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TECUMSEH (17681813) or Tecumtha ("Shooting Star," the celestial panther), a Kispoko Shawnee born near the Mad River in western Ohio, devoted his life to intertribal movements resisting American expansionism and its devastating effects on American Indian communities. Because he and his compatriots fought during a period when power shifted decisively toward the U.S. nation-state, historians have asserted that theirs was a lost cause. Of course during Tecumseh's lifetime no one could have known this. For many American Indians living in the interior, inter-tribal resistance not only made sense, it was a well-established political tradition energized by powerful spiritual and cultural values. This tradition influenced Tecumseh even as it enabled him to influence Indians from the Great Lakes to the Gulf Coast.

During the mid-eighteenth century, the Delaware prophet Neolin had called for a radical break with things European. Based on his visions, Neolin urged Native Americans to regain their independence, to wean themselves from the worst aspects of the fur trade, and to regain the old arts of self-sufficiency. He influenced Pontiac, leader of a massive anti-British uprising in 1762 that involved Anishinaabes, Ottawas, Potawatomis, Menominees, Hurons, Delawares, Shawnees, Senecas, Mesquakies, Kickapoos, Macoutens, Weas, Sauk, and Miamis.

This movement, like many that followed, had emerged in a context already strongly shaped by extensive contact and trade with Europeans. In these contact-zones, diverse peoples moved across and depended upon multi-dimensional networks of cross-cultural ties to engage in reciprocal forms of exchange. New kinds of political figures, alliance chiefs, helped mediate between non-hierarchical Native American villages and imperial authorities. Over time, political, material, and cultural hybridity became the norm, not the anomaly. Tensions and conflicts abounded, but Indians had an essential place in this dynamic world and, most important, could compel non-Natives to come to terms with them.

When this balance shifted, as European settlement expanded and the population of non-Natives soared, Native Americans faced a serious crisis. In region after region, the newcomers became less interested in Indian trade or showing reciprocity within hybridized "middle grounds," and far more interested in acquiring Indian land, through any means necessary. On the so-called frontier new forms of Indian-hating spread along with calls for the extermination of Native Americans. Relations, always tense, became polarized and racialized. Facing this new situation, American Indian prophets like Neolin called for religiously motivated resistance.

A few decades later and further into the interior, a Mohawk prophetess named Coocoochee inspired Native Americans of the Ohio and Great Lakes region to fight to rid their lands of the intrusive American presence. Indeed, on November 4, 1791, in western Ohio, Miamis, Shawnees, Delawares, Potawatomis, Ottawas, Chippewas, Wyandots, Mingos, and Cherokees defeated a large army led by General Arthur St. Clair. Tecumseh certainly learned about this remarkable Indian victory over the Americans.

During his twenties, Tecumseh participated actively in the Chickamaugan revolt in the Southeast. Like many Shawnees, Tecumseh had strong ties to the region. His mother was Creek and he had children with a Cherokee woman. The Chickamaugans comprised dissident Cherokees, Creeks, Shawnees, and ex-Tories. Disgusted with established tribal leaders and distressed by settler incursions onto Indian lands, they built new intertribal towns near the Tennessee River. In 1789, while fighting at their side in a Cumberland raid, Tecumseh saw his beloved older brother Cheeseekau (Pepquannakek, "Shawnee Warrior") killed. Subsequent setbacks brought an end to the Chickamauga revolt a few years later. The American opposition was simply too strong in the Southeast. The same was true in the Ohio country. In 1795 at the Treaty of Greenville, Shawnee leaders and others ceded about two-thirds of what is now Ohio to the Americans.

After 1795, in the Ohio country and in the Southeast, power continued to shift toward the Americans, but in an accelerated manner. During this period, the newly settled states of Kentucky (1792) and Tennessee (1796) acted like a great geopolitical wedge cutting into Indian country. On the one hand, this "wedge" acted as a barrier that made traditional intertribal diplomacy and exchange between northern and southern Indians more difficult and treacherous. On the other hand, Kentucky and Tennessee provided staging grounds for the next wave of invasion and settlement into regions that would eventually be known as the Old Northwest and Old Southwest. New cessions of tribal lands, north and south, chipped away at the remaining land base of interior Indians. By 1810, in the Old Northwest, settlers outnumbered Indians nearly four to one. As newcomers threatened to displace Indians and destroy all forms of reciprocal exchange (the so-called "middle ground"), a new prophetic movement emerged among the Shawnees. It was led by Tecumseh's younger brother Lalawethika (The Rattle).

