Tenskwatawa (1775–1836)
Tenskwatawa, a Native American prophet of the Shawnee
people, was the brother of the famous war chief Tecumseh. He
grew up in the shadow of his more famous brother, and was a
somewhat alienated soul who did not take part in traditional
male activities such as hunting and fishing. At some point he
also lost the use of his right eye. He compensated for this physical
defect by wearing jewelry from his pierced ears and nose.
He did have some oratorical abilities.
He arose out of obscurity in the first decade of the nineteenth
century as American settlers moved into traditional
Shawnee territory in the Midwest. He had become a medicine
man in his brother’s tribe and claimed additional status as a
prophet after being visited by the Great Spirit in a dream. The
new settlers labeled him ‘‘The Prophet.’’ People took him seriously
after he successfully predicted a solar eclipse in 1806. Especially
younger Shawnee were drawn to this new leader and
his new religion. He told them to reject white culture and adhere
to their traditional ways. He also urged them to follow his
example and give up the use of alcohol.
The white settlers, however, were more interested in his
broad message that North America was a land that was held in
common by all the tribes. Hence, no particular Indian group
had the right to sign away its territory to the U. S. Government.
It was not theirs to give. Tecumseh accepted the idea and used
it to build a confederation of tribes. Meanwhile, Tenskwatawa
gathered his most dedicated followers and created a new village
called Tippecanoe, at the point where the Wabash and Tippecanoe
Rivers met. The settlers called it Prophet’s Town. As the
movement focused in Tenskwatawa grew, anxiety over Indian
resistance to further settlement was focused on Prophet’s
In the fall of 1811, Tecumseh headed south to gather the
support of additional tribes for his confederacy to resist further
white encroachments. Indiana governor William Henry Harrison
decided to seize the opportunity and remove the heart of
the movement. He sent soldiers to Prophet’s Town and in what
came to be known as the Battle of Tippecanoe, destroyed the
village. Though not a great battle, it was later used by Harrison
in his quest for the American presidency. It also led to the
downfall of Tenskwatawa. Former residents of Tippecanoe almost
killed him, and his influence as a man of magical power
and prophetic ability waned from that moment. However, the
idea of the confederation of tribes was still very much alive the
next year and was used by the British to enroll Indians as allies
in the War of 1812.
After the war, Tenskwatawa lived in Canada on a British
pension. He returned to the United States in 1926 and attempted
to reassert his authority among a group of Shawnee
who were being moved from Ohio and eventually settled in
Kansas. He died there in 1836.
Drake, Benjamin. The Life of Tecumseh and of His Brother the
Prophet. 1841. Reprint, N.p., 1969.