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Tecumseh, Tenskwatawa, Tippecanoe - and Tyler too! Part one

Updated on May 31, 2012
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Bob Hunter worked for Ontario Hydro for 22 years. He later became a researcher/writer for the Christian Research Institute in California.


The conflict between the native Indians and the American settlers was long and violent. It’s a generally accepted fact, even among American whites, that the natives were mistreated and cheated out of their land by the American settlers. That isn't to say that the British were saints, nor the Indians, for that matter. Even before the white man settled on this continent tribal wars existed and continued long after the white man's arrival.

However, as the editor of David Russell Edmunds' excellent book, Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership , writes:

The Europeans who settled in the areas of North America that became the United States never came to grips with the presence in their new world of an indigenous population. They began with the assumption that Providence had left the land empty for their use; the presence of others was an uncomfortable reality.

The relationship between the various tribes and the white man had its ups and downs. At times the Indians would be allies of the British. If at some point support from the British was lacking, they would form an alliance with the French or Americans.

Many Europeans fleeing religious persecution in Europe began gathering in Pennsylvania. By 1711 so many Mennonites had moved into the Susquehanna Valley that the Shawnees were forced to move their villages.

The Indians wanted the settlers to stay east of the Appalachians, but it became obvious that they intended to continue moving west. It wasn’t long before the British occupied forts in Detroit, as well as several others in Indiana and Michigan.

In 1761 Sir Jeffrey Amherst, who had a great dislike for Indians, ordered all British Indian agents to severely limit the amount of ammunition and provisions they gave to them. In his view, if the Indians needed arms and ammunition they could purchase them through the fur trade. This was a deemed serious offense to the Shawnees. They were a communal people who believed in sharing their possessions with those who needed it. Hoarding wealth and refusing to share it with others violated their principles.

In May of 1763 continuing tensions between the British under Amherst’s leadership and the Indians culminated in what is known as Pontiac's Rebellion or Pontiac’s War (named after the chief of the Ottawa tribe). Eight forts were destroyed and hundreds of colonists killed or captured. The British were heavily armed and eventually peace negotiations ended the conflict. One positive result, however, was the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which drew a boundary between the British colonies and Native American lands. This forbade colonists from trespassing on native land. The treaty still guides the relationship between the Canadian government and the First Nations people.

Tenskwatawa, or The Prophet
Tenskwatawa, or The Prophet | Source
Tecumseh | Source

Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa

It was into this world that the Shawnee Indian Tecumseh was born in 1768. His father had been killed in battle when Tecumseh was only 7, but because of their communal nature neighbors helped provide for his family.

Over time the European way of life became detrimental to the Indians. They hunted and prepared their food using the white man's tools and weapons, and made clothes with the white man's cloths. Materialism began infecting the tribes and suddenly luxuries became necessities. It’s true that the Indians had longer-lasting and more efficient tools, but it made them more dependent and susceptible to outside influences. Events taking place as far away as Europe could affect their supply of these new tools and materials.

Alcoholism became an ever-increasing problem. Whiskey traders in Fort Wayne would bypass the government and dispense alcohol to the Indians by the gallon. Eventually alcohol abuse would result in the men being unable to take care of their families and in abandoning communal patterns of living.

Tecumseh had a brother six years younger than himself. Lalawethika had a very unhappy childhood. Besides being overweight, he didn't do well when playing children's games. He was an arrogant child and very unpopular. As an adult he became an alcoholic and when he married he wasn't a good provider. While growing up, Tecumseh wasn’t fond of his brother and refused to take him on hunting trips. Consequently, Lalawethika failed to develop his hunting skills. Tecumseh did his best to provide for Lalawethika's wife and children.

In 1798 Tecumseh's village moved to Indiana, settling along the Whitewater River. It was here that Lalawethika met a medicine man who taught him some of his skills. However, when Lalawethika tried to take over the man’s practice he found that he wasn't trusted by the other tribe members.

In April of 1805 Lalawethika's life underwent a complete transformation - one that would affect the entire Shawnee tribe, as well as numerous other tribes. It is reported that he suddenly went into a trance for several hours. Other reports say he got drunk and fell into a fire. His wife and neighbors thought he was dead, but as they were preparing for his funeral he regained consciousness.

Lalawethika explained that he had died and been carried to the spirit world where he met the Master of Life. He was taken to a mountain top overlooking heaven and saw cornfields and plenty of game. This is where the righteous Indians would go when they die. The sinful Indians would go to a place of eternal fire burning inside a wigwam and be subject to unbearable torture. The worst would be reduced to ashes while the others who didn't repent would be forced to swallow molten lead. They would repeat the torture until they had paid for their sins, and then be allowed to enter paradise. However, they would never be able to share in the pleasures of the righteous Indians.

Lalawethika said he had been chosen to lead the Indians back on the road to salvation and that he would never drink again. When it came to drinking, he was true to his word and over time won many followers. He said the Master of Life had given him a new name, Tenskwatawa, or "the Open Door." He was the door to salvation. He was also referred to simply as the Prophet.

