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date: 18 August 2017

Tecumseh and the Shawnee Resistance Movement

Summary and Keywords

Described as a “chief among chiefs” by the British, and by his arch-rival, William Henry Harrison, as “one of those uncommon geniuses which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things,” Tecumseh impressed all who knew him. Lauded for his oratory, military and diplomatic skills, and, ultimately, his humanity, Tecumseh presided over the greatest Indian resistance movement that had ever been assembled in the eastern half of North America. His genius lay in his ability to fully articulate religious, racial, and cultural ideals borne out of his people’s existence on fault lines between competing empires and Indian confederacies. Known as “southerners” by their Algonquian relatives, the Shawnees had a history of migrating between worlds. Tecumseh, and his brother, Tenskwatawa, converted this inheritance into a widespread social movement in the first decade and a half of the 19th-century, when more than a thousand warriors, from many different tribes, heeded their call to halt American expansion along the border of what is now Ohio and Indiana. Tecumseh articulated a vision of intertribal, pan-Indian unity based on revitalization and reform, and his ambitions very nearly rewrote early American history.

Keywords: Shawnees, revitalization movements, Pan-Indianism, Battle of Thames, Treaty of Fort Wayne, Treaty of Fort Stanwix, Treaty of Greenville, Battle of Fallen Timbers, Battle of Tippecanoe, War of 1812

Early Life

In March 1768, Methoataske, a Creek woman, gave birth to Tecumseh at Old Piqua, a Shawnee village on the Mad River, in present-day Ohio. His father, Puckeshinwa, was a member of the Kispokotha division, the branch of the Shawnee tribe responsible for war. Tecumseh’s mother and father spent a great deal of their early lives in the Southeast, among the Creeks in towns such as Tukabatchee and Mucclassee. Shawnees had lived among the Creeks since at least the 1680s, and an extensive oral and archival record supports the deep connections between these communities. Tecumseh’s remarkable diplomatic and cross-cultural skills were, in many ways, borne out of these cross-cultural migrations.1 The year 1768 was a monumental one for Native Ohioans. In November the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Confederacy joined with the English and signed the Treaty of Fort Stanwix. This treaty effectively wrested Kentucky from Tecumseh’s people, the Shawnees and their Ohio valley neighbors. Long-distance hunters such as Daniel Boone and, later, land speculators capitalized on this new frontier, which cut like a blade from east to west, making the Ohio River the boundary between Native and non-Native worlds.

Native migrants to the Ohio valley had endured endemic violence, devastating epidemics, and long-distance migrations long before the 1768 treaty. Tecumseh and the Shawnee people adapted by developing close alliances with a great number of tribes and colonizers. The British Indian agent Edmond Atkin described them as “the greatest travellers in America.” Various Indian prophets, from the Delaware visionary Neolin to the Mohawk medicine woman Coocoochee, began to understand themselves as refugees: as people whose common history of oppression bound them to each other in ways that tribal affiliations no longer did. Pan-Indianism, or intertribal, often racialized expressions of identity, offered a viable alternative to tribal leaders who continued to see themselves, and their people, through the prism of kinship, language, and ritual practice. Some tribespeople, such as the Delawares and Seneca-Cayugas, were relative newcomers to the Ohio valley, having moved there in the 1720s. Others, like the Miamis, Shawnees, and Potawatomis, claimed part of the region as their precontact homeland. Regardless of their particular history, Native Ohioans like Tecumseh came of age in an intertribal milieu in which the boundaries between one tribe and another often blurred.2

Tecumseh came of age amid intense competition between Native leaders who championed radically different paths to survival. Traditionally, the Shawnees were a patrilineal society governed loosely by five divisions: While the the Kispokotha, Tecumseh’s division, was responsible for war, the the Thawegila and Chalagawtha, responsible for leadership in times of peace. The Mekocke were responsible for medicine and the the Pekowitha, known as the helpers. Villages based on these Shawnee divisions dotted the Ohio countryside. However, trading centers such as Fort Wayne, Chicago, and Detroit offered imperial and market-oriented alternatives to Shawnee towns. In contrast, the Wyandot town of Brownstown, near modern-day Detroit, served as a de facto capital of a Great Lakes Indian confederacy. Tecumseh would later echo demands made by the Brownstown Council, when in 1786 intertribal delegates demanded that any cession of lands “should be made in the most public manner, and by the united voice of the confederacy.” When Tecumseh was a boy in the 1780s, a captive named Jonathan Alder described how he learned to speak Shawnee, Cayuga, and Delaware, all while he came of age in a village dominated by the Mekoche division of the Shawnee tribe.3 Linguistic skill, geographic range, and cross-cultural fluency were hallmarks of Tecumseh’s world. Historian Gregory Evans Dowd explains that this diversity fostered the “creation of new alliances—alliances that arose out of the dual collapse of the Great Lakes alliance with France and the Covenant Chain alliance with Great Britain.”

