A Tale of Two Indians Shows How The West Was Really Won – Tecumseh and The Prophet

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Tecumseh and the Prophet:  The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied A Nation
By Peter Cozzens
October 2020
560 pages


In Tecumseh and the Prophet, Peter Cozzens, formerly a captain in the U.S. Army and later a foreign service officer, has written a frank and unvarnished account of the struggle between the two million or more white colonial settlers and sixty thousand Native Americans in the five states that made up the original 1787 Northwest Ordinance territory – Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin.

In presenting this vivid portrait of Tecumseh and his brother, the prophet Tenskwatawa, Cozzens has done 21st century readers a great service. Many in the Cancel Culture have bought into the myth that Native Americans were uniquely peaceful, bucolic, and innocent people, satisfied with a life hunting game and tending their crops. This picture of the American Indian was first promulgated by 18th century European philosophers and writers exemplified by Jean Jacques Rousseau.

This portrayal of Native Americans as the “noble savage,” corrupted and oppressed by white European settlers in the New World, has been revived with a vengeance in recent decades. In this narrative, white Europeans, symbolized by the English Puritan Separatists who arrived in 1620 at Plymouth Rock, were the evil colonial oppressors of a gentle and friendly people. Hence the current initiative in Wellesley to rename and celebrate Columbus Day as Indigenous Peoples’ Day.

In this excellent history, Cozzens tells the story of the inexorable western march of the white settlers and the efforts of the Native Americans to stem the tide. It is a story of treaties made and broken. And it is a story of courage, hardship, treachery, savagery, and even cannibalism.  Cozzens pulls no punches and tells the story with unembellished truth about the good, the bad, and the ugly things perpetrated by the settlers and Native Americans alike.

The star of the story is Tecumseh, the last indigenous leader who seriously threatened to alter the outcome.

Tecumseh was born in 1768 in the Ohio region into the “panther” clan of the Shawnees – a migratory tribe known among other Native American tribes for the unique fury with which its formidable warriors fought. The Northwest Ordinance territory was home to dozens of migratory tribes, and although these tribes often made common cause against the white settlers (whom they called “Long Knives”), there was also frequent warfare between tribes.

Tecumseh’s father was killed fighting against American settlers in 1774, and subsequently Tecumseh’s older brother, Cheeseekau, helped to raise him. Trained in Shawnee ways, Tecumseh developed into a renowned hunter and a brave young warrior in his youth. At the age of 14, he had already participated in a fight against American settlers at Piqua near the Mad River (about 27 miles north of present-day Dayton, Ohio) and seen his brother Cheeseekau, who was fighting next to him, wounded.

During the Revolutionary War, the Native American tribes in this region allied with the British in an attempt to stave off new settlements by white Americans on what had been tribal land. There were bloody massacres on both sides. One of the worst took place in 1782, when armed white settlers from Pennsylvania slaughtered nearly 100 innocent men, women, and children from the Delaware tribe who were Christians at Gnadenhutten (about 31 miles southwest of present-day Canton, Ohio). The white settlers acted in retribution for the murders of several white settlers by the hostile Wyandot tribe – unrelated to the Christian Indians they killed. Later in 1782, Colonel William Crawford led 400 militiamen deep into Ohio territory to attack Native Americans from the Wyandots and Delaware tribes. His troops were routed, and Crawford, a well-known and respected colonial leader, was captured by the Delawares.. He was pinioned to the ground and tortured, prodded by flaming sticks and partially skinned alive, dying after 13 excruciating hours of cruel torment.

Yet not all captured “Long Knives” were treated in this fashion. During this period, Daniel Boone was captured by the Shawnees. After surviving the trial of “running the gauntlet” during which many captives were bludgeoned to death, Boone was ritually adopted by the tribe and remained with the Shawnees for five months before being allowed to leave.

At the age of 15, Tecumseh took part in an ambush of white settlers on a flatboat on the Ohio River. All but one pioneer was killed in the initial onslaught. This lone survivor was slowly roasted to death at the stake, shrieking and writhing. Repulsed by this torture, Tecumseh verbally assaulted the older warriors and gained their promise to never burn another prisoner. Over the years, Tecumseh gained renown for his distaste for the ritual torture, death by fire, and cannibalism that many Indian tribes practiced.

The Treaty of Paris in 1783 ended the Revolutionary War. Under its terms, Britain withdrew from the Northwest Territories. Native Americans, who were allied with the British during the Revolutionary War, believed that the treaty was a wholesale British betrayal. The following years saw the steady encroachment of white settlers on land once controlled by the Indian tribes. As more and more Americans poured into Ohio, Native American tribes banded together to defend what they considered to be their native land.

With a growing reputation as a young war leader, Tecumseh joined Shawnee Chief Blue Jacket and Miami Chief Little Turtle in 1791 to deal an American army led by General Arthur St. Clair one of the worst defeats suffered by the American military in its history. (Only Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Big Horn in 1876 was worse.) Of the approximately 1,700 men whom St. Clair led into battle, over half were killed or wounded.

