Tecumseh (c. 1768 - October 5, 1813) was a brilliant chief, warrior, orator, and leader of the Shawnee Nation, who advocated inter-tribal alliance as a means to end the encroachment of the white settlers upon Native American lands. He believed it necessary to have the varied tribes united in a single movement to defend their homeland, culture, and way of life—indeed their very lives. Although his efforts were valiant, Tecumseh's pan-Indian vision floundered because of inter-tribal disputes and alliances of some tribes with the U.S. territorial government.
Tecumseh's warnings about the erosion of traditional tribal values and loss of Indian lands and culture were prescient. The westward expansion of growing numbers of European Americans would outrun numerous treaties and lead to recurring conflict and violence on the frontier. The appropriation of traditional lands and failure to respect Native American rights and values has remained as an indelible stain on American history.
Tecumseh won the admiration of even his greatest adversaries for his courage, integrity, and eloquence. His longtime adversary William Henry Harrison considered Tecumseh to be "one of those uncommon geniuses which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things." To Canadians he became a heroic ally who played an essential role in saving Upper Canada from invasion by U.S. troops, while Americans viewed him as an honorable enemy who fought bravely to defend his people and his convictions. Tecumseh today is considered one of the greatest Indian warriors and political leaders, a national hero in Canada, a revered figure in Native American history.
The exact year of Tecumseh's birth is unknown; 1768 is the generally accepted estimate. He was born in the Ohio Country, probably in one of the Shawnee towns along the Scioto River, near present day Springfield Ohio. Nineteenth century traditions (and current Ohio historical markers) placed his birthplace further west, along the Little Miami River, although the Shawnee towns there were not settled until after Tecumseh's birth.
Tecumseh's name (which has been translated in a number of ways, including "I Cross the Way" or "A Panther Crouching for His Prey") was likely a reference to his family clan, but perhaps refers to a passing comet, as later traditions claimed. Shawnee children inherited a clan affiliation from their fathers; Tecumseh belonged to the panther clan, one of about a dozen Shawnee clans.
In addition to clans, the Shawnee had five traditional divisions, membership in which was also inherited from the father. Tecumseh's father Pucksinwah (and thus Tecumseh also) belonged to the Kispokotha. Most traditions state that Tecumseh's mother Methotasa was Creek or Cherokee, but biographer John Sugden believes that she was a Shawnee of the Pekowi (Piqua) division. Some of the confusion results from the fact that some Creeks and Cherokees were eager to claim the famous Tecumseh as one of their own; many Creeks named children after him. There is some evidence to suggest that Tecumseh's paternal grandfather (Pucksinwah's father) may have been a white fur trade.
The term "Indian Wars" is the name generally used in the United States to describe a series of conflicts between the United States and Native Americans (formerly known as "Indians"). Also generally included in this term are those Colonial American wars with Native Americans that preceded the creation of the United States.
The wars, which ranged from colonial times to the Wounded Knee massacre and the "closing" of the American frontier in 1890, generally resulted in the conquest of American Indians and their assimilation or forced relocation to Indian reservations. Citing figures from an 1894 estimate by the United States Census Bureau, one scholar has calculated that the more than 40 wars from 1775 to 1890 reportedly claimed the lives of some 45,000 Indians and 19,000 whites. This rough estimate includes women and children on both sides, since noncombatants were often killed in frontier massacres.
The Indian Wars comprised a series of smaller wars. American Indians were (and remain) diverse peoples with their own histories; throughout the wars, they were not a single people any more than Europeans were. Living in societies organized in a variety of ways, American Indians usually made decisions about war and peace at the local level, though they sometimes fought as part of formal alliances, such as the Iroquois Confederation, or in temporary confederacies inspired by leaders such as Tecumseh.