As a teenager, Tecumseh traveled between multiethnic, reform-oriented towns among the Upper Creeks, the Chickamauga Cherokees, and the Miamis and Wyandots. Even4 before he was born, in 1763, a Delaware prophet named Neolin asked his followers to “quit all commerce with the white people.” Neolin dreamed of the Great Lakes as a region in which Native peoples could abandon trading with Europeans and return to a traditional economy in which women farmed, men hunted, and they liberated themselves from European traders and their wares. In 1786 the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant reprised Neolin’s understanding of intertribal allegiance, arguing that “if we say that such a part of the country belongs to one nation and such a part to another the Union cannot subsist.” Therefore, Brant believed that the Great Lakes–Ohio valley region should be regarded as a “dish with one spoon,” a Native space shared by the Native peoples who inhabited the land.5

Near-constant warfare informed these political debates throughout Tecumseh’s childhood. At the age of six, he lost his father in the Battle of Point Pleasant on October 10, 1774. Colonel Andrew Lewis, along with 1,100 men, traveled from Virginia up the Kanawha River to the Ohio River, where they launched the first major English invasion north of the Ohio. Violence between settlers and Indians forced Native peoples to move to north and western Ohio. Tecumseh’s older sister, Tecumpease, and her husband, Wasabogoa (Stands Firm), assumed responsibility for the family in the wake of Puckeshinwa’s death. After Point Pleasant, American settlers moved into Kentucky with increased frequency and regularly threatened Shawnee villages in and around the confluence of the Ohio and Scioto Rivers, where Shawnees had resided since the 1720s. In 1777, Tecumseh’s family relocated further west, to Pekowi, on the northwest bank of the Mad River. Then, on May 29, 1779, John Bowman and a band of Kentuckians attacked Old Chillicothe. Bowman’s raid was fairly typical, in that the Kentuckians suffered greater casualties than the Shawnees. Between 1776 and 1782, an estimated 860 Kentuckians lost their lives in these wars. But casualty lists tell a small part of the story, for Bowman’s raiders, and others like them, burned cornfields and destroyed food stores. Their scorched-earth campaigns led to starvation in Indian country as desperate villagers shared increasingly meager resources. Years of fighting and fleeing the Kentuckians convinced most Shawnees to abandon Ohio and cross the Mississippi River. In 1779, more than 1,000 Shawnees, including Tecumseh’s mother and his sister, chose to leave Ohio altogether. They relocated to what is now Missouri, in the southeastern corner of the state, between Cape Girardeau and New Madrid.6

After his mother and sister’s departure, Tecumseh’s older brother, Chiksika, assumed primary responsibility for his upbringing. Tecumseh simultaneously learned to fight and to hunt under Chiksika’s tutelage. As early as 1782, at the age of fourteen, Tecumseh was involved in his first skirmish, with George Rogers Clark and the Kentuckians. All of the well-known Kentucky frontiersmen, from Simon Kenton and Benjamin Logan to Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark, fought Tecumseh during his teenage years. Typically their engagements were little more than skirmishes between hunting parties. However, Kentuckians began targeting Shawnee summer villages by the middle years of the 1780s.7

Between 1783 and 1795, in response to these coordinated attacks, Shawnees, Miamis, Delawares, and Wyandots moved closely together in a “complex of towns” at the head of the Maumee River, in north-central Ohio. Tecumseh was a teenager and young adult when the Miami leader, Little Turtle, and the Shawnee chief, Blue Jacket, led a protracted war against the United States. The Shawnee warrior Moluntha enjoined Native peoples to “destroy all the men wearing hats . . . who seem to be leagued against us to drive us away from the lands which the Master of Life has given to us.”8

Traditionally, Shawnees congregated in the summer in large villages, where they farmed the land. In the winter months they disbursed into extended families and focused on hunting. Many of Tecumseh’s formative skirmishes with settlers occurred while hunting at a considerable distance from the Shawnees’ summer villages. According to Stephen Ruddell, a white captive who lived with Tecumseh as a young man, Chiksika “took great pains with Tecumthe to make him a warrior and a man of integrity.” In the winter of 1788, Tecumseh fell from a horse and broke his leg while hunting buffalo near Fort Massac, at the confluence of the Tennessee and Ohio Rivers. Chiksika and his small band of hunters set his leg and nursed him to health for several months before returning to Ohio. Tecumseh became increasingly close to Chiksika, and together they spent several years among the Chickamaugas, a branch of the Cherokee tribe committed to resisting American expansion.9

The Battle for Ohio and Adulthood

From the beginning to the end of Tecumseh’s life, he and his people fought increasing numbers of settlers determined to cross the Ohio River. Settlers invaded Shawnee lands from the south, steadily expanding their sovereignty over all but the northwestern corner of Ohio, a region then known as the Great Black Swamp. For most Native peoples determined to remain in Ohio, the area of the Maumee and Auglaize region, known as “the Glaize,” became a site of resistance to American expansion. By 1785 villages led by two Shawnee leaders, Blue Jacket and Buckongehelas (Captain Johnny), and one Miami chief, Little Turtle, dotted the landscape. Situated within ten miles of each other for mutual defense, seven main towns (three Shawnee, two Delaware, one Miami, and a European trading town) joined forces. In 1790, and again in 1791, these allied villagers defeated American armies. In the second battle, the 1791 conflict now known as St. Clair’s Defeat, in which Tecumseh did not participate, the allied Indians inflicted approximately nine hundred casualties on a force of nearly seventeen hundred soldiers. Amounting to “possibly the worst defeat in US military history,” these victories convinced Little Turtle, Blue Jacket, and Buckongehelas that together they could defeat the Americans and preserve their Ohio homeland. 10 These pan-Indian forces tended to fight against irregular militias, composed of both Kentuckians and Ohioans. For example, Arthur St. Clair, the commanding general of the army during the 1791 defeat, was the first governor of the Northwest Territory.

