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Fallen Star: The Great Shawnee War Chief Tecumseh

Updated on March 28, 2017
Mark Caruthers profile image

Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Arkansas Fayetteville in Geography & History.

The Ancient Mississippian People of North America

By 1768, the year of Tecumseh's birth, the Shawnee people had long been a wandering tribe pushed ever westward from their native hunting lands by the relentless march of American settlers who flooded over the Appalachian mountains. They had fought the encroaching white men for decades. Allied with the French, in the French and Indian War, Shawnee braves had joined in the ambush and destruction of British General Edward Braddock's army as it marched through the Pennsylvania wilderness to take the French fort at the site of the future city of Pittsburgh, giving a young colonial soldier, George Washington, his first major battle experience.

Although the Shawnee adopted cultural traits from several areas, they were heavily influenced by the Mississippian culture, a way of life that had flourished in the Mississippi Valley and across the southeastern states in the three centuries prior to the European invasion. The Shawnee were farmers and hunters, growing crops of corn, beans, squash, and sunflowers in the small fields scattered along the rich bottomlands that rested along the many rivers of the Mississippi Valley.

Tecumseh had been raised from birth to be a warrior, and an unrelenting foe of white men. He would live and die determined to defend the lands of the indigenous peoples of North America from the insatiable appetites of American settlers. By the end of his crusade, he would become the greatest Indian leader of his time. Many would argue, including Americans who fought him that he was the greatest war chief of all time. At the moment of his birth, near what is today Springfield, Ohio, a bright comet streaked across the night sky, a possible sign the baby was destined for great things. His father, Puckeshinwa, who would die at the Battle of Point Pleasant in 1774, named him Tecumseh, Panther Crossing the Sky,. Before he died, Tecumseh's father made his oldest son promise never to forget his duty to fight white invaders and to raise young Tecumseh to be a brave warrior.

At the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794, Tecumseh fought for the first time against the man who would become his greatest adversary, William Henry Harrison, the young lieutenant in the U.S. Army. The Indian defeat at the Battle of Fallen Timbers resulted in the 1795 Treaty of Fort Greenville, which gave most of Ohio to the Americans.

The Great Shawnee Leader Tecumseh

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A popular image of Tecumseh he often wore a silver ring through his septum. By Benson Lossing in 1840 based on 1808 drawing.On the left Pushmataha the "Indian General" of the Choctaw nation rejected Tecumseh's alliance and fought on the American side during the War of 1812. On the right Tecumseh the leader of the Shawnee. Portrait of Tecumseh 1820The Prophet--Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh's younger brother, had spiritual visions about a united Indian effort against the corrupting influence of whites.
A popular image of Tecumseh he often wore a silver ring through his septum. By Benson Lossing in 1840 based on 1808 drawing.
A popular image of Tecumseh he often wore a silver ring through his septum. By Benson Lossing in 1840 based on 1808 drawing. | Source
On the left Pushmataha the "Indian General" of the Choctaw nation rejected Tecumseh's alliance and fought on the American side during the War of 1812. On the right Tecumseh the leader of the Shawnee.
On the left Pushmataha the "Indian General" of the Choctaw nation rejected Tecumseh's alliance and fought on the American side during the War of 1812. On the right Tecumseh the leader of the Shawnee. | Source
Portrait of Tecumseh 1820
Portrait of Tecumseh 1820 | Source
The Prophet--Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh's younger brother, had spiritual visions about a united Indian effort against the corrupting influence of whites.
The Prophet--Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh's younger brother, had spiritual visions about a united Indian effort against the corrupting influence of whites. | Source

The Mississippian Culture

The once proud Mississippians faced total destruction as the whites invaded their homeland spreading smallpox and other diseases of which they had no immunity. Tecumseh was a descendant of the Fort Ancient People.
The once proud Mississippians faced total destruction as the whites invaded their homeland spreading smallpox and other diseases of which they had no immunity. Tecumseh was a descendant of the Fort Ancient People. | Source

Tecumseh's Final Stand

The Shawnee warrior who stood before the Choctaw and Chickasaw leaders in eastern Mississippi in August 1811 was just under six feet tall, broad chested and well muscled. He was handsome, "one of the finest looking men I ever saw, "according to a white admirer, with a light-skinned oval face and dark eyes under thick brows. Unlike many of his fellow Shawnees, he bore no tattoos, although he often wore a silver ring through his septum. He dressed simply in clean, neatly fringed buckskins with a turban atop thick black hair that fell to his shoulders. he carried himself in a graceful manner that commanded attention.

