Series: American Indians and the War of 1812

Confederation in a new world order: Tenskwatawa's vision for Indian destinies

By: Kathryn Braund, Auburn University

Following increasingly restrictive and exploitative land cessation treaties between the United States and Indian nations, tribal people were faced with difficult choices. Would Natives follow the restrictions of the Americans or fight them? Would they remain an independent people, or assimilate into white society? Would they remain on ancestral lands at the risk of enraging land-hungry Americans, or leave home in the interest of keeping peace? These difficult choices did not have easy answers.

Although Tecumseh at first urged peace among tribes, his meaning was clear: Indians must unite and fight to save their lands if necessary.
Portrait of Shawnee religious leader Tenskwatawa

Tenkwatawa offered a new vision for Indian independence through alliance against the Americans.

National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

After decades of brutal warfare that had shattered economic life and political cohesion, many Shawnee began to move once more. Others, like those led by Black Hoof, worked toward accommodating the new economic and political American order that had taken root all around them. Still others, disgusted with the Fort Wayne cession (1809) and led by the inspired vision of Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee Prophet, came to think another way was possible. Tenskwatawa’s vision was powerful, attracting adherents from neighboring Algonquian tribes, including Delaware and Miami Indians. Calling for cultural revitalization, the Shawnee Prophet sought to turn his people from the downward spiral of debt caused by declining resources. He called for his people to shun excess, revert to self-sufficiency, and recapture their sacred and powerful connection to their land. Along with his brother Tecumseh, a charismatic military leader, he envisioned Indian people embracing their own cultural values and coming together to thwart efforts by outsiders to determine the tribes’ destiny. And, although Tecumseh at first urged peace among tribes, his meaning was clear: Indians must unite and fight to save their lands if necessary. Drawn by the Prophet’s powerful vision, nearly one thousand people came to inhabit the multiethnic settlement dedicated to Indian self-sufficiency and unity at Prophet’s Town, at the junction of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers in Ohio.

Governor William Henry Harrison’s move against Prophet’s Town was an attempt to thwart the growing movement. But the Shawnees struck first in the early morning hours of November 11, 1811, against the American force that camped near their town. The Americans repulsed the attack and went on to loot and burn the town. Thinking they had carried the day, the Americans claimed the battle at Tippecanoe a victory. Rather, it resulted in a self-fulfilling prophecy as the survivors turned to the British for aid and the Indian conflict soon merged into America’s war with Britain.

As the battle in the north raged, Tecumseh was heading home from a southern tour in which he sought to enlist allies in the Shawnee confederation. He found support among the Creeks. There, the National Council had repeatedly given in to demands by the American agent Benjamin Hawkins, including pressure to adopt the civilization program and cede land to the United States. At the meeting that Tecumseh attended, Hawkins asserted that US citizens had the right to travel freely through Creek lands by land and water and vowed that the United States would improve the federal road that already ran through Creek territory whether the Council assented to the move or not. Hawkins determined the payment for this “right”: 1,500 spinning wheels and the right by an elite few to collect tolls at certain points along the route. Those who opposed these developments were receptive to Tecumseh’s warnings about American encroachments on both land and Indian self-determination as well as the call to spiritual renewal espoused by the Prophet. They attempted to harness this spiritual power by performing the Shawnee dances and undertaking rigorous ceremonies, including self-induced trances.

Tags: war of 1812, Causes, American Indians, Defining the Stakes