Tenskwatawa (1775-1836), also known as the "The Prophet," was a Shawnee religious leader and reviver of traditional ways. With his brother Tecumseh, he worked to create an Indian confederacy to resist American encroachment on Indian lands.
Tenskwatawa, known as Lalewithaka in his youth, was one of a set of triplets born to Puckeshinwa, a leader of the Kispokotha division of the Shawnee tribe. His mother, Methoataske, was of Creek descent. One of the triplets died in infancy, but Kumskaukau, the other triplet, survived. In addition to the two surviving triplets, the family also included three daughters and three sons. Tecumseh, who would later become a great leader of the Shawnee, was one of these sons.
Lalewithaka's childhood was not easy. Before he was born, in October 1774, his father was killed in a battle against British soldiers at Point Pleasant. His mother, depressed at the loss of her husband and frightened by the impending American Revolution, left her children. It is believed that she either returned to her Creek relatives, or went west. Her children were taken in by the Shawnee people.
Lalewithaka's oldest sister, who was already married, took her younger siblings into her household. Black Fish, a leading warrior, took an interest in the boys. However, Lalewithaka's older brother, Tecumseh, was generally favored. Lalewithaka was often left at home while the other boys and men went hunting or on small war excursions. R. David Edmunds wrote in The Shawnee Prophet, "What little training as a warrior he received evidently was acquired from mimicking other small boys in his village. There is no evidence to suggest he ever possessed enough skill as a hunter to provide for either himself or his family." Insecure and abandoned, Lalewithaka compensated by boasting about how important and skilled he was, but his life did not match these stories. His childhood name, "Lalewithaka," was a result of this boasting; it means "Noisemaker" or "the Rattle," a title of which he was not particularly proud.
His misfortune only increased when he was blinded in his right eye during an accident while he was playing with a bow and some iron-tipped arrows. During adolescence, he began drinking liquor. His drinking habit fueled his bragging, and made him even more unpopular among his tribesmen.
In August 1794, Lalewithaka finally went with his two brothers, Tecumseh and Sauwauseekau, to fight in a battle against the whites, who were led by "Mad Anthony" Wayne. Sauwauseekau was killed. Tecumseh refused to participate in the treaty that followed the battle, although Lalewithaka is believed to have been there.
In the next ten years, Lalewithaka married and had several children, but was not skilled enough to provide for them. Discouraged, he drank more, which only made his wife angrier. During this time, he became friendly with Penagashea, a highly regarded medicine man and prophet. When Penagashea died in 1804, Lalewithaka attempted to take his place and tried to cure others who were ill with diseases brought by the whites, with little success. Many members of the tribe were skeptical about his new career, doubting whether a man who had never lived a particularly holy life could ever be a healer or prophet.
Lalewithaka received his new name and his calling in the winter of 1804-05, during a dark time for his tribe. Illness, brought by white settlers, ravaged the Shawnee, taking the lives of young children, older people, and even strong warriors. Lalewithaka had attempted to treat the sick people, but with little success. Sitting in his wigwam one cold afternoon, he took a burning twig from his fire, intending to light his pipe. Before he could do so, he dropped the twig and fell over, unconscious. His wife rushed out to find help. Lalewithaka's neighbors were skeptical about his illness. At first, they believed he had simply drunk too much and had passed out in a stupor. Then they examined him, found that he was not breathing, and decided he must have died. Preparations for his funeral were begun.
Before the funeral could take place, however, Lalewithaka woke from his stupor and described what he had experienced: a vision given to him by the Master of Life. The Master of Life had sent two young men who carried his soul into the spirit world and showed him the past and the future. He saw the Shawnee paradise, as well as a large lodge filled with fire, where evildoers were condemned to go. Overcome, Lalewithaka wept as he described this vision, and swore to stop drinking and renounce his previous evil ways. Now, he would no longer be known as a loud-mouthed drunk; his name would now be Tenskwatawa, "The Open Door," which referred to his new destiny as a holy man who would lead his people to paradise. Although a few of his neighbors were still skeptical, many others were convinced that he was sincere and his vision was true.
