Panther Across The Sky

Published August 01, 2021
Panther Across The Sky
Did the Defeat of an American Indian Leader Bring About an American Curse?

On November 7, 1811, American forces led by Indiana Territory Governor William Henry Harrison defeated the great Indian confederacy led by Tecumseh in the Battle of Tippecanoe. Today, we know little about this story but oddly, Tecumseh was one of the most enigmatic figures in American history and one who may have predicted one of the most destructive events to ever occur in the Midwest.

Strange things began to happen in the Missouri Territory in 1811. Residents along the Mississippi River, near the settlement of New Madrid, began reporting all manner of weird happenings. First, it was the animals. Livestock began to act nervous and excited. Dogs began to bark and howl and even the most domesticated of animals turned vicious. Wild animals began to act tame. Deer wandered out of the woods and up to the doors of cabins. Flocks of ducks and geese landed near people. It was unlike anything the local residents had ever seen before. Soon, stories spread of eerie lights that were seen in the woods and in the hills. Strange, bluish white flashes and balls of light were seen floating in the trees and cresting the nearby ridges.

Perhaps strangest of all, especially to the more superstitious among the settlers, was the comet that had been seen in the sky for months. In the fall of 1811, it was at its brightest and in September of that year, this anomaly in the sky was joined by a solar eclipse that led some to believe that a dire event was coming soon. And they were right.

During the winter of 1811-1812, a series of devastating earthquakes shook the nation. They are known today as the New Madrid earthquakes due to their horrible effects on the small town of New Madrid, Missouri. They caused destruction like never seen, before or since, and gave rise to incredible accounts of bizarre events, including the fact that the Mississippi River actually ran backward for a time.

The New Madrid earthquakes had a major effect not only on the Mississippi Valley but on American history. They were also connected to an intriguing supernatural prediction allegedly made by the Shawnee Indian leader, Tecumseh.

Tecumseh, whose name mean "Shooting Star" or "Panther Across the Sky"

Tecumseh (whose name meant “Shooting Star” or “Panther Across the Sky”) was born in March 1768, just north of present-day Xenia, Ohio. It was a time of a growing America and as white settlers spread westward, violence and bloodshed began to occur as the Americans encroached on Indian territory. Violence continued after the American Revolution. The Wabash Confederacy formed and included all of the major tribes of the Ohio and Illinois country. They joined together in an attempt to keep American settlers out of the region. As the war between the confederacy and the Americans intensified, Tecumseh took an active role, fighting alongside his older brother, Cheeseekua. Tecumseh took part in several battles, including the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794, which ended the war in favor of the Americans.

Tecumseh settled in what is now Greenville, Ohio, the home of his younger brother, Lowawluwaysica ("One With Open Mouth") who would later take the new name of Tenskwatawa ("The Open Door") and achieve widespread fame as "The Shawnee Prophet." Tenskwatawa began a religious revival among the Shawnee in 1805 when he rooted out the “cause” of a smallpox outbreak by hunting down a witch. His beliefs were based on the teachings of early tribal prophets, who had predicted a coming apocalypse that would destroy the European settlers. A revival of the prophecies became very popular at a time when it seemed the flood of white settlers was going to engulf the Indian lands. Tenskwatawa urged his people to reject the ways of the Europeans, give up firearms, liquor and European- style clothing. He called on them to only pay traders half the value of their debts, and to refrain from giving over any more land to the United States. These teachings created great tension between the settlers and Tenskwatawa’s followers and were openly opposed by Shawnee leader Black Hoof, who was trying to maintain peace with the Americans.

The first record of Tecumseh’s peacetime interactions with Americans was in 1807, when Indian agent William Wells met with Blue Jacket and other Shawnee leaders to determine their intentions after the murder of a settler. Wells was highly respected by the Indians on the frontier Tecumseh was among those who spoke with Wells and assured him that his band of Shawnee intended to remain at peace. He explained to Wells that his people intended to follow the will of the Great Spirit and the teachings of his prophet, Tenskwatawa. They planned to move to a new village, deeper in the frontier and farther away from the newly arriving settlers.

But Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh did not leave the region. In fact, Tenskwatawa continued to attract new followers. By 1808, tensions between the settlers and the Shawnee escalated to the point that Black Hoof demanded that Tenskwatawa and his people leave the area. Tecumseh was among the leaders of the group and he helped to decide to move them farther northwest and establish the village of Prophets Town near the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers. The site was in territory that belonged to the Miami Indians and Chief Little Turtle of that tribe warned them not to settle there. Despite the threat, they moved into the region. The Miami did not take action against them and it is believed that Tecumseh may have already been holding council with them to build a large tribal confederacy to counter the American expansion into Indian lands.