His very name, Tecumseh, suggested greatness. It evoked the image of a panther leaping across the sky like a shooting star. The meeting with the Choctaws and Chickasaws was one of many held with tribal leaders during an epic four-year pilgrimage in which he ventured far from his home in Ohio throughout both the old Northwest and the Southwest, from well up the Missouri River down to Florida.

The message he delivered was nothing short of revolutionary. He argued that the indigenous tribes of North America, not just his own and those in his audience now faced a threat unlike any in their long histories. The new white nation to the east, born of its own recent revolution, threatened to overwhelm the tribes that had long ruled land west of the Appalachian mountains. If they were to preserve their way of life and independence, all must move beyond rigid tribal identities and do what had never been contemplated before and unite.

Tecumseh's most famous enemy, the future President William Henry Harrison, called him one of "those uncommon geniuses which spring up occasionally to overturn the established order of things." On the other hand he added, Tecumseh might have founded an empire rivaling those of the Aztecs and Incas. It is true Tecumseh was a visionary who could look beyond today and see a future much different from the possible path taken. Tecumseh implored the tribes of the Southwest to join him in his fight against white encroachment. "The annihilation of our race is at hand unless we unite in one common cause," he said. On the eve of the War of 1812 Tecumseh represented the last best hope of American Indians to preserve ways of life they had known for centuries as white settlers sought to make their own dreams a reality on the frontier.

Treaty of Fort Wayne 1809

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Tecumseh ordered his warriors to kill young William Henry Harrison who refuses to rescind the Treaty of Fort Wayne, who in response drew his sword.A young William Henry Harrison  would be the main obstacle in Tecumseh's dream of independence from white oppression.
Tecumseh ordered his warriors to kill young William Henry Harrison who refuses to rescind the Treaty of Fort Wayne, who in response drew his sword.
Tecumseh ordered his warriors to kill young William Henry Harrison who refuses to rescind the Treaty of Fort Wayne, who in response drew his sword. | Source
A young William Henry Harrison  would be the main obstacle in Tecumseh's dream of independence from white oppression.
A young William Henry Harrison would be the main obstacle in Tecumseh's dream of independence from white oppression. | Source

The Treaty of Paris, 1783

The fate of hundreds of thousands of indigenous North Americans of that era and for centuries to come rested on Tecumseh's shoulders as he built the greatest pan-Indian confederation in tribal history in an attempt to stop the westward expansion of colonial America. His meteoric rise as a leader occurred during an especially turbulent, violent time. Five years before his birth, as England celebrated the official end of the French and Indian War in 1763, a prominent Ottawa chief named Pontiac led various tribes from the Great Lakes to Kentucky in a new insurrection against the British. The fighting was brutal, but British imperial administrators adopted a much more conciliatory policy toward the native tribes to avoid depleting their treasury. Meanwhile, native tribes faced a far greater threat from colonial settlers and land speculators. Despite a royal order forbidding moving beyond the Appalachian mountains, families established farmsteads and towns in Tennessee, Kentucky and western Pennsylvania, while moneyed investors eyed millions of acres there. As the colonies edged toward their break with England, tension rose along the colonial frontier.

In October 1774, the growing violence claimed Tecumseh's father, Pukeshinwau, who fell during he Battle of Point Pleasant in a failed effort to resist a thrust a thrust by Virginians to secure Kentucky from Ohio Valley tribes who had long considered Kentucky their prime hunting ground. Pukeshinwau's eldest son Cheeseekau was with him and brought home to eight year old Tecumseh the story of their father's heroic death and their responsibility to carry on the fight. Tecumseh passed through his childhood and adolescence during the Revolutionary War. Stories from those years tell of a boy already drawing attention as a natural leader. In his early teens he embarked on his spirit quest through fasting and forest isolation, his face painted black. In various accounts he is said to have discovered the bison was his guardian, a sign of exceptional strength. The stories very embellishments, one in which he slew 16 bison with only bow and arrow while perched in a tree, testify to a legend in the making.

