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The Prophet

Tecumseh was now pondering a great plan. Year after year he had seen his people pushed farther and farther back from their streams and hunting-grounds. When he looked into the future, he saw that the red race was doomed unless a strong and united effort was made to check this aggression. He did not at once take his followers into his confidence, but meditated long on a plan to gather the tribes into one great confederacy to oppose the encroachments of the whites and to prevent the extermination of the Indian race. Pontiac, that towering figure in Indian speech and legend, was ever in his mind. Before Tecumseh's birth Pontiac had formed an Indian confederation against the English in America. But his was only a temporary union of the Indians, while Tecumseh planned to unite the tribes in a great and permanent empire.

To further his great plan of bringing about a confederation of the tribes, Tecumseh resolved to take advantage of the superstitions of the people. An Indian familiar with the lore of his tribe believes himself to be continually surrounded by spirits, of whose power he is in constant dread. He sees them dimly in visions and recognizes them in many signs and omens in gliding snake, flying bird, the lightning, the wind, the rustling of leaves, the noise of the tempest, the roaring cataract, the sound of thunder. To the hunter roaming through the forest the trees take on weird shapes, and ghostly shadows lurk in dark defiles. At twilight he sees gnome like figures dancing before him and anon swallowed up in the darkness; again he sees them, holding their elfin revels on some moonlit cliff. Thus it is that the Indian imagination peoples the gloom of the ancient forests.

It has been mentioned that Tecumseh had a younger brother named Laulewasikaw, who had been born a twin, and, in consequence, would be supposed by the Indians to possess supernatural power. One day, while Laulewasikaw was smoking in his wigwam, his pipe dropped from his hand, and he fell prone upon the ground. His body remained so long without sign of life that his friends assembled to administer the last rites for the dead. Suddenly, however, he awoke from his deathlike trance, and announced to the startled mourners that he had been transported to the spirit-world, where marvelous things had been revealed to him. After this he frequently retired to secret places to hold converse with the Great Spirit, and from his knowledge of the spirit-world he became an object of reverence and awe to his fellow-tribesmen.

It thus came about that on the death of Pengashega, an aged and influential prophet of the Shawnees, this brother of Tecumseh, Laulewasikaw, or 'the Prophet,' was made his successor. From his conical-shaped lodge, with its stout poles bound about by skins of animals, the Prophet gave forth his oracles. He was often consulted, and a well-worn path soon marked the way to his abode. It was believed that he could foretell the future, reveal the haunts of animals of the chase, and inform anxious inquirers about the fate of friends. He evaded impossible requests skillfully, and by moderation in his pretensions he was able to maintain the respect of his many suppliants. He jealously guarded in his lodge a bowl credited with miraculous powers, which he claimed the Great Spirit had bestowed upon him. He had also a mystic torch, the gift, as he said, of Manabozho, keeper of the sacred fire. He had also singular belt made of beans, which he assured his credulous followers had grown from his flesh and would render invulnerable all who touched it. To widen his influence the Prophet had this belt carried by Indian runners far and wide.

Laulewasikaw, who had already many names, now wished to be known as Tenskwatawa, 'the Open Door,' to intimate that he was to be the deliverer of his people. Unlike other Indian prophets, he preached to his followers after the manner of the white missionaries. Upon him, as upon Tecumseh, had descended the gift of oratory. But he lacked Tecumseh's dignity. He was ugly, and had lost an eye. On account of his dissolute habits he appeared much older than his distinguished brother. In spite of his bad character his persuasive eloquence gained the attention of the Shawnees, and he flattered their pride by reminding them of their ancient belief that they were the first people created by the Master of Life and the greatest of all his children. At Wapakoneta, on the Au Glaize, he gathered about him Shawnees, Wyandots, Ottawas, and Senecas, and announced himself as a bearer of new revelations from the Master of Life. He claimed to have been taken up into the spirit-world, and that there the veil of the future had been lifted to him. He had seen the suffering of evil-doers and also the happiness that would reward those who heeded his words. Radical reform, he declared, must be made in the manners of the red people. They must eschew all habits learned from the whites. Linen or woolen clothing must be replaced by the old-time buckskin; the 'fire-stick' of the white man must be abandoned and the bow and arrow must be used in its stead; the flesh of sheep and bullocks must no longer be eaten, but only that of deer and buffalo; bread should no more be made of wheat, but of Indian corn. Every tool and custom of the whites must be relinquished, and the Indian must return to the ways taught by the Master of Life. The Prophet exhorted the young to help the aged and the infirm; he forbade Indian women to intermarry with the whites, since the outcome would be inevitable misery; he condemned the accursed fire-water, which had caused such contention among the Indians, and threatened with never-ending flames all those who should persist in its use. He referred in glowing terms to the boundless hunting-ground of the red men before the coming of the whites, and contrasted it with their rapidly narrowing territory. The Indians, he said, should hold all their lands in common. Having outlined these reforms, he declared that when the Indians had carried them out, they should enjoy the long and peaceful lives of their ancestors and regain their ancient happiness. To assure his hearers of the divine character of his mission, he announced that power had been given him to cure all diseases and to arrest death as a result of sickness or on the battlefield.

