How Tecumseh Worked

Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from

Katie Lambert: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm Katie Lambert.

Sarah Dowdey: And I'm Sarah Dowdey.

Katie Lambert: Our subject for today is definitely on our top-ten list of most requested. It's Tecumseh, who was the leader of the biggest Indian resistance movement ever. He was a visionary and a hero and died fighting for the survival of his people, much like Sitting Bull, but he almost won.

Sarah Dowdey: Tecumseh was born in 1768 in what's now Ohio along the Scioto River, and he was of the Panther clan like his dad. It was one of the divisions of the Shawnee tribe. He may have also had a little bit of Creek and English blood in him, but his name meant Shooting Star or A Panther Crouching for His Prey, which are both really awesome definitions, I think.

Katie Lambert: And a little background on his background, we have to talk about the French and Indian War. When that ended in 1763, the British had won, and they thought they had won Canada, which technically they did, but the Indians saw them as a threat and rose up. The Shawnees were a big part of this rebellion. There was a lot of killing and a lot of settlers captured. In 1768 when Tecumseh was born, the six nations of the Iroquois Federacy of New York, which was very powerful, sold Kentucky and part of Pennsylvania along the Ohio in the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, which completely screwed the Shawnees, and they didn't even share the money with them, so that's a little background on where he's from.

Sarah Dowdey: The Shawnee are scattered all over the country. That's partly due to the Iroquois influence, and then partly because of the influx of settlers. Tecumseh's parents had settled in Ohio and joined an established community there that had a lot of the scattered Shawnee. But because of their trouble, they thought maybe the Great Spirit was displeased with them, and if they returned to one of their homelands, like Ohio where there were lots of sacred objects and important things to the tribe, they could maybe regain the Great Spirit's favor.

Katie Lambert: Ohio was the center of the world for them, but talking about some of their troubles, we have the encroachment on land by settlers and speculators. The Indians were pushed farther and farther from their homelands, losing not only their homes but also their traditions, their togetherness, and their entire way of life.

Sarah Dowdey: And their game, which is a really huge part of it all. It meant starvation.

Katie Lambert: Instead of trying to coexist, the settlers simply forced the Indians out, and tension between the two often erupted in violence on both sides, so if you were a small child growing up like Tecumseh, you would witness death after violent death and plenty of torture.

Sarah Dowdey: You would also be sort of straddling two different eras for your people, because a lot of the white customs were starting to infiltrate Indian culture. Everything from diet to clothing, and also some not-so-great gifts like smallpox and alcohol. So your world would be changing, and it would be very different from the way your parents grew up.

Katie Lambert: So the Indians are losing everything at this point, and they don't know what to do. Do you fight? Do you go for a policy of appeasement? Do you try to go to the king and talk to him, and see what he can do? Those questions are answered for them when Lord Dunmore comes in the 1774 Lord Dunmore's War, and his premise was basically that we need to fight the hostile Indians. We would like to point out that the Indians were only hostile because you were taking their land and making them starve. So the Shawnee, of course, will fight, and Tecumseh is a young boy then. He's watching the war parties leave, and hears the stories of them fighting fiercely and bravely, but they were outnumbered and eventually lose, but he gets an idea of honor, and his father sends back a message with one of his other sons to maintain the dignity and honor of their family.

Sarah Dowdey: So the outcome of Lord Dunmore's War for the Shawnee is that their crops have been destroyed, their ammunition has been used up, which is a big deal because they don't have ammunition to hunt game, so they're faced with starvation. On a more personal level, for Tecumseh, he loses his father.

Katie Lambert: His mother left shortly thereafter, maybe to go to relatives, and she didn't return. He also lost his white foster brother who'd been captured a long time earlier by his father and had lived with him for his entire childhood. After Lord Dunmore's War, a lot of captives were forced to return to their families, even though this boy did not want to go back and begged to stay. For a while, he lives with a chief named Blackfish and more white foster brothers.

Sarah Dowdey: Which is an interesting point to consider with his upbringing, that he does grow up with white brothers? Something to consider for the future when we're talking about Tecumseh fighting against white people!

Katie Lambert: For a little more about his adolescence, he was a very good hunter. Once, he killed 16 buffalos in a row, according to legend, and he was very charismatic. Tribal people in the 19th century said he was a man of very strong medicine. He was respected and loved. He was a great speaker, and it was clear to everyone that he was going to be someone special.

