When Pontiac was murdered in Cahokia, Ill. in 1769, white men breathed easier. His confederacy had slowed settlement of the Northwest and proved that a strong alliance of tribes might yet upset the balance of power on the frontier. But there was no leader of his ability to take up the Indian cause, and the White Man continued to play one tribe against another in continued sporadic fighting. However, a child had been born a year before who would nearly achieve what Pontiac dreamed.
Tecumseh was born on the night of March 9, 1768 near the town of Chillicothe, Ohio, where his father Pucksinwah was attending a council meeting of the Shawnee to urge them to resist encroachments by white men on the tribe's hunting grounds in Kentucky. That night, a spectacular meteor blazed across the sky. Pucksinwah believed it was The Panther, a great spirit and powerful omen. He named his son Tecumseh (The Panther Passing Across), and he taught him that the White Man and the Red could never live together in peace.
Tecumseh grew up in an era of frontier war, first the French and Indian War, then the Revolutionary War. During the latter, George Rogers Clark savaged the Indian allies of the British in Indiana and Ohio. Too young to fight, Tecumseh could only flee with his people as Clark burned the Shawnee crops and villages. He arrived at manhood with an abiding hatred of white men.
Hostilities ceased between Great Britain and the new United States on January 20, 1783 -- but the Ohio frontier continued to flame. Britain did not withdraw from her seven northwest posts, and they continued to sell guns and ammunition to the Indians. To counteract British influence, the U.S. proposed to build a fort on the Maumee River.
In 1791, what was then the entire U.S. army -- under 2,000 men -- marched toward the river and was ambushed, suffering 900 casualties. Among the victorious Indians was Tecumseh, now a full warrior. But a new general named Mad Anthony Wayne came back in 1793 with a new army, built forts, and won a big battle at Fallen Timbers in August 1794. Taking a page from Clark's campaign manual, he destroyed all villages and corn-fields for 50 miles on either side of the Maumee. In December 1794, the starving Indians surrendered, and the 1795 Treaty of Greenville ended two decades of fighting and opened Ohio to new white settlement.
Tecumseh soon became a leading critic of the treaty. Supported by his younger brother, a medicine man called the "Prophet," he began to journey in search of support. Over the next decade, village by village, tribe by tribe, he created a confederacy from the Great Lakes to the Gulf. And he did it quietly, without alerting the whites.
He eased hostilities between traditional enemies and preached prohibition on drinking alcohol and smoking hemp weed. He taught the tribes to study the ways of the whites, their strengths and weaknesses. And he told them to wait until Maneto gave the sign which would lead to the great uprising that would roll the white man back across the Alleghenies.
At 2:30am on Monday, December 16, 1811, the sign came. The earth writhed, forests fell, rivers -- even the mighty Mississippi -- ran backwards. It was the New Madrid earthquake and was followed by after-shocks on January 23, 27 and February 13, 1812.
Hostilities began. Not in a great wave but in scattered attacks -- and usually with bow, knife or tomahawk. When troops gathered, they could find no warriors. Yet American men, women and children continued to die. Warhawks in Congress blamed the British. War was declared on June 18, 1812.
Now, Tecumseh himself went into action on the side of the British. In the first land battle of the war, he led 70 warriors and 40 British soldiers under Captain James Muir against 600 men under Major Thomas Van Horne and defeated them decisively. The British commissioned Tecumseh a brigadier general, and he called on all his allies to join him. In Illinois, Americans at Fort Dearborn and the village of Chicago were massacred. Fort Detroit surrendered.
But the uprising was not as widespread as Tecumseh hoped. Other tribes, perhaps unnerved by an abortive uprising by the Prophet in November before the earthquake, failed to join Tecumseh. After all, if he could not control his own brother, how could he lead a great uprising?
William Henry Harrison, who had defeated the Prophet at Tippecanoe, was chosen to head the American response on the frontier. He withstood a British siege at Fort Meigs (which disgusted Tecumseh's waiting Indians), then went to chiefs of Ohio tribes which had refused to join the uprising and enlisted their aid. Tecumseh's support eroded. He still had thousands of warriors, but they could not overcome forts with cannons, and the British frontier war effort was weak under General Henry Proctor.
By September, 1813, Tecumseh was ready to end his alliance with the British and start his own war path, but he was dissuaded by Sioux and Chippewa chiefs and retreated with them and the British into Canada. It was another example of bad tribal politics -- and a fatal mistake.
Harrison's army followed and during the Battle of the Thames on October 5, Tecumseh was killed during the American victory. The man who claimed to have killed him, Richard M. Johnson, would become U.S. Vice President in 1837; Harrison would be elected President four years later. The Northwest was pacified; Illinois became a state in 1818 and never again would there be an Indian leader with any real chance of forming a nationwide uprising.