Sir Isaac Brock is often remembered as "the saviour of Canada" for his role in the War of 1812
(1812-14), but another man should rightly share that honour - the Native leader called Tecumseh. His
name has been translated several ways, and relates to the legend that a comet passed over the
Shawnee village of Old Piqua - on the Mad River near modern Springfield, Ohio - on the night
Tecumseh was born in March 1768. Tecumseh was reportedly the fifth of nine children born to
Shawnee warrior Puckeshinewa and his wife, a Creek woman called Methoataske.
Puckeshinewa was killed during the Battle of Point Pleasant in 1774. Five years later about
1,000 Shawnee abandoned the Ohio Valley after a raid by Kentuckians. Among the refugees was
Methoataske; Tecumseh remained in Ohio living with an older sister. The greatest influence on the
youth came from his eldest brother, Chiksika, who acted as a surrogate parent to his younger siblings.
Chiksika had no love for the people who killed his father, and felt that peace could only be made once
the Whites were chased from the Ohio region. Tecumseh adopted his brother's outlook even before
Chiksika died attacking an American outpost in 1788. The troubles of Tecumseh's family mirrored
that of their people.
According to John Sugden, the name Shawnee means "southerners," and this Algonquian
people may have originated in the Carolinas. In the late-1600s they were living in the Ohio and
Cumberland Valleys, but were dislodged by raids from the Iroquois Confederacy. By 1730 one group
of Shawnee had settled in modern Pennsylvania. Attacks by the Iroquois (along with the English)
continued, however, and the Pennsylvania Shawnee moved west to their old Ohio homelands. Safe
from their old tribal enemies, the Shawnee were still not secure against the spread of White
settlement. The struggle to find a safe haven, and defend against American incursions was a hallmark
of the Shawnee's existence at the turn of the nineteenth century; the same was true for Tecumseh
Tecumseh wed at least twice, but by 1807 had renounced married life. Tall for his people,
Tecumseh stood at around five foot ten. He was noted for his handsome features, and most people
who met Tecumseh were impressed by his grace and dignity of bearing. His only real physical flaw
was a limp, caused by a leg injury suffered when he fell from a horse as a youth. Today we can only
guess exactly what Tecumseh looked like, as he never agreed to have a White artist paint his portrait.
The full extent of his powerful oratory skills are also lost. When speaking, and through his physical
presence, Tecumseh could move an audience to rage, sorrow or joy. Though parts of his speeches
have survived, these are filtered through interpreters, and even at the best of times we cannot
experience the full impact Tecumseh had on his audiences.
Speaking ability was prized among many First Nations peoples, and so was courage
- Tecumseh was known as much for bravery in battle as for his oratory. During
the American Revolution (1775-83) the teenage Tecumseh fought alongside Chiksika,
and afterwards the brothers participated in raids on settlements south of
the Ohio River. It was during this period that Tecumseh witnessed the burning
of an American captive. From that point on Tecumseh decided he would never
again be party to torturing prisoners.†
His views on torture did not mean Tecumseh shied away from a fight. He was part of the
action in 1794 when a large force of Shawnee, and allied tribes, battled 3,500 Americans sent to
pacify the Shawnee as a threat to Kentucky settlers. Led by major general "Mad" Anthony Wayne
(1745-96), the Americans routed the Natives near the Miami River in the Battle of Fallen Timbers.
Most of the defeated chiefs signed the Treaty of Greenville (1795), giving up title to vast tracts of
land. Tecumseh was now a minor chief himself, but refused to sign. Following the Greenville Treaty,
Tecumseh and a number of like-minded followers moved several times.
A new phase in Tecumseh's life began in 1805 when his younger brother experienced
a religious revelation, becoming Tenskwatawa, "The Open Door." Also called
the Prophet, Tenskwatawa preached that the Americans were evil, and that Native
peoples must break their reliance on White goods like firearms and alcohol,
and have minimal contact with the invaders.‡
The ideals Tenskwatawa preached suited Tecumseh's goals for his people. Tecumseh revived
the ideas of the Ottawa war chief Pontiac (c. 1720-69), who worked toward a Native confederacy
against their European enemies. Tecumseh travelled vast distances to spread his message, arguing that
the only way for the First Nations peoples to survive was to set aside their traditional mistrust and
resist their common enemy. One of Tecumseh's most important ideas was the notion that the land
was held in common by all, so no more could be sold to the Whites.
In 1808 Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa founded a new settlement at the mouth of the
Tippecanoe River, near present-day Lafayette, Indiana. Called Prophetstown, the village was
populated by families from a number of tribes. Whether brought there by Tenskwatawa's religious
revival or Tecumseh's message of Indian confederacy, the settlers of Prophetstown were seen as a
threat by some Americans, especially Indiana governor - future US President - William Henry
Harrison became Tecumseh's greatest enemy. An officer at Fallen Timbers, he actively
promoted settlement in the Northwest, and engineered a number of land deals that removed millions
of acres of territory from Indian control. In 1809 Harrison achieved his biggest coup with the Treaty
of Fort Wayne, a dubious document that ceded three million acres in central Indiana. Considered by
Harrison as recently-arrived "nomads" in the region, neither Tecumseh's followers nor the Shawnee
in general were party to the treaty.
Returning from his travels to promote the Native confederacy, Tecumseh had two turbulent
meetings with Harrison, rejecting the terms of the Fort Wayne treaty. Harrison felt a grudging
admiration for the Shawnee leader, but this did not stop his plans to destroy Tecumseh's Native
alliance. When Tecumseh set off southward to meet with the Creeks, Harrison marched with a force
including US regular troops to repeat the success of Fallen Timbers.
