By Lt. j.g. Chloe Morgan, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Midshipmen at the United States Naval Academy (USNA) just concluded their first week of the Fall Academic term. Looking for luck in football games and exams throughout this new semester, midshipmen will continue a long-standing tradition by giving sacrificial offerings of pennies to Tecumseh, the “God of 2.0” (the passing grade point average at the academy) and the figurehead at the center of “T-Court,” all while making sure to not step on the USNA seal. But where exactly did these relics of luck come from?
Tecumseh was a Shawnee Indian chief who won renown as a brave and skillful warrior and devoted his life to opposing the advance of white settlers. Attempting to organize a great Indian Confederacy to stem the white tide, he was defeated in the battle of Tippecanoe. After Congress declared war on Great Britain the following year, Tecumseh accepted a commission as a brigadier general in the British army. He cooperated with British troops to win a number of victories in the Great Lakes region, including the capture of Detroit. Tecumseh was eventually killed in the Battle of the Thames on 5 October 1813. So, why does USNA have a statue for a someone who fought for the British?
The original wooden figure was salvaged from the ship-of-the-line Delaware, which was sunk Union forces in 1861 at the Norfolk Navy Yard to prevent her falling into Confederate hands. Brought to the Naval Academy in 1866, the figurehead was intended to portray Tamanend, the revered Delaware chief who welcomed William Penn to America when he arrived in Delaware territory in 1682.
When the wooden bust arrived, midshipmen widely referred to the statue as several other names, such as Powhatan, King Phillip and finally Tecumseh, in reference to the brave and skillful Shawnee warrior.
After 40 years of exposure to the elements, the figurehead fell victim to rain, blizzards and Maryland summers. Quick repairs were completed in 1906, using paint and putty to temporarily beautify Tecumseh. When it became evident that more permanent repairs were needed, the class of 1891 raised enough funds to immortalize the statue in bronze. Using the bust as a model for the replica, the intricate task was completed at the U.S. Naval Gun Factory, located at the present-day Washington Navy Yard. In order to preserve Tecumseh’s fighting spirit, they kept the original wood from the interior of the head and heart and placed it inside the bronze figure.
The statue made a quick trip northeast in Spring of 1930 to be mounted on a pedestal of Vermont marble. Since then, the fierce old warrior guards the USNA seal at the start of Stribling Walk. Academy lore holds that it is bad luck to step on the seal, and midshipmen are wise to avoid it.
The large seal is made from brass taken from the USS Washington (BB 47), which was scrapped as a result of the Washington Naval Conference post World War I. Launched in September 1921, the battleship was close to completed when construction was halted in February 1922. Since the treaty prohibited her completion, Washington was subsequently used and sunk as a gunnery target in1924, but not before brass was taken from the torpedo tubes to make the seal.
The seal of USNA is made up of coat-of-arms and a banner of the school’s motto, “Ex scientia tridens,” meaning “from knowledge, seapower.” With a hand grasping a trident, a shield bearing an ancient galley ship coming into action and an open book, the seal is representative of midshipmen’s experiences while at USNA. To step on the seal is to show disrespect, and in turn, be cursed with bad luck.
Each year, Tecumseh is coated in elaborate “war paint” and decorated in the style of various themes to celebrate several events throughout the year, greeting midshipmen, graduates and tourists alike who visit the Yard for football games. Freshman at USNA, better known as “plebes,” paint the statue to bring the school luck as Tecumseh protectively gazes at the seal and Bancroft Hall.