The victories of 1790 and 1791 proved to be short-lived. After these American defeats, the U.S. government assumed greater control of American expansion, and assigned to General “Mad” Anthony Wayne the task of breaking the allied communities at the Glaize. Wayne was an accomplished leader and a tough-minded disciplinarian who had prepared his troops for battle. Before the main battle, he had the audacity to build Fort Defiance at the traders’ town on the Glaize. On August 20, 1794, Tecumseh, Tenskwatawa, and their brother Sauwauseekau fought Wayne’s army at Fallen Timbers with not many more than four hundred warriors. Sauwauseekau fell in battle while fighting alongside his brothers. The Battle of Fallen Timbers resulted in the devastating Treaty of Greenville (1795), which laid the groundwork for the United States’ ultimate possession of the Old Northwest.11

After Fallen Timbers, President George Washington and his increasingly confident administration enacted a series of land policies that were designed to divest Native peoples of their lands. In 1796, Henry Knox, Washington’s secretary of war, worked with Congress to create a system of government trading houses. Continued under both the Adams and Jefferson administrations, and run by the federal government, these trading houses turned Native peoples into debtors of the United States. Like Washington before him, President Thomas Jefferson recognized that when “debts get beyond what the individuals can pay, they [Indians] become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands.” William Henry Harrison, a man widely regarded as “Mr. Jefferson’s hammer,” believed that one white hunter killed “more game than five of the common Indians.” Trading houses and increasing numbers of frontiersmen decimated deer herds, leading to starvation of the Native peoples in Ohio in the first decade of the 19th century.12

As a young adult, Tecumseh lived in villages that had experienced more than two decades of incessant violence. Settlers who once had to cross the Appalachian Mountains to reach them now lived in close proximity. Older chiefs who had struggled against these migrants for decades came to believe that peace and accommodation, rather than continued resistance, offered the best hope for survival. For example, in the aftermath of the Battle of Fallen Timbers, both the Shawnee leader Black Hoof and Little Turtle became convinced that living with Americans, behind a constantly advancing frontier, offered the best strategy for the survival of their people. Approximately eight hundred people lived at Wapakoneta, Black Hoof’s village on the Auglaize River in northwestern Ohio. At the same time, not more than forty Shawnees supported the Shawnee brothers. Their foremost adherents tended to be younger men. Notable exceptions included Blue Jacket, one of Little Turtle’s and Black Hoof’s allies from the wars of the 1790s.13

However ardent their desire to return to their traditional beliefs and values, pan-Indian leaders proposed deep innovations in Indian country. First among them was the idea that a shared history of oppression at the hands of colonizers had enabled Native peoples to reimagine themselves as a race of people, rather than as members of separate tribes. In 1810, when he was at the height of his power, Tecumseh explained that Indians “could never be good friends with the United States until [the Americans] abandoned the idea of acquiring lands by purchase from the Indians, without the consent of all tribes.” Tecumseh argued that tribal leaders no longer had the authority to speak, or to sign treaties, with the United States.14

American officials recognized the threat posed by pan-Indian leaders of revitalization and reform. Historian Sami Lakomäki explains that revitalization movements are “common among colonized peoples around the globe.” Anthropologist A. F. C. Wallace defines these worldwide phenomena as “deliberate, organized, conscious effort(s) by members of a society to construct a more satisfying culture.” Tecumseh’s idea of a “more satisfying culture” hinged upon his ability to unite all of the Native peoples of the eastern half of North America. In his own words, Tecumseh aspired to “collect the different nations to form one settlement” in order to “preserve their country from all encroachments.”15

Federal officials ignored these demands and continued to sign treaties, largely in secret, with small numbers of leaders committed to older, tribal understandings of identity and politics. American officials hoped to transform tribes into nation-states modeled after the United States. Jefferson himself consulted with one of Tecumseh’s rivals, Black Beard, assuring him that “if the United States can be of any service in bringing you [the Shawnees] all together in one place, we will willingly assist you.” William Wells, then Indian agent at Fort Wayne, believed that “each nation should be collected together and some regular sistam [sic] of government established among them.” Jefferson, Wells, and Tecumseh’s arch-rival, the territorial governor of Indiana, William Henry Harrison, worked assiduously to defeat Tecumseh by consolidating authority in the hands of tribal leaders sometimes called “government chiefs” because of their desire to live peacefully, as sovereign nations, within the United States. Tecumseh recognized the U.S. strategy, accusing village chiefs of “ruining our Country” by ceding so much land to the Americans.16

