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Special Collections & Archives

The rare or unique holdings of Nimitz Library.

Mistaken identities: the various nicknames for the USS Delaware figurehead

by Adam Minakowski on 2022-05-09T11:20:44-04:00 in Special Collections & Archives, History | Comments

Last year, the Naval Academy set the record straight for one of the most prominent landmarks on the Yard, the sculpture traditionally known as "Tecumseh," when it officially identified the figure as the Native American leader actually depicted, Chief Tamanend of the Lenni Lenape or Delaware people. The academy, while long aware that the figure represents Tamanend, had never officially tried to correct the tradition of referring to the monument as Tecumseh. With "Figurehead of the USS Delaware" the only identifying information on its pedestal, it wasn't hard for the wrong name to persist, and as it turns out, many wrong names were used to identify the landmark.

The USS Delaware figurehead on its original pedestal from the 1894 Lucky Bag.

Very likely, the person depicted by the figurehead was not identified when it first arrived at the academy after the Civil War. (Nailing down that date is difficult, but that's a story for another blog post.) The figurehead's original pedestal identified only the ship from which it came.  James Russell Soley's 1876 Historical Sketch of the United States Naval Academy similarly names the ship, not the person. An unpublished history of the academy, written sometime before 1905 by Assistant Librarian Thomas G. Ford, also does not offer a name for the figurehead, but does identify it as that of a Delaware chief.

In lieu of formal identification, midshipmen began using different names for the figurehead. A 1929 letter in an archives reference file from Curator H.F. Krafft, said midshipmen called it "Powhatan," "King Philip," and "Tecumseh" at different times. He also noted "Old Sebree" was a nickname for a period of time due to the figurehead's resemblance Uriel Sebree a member of the class of 1867 and an instructor at the academy in the 1880s. 

An 1878 photo of the mess hall with Tamanend in his original location to the left.

However, by the turn of the nineteeth century, "Tecumseh" had taken hold. Park Benjamin of the class of 1867, writing in his 1900 history of the academy, described the statue as "a fierce Indian warrior - said to be Tecumseh." By 1914, that identification had become so ingrained for the academy community, that Superintendent William Fullam charged the Committee on Memorials and Exhibits with finding out whether it was correct. Commander Charles F. Preston, writing for the committee in a US Naval Institute Proceedings article, transcribed the correspondence in the Navy's archives from the time of the Delaware's construction in 1820. Those letters show that Delaware's Congressional representatives decided "the name of 'Tamanend' being thus connected with the early history of our country, his bust will in our opinion be an appropriate figurehead for the ship of the line."

Tamanend's connection with the country's early history stems from the chief's peaceful interactions with William Penn while the latter was establishing the Pennsylvania colony during the late seventeenth century. Legends about Tamanend spread among both colonists and Indians, so that by the time of the revolution, he'd become known as the Patron Saint of America whose feast was celebrated on May 1. Long before it became the epitome of urban political corruption, New York's Tammany Hall organization also drew its name from Tamanend.

It's ironic then, that when choosing the names of Indian leaders for the figurehead, unknowing midshipmen favored those who fought against the British colonists and their descendants, rather than "the friend of the Colonies and the logical patron of a ship bearing the name 'Delaware,'" as curator Krafft put it.  Krafft speculates that the other names came quicker to mind because they "were great warriors" who "seemed perhaps more appropriate for real men of war." Tamanend, Krafft continued, "was probably too pacifistic, too unheroic" for midshipmen drawing from "the lexicon of youth, and in dime novels." A bias toward recent history may have also played a role for midshipmen reaching back decades for Tecumseh as opposed to centuries for Tamanend.

The original Delaware figurehead looks on as its replica is moved in to position from the Bureau of Navigation bulletin.

In any event, midshipmen and many others continued to call the figurehead "Tecumseh" even after its real identity was firmly established. However, the academy often acknowledged Tamanend or referred to the monument as the USS Delaware figurehead in official documents. When the class of 1891 gave the academy the bronze replica on display today to replace the deteriorating original in 1930, the Navy's Bureau of Navigation published a bulletin about the statue and its replacement. Although entitled "Tecumseh Number," the bulletin providing a history of the Delaware leader and referred to the statue as "Tamanend," regarding "Tecumseh" as a nickname. A 1975 press release from the academy's Public Affairs Office continued the effort to set the record straight by beginning, "Tecumseh is an alias." 

One notable exception to these communications was a 1963 article by Captain Robert McNitt, Secretary of the Academic Board, in the alumni magazine Shipmate, that referred to another nickname for the statue: "Tecumseh, God of the 'C.'" Explaining in the article the academy's transition from a numerical marking system to more familiar letter grades, McNitt employed the longstanding midshipman tradition of appealing to the figurehead for good luck before exams and sporting events. The midshipmen may not have gotten Tamanend's name right, but they unwittingly carried on his colonial reputation of a patron saint by referring to him as the "God of 2.5," the minimum passing grade at the academy during nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Even this name though was subject to revision, as the grade point equivalent to a "C" made the figurehead the "God of 2.0," and error, as a Virginian-Pilot article called it the "God of 3.2." 

The [bronze replica] statue is being unveiled by Miss Dorothy Bierer of Washington, DC, in front of the Class of 1891 who donated it.

Thus, it remained until 2021, when the midshipmen's Native American Heritage Club appealed to the Commandant of Midshipmen to officially name the bust "Tamanend" so that the name will appear "in all official documents and correspondence produced by the Naval Academy and its leadership." Academy leadership adopted this change, and so after 150 years and many mistaken identities, the USS Delaware figurehead finally has an official name, and it's the correct one.

Sources

Alexander V. Schuerch, memorandum, 7 May 2021, "Tecumseh/Tamanend," Naval Academy Archives Reference Files, Special Collections & Archives Department, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy.

Benjamin, Park. The United States Naval Academy. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1900.   https://archive.org/details/unitedstatesnav00benjgoog/page/n9/mode/2up

Ford, Thomas G. "History of the U.S. Naval Academy - Chapter 22: Rodgers." Unpublished manuscript. 1908.  https://usna.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/01USNA_INST/t2tcj0/alma991006447552906751

H.F. Krafft, memorandum, 18 March 1929, "Tecumseh/Tamanend," Naval Academy Archives Reference Files, Special Collections & Archives Department, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy.

McNitt, Robert W. "Tecumseh, God of the 'C.'" Shipmate. September-October, 1963. Reprint. Naval Academy Archives Reference Files, Special Collections & Archives Department, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy.

Preston, Charles F. "Tamanend vs. Tecumseh." Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute. v. 40, no. 3 (May/June 1914), p. 721-726. Naval Academy Archives Reference Files, Special Collections & Archives Department, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy.

Soley, James Russell. Historical Sketch of the United States Naval Academy. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1876.  https://usna.primo.exlibrisgroup.com/permalink/01USNA_INST/t2tcj0/alma991001831419706751

Tucker, George Holbert. "'Delaware' Figurehead Still Inspires Budding Ensigns." The Virginian-Pilot and The Portsmouth Star. Naval Academy Archives Reference Files, Special Collections & Archives Department, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy.

United States Naval Academy Public Affairs Office. "Tecumseh is an Alias." October 1975. Naval Academy Archives Reference Files, Special Collections & Archives Department, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy.

United States Navy Bureau of Navigation. "Bulletin Number 134 - Tecumseh Number." 28 June 1930. Naval Academy Archives Reference Files, Special Collections & Archives Department, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy.


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