The Native American Tecumseh (ca. 1768-1813), Shawnee chief, originated and led a Native American confederation against the encroaching white settlers in the old Northwest Territory. He was an ally of the British during the War of 1812.
According to tribal tradition, Tecumseh or Tecumtha, was born about March 1768 near what is now Springfield, Ohio. His father, Pucksinwa, was killed at the Battle of Point Pleasant in 1774, yet Tecumseh grew to manhood a distinguished warrior even without a father to guide him. He also grew to manhood angry at the encroaching whites who were forcing his tribe farther and farther west. A chief by 1808, he led the Shawnee to a site on the Wabash River near the mouth of the Tippecanoe, where they settled with permission from the Potawatomi and Kickapoo Indians.
Angry at the land hunger of the whites, Tecumseh was gradually coming to believe that no sale of land to the whites was valid unless all Native American tribes assembled and assented to such a sale. He said that the land did not belong to any one tribe, that it belonged to them all in common, and that the U.S. government had recognized this principle in 1795 at the Treaty of Greenville, when all tribes had assembled to make the agreement, after which the government had guaranteed title to all unceded land to the tribes in common. Governor William Henry Harrison of Indiana and other officials objected to this argument, realizing that such an arrangement was impractical from the government's point of view.
Tecumseh also knew that in unity there was strength, and he began to try to confederate all tribes from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico to oppose the whites. He was aided by his brother (perhaps a twin), Tenskwatawa, who was known as the Prophet. The Prophet preached with evangelical and revivalistic fervor that the Indians must return to the pure ways of their ancestors.
Tecumseh had some success in his drive to confederate the Indians. When the tribes visited his village, known as Prophet's Town, Tecumseh exhorted them not to drink alcoholic beverages, to develop their agricultural skills, and to accept nothing from whites on credit. He hoped to be left alone by the whites just long enough to consolidate his program and unify his people.
In this movement Tecumseh was aided by the British in Canada, who wanted allies against the Americans. He obtained arms, ammunition, and clothing from them. As he traveled and exhorted, he said, "Our fathers, from their tombs, reproach us as slaves and cowards." American observers noted that he was tall, straight, and lean—and a great orator. With British advice, he foretold the appearance of a comet in the heavens. When it appeared, as he had forecast, in 1812, the Creek Indians were so impressed that they arose against the whites—with disastrous results for their tribe.
In August 1810 Tecumseh met Governor Harrison at Vincennes for a conference, but he demanded the return of Indian lands so violently that the conference came to naught. The next year, at another conference, Tecumseh, overawed by militia, declared his peaceful intentions.
In 1811 Tecumseh journeyed southward to solicit more members for his confederation, warning his brother not to be drawn into battle unprepared. That summer was dry, crops were ruined, game became scarce, and the Prophet was led into a battle at Tippecanoe on Nov. 7, 1811. He was defeated, and this disaster caused many braves to desert Tecumseh. His confederation began to fall apart.
When the War of 1812 began, Tecumseh led his followers into the British camp, where he received the rank of brigadier general. He aided Sir Isaac Brock in the capture of Detroit; however, he also saved the lives of American soldiers about to be massacred there. In fact, his white enemies on the frontier always commented on his mercy and humanity, nothing that he would not torture prisoners and that his word was good.
Tecumseh and his followers fought with the British at Brownstown, Ft. Meigs, and Ft. Stephenson. His aid is often cited as the reason that the Americans failed to take Canada during this war. Yet when the British chose to retreat, following Adm. Oliver Hazard Perry's victories on Lake Erie, Tecumseh chose to cover the retreat. At the Battle of the Thames on Oct. 5, 1813, he was killed, leaving a lasting dispute as to who actually killed him.
Older books about Tecumseh and his movement that are of value include Benjamin Drake, Life of Tecumseh (1841; repr. 1969); Edward Eggleston, Tecumseh and the Shawnee Prophet (1878); and John M. Oskison, Tecumseh and His Times (1938). Recent works are Glenn Tucker, Tecumseh: Vision of Glory (1956); David C. Cooke, Tecumseh: Destiny's Warrior (1959); and a collection of documents by Carl F. Klinck, Tecumseh: Fact and Fiction in Early Records (1961). □