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The Boyhood of Tecumseh

Three Indian figures stand out in bold relief on the background of Canadian history the figures of Pontiac, Brant, and Tecumseh. The Ottawa chief Pontiac was the friend of the French, and, when the French suffered defeat, he plotted and fought to drive the English from the Indian country. Brant, the Mohawk, took the king's side against the Americans in the War of Independence, and finally led his defeated people to Canada that they might have homes on British soil. And Tecumseh threw in his lot with the British in the War of 1812 and gave his life in their service. But, while Pontiac fought for the French and Brant and Tecumseh for the British, it was for the lost cause of their own people that all three were really fighting; and it was for this that they spent themselves in vain.

Tecumseh, whose story we are to tell in this volume, sprang from the Shawnees, an energetic and warlike tribe of Algonquian stock. The Algonquins, whose tribal branches were scattered from Labrador to the Rockies and from Hudson Bay to North Carolina, believed that a deity presided over each of the four cardinal points of the compass. Shawan was the guardian spirit of the South; and, as the tribe to which Tecumseh belonged formerly lived south of the other tribes, its members became known as Shawanoes, or Shawnees that is, Southerners.

Little is known of the history of the Shawnees, for they were restless bands, greater wanderers even than the generality of Indians, and their continual change of settlement baffles historical research. Upon the southern shores of Lake Erie, on the banks of the Ohio, and along the broad Mississippi, at different times they pitched their tents. The name of the river Suwanee, or 'Swanee,' corrupted from their own, marks their abode at one time in Georgia and Florida.

The Shawnees were originally divided into twelve clans, each clan adopting as its totem a reptile, bird, or animal that at some time had been regarded as a benign spirit. As a result of continual wars and wandering, however, the twelve clans had dwindled to four. Only the Mequachake, Chillicothe, Piqua, and Kiscopoke remained. In the first of these, which conducted all tribal rites, the chiefship was hereditary; in the other three it was the reward of merit.

To the Kiscopoke clan belonged Tecumseh's father, Puckeshinwau ('something that drops'). He had been elevated to the rank of chief by his brother-warriors, and at the time of Tecumseh's birth was a powerful leader among his people. The panther was the totem of his clan. Tecumseh's mother, named Methoataske ('a turtle laying eggs in the sand'), is said to have been noted for wisdom among the women of her tribe, and her name shows that she belonged to the clan having the turtle as its totem. After much wandering, Puckeshinwau settled down in the Ohio country with his family and the band that accompanied him in his migrations. It was in the old Indian village of Piqua, about six miles south-west of the site of the present city of Springfield, Ohio, and within sound of the rushing waters of the Mad River, that he set up the wigwam in which, in the year 1768, Tecumseh first opened his eyes. We are told that a rich, wide plateau, gemmed with wild flowers, extended between the village and the river, and that precipitous cliffs rose on one side, while rolling hills crowned with tall trees completed the circle of the village.

Tecumseh was the fourth child of a family of seven. His elders were Cheeseekau, the eldest son, Tecumapease, the only daughter, and Sauwaseekau; the younger children were Nehasumo, Laulewasikaw, and Kumshakaw. The two last were twins; and twins were held in superstitious awe by the Indians, who feared them as possessed of occult power, and frequently put one or both to death. In this instance no such fate befell the children. Kumshakaw evinced none of the dreaded attributes, and lived to a ripe old age, but Laulewasikaw, by his practice of magic and claims of supernatural knowledge and power, as we shall see later, bore out the ancient belief.

Tecumseh in his early days was left largely to the care of his sister, Tecumapease. Thus between the two there arose a strong attachment which lasted until Tecumseh's death. From the well-known Indian practices in relation to the bringing up of young children we can imagine how the days of his infancy were passed. When not rolling on the ground, the child would be closely confined in his curious cradle, a sack made from the skin of an animal and bound to a thin, straight board, somewhat larger than his body. Great care would be taken to keep straight the infant limbs, that their symmetry might be preserved in later life. This was the first stage in the making of an Indian stoic. Every part of the cradle was symbolical. That the child's life might be preserved, the heart of a tree was used for the cradle board. Along the wooden bow above the child's head, which symbolized the sky, zigzag furrows were cut to represent lightning, the power of which was designated by suspended arrows. Through holes in the upper part of the board was threaded a leather thong, or burden-strap, which Tecumapease passed about her forehead when carrying the papoose on her back, or which the mother fastened to the pommel of her saddle when making long journeys. It served also to hang the cradle to the branch of a tree, when the child swayed backwards and forwards with the motion of the bough while the wind crooned him to sleep. The cradle would sometimes be placed upright against a tree-trunk, so that Tecumseh's eyes might follow Tecumapease as she helped to grind the corn in a hollow stone or sift it through baskets; or, again, while she mixed the meal into cakes, and carefully covered them with leaves before baking them in the ashes.

