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Race in The War of 1812

The Legend of Tecumseh

Tecumseh, the great Shawnee warrior, is the stuff of legend. During the early nineteenth century, no Indian leader inspired more admiration or fear. One version of his story goes like this.

After years of watching social and cultural deterioration, intertribal conflict, and white encroachment on Indian lands, Tecumseh, a young Shawnee warrior, developed a plan. The only way that Native Americans could restore control over their lives, he said, was to unify; they needed to overcome their tribal differences, rebuild their integrity and coherence as a people, and unite within a Pan-Indian alliance strong enough to defeat the military forces supporting white expansion.

Beginning in 1807, therefore, Tecumseh, assisted by his younger brother Tenskwatawa—or The Prophet, as he was called—traveled throughout the interior of America building an alliance of Native American tribes. The obstacles were huge; intertribal conflicts going back decades had to be overcome. But Tecumseh was a force—a warrior with a towering reputation, and a powerful and compelling orator.

In village after village, he urged dispirited people to join his alliance and he outlined the strategy that would rebuild and protect their communities. They must reject, he said, the pollutants that had been introduced by the whites—alcohol, European dress, Christianity. They must also avoid the sorts of intertribal conflicts that wasted lives and energy. And they must be patient. Until their alliance was fully formed, until they had built a confederation large and strong enough to effectively resist the power of white armies, they must avoid all confrontations. Isolated skirmishes would only fritter away their strength; they must wait until the time was right.

When that time came, Tecumseh promised, he would send a message. He would stamp his foot—and when he did, the earth would shake, the buffalo would stampede, the skies would become dark with birds taking flight, huge cracks would open in the earth's surface, and the great river would flow backwards.

By 1811, Tecumseh had built a confederation of Indians stretching from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. A portion of that following had built a community at Prophetstown, near the Tippecanoe Creek in the Indiana Territory. The community was large enough that white settlers in the region had grown alarmed. As a result, General William Henry Harrison, and a force of 1000 men, had been dispatched to keep an eye on things. Tensions between the two camps were high, but the time was not quite right. And so as Tecumseh left Prophetstown to visit neighboring villages, he urged his younger brother—who remained behind as leader of Prophetstown—to remain calm. Do not let yourself be drawn into a fight, he advised. Do not act prematurely.

But the Prophet had his own vision. Perhaps he was jealous of his brother, perhaps he believed the spirits had spoken to him. And so on 7 November 1811, he ordered the warriors at Prophetstown into battle. And they were slaughtered. By the time Tecumseh returned, his followers had fled and their village had been burned. More important, his great alliance had shattered. As word spread of the defeat, the Pan-Indian appeal and promise of Tecumseh's vision evaporated.

The History of Tenskwatawa

In recent years historians have looked more closely at the legend of Tecumseh. Carefully sifting through the evidence, and insisting on a less romantic reconstruction of these events, these historians now tell the story somewhat differently.

Tecumseh and Lalawethicka were born into a Shawnee nation wracked by a half century of trouble. Unbalanced trade with neighboring whites, smallpox, alcohol, and the unavoidable violence of the American Revolution had left Shawnee communities socially and politically weakened.

The brothers responded differently to these crises. Tecumseh became a warrior, joining in numerous raids against white settlements and participating in most of the period's major battles against the American military, including the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. Lalawethicka became a drunk. Blind in one eye, and an intolerable braggart, he was mocked in the same communities in which Tecumseh was honored.

But in 1805, Lalawethicka's life changed. Struck down by a seizure, he was first believed dead. But he awakened and relayed a message of judgment and renewal sent to him by the Master of Life. He changed his name to Tenskwatawa—meaning Open Door—and renounced his former ways, beginning the life of a holy man.

Over the ensuing months Tenskwatawa developed a theology that blended Christian cosmology and Indian primitivism. He described a future of judgment, heaven, and hell, and warned that people's fates would be determined by their behavior. They must give up alcohol, avoid tribal conflicts, and live monogamously. Practices learned from the whites, like ownership of private property, should be abandoned. Instead they should return to the values and ways of their ancestors—no more hunting with guns, no more domesticated animals, no more bread, no more metal pots, no more European dress.

Tenskwatawa's message spread throughout surrounding villages, especially those most influenced by white society. Indians who had adopted Christianity became symbols of white corruption and were labeled witches, and were often tortured and killed. It was at this point that General Harrison first became aware of Tenskwatawa and his movement. He labeled Tenskwatawa a false prophet, and he condemned the movement's cruelty. And to expose him he demanded a sign of his powers. Tenskwatawa responded that his authority would be confirmed by the appearance of a "black sun" on 16 June 1806. And he summoned believers and skeptics to Greenville, a village he and his followers had established in western Ohio, to witness the event.

On 16 June, while Tenskwatawa waited in his tent, a full eclipse darkened the sky. Harrison tried to point out that the event had already been predicted by astronomers, many of whom had established observation centers in the region. But Tenskwatawa's followers—old and new—were convinced only of The Prophet's religious power.

After this demonstration, the village of Greenville grew rapidly. But as the movement grew, it developed a somewhat dual composition and character—older villagers who craved a return to a lost way of life mixed with young warriors who found in Tenskwatawa's message a recipe for political and national renewal. It was therefore a somewhat problematic coalition from the start—and, as the movement grew, Tenskwatawa's ability to hold these elements together was tested.

His first challenge was simply to meet the basic needs of his growing following. Provisions had to be found; providing for the community was a traditional responsibility of a chief or village leader. But Tenskwatawa met this need skillfully. Over the next few years, he proved remarkably good at playing British and American observers against one another. Presenting himself as a holy man, but standing in front of a community filled with young warriors, he represented both a danger and a potential ally to agents of the governments competing for influence in the northwest. Supplies from both governments were in this way procured, strengthening Tenskwatawa's power and attracting even more followers.