Meanwhile the Shawnees and their allies lashed out at Kentucky settlements, and Kentuckians and Pennsylvanians destroyed villages in Ohio, including young Tecumseh's. In the 1783 Treaty of Paris, which ended the Revolutionary War, Great Britain granted the new republic lands west of the Mississippi and south to Florida, but it was largely a paper fiction. Most of that country was under Indian control, and in the Ohio Valley a collection of tribes called it their home which included the Shawnees, Ottawa, Potawatoms, Wyandots and others together they represented a considerable military force standing against national expansion.

The Fort Ancient People 1200 A.D. to 1650

The Shawnee were direct descendants of the Fort Ancient People who flourished from around 1200 A.D. to about 1650, their villages were often arranged in rows around a central plaza, and sometimes were enclosed within earthen log fortifications.
The Shawnee were direct descendants of the Fort Ancient People who flourished from around 1200 A.D. to about 1650, their villages were often arranged in rows around a central plaza, and sometimes were enclosed within earthen log fortifications. | Source

The Battle of Fallen Timbers

Tecumseh's reputation grew even brighter during these years. He fell during a hunt when he was twenty and shattered his thigh, an injury that would have left most men crippled. But after a few months he willed his way back into active life, although limping slightly the rest of his days. Earlier that year he took the lead in attacking a flatboat on the Ohio, surpassing seasoned warriors in bravery, according to one who was there. More remarkable was what took place after the fight. Five captives were tortured and killed, some burned alive. Despite his youth, the horrified Tecumseh spoke out, condemning the torture as cruel and cowardly.

As the new American nation continued to press west, leaders of Ohio River tribes took a remarkable step. They formed a confederacy, pledged to resist further American incursions by force and received encouragement and material support from agents and officers who lingered in British posts throughout the region. There was even talk of forming an independent Indian state, and for a time it seemed a distinct possibility.

In October 1790, and Indian force led by the Maimi chief Little Turtle surprised and mauled a command under General Josiah Harmar. The next year Genera Arthur St. Clair led an even larger force on what was meant to be a campaign of retribution. Instead, on November 4,1791, confederacy warriors led by Little Turtle and the Shawnee chief Blue Jacket surrounded and surprised St. Clair's camp along the Wabash River. Of about the 1,400 soldiers in St. Clair's command more than 600 died and another few hundred were severely wounded. It remains the worst military defeat in the nations history.

The string of Indian victories snapped in 1794 when a force led by General Anthony Wayne marched methodically through Ohio, building forts along the way and defeating an Indian confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, near present day Toledo. An episode immediately after the battle enhanced the Indians loss. When fleeing warriors approached the nearby Fort Miami and its British commander ordered the gate closed and barred, fearing it would create problems with the Americans. The next year, in the Jay Treaty, England finally agreed to abandon all posts on American soil and, in the Treaty of Greenville, Little Turtle and Blue Jacket surrendered most of what is now Ohio to the young republic.

Tecumseh had been among the first to engage the Americans at Fallen Timbers and among the last to leave the battlefield. He fought for the first time the man who would become his greatest adversary, William Henry Harrison, then a young lieutenant in the U.S. Army. In the wake of defeat he was one of the many Shawnees and other tribes who opposed the Greenville Treaty which essentially gave most of Ohio to the Americans and any accommodation with whites. He was determined to help bring order to that growing resistance movement and defend Indian independence against American expansion.

