Tenskwatawa Founds Prophetstown

Ultimately an abject failure, this attempt by the Shawnee spiritual leader and his brother Tecumseh to build a pantribal confederacy was part of the last concerted effort of Native Americans to resist Anglo-American expansion east of the Mississippi River.

Summary of Event

At least as early as the 1730’s, Native American leaders west of the Appalachian Mountains advocated an alliance of tribes to resist the expanding British settlements and the powerful Iroquois Confederacy Iroquois;confederacy . Tribal prophets preached a radical idea, the beginning of a new movement: All native peoples, despite their diverse languages and cultures and ancient tribal rivalries, were really one people, separate and distinct from the Europeans, and never meant to live with the Europeans or to adopt their ways. Tenskwatawa
[p]Tenskwatawa;and Prophetstown[Prophetstown]
[p]Tecumseh;and Prophetstown[Prophetstown]
[kw]Tenskwatawa Founds Prophetstown (Apr., 1808)
[kw]Founds Prophetstown, Tenskwatawa (Apr., 1808)
[kw]Prophetstown, Tenskwatawa Founds (Apr., 1808)
[p]Tenskwatawa;and Prophetstown[Prophetstown]
[p]Tecumseh;and Prophetstown[Prophetstown]
[g]United States;Apr., 1808: Tenskwatawa Founds Prophetstown[0400]
[c]Social issues and reform;Apr., 1808: Tenskwatawa Founds Prophetstown[0400]
[c]Indigenous people’s rights;Apr., 1808: Tenskwatawa Founds Prophetstown[0400]
Main Poc
Harrison, William Henry
[p]Harrison, William Henry;and Shawnee[Shawnee]

By 1795, disagreements over strategy, factional strife within tribes, failing support from European allies, and military defeats had badly disrupted the budding nativist movement. Tribal leaders willing to accept compromise signed treaties with the new U.S. government, surrendering millions of acres of land. In return, the U.S. government supported these so-called government chiefs, hoping that through them it could control the tribes and prevent organized resistance. Many Indian communities now faced desperate struggles for survival.

Frontiersmen settling old grudges freely hunted and raided on tribal lands. Indians could not testify in U.S. courts and had no protection under U.S. law. Native people often took their own forms of revenge, escalating the violence. Anglo-American squatters crowded onto tribal lands, openly violating treaties. Displaced refugees fled to the remaining tribal lands, further straining already depleted game supplies and farmlands. Many tribesmen had become dependent on the fur trade Fur trade;and Native Americans[Native Americans] for the necessities of life, and cheap liquor had become a basic fur trade commodity. By 1800, alcoholism Native Americans;and alcohol[Alcohol] had reached epidemic proportions among the northwestern tribes. European diseases Diseases;European , against which the native peoples had neither biological immunity nor medical remedies, ravaged tribes. For native peoples throughout the trans-Appalachian West, it was a time of despair, starvation, and social chaos.

In April, 1805, an aging alcoholic known as Lalawethika Lalawethika (“Rattle” or “Noisemaker” because of his bragging and belligerent behavior) collapsed in a Shawnee village, apparently dead. Although of no use as a hunter or warrior, Lalawethika had studied with the noted doctor Penagashea. Penagashea His teacher had died in 1804, however, and working alone, Lalawethika had failed to stop an epidemic that struck his village in early 1805. Now it appeared that he too was dead. However, before his funeral could take place, he suddenly returned to life. He told his amazed neighbors that he was sent back from the spirit world with a mission. The alcoholic braggart was dead, he said; he had been born again as Tenskwatawa, the “Open Door,” to lead his people in a spiritual renewal.

Tenskwatawa preached that the use of alcohol Native Americans;and alcohol[Alcohol] and other vices must stop. Violence among neighbors and the greedy accumulation of material wealth must also stop. The people must restore traditional communal values, living in peace with all other tribes. Native people were children of the Master of Life, but Europeans came from the Great Serpent, the Destroyer, and corrupted all they touched. The people must have nothing more to do with Europeans or their goods. If the people purified themselves and faithfully performed the new rituals explained in Tenkswatawa’s visions, they would restore the spiritual power of the tribes, the earth would be renewed, and the white invaders would disappear forever.

