Born in 1768, with a name that translates as “Shooting Star,” Tecumseh was the youthful chief of the Ohio River Valley’s Shawnee tribe. Though no authenticated portraits of the leader exist, the fifty contemporary descriptions of his appearance and manner all mention his charisma – a trait that served him well as he organized an alliance between dozens of Native American tribes from Wisconsin to Florida.
Tecumseh’s goal was a unified front against the continued westward expansion of white settlers into Indian territories. Despite his political intrepidness, he was only able to lay the foundations of this Indian confederacy with the aid of his brother, Tenskawatwa — more popularly known as “the Prophet”. A self-styled shaman and religious zealot, the Prophet preached a return to Native American nature worship and a complete rejection of western civilization. It was message that allowed once competing tribes to set aside their differences and focus on a common enemy: the United States.
Having raised an army of volunteers out of his numerous allegiances, Tecumseh stationed the braves at junction of the Tippecanoe and Wabash Rivers – a key pass in the Indiana Territory. In response, then Governor (and future president) William Henry Harrison settled nearby with a regiment of 1000 men, but did not engage their opposition. Both sides merely observed movements of the other and policed Tecumseh’s “border,” as a stand-off slowly settled in.
That would change in November 1811, when Tecumseh departed the camp on a recruitment drive and his brother, the Prophet – believing that he had rendered himself and his forces invincible through the use of magic – ordered an surprise attack on Harrison and his men The few causalities suffered by Harrison’s troops were soon repaid in force as his men regrouped, and then summarily set about destroying the totality of the Indian settlement, including its food stores.
Though his brother’s poorly planned maneuver cost Tecumseh his dream of an Indian alliance to oppose the fledging US, it did help ensure his legend. Indian sympathizers in the States seized upon the story of the benevolent and sage-like chief, whose life exemplified the nobleness of the American Indian and their tragic role in the formation of the country. Tecumseh’s mythic stature was so pervasive that after he allied himself with the British during the War of 1812, an American general refused to capture him in one of the conflict’s opening salvos – thereby costing US forces an early opportunity to invade Canada and expel the British once and for all.
Tecumseh eventually did fall in battle some two years later at the Battle of the Thames in Ontario and his Indian forces surrendered shortly thereafter to William Henry Harrison himself at Detroit. Sympathy for Tecumseh’s cause continued to persist after his death, however; Civil War General William Sherman bore Tecumseh as his middle name and, to date, their have been no less than four USS Tecumsehs commissioned by the military for service at sea.
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