August 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 5
Only Tecumseh came close to uniting the warring tribes, but his British allies and his less visionary people failed him
In its issue of December 2, 1820, the Indiana Centinel of Vincennes, Indiana, published a letter praising a late and much-hated enemy, “Every schoolboy in the Union now knows that Tecumseh was a great man,” it read. “He was truly great—and his greatness was his own, unassisted by science or the aids of education. As a statesman, a warrior and a patriot, take him all in all, we shall not look upon his like again.”
Seven years earlier, frontier communities throughout the territory of the Old Northwest had exulted over the death of the “yaller devil” who had tried to bar white men from the rich lands north of the Ohio River. But with the disappearance of danger, thoughtful citizens, like the Centinel ’s correspondent, had at last begun to realize that a native of soaring greatness had been in their midst. Along the waterways and dirt roads of Ohio and Indiana, settlers who still shuddered with memories of the warfare that had wrested the region from the Indians talked of Tecumseh with admiration, and agreed with the verdict of their own hero, General William Henry Harrison, who had led them against the war chief. Tecumseh, Harrison had reported to Washington, was “one of those uncommon geniuses, which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things. If it were not for the vicinity of the United States, he would perhaps be the founder of an Empire that would rival in glory that of Mexico or Peru.”
Today, 150 years after his death, Tecumseh, as made clear by Glenn Tucker, his most recent and ablest biographer, still looms as the greatest native leader in the long, tragic resistance of the Indians of the United States. A brilliant orator and warrior and a brave and distinguished patriot of his people, he was intelligent, learned, and wise, and was noted, even among his white enemies, for his integrity and humanity. But, unlike all previous native leaders, he looked beyond the mere resistance by a tribe or group of tribes to white encroachments; and here lay his unique greatness. He was a Shawnee, but he considered himself an Indian first, and fought to give all Indians a national, rather than a tribal, consciousness, and to unite them in defense of a common homeland where all might continue to dwell under their own laws and leaders.
In modern days, world opinion which endorses the right of self-determination of peoples might have supported before the United Nations his dream of a country of, by, and for Indians. But the crisis he faced came too early in history, and he failed. His failure meant considerably more than that the main theater of his struggle, Indiana (originally “the country of Indians”), became a white rather than an Indian state. It threw all the tribes back upon their separate resources, as they had been since the beginning of their conflict with white men, and re-established a pattern in which individual tribes or regional confederacies sought hopelessly to cope alone with the invaders. More important, it ended for all time the possibility that an Indian free state or nation might be created within territory won or purchased by the United States from other white governments.
Tecumseh’s story was a tragedy, for in the end it was a white man’s war between the United States and Great Britain that obscured his nationalist cause and made the Americans feel that they were merely fighting a military auxiliary of their enemies. The true nature of his struggle was apparent only after his death, but before that day, his uncompromising leadership, fiery courage, and tireless energy brought the Indians startingly close to victory.
Tecumseh was born in March, 1768, in one of the villages that formed a large, straggling settlement of Indian wigwams and bark cabins called Old Piqua on the bluffs above Ohio’s Mad River, northeast of present-day Dayton. His father, a Shawnee war chief named Puckeshinwa, was a proud, intelligent man who had been born in Florida, and his mother, Methoataske, probably a Creek Indian, was from eastern Alabama. Their birthplaces, far from Ohio, reflected the long, nomadic history of the Shawnees. Their restless, confused wanderings, marked by numerous alliances with other tribes and constant guerilla warfare against advancing whites, had made them more conscious than most natives of the similarity and urgency of the racial struggles being waged against the settlers on many different fronts. To them, the major enemies of all Indians were the English colonists, and from the time of the French and Indian War, when they sided with the French, they were in constant conflict with frontier settlers and with punitive English and colonial expeditions that were sent against them. After the American Revolution, their great numbers and continued resistance made them a prime target of the settlers.
Two events of his childhood and youth intensified Tecumseh’s personal animosity toward the white invaders. One was the brutal murder of his father by frontiersmen near Old Piqua, though by treaty they were forbidden to come north of the Ohio. This episode filled Tecumseh with horror and hate, and he resolved to become a warrior like his father and be “a fire spreading over the hill and valley, consuming the race of dark souls.” Then, a few years later, white men also treacherously murdered Cornstalk, a Shawnee war leader, who had become the youth’s idol.
After the death of Puckeshinwa, a chief named Blackfish, who ruled the Indian town of Old Chillicothe, a few miles from Old Piqua, had adopted Tecumseh into his family, and the boy had traveled back and forth between the two villages, receiving at both places education in personal conduct, oratory, and tribal lore. The murder of Cornstalk enraged Blackfish, and under his leadership the Shawnees commenced a new war of revenge. In 1778, Blackfish invaded Kentucky, struck at some of the settlements, and captured Daniel Boone and twenty-six other whites. He brought the noted frontiersman back to Old Chillicothe, where Tecumseh saw him. Later, Boone escaped.
