With inexhaustible energy, Tecumseh began to form an Indian confederation to resist white pressure. He made long journeys in a vast territory, from the Ozarks to New York and from Iowa to Florida, gaining recruits (particularly among the tribes of the Creek Confederacy, to which his mother’s tribe belonged). The tide of settlers had pushed game from the Indians’ hunting grounds, and, as a result, the Indian economy had broken down.
In 1811, while Tecumseh was in the South, William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory, marched up the Wabash River and camped near the brothers’ settlement. The Prophet unwisely attacked Harrison’s camp and was so decisively defeated in the ensuing Battle of Tippecanoe that his followers dispersed, and he, having lost his prestige, fled to Canada and ceased to be a factor in Tecumseh’s plans.
Seeing the approach of war (the War of 1812) between the Americans and British, Tecumseh assembled his followers and joined the British forces at Fort Malden on the Canadian side of the Detroit River. There he brought together perhaps the most formidable force ever commanded by a North American Indian, an accomplishment that was a decisive factor in the capture of Detroit and of 2,500 U.S. soldiers (1812).
Fired with the promise of triumph after the fall of Detroit, Tecumseh departed on another long journey to arouse the tribes, which resulted in the uprising of the Alabama Creeks in response to his oratory, though the Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Cherokees rebuffed him. He returned north and joined the British general Henry A. Procter in his invasion of Ohio. Together they besieged Fort Meigs, held by William Henry Harrison, on the Maumee River above Toledo, where by a stratagem Tecumseh intercepted and destroyed a brigade of Kentuckians under Colonel William Dudley that had been coming to Harrison’s relief. He and Procter failed to capture the fort, however, and were put on the defensive by Oliver Hazard Perry’s decisive victory over the British fleet on Lake Erie (September 10, 1813). Harrison thereupon invaded Canada. Tecumseh with his Indians reluctantly accompanied the retiring British, whom Harrison pursued to the Thames River, in present-day southern Ontario. There, on October 5, 1813, the British and Indians were routed, and Harrison won control of the Northwest. Tecumseh, directing most of the fighting, was killed. His body was carried from the field and buried secretly in a grave that has never been discovered. Nor has it ever been determined who killed Tecumseh. Tecumseh’s death marked the end of Indian resistance in the Ohio River valley and in most of the lower Midwest and South, and soon thereafter the depleted tribes were transported beyond the Mississippi River.
(The Bridgeman Art Library, The Art Archive at Art Resource, NY)
Tecumseh in an 1881 engraving
Throughout history in many cultures, preserving the physical remains of great figures has been considered vital for religious, cultural, or political reasons. Many Native Americans don’t share that outlook. The burial of Shawnee leader Tecumseh is a case in point. Tecumseh, whose name means “shooting star” or “panther in the sky,” led the Shawnee and a coalition of other native groups in resisting American settlement of the Ohio and Indiana territories in the early nineteenth century. He allied his forces with the English during the War of 1812 but was abandoned by them in 1813, at the Battle of the Thames in what is now Ontario. Refusing to retreat, Tecumseh died leading his outnumbered forces against American troops led by future president William Henry Harrison. According to eyewitnesses, Tecumseh’s slain body was taken up by his warriors, who buried him close to the battlefield.
No record exists of the exact location of Tecumseh’s grave. But Ken Tankersley, a University of Cincinnati archaeologist who is an enrolled member of the Piqua Shawnee and sits on the tribe’s Council of Elders, says that isn’t important. “For indigenous people, and the Shawnee in particular, what’s important is for the dead to ‘make the journey,’ or allowing the body to decompose, creating nutrients in the soil, and thus allow the cycle of life to continue.” Tankersley notes that Shawnee will occasionally visit the battlefield and leave a tobacco offering. “We know where the battle was, and the whole battlefield is considered a sacred site, and that is close enough.” He predicts that protests would erupt if an archaeologist or anyone else ever tried to find Tecumseh’s remains. Even using noninvasive remote-sensing technology to locate the burial would be considered unacceptable, says Tankersley. “No one should ever go looking for Tecumseh.”
Tecumseh began life in the Shawnee village of Piqua, Ohio on March 9, 1768 as a great meteor flashed and burned its way across the heavens. This event accounts for his name: The Shooting Star, or Celestial Panther Lying in Wait. Tecumseh grew to be a famous warrior and dynamic orator. These skills, paired with his belief that the white man would never rest until all American Indians were dispossessed, made him a powerful and influential force.
Tecumseh conceived of an alliance of all remaining native people, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, from the prairies of the Midwest to the swamplands of Florida. All Indian people would set aside their ancestral rivalries and unite into a single movement to defend their culture, their homelands, and their very lives.
Providing spiritual impetus for Tecumseh’s movement was the teaching of his younger brother, known as Tenskwatawa, The Open Door, or The Prophet. In 1808, the Shawnee brothers established a new capital on the banks of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers, while Tecumseh traveled extensively in an effort to build his alliance.
In the summer of 1811 Tecumseh traveled south to meet with the Creek, Chickasaw, and Choctaw people. The Shawnee leader had promised a sign of his power, and as he arrived in Alabama a huge comet appeared, brightening the skies and fading after his departure. Then, shortly after he left for Prophetstown, a series of violent earthquakes arched out of their epicenter in southeastern Missouri to destroy lives and property throughout the midwest and south. In the minds of the Creek and many others, Tecumseh had made good on his promises.
Meanwhile, growing tensions between the U.S. and Great Britain exploded into war. Tecumseh saw the War of 1812 as his final opportunity to construct an independent Indian nation. He journeyed to Canada in July of 1812 and forged an alliance with the British. General Isaac Brock placed Tecumseh in command of all Native American forces with the understanding that, should the British and Indians be victorious, the Old Northwest would comprise an independent Indian nation under British protection.
Despite a number of victories, this partnership turned fatal on October 5, 1813, at the Battle of the Thames River. Outnumbered three-to-one by General William Henry Harrison‘s army, the Indian and British forces were overwhelmed, without fortifications, and ultimately doomed.
Tecumseh’s vision of a unified American Indian homeland was never fully realized. Within 35 years of Tecumseh’s death at Moraviantown, many Native nations east of the Mississippi River were forcibly relocated. But today the great Tecumseh is still revered for his intelligence, leadership, and military skills, and he is honored throughout North America.