Tecumseh (March 1768 – October 5, 1813), also Tecumtha or Tekamthi,
was a famous Native American leader of the Shawnee. He spent much of his life
attempting to rally various native American tribes in a mutual defense of their
lands, which eventually led to his death in the War of 1812.
Tecumseh (Tekoomsē: "Shooting Star" or "Crouching Panther") is believed to have been born on March 9, 1768 just outside the current town of Xenia, Ohio, to the "Dancing Tail" (Panther) clan. His father was Pucksinwah, a Shawnee war chief who was killed at the Battle of Point Pleasant during Lord Dunmore’s War in 1774. His mother was named Methoataske. Displaced by encroaching caucasian settlers, many Shawnees, including Tecumseh’s mother, moved westward first to Indiana, then Illinois, and finally to Missouri. Though only eleven, Tecumseh loved the land of his birth and stayed to be raised as a warrior by his eldest brother Chiksika and his sister Tecumpease. He was one of seven children.
In his early manhood, he travelled to the Missouri River country with his brother Chiksika and eleven other warriors on an extended hunting trip that lasted eight months. In early 1789, the band arrived at Dragging Canoe's town of Running Water on the Tennessee River, where Chiksika's Cherokee wife and daughter lived, after first visiting a nearby Muscogee town to look for their mother.
Their mother, a Muscogee, had left the north (her husband died at the Battle of Point Pleasant, the only major action of Dunmore's War, in 1774) and gone to live in her old town because without her husband she was homesick. Their mother had died, but since Chiksika's wife and his daughter were living nearby, they stayed. (It is stated elsewhere that Tecumseh's mother was Cherokee. See Burr citation below.)
They were warmly received by the Cherokee warriors, and, based out of Running Water, they participated in and conducted raids and other actions, in some of which Cherokee warriors participated (most notably Bob Benge and Dragging Canoe's brother, Little Owl). Chiksika was killed in one of the actions in which their band took part in April, resulting in Tecumseh becoming leader of the small Shawnee band, gaining his first experiences as a leader in warfare.
The band remained at Running Water until late 1790, then returned north.
Tecumseh eventually settled in what is now Greenville, Ohio, the home of his younger brother, Lowawluwaysica ("One With Open Mouth") who would later take the new name of Tenskwatawa ("The Open Door"), and achieve widespread fame as "The Shawnee Prophet".
In 1805, a religious revival led by Tenskwatawa emerged. Tenskwatawa urged natives to reject the ways of the whites, and to refrain from ceding any more lands to the United States. Opposing Tenskwatawa was the Shawnee leader Black Hoof, who was working to maintain a peaceful relationship with the United States. By 1808, tensions with white settlers 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 as did his predictions based on information supplied by Tecumseh. Tecumseh would eventually emerge as the leader of this confederation, though it was built upon a foundation established by the religious appeal of his younger brother. Relatively few of these followers were Shawnees; although Tecumseh is often portrayed as the leader of the Shawnees, most Shawnees 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 a delegation of half-starved Indians ceded 3 million acres (12,000 km²) of Native American lands to the United States. Harrison was under orders from Washington to negotiate with Indians that claimed the lands that they were ceding. However, he disregarded these orders, as none of the Indians he met with lived on the lands that they ceded.
Tecumseh's opposition to the treaty marked his emergence as a prominent leader. Although Tecumseh and the Shawnees had no claim 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 Indian land was owned in common by all tribes, and thus no land could be sold without agreement by all. Not ready to confront the United States directly, Tecumseh's primary adversaries were initially the Indian 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. Tecumseh insisted that the Fort Wayne treaty was illegal; he asked Harrison to nullify it, and warned that Americans should not attempt to settle on the lands sold in the treaty. Tecumseh is quoted as saying, "No tribe has the right to sell, even to each other, much less to strangers.... Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Didn't the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?" And, "....the only way to stop this evil is for the red man to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was first, and should be now, for it was never divided."
