Summary and KeywordsDescribed as a “chief among chiefs” by the British, and by his arch-rival, William Henry Harrison, as “one of those uncommon geniuses which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things,” Tecumseh impressed all who knew him. Lauded for his oratory, military and diplomatic skills, and, ultimately, his humanity, Tecumseh presided over the greatest Indian resistance movement that had ever been assembled in the eastern half of North America. His genius lay in his ability to fully articulate religious, racial, and cultural ideals borne out of his people’s existence on fault lines between competing empires and Indian confederacies. Known as “southerners” by their Algonquian relatives, the Shawnees had a history of migrating between worlds. Tecumseh, and his brother, Tenskwatawa, converted this inheritance into a widespread social movement in the first decade and a half of the 19th-century, when more than a thousand warriors, from many different tribes, heeded their call to halt American expansion along the border of what is now Ohio and Indiana. Tecumseh articulated a vision of intertribal, pan-Indian unity based on revitalization and reform, and his ambitions very nearly rewrote early American history.
Tecumseh’s own words come to us through Anthony Shane and Stephen Ruddell, white captives of the Shawnees who were raised alongside Tecumseh. The oral historian and archivist Lyman Draper interviewed both men about Tecumseh in the 1840s, years after his death. Draper also interviewed and corresponded with a host of Tecumseh’s adversaries, and their recollections can be found in the Tecumseh Papers of the Lyman Copeland Draper Collection, which have been microfilmed by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
Colonizers left behind a rich, but terribly biased, source record on Tecumseh. For example, many of Tecumseh’s speeches can be found in the papers of his foremost adversary, William Henry Harrison, published by the Indiana Historical Society. Similarly, the papers of Thomas Forsyth and Simon Kenton offer useful, but adversarial, perspectives on pan-Indianism. Historians should also consult British perspectives on Tecumseh, including the papers of John Askin, William Claus, and the McKee family. In the 19th century, neither British nor American historians bothered to interview Shawnees about Tecumseh and his legacy. A century later, the ethnohistorian Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin interviewed Shawnees about Tecumseh, and her papers are housed at the Newberry Library.
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