Encouraged by the hope of regaining their lost liberty and happiness, many flocked about the new prophet. The Kickapoos and Delawares believed in him without reserve. His stoutest opponents were some of his own people, who resented the sudden rise to power and influence of one hitherto regarded with disfavor as stupid and intemperate. Shawnee chiefs, jealous of his position, made a plot to overthrow him. But Tenskwatawa, as he was now called, turned the tables upon them, and, accusing several of his most outspoken enemies of witchcraft, caused them to be put to death, with torture.

In 1806 the governor of Indiana Territory sent an envoy to the Delawares to deliver the following message:

The dark and thorny road you are now pursuing certainly will lead you to endless woe and misery. And who is this pretended prophet, who dares to speak in the name of the Great Creator? Examine him. Is he more virtuous than you are yourselves that he should be selected to convey to you the orders of your God? Demand of him some proof at least of being the messenger of the Deity. If God has really employed him, He has doubtless authorized him to perform miracles, that he may be known and received as a prophet. If he is really a prophet, ask him to cause the sun to stand still, the moon to alter its course, the rivers to cease to flow, or the dead to rise from their graves. If he does these things, you may then believe that he has been sent from God.

In reply to this unexpected attack Tenskwatawa assured his followers that he would give them convincing proof of his being the true messenger of the Great Spirit, and he boldly predicted that on a certain day he would draw a veil of darkness over the sun. Many Indians assembled to witness the test of his supernatural power. If it succeeded, it would establish his position beyond doubt; if it failed, the faith of his followers would be sadly shaken. Scoffers pointed to the brightness of the summer sun, and openly questioned the power of the Prophet to dim its rays. Believers furtively watched the entrance of the Prophet's lodge, which was decorated with strange symbols. From it at the time appointed the familiar form of the one-eyed wizard emerged, clad in his prophet's robe with outspread raven's wings. At his appearance the noonday brilliance of the sun began to wane. Sudden silence fell upon the awestruck throng, and faces took on a look of fear as the darkness deepened about them. The Prophet's voice thrilled through the gloom. 'Did I not prophesy truly? Behold, darkness has shrouded the sun.' The apparent miracle convinced many unbelievers and established the influence of Tenskwatawa more strongly than ever. The Indians were completely deceived. The achievement had, of course, a very simple explanation: the Prophet had overheard some white missionaries predicting an eclipse of the sun, and had used this information very adroitly for his purpose.

In April 1807 some four hundred redskins had gathered near Greenville, ready to do the Prophet's bidding. Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh were invited by Captain Wells, the Indian agent at Fort Wayne, to visit the fort with a few chiefs, to learn the news contained in a recent letter from the president of the Seventeen Fires.1  Tecumseh peremptorily commanded the messenger to 'go back to Fort Wayne and tell Captain Wells that my fire is kindled on the spot appointed by the Great Spirit above, and, if he has anything to communicate to me, he must come here; I shall expect him in six days from this time.' At the time appointed the messenger returned, bearing a copy of a letter from the United States government, in which Tecumseh and his followers were charged with still occupying land that had passed out of their possession by the Treaty of Greenville. Tecumseh vented his feelings in vehement speech.

These lands are ours, and no one has the right to remove us, because we were the first owners; the Great Spirit above has appointed this place for us on which to light our fires, and here we will remain. As to boundaries, the Great Spirit above knows no boundaries, nor will His red people know any. If my great father, the President of the Seventeen Fires, has anything more to say to me, he must send a man of note as his messenger; I will hold no further intercourse with Captain Wells.