But his situation was difficult and increasingly complex. Neighboring chiefs, jealous of Tenskwatawa's power, challenged his authority. Black Hoof, also a Shawnee, tried to draw off Tenskwatawa's followers with a message that emphasized accommodation with whites and the adoption of farming—a message that was effective in winning food and supplies from American government agents.

And Tenskwatawa seems to have been challenged from within his own family. His brother, Tecumseh, began to take a larger role within the community around 1807, interested less in Tenskwatawa's religious primitivism than in the ideology of Indian autonomy that was contained within Tenskwatawa's religious vision. Tecumseh did not openly challenge his younger brother, but he provided a focal point, a leader for the other young warriors who had been attracted to Tenskwatawa for the same political reasons.

Therefore it was a highly unstable community that followed Tenskwatawa to Prophetstown in 1808. This new village was a bit further removed from hostile white settlements, and closer to the western tribes in which Tenskwatawa found his greatest support. But the competing elements within his message, and within his community, were increasingly difficult to contain. It was perhaps with an eye toward appeasing the young militants within the community that Tenskwatawa's message grew more narrowly political during these months. Or perhaps it reflected the growing influence of Tecumseh. Whatever the case, at Prophetstown Tenskwatawa's speeches were filled with more direct calls to resist white encroachments on Indian lands, and a more explicit emphasis on the importance of maintaining a united front against white aggression.

As Tenskwatawa's message grew more political and militant, his numbers were strengthened by tribes pushed west by white expansion. The Treaty of Fort Wayne, signed in 1809 between the United States and cooperative "government" chiefs, sent a new wave of displaced and embittered young warriors toward Prophetstown. These increased the town's numbers, and strengthened Tenskwatawa's hand in negotiating with British and American agents. But they also upset the delicate balance between the religious and political elements within the community. Tecumseh's power was strengthened, Tenskwatawa's was diminished, and white settlers living in the region were terrified.

In 1811, the increasing size and militancy of Tenskwatawa's following, combined with increasing fear among settlers in the Indiana Territory, brought William Henry Harrison and his soldiers to the banks of the Tippecanoe. And on 7 November the fateful battle was fought.

Legend versus History

The version of the history of this Pan-Indian movement that emphasizes Tenskwatawa—the version more popular with historians—converges briefly with the legend of Tecumseh here at Tippecanoe. Tenskwatawa's call to arms proved disastrous, as his warriors fell before Harrison's soldiers and Prophetstown was burned to the ground. But the defeat was not entirely fatal to the movement. Even though the Prophet was discredited, Tecumseh managed to rebuild at least part of the alliance. And in the rapidly deteriorating relations between the United States and Britain, he saw an opportunity. As war between the two countries approached, Tecumseh played both sides against each other, just as his brother had done before. Tecumseh dangled the possibility of an alliance with his band of warriors in exchange for food and weapons before both British and American military agents. But after the British victory at Detroit in August 1812, the course of the War of 1812 seemed clear. And so Tecumseh led his followers into the British ranks.

For a while this seemed to have been the right move. In a battle near Fort Meigs, Tecumseh's warriors routed a band of Kentucky militia. But the next year, Tecumseh ran into his old nemesis. William Henry Harrison led an American army across Lake Erie in pursuit of the British and Indian forces driven from Fort Detroit. At Moravian Town, on the banks of the Thames River, Harrison caught up with his enemy. In this pivotal battle, Harrison defeated the British, securing America's northwest frontier. And Tecumseh himself was killed. His followers abandoned the British alliance and the Pan-Indian confederation was history.

There were other young warriors who might have seized the mantle left by Tecumseh. There were other religious figures who might have followed in Tenskwatawa's footsteps. But the conditions that had allowed the two brothers to build a mass movement among the Indian nations of the northwest were no longer present. With the end of the War of 1812, the British finally abandoned their lingering fantasies of reclaiming some sort of control over the region. They would therefore no longer respond to overtures from Indian tribes for support; they would no longer be able to back the ambitions of an Indian leader skillfully exploiting Anglo-American rivalries within the region.

Once again the legend and the history of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa converge on this point: all hopes for a Pan-Indian alliance ended with the failure of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa. But beyond this point there is far more disagreement than agreement. The history of Tenskwatawa reminds us of the complex array of forces that converge to make history—from the social conditions in which a primitivist religious movement could take root to the geopolitical rivalries in which such a movement could gather strength. The legend of Tecumseh suggests a very different understanding of history, one in which charismatic leaders shape events and individual blunders affect the course of history. While the story of Tenskwatawa suggests that the path of history is determined by multiple forces perhaps too difficult to control, in the legend of Tecumseh we are teased by the possibility that history might have been different. If only Tenskwatawa had not jumped the gun, if only Tecumseh's followers had been just a bit more patient, if only they had waited for the sign.

Legend can be attractive, even inspiring. But as historians we must respect the facts, even if the story they tell is more complex and less inspiring. And therefore, there is one final fact that must be mentioned.

On 16 December 1811, just over a month after the disaster at Tippecanoe, a giant earthquake shook the northwest. Labeled the New Madrid earthquake, geologists estimate it would have registered 8.1 on the Richter Scale. It was centered in northeastern Arkansas, but could be felt throughout the Mississippi Valley, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. According to eyewitnesses, buffalo stampeded, the skies became dark with birds taking flight, huge cracks opened in the earth's surface, and the great Mississippi River flowed backward.

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