Tecumseh and the Prophet

From The Wall Street Journal:

In 1808, on the Wabash River—just downstream from where the Tippecanoe River flows into it—a new settlement was being built, in what is now northwestern Indiana. You could hear trees being cut down to construct houses and a 5,000-square-foot meeting house. Women were planting corn, beans and pumpkins. Founded by the Shawnee brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, this was Prophetstown.

The brothers’ houses were close to each other on Prophetstown’s southwestern edge, from which they could see the wide Wabash flowing through the prairie. And they could see pilgrims coming and going, visiting this place of hope in a dark time. A vast diversity of Native peoples—Wyandots, Ottawas, Lenapes (Delawares), Miamis, Potawatomis, Sauks—would pilgrimage to this multiethnic religious community, some staying and some returning home to spread the brothers’ universal Nativist message. As Tenskwatawa explained: The “Master of Life had taken pity on his red children,” who had been pushed around so long by white men. He “wished to save them from destruction” if they would cast aside “wealth and ornaments,” whisky and other trappings of “evil and unclean” white Americans and band together against those who “have taken your lands, which were not made for them.”

In “Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation,” Peter Cozzens tells the intertwined history of the brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa and makes the important argument that, without Tenskwatawa—who was known as “the prophet” for his spiritual visions and prophecies—“there would have been no Tecumseh.”

In most biographies and popular versions of this history, the famous warrior Tecumseh, who led a pan-Native force against the United States in the War of 1812, stands alone—exactly the opposite of his mission in life. As Mr. Cozzens shows, the brothers sought to bring together all Native Americans under Tenskwatawa’s teachings, persuading them to cast aside their political, cultural and religious differences to become one mighty race.

While the Master of Life spoke to the prophet Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh traveled throughout the eastern half of North America to spread the word, from Creek and Choctaw towns in the deep South to the Iroquois (Haudenosaunee) nations in the Northeast, and across the Mississippi River to the Quapaws, the powerful Osages and bands of the brothers’ own Shawnee people who had already moved west. Everywhere, Tecumseh preached Tenskwatawa’s prophecies and readied men for battle against the United States.

. . . .

The book’s sharply drawn characters go beyond the central figures of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa. One of their greatest influences was their older brother Cheeseekau, killed in 1792 fighting against Tennessee settlements alongside Cherokees and Creeks. Their Shawnee opponent, Chief Black Hoof, believed Tenskwatawa’s call for pan-Indian resistance, instead of Shawnee-directed diplomacy, was madness. The great Miami war leader Little Turtle defeated U.S. forces in the 1790s, but by the time of Tenskwatawa’s movement he believed that compromise with the United States was the only path. As governor of the Indiana Territory, William Henry Harrison was impressed by Tecumseh’s rhetorical and martial skills and frightened by his popularity. Harrison later would win the U.S. presidency as “Old Tippecanoe,” famed for defeating Tecumseh.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal (PG apologizes for the paywall, but hasn’t figured out a way around it.)

PG has read a bit of American history, but this was completely new to him.

However, he did a bit of quick research and

Tenskwatawa, “The Prophet” painted in 1830 by George Catlin via Wikipedia
Frieze of the Rotunda of the United States Capitol “Death of Tecumseh” – Tecumseh is shown being fatally shot by Colonel Johnson at the Battle of the Thames in Upper Canada during the War of 1812. With Tecumseh’s death, however, the momentum and power of the Indian confederacy was broken. via Wikipedia, public domain, US Government work
Bronze reproduction of the figurehead of the USS Delaware, located at the US Naval Academy. Originally Tamanend, chief of the Delawares, the statue is called now commonly called Tecumseh. It was designed by William Luke (1790-1839).
Photo by Employees of the U.S. Naval Academy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

5 thoughts on “Tecumseh and the Prophet”

  1. Thanks for this PG. I knew all about Tecumseh in the War of 1812 but this background was all new to me.

    However, I think that this project was hopeless before it started. Along with freedom and the protection of slavery, one of the main objectives of American Revolution was to free up land for western expansion and with the success of the revolution the native people’s fate was sealed.

