Chief Tecumseh was one of the great American Indian leaders of the 19th Century and an unsung hero for the Crown forces during the War of 1812. His life dispels many of the myths often associated with the Indian nations of this period. He was a shrewd political operator, a realistic leader of great foresight who could see what many could not, he had his own ideals and goals and made diplomatic decisions based on how best to accomplish them and he was a skilled military leader. His exact date of birth is unknown but a common one given is March 9, 1768 when he was born probably near what is now Columbus, Ohio into the Shawnee nation, Kispoko tribe, in which his father was a deputy war chief. His parents have moved to the area after being driven out of Alabama by tribal warfare there. In that hotly contested region his father, like many others, was pulled into the French and Indian War and Lord Dunmore’s War just prior to the American War of Independence. It was during Lord Dunmore’s War that Tecumseh’s father was killed at the battle of Point Pleasant in 1774.
The death of his father trying to halt expansion of the English colonies in America naturally had a significant impact on Tecumseh and he determined then to devote himself to becoming a warrior and fighting against the foreign presence encroaching on Indian lands; at that time British but soon to be American. He set out on his own, recruiting his own band of Native American warriors and waged a guerilla war against the flow of settlers moving west. He was quite successful at this but not without cost as his own village was burned a number of times in retaliatory offensives by American militia. Because King George III banned settling west of the Appalachians to save it for the Native Americans and because the colonial “patriots” were already violating the ban and claiming vast tracts of land for themselves most Indians, the Shawnee included, allied with the British Crown during the American War for Independence. The family of young Tecumseh was thus caught up in the conflict and displaced during the frontier campaign of George Rogers Clark.
After the United States won its independence and control of all formerly British lands up to the French Louisiana Territory. This led to more conflicts between the Americans and the Indians with the British naturally doing what they could to support the Indians short of outright intervention and provoking hostilities with the United States. Tecumseh became an accomplished warrior during this period and, along with his brother, fought in the battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 when U.S. forces decisively defeated the Indians. However, as the Indians were pushed back and more American settlers poured in a religious revival spread across the Native tribes led by Tenskwatawa, a prophet and the younger brother of Tecumseh. He preached a message of reactionary defiance calling upon all Native Americans to oppose further encroachment by the United States, to reject all things foreign (like alcohol -a wise decision and firearms -probably not so wise) and restore their traditional customs, styles and way of life.
While his brother focused on the spiritual revival, Tecumseh began planning to forge a large tribal confederacy of as many Indian nations as possible to band together to stop American expansion once and for all. Through the preaching of his brother and the diplomatic efforts of Tecumseh such an alliance began to take shape with the role of chief naturally falling on Tecumseh. His forces were soon drawn into conflict with the US after William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory, bribed, intimidated and cajoled a group of Indian leaders into signing over 3 million acres of land to the United States. Tecumseh urged the other Native American leaders to reject the treaty and even confronted Harrison on the issue, threatening to ally with Great Britain against the US if he refused. Harrison, obviously, did refuse but the prestige of Tecumseh continued to grow, thanks to his masterful oratory and the actions of the American government which convinced many that they could not be trusted.
Tecumseh traveled extensively, advocating unity among the Indian nations and resistance to the US government. In the south, the Red Sticks answered and the result was the Creek War. While he was gone Governor Harrison moved against his brother ‘the Prophet’ who launched a surprise attack on the American camp at the famous battle of Tippecanoe. The result was a terrible defeat for the Indians and a victory Harrison would later capitalize on to catapult him into politics. Yet, there were good signs. In 1812 the United States brashly declared war on Great Britain and launched an invasion of Canada. Remembering the earlier alliance between many of his people and the British, Tecumseh hoped they could achieve together a victory over US expansionism. When British General Sir Isaac Brock besieged Fort Detroit Chief Tecumseh joined him, displaying considerable tactical skill. The Americans finally surrendered Detroit without firing a shot despite having the British, Canadians and Indians outnumbered.
In ensuing battles between the British and Americans Tecumseh was on hand, using his forces expertly as scouts, raiders and flank troops. The death of General Brock was a great setback though as the new top commander in Canada, General Henry Proctor, favored a conservative defensive strategy whereas Tecumseh (and many British and Canadian officers as well) urged an offensive strategy. Tecumseh was eager to fight a decisive action but when the next major battle came it was the last for the great Indian leader. On October 5, 1813 a British-Canadian-Indian force met an American army 3 times their size at the battle of the Thames near what is now Chatham-Kent, Ontario. In command of the American forces was Tecumseh’s old nemesis William Henry Harrison. The plan Proctor had for the battle never got off the ground and early on the bulk of the British troops were forced to retreat or surrender. Tecumseh and his men fought on, putting up a remarkably determined and heroic resistance when Tecumseh was killed. With the rest of the army gone and their chief killed the remaining Indian forces quickly folded.
As we know, the War of 1812 ended in stalemate. The Americans were defeated in their efforts to conquer Canada but they lost no territory of their own. General Proctor was court-martialed for his performance at the Thames and Harrison eventually became President of the United States. Tecumseh joined the ranks of the great heroes of the Native American people and one of the great villains of the early American republic. However, his legacy lingered in the form of a legend which said that Tecumseh (or more often his brother the ‘Prophet’) put a curse on the leaders of the United States which said that no president elected during a year ending in zero would survive the office. The legend gained some credence over the years as Harrison (elected in 1840) died of pneumonia in office, Abraham Lincoln (elected in 1860) was assassinated in office, James Garfield (elected in 1880) was assassinated in office, William McKinley (elected in 1900) was assassinated in office, Warren Harding (elected in 1920) died of a heart attack in office, Franklin D. Roosevelt (elected in 1940) died of a cerebral hemorrhage in office and John F. Kennedy (elected in 1960) was assassinated in office. However, the “curse” seems to have been broken as the next two president elected in a year ending in zero (Reagan and George W. Bush) both survived their terms though both had attempts made on their life.
Ironically enough, Tecumseh has, after a considerable passing of time, become almost as honored in the United States as he is in Canada where he is regarded as a hero in the war that saved Canadian independence from the US with numerous, towns, landmarks, ships etc named in his honor.