1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Tecumseh

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TECUMSEH, Tecumthe, or Tecumtha[1] (c. 1768-1813), American Shawnee chief, was probably born in the old Shawnee village of Piqua, near the site of Springfield, Ohio, between 1768 and 1780. While still a youth he took part in attacks on settlers passing down the Ohio and in widely extended hunting expeditions or predatory forays to the west and south; and he served in the Indian wars preceding the Treaty of Greenville in 1795. About 1800 his eloquence and his self-control made him a leader in conferences between the Indians and whites. After 1805 the Indians of the North-West became aroused by a series of treaties calling for new cessions of their territory and by the prospect of war between Great Britain and the United States. This presented to Tecumseh and to his brother Tenskwatawa (i.e. the Open Door), popularly called “the Prophet,” the opportunity to put into operation a scheme which followed the ambitious dream of Pontiac. With some scattered Shawnee clans as a nucleus, the brothers proceeded to organize, first near Greenville, Ohio, and later on the White and Tippecanoe rivers in Indiana, “the Prophet's town,” which was based on a sort of communism and was apparently devoted to peace, industry and sobriety, but their actual plan was to combine all of the Indians from Canada to Florida in a great democratic confederacy to resist the encroachment of the whites. Tribal organizations were to be disregarded, but all warriors were to be represented at periodical assemblages where matters of interest to all Indians were to be definitely decided. The twofold influence that was to dominate this league was the eloquence and political ingenuity of Tecumseh and the superstitious reverence aroused by “the Prophet.” This programme alarmed the whites along the north-western border. In the course of the next three years Governor William Henry Harrison of Indiana held interviews with each of the brothers, and during one of these, at Vincennes in 1810, the respective leaders narrowly avoided a hostile encounter. Nevertheless “the Prophet” and Tecumseh reiterated their determination to remain at peace with the United States if the Indians were unmolested in their territory, and if all cessions beyond the Ohio were given up by the whites. The treaty of Fort Wayne in 1809, which called for the cession to the whites of some three million acres of land in central Indiana, was a direct challenge to this programme, and when, during Tecumseh's absence in the South, Harrison made a hostile move against “the Prophet's” town, the latter ventured to meet him, but was defeated on the 17th of November 1811 in the famous battle of Tippecanoe, which broke the personal influence of “the Prophet” and largely destroyed the confederacy built up by Tecumseh. Tecumseh still professed to be friendly toward the United States, probably because his British advisers were not ready to open hostilities, but a series of border outrages indicated that the fatal moment could not long be postponed. When, in June 1812, war broke out Tecumseh joined the British, was commissioned a brigadier-general in the British army, and participated in the skirmishes which preceded General William Hull's surrender at Detroit. He took an active part in the sieges of Fort Meigs, where he displayed his usual clemency toward his prisoners. After the battle of Put-in-Bay, when Colonel Henry Proctor began to retreat from Malden, Tecumseh bitterly reproached him for his cowardice and finally forced him to join battle with Harrison on the Thames river on the 5th of October 1813. In this battle Tecumseh was killed, as traditionally reported, by Colonel Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky, although this has never been fully substantiated. Like Pontiac, whom he doubtless imitated consciously, he had a wonderful eloquence and a power of organization rare among the Indians. His brother, “the Prophet,” remained with a small band of Shawnees and died west of the Mississippi in 1834.

See Benjamin Drake, The Life of Tecumseh and of his Brother the Prophet (Cincinnati, 1841); and Homer J. Webster, Harrison's Administration of Indiana Territory (Indianapolis, 1907).

  1. The name is said to mean “meteor,” or “flying panther.”