In 1780, an American army under George Rogers Clark drove the natives from both Old Chillicothe and Old Piqua. The two cities were burned, and farther west on the Miami River the defeated Shawnees, Tecumseh with them, built another city, also called Piqua, which meant “town that rises from the ashes.” Conflict continued, and two years later Tecumseh, as a youthful observer rather than a warrior, accompanied a group of British and Indians in another invasion of Kentucky. Without taking part in the fighting, he watched the Indians try in vain to capture one of the settlements and then saw them administer a severe drubbing to an army of Kentuckians on the Licking River. Soon afterward, he got into his first battle, fighting by the side of his brother Cheeseekau in a small skirmish in Ohio. Cheeseekau was wounded, and Tecumseh was unnerved and fled from the battlefield. That night, he upbraided himself for his cowardice, it would be the last time anywhere that he would show fear.
With the end of the Revolution, the British withdrew offensive forces from along the Ohio River, and the Indians at last accepted as permanent the loss of their hunting grounds to the south. But there was still little peace for them. The flood of westward-moving settlers was increasing, and the newcomers now had their eyes on the rich Indian lands north of the river.
Once more, border warfare blazed. Still in his middle teens, Tecumseh joined a band of Shawnees that tried to halt the white invasion by intercepting settlers’ flatboats that came down the Ohio from Pennsylvania. For a while, the Indians made the route so hazardous that river traffic almost ceased.
After a certain battle on the river, the Indians captured a settler and burned him at the stake. Tecumseh, then about fifteen years old, watched the spectacle with horror. Suddenly he leapt to his feet and made an eloquent appeal that shamed the Indians for their inhumanity. This revulsion at vengeful cruelty was to be a notable part of his personality throughout his life; it was one of the sources of the admiration that white men eventually acquired for him.
In time, Tecumseh became the leader of his own band of warriors. The border conflict in the Northwest Territory had by now become critical for the settlers. In 1790 and 1791 two U.S. Army detachments—one under Josiah Harmar, the second under Arthur St. Clair—were sent out to protect the whites. Both were thrown back by Indians under a Miami war chief named Little Turtle. St. Clair’s defeat, in which Tecumseh particularly distinguished himself, was one of the worst routs ever suffered by an American army, and for a while it spread terror among the whites in the Northwest Territory and halted the flow of new settlers.
Tecumseh followed the victory by leading raids against while frontiersmen in both Ohio and Kentucky. In 1792, upon the death in battle of his brother Cheeseekau, Tecumseh became leader of all the Shawnee warriors in the south. In 1793, he broke off his forays against settlers there to hurry north and help defend the Ohio country against an invasion by a new American army, this one commanded by Major General Anthony Wayne.
The Shawnee Blue Jacket was now in command of all the Indian forces in the Northwest Territory. Tecumseh and his followers were assigned as scouts to follow the American army as it moved north. Wayne advanced from Cincinnati in October, 1793. Eighty miles north, at Greenville, he erected a fort and paused for the winter. But in June Wayne started forward again toward the Maumee River in northwestern Ohio. He had 3,000 men with him, but Blue Jacket with 1,400 warriors decided to engage him.
On August 20, 1794, the two forces met in a large clearing along the Maumee River where a tornado had blown down many big trees. Tecumseh’s scouts began the fight by firing on Wayne’s advance guard, and in the battle that followed, Tecumseh added to his reputation among the indians by his boldness and courage. Throughout the fight among the fallen trees, he was seen wherever the action was most desperate, and even after his rifle jammed and became unusable, he continued to lead and inspire his companions. At the height of the battle, another of his brothers was killed, but there was no time for grief. Wayne’s sharpshooters kept the Indians pinned down behind the trees, his cavalry thrashed at them, and at length the infantry launched a frenzied bayonet charge across the timbers. It scattered the natives and ended the battle that became known as Fallen Timbers. Wayne destroyed every Indian village he could find, built Fort Wayne at the head of the Maumee in Indiana, and retired for the winter to Greenville.
The following spring he invited the vanquished warriors to a peace meeting. Nearly 1,000 of them responded, representing twelve different tribes of the Northwest Territory; after two months of pressure, their chiefs reluctantly signed the Greenville Treaty, which ceded to the United States for sale to settlers almost two-thirds of Ohio, including the Shawnee sites of Old Piqua and Old Chillicothe on the Mad River; a triangular tract in southeastern Indiana; and sixteen strategically located areas in the Northwest, including the sites of Detroit, Toledo, Peoria, and Chicago. In return, the Indians divided among themselves about $20,000 in goods and received the promise of $9,500 in annuities.
Tecumseh had refused to attend the council, and after the treaty provisions became known, he split with Blue Jacket and announced that he would not accept what the chiefs had done. Nevertheless, as settlers moved into the ceded territory, he recognized the hopelessness of resistance, and withdrew westward with his followers into Indiana. His anger and opposition to the treaty furthered his reputation among both Indians and whites, and as large numbers of disgruntled warriors began to give him their loyalty and call him their chief, he became the dominant native leader in the Old Northwest.
