Introduction: Tecumseh and the Shawnee Prophet
Digital History ID 665
Tecumseh and the Shawnee Prophet
During the last years of the 18th century, defeat, disease, and death were the lot of Indians living in the Old Northwest. In 1794, an American force crushed an opposing Indian army at the Battle of Fallen Timbers near present-day Toledo, Ohio. This victory forced Native Americans to give up 25,000 square miles of land north of the Ohio River.
Some 45,000 land-hungry white settlers poured into the Ohio country during the next six years. They spread a variety of killer diseases, including smallpox, influenza, and measles. Aggressive frontier settlers infringed on Indian hunting grounds, and rapidly killed off the game that provided Indians with subsistence. Deprived of their homelands, faced with severe food shortages and a drastic loss of population, Native Americans in the Old Northwest saw the fabric of their society torn apart.
One of the Native Americans who suffered from the breakdown of Indian society was a Shawnee youth named Laulewasika. A few months before he was born, white frontiersmen, who crossed into Indian territory in violation of a recent treaty, killed his father. Shortly thereafter, his despondent mother, a Creek, fled westward, leaving behind her children to be raised by relatives.
As a young man Laulewasika lacked direction. Then in 1805 he underwent a powerful transformation. Overcome by images of his own wickedness, he fell into a deep trance during which he met the Indian Master of Life. On the basis of this mystical experience, he embarked on a crusade “to reclaim the Indians from bad habits.” Adopting a new name, Tenskwatawa (“the open door”), he called on Indians to stop drinking alcohol. Then, like other Indian prophets before and after, he demanded an end to intertribal fighting and a return to ancestral ways. His central message was Indian unity as the key to blocking white encroachment on tribal lands.
His older brother, the famed Shawnee war chief Tecumseh (1768-1813), also advocated a broad-based Indian alliance. In 1808, he and his brother relocated their tribal village in northwestern Indian along the shoreline of the Tippecanoe River. William Henry Harrison, the territorial governor challenged the growing influence of the Shawnee brothers. He conducted negotiations with local chiefs, and forced them to turn over title to 3 million acres in Indiana for $7000 and an annuity of $1750.
Tecumseh needed time to build his alliance. Before he set off on a journey to the South to rally support, he warned Tenskwatawa to avoid any conflict with Harrison. Tenskwatawa did not listen. Harrison approached the Indian village with a 1,000 man army. Tenskwatawa authorized 450 warriors to attack the Americans. What followed was a rout. Harrison's troops drove off the Indians and burned their village, destroying Tenskwatawa's power and prestige.
When Tecumseh returned home from his trip, he was shocked and enraged, and “swore...eternal hatred” against white settlers. When the War of 1812 broke out, he allied himself to the British. In October 1813, after U.S. troops forced the British to retreat from Detroit, the Shawnee warrior tried to halt an American advance along the Thames River in eastern Ontario in Canada. The day before the climactic encounter, Tecumseh told his followers: “Brother warriors, we are about to enter an engagement from which I will not return.” His premonition was correct. He died the next afternoon from multiple wounds. His vision of pan-Indian resistance to white encroachment into the Old Northwest likewise perished.
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