Review: Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation by Peter Cozzens

Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness made their way into the American revolutionary project most explicitly in the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence.  So, I hope you’ll forgive my taking of liberties in reviewing a book that starts in the Revolutionary War Era and peaks during the Madison administration.  Peter Cozzens’ new book, Tecumseh and the Prophet (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020), is a dual biography of the legendary Shawnee leader and his younger brother, Tenskwatawa, aka “the Prophet,” whose mid-life inspiration reawakened nativist aspirations among the Native American nations living in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan.   Together, the two sought to build a pan-Indian movement to resist the growth of the young American nation into the Midwest in the country’s first decades.

Civil War aficionados will recognize Cozzens’ name immediately.  He is the author or editor of several books and resurrected the Battles and Leaders series that captured so many first-hand accounts.  Then, he moved on to studying conflicts with Native Americans, essentially creating a battles and leaders series for those wars before writing The Earth is Weeping about the Indian wars in the west.  With Tecumseh and the Prophet, Cozzens turns his considerable talents to the east during an earlier time in American history.  

Tecumseh was born in 1768 just outside the Shawnee town of Chillicothe, about 45 miles south of today’s Columbus, Ohio.  His father, prominent in the tribe, died at the Battle of Point Pleasant during Dunmore’s War in 1774.   His mother was already pregnant and gave birth to triplets the following year.  The smallest was named Laloeshiga. Tecumseh’s older brother raised the two surviving babies, but a friendly chief known among whites as Blackfish also mentored them.   When the American Revolution broke out, Blackfish was one of the earliest Shawnee to attack American settlements.  Tecumseh was too young to join warriors on such raids, but in 1780 George Rogers Clark led a campaign to Chillicothe and Piqua, where a young Tecumseh lived and from which many Shawnee raids into Kentucky originated.  When his older brother was wounded, Tecumseh threw down his musket and ran away.   It was the last time he would run from a fight.  During the War for the Northwest Territory, he led a contingent in the Indian defeat at Fallen Timbers.  Thus, Tecumseh’s adolescence and early manhood were defined by fighting Americans.

Whereas Tecumseh grew into a natural leader and warrior, Laleoshiga matured into a clumsy, lecherous, drunk layabout.  Cozzens traces the development and wanderings of both men as the frontier changed after the Revolution.  In 1805, Laloeshiga experienced an epiphany and emerged from a trance-like state to reveal that Indians must turn their backs on the American trappings of life.  He took the name Tenskwatawa and his message had considerable appeal.  With Tecumseh in the role of diplomat, Tenskwatawa attracted followers from across various Midwest Indian nations, who often visited Tenskwatawa at Prophetstown on the upper Wabash River outside today’s Lafayette, Indiana.  Whites associated it with warfare as nativists were often hostile.  Tensions built steadily until the 1811 Battle of Prophetstown while Tecumseh was away recruiting allies.   

With his defeat at the Battle at Prophetstown, Tenskwatawa’s star dulled and Tecumseh’s role in the partnership became more prominent.   Cozzens examines the change and the older brother truly dominates the book from that point on.  He managed to paper things over with Indiana’s Governor William Henry Harrison, but his diplomatic efforts to build pan-Indian alliance redoubled.  The prophet’s spiritual leadership was flagging, so rather than a religious revival, the brothers’ efforts became more overtly political: reclaiming land signed over to the Americans by “treaty” chiefs in exchange for annual payments and supplies.  Cozzens does not pass judgment on the likely outcome of Tecumseh’s activities, but to this reader it is apparent that both sides—Indian and white—were girding for war.  The outbreak of war between the United States and the United Kingdom marked the beginning of a war between the Shawnee brothers’ Indian confederation and the Americans.

Cozzens documents the early successes of Britain and its Indian allies.  Tecumseh’s alliance bore fruit and provided the bulk of British combat resources, while timorous American leadership led to disaster after disaster.  Oliver Hazard Perry’s naval victory on Lake Erie closed British supply lines and forced a British retreat just as William Henry Harrison arrived on the scene with significant reinforcements from Kentucky.  Harrison reversed British gains and then invaded Canada.   Tecumseh constantly pressed the British to stand and fight, but their only real attempt occurred on the Thames River.   The British position collapsed, leaving Tecumseh to lead the Indian coalition against the attacking Americans.  He was killed in the battle.    His burgeoning confederation and the aim of reversing American gains in the Midwest died with him.

Tecumseh and the Prophet takes a relatively narrow viewpoint.  It is not a “Life and Times” sort of book.  The broader world affecting the western frontier is sometimes missing.  Through their correspondence, we find out what local Indian agents, territorial governors, British officers, and missionaries thought of the pair, but not how national authorities in the Jefferson or Madison administrations viewed him.  Important people in the Shawnee brothers lives enter and exit the stage like supporting characters in a stage play.  The reader is left wanting more.  This isn’t a criticism, so much as an observation.  Personally, I hope Cozzens continues to research and write about the area and provides the “more.”  

Although Cozzens does not really dig into the issue, Tecumseh was one of the earliest Indian adversaries to truly earn respect and admiration from the wider American public.  Perhaps there was something in his cause that white Americans saw in themselves.  The United States Navy named four different ships after the legendary Indian leader, including an ironclad monitor during the Civil War and nuclear ballistic missile submarine during the Cold War.   

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