In 1811 Harrison's army camped near Prophetstown. Though he intended to destroy the
settlement, Harrison hoped to make the Natives seem like the aggressors; the Prophet played right
into his hands. Under his direction the warriors launched a night attack, assured that they were
protected from American bullets. In the end, Harrison narrowly won the 7 November "Battle of
Tippecanoe," and the Prophet was discredited in the eyes of many followers. Only a few warriors had
died, but the failed promise of invincibility led many to doubt his spiritual influence. With his brother
in disgrace, Tecumseh was now the sole leader of their followers. He was enraged at the American
destruction of Prophetstown, and vowed revenge. His opportunity came in 1812.
President James Madison (1751-1836) asked Congress to declare war on Great Britain, which
they did on 18 June. Holding much of what is now eastern Canada, the British had continued to trade
with the Native tribes, and many Americans blamed them for provoking Indian attacks. This was not
exactly true, but Harrison's attack on Prophetstown drove Tecumseh and his followers
wholeheartedly into the British camp. With Britain engaged against Napoleonic France, its resources
in Canada were thin. It was estimated that Tecumseh's confederacy could bring 3,000 warriors -
Shawnee, Miami, Wyandot, Potomac, Delaware - into the fight. As the war opened, the support of
Tecumseh, along with that of other tribes allied to the British, were a crucial factor in saving Canada
from American invasion.
Tecumseh was impressed by British major general Isaac Brock's fighting spirit.
The admiration was mutual. Brock called Tecumseh "the Wellington of the Indians,"
perhaps the greatest compliment a British officer of the day could give.‡‡
Tecumseh and his warriors participated in the battles of Brownstown and Monguagon,
and in Brock's bloodless victory at Detroit (For his role at Detroit Tecumseh
was granted the honours of a British brigadier general). Tecumseh was not
present in October 1812 when Brock was felled during the Battle of Queenston
Heights, but soon felt the loss of his great ally.
By Spring 1813 the war was going badly for the Anglo-Canadian forces. In May Brock's
successor, brigadier general Henry Proctor (c. 1763-1822), led an unsuccessful attack on Harrison's
Fort Meigs. The action's only "British" success was the defeat of some Kentucky militia by
Tecumseh's warriors. September found Proctor, now a major general, retreating up the Niagara
Peninsula pursued by Harrison, after the Americans had seized control of Lake Erie. Tecumseh had
little respect for Proctor, whom he saw as cowardly. He browbeat the general into making a stand
against Harrison's forces near Moraviantown, Ontario, by the banks of the River Thames. Fought on
5 October, Moraviantown - also called the Battle of the Thames - was Tecumseh's last stand. Though
British forces broke and ran, the Native warriors fought on against overwhelming odds. After a time
Tecumseh's voice, which urged his comrades on through the battle, was stilled.
No one is sure who killed Tecumseh, and even the fate of his remains is unknown. No other
leader emerged to take Tecumseh's place, and the dream of a great Indian confederacy was never
realized. Though Native warriors continued to fight with distinction - on both sides - in the War of
1812, their military services never regained their importance in North American warfare. Still,
Tecumseh has achieved a kind of immortality as an example of courage and tenacity to people of all
races. His memory is enshrined in the names of several towns, both in his country of birth and the
country he helped preserve.
†Tecumseh's speaking abilities were useful here; he persuaded many of his comrades to renounce torture as well. His generosity to defeated foes is well documented. In 1813, for example, Tecumseh prevented the killing of captured Kentucky militia.
‡The Prophet (1775-1836) had an unhappy childhood. Born after his father's death, he was an awkward and overweight child, far from the Shawnee ideal of a warrior. To make matters worse, as a youth he had accidentally taken out one of his eyes with an arrow. His original name was Lalawéthika; meaning the "Noisemaker" or "Noisy Rattle," based on his loud and boastful nature.
‡‡After the brilliant British general, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke
of Wellington (1769-1852).
SOURCES & OTHER REFERENCE
Berton, Pierre. Flames Across the Border, 1813-1814. Toronto: 1981.
The Invasion of Canada, 1812-1813. Toronto: 1980.
Borneman, Walter R. 1812. The War That Forged a Nation. New York: 2004.
Drake, Benjamin. Life of Tecumseh, and of His Brother the Prophet, with a Historical Sketch of the Shawanoe Indians. Cincinnati: 1841.
Edmunds, R. David. Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership. Boston: 1984.
"Shawnee Prophet (Tenskwatawa), in Frederick E. Hoxie (ed.). Encyclopedia of North American Indians. Boston: 1996, 584-585.
"Tecumseh," in Hoxie (ed.). North American Indians, 620-621.
Sugden, John. "Shawnee." in Hoxie (ed.). North American Indians, 582-584.
Zuelke, Mark. For Honour's Sake. The War of 1812 and the Brokering of an Uneasy Peace. Toronto: 2006.
Drewery, Laine (dir.). Canada, a People's History. A Question of Loyalties. CBC/Radio Canada, 2000.
Foreman, Garry L. (prod./dir.). Frontier. Legends of the Old Northwest. Tecumseh. The Dream of Confederacy. The History Channel, 1998.
Hyatt, A.M.J. "Procter (Proctor), Henry." from The Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. http://www.biographi.ca