Within a short time, Tenskwatawa’s religious teachings became more widely known, as did his predictions of coming doom for the Americans. He attracted numerous members of other tribes to Prophets Town and this formed the basis for the confederacy of southwestern Great Lakes tribes that Tecumseh envisioned. He eventually emerged as the leader of this confederation, although it was largely built on the religious appeal of his younger brother.

In September 1809, William Henry Harrison, at that time governor of the newly formed Indiana Territory, negotiated the Treaty of Fort Wayne in which a delegation of Indians ceded three million acres of Native American lands to the United States. The treaty is largely regarded as a farce. It was not authorized by President Thomas Jefferson and the Indians were not only bribed with large subsidies but were given liberal doses of alcohol before the negotiations began.

Tecumseh’s strong opposition to the treaty marked his emergence as a prominent leader. Although Tecumseh and the Shawnee did not lay claim to any of the land that was sold, he was shocked by the sale since many of the followers at Prophets Town, including the Piankeshaw, Kickapoo, and Wea, were the primary inhabitants of the lands in question. Tecumseh reminded the Native Americans of an idea first advanced by the Shawnee leader Blue Jacket years before: that Indian land was owned in common by all tribes and could not be sold without agreement by all.

Tecumseh was not ready to confront the United States directly, so he instead spoke out against the Indian leaders who had signed the treaty. He began to travel widely, making impassioned speeches in which he urged warriors to abandon the chiefs who had betrayed them and join him in a resistance to the treaty. It was illegal, he insisted, and asked Governor Harrison to nullify it. He warned him that whites should not attempt to settle on the lands that were stolen by the treaty.

In August of 1810, Tecumseh led 400 warriors from Prophets Town to confront Harrison at his home in Vincennes. Their appearance terrified the townspeople and the situation turned heated when Harrison rejected Tecumseh’s demand. The governor argued that individual tribes could have relations with the United States and added that Tecumseh’s interference had angered the tribes who had sold the land.

Tecumseh’s anger boiled over and he ordered his men to kill Harrison on the spot. The governor bravely drew his sword, determined to go down fighting. The small garrison that defended the town quickly moved to protect Harrison. Before fighting began, Pottawatomi chief Winnemac stepped forward and urged the warriors to leave in peace. He explained to Tecumseh that violence was not the way to handle the situation and Tecumseh reluctantly agreed. Before he left, however, he told Harrison that unless he rescinded the treaty, he would seek an alliance with the British, who were already at work on the frontier trying to incite the Indians to rise up against the American settlers. As early as 1810, British agents had sought to secure an alliance with the Native Americans tribes to assist in the defense of Canada should war with the United States break out. The Indians had been reluctant to accept, fearing there was no benefit to the alliance. Following the confrontation with Harrison, Tecumseh secretly accepted the offer of alliance and the British began to supply his confederacy with firearms and ammunition.

Tecumseh had already attracted a great following but he and his brother, Tenskwatawa, were soon able to rally even more. It was said that Tecumseh claimed that the Great Spirit would send a “sign” to the Native Americans to show that he had been chosen to lead them and in March 1811, a great comet began to appear in the night sky. Tecumseh, whose name meant “Shooting Star,” told his people that the comet signaled his rise to power. The confederacy accepted it as the sign they had been waiting for.

A short time later, Tecumseh again met with William Henry Harrison after being summoned following the murder of settlers on the frontier. Tecumseh told Harrison that the Shawnee and their Native American brothers wanted to remain at peace with the United States but the differences between them had to be resolved. The meeting was likely a ploy to buy time while he built a stronger confederacy. Harrison was not fooled by Tecumseh’s claim of wanting peace. He was more convinced than ever that hostilities were imminent.

After the meeting with Harrison, Tecumseh traveled south on a mission to recruit allies among the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw and Seminole. Most of the southern nations rejected his appeals, but a faction of the Creeks, who became known as the Red Sticks, answered his call to arms against the white men, leading to the Creek War. They were eventually defeated by General Andrew Jackson in 1814.

While Tecumseh was away in the south, another “miraculous” event occurred that convinced his followers that a war with the Americans was the right course of action. On September 17, 1811, a solar eclipse occurred – a “Black Sun” that was allegedly predicted by the prophet Tenskwatawa. A “Black Sun” was said to predict a future war and Tenskwatawa was believed to have prophesied the coming of the eclipse many weeks before. It is widely believed today that he consulted with an astronomer about the eclipse, but no one knew this at the time. The prediction seemed to be a supernatural one – but it was nothing compared to the one that Tecumseh would make a short time later.

Harrison left the territory for business in Kentucky shortly after the meeting with Tecumseh, leaving John Gibson as acting-governor. Gibson, who had lived among the Miami tribe for many years, was given word about Tecumseh’s plans for war. He immediately called out the militia and sent an emergency letter to Harrison, asking him to return. The militia soon formed and Harrison returned with a small force of army regulars. He had received word from Washington, which authorized him to march up the Wabash River from Vincennes on a preemptive expedition to intimidate Tenskwatawa and his followers and force them to make peace. Tecumseh was still in the south, lobbying tribes to join his confederation.

