Tecumseh was born on March 9, 1768 near the Shawnee village near what is now Oldtown, Ohio. He was born to a Shawnee war chief, Pucksinwah, and his wife, Methotasa. According to Shawnee legend, a shooting star the natives called “The Panther” crossed at the same exact time as Tecumseh was born. His unsoma, or personal symbol, and his name were therefore ordained: Tecumseh, “the Panther Passing Across”.
Little is known about the childhood of Tecumseh. He had an older brother, Chiksika, an older sister, Tecumapese and 3 younger brothers (triplets). His father died during the Battle of Point Pleasant in 1774. Before his father died, he made Tecumseh’s eldest brother promise that he would never make peace with the white settlers.
The Shawnees did not give up claims to their Kentucky hunting grounds after Point Pleasant and warriors continued their raids. In 1775, the situation grew more complicated with the American Revolution starting. Although Native Americans usually sided with the British, the Shawnees chose to stay neutral. Leading this group of dissidents was Cornstalk. Cornstalk gained his people’s respect by demonstrating bravery at Point Pleasant and wisdom in following negotiations.
Cornstalk met with both British and American representatives, appearing to support both sides. He appeared to support the Camp Charlotte Truce and, at the same time, appearing to be open to the idea of the Shawnees joining the war against the Americans.
Cornstalk continued the neutrality as long as he could, but a large number of the Shawnee people, including Tecumseh and brother Chiksika, were growing increasingly frustrated with not being able to retaliate against the Americans who stole their land and murdered their people. As a result, they began series of attacks on settlers in Kentucky. Deciding at this point that neutrality was impossible; Cornstalk signed the Camp Charlotte Treaty, guaranteeing that he and his people with remain peaceful. Before he abandoned the treaty and sided with the British, Cornstalk felt obligated to tell the Americans. Accordingly, in October 1777, he called on Captain Matthew Arbuckle, commander of Fort Douglas on the Ohio River.
Arbuckle then threw Cornstalk and two other warriors in jail. He and the other warriors later were murdered by an angry mob in the jail. After the murders, the outraged Shawnees sided with the British. Black Fish and Black Hoof led their warriors on raids south into the southern Kentucky settlements.
Many Shawnees were deeply disturbed by the idea of a long war. Among those disturbed was his mother. She accompanied those Shawnees who also were disturbed and migrated to Missouri in 1779. Tecumseh and his siblings chose to stay with the rest of the Shawnees and battle for their land, in respect of their dead father’s wishes. Tecumseh, was only 11 years old, was raised by his sister, who married a respected warrior ‘Wasegoboah’.
Shortly after his mother’s departure, a Kentucky militia attacked the village of Chillicothe, home of Black Fish. That day, even though the Shawnees won, Black Fish received severe wounds and died later that week. The death left the young Tecumseh in grief but not left with a lack of hope. He became skilled with both the musket and bow and arrow and later accompanied his older brother on a series of raids against frontier settlements in Kentucky and Tennessee in the late 1780s.
By 1800 Tecumseh had emerged as a prominent war chief. He led a band of militant, younger warriors and their families located at a village on the White River in Central-East Indiana. There in 1805 Lalawethika, one of Tecumseh’s younger brothers, experienced a series of visions. The visions transformed him into an important religious leader. He then took on the name Tenskwatawa, or “The Open Door”. His visions gave religious salvation to the Shawnee people.
Tecumseh seemed reluctant to accept his brother’s teachings until June 16, 1806, when the Prophet accurately predicted an eclipse of the sun, and Indians from throughout the Midwest flocked to the Shawnee village at Greenville, Ohio. He slowly transformed his brother’s religious following into a political movement. In 1808 Tecumseh and the Prophet moved their village to an ancient Indian town named Kithtippecanoe in what is now Northern Indiana. The settlement attracted new Indians.
After the loss of much Indian land at the Treaty of Fort Wayne (1809), Tecumseh gradually eclipsed his brother as the primary leader of the movement. In 1809, Tecumseh traveled among the various tribes and warned them of dangers and forming alliances against the whites. Between 1809 and 1811, he carried messages of nationalism and military resistance south to the Creeks and the Cherokees. They refused to join.
Tecumseh’s speeches rang with bitter denunciations of white Americans; “The white race is a wicked race”. He also has been quoted as saying, “Since the days when the white race first came in contact with the red man, there has been a continual series of aggressions. The hunting grounds are fast disappearing, and they are driving the red men farther to the west… The only hope… is a war of extermination against the pale face.”
In 1811, William Henry Harrison surrounded their village with 1,000 men. At dawn on November 11, 1811, 400 Indian warriors assaulted Harrison’s lines. The battle lasted for hours, resulting in a victory for Harrison. Over 150 warriors were killed. At the end of the battle, Harrison burned down the village of Kithtippecanoe.
Tecumseh tried to rebuild his shattered society, but when the War of 1812 broke out, he withdrew to Michigan where he assisted the British in the capture of Detroit and led pro-British Indians in subsequent actions in southern Michigan (Monguagon) and northern Ohio (Fort Meigs). When William Henry Harrison invaded Upper Canada, Tecumseh reluctantly accompanied the British retreat. American forces at the Battle of the Thames killed him on October 5, 1813.