Shawnee spiritual leader Tenskwatawa.

(Courtesy, California State University at Long Beach)

News of the Shawnee Prophet, as Tenskwatawa came to be known, spread among the tribes of the region. His message was believable, not only because Tenskwatawa seemed infused with magnetism and power but also because three generations of prophets among the tribes had reported similar visions. Followers gathered around Tenskwatawa in 1805, hoping that he might be able to make the promise of spiritual renewal finally a reality. During the summer of 1805, Tenskwatawa established a new village at Greenville, Ohio, Ohio;Shawnee on the U.S. side of a boundary line set by the 1795 Treaty of Greenville Greenville, Treaty of (1795) . Because the new site was not associated with any specific tribe, Tenskwatawa expected that it would be easier to establish a great village of all tribes there. This new, independent village would not be controlled by any of the government chiefs, and its location openly defied the hated treaty.

Through the fall and winter of 1805, Tenskwatawa met delegations from many tribes and cultivated alliances with Native American leaders throughout the region. Seven treaties signed by the government chiefs between 1804 and 1807 ceded millions of acres of tribal land to the United States and sent many angry, disillusioned tribesmen into Tenskwatawa’s camp. Disciples and allied prophets carried Tenskwatawa’s message throughout the Great Lakes region Great Lakes region;Indian tribes and to the tribes of the south. The powerful Potawatomi shaman and war chief Main Poc, Main Poc probably the most influential native leader in the region, journeyed to Greenville in the fall of 1807 to confer with Tenskwatawa. Main Poc favored the movement but planned a regional confederacy, rather than a union of all native peoples. He also firmly refused to give up his old blood feud with the Osage Osages or his fondness for alcohol. Native Americans;and alcohol[Alcohol] On other crucial points, however, he and Tenskwatawa agreed and joined as allies.

Hundreds of people from a dozen tribes gathered at Greenville. Tenskwatawa, increasingly occupied with his duties as spiritual leader, delegated diplomatic missions to his older brother Tecumseh, who was a gifted orator with a wide network of contacts among leaders of both northern and southern tribes. Tecumseh was also a respected war chief and a confirmed nativist. Of intertribal heritage himself—his mother was Creek, his father Shawnee—Tecumseh had traveled widely among the tribes and knew their common problems and the need for common solutions. He opposed U.S. expansion; treaty land cessions in which he had had no voice had cost him his home. His father and two brothers died fighting Euro-Americans, and he made his reputation as a warrior in battle against that same enemy.

By 1807, Tecumseh had become his brother Tenskwatawa’s adviser and representative abroad, while Tenskwatawa concentrated on the problems at Greenville. Relations with Shawnee government chief Black Hoof Black Hoof and his followers deteriorated rapidly, and a violent clash seemed likely. The small cornfields and depleted game around Greenville could not feed the village. The site was far from the northwestern tribes, now Tenskwatawa’s strongest supporters. U.S. frontiersmen were alarmed by the rapidly growing village so near their settlements, and ugly incidents between Indians and white settlers escalated.

As rumors spread of an impending military campaign against the village, Main Poc Main Poc urged Tenskwatawa to move the village to Potawatomi territory, where the people would find better hunting and more land for their gardens. They would also be farther from enemies and closer to friends. In January, 1808, Tenskwatawa agreed. Through February and March, his followers gathered supplies and prepared for the move. In the first week of April, they burned their old village and started west. Miami government chief Little Turtle, who claimed authority over the region into which Tenskwatawa was moving, attempted to prevent establishment of the new village. Tenskwatawa informed Little Turtle Little Turtle that the Master of Life had chosen the place. There, a great union of all native peoples would guard the boundary between Indian and U.S. lands and prevent further U.S. expansion.

In April, while Tecumseh visited Canada to get supplies of food and ammunition for firearms from the British, Tenskwatawa supervised the construction of the new village. Called Prophetstown by white settlers, the village was situated on the northwest bank of the Wabash River, just below the mouth of the Tippecanoe River, in northwestern Indiana. The site quickly became a focal point for the nativist movement. With a population of more than four hundred in June, and more arriving daily, food and other supplies remained a pressing problem. While Tecumseh was working to persuade the British to help, Tenskwatawa tricked Indiana governor William Henry Harrison Harrison, William Henry
[p]Harrison, William Henry;and Shawnee[Shawnee] into supplying corn.

