The Great Chiefs

(tih KUHN suh)
1768? - 1813


             Tecumtha or Tikamthi, “Goes Through One Place to Another,” a reference to the “Shooting Star,” by which name he was also known was a famous Shawnee chief considered by many to have been the most effective Indian opponent of the United States.  He was born into the Crouching Panther clan in March 1768 at Piqua, on the Mad River near Springfield, Ohio.  He was one of eight children born to Puckeshinwa (or Pukeesheno), an important Shawnee war chief, and Methoataske (or Meetheetashe),  a part-Creek-Cherokee woman.  His brother, said to be his twin, was Tenskwátawa, “The Shawnee Prophet.”
            The Shawnee at this time were nomadic, living on the frontier of Ohio during the Revolutionary War period.  After Lord Dunmore’s War in 1774, officials ceded the land north of the Ohio River to the Indians, but settlers nevertheless continued to move into the region.  Chief Cornstalk tried to maintain peace, but in 1777 he was murdered by the Whites while meeting with them to discuss the increasing conflicts.  In revenge, the Shawnees embarked on a war of retaliation in 1780 in which Tecumseh took part.  He was a brave, skilled fighter, but was always known as a leader who would not stand for barbarism or arbitrary, unnecessary killing—a code which made him respected throughout his life.
            By his early twenties, Tecumseh had already become a recognized leader of his people.  He and his warriors attacked the encroaching settlers throughout the Indian lands, often in alliance with Creek and Cherokee neighbors.  A climactic battle took place on August 20, 1794, when troops under General Anthony Wayne defeated the Indians at Greenville, Ohio.  The following spring most of the Indian leaders signed the Greenville Treaty, which ceded a large portion of land to the Whites; however, Tecumseh refused to sign and with a large number of followers who also resented White encroachment, he moved to Indiana.  There, in the late 1790s, he met a White woman, Rebecca Galloway, who taught him English and read to him from various history books, including the Bible.  These studies and his own observations led to the final development of a conviction he had long held: all Indian land belonged to Indians as a whole and not to one particular tribe.  Historically, tribes had been free to roam at will, limited only by the occupancy and use by other Indians.  There were no boundaries, fences, or border guards—these were all the creations of the Whites.  As owners of the land in common, all tribes had the right and the obligation to defend their territory against White invasion.  As a corollary, no one tribe could dispossess the other tribes by signing away this land.  If in unity there could be strength, then perhaps an Indian Nation could be established to deal with the United States as an equal.
            This was a very heady doctrine, and one which gained him many enthusiastic followers.  In 1805, Tecumseh’s twin brother, then named Lauliwásikau, had a vision which fit beautifully into this program.  He took the name Tenskwátawa (The Open Door), and preached a return to the traditional Indian ways and the rejection of all White things.  He soon attracted a large following and allied himself with Tecumseh. In May 1808, the two brothers established a Shawnee village on the west bank of the Tippecanoe River were it joins the Wabash.  Tecumseh then set out on the first of several pilgrimages to persuade other tribes that his plan held their only hope for survival.  He eventually visited all of the tribes in the Midwestern region; and although he was rejected by some, he nonetheless succeeded in rallying many groups to his cause.  In this effort, Tenskwátawa’s reputation and religious influence as a powerful preacher was important, and since Tecumseh was a stirring orator in his own right, the two made an extremely effective pair.  The initial successes of this drive for converts enabled Tecumseh to establish an alliance with the British, who were an important source of arms for Indians in the area.
            Tension was increasing between the Americans and the British, who looked upon Tecumseh’s Indian Confederacy as perhaps the nucleus of a buffer state between United States expansion and the territorial integrity of Canada.  The Americans also recognized the potential threat to their own plans, and became concerned over the brothers’ activities.  At first they thought the prime mover was Tenskwátawa, whom they called The Shawnee Prophet, but soon came to realize that Tecumseh was the greater threat.  In 1809, William Henry Harrison, Governor of the Northwest Territory, induced some of the weaker chiefs to accept $7,000 and an annuity of $1,750 in exchange for 3,000,000 acres of Indian land.  Tecumseh was enraged at this maneuver.  The next year he gathered a huge force of warriors from many tribes at Tippecanoe, and accompanied by his brother, went to meet with Harrison at Vincennes, the United States territorial headquarters.  There he insisted that land sales were invalid unless Indians as a whole agreed to them.  The Whites rejected this notion, and the conference eventually ended in mutual hostility.  Harrison later wrote:  “The implicit obedience and respect which the followers of Tecumseh pay him is really astonishing and . . . bespeaks him as one of those uncommon geniuses, which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions.”
            Tecumseh recognized that the time had finally come to activate the Indian Confederacy he had been trying to establish.  Harrison knew he must strike a major blow before the alliance could be formalized.  On November 6, 1811, while Tecumseh was away, Harrison maneuvered Tenskwátawa into a battle outside the village of Tippecanoe.  Both sides fought to a standstill, but by the next day most of the Indians had vanished; Harrison’s troops moved into the village and destroyed it.  While this was hardly the major victory he sought, Harrison had managed to throw the Indian union fatally off balance.
            As Tecumseh tried to rally his forces in the wake of the battle, the War of 1812 broke out.  Both the British and the Americans tried to persuade the Indians to join them, which further disintegrated the Confederation, as each tribe chose sides.  Tecumseh and many others joined the British and played a key role in many subsequent battles.  Eventually, however, the British began to retreat, and Tecumseh grew worried as he saw many of the British, especially commanders like General Crocker, lose heart.  Finally, on October 5, 1813, the Indians took a firm stand at the Battle of the Thames against what turned out to be vastly superior American forces.  Tecumseh and many other Indians were killed, and his dream of an Indian Nation united against the Whites died with him.  He was 44 years old at his death.

Source:  Great North American Indians by Frederick J. Duckstander


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