Americans ignored the long history of Native reform and revitalization. They preferred to see revitalization movements as the brainchildren of competing empires determined to thwart the United States’ continental aspirations. They could not imagine that Native people themselves could develop such a sophisticated response to American expansion. For example, in February 1803, Secretary of War Henry Dearborn believed that “certain persons among Indian nations . . . were agents from the French or Spanish government” who were trying to “engage the several tribes” in a general war against the United States. General James Wilkinson, who was in 1805 governor of Louisiana Territory, feared a pan-Indian attack. Ironically, it was Wilkinson himself who dreamed of joining forces with another empire. In 1805 he was “secretly on the Spanish government’s payroll” in order to bring new territories into New Spain.17

Among Indians of the Great Lakes–Ohio valley region, Tecumseh embodied a social movement decades in the making. As historian Richard White has written, Tecumseh was “the culmination of the complicated village and imperial politics of the middle ground.”18 Religion was a vital component of the movement. For example, Tecumseh’s brother inspired the pan-Indian movement that Tecumseh later championed. For many years, Tecumseh lived in the shadow of this more famous younger brother, Tenskwatawa, or “the Open Door.” It had not always been so. Prior to Tenskwatawa’s conversion experience, sometime between April and November of 1805, this brother, also known as the “Shawnee Prophet,” had been called Lalawethika, or “the rattle/loudmouth.” He was blind in one eye from a hunting accident as a boy. And while he was coming of age, Chiksika had refused to take him along on his many hunting trips. According to most accounts, he was a failed hunter and an alcoholic who depended on his older brother to feed and clothe his wife and children. Lalawethika embodied the worst effects of colonialism. His circumstances began to improve when he began listening to “an aging shaman” known as Penagashea, or “Changing Feathers.”

After Penagashea died in 1804, Lalawethika fell into a trance so deep that his relatives believed he was dead. Miraculously, he awoke with a vision of reform that featured some of the components of sin and salvation common during the Second Great Awakening in places such as Cane Ridge, Kentucky. Tenskwatawa described an Indian hell in which alcoholics were forced to swallow molten lead for all time. But he also preached that polygamy, hide hunting, and relying on personal medicine bundles were sins. Both the five Shawnee divisions and individual Shawnees possessed medicine bundles that conferred special powers on those who took care of them. In asking his supporters to destroy them, Tenskwatawa asked his followers to abandon their individual power and follow him. For many, this had to have been a terrible choice, because it meant forsaking sacred powers conferred on them during their vision quests. Shawnees regarded their bundles as living beings, other-than-human persons, tasked with protecting the individual and advancing his interests. In abandoning them, Tenskwatawa hoped to lead them into a new way of life. He also demanded that Indian women married to non-Indian husbands must leave them and return to agricultural pursuits. In contrast, Indian men had to abandon domesticated animals, from chickens to cattle, and return to hunting for meat rather than trading. Those who ignored his demands, and continued to believe in their bundles, were often accused of directing the power contained within them against their followers. Witchcraft allegations led to the deaths of Shawnees, Wyandots, and Delawares in both Ohio and Missouri. Those who were killed tended to be tribal leaders, Christian converts, and men deeply invested in trading with the Americans. Such advocates of living in a plural world, behind the frontier, were an affront to Tenskwatawa and the reforms he promoted.19

In 1805 the Shawnee brothers established a new town at Greenville, Ohio, where they intended to consolidate all of the Shawnees and their neighbors in a single, revitalized community. It was a place freighted with meaning. They built their town near the site of the infamous Treaty of Greenville, where Native peoples resigned themselves to American power in the wake of the Battle of Fallen Timbers. Establishing a pan-Indian community there symbolized Native people’s desire to rise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of that defeat. But for American officials, Tecumseh offered a more philanthropic rationale. He explained: “The Shawnese have heretofore been scattered about in parties, which we have found has been attended with bad consequences. We are now going to collect them all together to one town that the chief may keep them in good order and prevent drunkenness from coming among them, and try to raise corn and stock to live upon.”20 Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa attempted to build their coalition at Greenville for the next three years. However, living in such close proximity to their Native opponents, as well as traders and government agents allied with them, was not a winning strategy. In the spring of 1808 they moved farther west, on the Tippecanoe River, a tributary of the Wabash River, which granted them easier access to western tribes that were more sympathetic to their cause. By May 1810, Harrison wrote, “The Prophets force at present consists in part of his own Tribe, which has always been attached to him; nearly all the Kickapoos, a number of winebagoes, some Hurons from Detrot who have lately joined him, a number of Potawatomis, 20 or 30 Muskoes or Creeks and some stragglers from the Ottawas. Chippways and other tribes in all perhaps from 6 to 800.”21

In a speech to Harrison in August 1808, Tenskwatawa proclaimed that his supporters “were once different people, they are now but one.” Such rhetoric belied the fact that most of these supporters came from lands to the north and west of the middle Ohio valley. Tribes such as the Kickapoos, Potawatomis, Ojibwes, and Ho-Chunks were central to the revitalization movement. In contrast, tribes in the vicinity of Greenville (1805–1808) and Prophetstown (1808–1811) opposed the reforms.