Sarah Dowdey: He's also starting to reform his ideas about the right way to fight. He'd seen family and friends killed by white men, and he's also seen the Indians fight back, and sometimes pretty cruelly. So he's seen this ruthless violence on both sides, and decides that's not the way he wants to fight.

Katie Lambert: He's in favor of violent resistance when it's necessary, but it's anti-torture and anti-cruelty if pro-ruthlessness, again, when necessary. To put us again in historical context, now it's the American Revolution. Both sides want the armed Indians, but because the American settlers have been so terrible to them so far, the Indians decide to fight with the British with the promise that they will get some of their land back for their service.

Sarah Dowdey: But when it's all done, the 1783 Peace of Paris, the Brits give all the land to the Americans. They don't recognize their Indian allies in any way.

Katie Lambert: They're not even mentioned.

Sarah Dowdey: They're completely forgotten. After that, the fighting doesn't end either, the fight for the northwest. Tecumseh joins in. Finally he's old enough to be a warrior, and he sees his brothers die. The Brits say that if the Indians want to fight the Americans, they'll give them guns and support. It's a question now. Are you going to trust the British again a second time?

Katie Lambert: And you do, but at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the Indians lost, and they went to a British fort expecting help and support, and the British wouldn't even let them in. So Tecumseh's learned an important lesson, as have the rest of the Indians. The Brits have betrayed them yet again. Now they have to sign the treaty of Greenville in August of 1795 in which the Indians gave up almost all of their land in Ohio, but Tecumseh refused to recognize it.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. He thought you couldn't just go talk to individual tribe about purchasing land, that all Indians owned the land together, that it was a communal possession, and one individual, or even one tribe, can't go about giving it away.

Katie Lambert: So he's emerging as a leader now and developing his ideology that all Indians are in danger, and they have to figure out something to do. To give you an idea of what Tecumseh was up against, in the early 1800s, Jefferson said that for the backward Indians who won't yield, "We shall be obliged to drive them with the beasts of the forests into the stony mountains," and he had a plan - the factory system - to put all Native Americans in debt. Basically, you could trade for goods with the government, but it would never be equal, and it would put you slowly deeper and deeper into debt. Once you got so deep into debt that you couldn't pay it anymore, well, the government would so kindly come offer to take your land off of your hands.

Sarah Dowdey: This is what Tecumseh is up against, not only violence and war, but these tricky little plans that are being worked out behind the scenes. So he formulates his own plan, and that's to unite the Indians against the whites. The goal of unity is to put aside tribal rivalries, which is not something that many were inclined to do.

Katie Lambert: It wasn't an entirely new idea. The Indians had been trying to do ever since it became clear that these white settlers were a threat, but it hadn't really worked so far. The obstacles to unity described by John Sugden and Tecumseh alike were that the tribes all had different languages. They had different cultures. There were rivalries between them. Tribal authority was weak, and they were politically decentralized, so they're not well-positioned for the kind of confederacy that Tecumseh was hoping to build.

Sarah Dowdey: What's so impressive about Tecumseh's plan and his ambition here is that it is very broad. He visits Indian tribes from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico personally.

Katie Lambert: He envisioned this confederacy of Indians, that he would bring people together through his charisma, he fantastic speaking skills, but also the clear need that they all had to save them selves, and he had a powerful ally for a time: his brother, who was known as the prophet.

Sarah Dowdey: The prophet hadn't been such a great guy to start with. He was an alcoholic. He couldn't take care of his family. Then one day he has this near-death experience, and he has a vision. It just turns his life around completely. He quits drinking cold turkey and starts to preach.

Katie Lambert: Again, it's clear to everyone now that the way of life is dying for the Indians. The question for them is why and what can they do? The prophet has their answer. He says that if they give up all of their white customs and get rid of white influence from alcohol to iron cookware, that the Great Spirit will once again be happy with them and will take the settlers away from their land. It's a return to what once was and hope for a downtrodden people. Half of their men had been killed at this point. There are twice as many women as men. They've lost so much.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah. They're looking for anything here. The two brothers settle at a place called Prophet's Town in 1808, and their followers come. A lot of Indians in one place really upset the white people. They got very, very nervous. Tecumseh's winning support too, so this is extra unsettling.

