Tecumseh was born in 1768 near Chillicothe, Ohio. His father, Puckshinwau was a minor Shawnee war chief. His mother Methotaske was also Shawnee. Tecumseh came of age during the height of the French and Indian War and in 1774 his father was killed at the Battle of Point Pleasant during Lord Dunmore’s War. This had a lasting effect on Tecumseh and he vowed to become a warrior like his father. As a teenager he joined the American Indian Confederacy under the leadership of Mohawk Chief Joseph Brant. Brant encouraged tribes to share ownership of their territory and pool their resources and manpower to defend that territory against encroaching settlers. Tecumseh led a group of raiders in these efforts, attacking American boats trying to make their way down the Ohio River. These raids were extremely successful, nearly cutting off river access to the territory for a time. In 1791 he further proved himself at the Battle of the Wabash as one of the warriors who defeated General Arthur St. Clair and his army. Tecumseh fought under Blue Jacket and Little Turtle and the American Indian Confederacy was victorious slaying 952 of the 1,000 American soldiers in St. Clair’s army. St. Clair was forced to resign. In 1794 Tecumseh also fought in the Battle of Fallen Timbers. This decisive conflict against General Anthony Wayne and his American forces ended in a brutal defeat for the American Indian Confederacy. A small contingency of about 250 stayed with Tecumseh after the battle, following him eventually to what would become Prophetstown and a new pan-Indian alliance.
Portrait of the Shawnee military and political leader Tecumseh, ca. 1800-1813. He worked with his brother Tenskwatawa, known as ‘The Prophet,’ to unite American Indian tribes in the Northwest Territory to defend themselves against white settlers.
Tecumseh’s brother Tenskwatawa joined him at Prophetstown, also known as Tippecanoe in Indiana Territory and in 1808 the two men began recruiting a large multi-tribal community of followers under a message of resistance to settlers, the American government, and assimilation. Tecumseh traveled north to Canada and south to Alabama in an effort to recruit men to his cause. Meanwhile, William Henry Harrison, governor of Indiana Territory was negotiating treaties and utilizing American forces to put pressure on those tribes still in Indiana and especially those allied with Prophetstown. In 1809 Harrison, signed the Treaty of Fort Wayne which allotted him a massive amount of American Indian territory thus increasing Tecumseh’s efforts and amplifying his message. Tecumseh was away from Prophetstown on a recruitment journey when Harrison launched a sneak attack now known as the Battle of Tippecanoe. The American forces cleared the encampment and then burned it to the ground. It was a severe blow to the confederacy and a harbinger of war to come.
On June 1, 1812 under the advisement of President Madison, Congress declared war on Great Britain. In the Northwest Territory, American Indian tribes found themselves pulled in two separate directions – side with the British or with the Americans. Tecumseh and his confederacy sided with the British. He and his men were assigned to overtake the city of Detroit with Major General Isaac Brock. The siege of Detroit was a success due in no small part to Tecumseh’s military strategy. He continued to support British efforts under Major-General Procter at the Siege of Fort Meigs. The siege failed and morale waned as a result.
In the fall of 1813 as conditions around Detroit worsened, Procter began a retreat east toward Niagara. Tecumseh requested arms so that his men could stay in the Northwest Territory and continue to defend their lands. Procter agreed to make a stand at the forks of the Thames River. However, when forces reached the site communication broke down and some men deserted while others continued east. When the Americans attacked, large sections of forces broke leaving about 500 hundred American Indians to hold back 3,000 Americans. Tecumseh was fatally wounded in the battle. It is unknown who killed him or what happened to his remains. His death began a rapid decline in American Indian resistance and the War of 1812 is marked as the beginning of removal in the upper Midwest.
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.
Tecumseh has long been recognized as one of the most romantic characters in American history. A Shawnee chieftain of boundless courage, devoted patriotism, and great tenacity of purpose, for many years he was a source of perplexity as well as of trouble on the frontier.
Powder Horn is believed to have belonged to Tecumseh (1768-1813)
This powder horn is believed to have belonged to Tecumseh (1768-1813), a warrior chief of the Shawnee people, who were allied to the British in the American War of 1812. A powder horn was used to pour gunpowder into the barrel of a weapon.
“A single twig breaks, but the bundle of twigs is strong.”
These are words spoken by Chief Tecumseh, a Shawnee warrior who was a great orator and a fine leader. Tecumseh had the ability to bring tribes together and the ability to create respect among his contemporaries, Native American and white as well as ally and foe. Tecumseh’s words were revered as being honest and from his heart, yet tempered with sometimes biting honesty at the way he believed circumstances should be and the way they were.
It is the “single twig” quote that I find so very valuable because it rings just as true today as it did in the early 1800s. Tecumseh realized that the numerous Native American tribes in and around the Ohio River valley were much stronger as a united “bundle of twigs” against the American militia of the time. He understood that most anything is stronger and able to withstand external pressure when reinforced with other allies that share similar values and beliefs.
Tecumseh experienced a lifetime of strife as the edge of the United States kept expanding into what had been Native American lands. His father was killed in a battle in West Virginia with state militia as they pushed west, and Tecumseh himself had to move several times while growing up as their settlements pushed them further and further west.
During the War of 1812, Tecumseh felt he would be better served to assist the British in their fight against the U.S. (To this point, my own great, great grandfather also fought against the U.S. in this same war.) Tecumseh believed the U.S. would never honor a treaty and that it was not possible for a treaty – words on paper – to keep the whites from encroaching on and stealing their lands whenever they saw fit.
