Tecumseh: Indian Chief, Warrior, and Nation Builder
Tecumseh was one of the greatest American Indians, a Shawnee chief known for his skills as an orator and his talents as a gifted statesman, and as a founder of a pan-Indian confederation. He grew up in a world of nearly constant warfare, whether it was the American Revolutionary War, various skirmishes with white settlers pushing west, or finally the War of 1812. Relentlessly on the move, the Indian chief sought to unify the many separate tribes into a pan-Indian confederacy. Though his lofty goal of unification of his peoples was ultimately not achieved, he has gone down as the most revered Native American leader of his generation.
Growing Up in the Shadow of War
Tecumseh (ti-KUM-see) was born in present day Ohio in March 1768. The exact location of his birthplace is still debated by historians, but the most probable place is the village of Chillicothe, about 12 miles east of Dayton. In Shawnee, his name means “shooting star.” His father was a minor chief and was killed by “long knives” (white men) and his mother, a Creek Indian, disappeared from the Ohio region, assumed to have migrated with part of the tribe to what in now Missouri. Tecumseh was an orphan reared by a sister and then adopted by the Shawnee chief, Blackfish. From Blackfish, Tecumseh learned the skills of hunting and those of a warrior.
In 1780, forces under the command of George Rogers Clark burnt his village, forcing his family to move to the village of Standing Stone, which was attacked and destroyed two years later by Clark’s forces one again. According to some accounts, in his youth he fell in love with a white girl, Rebecca Galloway, who taught him to speak English but would not marry him. He did marry an Indian woman named Mamate, and they had one son, named Paukeesaa. The marriage didn’t last and Tecumseh’s sister, Tecumapese, raised the boy from his youth.
Battle of Fallen Timbers
In the early 1790s as a young warrior, Tecumseh fought in a battle against the U.S. Army general “Mad Anthony” Wayne at the battle of Fallen Timbers on Ohio’s Maumee River. The Indian casualties were high, including Tecumseh’s brother, in the battle in which the soldiers lost only 38 men. The next spring, Wayne met with representatives from twelve different tribes who signed the Greenville Treaty. Under its provisions, the tribes gave up almost two-thirds of present-day Ohio, a part of southeastern Indiana, strategic areas in the Northwest Territory, which included the sites of the modern cities of Detroit, Toledo, Chicago, and Peoria, Illinois. In return, the Native American tribes received goods valued at up to $20,000, such as blankets, utensils, and domestic animals.
The defeat at Fallen Timbers, the betrayal by the British, and the lopsided terms of the Greenville treaty took the heart out of many of the Indians who had been fighting so long to save their lands. Though demoralized, most of the Indians rejected the ways of the white man and struggled to hold on to their traditional way of life.
Tecumseh was furious when he heard of the treaty and refused to abide by it. Along with a group of warriors, he headed west and became one of the leading hostile chiefs in the region. Tecumseh’s view of the land was that it belonged to all Indians, without borders or fences, and that no one group had the right to give the land to another.
Tecumseh first gained notice as an orator when he represented the tribe in councils with white men in Ohio at Urbana in 1799 and Chillicothe in 1804. The young chief declared prior treaties where the Indians ceded their lands to the white men as invalid and condemned the chiefs that had made these treaties. He contended the land was a common ground for hunting and gathering and was not owned by one tribe.
I am Shawnee. My forefathers were warriors. Their son is a warrior. From them I take only existence. From my tribe I take nothing. I have made myself what I am.— Tecumseh
On a spring night in 1805, Tecumseh’s brother, Tenskwatawa (formerly Lalawethika) fell into a trance and had a divine revelation that changed the course of his life. Tenskwatawa reported that he had gone to the spirit world and seen the Creator, who told him to change his bad ways and become a teacher who would lead the people along the right path. His message was to give up the ways of the white man, including alcohol, and return to the ways of their forefathers. Tenskwatawa became known as the “Prophet,” and his teachings spread widely throughout the Northwest Territory. In 1808, the tribe was ousted from their meeting house at Greenville, Ohio, and Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa established a town on the Tippecanoe River near present-day Lafayette, Indiana. The Americans called the Indian settlement Prophetstown, since it was the home of the Shawnee spiritual leader. Tenskwatawa’s teachings began to spread and he attracted followers to Prophetstown, including members of other tribes. The community attracted many Algonquin-speaking Indians and became an intertribal stronghold in the Indiana Territory for 3,000 inhabitants. As Tecumseh emerged as the leader of Prophetstown and the village grew in numbers, the settlers in the area became concerned that Tecumseh had formed an army of warriors bent on their destruction. Tecumseh set about the task of organizing an Indian confederation to stop the encroachment of the whites. He chose peaceful means when possible, but war was always an option.
Tecumseh continued his efforts to unite the tribes, speaking before large councils and visiting tribes in the North from New York, the northern Wisconsin region, throughout the South, and as far west as present-day Arkansas. He met with the tribes of the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, Osage, and Cherokee Indians. His powerful oratory stirred those who heard him, and he gained many recruits and promises of aid in the stand against the whites. The Creeks were the most receptive tribe and formed a party known as the “Red Sticks.”