He was twenty-seven years old now, five feet, ten inches tall, a powerful and handsome man with a proud and aggressive bearing. Though there is no definitely established contemporary portrait of him, white men who knew him described him as hard and fiery, a man who would announce with great authority, “I am Tecumseh,” and if challenged, would menacingly touch the stem of his tomahawk. At the same time, he had a complex personality in which many forces were apparently in conflict, for he could also be tender and sentimental, thoughtful and kind, or even playful and good-humored, depending on his mood.
In 1796, he married a half-breed woman named Manete, who is described merely as an “old woman.” She bore Tecumseh a son, but soon afterward he quarreled with her and they parted. Toward the end of the century, during a visit to an older sister, Tecumapease who had remained near Old Chillicothe, he met a sensitive young white girl named Rebecca Galloway, the daughter of an intelligent pioneer farmer who had once been a hunter for George Rogers Clark. She was blonde and beautiful, he was magnetic and interesting, and a strange, romantic attachment developed between them. In time, as Tecumseh continued to call on her, she taught him to speak better English and read to him from the Bible, Shakespeare, and history books.
Tecumseh broadened in dramatic fashion under Rebecca’s sympathetic tutoring. He absorbed the history of Alexander the Great and other leaders of white civilization, pondered over Biblical philosophy, and thirsted for even more knowledge that would make him better equipped to understand and deal with the Americans. His regard for the blonde, blue-eyed girl also increased, and eventually he asked her father if he might marry her. Mr. Galloway respected Tecumseh and advised him to ask Rebecca. Tecumseh did so, and the girl said that she would be willing if he would agree to give up his Indian ways and live with her as a white man. The decision was painful for Tecumseh, and he took a month to make up his mind. Finally, in sadness, he returned to Rebecca and told her that he could not abandon his people. He said good-by to her, left, and never saw her again. But the memory of her loveliness and guidance stayed with him, and he never took another wife.
The peace envisioned for the Northwest Territory by Wayne’s treaty lasted little more than a decade and was never more than a truce. As Tecumseh had foreseen, the line established at Greenville between the races could not halt conflict. Though the Indians acknowledged white possession of southern Ohio, many of them continued to live and hunt on their former lands, and they were in constant friction with frontier settlers. Moreover, as whites continued to come down the Ohio River, they began to press for the opening of new Indian lands, and in 1800, as if preparing to slice another large piece from the natives’ domain, the government established administrative machinery for a Territory of Indiana, west of Ohio.
During this period, another tragedy struck the Indians. Traders and settlers brought liquor into the region in huge quantities, and native bands in close contact with the whites could not resist it. They traded land, possessions, and their services for the alcohol, and almost overnight large segments of once-proud and dignified tribes became demoralized in drunkenness and disease. As poverty and death claimed the natives, whole bands disappeared, and the weakened survivors clung together in ragged misery.
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.
At village after village in the Northwest Territory, exciting the people with the presence of the Prophet and himself, Tecumseh appealed for their support with thrilling and patriotic oratory. At many places, chiefs who had signed the Treaty of Greenville and wanted no more war with the Americans opposed him, and he suffered many rebuffs. Elsewhere, whole tribes responded with enthusiasm to his speeches, or divided their loyalties between their old chiefs and eager young warriors who agreed with Tecumseh’s appeals.
Tecumseh next turned south and west and in 1809, accompanied by a small band of followers, visited dozens of tribes, from the Seminoles in Florida to the Osages in Missouri. He received attention and sympathy and made many friends; among most of the peoples he visited, he managed to sow the seeds of future action against the Americans. Before the end of the year, he was back in the north and heading into New York State, where he tried in vain to enlist the Iroquois tribes in his alliance. No matter: from Lake Superior to the Gulf of Mexico, he had laid the groundwork for the common defense of the Indians’ country by the greatest military alliance in native history.
While he had been away, the situation had worsened in Indiana. The war scare had abated, but additional pressures were threatening the natives. There were now more than 20,000 Americans in southern Indiana, and if they were to receive statehood, for which they were clamoring, they would have to secure more Indian land on which to support a larger white population. The politically ambitious Governor Harrison was as aggressive as any of the settlers, and during the summer of 1809 he decided to force the Indians into a new cession. He sent his agents to Little Turtle and a host of the older and weaker chiefs and, armed with maps of central Indiana, met them at Fort Wayne in September. Harrison’s letters reveal that he had little conscience in his dealings with the Indians and that he was not above deceit. He “mellowed” the chiefs with alcohol, and after he had placed considerable pressure on them, they proved obliging. For $7,000 in cash and an annuity of $1,750 they ceded three million acres of land in Indiana, much of it owned by tribes that were not even represented at Fort Wayne.
The new cession enraged Tecumseh. While he had been away trying to unite the Indians in defense of the country they still owned, Indians behind his back had sold more of it. He circulated word that Indian country was the common property of all the tribes, and that he and his allies would refuse to recognize the latest piece of treachery. Angry Indians who agreed with him flocked to the Tippecanoe, and in the spring of 1810, Tecumseh had a force of 1,000 warriors at the Prophet’s Town, training to repel, if necessary, any attempt by Americans to settle the newly ceded lands. Early in August, ignoring Harrison’s invitation to visit the President of the United States in Washington, Tecumseh and the Prophet set off determinedly to see the Governor at Vincennes.
