Without a doubt, he is one of the most famous Indigenous leaders in Canadian history and a man who helped repel the American invasion into Canada during the War of 1812. His name was Tecumseh, and his impact on Canadian history, and North American history, would be massive.
Today, I am looking at this legendary leader.
Born to Shawnee parents around 1768 in Central Ohio and given a name that means Shooting Star or I Cross The way, Tecumseh would enter the world during a time of transition for his people. His parents spoke Algonquin, and during the late-17th century were pushed out of the area of Ohio by the Iroquois. In 1759, they had moved north to reunite with their tribe on the Ohio River. The father of Tecumseh, Pukeshinwau, was a chief with the Shawnee.
During his childhood, Tecumseh would see his people hit by war several times. From the age of six to the age of 14, he would see invading armies occupy Shawnee territory, beginning with the Iroquois and continuing with the growing American influence. The tribe at the time was only 1,000 people, far too small to deal with the growing number of settlers onto their land. The American military was also becoming more aggressive, leading to the death of Tecumseh’s father on Oct. 10, 1774 during a confrontation at Point Pleasant. At this point, his mother went to Missouri with other Indigenous and Tecumseh, and his siblings, were left in the care of Tecumapease, his older sister. She would teach him of their culture, while his brother Cheeseekau would teach him how to be a warrior. Later in his youth, he was adopted by the Shawnee chief Blackfish. It was with Blackfish that he would witness British and Indigenous attacks on the Americans during the American Revolution.
Three years later, the Shawnee would split, and Tecumseh would move to the Great Miami River, a tributary of the Ohio River in southwest Ohio. By this point, Tecumseh now 19, had seen his father killed by Americans, their villages destroyed by settlers and their land seized. It fostered in him a deep hatred of Americans, which would lead him down the road to becoming an Ally of Britain and Canada.
With the end of the American Revolutionary War, and the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the United States began to move towards taking the land north of the Ohio River. In 1785, the Shawnee were summoned to Fort Finney and pushed to sign a treaty to surrender their land. Those who signed were met with angry resistance by the Shawnee nation, and Tecumseh would soon see his first action as a warrior, distinguishing himself in 1788 with an attack on a flatboat on the Ohio River.
For the next several years, Tecumseh would lead various skirmishes against the Americans, while losing his brother Cheeseekau, who was killed in an attack. In one attack, Tecumseh led a scouting party that aided in the defeat of General Arthur St. Clair at the Battle of Wabash. Despite his hatred of Americans, he pushed against the cruelty he saw. On one occasion during a raid, he saw an American tied to a stake and burned. He let loose a tirade of anger at his fellow Indigenous that they never tortured a prisoner in his presence again.
In 1791, he took part as a minor war chief in the Northwest Indian War. It was there that he saw an Indigenous Confederacy come together to fight the war, and it would inspire him to form a confederacy later in his life. He would lead a band of eight men, including his brother Tenskwatawa in various skirmishes during that war.
At the time, there was hope the Indigenous could ban together in that Confederacy to keep the Americans off their land but in the Battle of Fallen Timbers of Aug. 20, 1794, that dream was destroyed in a huge American victory. He would lose his older brother, Sauwaseekau, during the fighting. In that battle, Tecumseh once again distinguished himself but with the Treaty of Greenville soon after, the conflict was at an end. Tecumseh did not approve of the treaty, but he did not have enough power to sway anyone. For Tecumseh, he felt that the Indigenous did not own the land they gave up, but that the land was shared by all Indigenous and could not be negotiated away.
In 1796, Tecumseh would take 250 Indigenous, including 50 warriors, and created the village of Buck Creek. They would be forced to move into Indiana four years later due to the destruction of their hunting grounds by Americans.
By 1800, Tecumseh was 32 and had seen his people’s land disappear, their livelihood heavily disrupted and diseases like smallpox were raging through the land.
