This Date in Native History: Earthquakes and eclipses of the sun were among the deeds attributed to Tecumseh and his brother, but legends surrounding Tecumseh are as great as the truths, said Shawnee Second Chief Ben Barnes. “It is hard to know without proof or specific oral history just exactly what happened” on August 11, 1802 he said.
There is evidence that Tecumseh and his brother, Tenskwatawa, were prophets and visionaries who may have changed history had there been a little more help from the British, and more faith from certain tribes. As for help from the Creator, or “Master of Life,” the evidence follows.
Tenskwatawa was a victim of the times, with an intense longing for the ways of his childhood and a sense of hopelessness for the future. Lost in alcoholism, Tenskwatawa one day fell into a fire, and lived. Reborn into a spiritual fervor, he became known as The Prophet, declaring that the Master of Life had insisted that all ways associated with the white man must be abandoned.
Fed up with the ever encroaching, land stealing whites, Tecumseh took his brother’s prophecy and called for all Natives to unite as one people against the whites. More than 1,000 people from a variety of tribes joined Tecumseh, whose charismatic persona drew the respect and admiration of whites and Natives alike.
“He was part of the warrior division of his tribe,” Barnes said, describing Tecumseh as “a self-prescribed leader who became a war chief by assuming that mantle. Tecumseh said, ‘We will not continue moving west. We are going back to the old ways.’”
Romanticized by whites and described as having powerful medicine by his Native peers, historic documents describe Tecumseh as being “of commanding figure, nearly six feet tall and compactly built, dignified bearing and piercing eye, charitable in thought and action, brave as a lion, but humane and generous with all. An aboriginal American knight.”
Barnes reported that after Tecumsah saw the Shawnee burn Daniel Boone’s 14-year-old son, Tecumseh turned the tides toward a gentler society for his people. He was known to treat all people, men, women, enemies and prisoners, with justice and fairness.
Tecumseh’s successful mobilization of so many Natives proved to the United States that the war had not been won. In an attempt to discredit The Prophet, the government insisted that the Indians seek proof that he was supported by the Creator. They got it after the prophet called for a sunless sky, which arrived shortly after in the form of an extreme total eclipse.
Legend has it that Tecumseh went amongst the Creeks to join in the rebellion, but when they refused to join his confederacy, he threatened that if they did not enlist before he reached Detroit, he would stamp his feet three times and they would feel their houses shake down through Mississippi.
Whether legend or prophecy, his words played out on December 16, 1811, when the first of three earthquakes were said to have occurred when he reached Detroit. Named the New Madrid earthquakes for New Madrid, Missouri, the U.S. Geological Survey writes that the earthquake was close to 10 times stronger than the one that destroyed San Francisco in the late 1800s and shook the earth strong enough to alarm the general population over an area of 1,553,428 square miles. The massive quake caused such a major shift of seismic plates that it was said church bells rang out in Boston, sidewalks cracked in Washington, D.C., forests disappeared, lakes were created, villages were swallowed and for a few hours even the Mississippi River ran backwards.
This story was originally published August 11, 2013.