Sometimes Tecumapease would carry Tecumseh on her back to where Methoataske worked in the field with the other women of her tribe. Like them, from bearing heavy burdens and doing the drudgery of the camp, Tecumapease was strong and sturdy rather than graceful. Her hair, black and glossy as a raven's wing, hung below her waist in a heavy braid. The short, loose sleeves of her fringed leather smock gave freedom to her strong brown arms. A belted skirt, leggings, and embroidered moccasins completed her costume. On special occasions, like other Indian women, she adorned herself with a belt and collar of colored wampum, weaving strands of it into her hair; and sometimes a necklace of polished elk-teeth gleamed on her dusky throat. When Tecumseh had learned the use of his legs, he would romp about the camp with the other black-eyed children of his tribe. He watched his father, Puckeshinwau, make the flint arrow-head and split the wooden shaft to receive it, bind it firmly with a thong, and tip the other end of the shaft with a feather to wing it on its flight; and saw the men build the birch canoe, so light that one man could shoulder it, yet strong enough to carry a heavy load.

During Tecumseh's childhood the Indians north of the Ohio were in a state of unrest. They had been subdued by Bouquet,1 but the leniency of that humane leader, in merely exacting that they should return their white prisoners and remain at peace, was looked on by the tribes as a mark of weakness; and, while no open war broke out, young warriors occasionally attacked traders and settlers. By the Treaty of Fort Stanwix, in 1768, the Six Nations had ceded to the whites the land between the Ohio and the Tennessee. But this was the common hunting-ground of all the tribes, and the Indians both south and north of the Ohio resented the action of the Six Nations and opposed the entrance of white settlers into this region. They were encouraged in their opposition by the action of the British government in proclaiming the territory west of the Alleghanies Indian country and forbidding settlers to enter it. But the hardy Virginians could not be kept out, and slowly but surely ever westward the smoke of their woodland huts ascended, and the forests of what are now Kentucky and Tennessee were falling beneath the axe of the frontiersmen. Resentful of the encroachments of the Virginians on their hunting-grounds, frequent war-parties of Shawnees, Delawares, Mohicans, Cherokees, and Mingoes crossed the Ohio and crept stealthily on some unguarded settlement, to slay and scalp the inhabitants and carry off their horses and cattle. The chiefs disclaimed responsibility for these raids, but in words which made the settlers in a sense responsible for them.

It was we [they said] who so kindly received Europeans on their first arrival into our own country. We took them by the hand and bade them welcome, to sit down by our side and live with us as brothers; but how did they requite our kindness? They at first asked only for a little land on which to raise bread for their families and pasture their cattle, which we freely gave them. They saw the game in the woods which the Great Spirit had given us for our subsistence, and they wanted it too. They penetrated into the woods in quest of game, they discovered spots of land which they also wanted, and because we were loath to part with it, as we saw they already had more than they had need of, they took it from us by force and drove us to a great distance from our homes.

At this time there was not community of interest or united action among the colonies. Pennsylvania and Virginia each claimed authority in the Indian country. The Pennsylvanians viewed the country from a trading point of view; the Virginians viewed it as a field for settlement. So bitter was the feud between the two colonies that for a time civil strife was imminent. And while this family quarrel was at its height, the Indian scalping raids grew in frequency and violence; and the memory of the Pontiac War was still fresh in the minds of the frontiersmen. Many Pennsylvanians in the west became alarmed, and soon the passes of the Alleghanies were filled with fugitive settlers returning to their former homes. The Virginians of Kentucky were made of sterner stuff. Lord Dunmore, the royal governor of Virginia, was ambitious for his colony, and determined to make good by the sword Virginia's claim to the region of which Fort Pitt was the centre; and, under leaders like the veteran borderers, Michael Cresap and Daniel Boone, and the youthful and audacious hunter and surveyor, George Rogers Clark, the Virginians strengthened their fortified villages and led successful raids against the tribes north of the Ohio.