The road for Tecumseh to come to Canada would begin with his brother Sauwaseekau, who in 1805 had a dream that caused him to transform his philosophy overnight. He began to preach, gaining the name The Prophet, speaking against alcohol, slander, and the loss of old traditions. He especially hated the Americans, calling them scum of the great water. Tecumseh would be inspired by his brother’s teachings and would only eat Indigenous food, wore traditional Shawnee clothing, and did not drink alcohol. While there is no evidence that he followed the religious aspect of his brother’s teachings, he did see it as an opportunity to harness the energy of this movement towards retaining Indigenous land.
At the same time his brother was preaching, the possibility of war between Britain and America was increasing with the Chesapeake Affair. The British were trying to secure favour among the Indigenous but had to be careful not to be seen as inciting the Indigenous by the Americans. With the possibility of war growing, Tecumseh moved towards where Tippecanoe is today, and a village of 200 houses in a community named Prophetstown for his brother. At its height, it is believed 6,000 people settled around it, making it larger than any American city in the area at the time.
In 1807, Tecumseh was asked to come to Fort Wayne to speak with land agent William Wells. Tecumseh would respond, quote:
“The Great Spirit above has appointed this place for us, on which to light our fires and here we will remain. As to boundaries, the Great Spirit above knows no boundaries, nor will his red people acknowledge any.”
So, how does Tecumseh come to Canada via his prophet brother? In 1808, Tecumseh was mostly unknown among the British, but he came to Upper Canada in place of his much more famous brother, who had been invited. He would arrive on June 8 of that year but proved to be distrustful of the British. The meeting would raise Tecumseh’s profile among the Indigenous and the British. By the next year, he was journeying to the Six Nations in New York, and to Indigenous tribes in Ohio to spread a message of the need for the Indigenous to stand together to protect their lands and culture.
While Tecumseh was away, a huge land grab was conducted by the Americans under the Treaty of Fort Wayne. The huge loss of land made Tecumseh furious, and he would return to talk to the British in 1810, telling them he was ready for war and ready to ally with the British. It also increased his desire to create an Indigenous Confederacy and he would spend the rest of that year, traveling to the Mississippi River, down the Illinois River, up to present day Wisconsin and into Missouri advocating for the confederacy. He would reach the Gulf of Mexico, and then travel up to the northern Red River with the aim of creating this Indigenous nation that would stretch between the Mississippi and the Rockies. Two events would aid Tecumseh that year. It was in 1811 that the New Madrid Earthquake and the Great Comet of 1811 occurred, which were taken as signs by the Indigenous Tecumseh met that the Confederacy should be supported.
Of course, this organizing began to worry the American settlers who thought it was the sign of an Indigenous uprising. The Governor of Ohio would organize a militia and he would meet with Tecumseh. At the meeting, Tecumseh was supported by notable Indigenous leaders like Blue Jacket, and he told the Governor his only aim for the confederacy was peace. Satisfied, the Governor dismissed his militia.
After the Indigenous had moved to the new Prophetstown, many continued to petition the government to do something about the Indigenous. For them, when Tecumseh said he wanted peace, they saw only subterfuge. For the settlers, Indigenous organization only meant war.
William Henry Harrison, the man who initiated the land grab that was a final straw for Tecumseh, was impressed by his efforts. He would state in 1811, quote:
Of course, he would call Tecumseh’s brother, quote:
“a fool, who speaks not the words of the Great Spirit but those of the devil, and of the British agents.”
Harrison, who would go on to become the shortest-serving US president in history in 1841, would meet with Tecumseh in July of 1811. At the meeting, Tecumseh would arrive with 300 Indigenous, with some accounts saying 400.
According to legend, Tecumseh was given a chair and told that his father, General Harrison, offered a seat. Tecumseh would allegedly respond, quote:
“My father. The sun is my father, and the earth is my mother. She gives me nourishment and I will rest on her bosom.”
