Native History: Tecumseh Defeated at Battle of the Thames

This print shows Col. R.M. Johnson using a pistol to kill Tecumseh during the War of 1812, at the battle of the Thames in Ontario, Canada. Many took credit for the death of Tecumseh.

Alysa Landry

Native History: Tecumseh Defeated at Battle of the Thames.

This Date in Native History: On October 5, 1813, Shawnee Chief Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames, just north of the U.S.-Canada border.

Born in Ohio in 1768, Tecumseh survived five invasions from neighboring tribes or U.S. forces by the time he was 14. By his early 20s, he was a proven warrior, ultimately building up a confederacy of 32 tribes and more than 10,000 people during the War of 1812.

His defeat marked the end of the Indian resistance east of the Mississippi, said Lisa Gilbert, a War of 1812 historian. Never again did American Indians rise in rebellion with such force.

“October 5 was a very important date in Native history,” she said. “As a result of Tecumseh’s defeat, Natives were never again considered separate and equal partners in international relations.”

Tecumseh is known for working with his brother, Tenskwatawa—also called The Prophet—to unite Native forces against the settlers. The brothers left Ohio in 1808 and settled in Indiana, at the juncture of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers. That settlement was destined to be the headquarters of an Indian confederacy and a training ground for warriors.

“Tecumseh had a certain grandeur,” said Charlene Houle, tourism development officer for the city of Chatham-Kent, Ontario, where the Battle of the Thames was fought 200 years ago. “He united all those people under him, thousands of people. He was one of those charismatic leaders who had a vision and worked to get it.”

Tecumseh’s plans were crushed in November 1811 when the U.S. Army, led by Gen. William Henry Harrison, defeated the Native forces at the Battle of Tippecanoe. After the loss, Tecumseh allied with the British against the U.S.

The alliance was forged on a desperate promise, Houle said. Tecumseh agreed to join British forces in exchange for his homeland.

Wikimedia Commons/Charles Bird King

The Shawnee Prophet, Tenskwatawa.

That promise was never delivered. The British were retreating into Canada when Tecumseh and his warriors joined them. The Battle of the Thames marked the collapse of one of the greatest Native forces.

“Tecumseh became a symbol of the potential for success and promises never lived up to,” Houle said. “He has this legacy of being a great leader who was betrayed.”

Although only 500 Native warriors followed him to Canada, Tecumseh fought fiercely, once again facing Gen. Harrison on the battleground. The Native troops were outnumbered six to one.

Gilbert believes Tecumseh knew he would die there. Prior to the battle, the chief reportedly said that he “could not exactly tell, but it was an evil spirit which betokens no good.”

“Tecumseh had a premonition of his own death,” she said. “He painted his face black that day.”

Tecumseh was killed in the afternoon of October 5, 1813. He was 45.

“No one knows exactly where he fell or who killed him,” Gilbert said. “There still is controversy over where he was buried.”

At least 24 people took credit for pulling the trigger that killed Tecumseh. Harrison, who served as the ninth U.S. president, built his reputation as “vanquisher of Tecumseh,” Gilbert said. Richard Mentor Johnson, the country’s ninth vice president, also claimed to have killed the Shawnee chief.

Tecumseh’s legacy has grown exponentially since his death. Once viewed as an enemy, he now is celebrated as a hero.

Gilbert attributes that legacy to Tecumseh’s personality and charisma.

“Of all the Native leaders to emerge in the struggle against the U.S., Tecumseh had the charisma to band them together,” she said. “The thing about Tecumseh is that he’s still as charismatic as he was. Even 200 years later, he’s still exerting that charisma beyond the grave.”