But then, President George Washington appointed General “Mad Anthony” Wayne to lead a more professional army against the Native American tribes. General Wayne achieved a crushing defeat of the enemy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794. Tecumseh, having taken part in this disastrous battle, was forced to lead the Shawnee withdrawal from Ohio, as mandated by the Treaty of Greenville signed in 1795.

Tecumseh had a younger brother originally named Lalawethika, who was sickly and weak as a child. In his early adulthood, he accomplished very little, spending his days drinking whiskey and acting as his village’s medicine man. However, his life changed radically when he had a dramatic prophetic vision of the Great Spirit – the Master of Life. His vision told of a fork in the road in the afterlife — with the one road leading to hope and redemption from bad behavior; and the other road, for those who drank whiskey, committed murder, and practiced witchcraft, leading to being tossed into a great fire.

Lalawethika not only changed his behavior from a selfish alcoholic to an empathetic teetotaler, but was eloquent and persuasive in his explanation of his vision to others. He changed his name to Tenskwatawa, which could be translated to “He who opened the sky for red men to go up to the Master of Life.” Ultimately, his visions developed into a moral cleansing and religious program which would deliver the Shawnees and other Native American tribes from their destructive ways and enable them to build a robust society capable of resisting the flood of white settlers. By this time, Tenskwatawa had gained a great deal of influence over Tecumseh, who subscribed to his vision. The features of the vision are complex, but one of the main aspects was to shun the evil Americans who had taken their land, and to improve their own lives. In short order, Tenskwatawa became a prophet known and respected throughout the lands of the Northwest Territory.

One of the most interesting portions of Tecumseh and the Prophet is the description of the effect of whiskey on Native Americans. The author quotes numerous eyewitnesses who wrote of the appalling damage that liquor did to Indian communities. One Moravian missionary wrote as follows:  “They screamed all night in the woods and acted like madmen. No one who has not seen an Indian drunk can have any conception of it. It is as if they had all been changed into evil spirits.” And, of course, some unscrupulous Long Knives took advantage of this, trading whiskey for Indian lands and for animal hides. From Cozzens’s point of view, the Native Americans’ greatest enemy was not the white man but liquor.

In the years following the Treaty of Grenville, which mandated the withdrawal of Native American tribes from Ohio, until the commencement of the War of 1812, Tecumseh became possibly the greatest Indian Chief in the history of the United States. He and his brother, Tenskwatawa, worked tirelessly to unite all the Native American tribes of the Northwest to resist and fight the Long Knives. The governor of the Indiana Territory, William Henry Harrison (elected president decades later in 1840) paid the following tribute to Tecumseh in 1811:  “The implicit obedience and respect which the followers of Tecumseh pay to him is really astonishing … [and he is] one of those uncommon geniuses which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things.”

During the War of 1812, Tecumseh, in an effort to take back for tribal lands in the what the Americans called the Northwest Territory, gathered a grand alliance of Indian warriors to fight with the British against the Americans. But the American naval victory in the Battle of Lake Erie in September 1813 by Oliver Hazard Perry ended British naval control over the lake, which limited the ability of the British to supply troops. The British weakness led Americans to press on into what is now Ontario in Canada. At the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813, General William Henry Harrison and his 3,500 troops defeated 600 British soldiers and 1,000 Indian warriors. Tecumseh was severely wounded in the battle. He died a month later. Without the foundation of the power and prestige of Tecumseh, his brother Tenskwatawa lost his influence, and his fortunes spiraled downward. He died in 1836 in Kansas as a failed religious leader.

Tecumseh made such an impression on Americans that even though he was their enemy they came to embrace him as an outstanding figure of the nation. Most famously, about eight years after the great Indian leader died, the father of a future famous American general decided to give his newborn son the chief’s name:  William Tecumseh Sherman.

Cozzens, who has written more than a dozen books on Native American culture and history, again shows his mastery of this subject. This biography of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa is thoroughly researched, and the reader learns not only the heroic efforts of these brothers but also the tangled complexity of the history of this period.

It’s hard to divide this picture into good guys and bad guys. There are treachery and atrocities committed by some in the white colonial population, but savagery, torture, and even cannibalism perpetrated by some of the Native Americans. There is also nobility and humanity in these pages. The complexity of human beings allows the same people to do great good and commit great evil.

Cozzens has done us a great service by retelling the story of Tecumseh and his brother the Prophet in a historically accurate way that dispels the current myth of the “noble savage” and the evil European settler. As we all know, the white settlers ultimately conquered the territory which the Indian tribes saw as their own. Although it is not politically correct to mention it, for thousands of years the powerful, including many Native American tribes, have conquered the lands of the weaker. That has been true in every continent. It’s not necessary to justify it; we can simply note that this is how many people in many places over many centuries have acted.

If it happens less frequently in the future, it will be because human beings decide to live according to moral principles that transcend selfishness and power.