He was born in spring 1768, likely in the central part of latter-day Ohio. He was a Shawnee, born to a people remaking themselves, and given a name that meant a shooting star or a panther crouching.
When Tecumseh was about 6, the Virginia colony declared war on Indigenous people who opposed white settlers moving into their hunting grounds. It culminated in the Battle of Point Pleasant, in 1774, where bands of the Shawnee and others were defeated by Virginia militia. The next day, Virginians found 33 dead Indigenous warriors spread along the battle site – and took scalps. Among them was Tecumseh’s father. The Indigenous bands were pushed farther west.
Two years later, at the outset of the Revolutionary War, they sided against the colonists, who sacked their villages. Tecumseh grew to young manhood surrounded by this while his older brother trained him to be a warrior. The Shawnee were in a battle for survival.
By the time he was 18, Tecumseh was participating in raids as settlers attempted to travel down the Ohio River. He led a band in the Northwest Indian War, pitting a confederation of tribes against U.S. soldiers for control of the Ohio Valley, which the Shawnee believed was the center of the world. He refused to sign the Treaty of Greenville, dictated by Gen. “Mad Anthony” Wayne, the Continental Army officer, after he defeated bands, including Shawnee, at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, in 1794. It opened southern and eastern Ohio to white settlement while promising the tribes that their lands to the north and west would be free of encroachment. Settlers broke the promise immediately.
Tecumseh’s younger brother, Lalawethika, became a spiritual figure who led a revival among the Shawnee and others, eschewing the ways of the Europeans, including farmed meat, alcohol and firearms. The British, Spanish and French were the children of God, Lalawethika preached, and the Americans were the spawn of the Great Serpent.
The Prophet, as he became known, and his brother and their followers kept moving west, establishing a village in present-day Indiana that the whites called Prophetstown, where they gathered warriors of other tribes under Tecumseh’s leadership.
In November 1811, at the Battle of Tippecanoe, Indiana territorial Gov. William Henry Harrison, who had led a small army to Prophetstown while Tecumseh was away, scattered the warriors and destroyed the village and its food stores. (Harrison’s fame, derived from this, would help catapult him to the presidency in 1840.)
In 1812, Tecumseh and his confederacy sided with the British against the Americans in a last-ditch effort to stave off the settlers. Matthew Elliott, an Irish immigrant, a slaveholder and British loyalist who fled to Canada, described Tecumseh as “a determined character and a great friend to our government.” British Gen. Isaac Brock wrote, “A more sagacious or a more gallant warrior does not I believe exist.”
But in 1813, at the Battle of The Thames, in southwestern Ontario, Harrison’s mounted Kentucky militia defeated a combined force after the British retreated, leaving the Indigenous fighters exposed. On Oct. 5, Tecumseh fell in battle against the Americans, who, by one account, mutilated his remains.
By 1817, Indigenous people had effectively been removed from Ohio. Tecumseh quickly passed into legend among the Americans. If he was great, they were greater.
Not seven years after his death, when Charles Robert Sherman, a member of the Ohio Supreme Court, fathered a son, he named him Tecumseh, hoping the boy might acquire some of the panther’s strength. That is what the “T” stood for in the name of the Union general William T. Sherman.
We eat our enemies to make us stronger, yet we never can digest them.