Tecumseh: A Brief Biography
by Devin Bent
"Shawnee Chief Techumseh"
Chicago Natural History Museum
"So live your life that the fear of death can never enter your
heart. Trouble no one about their religion; respect others in
their view, and demand that they respect yours. Love your life,
perfect your life, beautify all things in your life. Seek to make
your life long and its purpose in the service of your people.
Prepare a noble death song for the day when you go over the great
divide. Always give a word or a sign of salute when meeting or
passing a friend, even a stranger, when in a lonely place. Show
respect to all people and grovel to none. When you arise in the
morning give thanks for the food and for the joy of living. If you
see no reason for giving thanks, the fault lies only in yourself.
Abuse no one and no thing, for abuse turns the wise ones to fools
and robs the spirit of its vision. When it comes your time to die,
be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death,
so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more
time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your
death song and die like a hero going home."
Chief Tecumseh, Shawnee Nation, quoted in Lee Sulzman, "Shawnee
Note: The fighting among the English, the colonists and the Native
Americans in the Ohio Valley had gone on throughout the
Revolutionary War. This article, however, begins with the end of
the Revolutionary War focusing on Tecumseh and his era when he was
at his height of his powers in James Madison's administration,
attempting to put together an unprecedented alliance of both
northern and southern Nations.
With the Revolutionary War over and the Iroquois divided, the
opposition to American expansion into the Ohio River valley was
carried on by a shifting alliance of nations: Shawnee, Canadian
Iroquois, Wyandot, Mingo, Ottawa, Chickamauga, Miami, Kickapoo,
Delaware, Ottawa, Ojibwe, Potawatomi, Fox, Sauk, and Mascouten. In
the fall of 1787 the alliance agreed to draw the line against
American expansion on the Ohio River. Efforts at a peaceful
"With 2,000 warriors led by the Miami war chief Little Turtle,
the alliance soon proved it was very capable of defending
itself, and the initial American moves against the alliance
villages in northern Ohio ended in terrible defeats. In October,
1790 Colonel Josiah Harmar's expedition was ambushed on the
upper Wabash near present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana. A year later,
Arthur St. Clair's army met an even greater disaster in western
Ohio - 600 killed and 400 wounded, the worst defeat ever
inflicted on an American army by Native Americans." (Lee
Sulzman, "Shawnee History")
By 1791, however, the feeble American government of the Articles
of Confederation had been replaced by the stronger national
government of the Constitution, and the defeat of General St.
Clair posed a challenge. President Washington sent General "Mad
Anthony" Wayne to counter the alliance. Wayne first encamped at
Fort Washington (at Cincinnati on the north bank of the Ohio),
training his troops and constructing roads and a line of forts to
support his methodical advance northward. Wayne's slow, cautious
advance created problems for the Alliance. The Alliance had
assembled a large force from over a wide area and had the
fundamental logistical problem of feeding them. They also faced a
Hobson's choice with respect to their families: bring them along
and worsen logistical problems or leave them by themselves and
vulnerable to U.S. attack. By the time the two forces engaged, the
Alliance fielded only seven hundred warriors. Moreover, the
British had decided to withdraw from the Northwest, but had not
told the Alliance.
"In August, 1794, Wayne's Legion and the alliance faced each
other at Fallen Timbers. Driven from the field, the retreating
warriors were refused refuge at the nearby British fort. In
November the Jay Treaty was signed between Great Britain and the
United States, and the British withdrew their garrisons from
American territory. Abandoned, the alliance signed the Fort
Greenville Treaty the following August ceding most of Ohio."
(Lee Sultzman,"Iroquois History")
With the defeat at Fallen Timbers, the defection of the British,
and the Treaty of Fort Greenville, the Alliance disintegrated.
However, within a dozen years a Shawnee chief was to attempt to
resurrect the Alliance on a even larger scale, and challenge the
American government under then President James Madison. The chief
was Tecumseh, one the most admired of all Native American leaders.