Harrison would say after the meeting quote:
“If it were not for the vicinity of the United States, Tecumseh would perhaps be the founder of an empire that would rival in glory Mexico or Peru. No difficulties deter him. For four years he has been in constant motion. You see him today on the Wabash and in a short time hear of him on the shores of Lake Erie or Michigan, or on the banks of the Mississippi and wherever he goes he makes an impression favorable to his service. He is now upon the last round to put a finishing stroke upon his work.”
It was in this meeting that Tecumseh made a terrible mistake when he told Harrison that he would be leaving with 50 warriors for the south in August and would be gone until spring. Before he left, Tecumseh told his brother not to engage the Americans until the Confederacy was stronger. Harrison moved on that information by having a force go to the Tecumseh’s village. Tecumseh’s brother was unable to keep the warriors from firing at the Americans, and it would result in the Battle of Tippecanoe on Nov. 7, 1811, which led to the defeat of the Indigenous there. The battle consisted of 700 warriors against 250 infantry, 90 cavalry and 700 militia. By the end of the battle, an unknown number of warriors were dead, while 62 Americans had been killed. Harrison and his men entered the village, found it empty, and burned it, while destroying the food supplies. The victory gave the nickname Tippecanoe to Harrison, who would eventually use that to become president in three decades. As for Tecumseh’s brother, he would flee to Canada.
When Tecumseh returned, he found the destroyed village. He would say quote:
“The bodies of my friends laying in the dust, and our villages burnt to the ground, and all our kettles carried off.”
Tecumseh was furious with his brother for not controlling the warriors. The battle was a devastating blow to the confederacy that Tecumseh hoped to create.
Tecumseh would rebuild the Confederacy and would establish a new town. At an Indigenous council, he would say, quote:
“If we hear of any more of our people being killed, we will immediately send to all the nations on or toward the Mississippi and all this island will rise as one man.”
On June 18, 1812, the Americans declared war on Britain, triggering the War of 1812. Tecumseh would immediately travel to Canada where the British were strengthening their defenses. With him, he brought 350 warriors from various Indigenous tribes in the growing United States. The British recognized Tecumseh as the most influential of their Indigenous allies, and they would rely on him to direct the Indigenous forces.
Matthew Elliot would state quote:
Tecumseh has kept the Indians faithful; he has shown himself to be a determined character and a great friend to our government.”
On July 25, American Major James Denny marched 120 Ohio volunteers near the camp of Tecumseh, who organized an ambush. That ambush would rout the Americans, leading to the first casualties of the War of 1812 for the Americans.
A week later Aug. 2 and 3, Tecumseh would bring a force of Indigenous warriors across the Detroit River with the British, attacking an American supply road. Two days later, he attacked another force of Americans, killing 18. He then launched another attack, killing 20 and wounding 12 at Brownstown. These attacks would have a devastating impact on the confidence of General William Hull, who had brought his American forces into the area in July and would have a greater impact later in the war.
John Richardson, a soldier and the first Canadian born author to achieve international recognition, would meet Tecumseh on Aug. 9 and describe him as a man with, quote:
Soon after this meeting, Tecumseh and the British attacked an American supply train that was heading into Detroit, but they were outgunned and forced to retreat. Tecumseh would be wounded in the neck in that battle.
These attacks continued to break away the confidence of General Hull in Detroit.
On Aug. 13, General Isaac Brock met Tecumseh in a famous meeting. Captain John Glegg, would describe Tecumseh as having, quote:
“bright eyes beaming with cheerfulness, energy and decision.”
Brock told Tecumseh that he planned to attack Detroit, which was opposed by his advisors, but which Tecumseh was immediately in favour of, proclaiming that Brock was a true man.