For some time the Shawnees had been at peace, but in the latter part of April 1774, when two Indians suspected of horse-stealing were put to death near Wheeling, on the Ohio, they threatened war. A little later a party of Virginians fired upon a band of Indians, and killed several. Again, thirty-two white men, hitherto friends of the Indians, set out to attack a hunting-party of warriors camped on the Ohio. A friendly squaw warned them to return, as the Indians, who were carousing, had vowed vengeance for the death of their tribesmen. But the white men had determined to destroy the band; and by the promise of more rum they enticed a number of the Indians to cross the river to their camp, where they put all to death, with the exception of one child, not even sparing the kindly counselor. Other Indians across the river, alarmed by the sound of shooting, sent two canoes to the rescue, but the whites drawn up on shore fired upon their occupants, killing twelve and wounding several more. The Indians were further incensed by the murder of Bald Eagle, a sachem of the Delawares, who was attacked and scalped while returning from a visit to a fort at the mouth of the Great Kanawha, and whose body, placed in an upright position in his canoe, was found drifting down the Ohio by his enraged followers. Even Silver Heels, a favorite Shawnee chief, barely escaped death. While guiding some white settlers along unfamiliar trails on their way to safety, he was severely wounded by the bullets of other whites waiting for him in ambush.

Such deeds as these urged on the inevitable war, for which the Indians now openly prepared. Even the mighty Mingo chief, Logan, who had ever extended the hand of friendship to the white man, now appeared with uplifted tomahawk to avenge the unprovoked murder of his friends. Some eight hundred warriors were soon assembled, thirsting to avenge these recent murders, and eager to establish their right to the disputed territory. Logan, Elenipsico, Red Eagle, and Puckeshinwau were to lead the Indians, with Cornstalk, 'the mighty sachem of the Shawnee, and king of the northern confederacy,' in supreme command.

So it happened that in 1774, when the eastern colonies were on the verge of revolution, the west was in the throes of an Indian war. When Lord Dunmore learned that the Shawnees had declared war, he at once proceeded to raise in Virginia an army of fifteen hundred men; and he instructed General Andrew Lewis to go to Kentucky and recruit among the borderers there an army of the same numerical strength, and march to the mouth of the Great Kanawha, where the two armies would meet. Meanwhile Dunmore advanced to Fort Pitt; but here he changed his plan, marched to the Scioto, and entrenched his force not far from the Indian town of Old Chillicothe.2

The 9th of October found Lewis with his troops encamped at Point Pleasant, where the Great Kanawha pours its waters into the Ohio, when a messenger arrived with new orders directing him to cross the Ohio and join Dunmore on the Scioto for an advance against the Indian towns to the north. Next morning the camp was astir at daybreak, and the soldiers were busily preparing for their intended march, when a scout returned with news that, about a mile away, a large body of Indians lay in ambush.

These were Cornstalk's warriors, who had arrived at the Great Kanawha the night before. Advised by active scouts of every movement of the enemy, Cornstalk's Shawnees, Delawares, Mingoes, and Ioways had crossed the Ohio on the 9th and had lain all night ambushed in the wet woods, impatiently awaiting the dawn. Shortly after sunrise they perceived the Americans advancing to the attack in two detachments, one at some distance from the Ohio, the other along its bank. Presently Cornstalk gave the signal to attack both bodies simultaneously, and the piercing war-cry resounded through the forest as the Indians rushed upon the advancing foe. In the first furious onset the Americans were beaten back, several of them being killed and an officer fatally wounded. Cornstalk's commanding voice rose high above the clash of arms, cheering on his followers; but the Americans, reinforced from their camp, and fighting desperately, finally drove the Indians from the field. Tecumseh's father, Puckeshinwau, and others among the ablest warriors, had fallen in the early onrush.

Cornstalk led his defeated warriors to the valley of the Scioto. Here a council-fire was kindled and the chiefs gathered about it. Into the middle of the circle stepped Cornstalk with gloomy countenance but majestic bearing. Searching the faces of those he had led through the long day of battle, he gave voice to the question that was in the mind of all. What is now our course?' The only response was the crackling of the fire as its fitful light played on the dusky warriors. 'The Long Knives are coming upon us by two routes,' he continued. 'Shall we fight them. Yes or No?' The only answer was the harsh, ominous cry of a night-bird. 'Shall we kill all our women and children and then fight until we ourselves are killed?' The chiefs still maintained a gloomy silence. Cornstalk wheeled suddenly about; his tomahawk gleamed in the firelight and then sank quivering into the war-post which stood in the midst. 'Since you are not inclined to fight, I will go and make peace!' he exclaimed.

