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In Our Backyard | Remembering Tecumseh, Shawnee warrior chief

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The Saline County State Fish and Wildlife Area is a quiet, tranquil place, popular with fishermen, hikers and birders. 

The park road carries visitors through the small campground, bordering the north bank of scenic Glen O. Jones Lake. At the west end of the lake the road takes a sharp right turn, heading uphill through a healthy growth of oaks and hickories. 

At the top of the hill is an opening in the trees. The road turns sharply to the right again, revealing a small parking lot and more campsites.

The topography and design of the park begs you to look to the right. And yet, there seems to be an unseen force, a presence that causes visitors to look to the left. 

There, carved out of the edge of the forest, stands a life-sized statue of Tecumseh, the legendary orator and Shawnee chief. More than 200 years after his death, Tecumseh stands there silently, overlooking land his people once called home, holding a bundle of sticks. 

The sticks are an important part of the Tecumseh story. 

Tecumseh fought, physically and metaphorically, against Europeans overrunning Indian territories. He died fighting against Americans during the War of 1812. He is known for his ability to bring Native Americans together in their fight against colonial expansion. 

“A single twig breaks, but a bundle of twigs is strong,” Tecumseh said to other chiefs while forging his alliances. 

About 20 years ago, several Saline County citizens, notably Bill Ghent and John O’Dell, decided it would be entirely appropriate to memorialize perhaps the greatest of the Shawnee chiefs in the forest that bears the name of the tribe. 

Makanda artist Tom Allen was commissioned to sculpt a statue. The stately bronze statue, which stands on a sandstone base that includes a plaque with a brief biography of Tecumseh, was dedicated in 2002. 

“It was privately funded,” said Mark Motsinger, president of the Saline County Historical Society.  “Saline County Tourism helped sponsor it as well. At that time, it was mostly privately funded. It was a John O’Dell project. He worked on it pretty relentlessly.” 

It was something of a happy accident that the statue was placed at the Saline County State Fish and Wildlife Area. The various entities responsible for the Tecumseh statue could never reach and agreement with the U.S. Forest Service. 

“The idea was to put it somewhere in the Shawnee National Forest,” Motsinger said. “It just was never materializing. The guy that was in charge of Glen O. Jones at the time said, ‘We’re a whole different entity’ and that’s how it ended up there. 

“What I really think is neat about it, the spot itself is just perfect. It’s just kind of a coincidence that it happened. It turned out to be just a beautiful spot.” 

The statue was placed in a small opening in the forest at the head of a trail. A bench was placed near the statue, allowing visitors to admire the grace and beauty of the statue, enjoy the quiet of the forest and digest Tecumseh’s philosophy. 

Motsinger readily admits that some poetic license was taken with the depiction of Tecumseh and the location of the statue, but that begs the point – Tecumseh was a larger-than-life figure and the statue depicts the Shawnee people as well as the man himself. 

“Tecumseh was never here – probably Mounds or Cairo area is as close as he got,” Motsinger said. “We have to remember he is the most well known of the Shawnee Indians, so it is representative of the Shawnee tribe. The Shawnee had a very short presence here. There was just a short period, 1750-51 they were at old Shawneetown.” 

And, as far as the statue itself … there are no known photographs of Tecumseh, who died in 1813. Motsinger said Allen researched all available resources before creating the statue. There are paintings of Tecumseh meeting with future president William Henry Harrison and other drawings. 

“I don’t know if Tecumseh ever sat down for a portrait, but it’s about as close as you can get,” Motsinger said. 

One thing that is certain, the design of the statue and its placement respect the Native American tradition of being one with the land. It blends seamlessly with the environment. 

“What I like it about as much as anything is the location,” Motsinger said. “It just adds something to that entire area, the lake, that high area there. It just adds something. The background, the sandstone base it’s on, it’s very pleasing to the eye. 

“When you get up closer to it, this being a bronze sculpture, he has gone into detail, the smile lines are there.” 

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