The overconfident Harrison now believed he could control Tenskwatawa and his followers. The winter of 1808-1809 was unusually hard, and Prophetstown suffered severely from food shortages and a devastating epidemic. Many people went back to their old villages, bitterly disillusioned with Tenskwatawa. By the summer, Harrison believed that Tenskwatawa’s influence was broken and thought that he himself could push another land cession on the tribes of the region. On September 30, 1809, government chiefs of the Miami, Potawatomi, and Lenni Lenape signed the Treaty of Fort Wayne, Fort Wayne, Treaty of (1809) ceding millions of acres of land for about two cents an acre.

Members of Tenskwatawa’s movement were outraged by the treaty. The widespread anger revitalized the movement, and people again flocked to Prophetstown. While Tenskwatawa remained the spiritual leader of the movement, Tecumseh emerged as the political and military leader. When Tecumseh traveled south to confer with the Creek, Creeks Choctaw, Choctaws Chickasaw, Chickasaws and others, Harrison Harrison, William Henry
[p]Harrison, William Henry;and Shawnee[Shawnee] decided the time to strike had come. He burned Prophetstown after the Battle of Tippecanoe Tippecanoe, Battle of (1811) on November 7-8, 1811.

The destruction of Prophetstown left Tenskwatawa discredited as a religious leader. Afterward, he lived with a small band of his remaining followers in the Wabash River Valley, but American government pressure forced him to flee to Canada. He lived in Canada until 1825, when he returned to live among the Ohio Shawnee. Ohio;Shawnee He aided Governor Lewis M. Cass Cass, Lewis M. of the Michigan Territory in his efforts to persuade the Ohio Shawnee to move west across the Mississippi. In 1827, he established his home on the Shawnee Reservation in Kansas, where he lived out the remainder of his life.


A central reason that Harrison Harrison, William Henry
[p]Harrison, William Henry;and Shawnee[Shawnee] attacked Tippecanoe Tippecanoe, Battle of (1811) was to prevent Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa’s confederacy from developing into a serious threat against white settlements. In this he succeeded, particularly as Tenskwatawa’s prophecy that Indians would be immune to bullets from their enemies’ guns was a disastrous mistake. Afterward, Tenskwatawa’s influence was broken, and even his brother Tecumseh no longer trusted him. Tecumseh himself, however, remained fiercely opposed to further white encroachments into Indian lands and was prepared to carry on the military struggle. However, he was killed in Canada at the Battle of the Thames in 1813.

One of the most important results of the destruction of Prophetstown and the defeat of Tecumseh in the Battle of Tippecanoe Tippecanoe, Battle of (1811) was the elevation of William Henry Harrison to the status of a national hero in the United States. In 1840, he would parlay his popularity into election as president. However, he died after only one month in office and left no legacy in national politics.

Further Reading

  • Allen, Robert S. His Majesty’s Indian Allies. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1992. Presents material from British sources neglected by U.S. historians.
  • Cleaves, Freeman. Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Times. 1939. Reprint. Newtown, Conn.: American Biography Press, 1990. Full and detailed biography of Harrison that contains a colorful account of Harrison’s campaign against the Indian confederation.
  • Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Traces the nativist movement from the 1730’s, providing the ideological and historical context for Prophetstown.
  • Drake, Benjamin. Life of Tecumseh. 1858. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1969. Biography using primary documents and interviews with individuals who knew Tecumseh.
  • Edmunds, R. David. The Shawnee Prophet. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983. Carefully researched and objective biography of Tenskwatawa that also says much about Tecumseh and shows how the lives of the two brothers were intertwined.
  • ________. Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984. Thorough research separates fact from fiction in this balanced biography of the famous Shawnee leader.
  • Sugden, John. Tecumseh: A Life. New York: Henry Holt, 1998. Definitive biography of Tecumseh, placing his life within the context of Shawnee and general Native American history. Sugden details Tecumseh’s failed attempts to create a pan-Indian resistance movement.

Battle of Tippecanoe

War of 1812

Creek War

Battle of the Thames

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