Harrison gathered the militia companies near a settlement north of Vincennes and was joined by a 60-man company from Croydon, Indiana, called the Yellow Jackets, so named for their bright yellow coats, and two companies of Indiana Rangers. His entire force of about 1,000 set out toward Prophets Town. The army reached the site of present-day Terre Haute on October 3. They camped and built Fort Harrison while they waited for supplies to be delivered. On October 10, Indians ambushed a scouting party of Yellow Jackets and prevented the soldiers from hunting in the nearby woods. Supplies began to run low and on October 19, rations were cut. Finally, nine days later, a shipment of food and ammunition arrived and an encampment was set up near the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers.

During the early morning hours of November 7, the Native Americans attacked.
Many years later, Tenskwatawa denied that he ordered his warriors to attack Harrison. He blamed the Winnebagos in his camp for launching the attack, or at least encouraging it. Without Tecumseh’s military leadership, his brother was unable to control his followers. The people of Prophets Town were worried by the nearby army and feared being overwhelmed by the white soldiers. They had begun to fortify the town, but the defenses had not been completed. During the evening, Tenskwatawa consulted with the spirits and decided that sending a party to murder Harrison in his tent was the best way to avoid a battle. He assured the warriors that he would cast spells that would prevent them from being harmed and confuse the Americans so they would not resist. The warriors began looking for a way to sneak into the camp but the attack on Harrison failed.

Around 4:30 a.m., Harrison’s sentinels were shocked to find warriors advancing on them from the early morning fog. Soldiers awoke to scattered gunshots and discovered themselves almost encircled by Tenskwatawa's forces. First contact was made on the north side of the camp, but this was likely a diversion since fierce fighting broke out moments later as Indians charged the southern corner of the line. The attack took the army by surprise as the warriors shouted and rushed at the defenders. Yellow Jacket commander Captain Speir Spencer was among the first to be killed. 
Lieutenants McMahan and Berry, the other two Yellow Jacket commanding officers, were also soon wounded and killed. Without leadership, the Yellow Jackets began to fall back from the main line, retreating with scores of militia soldiers. The warriors rushed after them and entered the camp. The soldiers regrouped under the command of Ensign John Tipton, a future U.S. Senator, and with the help of two reserve companies under the command of Captain Rodd, repulsed the warriors and sealed the breach in the line.

The second charge by the Native Americans hit both the north and south ends of the camp, with the southern end being attacked the hardest. The regulars were able to reinforce the line and hold their position as the assaults continued. On the northern end of the camp, Major Joseph Daviess led his men in a counter charge that punched through the Indian lines before being repulsed. Most of the men made it back to Harrison’s line but Daviess was killed. Throughout the next hour, the troops fought off several more brutal charges. When the Indians began to run low on ammunition and the sun rose, revealing the small size of Tenskwatawa's army, they finally began to withdraw. A rallying charge by the regulars forced the remaining Native Americans to flee. The Battle of Tippecanoe had lasted just over two hours.

The Indians retreated to Prophets Town where, according to one chief's account, the warriors confronted Tenskwatawa and accused him of deceit because of the many deaths, which his spells were supposed to have prevented. He blamed his wife for desecrating his magic medicine and offered to cast a new spell. He insisted that the warriors launch a second attack, but they refused.

Fearing that Tecumseh was on his way with reinforcements, Harrison ordered his men to fortify the camp with earthworks. As the sentries moved back into position, they discovered – and scalped – the bodies of 36 warriors. The following day, November 8, Harrison sent men to inspect the town and found that it was deserted, except for one elderly woman who was too sick to leave. The rest of the defeated Indian forces had left during the night. Harrison ordered the troops to spare the old woman but to burn down Prophets Town and to destroy the Indians’ cooking implements, which would make it hard for the confederacy to survive the winter. Everything of value was taken, including 5,000 bushels of corn and beans. Some of the soldiers dug up bodies from the burial grounds and scalped them. Harrison’s troops buried their own dead on the site of their camp and then built large fires over the mass grave in an attempt to conceal it. However, after Harrison’s troops had departed, the Indians dug up the corpses and scattered the remains in retaliation.