    (nb. I apologise to those who – not incorrectly – think that this is a gross simplification of a complex series of historical events, but whilst conceding all sorts of things to critics I will stand by my judgement that the native communities west of the Appalachians were doomed by the revolution).

    • Er, the Canadian tribes didn’t too well up north either.
      And I don’t recall too many instances of government taking kids away from their families to “civilize” them south of the parallel.
      And the locals didn’t do so hit under Spain or after the southern revolutions.
      Or in australia. Or South Africa.
      The times were bad everywhere.
      Historically, when civilizations meet, the lower tech one gets flatenned. Often with local aid.
      (Cortes, Pizarro, et al.)

      Worth remembering today.

      • My main point was that, interesting as the story might be, Tecumseh and his brother’s plan had no chance of success post the Revolution.

        When it comes to counterfactuals, we really have no idea what would have happened had the Revolution failed. Had the result been a bunch of separate states loyal to the crown I doubt that, for example, Andrew Jackson’s near genocidal ethnic cleaning would have taken place, but the fate of the Native Americans west of the Appalachians would probably still have been bad. However, with the Crown’s support of the Proclamation of 1763 and individual states instead of a united nation, maybe their fate would have been less bad? (It’s not likely it could have been worse.)

        Your general point about the fate of locals faced with invaders with better technology is of course true, but in some instances the result can be less bad than others. I suspect that New Zealand is the best (ie. least bad) example of this, in part because Imperial Law gave strong protection to native land rights (despite the Land Wars of the mid 1800s) but also because the tech differences (on land) were not so great: the Maoris had already bought a shedload of muskets to fight each other before the Treaty of Waitangi.

        In Canada, the Proclamation of 1763 remained the law and seems to have had enough value that members of the First Nations celebrated its 250th anniversary. Despite the nasty cultural suppression that took place on the west coast, for example, my gut feeling was that the First Nations fate was not as bad as that of those south of the 49th parallel. However, my gut could be totally wrong as its feelings are mainly driven by the rarity of internal military conflict in post War of 1812 Canada. Maybe one of PG’s Canadian readers could enlighten us?

        • “Despite the nasty cultural suppression that took place on the west coast… ”

          My understanding is it wasn’t just out west.
          There’s plenty of reasons the Mohawk and Mi’kmaq have let it be know if Quebec achieves independence, they’ll instantly demand independence from Quebec.
          It was going on well into the 1980s with what is called the stolen generation.
          Commonly referred to as the Sixties Scoop, the practice of removing large numbers of aboriginal children from their families and giving them over to white middle-class parents was discontinued in the mid-’80s, after Ontario chiefs passed resolutions against it and a Manitoba judicial inquiry harshly condemned it.
          The passage of the Child and Family Services Act of 1984 ensured that native adoptees in Ontario would be placed within their extended family, with another aboriginal family or with a non-native family that promised to respect and nurture the child’s cultural heritage. Aboriginal peoples also began to play a much greater role in the child welfare agencies that served them, and the numbers of native adoptees in general began to decline as more stayed with their birth parents.

          However, the act also dictated that old birth records remain sealed, unless both the birth parent and the child asked for them. This has helped keep the period in darkness and frustrated attempts by adoptees to learn about their roots. Those who now feel they were victimized by the adoption process have an extremely difficult time finding out who they are. ”


          Genocide has deep roots in human behavior past and present, even when forced extinction of tribes isn’t soaked in blood.

          • Fair point. My reference to the west coast “for example” came from my understanding of the potlatch ban – which was on the Canadian law books until 1951 – as an attempt to destroy the native’s whole culture as part of a policy of assimilation.

            Mind you, sticking to the west coast, Wikipedia has an article on the “California Genocide”. Though Wikipedia is not a reliable source, in this case it does seem that the forced extinction of the tribes was “soaked in blood”.

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