Shawnee Indian political leader and war chief Tecumseh (1768-1813) came of age amid the border warfare that ravaged the Ohio Valley in the late 18th century. He took part in a series of raids of Kentucky and Tennessee frontier settlements in the 1780s, and emerged as a prominent chief by 1800. Tecumseh transformed his brother’s religious following into a political movement, leading to the foundation of the Prophetstown settlement in 1808. After Prophetstown was destroyed during the Battle of Tippecanoe, the Shawnee chief fought with pro-British forces in the War of 1812 until his death in the Battle of the Thames.
Born at Old Piqua, on the Mad River in western Ohio, Tecumseh grew to manhood amid the border warfare that ravaged the Ohio Valley during the last quarter of the eighteenth century. In 1774, his father, Puckeshinwa, was killed at the Battle of Point Pleasant, and in 1779 his mother, Methoataske, accompanied those Shawnees who migrated to Missouri. Raised by an older sister, Tecumpease, he accompanied an older brother, Chiksika, on a series of raids against frontier settlements in Kentucky and Tennessee in the late 1780s. He did not participate in the defeat of Gen. Josiah Harmar (1790), but led a scouting party that monitored Gen. Arthur St. Clair’s advance (1791) and fought at Fort Recovery and Fallen Timbers (1794). Embittered by the Indian defeat, he did not attend the subsequent negotiations and refused to sign the Treaty of Greenville (1795).
By 1800 Tecumseh had emerged as a prominent war chief. He led a band of militant, younger warriors and their families located at a village on the White River in east-central Indiana. There in 1805 Lalawethika, one of Tecumseh’s younger brothers, experienced a series of visions that transformed him into a prominent religious leader. Taking the name Tenskwatawa, or ‘The Open Door,’ the new Shawnee Prophet began to preach a nativistic revitalization that seemed to offer the Indians a religious deliverance from their problems.
Tecumseh seemed reluctant to accept his brother’s teachings until June 16, 1806, when the Prophet accurately predicted an eclipse of the sun, and Indians from throughout the Midwest flocked to the Shawnee village at Greenville, Ohio. Tecumseh slowly transformed his brother’s religious following into a political movement. In 1808 Tecumseh and the Prophet moved their village to the juncture of the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers, where the new settlement, Prophetstown, continued to attract Indians. After the loss of much Indian land at the Treaty of Fort Wayne (1809), Tecumseh gradually eclipsed his brother as the primary leader of the movement. He traveled throughout the Midwest urging tribes to form a political confederacy to prevent any further erosion of their lands. In November 1811, while Tecumseh was in the South attempting to recruit the Creeks into his confederacy, U.S. forces marched against Prophetstown. In the subsequent Battle of the Tippecanoe they defeated the Prophet, burned the settlement, and destroyed the Indians’ food supplies.
After returning from the South Tecumseh tried to rebuild his shattered confederacy. But when the War of 1812 broke out, he withdrew to Michigan where he assisted the British in the capture of Detroit and led pro-British Indians in subsequent actions in southern Michigan (Monguagon) and northern Ohio (Fort Meigs). When William Henry Harrison invaded Upper Canada, Tecumseh reluctantly accompanied the British retreat. He was killed by American forces at the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813.
Tecumseh’s political leadership, oratory, humanitarianism, and personal bravery attracted the attention of friends and foes. He was much admired by both the British and the Americans. After his death (his body was never recovered), a considerable mythology developed about him, and he has become an American folk hero.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.