The council was tense and dramatic. In a grove near the Governor’s mansion, Tecumseh and Harrison faced one another, both strong, willful leaders of national forces that had met in head-on collision. The two men were proud and suspicious, and as their followers stood nervously in the background, eyeing each other for signs of treachery, the air bristled with hostility. Tecumseh spoke first, beginning slowly, but soon pouring out his words in such swift and passionate flights of oratory that the interpreter had difficulty following.
The Shawnee first reviewed the history of Indian-white relations in the Ohio Valley, and reminded Harrison of every wrong suffered by the natives at the hands of the Americans. Now, he told the Governor, he was trying to unite the Indians, but the American leader was fomenting enmities among them. Tecumseh’s words were lofty and eloquent, but we have only the interpreter’s stilted translation of his ideas.
You endeavor to make distinctions. You endeavor to prevent the Indians from doing what we, their leaders, wish them to do—unite and consider their land the common property … I am a Shawnee. My forefathers were warriors. Their son is a warrior. From them I take only my existence. From my tribe I take nothing. I have made myself what I am. And I would that I could make the red people as great as the conceptions of my mind, when I think of the Great Spirit that rules over all. I would not then come to Governor Harrison to ask him to tear the treaty. But I would say to him, Brother, you have liberty to return to your own country.
Several times Tecumseh turned to his dream of uniting the tribes in order to halt the whites. “The way, the only way to stop this evil,” he told Harrison, “is for all the red men to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was at first, and should be now—for it never was divided, but belongs to all. No tribe has a right to sell, even to each other, much less to strangers, who demand all, and will take no less …” “Sell a country,” he interrupted himself at one point. “Why not sell the air, the clouds and the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children?”
Toward the end of his speech, he apparently tried to nettle Harrison. “How can we have confidence in the white people?” he asked him. “When Jesus Christ came upon the earth, you killed Him, and nailed Him to a cross. You thought He was dead, but you were mistaken. You have Shakers among you, and you laugh and make light of their worship.” Finally, he pointed to the United States as a model for the natives. “The States,” he said, “have set the example of forming a union among all the fires [states]—why should they censure the Indians for following it?” Then, declining Harrison’s offer of a chair, he sat down proudly on the ground.
Harrison began his reply by insisting that Tecumseh had no right to contest the sale of land in Indiana, because the Shawnee homeland had been in Georgia. The Indian chief stirred angrily, recognizing the deliberate evasion of his thesis that Indian land everywhere belonged to all natives. As Harrison went on, he became more impatient, and tension among the onlookers began to mount. Suddenly Harrison asserted that the United States had always been fair and just in its dealings with Indians. Tecumseh leaped to his feet and shouted, “It is false! He lies!” As he poured his wrath on Harrison, the Governor unsheathed his sword and started forward. Several whites aimed their guns, and the Indians behind Tecumseh drew their tomahawks. For an instant, a fight seemed imminent. Then Harrison coolly adjourned the council.
The next morning, Tecumseh’s temper had subsided, and he sent his apologies to Harrison. The Governor accepted them, and visited the chief’s camp. Tecumseh was in a good mood, and the two men sat down together on a bench. Gradually, the Indian kept pushing against Harrison, forcing the American to move closer to one end. Finally, as Harrison was about to be shoved off, he objected, and Tecumseh laughed, pointing out that that was what the American settlers were doing to the Indians.
Harrison’s attitude served notice that he intended to keep pressing for more Indian land, and Tecumseh knew that to stop him, he had to hurry his alliances and strengthen the natives’ will to resist. Once more, the Shawnee leader made rapid visits to the tribes of Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan, delivering passionate pleas for his confederation. On November 15, 1810, he even crossed to the Canadian side of the Detroit River and, at the British post of Fort Malden, addressed a council of Potawatomis, Ottawas, Sauk, Foxes, and Winnebagos. The next year Harrison, believing that the best defense was vigorous offense, decided the time had come to smash the Prophet’s Town and scatter the leaders of Indian opposition.
All he needed was an overt act by the natives to justify his invasion of the Indians’ country, and in July, 1811, he gained his excuse when Potawatomis killed some white men in Illinois. Harrison claimed at once that they were followers of the Prophet and demanded that the Shawnees on the Tippecanoe surrender them to him for justice. In reply, Tecumseh and the Prophet again visited Vincennes for a personal meeting with the American leader. They refused to deliver the Potawatomis, and once more the council ended in an impasse. The Prophet returned to his center on the Tippecanoe, and Tecumseh, accompanied by twenty-four warriors, set off down the Wabash River, bound on a second attempt to unite the southern tribes behind him.
Tecumseh’s second southern journey was a heroic and memorable effort that in five months took him down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers to the present site of Memphis, through Tennessee to Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida, back north again across Georgia to the Carolinas, through the full length of Tennessee to the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas and Missouri, north into Iowa, and eventually back home. Once more, he hurried from village to village, pleading for a united war against the Americans.