Warfare between whites and native peoples loomed large in Tecumseh's youth. His father, Pucksinwah, was killed in Lord Dunmore's War at the Battle of Point Pleasant in 1774. In the American Revolutionary War, many Shawnee villages were destroyed by American frontiersmen, including what was likely Tecumseh's boyhood home in the Battle of Piqua in 1780. Tecumseh was raised by his older brother Cheeseekau (Chiksika), an important war leader whom Tecumseh probably accompanied in skirmishes against whites in Kentucky and Ohio. His older sister Tecumapese was also very important in his upbringing, teaching good morals and high character.
In early 1789, Tecumseh traveled south with Cheeseekau to live among, and fight alongside, the Chickamauga Cherokee. The two were accompanied by twelve Shawnee warriors, and stayed at Running Water (in Marion County, Tennessee}, because that was where the wife and daughter whom Cheeseekau had not seen in years lived. There Tecumseh met the famous leader Dragging Canoe, who was leading a resistance movement against U.S. expansion. Cheeseekau was killed while leading a raid, and Tecumseh assumed leadership of the small Shawnee band, and sometimes Chickamauga warriors also, during the raids. Tecumseh returned to Ohio in late 1790, having fathered, according to Cherokee legend, a Cherokee daughter before leaving.
Back in the Ohio Country, Tecumseh took part in the war to resist further expansion into the Ohio Country by the United States, which ended unsuccessfully at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. Tecumseh refused to sign the Treaty of Greenville, which ended the war.
Tecumseh settled in Greenville, the home of his younger brother Tenskwatawa, also known as The Prophet. In 1805, a nativist religious revival led by Tenskwatawa emerged. He urged natives to reject the ways of the whites, and to refrain from ceding any additional lands to the United States. Opposing Tenskwatawa was the Shawnee leader Black Hoof, who was working to maintain a peaceful relationship with the U.S. By 1808, tensions with whites and Black Hoof's Shawnees compelled Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh to move further northwest and establish the village of Prophetstown, near the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers (near present-day Battle Ground, Indiana).
Tenskwatawa's religious teachings became widely known, and the mysticism of the beliefs attracted native followers from many different tribes, especially among the Ojibwe (Chippewa) affiliates. Although Tecumseh would eventually emerge as the leader of this confederation, it was built upon a foundation established by the religious appeal of his younger brother. Relatively few of these followers were Shawnee; although Tecumseh is often portrayed as the leader of the Shawnee, most Shawnee in fact had little involvement with Tecumseh or the Prophet, and chose instead to move further west or to remain at peace with the United States.
In September 1809, William Henry Harrison, governor of the newly formed Indiana Territory, negotiated the Treaty of Fort Wayne, in which various American Indian leaders sold about 3,000,000 acres (10,000 km²) to the United States. Tecumseh's opposition to this treaty marked his emergence as a prominent leader. Although Tecumseh and the Shawnees had no claims on the land sold, he was alarmed by the massive sale. Tecumseh revived an idea advocated in previous years by the Shawnee leader Blue Jacket and the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, which stated that native land was owned in common by all tribes, and thus no land could be sold without agreement by all. Not yet ready to confront the United States directly, Tecumseh's primary adversaries were initially the native leaders who had signed the treaty.
An impressive orator, Tecumseh began to travel widely, urging warriors to abandon accommodationist chiefs and to join the resistance at Prophetstown (Tippecanoe). Tecumseh insisted that the Fort Wayne treaty was illegitimate; he asked Harrison to nullify it, and warned that Americans should not attempt to settle the lands sold in the treaty.
In August 1811, Tecumseh met with Harrison at Vincennes, assuring him that the Shawnee brothers meant to remain at peace with the United States. Tecumseh then traveled to the south, on a mission to recruit allies among the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes" (Chickasaw, Choctaw, Seminole, Cherokee, and Creek). Most of the southern nations rejected his appeals, but a faction among the Creeks, who came to be known as the Red Sticks, answered his call to arms, leading to the Creek War.
