It is common practice to name warships after historical heroes of a nation. The US Navy had four vessel named USS Tecumseh Two of them were tugboats, but the other two were a then-cutting-edge ironclad monitor and ballistic missile submarine.

Yet Tecumseh was never the hero of the US. He was a bitter enemy, allying with the British in the War of 1812, and trying to establish a Native American state, halting US advance to the West forever.

Why is he then so honored by ship-namings? Is he deemed so gallant and cool to warrant this?

Side question: Were there other US ships named after vanquished foes (other than Confederate generals), and especially Native Americans?

PS.: I do not wish in any way suggest, that I am not OK with the ships so named, just curious. I could definitely not imagine an USS Lord Cornwallis or USS Santa Anna.

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    Tecumseh was a great man, which he showed thru his actions: he refused to massacre prisoners, and was able to control the actions of his men. When Tecumseh was not present, the British failed to control their Indian allies, and there were numerous massacres, such as at the Raisin River, near the current Monroe, Michigan. I've studied these times extensively, as many of my ancestors lived thru the War of 1812 near Detroit, and were heavily impacted by it. Feb 1, 2019 at 12:23
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    TIL -- I always assumed the basis for the Tecumseh name was William Tecumseh Sherman
    – Sidney
    Feb 1, 2019 at 17:08
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    @Sidney Tecumseh was sufficiently gallant and cool to warrant naming ships and generals after him. (They did name a tank after Sherman, though.)
    – Ray
    Feb 1, 2019 at 18:26
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    There are other Navy ships named after Indians, notably the USS Sacagawea: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USNS_Sacagawea_(T-AKE-2) The Army names many of its helicopters after tribes - Apache, Comanche, Kiowa, Lakota, &c - none of which were exactly friendly to the US. And of course paratroopers have their practice of shouting "Geronimo!" when they jump out of airplanes. (Or had - I don't know if it's still current.).
    – jamesqf
    Feb 2, 2019 at 4:20
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    Tecumseh actually is a historical hero. Not only ships but or example streets in several cities are named after him. At least in Indiana where I live.
    – Alex
    Feb 2, 2019 at 15:19

1 Answer 1


While Tecumseh was an enemy of the US while alive, his name was well known. The first ship named after him was a Canonicus-class monitor during the Civil War, some 50 years after Tecumseh's death. The other Canonicus monitors were named after other Native Americans or places with names derived from Native American words (generally - the first was renamed Ajax from Manayunk after the war). So, 50 years after his death the name was still known.

Further, the story of the statue named "Tecumseh" at the US Naval Academy, installed in 1866 at the Academy, is instructive. The statue was actually of another Native American, Tamanend, and served as the bowsprit of the Delaware, sunk in the Civil War. It ended up being named Tecumseh instead, which indicates with some clarity that (a) the name was well known, and (b) the name was respected by the midshipmen of the time. Respecting the qualities of one's enemies is not an unusual occurrence, particularly after several generations have passed.

Now, why was Tecumseh still known some 50 years after his death? An article in the Indiana Magazine of History from 1989 sheds some background. It would appear that his life was written about quite often.

The first body of literature, coming from a predominantly antebellum romantic school, portrayed Tecumseh as the noble savage. This forceful interpretation persists in popular and academic writings to the present day even though it faded after the Civil War.

Further, the article has evidence that he was written about with much praise shortly after his death. It quotes an 1820 letter to the Indiana Centinal [sic]:

Every schoolboy in the Union now knows that Tecumseh was a great man. He was truly great - and his greatness was his own, unassisted by science or the aid of education. As a statesman, a warrior and a patriot, take him all in all, we shall not look upon his like again.

Combined with multiple pre Civil War biographies of Tecumseh, it is clear that the story of Tecumseh was broadly known and often romanticized. It would seem quite likely that, when the US Navy went in search of names for a class of ships named after Native Americans, Tecumseh's name would be high on the list.

As for the names in the Canonicus (and other monitors) class, the Monitor Center notes:

A note on the names of these vessels seems in order. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles directed that new vessels being built should illustrate the pride of the American nation by having distinctly American names. As a result, many of the monitors received names of American rivers, lakes, mountains, cities or Indian tribes. This practice created a list of names that in some cases proved nearly unpronounceable. The practice nevertheless remained in place until 1869, when the new Secretary of the Navy, Adolph A. Borie, ordered the wholesale renaming of ships, often adopting new names based on classical Greek figures or gods. This practice has somewhat complicated for many the tracing of these Civil War era ships.


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