Tenskwatawa's visions continued. Other Shawnees, demoralized by the recent epidemics and invasions of the whites, saw him as a messiah. His religious message inspired them. He denounced the loss of traditional Shawnee values and spoke vehemently against the consumption of alcohol, describing his own drunkenness and its cure. He also condemned violence, stealing, and sexual promiscuity. He urged people to treat elders with respect, perform traditional rituals, and return to traditional Shawnee ways. He also told his followers not to eat the meat of domestic animals or use white man's technology, such as guns, flint-and-steel fire starters, or wear white man's clothing. According to Edmunds, the Master of Life told him that the whites "grew from the scum of the Great Water when it was driven into the woods by a strong east wind. They are numerous, but I hate them. They are unjust. They have taken away your lands, which are not made for them." Shawnee people should not associate with whites in any manner, not even to shake hands, and any women married to white men were to be brought back to the tribe.
Tenskwatawa's teachings spread rapidly, not only among the Shawnee, but also among other tribes, to the great dismay of white missionaries. Despite his insistence on traditional values, Tenskwatawa was an outspoken critic of traditional shamanism and magic, and led witch hunts against people suspected of practicing these customs.
For the next several years, epidemics brought by the whites continued to spread through the tribes. In 1809, an especially long winter brought famine. These misfortunes caused some members of other tribes to be suspicious of Tenskwatawa's power: if he were truly a prophet, they believed, he could protect them. In mid-April of 1809, a small group of men from the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes came to Tenskwatawa's village, killed a woman and child, and fled. When no supernatural punishment fell upon them they spread the word that the Prophet was no different from anyone else, and many other warriors assembled to attack Prophetstown, where Tenskwatawa lived. Tenskwatawa tried to defend himself by claiming that the woman and child had not been killed by enemies, but had died of natural causes. At the same time, he asked people of the Sac, Kickapoo, and Potawatomi tribes for help.
Whites learned of the plans to attack his village. Because of their policy that conflict among the tribes must be avoided at all costs, General William Hull sent messengers to tell the Ottawas and Chippewas that any action against the Shawnees would result in action by white soldiers. The Ottawas and Chippewas dropped their plans for attack.
William Henry Harrison, governor of the area known as Indiana Territory, suspected that Tenskwatawa was hostile to the whites, despite his claims of friendship. Spies confirmed this. Harrison also assumed that the Prophet's popularity and power was waning and that he could do little to oppose the whites' plan to purchase more Indian land for settlement. Harrison's delegate met with leaders of the Miami, Delaware, and Potawatomi tribes and arranged for them to sign a treaty giving over three million acres in Indiana and Illinois to the United States government.
This treaty made it plain to all observers that the Prophet could do nothing to keep other chiefs from giving away their tribes' lands. However, Tenskwatawa and his brother Tecumseh had already warned their tribesmen that, despite the whites' claim to be friendly, they planned to take over all the Native American lands. When this actually happened, many native people began to pay attention to Tenskwatawa's warnings. The two brothers condemned the chiefs who had sold Indian lands and asked many other tribes to join them in working against the whites. This alarmed the whites, who also sent messengers to the tribes. In the end, the Ottawas, Chippewas, and Potawatomis decided not to fight the settlers, but other tribes remained loyal to the Prophet: the Sac, Fox, Winnebago, Kickapoo, and Iowa sided with his cause. At the same time, attention shifted from Tenskwatawa's religious cause to Tecumseh's political leadership: more than retaining traditional values, the Indians were concerned with retaining their land.
Harrison was alarmed by this increase in Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh's power and the increase in anti-white feeling among the Native Americans. After a number of minor skirmishes, spy missions, and temporary standoffs, on October 29, 1911, the American army marched north from Fort Harrison. By November 5, they were 12 miles away from Prophetstown. Tenskwatawa was uncertain what to do. A religious leader, he had never led warriors in battle. He could not decide whether to send men out to attack Harrison's party or to rely on his supernatural powers to help him. By mid-afternoon on November 6th, Harrison's army had solved the dilemma by marching out of the forest less than one mile away from the village.