His words “fell in avalanches from his lips,” one who heard him said. “His eyes burned with supernatural lustre, and his whole frame trembled with emotion. His voice resounded over the multitude—now sinking in low and musical whispers, now rising to the highest key, hurling out his words like a succession of thunderbolts … I have heard many great orators, but I never saw one with the vocal powers of Tecumseh.” Wearing only a breechclout and moccasins, with lines of red war paint beneath his eyes, the Shawnee stood alone with his followers amid vast, encircling throngs and cried to the Indians to stop their intertribal wars, to unite in a single nation as the United States had done, and to fight together for all their land before it was too late. Old chiefs listened to him uneasily and argued back. They would not unite with old, hereditary enemies. They would not give up their autonomy to strangers. The kind of union that Tecumseh talked about was for white men, not Indians. And besides, it was already too late.
In historic debates with the greatest chiefs of the South, Tecumseh continued to plead his cause. “Where today are the Pequot?” Tecumseh cried to one audience.
Where the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pokanoket and many other once powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, as snow before a summer sun. … Will we let ourselves be destroyed in our turn without making an effort worthy of our race? Shall we, without a struggle, give up our homes, our country bequeathed to us by the Great Spirit, the graves of our dead and everything that is dear and sacred to us? I know you will cry with me, Never! Never!
Again and again, young warriors shouted their approval, and small groups promised to strike the Americans when Tecumseh gave them the signal. But the older leaders were wary and afraid. Some of them were receiving annuities and gifts from the Americans; some saw only ruin in Tecumseh’s plans; and some thought that their people could do well enough by themselves. Only the Creeks and Seminoles, already smouldering with hatred for the Americans, provided the Shawnee with hope.
Disappointed by his failures in the South, Tecumseh returned to the Tippecanoe River early in 1812, only to be met by news of a more stunning setback at home. During the Shawnee leader’s absence, Harrison had finally struck at the Prophet’s Town. At the head of an army of almost 1,000 men, the Governor had marched up the Wabash River, and on the night of November 6, 1811, had camped near the Indian settlement at the mouth of the Tippecanoe. The ominous arrival of the hostile force alarmed the Indians, and at first, without Tecumseh to direct them, they were undecided about what to do. A band of Winnebagos, bolder than the others, argued for an immediate attack on the invading whites, and finally won Tenskwatawa’s approval.
In the early hours of morning, some 450 natives crawled through the darkness toward the Americans. Harrison had placed his men in an unbroken line around the three sides of his triangular-shaped camp, and shortly before four o’clock, a sentry on the northern perimeter saw an Indian moving in the gloom and shot him. In an instant, the whooping natives were on their feet, charging toward the whites. The Americans met them with blazing musketry, and only a few of the Indians were able to crash into the camp, where Harrison’s men battled them in hand-to-hand struggles. The rest were chased back, and though they launched a series of rushes at other sides of the camp, they failed to break through.
As the sky lightened, the Indians finally withdrew among the trees, and kept up a desultory fire from cover during the day. By the second day, they had all vanished, and Harrison burned the Prophet’s Town.
The number of Indian dead in the battle was never known, though it was estimated to be between 25 and 40. Harrison lost 61 killed and 127 wounded, but on his return to the settlements, he announced that he had won a great victory and wrote to the Secretary of War that “the Indians have never sustained so severe a defeat since their acquaintance with the white people.” The importance of the battle was soon exaggerated beyond reality; in 1840 the magic of its memory still worked well enough to help elect Harrison to the Presidency.
Tecumseh reached the Tippecanoe in late February or early March, 1812, and seethed with rage as he viewed what had happened behind his back. His anger was directed against his brother, who had failed to prevent the battle. The southern trip had shown Tecumseh that his confederation was far from ready for the united movement he had planned to lead, and the clash on the Tippecanoe would now set off exactly the kind of border war he had tried to avoid. The tribes would rise individually seeking vengeance, and once more the Americans would deal with them piece-meal. Tecumseh banished the Prophet, but meanwhile the isolated uprisings Tecumseh feared had already begun. Irate bands, crying for revenge, fell on settlers in Indiana and Illinois. They raided independently of one another and without plan, but the panic they aroused united the Americans against all the natives, and strengthened the settlers’ conviction that the British and Tecumseh were directing the new attacks. Frontier feelings flamed against both the English and the Indians, and as frightened settlers abandoned their homes and fled south to safety, angry militia units built new forts and blockhouses north of the Ohio River. In Ohio, a large American army under Brigadier General William Hull began to march north to Detroit, while in Vincennes, Harrison prepared for the decisive war for which Tecumseh was not yet ready.