Battle of Fallen Timbers

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From Harper's magazine 1896 illustration of the Battle of Fallen Timbers.Map of the Battlefield at Fallen Timbers 1794
From Harper's magazine 1896 illustration of the Battle of Fallen Timbers.
From Harper's magazine 1896 illustration of the Battle of Fallen Timbers. | Source
Map of the Battlefield at Fallen Timbers 1794
Map of the Battlefield at Fallen Timbers 1794 | Source

Tecumseh's Pan-Indian Confederation

The strategy Tecumseh developed during the next decade and a half was remarkable for both its audacity and its historical sensitivity. He recognized that the main obstacles to native autonomy was deep, ancient animosities dividing tribes. Generations earlier the Iroquois had pushed the Shawnees out of New York and into Ohio. Ohio Valley tribes regularly battled Cherokees to the south, and those same tribes sometimes warred with one another. Now all must transcend those divisions, Tecumseh argued. He called for reviving the earlier confederation and expanding it so that it included all groups west of the Appalachian mountains and stretched from the Great Lakes to Mexico. Failing that, he argued, white leaders would gain more and more land through treaties that played one tribe against others. Tecumseh had the gifts of courage and daring, and of intelligence and foresight as well. He had a plan that looked forward into the future, and he was willing to work steadily through the years to advance his vision. His dream was no less the federation of all the native peoples into a single state that could resist the advance of white settlement into his native homeland, and hold the Mississippi Valley for eternity.

Tecumseh also realized that from the first moments of contact between Indians and white settlers, the two cultures had been shaping each other. Each saw much to gain. From the Indians the English learned methods of clearing and cultivating the land and hunting its game. They reaped tremendous profit from pelts of beavers, deer, minks, otters and raccoons trapped and traded by native hunters. In exchange Indians acquired firearms and an array of metal goods such as iron pots, hide scrapers, awls, knives, and much more. For all the Indians gained, however, Tecumseh realized that the cultural swapping left them increasingly vulnerable. They became more reliant on goods that only whites provided. They were enmeshed in an international market beyond their influence. As the pace of trade quickened, they began overhunting the very creatures they had to have to keep their side of the exchange. The most vicious consequences were from the illegal trade in alcohol. Addicted Indian men bartered for whiskey rather the needful goods and, once drunk, gave up their pelts for a pittance. Rampant alcoholism gnawed at the tribes health, spawned unprecedented violence and shattered bonds of family and community.

The only answer, Tecumseh came to believe, was to disengage from whites and to turn away entirely from their ways. Reject the temptations, he urged the Shawnees and other Indians, whether whiskey or wool blankets or linen shirts. Bring back the traditional way of living, cultivate the old skills and return to ancient virtues. True independence, he concluded, required an end to all dependencies, down to the smallest details of daily life.

Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh's younger brother also know as the Shawnee Prophet.
Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh's younger brother also know as the Shawnee Prophet. | Source

The Road to Tippecanoe

Tecumseh's strategy was bolstered by the mythical visions of his younger brother, Laloeshiga. Unlike Tecumseh, Laloeshiga was unimpressive, even cowardly in battle and in his adolescent years was considered a braggart. His nickname, Lalawethika, meant "Noise Maker." Then sometime in 1805, sitting in his lodge, he collapsed into a trance so deep he believed to be dead. After several hours he awoke to say that he had stood at a fork in the road in the spirit world and had been shown the fates of the Indian peoples. The path to the left was for those corrupted by white civilization. It led to three houses where they would suffer a fiery punishment for all eternity. To the right the path took those faithful to the old ways to a paradise of limitless game, fertile cornfields and fields of flowers. The Master of Life told Laloeshiga that his mission in life was to warn all Indians of the choices they lay before them.

Laloeshiga subsequently adopted a new name to express his sacred mission: Tenskwatawa, "The Open Door." White would call him the Shawnee Prophet or just the Prophet. Whites he said, were another species created by an evil spirit in the great sea to the east. He compared their voracious presence to a gigantic, hideous crab that moved hungrily west after scrambling onto the continent. The great crab could be stopped, the Master of Life decreed if tribal identities were abandoned and if the Indian people would now join together as one. They should all follow new rituals passed along through Tenskwatawa. If they did, and if they believed, the Master of Life promised that whites would be banished in a cataclysmic instant and the world restored to its bountiful past.

