• Notes From The Frontier

Tecumseh, The Great Shawnee Chief

The name is legion. One of America’s greatest generals was named after him. An early American folk hero and two U.S. Presidents crossed paths with his tribe and admired him. The mere sound of his name elicits awe. He was one of the greatest Native American chiefs in North America, a man of nearly clairvoyant vision who launched a massive campaign against whites marching west, the first—and last—best hope for Native Americans to save their ancestral lands. Along with General Robert E. Lee, he is the most eulogized enemy warrior of the American military. Most Americans know his name. But few know much about him beyond that.


Tecumseh’s life is shrouded in mystery. He was believed to be born in March 1768 in the Shawnee tribe, although the place remains a mystery. Many scholars now believe he was born near Chillicothe, Ohio. His Shawnee name means “Panther Across the Sky.” Growing up, Tecumseh’s tribe was in a constant state of warfare as the Shawnee and many other tribes were being pushed west by encroaching white Colonists looking for land and Natives fought to defend their ancestral homes. At a young age, Tecumseh’s path crossed with Daniel Boone, George Washington, and President William Henry Harrison.


Tecumseh was five years old when he saw the Shawnee kill Daniel Boone’s 14-year-old son, and it affected him deeply. As a result, Tecumseh envisioned a gentler society for his people and grew up treating all people, men, women, enemies and prisoners, with justice and fairness. (Years before, Tecumseh’s father, Pucksinwah, had become familiar with Daniel Boone, for he had been captured by the Shawnee and held for seven days. Boone had been subjected to the Shawnee’s “gauntlet” to test his manhood with pain and he had proved himself. Both had come to admire each other as equals and years later when Boone was an old man, he continued to hunt and camp with the Shawnee. (SEE PREVIOUS POST ABOUT DANIEL BOONE.) 


In 1774, when Tecumseh was six years old, whites killed his father. On his deathbed, his father made his small son promise to defend his people from white invasion. Tecumseh saw his first combat, the Battle of Piqua, in 1780 at age 12 but did not become a full-fledged warrior until the age of 15. Tecumseh grew into a big man, six feet tall, well-muscled and by some written accounts, handsome with an arresting presence. 


George Washington would cross paths with the Shawnee during the Revolutionary War and also later in the Northwest Indian War. As a young colonial officer, George Washington would get his first battle experience fighting Shawnee braves in 1768, during the defeat and destruction of British General Edward Braddock’s army. In 1790, when Chief Tecumseh was 22, he fought with Chief Little Turtle against General Josiah Harmar in western Ohio under the order of President George Washington and again defeated the U.S. forces, leaving more than 600 dead and hundreds wounded in one of the American military’s greatest defeats against Native Americans. 


Following more than a century of eastern and southern tribes being pushed west by Colonists from their ancestral homelands to the regions of the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi, Tecumseh began building a vast, multi-tribal confederacy that ranged from present-day Michigan to Georgia to fight American Colonial expansion. Many of the tribes in his confederacy were of the ancient Mississippians culture who faced total destruction not only from white invasion, but the smallpox and other disease epidemics they brought to Native populations. Some of the tribes Tecumseh rallied to join him were tribes in the Great Lakes and middle Mississippi River regions: Shawnee, Potawatomi, Winnebego, Kickapoo, Menominee, Ottawa, and Huron. Tecumseh also traveled south to reach out to the South Appalachian Mississippian tribes, including the Cherokee, Creek (Muskogee), Chocktaw, Chickasaw, and Seminole. Initially, he faced strong resistance from many chiefs who had agreed to sign away their lands in treaties.


In 1809, William Henry Harrison, who had been a Major-General in the wars against the Shawnee, then governor of the Indiana Territory, negotiated the Treaty of Fort Wayne that ceded much Native land to the government. But Tecumseh maintained that the treaty was illegal. He met with Harrison in 1810 and 1811, refusing to recognize the treaty, saying: "the only way to stop this evil [loss of land] is for the red man to unite in claiming a common and equal right in the land, as it was first, and should be now, for it was never divided."


Harrison was immensely impressed with Tecumseh, calling him “one of those uncommon geniuses which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things.” The Shawnee leader had a powerful gift for eloquence and a compelling personality. When Harrison insisted the treaties were binding, Tecumseh said: “Sell a country! Why not sell the air, the great sea, as well as the earth? Did not the Great Spirit make them all for the use of his children? How can we have confidence in the white people?”


In 1810, Tecumseh rallied his red brethren: "Brothers, the white people are like poisonous serpents, when chilled, they are feeble and harmless, but invigorate them with warmth, and they sting their benefactors to death. Brothers, the white men are not friends to the Indians: at first, they only asked for land sufficient for a wigwam; now, nothing will satisfy them, but the whole of our hunting grounds. . ." 


In 1811, Tecumseh went to the Choctaw, Chickasaw and other southern tribes to ask them to join his confederacy, for they were being pushed out from their lands as were the tribes to the north. He said: "Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pocanet, and other powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man ... Sleep no longer, O Choctaws and Chickasaws ... Will not the bones of our dead be plowed up, and their graves turned into plowed fields?" 


Tecumseh’s power and strategy were given extra credence by the mythical visions of his younger brother, Tenskwatawa, who had claimed to have powerful visions decreeing that tribes must band together to fight the evil spirits of the white monster taking their lands. Attempting to discredit Tecumseh’s prohet brother, Harrison challenged the Prophet’s divine powers: “If he is really a prophet, ask him to cause the Sun to stand still or the Moon to alter its course, the rivers to cease to flow or the dead to rise from their graves,” a 19th century newspaper reported. The Prophet then summoned a sunless sky, which came shrouded in a total eclipse!


