Tecumseh: Tribal Leader Who Fought American Expansion

11 November, 2017

Tecumseh was a leader of the Shawnee Tribe in the early 1800s. He led the Shawnee and other tribes in fighting American expansion into what is now the Northwestern United States. In the end, however, their efforts failed.

Tecumseh was born in western Ohio around 1768. He grew up during a period of endless warfare, as non-native settlers moved inland from the Atlantic Coast.

The Shawnee had once lived in woodlands east of the Mississippi River. But by the late 1700s, they had been forced to move to what are today the states of Ohio and Indiana.

A 20th century adaptation of a portrait of Tecumseh by Benson John Lossing, after a pencil sketch by French trader Pierre Le Dru at Vincennes before 1810.
A 20th century adaptation of a portrait of Tecumseh by Benson John Lossing, after a pencil sketch by French trader Pierre Le Dru at Vincennes before 1810.

The Eastern Shawnee Tribe's website notes that Tecumseh's father died in a battle with a Virginia militia in 1774. The boy was left to be raised by his older brother, who trained him as a warrior.

Tecumseh fought his first battle at the age of 14. The Shawnee say he became frightened and ran from the battlefield. He was so embarrassed that he made up his mind to never be afraid of battle again.

In 1790, his forces attacked a group of American soldiers in western Ohio. More than 600 soldiers died and hundreds more were wounded in the attack. It was the biggest defeat of the U.S. army ever.

Around 1805, Tecumseh's younger brother is said to have had a series of visions. That experience led him to take the name Tenskwatawa, which means "Prophet" in English.

Tecumseh worked to support Tenskwatawa's visions, which promised protection against American soldiers and predicted the return of the traditional Shawnee way of life.

The two brothers established the village of Tippecanoe in what is now Indiana. It was meant to serve as the headquarters of a new native alliance against the U.S. government.

Tecumseh then began to travel, as far north as Canada and as far south as the Gulf of Mexico. He wanted to spread his brother's message in an effort to seek out tribal allies.

By the spring of 1810, non-native settlers had grown increasingly nervous. They worried that the tribal alliance was planning to attack and kill them.

In 1811, while Tecumseh was away on a trip along the Gulf Coast, the U.S. army prepared to attack "Prophetstown." A group of Shawnee warriors went out to meet them, and the two sides fought a two-hour battle. Neither side won. The Shawnee withdrew from the area. The next day, the U.S. army burned Tippecanoe to the ground.

In 1812, the U.S. Congress declared war on Great Britain. Tecumseh and his allies joined the side of the British. They believed that a British victory would stop the progress of the Americans. Tecumseh is said to have demonstrated himself to be a clever planner who helped the British to victory in Detroit.

But in 1813, he was wounded by American forces during the Battle of the Thames in Ontario, Canada. He died a short time later.

His death is seen as having opened the way for American expansion into the continental northwest. In the following years, the U.S. government forced tribes west of the Mississippi River to accept more than 200 treaties. The government also set up nearly 100 areas for Native American tribes. They are called reservations.

The Shawnee were once spread across parts of the United States, Canada and Mexico. Today, the U.S. government recognizes the Shawnee in three branches: the Shawnee Tribe, the Absentee Shawnee Tribe and the Eastern Shawnee Tribe. Each one lives in Oklahoma, and all remember Tecumseh as a hero.

William Henry Harrison would become the ninth U.S. president. He described Tecumseh as "one of those uncommon geniuses which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things."

I'm Jonathan Evans.

Cecelia Hilleary wrote this story for VOA News. Jonathan Evans adapted her report for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


Words in this Story

clever – adj. showing intelligent thinking

embarrassed – adj. feeling confused and foolish in front of other people

genius – n. a very smart or talented person; a person who has a level of talent or intelligence that is very rare or remarkable

vision – n. something that you see or dream especially as part of a religious or supernatural experience

branch n. a local office of an organization; a major part of something

prophet n. someone with moral or spiritual gifts; one who can predict future events