Throughout the 19th century, American settlers pushing across the Western frontier came into contact with diverse American tribes, producing a series of conflicts ranging from the Great Plains to the Southwest, from the Trail of Tears to the Pacific Northwest. Indian leaders like Geronimo became feared and dreaded men in America, and Sitting Bull’s victory over George Custer’s 7th Cavalry at Little Bighorn was one of the nation’s most traumatic military endeavors.
Given this history, Tecumseh’s reputation among Americans has been both the most unique and anomalous. As the leader of the Shawnee, Tecumseh was the most famous Native American of the early 19th century, and he attempted to peacefully establish a Native American nation east of the Mississippi River in the wake of the American Revolution. While Native Americans, especially in the “Old Northwest” (present-day land west of the Appalachian Mountains and east of the Mississippi River), understood and recognized their own, long established territories and those of other tribes, these boundaries and territories were ignored and unappreciated by the incoming settlers.
As settlers continued to encroach further west, the Shawnee, who were attempting to put together a confederacy of Native Americans to resist, stood firm and ready to fight them. Before America fought Britain in the War of 1812, they were engaged in Tecumseh’s War around the Great Lakes. The fighting made him famous and made a military hero (and eventually a president) out of William Henry Harrison, whose victory at Tippecanoe is considered the end of that war.
Despite being one of their most tenacious opponents, Tecumseh almost immediately became a celebrated folk hero and respected leader in American history, all while continuing to be one of the most poignant symbols of resistance among Native Americans. He continues to be a household name across the United States today, nearly 200 years after his death.
What makes Tecumseh’s legacy ironic is that the Shawnee were nominally led by a different man altogether, and that man just so happened to be Tecumseh’s brother. Lalawethika’s early life mostly consisted of abject failures, and he became an alcoholic, but in one of his alcohol-soaked stupors, he began to have visions of the Master of Life that turned him into the Open Door, the prophet named Tenskwatawa. It was Tenskwatawa who brought a new vision to the Shawnee, transforming himself from an object of pity and contempt into a religious leader who had thousands of followers. When the Americans fought at Tippecanoe, the gathering of Native Americans who they were attempting to disperse had congregated at a place colloquially known as Prophetstown.