During the spring, the tension on the frontier spread to Washington, where it helped to precipitate the War of 1812. On June 18, the United States, under the pressure of Henry Clay and other “War Hawk” legislators from Kentucky and the West, began the war against Great Britain. Almost immediately, both the British and the Americans sent agents among the tribes, appealing for their help in the struggle. Several of the older chiefs, who had opposed Tecumseh and maintained their loyalty to the United States, argued the American case before their tribesmen. But in a large council called by the Americans at Fort Wayne, Tecumseh defied them. “Here is a chance …” he cried scornfully, “yes, a chance such as will never occur again—for us Indians of North America to form ourselves into one great combination …”
His words fired his listeners, and twice he dramatically broke in two the peace pipes which an American envoy handed him. Then, gathering a large party of Shawnees, Delawares, Kickapoos, and Potawatomis, he marched off to Fort Malden and announced his allegiance to the British. Other bands, remembering his visits and ardent appeals of the past, soon began to join him. Wyandots, Chippewas, and Sioux came from Canada, Michigan, and Minnesota, while an old acquaintance, Black Hawk, who would himself one day lead a war against the whites, moved across the northern wilderness from Illinois and Wisconsin and arrived with a war party of Sauk, Foxes, and Winnebagos. Elsewhere, Indian runners and British agents carried word that Tecumseh had finally declared war on the Americans, and the response of many tribes showed that the Shawnee’s travels had not been entirely in vain. Though they fought without Tecumseh’s guiding direction, and not as the united Indian people he had envisioned, bands rose against the Americans on every front, driving settlers, traders, and armed forces into retreat in the Northwest, the upper Mississippi, and the Deep South. Before the war ended, the Americans had stopped them, but the costly months of their hostility were scarred by massacres, the disruption of commerce, and the desolation of settlements from the outskirts of St. Louis to the Creek country of Alabama and Georgia.
On the Canadian side of the Detroit River, Tecumseh soon had a native army of between 1,000 and 3,000 men. The American General Hull established his headquarters at the town of Detroit, and on July 12 launched an invasion of Canada. Crossing the river with 3,000 men, he prepared to attack the 300-man British garrison at Fort Malden. Hull was an elderly hero of the Revolution who had become weak and timid with age. His advance guard won a preliminary skirmish with a small mixed body of Indians and British, but soon afterward, Tecumseh and 150 warriors ambushed another of his scouting parties, then slipped behind Hull and cut off one of his supply columns coming north from Ohio.
Hull panicked, and when he further learned that Chippewa allies of Tecumseh had assisted in the British capture of Michilimackinac in northern Michigan and were probably canoeing south to attack Detroit, he hastily abandoned his invasion of Canada and recrossed the river to the American shore. His officers and men were appalled by his cowardice, but the threat of Indian strength now hung heavy over them all. On August 8, an earlier relief column having been cut to ribbons, Hull sent a new force of 600 men to try to rescue the cut-off supply expedition, under Captain Henry Brush, now pinned down behind the River Raisin. By this time some British troops had also crossed the river, and at Monguaga, a few miles south of Detroit, they joined Tecumseh’s Indians and helped to intercept the new American relief column. A furious battle ensued, during which Tecumseh fought with conspicuous bravery and received a wound in the leg, but the British and Indians were eventually forced to abandon the field and withdraw to the Canadian side of the river. Still, the mauled American troops dared move no farther south, and Brush’s supply convoy remained in hiding south of the River Raisin.
On August 13, Major General Isaac Brock arrived at Malden with 300 British reinforcements from the east. Brock, the Lieutenant Governor of Canada, was an able and resolute military leader, a huge man well over six feet tall, with a powerful physique and a gentle and considerate nature. He had heard great praise of Tecumseh and had already formed a high opinion of the Indian chief. On the night he reached Malden he read Hull’s dispatches, which Tecumseh had captured, and realized from them the extent of the American commander’s fears and weaknesses. When Tecumseh came in to be introduced to him, Brock asked the Shawnee leader for his opinion of what they ought to do next. Tecumseh pleased him by urging an immediate attack on Detroit. Only one British officer supported the Indian’s view, but at four o’clock in the morning, Brock decided to follow Tecumseh’s advice, and sent a message across the river, calling on Hull to surrender. The American refused, and as British guns opened fire on Detroit, Tecumseh’s Indians embarked for the American shore.
At the same time, Brock allowed one of his couriers to be captured by the Americans. The courier shattered Hull’s nerves by reporting that 5,000 Indians were arriving from the upper Lakes to join Tecumseh. Hull had still been occupied in trying to rescue Brush’s convoy and had just dispatched a third force of 350 men to bring it in. Tecumseh’s men landed between Detroit and the new expedition, and once more the American relief column was brought to a halt when its leaders realized what had happened. As the men wheeled about to march against the Indians in their rear, Tecumseh ranged his warriors around the fort and tried a ruse. Marching them in single file, he moved them three times out of the woods and across a clearing in full view of the fort’s defenders, so that it looked like the expected Chippewa reinforcements had arrived from the north. The stratagem had its desired effect: without a struggle, Hull raised a white flag and surrendered Detroit.
The American commander’s ignominious action shocked the United States. His capitulation even included Brush’s beleaguered column, but those men, learning what had happened, turned around in fright and raced safely back to the Ohio settlements. The fall of Detroit spread new panic across the frontier, but in the fallen city, the helpless members of the garrison soon found themselves turning from contempt for Hull to appreciation for Tecumseh. Though he had fought as an Indian, stripped to leggings and breechclout, the Shawnee chief dressed proudly in white men’s clothes for his entrance into Detroit, and his friendly and dignified conduct gradually won the admiration of the prisoners, many of whom had fearfully expected to be massacred.