The Prophet sent out a small party of men to meet with Harrison. The scouts pretended to be surprised to see him there, claiming that the Prophet had sent a message to the whites saying that he wanted to talk and reach an agreement. Harrison was skeptical, but accepted the offer to talk. Both sides agreed to meet the next day and to avoid hostility until the discussion was completed. Harrison and his men camped at a nearby creek, but the soldiers slept at their posts, with their weapons ready. Sentries were set out to keep an eye open for a surprise attack. Harrison did not really believe the Indians would attack at night, but he also did not believe the negotiations would go well. He intended to give the tribesmen "bayonets and buckshot," and then burn their village to the ground.
Tenskwatawa made his own plans. Wearing a necklace of deer hooves and holding strings of sacred beans, he called upon the warriors to attack the whites, saying that the Master of Life had given him power to win a great victory over their enemies. He would send rain and hail, but it would not affect the Indians. If they attacked in the dark, the whites would be confused and would fall down in a stupor. The darkness would blind the whites but the Master of Life would provide daylight vision to the tribes. Governor Harrison should be killed first, Tenskwatawa said, and then afterward his soldiers "would run and hide in the grass like young quails." With these directions, the Prophet's followers decided to attack the whites about two hours before dawn. The whites had built bonfires throughout their camp, ruining the soldiers' night vision but making it easy for the warriors to see them from far away.
Harrison rose at 4:15 the next morning and was putting on his boots when the attack began. White sentries spotted the attacking Indians and fired their rifles, waking the camp. The tribesmen who had been given the task of killing Harrison were shot. In the confusion, Harrison's horse, a light gray mare, broke loose. Harrison mounted another horse, a dark stallion. When he rode out with another officer, the warriors shot the other man, who was mounted on a white horse, because they believed he was the governor. Harrison passed by safely.
The attack spread, with Native American warriors showering bullets from a nearby hill. Harrison ordered his men to put out the bonfires so that the warriors couldn't see them as easily, but Indian marksmen still killed many of the whites. The battle raged on, and for a while the tribesmen were winning. Eventually, however, the whites rallied, and the Indians retreated into nearby marshes. The battle, now known as the Battle of Tippecanoe, was over.
Throughout the battle, Tenskwatawa remained behind on a small hill near Prophetstown. He prayed and chanted, asking for protection for his warriors. When his incantations failed, the warriors turned on him. Some Winnebagos, who were the most devoted to him and had lost the most men in the battle, threatened to kill him. Terrified, Tenskwatawa claimed that his powers had failed because his wife had not observed proper ceremonial precautions and had contaminated him. If the warriors would give him time, he would purify himself and try again to beat the whites. The Winnebagos, disgusted, threw him down and left Prophetstown.
The whites cared for their wounded, fortified their camp, and searched the woods for any Native American warriors left behind. They found 36 dead warriors, whom they scalped, stripped, and mutilated. Two warriors were found alive; they killed one, and kept the other one alive for questioning. After this they went to Prophetstown, took food and household items, and burned 5,000 bushels of corn and beans, as well as most of the wigwams. As they marched away, Harrison's men left the one remaining warrior in the care of a sick woman they had found in Prophetstown. He was instructed to tell any Native American he saw that if the Indians would turn against the Prophet, the whites would treat them as friends. Three decades later, Harrison would become president of the United States, campaigning as a military hero on the strength of his supposedly decisive victory against the Indians at Tippecanoe. However, history has since revealed that his claims were exaggerated; white and Native American forces were similar in size and suffered similar losses during the battle.
The battle was a decisive defeat for Tenskwatawa. He had lost all credibility after telling his warriors they would be safe. Many were now dead, the people were scattered, and his supernatural power was broken. From now on, his brother Tecumseh would be the dominant leader in the movement for Indian resistance against the whites. Tenskwatawa died in Kansas City, Kansas in November 1836.
Edmunds, R. David, The Shawnee Prophet, University of Nebraska Press, 1983.