Runners bearing belts of white wampum were at once dispatched by the Indians to inform Lord Dunmore, who was now encamped not far from the Shawnee settlement, of their desire for peace. A conference was arranged, only eighteen chiefs, with unarmed escorts, being permitted to attend. Logan, although not averse to peace, had refused to be present. But as the consent of such an influential chief was necessary to any Indian treaty, Dunmore sent a special messenger to him in the person of Colonel Gibson. Gibson met Logan in the forest, and there Logan gave vent to his pent-up feelings with passionate eloquence.

I appeal to any white man to say if he ever entered Logan's cabin hungry and he gave him not meat; if ever he came cold and naked and he clothed him not. During the course of the last long and bloody war, Logan remained idle in his cabin, an advocate of peace. Such was my love for the whites that my countrymen pointed as they passed and said, 'Logan is the friend of white men. Colonel Cresap,3 the last spring and in cold blood and unprovoked, murdered all the relations of Logan, not even sparing my women and children. There runs not a drop of my blood in the veins of any living creature. This called on me for revenge. I have sought it. I have killed many. I have fully glutted my vengeance. For my country, I rejoice at the beams of peace. But do not harbor a thought that mine is the joy of fear. Logan never felt fear. He will not turn on his heel to save his life. Who is there to mourn for Logan? Not one.

Gibson recorded the words of Logan, and they were duly presented to Dunmore. A treaty of peace was drawn up, by which the Indians agreed to give up all white prisoners and stolen horses and to surrender all claim to the land south of the Ohio.

The effect of Lord Dunmore's war was to make peace in the hinterland, a matter of vast importance to the Americans on the eve of the Revolution. Great Britain by the Quebec Act had placed the country north of the Ohio and extending to the Mississippi under the government of Canada. But Great Britain was soon too busy with the war in the east to pay any attention to the west, and the hinterland posts remained as they were, feebly guarded and, except for Detroit, administered by French creoles. The Indians, it is true, were friendly to the British, but the crushing defeat they had received at the hands of Lewis and the humiliating terms they were forced to make with Dunmore left them impotent. They once more began their raids, but they were incapable of concerted action; and when in 1778 George Rogers Clark, with a feeble force of less than two hundred men, advanced against the British posts at Kaskaskia and Cahokia on the Mississippi and Vincennes on the Wabash, they were unable to hinder his march. These posts fell into the hands of the Americans, and the Indians, as we shall see, were doomed.

After the battle of Point Pleasant, Cheeseekau, Tecumseh's eldest brother, led his father's warriors back to the village of Piqua, where the disasters of the fight were recounted. Still covered with the stains of battle, Cheeseekau related to his mother and his awestruck brothers and sisters the manner of his brave father's death. The dark shadow of mourning fell upon the survivors. Throughout the village rose the wail of the death-song, Methoataske's voice mingling in the dirge of the widows; and so a new and tragic scene was imprinted upon the young Tecumseh's plastic mind.

A father's task now fell upon Cheeseekau, who took much pride in instructing his younger brother in the art of war and in hunting, and how to endure fatigue and to perform feats of agility and daring. He gave him lessons in woodcraft and forest lore, showing him how to snare the fish, to stalk the wary deer, to guide the frail canoe through treacherous rapids, and, with tightly fastened snow-shoe, to traverse the wintry waste. Tecumseh, of course, had learned to swim almost as soon as he could walk; in running it is said that he could easily out-distance his companions; while his skill with the bow excited their admiration and envy. His greatest delight, however, was to muster his playmates into rival bands for mimic warfare.

The history of Tecumseh's nation was not recorded in cold print between the covers of a book; it lived in the memories of the elders and on the lips of orators and sachems. In impassioned language and with graphic gesture the deeds of the past were conjured up before the minds of the listeners. By the light of the camp-fire the stripling heard, with kindling eye and throbbing pulse, the tales of the heroic dead; and he early formed the ambition to become a leader of his race. Some sachem would sadly sketch the smiling scenes of health and happiness in the days before the pale-face came to wrest from the Indians their land, the gift of the Great Spirit. And as the boy listened to these stories of encroachment and oppression, a fierce impulse fired his blood and bade him check the advance of the whites and win back the land of which his people had been robbed. Thus was molded his life's high purpose; thus was fanned that spark of eloquence which later burst into flame and fired the hearts of his race, from Florida to the Great Lakes.


1. See The War Chief of the Ottawas in this Series.
2. On Paint Creek, near the present city of Chillicothe, Ohio.
3. Logan was mistaken: Cresap was not the murderer. See Roosevelt's Winning of the West, part ii, p. 31.

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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