Tenskwatawa continued to have visions from the Master of Life and he led a band of followers to Greenville, Ohio where he continued his teachings. He taught about the decline in traditional values and urged his followers to provide food and shelter to those who couldn't care for themselves. He also urged them to avoid alcohol, as it led to a multitude of sins and was the main cause of the current decline. He discouraged the accumulation of property and said that the Indians had adopted too many of the white man's values. Many were hoarding food while others went hungry and that contributed to much of the current violence in their society. Wealth was only valuable when it was given away. The Prophet urged them to return to the food, clothes and implements they used before the white man came and to refrain from consuming cattle, hogs and sheep. He did allow the Indians to use guns for self-defense, but not for hunting. The guns and ammunition could be obtained from the British or French, who, he said, had been created by the Master of Life, unlike the Americans, who were thought of as children of the devil.

If would appear that the Prophet borrowed from Roman Catholicism in some aspects of practice. New converts were given strings of beads and told they were the flesh of the Prophet. They would draw the beads through their hands and promise to follow Tenskwatawa's teachings. Tenskwatawa promised that if they followed his teachings the Americans would eventually be destroyed and the land of the Indians restored.

Tecumseh ultimately came to believe that Tenskwatawa was, indeed, sent by the Master of Life. Unfortunately, some Indians were burned by overzealous followers for supposedly being witches. Indiana Governor William Henry Harrison ordered the burnings to be stopped, telling them:

My children. My heart is filled with grief and my eyes are dissolved in tears at the news which has reached me....My children, tread back the steps you have taken, and endeavor to regain the straight road you have abandoned. The dark, crooked and thorny one which you are now pursuing will certainly lead to endless woe and misery. But who is this pretended prophet who dares to speak in the name of the Great Creator? Examine him. Is he more wise or virtuous that you are yourselves, that he should be selected to convey to you the orders of your God? Demand of him some proofs at least of his being the messenger of the Deity. If God has employed him he has doubtless authorized him to perform some miracles, that he may be known and received as a prophet. If he is really a prophet, ask of him to cause the sun to stand still - the moon to alter its course - or the dead to rise from their graves. If he does these things, you may then believe that he has been sent by God.

Harrison could not have said anything more helpful for the cause of the Prophet than to issue that challenge. Several astronomers had visited the Ohio Valley, preparing for a total eclipse of the sun scheduled for June 16, 1806. Apparently Tenskwatawa heard about it and promised the other Indians that the sun would stand still (known among the Shawnees as a Black Sun) on June 16. When the eclipse took place, the Prophet gained even more followers.

As Greenville continued to grow they were faced with the matter of shortages of food. Shakers visited Greenville and they saw the need for food and assistance in the ever-growing village and were reluctant to eat any of the tribe’s food. When they left they provided the Indians with money to buy provisions and the following summer gave them cornmeal. Unfortunately, other settlers threatened the Shakers and they stopped providing for the Indians.

In Fort Wayne, Indian agent William Wells was concerned about the number of Indians passing through on their way to Greenville. He claimed that they were trespassing on government land and wanted the village removed. Tecumseh disliked Wells because he had married a daughter of Miami Chief Little Turtle and considered both Wells and Little Turtle as Indian leadership at its worst - former foes of the Americans who were now serving the government.

Most tribes believed that land could not be owned – only occupied. Once Indians left a piece of land it could be settled by anyone. The idea of land ownership was forced on them by the treaties the American government made with the Indians.

By 1808, because the Indians in Greenville were now almost completely surrounded, Tecumseh and the rest moved to a new location near the juncture of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers. This caused alarm in Fort Wayne and Little Turtle was sent to urge them not to move there. The move took place anyways and the village of Prophetstown in Indiana was built. The British supported the move and Tecumseh promised that if there was war between the British and Americans, the Indians would support the British. Tenskwatawa met with Harrison and assured him the Indians had no intention of turning against the Americans. Thus assured, Harrison gave them provisions. The population quickly grew to over 400.

William Henry Harrison
William Henry Harrison | Source

As more settlers came to Indiana, more Indian land had to be taken away. Negotiations and bribery on the part of William Harrison resulted in the Treaty of Fort Wayne, signed on September 30, 1809. With this treaty a stunning three million acres of Indian land were lost to the United States in exchange for provisions. Harrison made the claim that “This is the first request that your new Father (President James Madison) has ever made of you and it will be the last.”

It was after the signing of the Treaty of Fort Wayne that Tecumseh came forward and took control. He was furious that the Indians had signed the treaty and threatened to kill the Indian chiefs who had taken part in it. When many of the Indians finally woke up and realized just how much land had been surrendered, Tecumseh gained support. The Indians had enjoyed their new provisions for a while, but once the food and goods were gone they were accused of selling their birthright.

In the spring of 1810 hundreds of warriors from the Potawatomis, Kickapoos, Delawares, Miamis, Sacs and Foxes arrived in Prophetstown and the British sent supplies to the village.

On August 12, 1810, Tecumseh and 75 warriors met with Harrison in Vincennes. Tecumseh said the Treaty of Fort Wayne was invalid and that any attempt to settle the land would be met with violence. Harrison wanted Tecumseh to go to Washington to meet President Madison, believing that once Tecumseh saw the strength of the United States troops he would be discouraged from resisting. Tecumseh refused to go.

In the second of this two part article we will look at the Battle of Tippecanoe, British and Indian battles with the Americans, and Tecumseh's final battle.

Part Two: Tippecanoe and Tyler Too


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      Terry 6 years ago

      a great piece of writing as usual from Bob Hunter. He not only nails the historical facts of this shameful chapter in American history, he captures the morality of it too, shattering myths of "great Americans" like Tom Jefferson who was as Bob notes largely responsible for a policy of genocide.