Tecumseh, (1768–1813), a Shawnee Indian chief who attempted to unify the Indians in a defense of their lands against white encroachment. Intelligent, courageous, and humane, he is regarded as one of the greatest native leaders of the pioneer era. His major opponent, Governor William Henry Harrison of Indiana Territory, called him an “uncommon genius” who might have founded an empire.
Tecumseh was born in what is now Ohio. His father, a war chief named Pucksinwa, was killed in a battle with Virginia militia in 1774. During his youth Tecumseh saw the conflict between his people and the white settlers become increasingly desperate. When he was grown he became a leader of Shawnee warriors. In 1794 he fought at the battle of Fallen Timbers, in which the Indians were badly defeated. Tecumseh refused to accept the resulting Treaty of Greenville, which opened Ohio and much of Indiana to white settlement, and moved with his followers to an area of Indiana that remained Indian land.
In 1806, Tecumseh's brother Tenskwatawa, called the Prophet, began preaching rejection of white civilization. The brothers founded a community, Prophet's Town, at the juncture of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers. They then set out to form a confederacy of Indian tribes east of the Mississippi, meeting with various tribal leaders. Meanwhile, Governor Harrison was inducing some Indian chiefs to sell land to the United States. These land sales infuriated Tecumseh, who believed the land belonged to all Indians and not to the individual tribes.
Tecumseh continued to visit other tribes, urging united resistance. In 1811, while Tecumseh was in the South, Harrison led an attack against Prophet's Town, which Harrison's troops destroyed. The battle of Tippencanoe, as this engagement was called, touched off Indian reprisals. It was presumed in the United States that the British in Canada were encouraging the Indian uprisings, and the resulting resentment was one of the immediate causes of the War of 1812.
When the war began, Tecumseh and his followers became allies of the British. Tecumseh played a leading role in forcing the surrender of General William Hull at Detroit. Journeying to Alabama, he incited the Creeks to rebellion. He was killed in 1813 in the battle of the Thames, near Detroit, where the British and Indians were defeated by the forces of Harrison.