Tecumseh was born in 1768 into a family of six brothers and one
sister. His father, a Shawnee chief, was killed when Tecumseh was
young, and Tecumseh's mother moved with her people to Northern
Alabama. Tecumseh was raised by older siblings and soon
distinguished himself among the youth of the Shawnee. He spent two
years among the Cherokee and returned in 1790 to join the
Alliance's war with the Americans.
Tecumseh fought against his great adversary, William Henry
Harrison, for the first time at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in
1794. Harrison, son of a signer of the Declaration of the
Independence, was a young lieutenant, promoted to captain after
the victory. A Virginian, he was given his first commission by
President George Washington. It is doubtful that either Tecumseh
or Harrison foresaw how much their two lives were to be
Tecumseh boycotted the negotiations leading to the 1795 Treaty of
Greenville and refused to accept its provisions. His absence was
portentous, but he was a minor chief and his absence was unnoted
by his adversaries. Tecumseh recognized the nature of the threat
posed by the settlers pouring into the Ohio Valley. He developed
the doctrine that the Native Americans were all "children of the
same parents" and all owned the land in common. Thus any sale or
treaty cessation of land was invalid unless all agreed. Tecumseh
recognized that an alliance of Ohio Nations could not block the
U.S. advance; he determined to develop an alliance of Nations both
North and South and traveled widely for years to building the
It is difficult to feel greatness after a lapse of 200 years, but
Tecumseh truly seems admirable. He was noble in his speech and
behavior, adamant in his opposition to U.S. expansion, farsighted
in his policies, brave in battle, yet merciful and protective
toward captives. William Henry Harrison was to say:
"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
Mexico or Peru. No difficulties deter him. For four years he has
been in constant motion. You see him today on the Wabash, and in
a short time hear of him on the shores of Lake Erie or Michigan,
or on the banks of the Mississippi, and wherever he goes he
makes an impression favorable to his purpose." (Quoted in Reed
Beard, Battle of Tippecanoe, Chicago: Hammond Press, Chicago
1911. Transcribed into text files by Bob Kipke and text files
into html by Nancy Trice.)
Tecumseh's famous brother, known by the Whites as the Prophet, was
a different matter. Three years younger than Tecumseh, he evinced
no special merit until 1805 when he underwent a spiritual
awakening. He adopted the name Tenskwatawa (Open Door) and claimed
supernatural powers. He advocated a rejection of alcohol and trade
goods and a return to Native American ways. His claims initially
drew considerable skepticism, but after he correctly predicted an
eclipse, his support grew.
Initially, the brothers' combination of political and spiritual
leadership was effective. They drew followers predominantly from
the Native American Nations in the western portions of the Ohio
Valley and in 1808 established the capital of their Alliance at
Tippecanoe, or Prophetstown, on Tippecanoe Creek in western
Indiana (Tippecanoe was just seven miles north of what is today
Lafayette, Indiana). There were reported to be as many as 1,000
warriors training at this capital at various times. Tecumseh
secured the support of the British in Canada and journeyed widely
building support among the Nations.
William Henry Harrison was now Governor of the Indiana Territory
and viewed these developments warily (Harrison was originally
appointed Governor by President John Adams and reappointed by
Jefferson and then Madison). A meeting with Tenskwatawa did little
to assuage the Governor as he anticipated the coming war with
England and feared that Tecumseh's Alliance would make common
cause with the English.
In 1809, while Tecumseh was away, Harrison negotiated treaties
with Delaware, Miami, Kaskaskia, and Potawatomi in which the U.S.
gained three million acres of southern Indiana and Illinois. This,
of course, only intensified Tecumseh's anger, and he voiced his
doctrine that the cessation was invalid in an eloquent letter to
Harrison (see letter).