As their revitalization movement gained momentum, Governor Harrison fueled Tecumseh’s and Tenskwatawa’s popularity by confronting Native peoples between 1803 and 1809 with the most aggressive series of treaties they had ever encountered. His treaty making culminated with the Treaty of Fort Wayne, which ceded more than three million acres of land along the southern Indiana-Illinois border and east-central Indiana.22 These treaties galvanized his opponents, and Tenskwatawa became more and more bellicose. Harrison sent spies such as Michel Brouilett and John Tanner in an attempt to gauge the prospects of war. The Prophet discovered them and responded by telling Harrison “that his people should not come any nearer to him, that they should not settle on the Vermillion River—he smelt them too strong already.” Prophetstown became a prominent resting place for Potawatomis, Kickapoos, Sauks, Meskwakis, and Ho-Chunks on their way to consult and trade with the British at Amherstburg. To accommodate the traffic, village dwellers built a large dwelling they dubbed “The House of the Stranger.”23

Like most Americans, Harrison believed that the British were ultimately responsible for all anti-American actions on the frontier. He could not imagine that Native peoples acted on their own. In his opinion, they were little more than British pawns. And so, in an 1810 letter to Secretary of War William Eustis, he wrote, “I have as little doubt that the scheme originated with the British and that the Prophet is inspired by the superintendent of Indian affairs for Upper Canada, rather than the Great Spirit, from whom he pretends to derive his authority.”24

Between 1808 and 1811, Tecumseh traveled far and wide in search of people willing to join the revitalization movement. He visited the Sauks and Meskwakis in Illinois and Iowa, and his own kinsmen at Cape Girardeau, Missouri. But his central aim remained the unification of southern and northern tribes into a grand confederacy. Like so many Shawnee leaders before him, including Peter Chartier in the 1740s and, more recently, Black Beard in the first decades of the 19th century, Tecumseh had a deep connection with the large confederacies of the Southeast, and the Creeks and Cherokees in particular. His awareness of southeastern protocols, combined with his mother’s Creek lineage, gained Tecumseh favor among the Creeks. He arrived at Tukabatchee in mid-September, just in time for the meeting of the Creek national council. And it was here that Tecumseh competed for the Creeks’ attention with Benjamin Hawkins, the southern superintendent of Indian affairs. Hawkins advocated a “civilization plan” that included slave ownership, stock raising, and the privatization of land. In public speeches, Tecumseh asked his allies to “unite in peace and friendship among themselves and cultivate the same with their white neighbors.” But in Hawkins’s recollection of Tecumseh’s visit, he demanded that the Creeks “kill the old Chiefs, friends to peace; kill the cattle, the hogs, the fowls; do not work, destroy the wheels and looms, throw away your ploughs, and everything used by the Americans.”25 Small numbers of Creeks did travel with Tecumseh and fight with him during the War of 1812. But more importantly, Tecumseh helped to ignite the Redstick War of 1813–1814, a Creek civil war over Hawkins’s civilization plan that Tecumseh’s Creek supporters ultimately lost.

During Tecumseh’s travels, Tenskwatawa became the leader at Prophetstown. Aware of Tecumseh’s absence, Harrison seized the opportunity and marched north from Vincennes, along the Wabash River, to Prophetstown. Warriors tracked his army’s progress and, on November 6, sent a delegation in an attempt to forestall combat. But inside Prophetstown, the diverse inhabitants of the village called for war. Tenskwatawa headed their demands, and chose to initiate conflict with Harrison’s army in the predawn hours of November 7, 1811. The Battle of Tippecanoe lasted approximately two and a half hours. After their initial surprise, Harrison’s men rallied, and Tenskwatawa’s men retreated from the battlefield. When the dust settled, approximately 35 warriors had been killed. In contrast, 62 Americans had been killed and another 126 wounded.26 When Tecumseh learned of the battle, he threatened to kill Tenskwatawa. Indeed, their movement never again obtained the same level of support. Harrison’s men’s burned food stores and made it difficult for Prophetstown to rise to power once more. However, by disbursing Tecumseh’s and Tenskwatawa’s followers, Harrison vastly expanded the field of combat between settlers and Native peoples. The revitalization movement fragmented, but it did not fall apart.

Allies and Enemies of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa

As with all revitalization movements, Tecumseh collaborated with a wide array of Native leaders. His diplomacy, and Tenskwatawa’s message of reform, attracted Native peoples from thirteen tribes across the eastern half of North America. Le Maigouis, or the Trout, was an Ojibwe from the village of L’Arbre Croche in northwestern Michigan, who became Tenskwatawa’s “best-traveled and most effective apostle.” Le Maigouis described the Americans as the progeny of the Great Serpent and the scum of the waters, “froth . . . driven into the Woods by a strong east wind.” His argument for polygenesis, that Americans were children of lesser gods, resonated with Native peoples in Ohio and Michigan who lived on the front lines of American land hunger.27 To the west, in Illinois, Main Poc of the Potawatomis became a crucial ally. It was Main Poc who suggested that Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa relocate their village from Greenville, in west-central Ohio, to Prophetstown, near modern-day Lafayette, Indiana. Their revitalization movement was nondoctrinal, and neither Tecumseh nor Tenskwatawa passed their beliefs down through holy books. While they had many adherents, all of them held their own unique perspectives on how best to stop Americans from seizing their lands and, ultimately, their identity. For example, Main Poc refused to abstain from alcohol—a central tenet of Tenskwatawa’s reforms. And militarily, Main Poc continued to attack settlers in Illinois, even as Tecumseh attempted to persuade Harrison of the movement’s peaceful intentions. Ninian Edwards, the territorial governor of Illinois, helped to precipitate war out of frustration with Potawatomi and, to a lesser extent, Sac and Fox raids on American settlers. Potawatomis such as Blackbird, Mad Sturgeon, and Billy Caldwell besieged Fort Dearborn (modern-day Chicago), signaling that the revitalization movement had spread into a much wider regional war fought by Native peoples sympathetic, but not wholly committed, to Tecumseh’s vision of pan-Indian unity. During Tecumseh’s frequent visits to the British at Fort Malden in lower Amherstburg, the British fort in lower Ontario, he stayed among the Wyandots at Brownstown, near Detroit, Michigan. Roundhead and Walk-in-the Water, Wyandot leaders residing there, were well regarded within the pan-Indian alliance. Both men fought alongside Tecumseh at the Battle of Brownstown on February 5, 1812. Brownstown led to the greatest strategic victory for Tecumseh’s allies in the War of 1812: the surrender of the American fort at Detroit by General William Hull on August 16, 1812.28