Katie Lambert: He gains a reputation for defying the government, and one man takes notice: William Henry Harrison, who was federal governor of the Indiana Territory. He had, of course, communicated with Jefferson and understand what his mission was. He'd negotiated with Tecumseh a couple of times fact to face, and Tecumseh told him that basically, there was going to be a war. If Harrison kept up his dirty dealings, they would fight. Harrison had every intention of doing so. He called him an uncommon genius, but that doesn't mean he was above bribing Indians for their land and taking what little they had left. Many of his land deals were possibly very illegal.

Sarah Dowdey: So Harrison pulls what he probably thought was a pretty smart move and challenges the prophet to prove himself. Then what do you know? A solar eclipse happens.

Katie Lambert: The prophet delivered.

Sarah Dowdey: Unlike Savonarola, it's not just any solar eclipse either. It's a very dramatic one, and now the prophet and his brother, Tecumseh, really have followers. People who were sort of on the fence before, not quite knowing if they believed in it, are really gung ho now, and the white people are really freaked out. This is a disturbing turn.

Katie Lambert: Up to this point, the settlers have simply been able to bulldoze the Indians, but this is different. This is a real threat, something that could grow into big opposition. In 1810, Tecumseh told Harrison that he represented every Indian on the continent, according to PBS's "We Shall Remain," which is part of the American Experience series. That was a huge deal to have one man not representing jut his tribe or his people, but all of the Indians at once. He's embodying what he wanted in that confederacy.

Sarah Dowdey: It's something that I'd even say the Americans aren't even entirely comfortable with yet.

Katie Lambert: In 1811, Tecumseh is on the road down south talking to some other tribes and urging them to come together. He was aware that Harrison was near Prophet's Town and planning to do something, so he told his brother, the prophet, absolutely not to attack. According to the prophet, the master of life told him that he had to, and so he obeyed. He told his men that he bullets wouldn't hurt them and attacked Harrison's forces on November 7th, 1811, which became known as the Battle of Tippecanoe in today's Indiana. The Indians lost, but the Americans did have heavy losses themselves. They then destroyed Prophet's Town. This is considered the first battle of the War of 1812.

Sarah Dowdey: But it's a terrible moral blow for the Indians too because since the prophet had told people that he was invincible through the master of life's great grace, now people not only don't believe in the religion anymore, but they don't believe anything the two brothers have said. Supposedly, Tecumseh comes back to see his brother and is so enraged that he shakes him, and it seems like their dream of a confederacy has dimmed a bit. It seems like they're not going to be able to rebound from this setback.

Katie Lambert: But Tecumseh won't give up, and he continues to travel all around the country speaking to his people and trying to rally them to the cause. He wanted a permanent homeland for them. The way it's been explained in some of the sources I was reading, picture a country within a country - a country that has its own rules, and customs, and borders! That's what they could have. That was the hope.

Sarah Dowdey: Tecumseh's argument that if they don't stick together they're going to lose is persuasive enough to win back people who were skeptical after Tippecanoe.

Katie Lambert: In May 1812, he's got 800 warriors in Prophet's Town, and 4,000 more are getting ready in the northwest. He knows war is coming. To give you a little snapshot of the War of 1812, the Brits were taking American sailors by force - and no one likes impressments. They also didn't want the U.S. To trade with the French, and they won't leave the country as they'd promised, so tensions between the Americans and the British are already there. Tecumseh is hoping to be able to take advantage of this.

Sarah Dowdey: Yeah, so he joins the British in Canada with the idea that they'll help him get some of his lands back, some of the Indians' lands, in return for Indian service. The British need the numbers. They need people to help them with this fight.

Katie Lambert: They're impressed with him when a British general says of him, "A more gallant or sagacious warrior does not exist," so Tecumseh brought his best, hoping to save his people from being extinguished, and brought all of his followers with him and was very successful. He managed to scare the Americans out of Canada. Brigadier General William Howe retreated all the way to Detroit. In August 1812, Howe surrendered Detroit before they even attacked. They had this ploy where they were marching Americans and Canadians outside to make it seem like there were so many more than there were.

Sarah Dowdey: Pumping up their numbers.

