Chief Tecumseh

March 1768
On the Scioto River, near Chillicothe Ohio
October 5, 1813
Moravian of the Thames
(near modern ChathamKent, Ontario)
Allied With British
Shawnee Chief

Tecumseh , whose given name might be more accurately rendered as Tecumtha or Tekamthi, was a famous leader of the Shawnee people. He spent much of his life attempting to rally disparate Native American tribes in a mutual defense of their lands, which eventually culminated in his death in the War of 1812. Tecumseh was greatly admired in his day, remains a respected icon for Native Americans, and is considered a national hero in Canada.

The exact date of Tecumseh's birth is impossible to verify; 1768 is the generally accepted estimate. He was born in the Ohio Country. His name (which translates as "I Cross the Way" or "A Panther Crouching for His Prey") was a reference to his family clan; he belonged to the panther clan, one of a dozen exogamous Shawnee clans. Some traditions state that his mother Methoataaskee was Creek or Cherokee Indian. Some of the confusion results from the fact that Creeks and Cherokees were eager to claim the famous Tecumseh as one of their own.

Warfare between whites and Indians loomed large in Tecumseh's youth.

Tecumseh’s stature is proven by the fact that after the War of 1812 both sides came to view him as one of the conflict’s most appealing characters. His ’s reputation for generosity and compassion is almost surprising considering the events surrounding his youth. It was a period of continual strife between Natives and whites. These skirmishes and the accompanying horrors of scalping, torture and pillage were a reality for everyone in the Old Northwest border region.

Both Tecumseh’s father and his eldest brother were killed while fighting whites. Despite this background, people who knew Tecumseh say he had a deep aversion to unnecessary acts of cruelty.

The defining feature of Tecumseh’s life was the white settlers’ insatiable appetite for new land. Against this background, he dedicated his life to building an alliance of the culturally and geographically-fragmented First Nations. He had a burning vision of a Native Confederacy spreading from the Great Lakes to Mexico. He believed this was the only way to effectively resist the encroachment of white civilization and traveled tirelessly in order to spread his message of Indian unity.

An extremely talented public speaker, Tecumseh used these skills to convince the chiefs of the politically decentralized First Nations to join his cause. When his efforts to start an all-out native offensive against the Americans were caught up in the events leading to the War of 1812, he inevitably decided to join forces with the British. Without him, it is highly unlikely the British would have been able to defend Upper Canada at the beginning of the war.

The Native Alliance was central to Maj. Gen. Sir Isaac Brock’s strategy and it is the thought of Tecumseh and his warriors sweeping into the fort at Detroit which caused Maj. Gen. William Hull to have a nervous breakdown and surrender. Tecumseh joined the war to protect native interests, not the British presence in North America.

It is said that Tecumseh had a vision before the battle of Moraviantown in which he foresaw his own death. Whether or not this is true, his burial place has never been found. The violent death of this inspired leader only helped to propagate the legends surrounding his life.

In the late 1780's and together with his brother Elskwatawa, called the Prophet, Tecumseh attempted to form an alliance of the Native American inhabitants of the upper Midwest and Ohio River valley and Great Lakes area against the expansion of white settlers. The alliance had a number of membership changes, but at one time or another it included representatives from the Shawnee, Canadian Iroquois, Wyandot, Mingo, Ottawa, Chickamauga, Miami, Kickapoo, Lenni Lenape, Ojibway, Potawatomi, Fox, Sauk, and Mascouten nations. Tecumseh's alliance had its capital at Prophets Town, just a few miles north of Lafayette, Indiana.

In 1811, Tecumseh left Elskwatawa in charge at Tippecanoe, while he journeyed south to meet with representatives of the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Cherokee nations to enlist them in his alliance of Native American tribes. On November 7, an American force attacked Elskwatawa at the Battle of Tippecanoe, wiping out his camp and putting an end to Tecumseh's hope of a broad Native American alliance. Tension was mounting between the U.S. and the British, and the War of 1812 broke out early the following year. Tecumseh took a force north, where they enlisted as allies of the British.

Tecumseh joined British Maj. Gen. Sir Isaac Brock to force the surrender of Detroit in August 1812, a major victory for the British. Tecumseh's accumen in warfare was evident in this engagement. This victory was shortlived, however, as Commodore Oliver H. Perry's victory on Lake Erie, late in the summer of 1813, cut British supply lines and prompted them to withdraw along the Thames Valley. Tecumseh followed the British into Upper Canada, fighting rearguard actions to slow the American advance.

The next British commander, Maj. Gen. Henry Proctor did not have the same working relationship with Tecumseh as the latter had with Brock. Proctor failed to appear at Chatham, Ontario as expected by the Native Americans. Harrison crossed into Upper Canada in October, 1813 and won a victory over the British and the Native Americans at the Battle of the Thames near Chatham. Tecumseh was killed in the battle and, shortly after, the tribes of his confederacy surrendered to Harrison at Detroit.

Despite his defeat, Tecumseh is honored in Canada as a tragic hero who was a brilliant war chief who, along with Brock, saved Canada from an American invasion when all seemed hopeless, but could not save his own people.

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