Non-Native Allies

Tecumseh lived among non-Native traders and captives-turned-kinsmen who were a regular part of his daily life. Traders such as Matthew Elliott and Alexander McKee had married Shawnee women and traded among their people for decades. As Loyalists in the aftermath of the American Revolution, these men likely overestimated the British commitment to their cause. Similarly, Major General Isaac Brock, the British commander of Lower Canada, was a brilliant military strategist who worked with Tecumseh and his allies to yield a string of early victories over the United States. Tecumseh and Brock forced the surrender of Detroit, an event that led to the capture of two thousand American soldiers along with their weapons and ammunition.

Brock and Tecumseh knew each other for just four months, and some historians have suggested that the outcome of the War of 1812 might have been different had Brock survived. Brock’s aide, Captain John B. Glegg, left us this description of Tecumseh:

Tecumseh’s appearance was very prepossessing; his figure light and finely proportioned; his age I imagined to be about five and thirty; in height, about five feet nine or ten inches; his complexion, light copper; countenance, oval, with bright hazel eyes beaming cheerfulness, energy, and decision. Three small silver crowns, or coronets, were suspended from the lower cartilage of his aquiline nose; and a large silver medallion of George the Third . . . was attached to a mixed coloured wampum string, and hung around his neck. His dress consisted of a plain, neat uniform, tanned deerskin jacket, with long trousers of the same material, the seams of both being cut with neatly cut fringe; and he had on leather moccasins, much ornamented with work made from dyed quills of the porcupine.29

On October 13, 1812, Brock was killed by a sharpshooter during the Battle of Queenstown. Together, he and Tecumseh had forced the Americans to a standstill in Lower Canada. For this reason, many Canadians continue to celebrate both men for their efforts. As one Canadian historian has written, both “placed themselves among the founders of a country that would span the continent.”30

After Brock’s death, the command of the British army passed to Henry Procter, a commander who was much more cautious and interested in following the orders of Sir George Prevost, the governor of Canada. Prevost favored a strategy that defended Lower Canada from American annexation. As a result, offensives into the Old Northwest, at places dear to Native people but tangential to Canadians, were sharply questioned. This defensive military strategy, combined with poor leadership, led to a string of American victories over Tecumseh and his British allies. First among them was the naval Battle of Erie, on September 9, 1813. The American naval commander, Captain Oliver Perry, seized control of Lake Erie, breaking British supply lines in the Old Northwest. The American victory effectively shifted the battle from the Old Northwest to Lower Canada. In the aftermath of the battle, Tecumseh had this to say about British conduct:

We must compare our father’s conduct to a fat animal, that carries its tail upon its back, but when affrighted, he drops it between his legs and runs off. Listen, father! The Americans have not yet defeated us by land; neither are we sure that they have done so by water; we therefore wish to remain here, and fight out enemy, if they should make an appearance . . . our lives are in the hands of the Great Spirit. We are determined to defend our lands, and if it be his will we wish to leave our bones upon them.31

Bolstered by Perry’s victory, American armies invaded Lower Canada. And it was Tecumseh, rather than British forces, that ultimately halted their progress. During this battle, Procter and his men retreated, leaving Tecumseh and his Indian allies grossly outnumbered. Tecumseh was shot and killed at the Battle of Thames, on October 5, 1813. In the aftermath of Thames, Procter was court-martialed for his conduct.