In 1811, Tecumseh again met with Harrison at Grouseland, Harrison's Vincennes, Indiana, home to try to resolve the situation, but Harrison as Governor had made it his primary goal to acquire as much Indian land as he could. Harrison's father-in-law was John Cleves Symmes, a member of Congress who also pursued an active career as a land developer and seller of the lands acquired by Harrison's many Indian treaties. Tecumseh told Harrison that the Shawnee and their Native American brothers wanted to remain at peace with the United States but these differences had to be resolved. Tecumseh, knowing only solidarity of the tribes would convince Washington, then traveled south, on a mission to recruit allies among those Indians in the Southeast. 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.
A comet appeared in March 1811. The Shawnee leader Tecumseh, whose name meant shooting star, told the Creeks that the comet signaled his coming. McKenney reported that Tecumseh would prove that the Great Spirit had sent him by giving the tribes a "sign." Shortly after Tecumseh left the American Deep South, the sign arrived as promised in the form of an earthquake.
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). Instead of being frightened, Tenskwatawa ordered his warriors to attack 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.
On December 11, 1811, the New Madrid Earthquake shook the South and the Midwest. While the interpretation of this event varied from tribe to tribe, one consensus was universally accepted: the powerful earthquake had to have meant something. For many tribes it meant that the Shawnee must be supported.
The Battle of Tippecanoe was a severe blow for Tenskwatawa, who had lost both prestige and the confidence of his brother. Although it was a significant setback, Tecumseh began to secretly rebuild his alliance upon his return. 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 American cooperation had backfired, instead making Tecumseh and his followers more fully committed to an alliance with Britain.
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 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 a massacre should he refuse. Among the Detroit residents imprisoned by the British was Father Gabriel Richard, but due to the high esteem in which the priest was held by the Native Americans among whom he ministered, Tecumseh refused to continue fighting for the British until they freed Richard.
This victory was reversed a little over a year later, as Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's victory on Lake Erie, late in the summer of 1813, cut British supply lines and forced them to withdraw. The British burned all public buildings in Detroit and retreated into Upper Canada along the Thames Valley. Tecumseh followed, fighting rearguard actions to slow the US advance.
The next British commander, Major-General Henry Procter, did not have the same working relationship with Tecumseh as his predecessor and the two "disagreed over tactics." Procter failed to appear at Chatham, Ontario , though he had promised Tecumseh that he would make a stand against the Americans there. Harrison crossed into Upper Canada and on October 5, 1813, won a victory over the British and Native Americans at the Battle of the Thames near Moraviantown. Tecumseh was killed, and shortly after the battle the tribes of his confederacy surrendered to Harrison at Detroit. In 1836-37, in part because of reports that it was he who had killed Tecumseh, Richard Mentor Johnson was elected vice-president of the United States, to serve with Martin Van Buren.
The US Navy named four ships USS Tecumseh, the first one as early as 1863. The Canadian naval reserve unit HMCS Tecumseh is based in Calgary, Alberta. 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.
Tecumseh is honoured in Canada as a hero and military commander who played a major role in Canada's successful repulsion of an American invasion in the War of 1812, which, among other things, eventually led to Canada's nationhood in 1867 with the British North America Act. Among the tributes, Tecumseh is ranked 37th in The Greatest Canadian list.
A 1848 drawing of Tecumseh was based on a sketch done from life in 1808. Benson Lossing altered the original by putting Tecumseh in a British uniform, under the mistaken (but widespread) belief that Tecumseh had been a British general. This depiction is unusual in that it includes a nose ring, popular among the Shawnee at the time, but typically omitted in idealized depictions.
He is also honoured by a massive portrait which hangs in the Royal Canadian Military Institute. The unveiling on the work, commissioned under the patronage of Kathryn Langley Hope and Trisha Langley, took place at the Toronto-based RCMI on Oct. 29, 2008.
A number of towns have been named in honor of Tecumseh, including those in the states of Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and the province of Ontario, as well as the town and township of New Tecumseth, Ontario, and Mount Tecumseh in New Hampshire.
Union Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman, was given the name Tecumseh because "my father . . . had caught a fancy for the great chief of the Shawnees." Another Civil War general, Napoleon Jackson Tecumseh Dana, also bore the name of the Shawnee leader.
This Tecumseh Biography Page is Copyright © 2004 - 2009 Chuck Ayoub