As word of Tenskwatawa's teachings spread, hundreds of Ottawa, Chippewa, Potawatomi, Wyandot, Delaware and others joined his growing number of Shawnee followers. In keeping with the message of unity, they formed their own town, of all places, at Greenville, site of the treaty that had surrendered much of Ohio. Then, at the recommendation of a powerful Potawatomi warrior and holy man, Main Poc, the village was moved further from white influence, to Indiana where Tippecanoe Creek entered the Wabash River. The settlement was given the name Prophetstown.

White authorities were alarmed. Indiana's territorial governor, William Henry Harrison, tried to call Tenskwatawa's bluff. If this man is truly a divine messenger, he taunted in the spring of 1806, have him cause the sun to stand still. The governor should have checked his almanac. It seems the Prophet had, or he had learned from someone that a solar eclipse was to occur in mid-June. He did indeed make the sun do as he commanded. The eclipse came and went, and hundreds more warriors were drawn to Tenskwatawa's cause.

Tecumseh meanwhile was spreading his own gospel, the call to embrace a common destiny to meet a common threat. The need was increasingly important. White authorities, including Harrison, had gained millions more acres through treaties that had played tribes against each other. Tecumseh answered by taking to the road. Between 1807 and 1811, traveling by horse and boat and foot, he wove his way back and forth, visiting tribes over an amazing breadth of Indian country. He was "in constant motion," Harrison reported. "You see him today on the Wabash, and in a short time hear of him on the shores of Lake Erie or Michigan or on the banks of the Mississippi." He seemed to possess and inexhaustible amount of energy as he worked toward his goal.

"No difficulties deter him.... and wherever he goes he makes an impression favorable to his purposes." In his own region he visited the Sac and Fox, Winnebago, Kickapoo, Pottawatomi, Seneca and Ottawa. He traveled to Iowa and Missouri to meet with other Shawnee, Osage, Quapaw and Caddo. In the summer of 1811 he turned south into Mississippi, Tennessee, Alabama and eventually Florida, where he met with the Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creeks and Seminoles. It was during this tour he learned of the disaster back at Tippecanoe.

Map of North America's Cultural Areas before European contact.
Map of North America's Cultural Areas before European contact. | Source
Plains Indians hunting buffalo with bow and arrow.
Plains Indians hunting buffalo with bow and arrow. | Source

The Battle of Tippecanoe November 6, 1811

On leaving Prophetstown Tecumseh had given explicit orders to avoid all conflict, but when Harrison learned he was gone, he marched on Prophetstown with nearly a thousand troops, hoping for a confrontation so he could destroy Tecumseh's core of support, "that part of the fabric he considered complete." Tecumseh was a calming influence on his often unpredictable brother, and now, solely in charge, Tenskwatawa made a calamitous error. After saying he would meet peacefully with Harrison, he ordered an attack before dawn the next day, November 6, 1811. He promised that the Master of Life had assured them a victory, by some accounts he said his warriors would be invulnerable to bullets, but Harrison's battle lines held when Tenskwatawa's warriors attacked before daylight and by the time the sun had risen his 700 warriors withdrew to Prophetstown, defeated. The next day Harrison's men seized and burned the deserted village.

After the defeat at Tippecanoe Creek, Tecumseh shifted his strategy. The United States was facing its own crisis for independence, a gathering confrontation with England, and when the War of 1812 began in the following June, Tecumseh committed his followers to the British. He did so with great reluctance. Even though ending reliance on all whites was for all purposes his main goal. But the English had promise him the possibility of a separate native state if the regions tribes supported their war against the United States. And for a while that dream still seemed possible. But when the British troops were soon faced with defeat, his dream soon unraveled. After Tecumseh led the failed efforts to retake his country of Ohio, American Captain Oliver Hazard Perry defeated a British squadron in the Battle of Lake Erie. With the British and their Indian allies virtually defenseless, Tecumseh's old nemesis, William Henry Harrison, quickly invaded Canada and marched toward British Colonel Henry Procter. When Procter announced his withdrawal to the east, Tecumseh, recalling Fort Miami's barred gates after the defeat at Fallen Timbers, boiled over. You are like a fat animal that struts with its tail high in easy times, be told Procter, but at the first whiff of real danger flees with its tail between its legs.

