Tecumseh lost three close family members to frontier violence.
Born in 1768 in present-day Ohio, Tecumseh lived during an era of near-constant conflict between his Shawnee tribe and white frontiersmen. At age 6, Lord Dunmore’s War broke out after a series of violent incidents, including one in which about a dozen Native Americans were plied with whiskey and challenged to a target shooting match before being slaughtered. Tecumseh’s father, Puckeshinwa, participated in the war, losing his life during a retreat across the Ohio River in the October 1774 Battle of Point Pleasant. As he lay dying, he supposedly told his son, Chiksika, to never make peace with the Virginians and to supervise the warrior training of his other male children. In 1788, a year after the U.S. Congress precipitated the settlement of Shawnee lands by passing the Northwest Ordinance, Chiksika was fatally wounded while attacking a stockade in present-day Tennessee. And in 1794, another of Tecumseh’s brothers, Sauwauseekau, was shot and killed at the Battle of Fallen Timbers.
Tecumseh took part in the worst defeat ever inflicted by Native Americans on U.S. forces.
In fall 1790, the Shawnee and Miami tribes repelled an assault on their villages near modern Fort Wayne, Indiana, killing 183 U.S. troops in the process. President George Washington authorized a new campaign the following year, in which he put Governor Arthur St. Clair of the Northwest Territory in charge of some 2,300 men. On the march north from modern Cincinnati, hundreds of them deserted as the weather worsened and food supplies ran low. For nearly two months, the remaining troops had little contact with native tribes. On November 3, the soldiers set up camp along the Wabash River in western Ohio. Washington had advised St. Clair to “beware of surprise,” but he posted few guards and built no barricades. The next morning, as the soldiers prepared breakfast, a force of Native Americans attacked and immediately overran them. Poorly trained militiamen fled, whereas the regulars who kept their position were decimated. When the dust cleared a few hours later, at least 623 American soldiers and dozens of camp followers were dead, and hundreds more were wounded. In comparison, fewer than 300 U.S. troops died during the much-more-famous Battle of the Little Bighorn. Tecumseh did not play a major role in the clash with St. Clair, but he scouted the U.S. soldiers during their advance north. Throughout the battle itself, in which only 21 Native Americans were reportedly killed, he watched the rear trail to make sure no reinforcements arrived.
Tecumseh tried to unite all tribes against white expansion.
The victory over St. Clair proved to be short lived, as the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers forced the Native Americans to give up most of present-day Ohio and part of Indiana. Tecumseh did not abide by such agreements, believing that every tribal leader who signed them “should have his thumb cut off.” He began envisioning a confederacy that would bring all of the tribes together—even longtime enemies—to resist the whites’ insatiable desire for land. Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, best known as “the Prophet,” also started preaching against cultural assimilation. In 1808 the brothers founded Prophetstown in northwestern Indiana, which they envisioned as the capital of their confederacy. That same year, Tecumseh met with British officials in Canada. He then traveled widely in the Midwest, gaining followers among such tribes as the Seneca, Wyandot, Sac, Fox, Winnebago, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Chippewa, Ottawa, Delaware, Miami and, of course, Shawnee. Tecumseh even made it as far south as present-day Alabama and Mississippi, where he preached with limited success to Chickasaws, Choctaws and Creeks. “I have heard many great orators, but I never saw one with the vocal powers of Tecumseh, or the same command of the muscles in his face,” recalled a white soldier who saw one of his speeches.
The U.S. Army invaded while Tecumseh was away.
While Tecumseh was down south in fall 1811, William Henry Harrison, then governor of the Indiana Territory, decided to march on Prophetstown. Tecumseh had told his brother to avoid war with the Americans, but when soldiers advanced to within a mile of the town on November 6, the Prophet greenlighted a preemptive strike. He assured his followers that white bullets could not hurt them, and during the next morning’s fighting he purportedly sat on a rock singing incantations. In the end, though the Native Americans likely suffered fewer casualties than their opponents in the Battle of Tippecanoe, they were forced to retreat and abandon Prophetstown. Harrison then burned it to the ground. Upon returning home in January 1812, Tecumseh found his brother’s reputation destroyed and his confederacy badly weakened.
Tecumseh allied himself with the British during the War of 1812.
When the War of 1812 broke out in June of that year, Tecumseh and his supporters immediately joined with the British. During one of the first engagements of the conflict, U.S. General William Hull and about 2,000 men invaded Canada from Detroit. They were quickly repelled, however, in part due to Tecumseh’s interception of a supply train. British commander Isaac Brock, who became friends with Tecumseh, subsequently besieged Fort Detroit. In an act of psychological warfare, Brock informed Hull that his Native American allies “will be beyond my control the moment the contest commences.” A terrified Hull surrendered a day later. The following year, Tecumseh participated in failed sieges of two forts in Ohio. He then reluctantly retreated with the British back into Canada. U.S. troops under Harrison’s command caught up with the British and Native Americans along the Thames River, winning a battle there that cost Tecumseh his life. Afterwards, the surviving Shawnee divided into groups and dispersed in various directions. Most eventually ended up in Oklahoma.
Many myths sprang up around Tecumseh.
No one knows for sure who killed Tecumseh, but that didn’t stop a number of people from taking credit. Richard M. Johnson, for example, rode his reputation as Tecumseh’s killer to the vice presidency in 1836. Four years later Harrison used the slogan, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” to take the White House. Meanwhile, since Tecumseh did no interviews and left behind no letters or journals, storytellers filled the gaps in his life with wild tales. One account held that he courted the blond, blue-eyed daughter of an Indian fighter, with whom he read the Bible and Shakespeare, and another held that his great-grandfather was South Carolina’s governor. Both accounts, and many others like them, are almost certainly untrue.