While Tecumseh was in the south, Governor Harrison marched up the Wabash River from Vincennes with more than 1,000 men, on an expedition to intimidate the Prophet and his followers. On November 6, 1811, Harrison's army arrived outside Prophetstown (Tippecanoe). Tenskwatawa sent out his warriors against the American encampment that night. In the Battle of Tippecanoe, Harrison's men held their ground, and the Indians withdrew from the village after the battle. The victorious Americans burned the town and returned to Vincennes.
The battle was a severe blow for Tenskwatawa, who lost prestige and the confidence of his brother. Although it was a significant setback, Tecumseh began to secretly rebuild his alliance upon his return from the south. Now that the Americans were also at war with the British in the War of 1812, "Tecumseh's War" became a part of that struggle. The American effort to neutralize potential British-Native cooperation had backfired, instead making Tecumseh and his followers more fully committed to an alliance with the British.
Like the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812 was also a massive Indian war on the western front. Encouraged by Tecumseh, the Creek War (1813-1814), which began as a civil war within the Creek (Muscogee) nation, became part of the larger struggle against American expansion. Although the war with the British was a stalemate, the United States was more successful on the western front.
Tecumseh joined British Major-General Sir Isaac Brock to force the surrender of Detroit in August 1812, a major victory for the British. Tecumseh's acumen in warfare was evident in this engagement. As Brock advanced to a point just out of range of Detroit's guns, Tecumseh had his warriors parade out from a nearby wood and circle around to repeat the maneuver, making it appear that there were many more than was actually the case. The fort commander, Brigadier General William Hull, surrendered in fear of massacre should he refuse.
This victory was reversed a little over a year later, however, as Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's victory on Lake Erie, late in the summer of 1813, cut British supply lines and prompted them to withdraw. The British burned the public buildings in Detroit and retreated into Upper Canada along the Thames Valley. Tecumseh followed, fighting rearguard actions to slow the U.S. advance.
The next British commander, Major-General Henry Procter, did not have the same working relationship with Tecumseh as his predecessor. Procter failed to appear at Chatham, Ontario, as expected by the Native Americans. Harrison crossed into Upper Canada on October 5, 1813, and won a victory over the British and the Native Americans at the Battle of the Thames near Chatham. Tecumseh, who directed most of the fighting, was killed. His body was carried from the field and buried secretly in a grave that has never been discovered. Certain eye-witness sources state that Tecumseh was killed by Colonel Richard M. Johnson, future vice-president of the United States under Martin Van Buren, although it has not been proven. Shortly after, the tribes of his confederacy surrendered to Harrison at Detroit.
As in the Revolution and the Northwest Indian War, after the War of 1812, the British abandoned their Indian allies to the Americans. This proved to be a major turning point in the Indian Wars, marking the last time that Native Americans would turn to a foreign power for assistance against the United States.
The First Seminole War, in 1818, was in some ways a continuation of the Creek War and resulted in the transfer of Florida to the United States in 1819.
In the following decade, Tenskwatawa unsuccessfully tried to regain a position of leadership among Native Americans. In 1825, he returned to the United States and assisted in removing many of the Shawnees west of the Mississippi River. In 1826, he established a village at the site of modern–day Kansas City, Kansas' Argentine district. He died in 1839 at his village in Kansas City; the White Feather Spring marker notes the location.
In June 1930, the United States Naval Academy Class of 1891 presented the Academy with a bronze replica of the figurehead of USS Delaware, a sailing ship-of-the-line. This bust, one of the most famous relics on the campus, has been widely identified as Tecumseh. However, when it adorned the American man-of-war, it commemorated not Tecumseh but Tamanend, the Delaware chief who welcomed William Penn to America in 1682.
Despite his defeat, Tecumseh is honored in Canada as a tragic hero: A brilliant war chief who, along with Sir Isaac Brock, saved Canada from U.S. invasion when all seemed hopeless, but could not save his own people. Among the tributes, Tecumseh is ranked 37th in The Greatest Canadian list.
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