On this day in 1813, a combined British and Indian force is defeated by General William Henry Harrison’s American army at the Battle of the Thames near present-day Chatham, Ontario, Canada. The leader of the Indian forces was Tecumseh, the brilliant and notorious Shawnee chief who organized inter-tribal resistance to the encroachment of white settlers on Indian lands, and was killed in the fray.
When the War of 1812 erupted, he joined the British, and with a large Indian force he marched on U.S.-held Fort Detroit with British General Isaac Brock. In August 1812, the fort surrendered without a fight when it saw the British and Indian show of force.
Tecumseh himself was born near Old Chillicothe, Ohio, in 1768. His father was killed by whites in 1774, and his mother, a Muskogee (Creek Confederacy), left him when he was seven years old, to accompany part of the tribe to Missouri and then passed into obscurity. Tecumseh was reared by an elder sister, Tecumapease, who trained him in the strict Shawnee code of honesty; an elder brother, Cheeseekau, taught him woodcraft and hunting. He was adopted by the Shawnee chief Blackfish and grew to young manhood with several white foster brothers whom Blackfish had captured.
Murder, massacre, the invasion of the Shawnee’s lands and the destruction of their crops deepened a hatred of whites which was instilled in Tecumseh by his mother. When about 14 years old, during the American Revolution, he began his long military career and accompanied Blackfish in combined British and Indian attacks on Americans. As hostile as he was toward whites, however, Tecumseh rebuked his fellow Shawnees for the cruelty that they themselves practiced, including burning settlers alive.
After the war Tecumseh was for a number of years a marauder, fighting small actions against the whites in the Old Northwest and assisting the Cherokees in the South, and his war-making career entered its second phase. He saw his brother Cheeseekau killed in an unsuccessful raid near Nashville, Tennessee, in September 1792. Though he was the youngest of the Shawnee band, Tecumseh was chosen leader, fought small actions in the South, and made an acquaintance with the Creeks that later helped him form an alliance with them.
Soon Tecumseh returned to Ohio, where during the Northwest Indian War he directed the unsuccessful attack on Mad Anthony Wayne’s forces at Fort Recovery in June 1794. On August 20, he led part of Chief Bluejacket’s force when it was decisively defeated by Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, famous for the apocryphal claim that the Maumee River was named directly from the lips of papooses pleading for their mother. At this engagement he watched another older brother, Sauwaseekau, perish in battle.
Tecumseh abjured the Treaty of Greenville in August 1795, intended to settle the Northwest conflict; he refused to recognize it and roundly attacked the “peace chiefs” who signed away land that he contended they did not own. Land, he said, was like the air and water, the common possession of all Indians
Partly because of his superb oratory, which the whites compared to that of the young legislator Henry Clay, Tecumseh became the spokesman for the Indians in great councils in Ohio, at Urbana (1799) and Chillicothe (1804), that undertook to settle grievances. For a time he studied treaties, spoke at councils, and lived peacefully in Ohio and Indiana.
About 1808 Tecumseh settled in the area of present-day Indiana with his brother Tenskwatawa, called “the Prophet.” There the brothers sought to induce the Indians to discard white customs and goods and to avoid intertribal wars for unity against the white invader. The code of the Prophet had a mysticism that appealed to the Indians, and many became converts.
Seeing the approach the War of 1812 between the Americans and British, Tecumseh assembled his followers and joined the British forces at Fort Malden on the Canadian side of the Detroit River for what would prove the third and final phase of his military career. There he brought together perhaps the most formidable force ever commanded by a North American Indian, an accomplishment that was a decisive factor in the ensuing siege and capture of Detroit and of 2,500 U.S. soldiers (1812).
The feint deployed was described thus in a contemporary account: “Tecumseh extended his men, and marched them three times through an opening in the woods at the rear of the fort in full view of the garrison, which induced them to believe there were at least two or three thousand Indians.” Aging American General William Hull peed his trousers and Detroit changed hands yet again.
Tecumseh then traveled south to rally other tribes to his cause and in 1813 joined British General Henry Procter in his invasion of Ohio. The British-Indian force besieged Fort Meigs, and Tecumseh intercepted and destroyed a Kentucky brigade sent to relieve the fort. After the U.S. victory at the Battle of Lake Erie in September 1813, Procter and Tecumseh were forced to retreat to Canada. Pursued by an American force led by the future president Harrison, the British-Indian force was routed at the Battle of the Thames River on October 5. Tecumseh’s body was carried from the field and buried secretly in a grave that remains un-discovered.
The battle gave control of the western theater to the United States in the War of 1812. Tecumseh’s death marked the end of Indian resistance east of the Mississippi River, and soon after most of the depleted tribes were forced on the long march west.