Tecumseh: The Driving Force Behind the Native American Confederacy

By: John Donovan  | 

Tecumseh (left) was a Shawnee warrior who made it his life's goal to organize Native American tribes together against the white man. His brother, Tenskwatawa (right), was known as The Prophet, and helped gather thousands of Native Americans from several tribes to side with the British against the Americans in the War of 1812. Library of Congress

William Henry Harrison was the son of a moneyed Virginia farmer. He trained in the classics, was hardened as a U.S. Army officer and briefly served as the ninth president of the United States. He considered his greatest rival the Shawnee leader Tecumseh, calling him "one of those uncommon geniuses, which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things."

Consider that for a second: A white man of privilege, charged with stealing the land of Native Americans in the name of a nascent but overwhelmingly powerful nation — and killing any "savages" in his way — praising the man who would send his warriors against him.

That gushing respect explains how Tecumseh became a legend in his time, among both friends and foes. It's a legend worth examining now, more than 200 years after his death, as America grudgingly faces a long overdue reckoning with its treatment of Native Americans and other people of color.

"Most biographers, it seems to me, fall into one of two categories. They either fall in love with their subject, or the more they read about him, the more they write about him, they can't stand him," says historian R. David Edmunds, the author of 1984's "Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership," and a Professor Emeritus in history at the University of Texas at Dallas. "I would argue mine may be somewhere in the middle. But you still can't really deal with Tecumseh, I think — most of us — without walking away thinking, 'This man is really something special.'"


The Early Life of Tecumseh

Born in 1768 in present-day Ohio, Tecumseh grew up in war. His father was killed in 1774 attempting to beat back encroaching colonists from Virginia. A few years later, in the American Revolutionary War — before Tecumseh was 10 years old — the Shawnee and other Native American bands sided with the British against the ever-intruding American forces.

Tecumseh may have seen his first battle in 1780, before the end of the Revolution, and took part in many more in the decades to come. In 1785, a war for the Northwest Territory — what is now known roughly as the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin — between Native Americans and the new Americans began. Not long into that extended campaign, Tecumseh, in a group that included many tribes including the Shawnee and Cherokee, faced a turning point in his life while attacking flatboats carrying merchandise along the Ohio River.

The raids on the boats turned brutal, with the American Indians torturing and, sometimes, burning their prisoners alive. Tecumseh, though, stood up to his Native American brothers and denounced the violence. From "Tecumseh: A Life," in which biographer John Sugden quotes Stephen Ruddell's memoirs of his time spent with Tecumseh:

It was after watching a prisoner from the flatboats being burned that Tecumseh first made that plain, Ruddell reported. He had no power to interfere with the fate of a prisoner deemed to be the property of others, disposable at their will. But even then he was deeply upset by the torment of the miserable captive. When it was done he 'expressed great abhorrence of the deed, and finally it was concluded among them not to burn any more prisoners that should afterwards be taken, which was ever after strictly adhered to by him.'

"If Americans could have designed an Indian in 'the noble savage' image," Edmunds says, "it would have been Tecumseh."

At the Battle of Tippacanoe, Gen. William Henry Harrison was on a mission to destroy the intertribal defensive alliance being promoted by Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa.
Library of Congress


Coming of Age

Tecumseh distinguished himself in battle over the years, but he was perhaps best known, and most admired, for pulling different tribes together in a so-called Indian confederacy. Beginning in the early 1800s, he and his brother, Tenskwatawa, known as The Prophet, organized a group of thousands of Native Americans from several tribes, eventually siding with the British against the Americans in the War of 1812.

The Prophet provided a spiritual side to the movement, while Tecumseh added a political edge. Tecumseh was recognized as an outstanding orator, able to rally his far-flung forces, negotiate a tricky alliance with the British, and to stand up to the always increasing demands of the white man.

He had mixed success in enlisting tribes into his confederacy. Some Shawnee, in fact, did not side with him. But Tecumseh's message was always the same.

"The real problem that tribal people had in dealing with the Americans was that they approached their response to the American invasion on a tribal basis. Tecumseh was a man who said, 'We have to come together and stand together. If we don't, they're going to pick us off bit by bit by bit,' which was true," Edmunds says. "'We have to stand and say that land ownership is a Native American phenomenon, not a tribal phenomenon. It's not Shawnee land, it's not Cherokee land, it's not Creek land, it's not Delaware land. We all own it. Together.'"

That message, though, did not sit well with the U.S. "Their policy was, essentially, just pick away with it until there was nothing left," Edmunds says. "So that message was very frightening to American politicians in the early 19th century."

Tecumseh had two in-person councils with Gen. William Henry Harrison. This is an artist's depiction of one of those meetings held in August 1810.
New York Public Library


The Tecumseh Legacy

During the War of 1812, Tecumseh and his warriors joined British and Canadian forces in repelling Americans in the Siege of Detroit. The threat of Tecumseh and his fellow tribesmen was enough to scare an aging American commander into surrendering Fort Detroit and its 2,500 soldiers without a shot fired.

Afterward, Tecumseh and his men struck at forts within the U.S., terrifying settlers in this still-new area of the American frontier. But by September 1813, the Americans had regrouped, retaken Detroit and forced the Brits and Tecumseh's band north and east. The Americans were led by Harrison, who through the years had held at least two face-to-face negotiations with Tecumseh.

When the Battle of Thames broke out in southwestern Ontario, Canada, Oct. 5 of that year, the small band of British quickly retreated — their alliance with the Native Americans never was a solid one — leaving Tecumseh and his few hundred warriors to face Harrison and the Americans alone. Overwhelmed, Tecumseh was killed; by who was never clear, and what happened to his body is also a mystery. His forces quickly fled upon news of his death. Ironically, despite his attempts at unifying Native American tribes, more Shawnee fought with the Americans in that battle than fought at Tecumseh's side.

After Tecumseh's death, the great pan-Indian confederacy soon disbanded. And the notion of Native Americans joining together in the face of an unrelenting assault on their land died, too.

But what one man accomplished in keeping the dream alive did not.

"Tecumseh, in my opinion, is the most remarkable Native American leader in American history," Edmunds says. "He is a man of character; he is a man dedicated to his people. He is a man far ahead of his time in thinking. He is a man admired by both his friends and his enemies.

"He's a man whose death adds to his mystique. As he passes out of life, he passes into myth. He's a remarkable, remarkable person."

Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of Thames in 1813.
Library of Congress

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