The dramatic victory, meanwhile, had given the Shawnee leader new hope that he might, after all, achieve his dream of an Indian nation. Additional tribes were entering the war and were striking at other American strongholds. Potawatomis had captured Fort Dearborn, and aided even by a band of Miamis, who had long opposed Tecumseh’s appeal for unity, were laying siege to Fort Wayne. If victories continued the Americans might well be forced to recognize an Indian country. In the fall of 1812, Tecumseh made another tour to the South, principally to see the Creeks, who had promised to support his cause. Soon after he returned north, part of the Creek Confederation commenced a war across the South that cost the Americans thousands of lives and millions of dollars.
By April of 1813, Tecumseh was once again back at Malden. On his way home, he had picked up 600 recruits from among the Illinois tribes, and now had 3,000 natives under his command, one of the largest Indian armies ever assembled. During the Shawnee’s absence, however, General Brock had been killed in action on the Niagara border, and Colonel Henry Procter, a petulant, small-minded officer, had taken command at Malden. He was a fat, haughty man who was disdainful of Indians, and Tecumseh let him know quickly that he considered him a poor substitute for the bold, imaginative Brock.
In January, Procter and a force of Indians had gained a notable victory at the River Raisin over an army of 850 Kentuckians, killing or capturing the entire American force. Procter had assured the Americans that he would not allow the Indians to harm the prisoners, but when some of the natives got drunk, he looked the other way and did nothing to halt their butchery of all wounded and defenseless captives. When Tecumseh learned about it, he criticized the British commander for weakness in not having controlled the natives. If the Indians were ever to gain recognition of their own state, he told both the British and tribal leaders, they must gain the respect of white men for their humanity and civilized conduct.
The grisly massacre had also aroused the American West to a spirit of no-quarter revenge, and by the time Tecumseh returned from the South, his old adversary, General William Henry Harrison, was marching toward Detroit with a new army to avenge the savagery at the River Raisin. On the Maumee River, near the site of Wayne’s victory of Fallen Timbers, Harrison paused to build a new post called Fort Meigs; suddenly on April 25, 1813, he found himself besieged by an army of British and Indians, which had come south from Malden under Procter and Tecumseh. A brigade of 1,100 Kentuckians was on its way through the wilderness to reinforce Harrison’s army, and a little more than a week after the siege had begun, the new force made its appearance on the river. In an effort to break through the British lines and get into the fort, the Kentuckians divided their forces and moved down both banks of the river; but before they could reach the fort, some 800 troops were surrounded and almost annihilated by Tecumseh’s Indians. Almost 500 Americans were killed, and 150 captured.
While Tecumseh remained at the siege lines, some of the English and Indians marched the prisoners downriver to Procter’s headquarters at the British Fort Miami. Once more when the Indians began to murder the captives, Procter did nothing to restrain them. This time, however, a native carried word of what was happening to Tecumseh, and in a wild rage the Shawnee leader galloped to the British camp and hurled himself into the scene of massacre. The Indians had already killed more than twenty captives, and were tomahawking and scalping others when Tecumseh arrived. He knocked down one Indian with his sword, grabbed another by the throat, and lunged at the rest. As the natives drew back, he shouted at them, “Are there no men here?” The carnage stopped abruptly, and the Shawnee chief hastened to see Procter. When he demanded to know why the natives had again been allowed to kill prisoners, Procter answered lamely, “Your Indians cannot be controlled. They cannot be commanded.” His reply filled the Shawnee with contempt. “You are unfit to command,” he sneered at the British leader. “Go and put on petticoats.” Then he added bitterly, “I conquer to save, and you to murder.”
A couple of days later, over Tecumseh’s objection, Procter lifted the siege of Fort Meigs. The Indian leader was disgusted and two months later forced the British commander to surround the post once more. But Procter was weak and indecisive, and soon afterward he again abandoned the attempt to take the American fort. As opportunities continued to slip away from Procter, the Indians lost faith in his leadership. Finally, on September 13, disaster struck them all in a naval battle on Lake Erie. At Put-in Bay, an American fleet under Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry swept the British from the lake, and cut off Procter’s army from its eastern supply bases.
Aware of his isolation and fearing Harrison, who was now beginning to move against him with a heavily reinforced army, the British commander decided to abandon the Detroit region and withdraw along the northern shore of Lake Erie to join other English troops on the Niagara frontier, leaving the Indians to shift for themselves.
Procter’s duplicity inflamed Tecumseh. Gathering his Indians together on the Fort Malden parade ground, he humiliated the British commander in front of the other white officers, told the natives that the English were flying from the enemy, and later called Procter “a miserable old squaw.”
That same day, Procter began his withdrawal, and in time Tecumseh and his Indians were forced to follow him. The Shawnee was crushed. He had managed to wring from the British general a promise to retreat only as far as the Thames River, about fifty miles away, but as the natives trooped off, leaving behind them the country Tecumseh had worked so hard and so long to save for his people, the chief’s spirits flagged, and he was overcome with gloom. “We are now going to follow the British,” he told one of his warriors, “and I feel certain that we shall never return.”
