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(History of the World: The 19th Century)

0111303078-Tecumseh.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Leading Indians of the Old Northwest in a united defense against the intrusion of white settlers, Tecumseh contributed significantly to the development of pan-Indianism in American history.

Early Life

In the Shawnee village of Old Piqua on the Mad River of what is modern western Ohio, Tecumseh was born to Methoataske, a Creek Indian woman. Her Shawnee husband, Puckeshinwa, had met her earlier, while staying with Creek Indians in Alabama. When Tecumseh was still a very young boy, Virginians began pushing into Kentucky onto lands used extensively for hunting by the Shawnee. The Indians resisted, and in 1774, Virginia Governor Lord John Dunmore led troops into the area. Puckeshinwa died in one of the subsequent battles, leaving support of his family in the hands of relatives and in those of a war chief named Blackfish from a nearby village.

During the American Revolution, the Shawnee again went to war against whites. In 1779, local Kentuckians wrongly accused several Shawnee, including a popular leader known as Cornstalk, of some recent killings and senselessly killed them. The intense fighting that followed eventually led about a thousand members of the tribe to move for a time to southeastern Missouri. Methoataske was one of the migrants, but Tecumseh and his seven brothers and sisters did not accompany their mother. Instead, other family members took the children. Tecumseh moved in with his sister Tecumpease and her husband and eventually developed a very close relationship with his older sibling. The muscular young Shawnee also became popular among his peers, distinguishing himself in games and in shooting skills. At age fifteen, Tecumseh experienced his first battle. American pioneers again started flooding onto Shawnee lands near the end of the Revolution, many of them crossing the Appalachian Mountains and then descending the Ohio River in flatboats. In 1783, the young warrior accompanied his brother Chiksika on a war party in an effort to stop the flatboat traffic.

After winning independence, Americans considered themselves the owners of lands formerly claimed by Great Britain, including the Old Northwest (the area bordered by the Appalachian Mountains on the east, the Mississippi River on the west, the Ohio River on the south, and Canada on the north, comprising the modern states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan). Kentuckians attacked Shawnee villages in 1786 after blaming that group for raids actually launched by the Mingoes and Cherokee in opposition to settlement west of the Appalachians. The Shawnee hit back, with Tecumseh frequently taking part in the fighting. In 1787, he joined a war party led by his brother that went south and helped Cherokee attack settlements in Tennessee and southern Kentucky. Chiksika was killed in the action. The death of his brother greatly intensified Tecumseh’s hatred for the expansionistic whites, and he stayed in the area for the next two years, seeking vengeance.

With Chiksika no longer in a position of leadership, Tecumseh was able to assert himself. Five feet, ten inches tall, with a powerful physical presence and a dynamic speaking ability, he quickly gained a large following, especially among the younger, more antiwhite members of his tribe. By the time the group of Shawnee warriors returned to the Old Northwest in 1790, Tecumseh had emerged as a popular war chief. In addition to his outstanding skills in warfare, however, he also gained a reputation for being kind and good-humored. He frequently demonstrated compassion for those who were weakest or least privileged and an aversion to the torture or murder of prisoners. These qualities made him exceptional at a time when indiscriminate brutality was common on both sides in frontier warfare.

Life’s Work

Upon his return to the Old Northwest, Tecumseh found his antiwhite sentiments increasingly in tune with those of many Indians in the region. Settlers...

(The entire section is 3,818 words.)