- Historic Sites
“These Lands Are Ours …”
Only Tecumseh came close to uniting the warring tribes, but his British allies and his less visionary people failed him
August 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 5
Tribes like the Shawnees, which remained farthest from contact with the traders, managed to retain their independence and strength. Tecumseh himself refused to drink whiskey and preached angrily against its use by his followers. One Shawnee, however, who became noted among his people as a depraved drunk was Tecumseh’s younger brother, Laulewasika. A loud-mouthed idler and loafer, he had lost an eye in an accident and wore a handkerchief over the empty socket. For years he drank heavily and lived in laziness. Then, in 1805, he was suddenly influenced by the great religious revival taking place among white settlers on the frontier, and particularly by itinerant Shaker preachers, whose jerking, dancing, and excessive physical activity stirred mystical forces within him.
During a frightening epidemic of sickness among the Shawnees, Laulewasika was overcome by a “deep and awful sense” of his own wickedness and fell into the first of many trances, during which he thought he met the Indian Master of Life. The latter showed him the horrible torments and sufferings of persons doomed by drink, and then pointed out another path, “beautiful, sweet, and pleasant,” reserved for abstainers. Laulewasika’s regeneration was instantaneous. He began to preach against the use of liquor, and the intensity of his words drew followers to him. As he continued to have trances and commune with the Master of Life, he changed his name to Tenskwatawa, “the Open Door,” which he took from the saying of Jesus, “I am the door.”
He allied himself with Tecumseh and gradually, under the war chief’s influence, broadened his doctrine of abstinence into an anti-white code that urged Indians to return to the ways of their fathers and end intertribal wars. Moving to Greenville, Ohio, at the very place where the chiefs had signed their treaty with Wayne in 1795, the two brothers built a large frame meetinghouse and fifty or sixty cabins for their converts.
The Prophet’s emotional appeals traveled quickly across the Northwest Territory, and he soon gained followers from almost every tribe. His growing influence and the dangerous concentration of natives around him disturbed Governor Harrison at his territorial headquarters in Vincennes, and he began to scoff publicly at the Prophet, hoping that ridicule would undermine the natives’ belief in him. But Harrison made little progress. Then in April, 1806, he challenged Tenskwatawa to perform a miracle. “If he is really a prophet,” he wrote to one group of Indians, “ask him to cause the sun to stand still, the moon to alter its course, the rivers to cease to flow, or the dead to rise from their graves. If he does these things, you may then believe he has been sent from God.”
Harrison’s challenge was disastrous. From some white source, perhaps a British agent in the north, the Prophet learned that a total eclipse of the sun would occur on June 16. In a bold and boastful response to Harrison, he proclaimed to the Indians that he would make the sun darken, and on the designated day a huge crowd of natives assembled at Greenville. Moving into their midst, Tenskwatawa pointed commandingly at the sun, and at 11:32 A.M. the moon, apparently responding to his order, began to darken its face. The Indians were stricken with awe. As night descended over the gathering, the Prophet called to the Master of Life to bring back the sun. In a moment, light began to reappear. With the return of full daylight, the Prophet’s reputation and power were assured.
Word of the “miracle” electrified the tribes of the Northwest Territory, and as far away as Minnesota entire bands gave their loyalty to the Shawnee’s code. In the Northwest Territory particularly, the Prophet’s preachings inspired the natives with new pride and purpose and, as Tecumseh hoped, helped to strengthen the feeling of unity among them. Moreover, as Tenskwatawa’s personal power increased, he began to stir his followers with demagogic appeals against Christianized Indians and others who weakened the native cause by their friendship for the whites. Several hundred Indians were killed before Tecumseh personally stopped the purge.
The developments following the eclipse alarmed Harrison, whose agents sent him reports of various tribes that had deposed their old chiefs and gone over to the Prophet. Tension between Great Britain and the United States, ever present since the end of the Revolution, had reached a critical point again, and Harrison and most western settlers were certain that the British in Canada were the real troublemakers behind Tenskwatawa. Gradually, Tecumseh felt the increasing animosity toward the natives, and recognized what its ultimate consequences would be: in their fear of the British, the Americans would again attack the Indians and try to drive them out of more of their lands. He saw only one hope—all the tribes must be brought together to fight as a single people in defense of their common lands.
To avoid premature conflict, he ordered Tenskwatawa to evacuate Greenville, which was too close to settlers in Ohio, and move his center westward to a tract of land in Indiana on the west bank of the Tippecanoe River. There, in May, 1808, at the stream’s confluence with the Wabash River, Tenskwatawa and the families of eighty of his followers raised the mission house and bark dwellings of a new Prophet’s Town. As soon as it was established, Tecumseh and his brother, with several companions and attendants, set out on horseback to unite the tribes for defense.