On September 27, Harrison’s army crossed Lake Erie to Canada and commenced its pursuit of the British. Procter led the retreating army. Tecumseh with the Indians, including a band of Sioux from far-off Minnesota, brought up the rear, holding off advance units of the Americans while denouncing Procter for refusing to stand and fight.
On the night of October 4, he went into camp with the British near the present town of Thamesville, a short distance up the Thames River. They had now reached the line that Procter had promised to hold. But that night, as if he had accepted the final defeat of everything he had lived and fought for, Tecumseh had a premonition of death. As he sat by his fire with his closest Indian lieutenants, all of them men who had followed him loyally for years, he said calmly: “Brother warriors, we are about to enter an engagement from which I shall not return. My body will remain on the field of battle.”
The next morning, Procter again wanted to retreat, and Tecumseh had another bitter quarrel with him, this time threatening to shoot him with a rifle. Finally, the British commander agreed to honor his promise and make a stand at their present location. But it was Tecumseh, the Indian, who suddenly became the leader of the entire army. While Procter issued faint-hearted orders to his British and Canadian units, Tecumseh selected a defensive position where the main highway ran between the Thames River and a wooded swamp. Organizing the field of combat, the Shawnee placed the British in a line across the highway, with the river and swamp protecting the left and right flanks respectively. On the other side of the swamp, he divided the Indians into two groups, putting one of them under his own command as an extension of the British line, and placing the other in a larger swamp that paralleled the highway, and from which the warriors could sweep the road with flanking fire.
As the British and Indians took their positions, Tecumseh hunted up Procter and, in a forgiving mood, tried to reassure him. “Father,” he said, “have a big heart! Tell your young men to be firm and all will be well.” Then the Indian moved along the British line, inspecting the positions of the men and pausing to raise their spirits with friendly words. “He pressed the hand of each officer as he passed,” a British major related after the battle. “[He] made some remark in Shawnee—which was sufficiently understood by the expressive signs accompanying, and then passed away forever from our view.”
At four in the afternoon the Americans appeared down the road. Harrison’s force of 3,500 troops included 1,500 mounted Kentuckians under Colonel Richard Johnson, and two infantry divisions. Against him were 700 British troops and slightly more than 1,000 Indians. Harrison had scouted the English positions and decided to attack with his cavalrymen, sending the infantry after them in close support. As a bugle sounded the charge, Johnson’s Kentuckians galloped forward, shouting “Remember the River Raisin.” Johnson himself led one battalion against Tecumseh’s Indians and sent the rest of his men toward the British lines, which were barring the road. Those horsemen smashed headlong into the English units, and the terrified British gave way at once. Procter, who had been waiting in the rear, jumped in his carriage and fled from the battlefield. His troops, cut to pieces, threw up their hands and surrendered in a body.
On the British right flank, meanwhile, Tecumseh’s Indians met Johnson’s charge with a blaze of musketry that threw the Americans back, and forced the horsemen to dismount and fight from behind trees. At the same time a division of infantry advanced on the run to support the cavalry. They spotted the Indians in the swamp that flanked the road and veered off to attack them. As the Americans pressed into the woods and through the miry underbrush, the battle mounted. Over the din, many men could hear Tecumseh’s huge voice, shouting at the Indians to turn back the Americans. “He yelled like a tiger, and urged his braves to the attack,” one of the Kentuckians later said.
Other men caught glimpses of the Shawnee leader, running among the Indians with a bandage still tied around one arm, injured in an earlier skirmish. Now American bullets hit him again and again. Blood poured from his mouth and ran down his body, but the great warrior staggered desperately among the trees, still crying to his Indians to hold. The dream of an Indian nation was slipping fast, and as twilight came, it disappeared entirely. Suddenly, the Americans realized that they no longer heard Tecumseh’s voice, or saw his reckless figure. As darkness halted the battle, the Indians slipped away through the swamp, and the Americans dug in along the road.
In the morning, Harrison’s men hunted in vain for Tecumseh’s body. Somehow, during the night, it had vanished, and though several of the Shawnee chieftain’s closest followers said later that they had taken it away in the darkness and buried it secretly, some white men wondered for years whether Tecumseh was still alive. The Americans captured no Indians during the battle, but the struggle on the Thames River scattered the warriors and ended further serious resistance in the Northwest Territory.
Tecumseh’s dream, unrecognized by his enemies, disappeared with his body. No new native leader arose to unite the tribes, and in a few years, the advancing tide of civilization completed the demoralization and decay of the proud peoples who had once called the country of the Northwest Territory their home. In time, the pitiful survivors, reduced to poverty and sickness, were forcibly dispossessed of what little land remained to them and were removed to reservations on the west side of the Mississippi River. Many of them, as Tecumseh had foreseen, were moved again and again to make way for new advances of the whites. Today, across the state of Oklahoma, the dispersed descendants of the Shawnee chief’s warriors live among other and more numerous tribes, ignored and forgotten by most Americans. To them, however, belongs the pride of knowing that one of their people was the greatest of all the American Indian leaders, a majestic figure who might have given all the Indians a nation of their own.