To this end, Tecumseh stood for the principle of doing what was right: fighting to protect the U.S. from continuing to take Native American lands while violently killing their previous inhabitants or simply forcing them farther and farther westward. Tecumseh used his oratory skills to successfully unite many tribes against the U.S. He continued speaking out against the way tribes were treated by the U.S. until his death at the 1813 Battle of the Thames in Canada (during the war).
While Tecumseh was as much a human being as any one of us, he possessed a very special talent for speaking about matters in a way that transcended ethnicity or alliances and simply reverberated as human.
Tecumseh’s main legend was that by coming together, uniting for a noble and just cause, you can accomplish so much more, and be stronger, and able to withstand much more as a collective than as a singular person or entity… That when you come together “as a bundle of twigs” you are strengthened not just in physical fortitude but also in spirit… That you become the sum of your parts.
Applying Tecumseh’s viewpoint and way of life today, we can all look for opportunities to unite and work together, to see and use the best in all of us for the greater good, in business and in life.
During his teenage years, Tecumseh joined a confederation of Native Americans led by Mohawk chief Joseph Brant. Brant encouraged tribes to pool their resources and defend their territory against the white man’s encroachment. Tecumseh led a raiding party attacking white settlers’ boats making their way down the Ohio River and was successful in cutting off their access for a time. However, Tecumseh was appalled by the brutality displayed by both white and Native Americans, and after witnessing a white man burned at the stake, Tecumseh vehemently chastised his fellow tribesmen for their actions.
In 1791, under the leadership of Shawnee chief Blue Jacket, Tecumseh led a scouting party against U.S. General Arthur St. Clair at the Battle of the Wabash, where 952 of 1,000 American soldiers were killed. In June 1794, Tecumseh, led an unsuccessful attack against Major General Anthony Wayne at Fort Recovery, and two months later, his force was decidedly defeated at Fallen Timbers
Forming a Confederation of Native American Tribes
Tecumseh was so bitter about the defeat that he refused to attend the subsequent negotiations or to acknowledge the Treaty of Greenville. He sharply criticized the “peace” chiefs who signed away land that he believed wasn’t theirs to give, asserting that the land was like the air and water, a common possession of all Native Americans.
With a small contingency of a few hundred tribesmen, around 1808 Tecumseh traveled to what is now Indiana and joined his brother Tenskwatawa, who had recently become a prominent Native American religious leader known as the Prophet.
Using his superior oratory skills, over time Tecumseh transformed his brother’s religious following into a political movement, discouraging Native Americans from assimilation into the white world. Headquartered at Prophetstown, near the juncture of the Tippecanoe and Wabash rivers, Tecumseh began recruiting different tribes throughout the Northwest Territory and southern United States.
The War of 1812 was an important conflict with broad and lasting consequences, particularly for the native inhabitants of North America. During the pivotal years before the war, the United States wanted to expand its territories, a desire that fueled the invasion of native homelands throughout the interior of the continent. Tribal nations of the lower Great Lakes, including the Shawnee, Potawatomi, Ojibwa, and others saw their lands at risk. The same was true for the Muscogee Creek, Seminole, Choctaw, Cherokee and Chickasaw in the south.
The Native leaders who emerged in response to this expansion shared a single concern, that of protecting tribal lands. There were Indians who sided with the Americans — Red Jacket and Farmer’s Brother led a Seneca faction to help the Americans at the Battles of Fort George and Chippewa. But most Indian nations sided with the British against the U.S, believing that a British victory might mean an end to expansion. In all, more than two dozen native nations participated in the war. In addition to the Lower Great Lakes Indians, led by Tecumseh, and Southern Indians, the Mohawks fought under Chief John Norton to hold onto their lands in southern Quebec and eastern Ontario.
About the Author: Donald Fixico is the Distinguished Foundation Professor of History at Arizona State University, and the author of Treaties with American Indians: An Encyclopedia of Rights, Conflicts and Sovereignty and Rethinking American Indian History.
On October 5, 1813, as the War of 1812 raged on, U.S. troops attacked Shawnee chief Tecumseh and a multi-tribal group of warriors holed up in a swampy thicket near Canada’s Thames River. The vastly outnumbered Native Americans initially stood their ground—unlike their British allies, who had fled at the first sign of battle—but began to retreat following Tecumseh’s death from a gunshot wound to the chest. Never again would Native Americans effectively resist white expansion in the Great Lakes region. Here are six things you may not know about Tecumseh, who devoted his life to defending his people’s homeland and culture.
1. Tecumseh lost three close family members to frontier violence.
2. Tecumseh took part in the worst defeat ever inflicted by Native Americans on U.S. forces.
3. Tecumseh tried to unite all tribes against white expansion.
4. The U.S. Army invaded while Tecumseh was away.
5. Tecumseh allied himself with the British during the War of 1812.
Shawnee Indian political leader and war chief Tecumseh (1768-1813) came of age amid the border warfare that ravaged the Ohio Valley in the late 18th century. He took part in a series of raids of Kentucky and Tennessee frontier settlements in the 1780s, and emerged as a prominent chief by 1800. Tecumseh transformed his brother’s religious following into a political movement, leading to the foundation of the Prophetstown settlement in 1808. After Prophetstown was destroyed during the Battle of Tippecanoe, the Shawnee chief fought with pro-British forces in the War of 1812 until his death in the Battle of the Thames.