Tecumseh’s Encounters with William Henry Harrison
When Tecumseh returned from his journey to recruit other tribes to join his Indian Confederation, he learned that the governor of the Northwest Territory and superintendent of Indian Affairs, General William Henry Harrison, had convinced the chiefs of the Delaware, Miami, and Potawatomi tribes to sign the Treaty of Fort Wayne, giving the United States three million acres of land. When Harrison became aware of the growing influence of the Prophet with the previously divided tribes, he invited him to the territorial capitol at Vincennes. Instead of the Prophet, Tecumseh answered the call to Vincennes with a party of four hundred warriors, which spread terror throughout the town. On August 12, 1810, Harrison met with Tecumseh and his braves. The chief explained that no Indian had the right to give away tribal land and that the Treaty of Fort Wayne was invalid. Harrison was dismissive of Tecumseh and his contention that the treaty was invalid. Angry words were exchanged, and the situation nearly erupted into violence. The 400 warriors could have easily slaughtered the small town of 1,000 residents. After the heated exchange, both sides backed down and left with no resolution. Harrison wrote of the encounter with the impressive chief: “The implicit obedience and respect which the followers of Tecumseh pay him is really astonishing and […] bespeaks him as one of those uncommon geniuses, which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions.”
Harrison was concerned about the unrest within the Indians, worrying that they might attack the Indiana capitol of Vincennes. Tecumseh and Harrison would meet two more times, in 1810 and 1811, to discuss peace. At times the meetings were congenial; at other times, the language was hostile and the air was full of tension as the two leaders faced each other.
Video Biography of Tecumseh
Battle of Tippecanoe
When Harrison learned that Tecumseh was away, he decided to strike Prophetstown and drive the Indians away. With 1,200 men, Harrison began the long march toward Prophetstown, where he intended to intimidate the Prophet’s followers and weaken his influence. Aware of the advancing soldiers, Tenskwatawa hatched his own scheme. The Prophet told the warriors of his divine revelation where the weapons of the “long knives” would be useless against them. When Harrison and his men were camped near Prophetstown, the Prophet sent a message to Harrison to negotiate peace. The meeting was set for the following day. In the early morning hours of November 7, 1811, around 700 warriors launched a surprise attack on Harrison’s encampment in a battle that would become known as the Battle of Tippecanoe.
The larger force of Harrison soldiers held their ground in the two-hour battle. The Prophet’s warriors scattered and abandoned their homes in Prophetstown. The Americans promptly burned the village and marched back to Vincennes. Years later, Harrison would use the victory at Tippecanoe as a slogan in his successful run for the office of the President of the United States in 1840.
Returning home early in the spring of 1812, Tecumseh was shocked to find Prophetstown destroyed and his thousand fighting men scattered to the wind. Tenskwatawa had also returned to the burnt-out settlement. When Tecumseh learned the details of his brother’s folly, he flew into a rage, grabbing his brother by the hair and threatening to kill him. From then on, Tenskwatawa’s influence waned with the people. He became a shadow of his brother, eventually becoming a wanderer and fading into obscurity.
War of 1812
After the American Revolution War, the relationship between Great Britain and her former colony were strained on many fronts. One of the contributing factors that led to the outbreak of the War of 1812, or the “second Revolutionary War” as it is sometimes called, was the hostility of the Native American population to the Americans. President Madison and members of Congress believed the British were goading the Indians into attacks on the American settlers, and to a certain extent this was true. Tecumseh seized upon the opportunity to achieve his goal of unity for his people with a British alliance. Accompanied by an impressive force of Potawatomis, Kickapoos, Shawnees, and Delawares, he moved to Fort Malden on the Canadian side of the Detroit River and offered his force to the British. The British were impressed with the large number of warriors that followed Tecumseh and they put him charge of their allied Indian force.
The first battle between the Indians and Americans was indecisive. In the battle of Brownstown, south of Detroit, Tecumseh was victorious over the American detachment. The Americans got the upper hand at the battle of Maguaga. When Major General Isaac Brock reached Malden with British reinforcements, Tecumseh was instrumental in the capture of Detroit, where the aged American commander, Brigadier General William Hull, surrendered with 2,500 troops without putting up a fight in August of 1812. Tecumseh went south and incited the Creeks to war with the American General Andrew Jackson, which ended in a crushing defeat for the “Red Stick” confederation at Horseshoe Bend in March of 1814. Heading north, Tecumseh led the Indian auxiliaries in the British invasion of Ohio and executed a skillful maneuver which led to the defeat of the forces of William Dudley at Fort Meigs in the spring of 1813. Moving back into Canada after Perry’s victory over the British fleet on Lake Erin in the fall of 1813, Tecumseh and his warriors, under the lead of the British general Henry A. Proctor, were defeated at the Battle of Thames on October 5, 1813. During this fierce battle, Tecumseh was killed. Tecumseh’s body was never properly identified and the Americans feared for years that Tecumseh was still alive. After the battle, most of the Indian Confederacy surrendered to Harrison at Detroit.
Tecumseh’s death was a severe blow to the unity of the Indian tribes. During the treaty negotiations to end the War of 1812 held in Ghent, Belgium, the British called for the U.S. government to return lands in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan to the Indians. This was rejected by the Americans; however, the treaty did include provision to restore to the native inhabitants “all possessions, rights and privileges which they may have enjoyed, or been entitled to in 1811.” That part of the treaty proved unenforceable, and the relentless push of the American settlers moving west continued driving the Native Americans from their homelands.
Our lives are in the hand of the Creator. We are determined to defend our lands, and if it be his will we wish to leave our bones upon them.— Tecumseh
Borneman, Walter R. 1812 The War that Forged a Nation. Harper Perennial. 2004.
Josephy, Alvin M. Jr. 500 Nations: An Illustrated History of North American Indians. Alfred A. Knopf. 1994.
Raymond, Ethel T. Tecumseh A Chronicle of the Last Great Leader of His People; Vol. 17 of Chronicles of Canada – Illustrated Edition. C&D Publications. 2018.