Two days after the meeting, Tecumseh and Chief Roundhead led hundreds of canoes and 530 warriors, across the Detroit River, landing near Detroit. The British would follow the next day. While the British marched towards Detroit, Tecumseh and his men went north through the forest. General Hull, already in an agitated state, did not know how many Indigenous warriors were in the trees, suspecting there were thousands. This was because Tecumseh continued to move his men through the trees, making it seem like the trees were full of Indigenous warriors. As the British shelled the fort, General Hull surrendered Detroit without a single shot from the Americans.
The loss of Fort Detroit was a national disgrace for the Americans, and General Hull would be court-martialed, convicted and sentenced to death before he was given a pardon by President James Madison.
Thanks to the victory, General Brock would call Tecumseh the quote:
“Wellington of the Indians.”
He would then write to Prime Minister Lord Liverpool, stating quote:
“He who attracted most of my attention was a Shawnee chief, Tecumseh, brother to The Prophet, who for the last two years has carried on, contrary to our remonstrances, an active warfare against the United States. A more sagacious or more gallant warrior does not I believe exist. He was the admiration of everyone who conversed with him.”
Through all of this, Tecumseh was focused on creating a nation for his people, rather than defending Canada from the Americans. Brock assured Tecumseh that the British would support the land claims of the Indigenous. He would even write to his superiors stating that the restoration of land that had been taken from the Indigenous should be part of any peace treaty.
Only a few weeks later, Brock would be killed at the Battle of Queenston Heights.
When a stalemate began to develop between the forces in the Midwest, Tecumseh saw it as an opportunity to recruit warriors to fight in the war. He soon returned to the Detroit area to again help the British in attacking the forts in the area.
In April of 1813, Tecumseh and Roundhead led a force of 1,200 warriors to Fort Meigs, a new fort that had been constructed. The fort was under the command of William Henry Harrison, and Tecumseh would write him, stating quote:
“I have with me 800 braves. You have an equal number in your hiding place. Come out with them and give me battle. You talked like a brave when we met at Vincennes and I respected you, but now you hide behind logs and in the earth like a ground hog. Give me your answer.”
While the Indigenous and British would inflict heavy casualties on the Americans, they were unable to capture the fort and the siege of the fort was eventually lifted.
After the battle, American prisoners that had been captured at Fort Miami were being killed by Indigenous warriors. Tecumseh would rush in and stop the killing. Actions such as this would, after his death, give Tecumseh the image of a noble warrior.
In July of 1813, Tecumseh would return to Fort Meigs with 2,500 warriors with the hope of drawing the Americans out into battle. This would fail and the second siege would end.
On Sept. 10, 1813, the British suffered a devastating loss at the Battle of Lake Erie, and General Procter decided to withdraw as the supply lines were being threatened. He did not consult Tecumseh about this, and Tecumseh flew into a rage over the retreat, calling Procter a, quote:
“fat animal that carries its tail upon its back and when affrighted, it drops it between its legs and runs off.”
Proctor retreated his men to the north bank of the Thames, near Moraviantown. By this point, his men were dispirited, hungry and confused. It was this force the Americans would attack on Oct. 5, 1813, igniting the Battle of the Thames.
Tecumseh would say quote:
“Here, we will either defeat Harrison or leave our bones. This is a good place. It reminds me of my village at the junction of the Wabash and the Tippecanoe.”
General Proctor would line up his men in the open with Tecumseh and his warriors in the woods to the right. Tecumseh would tell his warriors to be brave, stand firm and shoot straight. According to legend, he gave his sword to his aide and stated if he should die, give it to his son when his son became a great warrior.
The Americans immediately broke the British line, killing 43 and capturing the rest. Proctor would flee the battlefield, leaving Tecumseh and his warriors alone in the woods. Tecumseh had no intention of retreating, and while his force was outnumbered 3,000 to 500, his warriors rose from cover and began firing at the Americans. Tecumseh fired his musket, yelling encouragement to his men, he then ran towards one of the Americans, raised his gun and fired.