Since his death, Tecumseh has been immortalized, though in very different ways. Among Shawnees, he is generally regarded as a hopeful figure, as a person who did all that he could to save his people’s homeland. Among Canadians, he is often regarded as the savior of Canada. In a cruel twist of fate, Tecumseh helped to save Canada from becoming part of the United States, but failed to save the Ohio valley for the Shawnee people. Among Americans, place names honoring Tecumseh abound, and Americans often associate the famous war chief with fanciful notions of manhood, virility, and the generative power of frontier violence. Much of what we know about Tecumseh comes from his opponents, including Harrison and the sons and daughters of settlers. Their remembrances have created a substantial body of folklore about him. Predicated largely on the idea of noble savagery, Tecumseh is often cast as calm in bearing, articulate, rational, and a physical specimen beyond compare. For example, Stephen Ruddell remarked that Tecumseh “was always averse to taking prisoners in his warfare, but when prisoners fell into his hands he always treated them with as much humanity as if they had been in the hands of civilized people. No burning—no torturing. He never tolerated the practice of killing women and children.” Ruddell consistently praised Tecumseh’s manhood, commenting that “he was a man of great courage and conduct, perfectly fearless of danger,” a man who “always inspired his companions with confidence and valour.” Anthony Shane had a similar perspective, writing that Tecumseh was “proud, courageous and high spirited, [and] would never yield.”32

Tecumseh has also had a long afterlife in Europe, particularly in Germany. In the 1930s, the German writer Fritz Steuben created a fictionalized portrait of Tecumseh that promoted noble savagery and rugged masculinity.

Discussion of the Literature

Tecumseh’s most recent biographer, John Sugden, writes that Tecumseh “became the supreme pan-Indian hero . . . the ultimate symbol not only of courage and endeavor, but also of unity and fraternity.”33 Militant resisters such as Black Hawk survived their Indian wars and went on to reflect on their efforts. After Tecumseh, the Paiute leader Wovoka created the Ghost Dance, leaving behind a voluminous record of his message and the ways in which it was spread. By dying in battle, Tecumseh avoided the perils of creating a life behind the American frontier, a life that certainly paled in comparison to the pan-Indian world he hoped to create. It is necessary to keep in mind that his untimely death has robbed posterity of the ability to consider Tecumseh’s own perspective on the social movement he created. In contrast, Tenskwatawa died in 1836. Before his death, the Prophet discussed the War of 1812 with American adversaries like Lewis Cass, as well as American artists like George Catlin.

Richard M. Johnson, congressman and future vice president of the United States, built a political career in part on his claim to have killed Tecumseh at the Battle of Thames. So too did Harrison use combat with Tecumseh to establish his military credentials in the presidential election of 1840. Tecumseh’s first biographer, Benjamin Drake, published his Life of Tecumseh in 1841 in this context of myth-making and hagiography. Separating the man from the myths about him has been a challenge from the moment of his death. However, both R. David Edmunds and John Sugden have created valuable biographies that help readers sort through the difficult source material.

Primary Sources

For an excellent, chronologically arranged collection of sources related to both Tecumseh and the Shawnees, historians should first consult the Shawnee Papers, housed in the Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin Archives at Indiana University’s Glenn Black Laboratory of Archaeology. This collection contains a wealth of primary sources, gathered together by an exceptional team of anthropologists and historians through their work on behalf of the Indian Claims Commission. As such, this collection offers a useful springboard into more difficult and harder-to-reach archival sources.

Tecumseh’s own words come to us through Anthony Shane and Stephen Ruddell, white captives of the Shawnees who were raised alongside Tecumseh. The oral historian and archivist Lyman Draper interviewed both men about Tecumseh in the 1840s, years after his death. Draper also interviewed and corresponded with a host of Tecumseh’s adversaries, and their recollections can be found in the Tecumseh Papers of the Lyman Copeland Draper Collection, which have been microfilmed by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

Colonizers left behind a rich, but terribly biased, source record on Tecumseh. For example, many of Tecumseh’s speeches can be found in the papers of his foremost adversary, William Henry Harrison, published by the Indiana Historical Society. Similarly, the papers of Thomas Forsyth and Simon Kenton offer useful, but adversarial, perspectives on pan-Indianism. Historians should also consult British perspectives on Tecumseh, including the papers of John Askin, William Claus, and the McKee family. In the 19th century, neither British nor American historians bothered to interview Shawnees about Tecumseh and his legacy. A century later, the ethnohistorian Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin interviewed Shawnees about Tecumseh, and her papers are housed at the Newberry Library.

Further Reading

Calloway, Colin G.Crown and Calumet: British-Indian Relations, 1783–1815. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Calloway, Colin G.The Shawnees and the War for America. New York: Viking, 2007.Find this resource:

Calloway, Colin G.The Victory with No Name: The Native American Defeat of the First American Army. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.Find this resource:

Cave, Alfred. Prophets of the Great Spirit: Native American Revitalization Movements in Eastern North America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Cayton, Andrew R. L.Frontier Indiana. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996.Find this resource:

Dowd, Gregory E.A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745–1815. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Edmunds, R. David. Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.Find this resource:

Edmunds, R. David. The Shawnee Prophet. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Jortner, Adam. The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Keenan-Spero, Laura. “‘Stout, Bold, Cunning and the greatest Travellers in America’: The Colonial Shawnee Diaspora.” PhD Diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2010.Find this resource:

Kinietz, Vernon W., and Erminie W. Voegelin, eds. Shawnese Traditions: C.C. Trowbridge’s Account. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1939.Find this resource:

Lakomäki, Sami. Gathering Together: The Shawnee People Through Diaspora and Nationhood, 1600–1870. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014.Find this resource:

Nelson, Larry L., ed. A History of Jonathan Alder: His Captivity and Life with the Indians. Akron, OH: University of Akron Press, 2002.Find this resource:

Sugden, John. Tecumseh: A Life. New York: Holt, 1997.Find this resource:

