lithograph of Hopeton earthworks
Ohio's First Humanists

War and Removal


His name meaning Shooting Star or “Panther Across the Sky” in his native Shawnee language, Tecumseh (1768-1813) was born near present-day Chillicothe, Ohio, and rose to fame as a brilliant orator and military strategist who in the early 19th century urged the tribes of the Northwest Territory to band together as one nation to resist white encroachment on their lands. He remains an enduring symbol of Native American resistance to white conquest.

As a teenager and young man, Tecumseh joined earlier Native American unification movements led by Joseph Brant (Mohawk), Little Turtle (Miami), and Blue Jacket (Shawnee). Under the leadership of Blue Jacket, he participated in the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers in present-day Lucas County, Ohio, where U.S. Major General Anthony Wayne and his troops defeated the united Native American forces. As a result of this defeat, the Treaty of Greenville (1795) forced Native Americans to cede most of what is now the state of Ohio to the United States. The harsh terms of this treaty were one of Tecumseh’s motivations for joining his younger brother Tenskwatawa (1775-1836) in the formation of a new inter-tribal movement that sought to organize tribes east of the Mississippi River into their own separate and independent Native American nation.

Tecumseh statue

Tenskwatawa & the Battle of Tippecanoe

Tenskwatawa, whose name meant Open Door and whites called the Shawnee Prophet, was a spiritual leader who preached that Native Americans would return to their former greatness if they gave up all adaptations to white society, including eating the meat of domesticated animals, practicing elements of Christianity, and drinking alcohol.

The Battle of Tippecanoe: Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh established a settlement in Indiana near the Tippecanoe River, which whites referred to as Prophetstown. There, in 1811, while Tecumseh was away on a speaking tour to encourage southern tribes to join his unification movement, Indiana Governor William Henry Harrison led troops in an attack on Prophetstown that destroyed both the village and Tenskwatawa’s reputation as an all-powerful leader. In the aftermath of this Battle of Tippecanoe, Tecumseh saw alliance with the British as the best means to resist white Americans and their government. Joining the British in the War of 1812, Tecumseh died in Canada in the Battle of the Thames in 1813, and his body was never identified.

Tenskwatawa, painting
The Dying Tecumseh, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Ferdinand Pettrich's The Dying Tecumseh, Smithsonian American Art Museum

A Legacy

No paintings or sculptures were ever made of Tecumseh in his lifetime, but romanticized images, such as sculptor Friedrich Pettrich’s The Dying Tecumseh (1856), soon became common. In contrast, Tecumseh’s brother and other survivors of the unification movement were removed to the West, where Tenskwatawa died at Argentine, Kansas, a few years after famed artist George Catlin painted his portrait (1830).

“I would say to him, ‘Brother, you have the liberty to return to your own country.’ You wish to prevent the Indians from doing as we wish them, to unite and let them consider their lands as a common property of the whole. You take the tribes aside and advise them not to come into this measure. You want by your distinctions of Indian tribes, in allotting to each a particular, to make them war with each other. You never see an Indian endeavor to make the white people do this. You are continually driving the red people, when at last you will drive them into the great lake [Lake Michigan], where they can neither stand nor work.”

—Tecumseh address to General William Henry Harrison, Territorial Governor of Indiana