The Shawnee Brothers, Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa

Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa came of age during a time of persistent conflict between Indians and Americans, and the brothers lost three close family members to the fighting.[1] Increased encroachment on native lands by white settlers and treaties whose one-sided terms were dictated to reluctant Indians merely served to reinforce their long list of understandable grievances. The Shawnees had allied themselves with the Miami chief Little Turtle in the early 1890s, but after the disaster at Fallen Timbers and the subsequent Treaty of Greenville, most Shawnees attempted to adopt the sedentary, agricultural ways of their white neighbors and former enemies. Their success was limited and sporadic, and the United States government’s support for their efforts was haphazard, so the Shawnees found themselves trapped between two worlds and anxious about the future.[2] Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa each sought to return their people to the old days, with the war chief attempting to forge an Amerindian confederacy to reclaim their lands, and the Prophet urging a growing congregation to cast off the white man’s ways and return to the ancient Indian road.

Although Edmunds claims that “it was Tenskwatsawa rather than Tecumseh who provided the basis for Indian resistance in the years before the war [of 1812],”[3] I do not believe the historian makes an adequate case for such a statement. The Prophet appears to me to have been a shallow opportunist who remade himself as a mystic, and was as surprised as anyone by the success he had in drawing converts to his cause. He possessed neither the political acumen nor the military mind to capitalize on and use his following to achieve success against the Americans. Tecumseh, on the other hand, was both a great warrior and a shrewd diplomat who developed and maintained a loyal following of his own, apart from that of his brother’s.

While it is always difficult to speculate about historical alternatives, I think it is very possible that Tecumseh could have been successful, at least in the short term, had it not been for two key events—the battle at Tippecanoe and the lukewarm support of British allied commanders during the War of 1812. At Tippecanoe, if Tenskwatawa had heeded Tecumseh’s admonition to wait before undertaking military action, Tecumseh may have had enough time to forge a stronger Indian confederation, one powerful enough to deal a decisive defeat to the Americans. Alternatively, had Tecumseh been present at Tippecanoe, his superior tactical abilities may have carried the day. At the outset of hostilities between Britain and the United States, Tecumseh was afforded the opportunity to forge anew his confederacy, and things went very well for a while. According to Waldman, “the United States might very well have dominated the fighting from the start if it had not been for Tecumseh.”[4] Unfortunately, over-cautious British commanders withdrew into Upper Canada, too easily giving up ground for which Tecumseh and his warriors had already fought.[5] When Tecumseh was killed on the Thames River, Tenskwatawa simply lacked the talent and charisma to regroup the dispirited Indians and lead them back into battle. The Prophet faded into obscurity, while in death his brother “has been referred to as the greatest Indian leader of all.”[6]

[1] Carl Waldman, Atlas of the North American Indian, 3rd ed. (New York: Checkmark Books, 2009), 150.

[2] R. David Edmunds, The Shawnee Prophet (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995), 17-25.

[3] Ibid., 190.

[4] Waldman, Atlas of the North American Indians, 152.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 150.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s