Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa

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Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa

The Shawnee brothers Tecumseh, a highly respected Indian leader, and Tenskwatawa (originally named Lalawethika), a religious visionary, led the most widespread and coordinated Native American resistance against the advancing white settlers and armies in the history of the United States.

Tecumseh and Lalawethika both were born in a Shawnee village in what is now western Ohio . Tecumseh was born in 1768 and Lalawethika was born in 1775. Their father was a respected Shawnee war chief. At the time of Tecumseh and Lalawethika's early childhood, whites were arriving in Shawnee land in increasing numbers, clearing and fencing the land and driving away the game on which the Indians depended. In 1774, in a war between the Shawnee and the settlers, Tecumseh and Lalawethika's father was killed.

War with white settlers

In 1777, white settlers seized and murdered Shawnee principal chief Cornstalk (c.1720–1777) while he was on a peace mission. Outraged, the Shawnee attacked white settlements, killing many residents. In 1779, white militias attacked Chillicothe, the principal village of the Shawnee. The Shawnee fought off the attack easily, but with war on their homeland looming, the tribe splintered. Nearly one thousand Shawnee, including Methoataske, the mother of eleven-year-old Tecumseh and four-year-old Lalawethika, migrated to southeastern Missouri . Their older brother Chicksika and sister Tecumpease cared for their younger brothers.

Chicksika taught Tecumseh to be a hunter and warrior. The young man learned quickly, showing uncommon leadership qualities at an early age. Lalawethika was still too young to train with them.

Death of Chicksika

During the years that followed the American Revolution (1775–83), the new U.S. government set about acquiring Indian land. “Government chiefs,” as the Indians called those who worked closely with government officials, sold off huge tracts of land that they did not own. During those years, Tecumseh likely developed his philosophy that the land belonged to all the Indians in common, and therefore no one tribe or group had the right to sell it.

Tensions between the Shawnee and the white settlers continued to build. In 1787 and 1788, Chicksika's war party, including Tecumseh, regularly raided white settlements in an attempt to stop the white encroachment on their lands. In 1788, Chicksika was killed in an unsuccessful attack in Tennessee . Grief-stricken, Tecumseh continued raiding white settlements and did not return home until 1790. While he was away, the U.S. government took control of his homeland, creating the Northwest Territory (the modern-day states of Ohio, Indiana , Illinois , Michigan , and Wisconsin ). The Shawnee continued to fight, and after his return, Tecumseh also took part in the raids.

In 1794, the government decided to send the U.S. Army to battle with the Indians. In August, Tecumseh and brothers Sauwauseekau and Lalawethika fought the Army in the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The Shawnee were defeated, and Sauwauseekau was killed. A bitter Tecumseh refused to participate in the Treaty of Greenville that followed the battle. The treaty forced the Indians to give up their claims to lands in southern, central, and eastern Ohio.

Tecumseh as negotiator

The following years were relatively peaceful for Tecumseh. Both the Indians and white leaders viewed Tecumseh as intelligent, thoughtful, honest, and humane. In attempts to make peace between the U.S. government and the Indian tribes, Tecumseh was often asked to negotiate, and he performed this task well.

Though he wished for peace and had friends among the white people, Tecumseh's first priority was saving Indian lands from white settlement. He believed the only way this could be accomplished was to bring together a league of all tribes. Tecumseh resolved to lead the alliance.

The Prophet

Meanwhile, Lalawethika formed a friendship with Penagashea, a medicine man and prophet (someone who sees divine truth). In the winter of 1804–5, infectious diseases brought by white settlers killed many Shawnee, including Penagashea. Lalawethika sought to take over Penagashea's role as medicine man, but few believed he had the power. One day, Lalawethika suddenly fell unconscious. His wife and neighbors found him not breathing and began preparing for his funeral. But Lalawethika woke from his stupor and described the vision he had experienced.

In Lalawethika's vision, the Master of Life had taken him to the spirit world and showed him the past and the future. Overcome, the young man renounced his reckless lifestyle, which had included heavy drinking. He took on the name Tenskwatawa, meaning “The Open Door,” which referred to his new destiny as a holy man who would lead his people through the door to paradise.