Meetings between Harrison and Tecumseh seemed only to reinforce
fears on both sides, and Tecumseh journeyed south in 1811 to
enlist support among the Southern Nations: Chickasaw, Choctaw,
Creek, and Cherokee. He left his brother with unequivocal
instructions not to be drawn into the conflict with the U.S. until
he had returned and the Alliance was stronger.
U.S. fears of War with England and the Alliance had intensified,
however. In July, 1811, President James Madison gave Governor
Harrison the command of U.S. regulars, the Fourth Regiment of
mounted infantry, with orders to avoid a general conflict if
possible. Harrison determined to attempt to overawe the Nations
with a show of force. Failing that, he would provoke a conflict in
Tecumseh's absence and before Tecumseh could return with
additional recruits. Harrison marched carefully on Tippecanoe with
a force of about 1,000, including volunteers and the Fourth
Regiment regulars. He camped on a wooded hill near Tippecanoe
November 6, 1811 (see map).
Ignoring his brother's instructions, Tenskwatawa launched a
surprise attack just before daybreak on the 7th. However, Harrison
was suspicious and had prepared. By all accounts the battle was
indecisive, a draw, and Harrison fortified his camp expecting a
renewed attack on the 8th. A draw was disastrous for the Alliance,
however, since Tenskwatawa had promised his followers
invulnerability, a victory. The dead warriors and the indecisive
battle gave the lie to his words, and the outraged allies
dispersed. When no attack came on the 8th, Harrison's men
cautiously approached Tippecanoe and found it abandoned.
What had been a draw on November 7th had become a U.S. victory on
the 8th. President Madison commended Harrison and his troops in a
message to Congress that December:
"While it is deeply to be lamented that so many valuable lives
have been lost in the action which took place on the 7th ult.,
Congress will see with satisfaction the dauntless spirit and
fortitude victoriously displayed by every description of troops
engaged, as well as the collected firmness which distinguished
their commander, on the occasion requiring the utmost exertion
of valor and discipline."
When Tecumseh returned in January 1812, his hopes for a grand
alliance of the Nations were shattered. Nonetheless, the War of
1812 was impending and Tecumseh still commanded immense respect.
When the American general, William Hull, invaded Canada in June,
Tecumseh fielded 800 warriors in support of the British. The U.S.
invasion turned into a disaster when Hull retreated to Detroit and
then surrendered Detroit without a fight.
In September, William Henry Harrison, Tecumseh's nemesis, was
given command of U.S. forces in the Northwest. By August 1813
Harrison had assembled an army of 8,000, and when Oliver Hazard
Perry's ships destroyed the British fleet on Lake Erie, the
British had to abandon Detroit. Harrison pursued the retreating
British and Native American forces into Canada, and the Battle of
the Thames was joined on October 5, 1813. The British commander
and his staff abandoned the field, but Tecumseh and his warriors
fought on. Tecumseh was killed; his supporters scattered; and the
war in the Northwest was over (see Death of Tecumseh).
Tenskwatawa lived on in disgrace, but maintained a small
following. He died in Kansas in 1834. After the war, William Henry
Harrison entered elective politics in Ohio, serving in the state
Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate. In
1836, he was the Whig candidate for President, but lost to Martin
Van Buren. In 1840, he tried again with John Tyler his running
mate. A massive three day campaign rally was held on the
Tippecanoe battlefield featuring the slogan "Hurrah for Tippecanoe
and Tyler, too!" Harrison overwhelmed Van Buren and took office
March 4, 1841, only to die exactly one month later.
Tecumseh is a genuine American hero: he embodied the virtues
Americans respect. Nonetheless it is doubtful than he even with
a more prudent brother could have done more than delay the U.S.
expansion. The U.S. population was just too large and growing at
an extraordinary rate: in 1810 there were 10 million residents of
the U.S. with almost one million west of the Appalachians (see
U.S. Growth & Expansion, President James Madison). No Native
American alliance could achieve anything near numerical parity.