The battle was a devastating defeat for the British, losing 634 men, killed or captured. The greatest loss by far was that of Tecumseh. For several days, rumours swirled that Tecumseh was only wounded and would again lead his people. Sadly, this was not the case.
His body would be found in a field and had several injuries. Americans had taken off strips of his skin and he had been scalped. It is not known if the body that was mutilated was that of Tecumseh. The Americans mostly found an impressive looking dead Indigenous man and cut the skin off the body. Among the warrior Indigenous, it is stated the body was his, and other say that it was not.
As for who killed Tecumseh, that is up for debate. Richard Johnson is said to have been the man who killed Tecumseh, although he never confirmed this, stating he only killed a tall, good looking Indian. Even without confirming it, he would use it to his advantage in politics and was known as The Man Who Killed Tecumseh. As he ran for the US Senate, his supporters chanted, quote:
“Rumpsey Dumpsey, Rumpsey Dumpsey, Johnson Killed Tecumseh.”
He would be elected to the Senate in 1836, and eventually vice president of the United States.
Another man, David King, was also named as possibly killing Tecumseh.
The burial site of Tecumseh is not known, and it is believed his warriors took his body and buried it far from the battlefield. Stories told by the warriors at the battle vary. Some say that they were forced to leave his body on the field, others said they carried him off, possibly mortally-wounded. There are also stories of Canadians taking his body and burying it in Sandwich, Upper Canada.
In The Story of the Counties of Ontario, it is said quote:
The St. Anne story has a strange extra chapter to it.
There is a story that an Ojibwe man named Oshahwahnoo, who had fought with Tecumseh, dug up the body in the 1860s and buried it on St. Anne Island. In 1931, those bones were examined to see if the thighbone had been broken, as Tecumseh had broken his in a riding accident as a young man. Neither thigh of the skeleton had been broken. Even with that, the bones were reburied on Walpole Island in 1941 in a ceremony honouring Tecumseh.
The death of Tecumseh was not only the loss of a critical ally for the British, it was the end of the hope of an Indigenous Confederacy. Odawa Chief Naywash would say, quote:
“Since our Great Chief Tecumseh has been killed, we do not listen to one another, we do not rise together.”
A week after his death, the tribes who took part in the battle signed a truce with the Americans. The British attempted to bring them back into the war, but these all failed.
As for Proctor, the man who abandoned Tecumseh, he would be court martialed.
Today, Tecumseh is arguably one of the most honoured Indigenous leaders in North America. He became a folk hero in Canadian and Indigenous history, and many call him a hero that transcends cultural identity. In Canada, Tecumseh is honored as a hero of Canada for his defense of the country during the War of 1812.
John Richardson would write a poem called Tecumseh or The Warrior of the West, with the intention of preserving the image and name of the man he greatly admired.
In a ranking of the Greatest Canadians by CBC in 2004, Tecumseh placed 34th. The HMCS Tecumseh naval reserve in Calgary is named for him, and a commemorative two-dollar coin was released to honour him on June 18, 2012.
At the Royal Canadian Military Institute, a huge portrait honours Tecumseh. As well, Tecumseh, Ontario is named for him. Six schools across Canada are also named for him.
A plaque sits in Tecumseh Park in Chatham, Ontario, stating quote:
“On this site, Tecumseh, a Shawnee chief, who was an ally of the British during the War of 1812, fought against American forces on Oct. 5, 1813. Tecumseh was born in 1768 and became an important organizer of native resistance to the spread of white settlement in North America. The day after the fighting here, he was killed in the Battle of Thames near Moraviantown. Tecumseh Park was named to commemorate strong will and determination.”
Information comes from Canadian Encyclopedia, History.com, Wikipedia, Britannica, Smithsonian Magazine, Biography.com, Battles of the 19th Century Volume 3, The Story of the Counties of Ontario, The Story of the counties of Ontario, Canada History Project, Kent Historical Society, Papers and Addresses Volume 3.