Tenskwatawa's visions continued, and he began preaching. He condemned alcohol, violence, stealing, and sexual promiscuity. He proclaimed that Indians should stay away from the white people, who he said were the children of the devil. He urged people to treat elders with respect, perform traditional rituals, and return to traditional Shawnee ways. Tenskwatawa's teachings spread rapidly among the Shawnee and other tribes. He became known far and wide as “the Prophet.”

Brothers join forces

Tesumseh soon joined his brother in the community Tenskwatawa established in Greenville, Ohio. Tecumseh had two major goals: He wanted all tribes to join together and claim common ownership of all remaining Indian lands, and he wanted to create a political and military confederacy to unite the tribes under his own leadership. A strong speaker, his arguments won many followers, and Tenskwatawa's community became the headquarters of a strong religious and political force.

Government officials became alarmed at the growing number of warriors arriving at Greenville. From his headquarters, William Henry Harrison (1773–1841), governor of the Indiana Territory, watched the Greenville community closely.


By 1808, the resources at Greenville were depleted, and the brothers moved their supporters to a new location on the Tippecanoe River. The new village was called Prophetstown.

Meanwhile, Tecumseh worked with mixed success to establish his confederacy, traveling widely among the tribes of the Northwest and the South in search of recruits. Tecumseh's leadership threatened the older leaders, who found it difficult to imagine a confederacy that united them with tribes that were their ancient enemies.

In September 1809, Harrison entered into new land negotiations with government chiefs. In the resulting Treaty of Fort Wayne, the government obtained about 2.5 million acres of Indian lands. Word of this loss spread quickly among the northwestern tribes. A flood of warriors, disgusted with the leaders who had betrayed them, joined Tecumseh's confederacy.

In 1810, Tecumseh and several hundred warriors met with Harrison. Tecumseh spoke at length about the injustices that had been committed against the Indians, emphasizing his opposition to the Treaty of Fort Wayne; he also admitted that he headed a confederacy dedicated to preventing further invasion of Indian lands.

Battle of Tippecanoe

In autumn 1811, Tecumseh journeyed south to recruit more tribes to his confederacy. Harrison took advantage of the opportunity and marched his army toward Tippecanoe, halting within a mile of the village. Tenskwatawa ordered an attack on the army encampment during the night. After two hours of battle, the Indians began to retreat, even though they had inflicted heavy losses on Harrison's troops. The Battle of Tippecanoe was over. Harrison's troops burned Tippecanoe and brutally murdered and mutilated the warriors they captured.

Three decades later, Harrison became president of the United States, campaigning as a military hero on the strength of his victory against the Indians at Tippecanoe. Historians later revealed that his claims were exaggerated: Harrison's troops suffered greater losses than the Indians did, and the Indians may well have prevailed had their leader, Tecumseh, been present. Tenskwatawa had taken no active role in the fighting, and the defeat ended his career as a prophet.

War of 1812

When the War of 1812 broke out between the British and Americans, Tecumseh offered his support to the British. He campaigned among the Indians of the Great Lakes region, winning many converts to the British cause. He participated in a number of battles in Canada and the Detroit area as the British gained the advantage. At the Battle of Brownstown, with only 24 warriors, Tecumseh turned back an army of more than 150 American troops. Tecumseh commanded all Indian forces in the British conquest of Detroit on August 15, 1812.

But losses soon followed. The British navy suffered a sound defeat, and the British commander under whom Tecumseh served announced his intention to retreat. But Tecumseh's inspiring speech before the assembled British and Indian troops prompted the commander to make a stand against the approaching American forces, led by Harrison.

The British troops made their stand at the Thames River, but they quickly collapsed under pressure from the Americans. Tecumseh's warriors fought until they were overwhelmed by superior numbers. Tecumseh died from a bullet to the chest; Tenskwatawa fled early in the battle. The Battle of the Thames ended in an American victory.

When Tecumseh died in battle in 1813, the last credible hope the Native Americans had of containing land-hungry Americans east of the Mississippi seemed to die with him. Tenskwatawa died in Kansas City, Kansas , in November 1836.