The American settlers saw with increasing anxiety the unending stream of Indians on their way to the Prophet. The strange garb of many of them denoted that they had journeyed from distant regions. Runners continually passed to and fro, bearing pipes and belts of wampum from tribe to tribe. Council fires were frequently kindled. It was commonly believed that this unwonted activity was due to the secret plotting of British agents from Canada. By the autumn of 1807 the Prophet had assembled near Greenville about eight hundred Indians, many of whom were equipped with new rifles.

On September 12 came two commissioners from the governor of Ohio. These were received by the Indians in a friendly manner, and a council was immediately called to hear their message. The governor, the commissioners said, desired to know why so many Indians were gathered on land no longer theirs. He wished to remind the Indians of their former relations with the Seventeen Fires, and of the importance of remaining neutral in the event of war with the British. After hearing the commissioners the council adjourned until the following day, when Blue Jacket, who was unanimously chosen to voice the sentiment of his people, spoke as follows:

Brethren, we are seated who heard you yesterday. You will get a true relation as far as we and our connections can give it, who are as follows: Shawnees, Wyandots, Potawatomis, Tawas, Chippewas, Winnepaus, Malominese, Malockese, Sacawgoes, and one more from the north of the Chippewas. Brethren, you see all these men sitting before you, who now speak to you.

About eleven days ago we (the Indians) had a council, at which the tribe of Wyandots (the elder brother of the red people) spoke and said God had kindled a fire and all sat around it. In this council we talked over the treaties with the French and the Americans. The Wyandot said the French formerly marked a line along the Alleghany mountains, southerly, to Charleston. No man was to pass it from either side. When the Americans came to settle over the line, they told the Indians to unite and drive off the French, until the war came on between the British and the Americans, when it was told them that King George, by his officers, directed them to unite and drive the Americans back.

After the treaty of peace between the English and Americans, the summer before Wayne's army came out, the British held a council with the Indians and told them if they would turn out and unite as one man, they might surround the Americans like deer in a ring of fire and destroy them all. The Wyandot spoke further in the council. We see, said he, there is like to be war between the English and our white brethren, the Americans. Let us unite and consider the sufferings we have undergone, from interfering in the wars of the English. They have often promised to help us, and at last when we could not withstand the army that came against us, and went to the English fort for refuge,2  the English told us, 'I cannot let you in; you are painted too much, my children.' It was then we saw the British dealt treacherously with us. We now see them going to war again. We do not know what they are going to fight for. Let us, my brethren, not interfere, was the speech of the Wyandot.

Further, the Wyandot said, I speak to you, my little brother, the Shawnees at Greenville, and to you our little brothers all around. You appear to be at Greenville to serve the Supreme Ruler of the universe. Now send forth your speeches to all our brethren far around us, and let us unite to seek for that which shall be for our eternal welfare, and unite ourselves in a band of perpetual brotherhood. These, brethren, are the sentiments of all the men who sit around you: they all adhere to what the elder brother, the Wyandot, has said, and these are their sentiments. It is not that they are afraid of their white brethren, but that they desire peace and harmony, and not that their white brethren could put them to great necessity, for their former arms were bows and arrows, by which they got their living.

The Prophet then arose and launched forth into one of the lengthy harangues so familiar to his followers. Three years ago, he said, he had been called upon by powers he could not disobey to follow the course which had been revealed to him by the Great Spirit. In accordance with this divine guidance he had earnestly endeavored ever since to teach the Indians how to live sober, industrious, and peaceful lives. He had been persecuted by chiefs of his own tribe who had refused to listen to his preaching. He had been driven from his own village. But the Great Spirit had directed him to this place, which the Americans now claimed as their own, Here he desired to remain, not for the value of the land or the natural beauty of the surroundings, but to obey the divine command, and by his exemplary life to prove to the complete satisfaction of the white people his genuine honesty of purpose. By this adroit speech the Prophet succeeded in allaying suspicion, and thus under the guise of peace and religion Tecumseh was enabled to continue his preparations for war. When the council had terminated, Tecumseh, Blue Jacket, Roundhead, and Panther accompanied the messengers to Chillicothe, then the capital of Ohio, and assured the governor of their peaceful intentions towards the Americans.

Footnotes:

1. The United States. Four new states had been added to the original thirteen, making, in Indian terms, seventeen council fires.
2. Footnote: He is referring to what happened in 1794 at the Fallen Timbers. There was a British post on the Maumee not far from the scene of the battle. At this time, it will be remembered, Detroit and other western posts, which passed to the United States in 1796, were still held by the British.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Chronicles of Canada, Tecumseh, A Chronicle of the Last Great Leader of his People, By Ethel T. Raymond, Toronto, 1915

 

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