of these events. He suggests it was originally a sacred ceremony that devolved into a party, as so many do. He did point out, though, that as recently as 2003, there was a bill in Congress that attempted to make Saint Tammany Day a holiday.

Today, Tecumseh Court, outside the front entrance of the naval academy’s Bancroft Hall, features the bronze bust now known as Tecumseh. While the statue has had various nicknames, the exact date that the statute assumed its current identity is unknown, and the story of Chief Tamanend has been forgotten since the 1880s. It is just one example of the layers of our nation’s history hidden at the U.S. Naval Academy.