Tecumseh, too, was said to have prophetic powers. When he went to the Creek (Muskogee) to ask them to join his confederacy, they refused. He issued a threat: if they did not join him before he reached Detroit, he would simply stomp his feet and the earth would shake down the great Mississippi and their villages would be destroyed. Whether prophecy or legend, within days after his visit, on December 16, 1811, one of the greatest earthquakes ever to strike the continent shattered the land.


The U.S. Geological Survey today writes that the earthquake was caused by the New Madrid Vault running down the middle of the Midwest through five states. The massive quake was 10 times stronger than the one that destroyed San Francisco; it broke the sidewalks in Washington D.C., rang the church bells in Boston, swallowed forests and whole villages, and for several hours, caused the Mississippi River to flow backwards!


Tecumseh had come to represent the last best hope of American Indians to preserve ways of life they had known for thousands of years as white settlers sought to make their own dreams a reality on the frontier. From August 1810 to October 1813, Tecumseh’s confederation fought U.S. forces. It was in November 1811 when the chief had gone south to build his coalition among southern tribes that his Prophet brother was engaged in a devastating defeat at the Battle of Tippecanoe that weakened the confederation. 


About a year later, on October 5, 1813, shortly before the Battle of the Thames, Tecumseh had a vision foretelling the dark shadow of his fate. He removed the British General’s red uniform he usually wore for battle and donned for the last time his Shawnee leggings and tunic of deerskin. He handed his sword to one of his chiefs with the words: “Give this to my son when he becomes a warrior and able to wield a sword.”


Tecumseh would be killed in battle. But his living legend would gain mystic power in death. He would become the most honored and eulogized enemy warrior in American military history—perhaps equaled only by Robert E. Lee. Today, more than two centuries since his death still remains among the most revered Native leaders. 


His legacy has even taken on super-natural dimensions in the form of curse said to arise from Tecumseh. One of Tecumseh’s greatest rivals, Major-General William Henry Harrison, who would later become President, negotiated the 1809 Treaty of Fort Wayne, which forced Indians to cede very large tracts of their land to the government. The treaty resulted in Tecumseh’s War, the defeat at the Battle of Tippecanoe led by Harrison, and eventually the chief’s death. But, according to lore of the curse, Tecumseh would get his revenge. 


Just a month after Harrison was sworn in as U.S. President in 1840, winning with his famous slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” he died. Consequently, all U.S. Presidents who were elected in years ending in a zero for the next 120 years would die in office, many assassinated. The list includes seven Presidents: 1840-Willian Henry Harrison – Typhoid; 1860 – Abraham Lincoln- Assassinated; 1880 – James A. Garfield – Assassinated; 1900 – William McKinley – Assassinated; 1920 – Warren G. Harding – Heart Attack; 1940 – Franklin D. Roosevelt – Cerebral Hemorrhage; 1960 – John F. Kennedy – Assassinated. Ronald Reagan, elected in 1980, was nearly killed in an assassination attempt, and George W. Bush, elected in 2000 also was targeted in an assassination attempt. 


There is another strange irony of history that haunts the legacy of Tecumseh: The great American general, William Tecumseh Sherman, who was named after the Indian chief who had led the greatest onslaught against white encroachment in North American would, in the end, bring the death knell to the Native American way of life Tecumseh had fought so valiantly to preserve.



PHOTOS: (1) The earliest image of Tecumseh, a drawing by early French trader, Pierre Le Dru, at Vincennes, taken from life about 1808. Tecumseh was probably in his late 30s at the time of this rendering. (2) One of the most famous paintings of Tecumseh by Benson John Lossing, based on Pierre Le Dru’s pencil sketch. (3) Tecumseh sculpture, by Hamilton MacCarthy, at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, based on the 1808 rendering of Tecumseh, as well as typical Shawnee warrior garb. Photo by Deinocheirus. (4) Following more than a century of eastern and southern tribes being pushed west by Colonists from their ancestral homelands to the regions of the Great Lakes and east of the Mississippi, Tecumseh rallied a vast, multi-tribal confederacy (from present-day Michigan to Georgia) to fight American expansion into the Northwest. (5) Tecumseh rallied tribes to join his confederacy against whites, primarily from the Great Lakes, middle Mississipian and South Appalachian Mississipian cultures. (6) Battle of Tippecanoe, lithograph by Kurz and Allison c. 1889. Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. The 1811 battle was between Tecumseh’s brother, known as The Prophet, Tenskwatawa, and Major (7) As a young colonial officer, George Washington would get his first battle experience fighting Shawnee braves in 1768, during the defeat and destruction of British General Edward Braddock’s army. ( 8 ) Daniel Boone grew up among the Shawnee and hunted and associated with them throughout his life, although they were at constant war with white settlers encroaching upon their land. (9) One of America’s greatest general, William Tecumseh Sherman, was named for the famous chief by his father, a lawyer, civic leader, and Supreme Court judge who greatly admired the Shawnee leader. (10) The famous, life-size white marble sculpture, “The Dying Tecumseh,” by Frederick Petrrich, at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art. The statue depicts Tecumseh’s death in 1813 at the Battle of the Thames in Ontario just north of the U.S.-Canadian border.


© 2019 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER

Posted November 21, 2019 on Facebook

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  • Notes From the Frontier