Sugden, John. Blue Jacket: Warrior of the Shawnees. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Tanner, Helen. “The Glaize in 1792: A Composite Indian Community.” Ethnohistory 25.1 (Winter 1978): 15–39.Find this resource:

Warren, Stephen. The Shawnees and Their Neighbors, 1795–1870. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Warren, Stephen. The Worlds the Shawnees Made: Migration and Violence in Early America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014.Find this resource:


(1.) J. G Vore to Lyman Draper, May 12, 1886, Tecumseh Papers, Lyman Copeland Draper Collection, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2YY, Draper Manuscripts; R. David Edmunds, Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership (Boston: Little, Brown, 1984), 19; John Sugden, Tecumseh: A Life (New York: Holt, 1997), 22; and Stephen Warren, The Worlds the Shawnees Made: Migration and Violence in Early America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2014), 208–212. Among the Shawnees and Creeks, most believe that Tecumseh’s mother was a Creek Indian. But some of his later biographers, including John Sugden, argue that she was a Shawnee.

(2.) Warren, Worlds the Shawnees Made, 3.

(3.) For Brownstown Council, see Colin G. Calloway, The Victory with No Name: The Native American Defeat of the First American Army (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 45; and Larry L. Nelson, ed., A History of Jonathan Alder: His Captivity and Life with the Indians (Akron, OH: University of Akron Press, 2002), 46;

(4.) Gregory Evans Dowd, War Under Heaven: Pontiac, the Indian Nations, and the British Empire (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), 53.

(5.) Brant quoted in Lisa Brooks, The Common Pot: The Recovery of Native Space in the Northeast (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 124; Adam Jortner, The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 34; Warren, Worlds the Shawnees Made, 192; and Alfred Cave, Prophets of the Spirit: Native American Revitalization Movements in Eastern North America (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), 39.

(6.) Stephen Warren, The Shawnees and Their Neighbors, 1795–1870 (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005), ch. 3.

(7.) Edmunds, Tecumseh, 25; and Sugden, Tecumseh, 26, 33.

(8.) Sugden, Tecumseh, 46.

(9.) Stephen Ruddell letter, Tecumseh Papers, 2YY, Draper Manuscripts; and Edmunds, Tecumseh, 22–23.

(10.) Helen Tanner, “The Glaize in 1792: A Composite Indian Community,” Ethnohistory 25.1 (Winter 1978): 16; Jortner, Gods of Prophetstown, 57; Calloway, Victory with No Name, 127; and Edmunds, Tecumseh, 33.

(11.) Tanner, “The Glaize,” 33; and Calloway, Victory with No Name, 149–151.

(12.) An Act for Establishing Trading Houses with the Indian Tribes; Francis Paul Prucha, ed., Documents of United States Indian Policy, 3d ed. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 16–17; Warren, Shawnees and Their Neighbors, 18; Robert N. Owens, Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2011); Andrew R. L. Cayton, Frontier Indiana (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1996), 199; Edmunds, Tecumseh, 63; and Dowd, War Under Heaven, 303n67.

(13.) Jortner, Gods of Prophetstown, 100; and Warren, Shawnees and Their Neighbors, ch. 1.

(14.) Jortner, Gods of Prophetstown, 168; and Vincennes Western Sun, August 4, 1810.

(15.) Tecumseh quoted in Sami Lakomäki, Gathering Together: The Shawnee People Through Diaspora and Nationhood, 1600–1870 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 144, 149. See also A. F. C. Wallace, “Revitalization Movements,” American Anthropologist 58.2 (1956): 265.

(16.) Warren, Shawnees and Their Neighbors, 23. Tecumseh quoted in Lakomäki, Gathering Together, 150.

(17.) Warren, Shawnees and Their Neighbors, 20; and Jortner, Gods of Prophetstown, 62–63.

(18.) Richard White, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650–1815 (Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 514.

(19.) Cave, Prophets of the Great Spirit, 64–65.

(20.) Sugden, Tecumseh, 128.

(21.) Harrison: Messages and Letters, 420–421.

(22.) Warren, Shawnees and Their Neighbors, 36.

(23.) Vincennes Western Sun, June 23, 1810; and Hull to Eustis, July 12, 1810.

(24.) Harrison: Messages and Letters, 435.

(25.) Tecumseh and Hawkins quoted in Gregory A. Waselkov, A Conquering Spirit: Fort Mims and the Redstick War of 1813–1814 (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006), 78; and Sugden, Tecumseh, 245–249.

(26.) Warren, Shawnees and Their Neighbors, 40.

(27.) Jortner, Gods of Prophetstown, 136.

(28.) Ann Durkin Keating, Rising Up from Indian Country: The Battle of Fort Dearborn and the Birth of Chicago (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 81–86, 173–176; and Raymond J. DeMallie, “The Lakota Ghost Dance: An Ethnohistorical Account,” Pacific Historical Review 51.4 (November 1982): 387–388.

(29.) Sugden, Tecumseh, 300.

(30.) James Laxer, Tecumseh and Brock: The War of 1812 (Toronto: House of Anansi Press, 2012), 2.

(31.) Edmunds, Tecumseh, 204–205.

(32.) Sugden, Tecumseh, 51.

(33.) Ibid., 390.