After the battle, the wounded soldiers were loaded into wagons and taken to Fort Harrison to recuperate. Most of the militia was released from duty and returned home. In his initial report to Washington, Harrison told of the battle at Tippecanoe and stated that he feared reprisals from the Indians. The first dispatch did not make it clear who had won the engagement and Secretary of War William Eustis at first interpreted it as a defeat. The next dispatch made the American victory clear and spoke of the defeat of Tecumseh’s confederation since no second attack materialized. Eustis replied with a lengthy note demanding to know why Harrison had not taken adequate precautions in fortifying his camp. Harrison responded that he considered the position strong enough to not require fortification. The dispute was the start of a disagreement between Harrison and the Department of War that later caused him to resign from the army in 1814. But the battle certainly did not damage his reputation. When he ran for President of the United States during the election of 1840, he used the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too" to remind people of his heroism during the battle.

Accounts vary as to the immediate effect the loss had on Tenskwatawa. Some reports claimed that he lost much of his prestige after the battle because his claims that the warriors could not be hurt proved to be untrue. During meetings with Harrison after the battle, several tribal leaders claimed that his influence was destroyed. However, some historians believe that this was likely an attempt to mislead Harrison and calm the situation and that Tenskwatawa actually continued to play an important role in the confederacy.

Massacres of settlers became commonplace in the aftermath of the battle. Numerous homes and settlements in the Indiana and Illinois territories were attacked, leading to the deaths of many residents. Prophets Town was partially rebuilt over the next year, but was again destroyed in another campaign against the Indians in 1812. The Battle of Tippecanoe was a serious blow to Tecumseh's dream of a confederacy. When he returned from his travels, Tecumseh was angry with his brother, whom he had instructed to keep peace.

Tecumseh continued to play a major role in military operations on the frontier, however, and by 1812 the confederacy and Tecumseh had regained some of their former strength. Many believe that this resurgence in power was in large part thanks to the events that occurred along the Mississippi River in the winter of 1811-1812.
In the spring and summer of 1811, Tecumseh began traveling to villages in the Midwest and the South, urging the tribes to join his confederacy. Many warriors joined him, although others ignored his pleas, doubting that he would succeed. One Alabama tribe, whose camp along the Mississippi River Tecumseh visited in November, even treated him with contempt. This angered Tecumseh so much that he told them that when he returned to his home, he would stomp on the ground and cause their village to fall down. They laughed at him – but it seemed that Tecumseh’s threat was fulfilled a few weeks later.

On December 16, the devastating New Madrid Earthquake shook the South and the Midwest. Some of the Alabama tribe believed that Tecumseh’s supernatural power actually caused the earth to shake while others believed he prophesied that the event would occur. While the interpretation of this event varied from tribe to tribe, one consensus was universally accepted: the powerful earthquake had to have meant something. For many tribes it meant that Tecumseh was a powerful leader and must be supported.

When the earthquakes began, Tecumseh was at the Shawnee and Delaware Indian villages near Cape Girardeau, Missouri, fifty miles north of the epicenter at New Madrid. The earthquakes continued as he traveled back to Prophets Town. He arrived there in February 1812 and by that time, word of his mysterious prediction had spread and more allies had flocked to his cause. Despite the setback of the battle, Tecumseh began to rebuild the confederacy.

He soon led his forces to join the British army as they invaded northwest from Canada. Tecumseh joined British Major-General Sir Isaac Brock in the siege of Detroit and forced its surrender in August 1812. This victory was reversed a little over a year later, as Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's victory on Lake Erie, late in the summer of 1813, cut British supply lines and forced them to withdraw. The British burned all public buildings in Detroit and retreated into Upper Canada along the Thames Valley. Tecumseh and his men followed fighting rearguard actions to slow the American advance.

A second British commander, Major-General Henry Proctor, did not fare as well with Tecumseh as his predecessor did and the two disagreed over tactics. Proctor favored withdrawing into Canada when the Americans faced a harsh winter. Tecumseh, however, was eager to launch an offensive that would ravage the American army and allow his warriors to return home to the northwest regions. Proctor failed to appear at Chatham, Ontario, though he promised Tecumseh that he would attack the Americans there. Tecumseh moved his men to meet Proctor and told him that he would withdraw no further. If the British continued to want his help, then fighting needed to be carried out. William Henry Harrison crossed into upper Canada on October 5, 1813 and won a victory against the British and their Native American allies at the Battle of Thames. Tecumseh was killed, and shortly after the battle the tribes of his confederacy surrendered to Harrison at Detroit.

Tecumseh remains an enigmatic figure today. He is seen as a satria to many, refusing to give in to the overwhelming wave of white settlement. But in his time, he was greatly feared as a killer of innocents and a hindrance to the development of the country. What he actually was remains in the eye of the beholder.

But one question still baffles us: did Tecumseh predict the New Madrid Earthquake or did he cause it? Or was it merely a coincidence that he threatened to “shake the earth” and it actually happened a short time later? Or was the story of his eerie prophecy invented after the fact to add credence to his claim that the Great Spirit wanted him to lead the Native American confederacy in its fight against white expansion?

We may never really know.


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