Nevertheless, Tecumseh committed to protecting the English Colonel's withdrawal, and it was then, as Harrison pursued them along the Thames River, that he made his final stand in a battle that proved to be the turning point for the battle for Canada in the War of 1812.

The War of 1812

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Battle Map of the Battle for Tippecanoe November 6,1811 where Harrison burns Prophetstown.Battle Monument at Tippecanoe. Battle Montage of the War of 1812.Map of the Great Lakes region during the War of 1812Battle for Lake Erie when Perry defeats the British squadron on the Lake.Lithograph of the burning of Washington D.C. during the War of 1812. Americans defeat the Prophet at the Battle of Tippecanoe by unknown artist. Andrew Jackson wins the Battle of New Orleans.
Battle Map of the Battle for Tippecanoe November 6,1811 where Harrison burns Prophetstown.
Battle Map of the Battle for Tippecanoe November 6,1811 where Harrison burns Prophetstown. | Source
Battle Monument at Tippecanoe.
Battle Monument at Tippecanoe. | Source
Battle Montage of the War of 1812.
Battle Montage of the War of 1812. | Source
Map of the Great Lakes region during the War of 1812
Map of the Great Lakes region during the War of 1812 | Source
Battle for Lake Erie when Perry defeats the British squadron on the Lake.
Battle for Lake Erie when Perry defeats the British squadron on the Lake. | Source
Lithograph of the burning of Washington D.C. during the War of 1812.
Lithograph of the burning of Washington D.C. during the War of 1812. | Source
Americans defeat the Prophet at the Battle of Tippecanoe by unknown artist.
Americans defeat the Prophet at the Battle of Tippecanoe by unknown artist. | Source
Andrew Jackson wins the Battle of New Orleans.
Andrew Jackson wins the Battle of New Orleans. | Source

Battle of the Thames and the End of Tecumseh's Dream

By the morning of October 5, 1813, near the village of Moraviantown, British riflemen formed two lines across a road to await the American advance. Tecumseh and his warriors took up positions in some dense swampy thickets to the British right. Tecumseh, dressed in traditional deerskin and wearing an ostrich plume in his turban, walked among the soldiers and warriors, shaking hands and buoying spirits with a confident smile and phrases in Shawnee.

When the Americans opened with a mounted attack the British riflemen quickly buckled and ran. The horsemen then regrouped, turned toward the thickets were Tecumseh and his warriors fought, and attacked in columns. In the bitter firefight that followed, the badly outnumbered Indians at first held their own. Then an American spotted Tecumseh in the brush, leveled his pistol and fired a shot to his right breast that killed him almost instantly. As word of Tecumseh's death spread, the demoralized Indians fled through the surrounding woods.

The shot through Tecumseh's heart marked the culmination of one great struggle for independence and the end of another. At the conclusion of the Revolutionary War in 1783, the United States won a formal recognition of sovereignty, but the nation's independence wasn't fully secured until the War of 1812 played out and Britain withdrew form the United States once and for all. The Battle of the Thames closed out the fight for control of the old Northwest Frontier. At the same time, it marked the demise of Tecumseh's vision of a powerful pan-Indian confederacy and clear the way for an unstoppable onslaught of white settlers and the permanent removal of Indians from their native lands.

Many of the men involved in crushing the Indian war of independence emerged later as national political leaders. The Kentuckian who reputedly killed Tecumseh, Richard M. Johnson, was elected Vice President under Martin Van Buren. Johnson's commander, William Henry Harrison, would be elected President of the United States after Van Buren, largely because of his victory on Tippecanoe Creek. Afterward the dispossession of native Americans continued until they would be pushed off their native lands and finally be held captive on reservations in a land they once roamed freely. As we begin the twenty-first century native Americans still live on those reservations over 120 years after they were overrun by the westward expansion of the United States.

Sources

Edmonds R. David. Tecumseh And The Quest For Indian Leadership. Little Brown and Company. New York NY. USA. 1939.

McCain John. Character Is Destiny. Random House New York NY USA 2005.

Nagelfell Karl. North American Indian Chiefs. JG Press 455 Somerset Avenue North Dighton, MA. 02764 USA. 1995.

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