The Shawnee Brothers: Native Resistance in Ohio Country

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: Native Peoples of North America

By Daniel M. Cobb, Ph.D., The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Across the Ohio Country, the 1790s saw movements of resistance by Natives against the settlers as well as the federal government. This also brought pan-tribal alliance to the fore. Though spirited in nature, these movements were not always successful. Why? Let’s find out.

Vintage drawing of the Battle of Tippecanoe.
Governor William Henry Harrison commanded the victorious US forces against Tecumseh’s American Indian confederation. (Image: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

The Shawnee Brothers

The Shawnee brothers—Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa—were two of the most instrumental figures in the Indian resistance. Tecumseh was the elder of the two by seven years.

Following in the tradition of earlier prophets, such as Neolin, and seekers of power like Pontiac, Tecumseh  and Tenskwatawa rooted their movement for pan-tribal unity in the land. Like their predecessors, they spoke of the land being given to Native people by the Master of Life.

Tenskwatawa: The Prophet

Tenskwatawa, after receiving his vision in the spring of 1805, called for emissaries from other tribal communities to come to him to hear his message and adopt the new rituals he taught them as a means to restore balance, harmony, and power.

A painting of Tenskwatawa.
Tenskwatawa belieived that the US Government’s Civilization Program had made the Master of Life angry. (Image: George Catlin/Smithsonian American Art Museum/Public domain)

Tecumseh, Tenskwatawa, and their allies addressed a fundamental issue: how change should happen. So, the movement in the Ohio Country wasn’t about preserving traditional ways in amber or revitalizing a dying culture. It was about maintaining the ability for Indians to make decisions independent of U.S. influence.

Because of this, the focal point of conflict was often the federal government’s so-called Civilization Program, which, Tenskwatawa believed, made the Master of Life angry.

Learn more about nature in Native American myth.

Shawnee Brothers Build a Native Alliance

In the political sphere, Tecumseh orchestrated the building of an alliance that would not only reunify the peoples of the Ohio Country but also the Southern Indians—particularly the Creek—who, along with the Choctaw, Chickasaw, and Cherokee, had shared many of the same experiences in their dealings with the Americans.

And, in the spring of 1806, they made a provocative move by relocating their village across the line established by the Treaty of Greenville. The following year, it began to look as if the old alliance with Great Britain might be realized once again.

In response, William Henry Harrison, Indiana’s territorial governor, challenged the legitimacy of Tenskwatawa’s prophetic vision and Tecumseh’s political authority. At the same time, governors of Indiana and Michigan territories secured six treaties between 1804 and 1809 that chipped away still more Native  land in Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Ohio.

This is a transcript from the video series Native Peoples of North AmericaWatch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Treaty of Fort Wayne

The resistance movement grew stronger as a consequence. Tenskwatawa went so far as to establish another new village, called Prophetstown, along the Wabash River, on lands belonging to the Myaamia.

Harrison resolved to drive them  out  and  pave  the way,  once and for all, for Indiana statehood. His efforts led to the Treaty of Fort Wayne in 1809. There, the United States secured a cession of 2.5 million acres. Tenskwatawa didn’t move.

Meanwhile, Tecumseh, according to historian Reginald Horsman, transformed a religious revival into an attempt at Indian unity. He demanded that no land be sold without the consent of all Indians. Only this could break  the hold of the annuity chiefs who, from his point of view, were destroying tribal sovereignty. And, in an attempt to rally the confederacy that proved so successful during the early 1790s, he dispatched emissaries to bring even more allies into the fold.

Vintage engraved illustration of Tecumseh.
Tecumseh was successful in creating a large pan-Indian alliance. (Morphart Creation/Shutterstock)

Shawnee Diplomacy Grows

By 1810, the alliance strengthened. And, in August 1810, Tecumseh and Harrison met as equals to discuss the Treaty of Fort Wayne. Tecumseh argued that the few signatories of the treaty had no right to cede Indian land that belonged to the many. Moreover, he claimed for himself the right to speak for all Indian opponents of the treaty. Harrison coldly rejected everything Tecumseh said. Neither gave ground.

With hostilities imminent, Tecumseh carried war belts, war songs, and war dances south to the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek. He intended to forge an alliance there even greater than the one that was in the making in the Ohio Country.

Learn more about the commonly held views of Native Americans.

Attack on Prophetstown

Harrison seized upon Tecumseh’s absence and, in November 1811, he approached Prophetstown with an army some 1,000 strong. After an initial meeting with the Americans, Tenskwatawa met in council and persuaded his people to launch a preemptive strike—one, he assured them, they could not lose because it had been sanctioned by the Master of Life.

In the early hours of November 7, a combined force of Kickapoo, Ho-Chunk, Shawnee, and Potawatomi initiated the assault. Harrison had prepared for it and, with far superior numbers, emerged the victor, despite suffering more casualties. Prophetstown itself was destroyed. Tecumseh, upon his return from the South, scolded Tenskwatawa. But the confederacy had, in fact, held. And by June 1812, some 4,000 warriors were a part of the alliance.

The British Come to the Aid

The British, in desperate need of Indian allies to renew their own campaign against the United States, agreed to help Tecumseh restore the Ohio River as the boundary line, should they emerge victorious. The British-Indian alliance subsequently routed American forces six times larger than their own, south of Fort Detroit.

The high-water mark of the fighting came in October 1813, at the Battle of the Thames—or Moravian Town—in Ontario. Badly outnumbered and outgunned, the British retreated. Tecumseh and the Indians fought on but to no avail. Tecumseh took a bullet to the chest. The University of Texas historian R. David Edmunds encapsulates this moment as: “The Battle of the Thames was over. Tecumseh was dead. The Indian movement had ended.”

The Indian Movement Ends

Tenskwatawa lived for another two decades in an indigenous world made strange by expansion with honor. In 1826, he relocated with several hundred other Shawnees to a village in Kansas. And he died there, alienated from his people and largely forgotten by non-Indians, in 1836.

Indeed, by the time of his passing, many non-Native Americans became convinced there was no place for Native people anywhere east of the Mississippi River. There could be no Native ground. There would be no common ground. There seemed but one alternative—removal.

Common Questions about the Shawnee Brothers

Q: Who were the two Shawnee brothers?

The Shawnee brothers—Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa—were two of the most instrumental figures in the Indian resistance.

Q: What was the result of the Treaty of Fort Wayne?

Through the Treaty of Fort Wayne, the United States secured a cession of 2.5 million acres of Native land.

Q: What happened to the Shawnee brothers after the Battle of the Thames of 1813?

Of the two Shawnee brothers, Tecumseh died in the Battle of the Thames. Tenskwatawa relocated with several hundred other Shawnees to a village in Kansas in 1826.

Keep Reading
American History: The War of 1812
Post-revolution America: Population Growth due to Emigration from Europe
Indian Tribes: Challenges and Steps Taken to Save Their Cultural Identity