Katie Lambert: Howe looked out and thought, "No. Just no," and raised the white flag. So we lost to Canadians, guys, and we didn't even fight.

Sarah Dowdey: So that must be why the Canadians keep on suggesting this podcast.

Katie Lambert: The War of 1812 - so many emails. So Tecumseh's been fighting with a British officer named Isaac Brock. Unfortunately for us, Brock was killed. The new guy who takes his place is named Henry Proctor. He's not quite the man that Brock was. He's much more interesting in just keeping Canada defended, and not helping Tecumseh in his cause.

Sarah Dowdey: So Tecumseh' left with this guy, Proctor -who really leaves a lot to be desired - to fight against William Henry Harrison who is a tough cookie, for sure! Harrison has invaded Ontario in 1913. At the Battle of the Thames in October 5th, 1813, Harrison has 3,500 men. There are 800 Brits, and there are 500 Indians. Tecumseh says to Proctor, "You have got to make a stand against Harrison," but Proctor retreats. He actually runs away from the battlefield.

Katie Lambert: He barely even fights.

Sarah Dowdey: So Tecumseh and his troops are left alone against this huge opposing force of Harrison's.

Katie Lambert: And they'll never win. They know they won't win. Everyone knows they won't win, but Tecumseh says he simply will not retreat, and his men won't retreat. They're going to stay and fight. They ask the British for their weapons at least. They headed to the woods, and Harrison's men went in after them. Tecumseh died there, and his cause died with him.

Sarah Dowdey: But we don't exactly know where his body is. Some people say it was buried in a secret place, safe from the Americans who may have wanted to desecrate it, but some say his body was found, and it was mutilated. The skin was cut from it to make razor straps according to a Smithsonian article. Everyone claimed that they were the one to kill Tecumseh. That would be a very impressive claim for an American fighter.

Katie Lambert: Since the war wasn't going well for the Americans, this victory was really exaggerated in the media. "We've killed the great warrior, Tecumseh. Things are going really great, guys. We swear."

Sarah Dowdey: Remember, this is before our bombardment of Baltimore.

Katie Lambert: Exactly. We've got some propaganda going, and William Henry Harrison went on to become president with the popular slogan behind him: Tippecanoe and Tyler too.

Sarah Dowdey: But that's not his best reputation, is it? Because it's the shortest-lived president?

Katie Lambert: Not if you've ever heard of Tecumseh's curse. People thought t hat the Indians and Tecumseh put a curse on Harrison for all of his tricky, illegal land deals, and that was why he died so soon and in office. That's also why presidents elected in a year ending with a zero died in office as well, but Ronald Reagan broke the curse.

Sarah Dowdey: Well, Reagan was shot, so maybe just the power of the curse was diminishing over time. You never know. Tecumseh's legacy has certainly endured. Even though he lost, he's become somewhat of a hero for Americans and for Canadians.

Katie Lambert: A couple of Americans who were big fans of Tecumseh were William Tecumseh Sherman's parents, but I can't say anything nice about him because I'm an Atlantan, so we'll end there and go to listener mail.

Sarah Dowdey: Speaking of rising from the fire, like a phoenix, we got a lovely postcard, actually, a homemade card from Laura in Phoenix, Arizona. She wisely learned that we're more likely to read things that we get mailed, and her husband even suggest that if she made something handmade, it would double her chances.

Katie Lambert: With glitter on it as well.

Sarah Dowdey: It has glitter and says, "I'm a fan." It has real picture of a fan on it.

Katie Lambert: Sarah's been talking about this all day, so this was a big hit with us.

Sarah Dowdey: She mentioned that as a former art historian, "I love the podcast about the Isabella Steward Gardner museum, and I m hoping for more art history topics." She listed off a few. Let us know what you guys think, if you're interested in hearing more about history.

Katie Lambert: Speaking of art, we got a lovely postcard from Anna Marie that's a panel from a Russian exposition in the Louvre. She said, "I'm in fashion design school in Paris, and listening to episodes of Stuff You Missed in History helps me get through long hours of sewing." Then she did a request for some old Russia topics. If you have any, please feel free to email us at We also take suggestions through our Twitter at MissedinHistory, and our Facebook fan page.

Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit Be sure to check out the Stuff You Missed in History Class blog on the home page.