Lalawethika (17751836) realized his own prophetic destiny in 1804 when he awakened from a trance. He had received a revelation directly from the Creator. This experience transformed Lalawethika. He stopped drinking and took a new name, Tenskwatawa, the Open Door. Echoing the messages of previous prophets, Tenskwatawa spoke against dependency, alcohol consumption, and land cessions, and in favor of intertribal solidarity, temperance, and reform. He disliked the fact that missionaries and other agents of American culture encouraged Native men to work in the fields growing food crops. In his eyes, only women tended domestic crops full time. Real men shed blood in the forest. Tenskwatawa charged several people among the Delawares with complicity with evil spirits. This witch-hunt led to the execution of several people, including two annuity chiefs, who had close ties to the Americans or Christian missionaries.

Other modes of internal reform were less violent, but also revealed tensions within tribal communities, between accommodationists and rebels, and between Native Americans and Americans. Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh organized an intertribal village first at Greenville (now in Ohio), then at Prophetstown on the Upper Wabash river (now Indiana). These towns attracted men and women from a dozen or so tribes, including Potawatomis, Ottawas, Ojibwas, Menominees, Winnebagos, Kickapoos, Sacs, and Foxes. Inevitably, this gathering, no matter how peaceful its intent, excited fear and mistrust among white authorities and the chiefs closely allied to them.

Tensions increased still further with the 1809 signing of the Treaty of Fort Wayne, which ceded more than 2.5 million acres of Indian land. The Delaware, Potawatomi, Miami, and other Indian leaders who signed were condemned by Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa. The lands in the western country were common property among all the tribes, and a sale was void unless made by all the Tribes. his brother concurred. Sounding an anti-colonial note that reflected increased racial consciousness, Tenskwatawa taught that whites were not created by God, but by a lesser spirit. Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh advocated Indian solidarity against the American invasion. As the War of 1812 approached, they also carefully considered allying with the British to gain military support. Eventually they did so, only to be gravely disappointed.

Tecumseh also sought support from southern tribes. In 1811, Tecumseh, accompanied by a Mequashake Shawnee prophet named Seekaboo, traveled among Chickasaws, Choctaws, and Creeks to promote pan-tribal cooperation and anti-American militancy. Their only success came among the Creeks, a strong nation increasingly vexed by trade debts, settler incursions, land cessions, internal class divisions, and meddling federal Indian agents. To show their solidarity with northern nations, rebel Creeks danced the Dance of the Indians of the Lakes. They also attacked leaders closely connected with U.S. government officials.

Within two years, the Creek anti-colonial movement attracted nine thousand participants, about half of the entire Creek nation. When a Creek civil war erupted between the rebel Redsticks and their accommodationist opponents, Americans in surrounding states and territories seized the conflict as an opportunity to invade Creek country, ostensibly in behalf of the "friendly" Indians. American armies and militias crushed the Redstick faction and, with the war's close in 1814, exacted huge land cessions from the entire Creek nation, friend and foe alike.

By then Tecumseh himself was dead, killed in the Battle of the Thames, near Moraviantown in Canada, on October 5, 1813. Two years earlier, as Tecumseh recruited support in the South, an army led by William Henry Harrison had destroyed Prophetstown. With these and other defeats, Tecumseh's and Tenskwatawa's movement ended.

In some ways, however, the comprehensive religio-political challenge that their movement embodied continued to trouble Americans. Among other things, Americans who wrote about this movement and its leading figures found it much easier and popular to divide in their representations what had been united in practice. In novels, plays, histories, and speeches, white writers split religion and politics, divorced passion from reason, contrasted Tenskwatawa with Tecumseh. They demonized the prophet, who continued to live for more than two decades after the war, as the font of all of kinds of irrational excesses, the one who foolishly led his followers into the disastrous Battle of Tippecanoe (November 7, 1811). And they mythologized his brother Tecumseh, now safely dead, as a romantic, but doomed, warrior who thought strategically and fought nobly, all for nought. In sum, white writers celebrated Tecumseh as a singular genius, though one handicapped by his brother's incompetence.

These simplistic stereotypes obscured the complex realities. In fact, some Native Americans in the South remembered Tecumseh as a prophet himself. And it is clear that he and Tenskwatawa both drew upon key ideas from previous intertribal resistance movements, movements that had fused prophetic teachings with political goals to rally Native communities facing new forms of domination. In other words, Tecumseh fought with everything he had to defend the cultural and political sovereignty of American Indians.


Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 17451815. Baltimore, 1992.

Edmunds, R. David. The Shawnee Prophet. Lincoln, Nebr., 1983.

Martin, Joel. Sacred Revolt: The Muskogees' Struggle for a New World. Boston, 1991.

Sugden, John. Tecumseh: A Life. New York, 1997.

White, Richard. The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 16501815. New York, 1991.

Joel W. Martin (2005)

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