Tenskwatawa (also known as The Prophet), a member of the Shawnee Indians, was born in 1775. Named Lalawethika (the Rattle), his mother abandoned him in 1779. By all accounts, Lalawethika was a homely child and lacked the physical abilities that his other siblings, including his elder brother Tecumseh, enjoyed. His older siblings refused to train him in hunting and fighting. He was so unskilled with a bow and arrow that he blinded himself in his right eye with a wayward arrow. As an adult, he became reliant on the kindness of his fellow tribesmen to feed himself and his family. He also turned to alcohol to forget his problems, quickly becoming dependent upon liquor. Not having the physical abilities to become a warrior, Lalawethika attempted to learn the ways of his village's medicine man. When the man died in 1804, Lalawethika quickly proved unable to meet his people's needs. They remembered the drunken Lalawethika and did not respect his medicinal abilities. He quickly turned back to alcohol to provide himself with solace.
In April 1805, while lighting his pipe, Lalawethika fell into a deep trance. His family believed that he had died and prepared his body for a funeral. Lalawethika regained consciousness and claimed that the Master of Life, a Shawnee Indian deity, had visited him. According to Lalawethika, the Master of Life told him that the Indians must give up all white customs and products. The Master of Life reportedly viewed the natives' dependence on guns, iron cookware, glass beads, and alcohol as the worst possible sins. If they rejected these items and returned to traditional ways, the Master of Life would reward them by driving the white settlers from the Indians' land. The Native Americans must also stop fighting with each other over land and respect their tribal elders. If they followed the Master of Life's message, the natives would return to a life filled with happiness. Lalawethika also changed his name to Tenskwatawa. Tenskwatawa means "open door" in Shawnee. If the Indians followed the Master of Life's message as delivered by Tenskwatawa, they would have an open door. Whites called Tenskwatawa "the Prophet."
Many Indians were at first skeptical of Tenskwatawa, but most natives eventually accepted his message. His following grew throughout 1805. He formed a village for his followers at Greenville in Ohio. He met with the various tribes living in the State of Ohio and the Indiana Territory. Among these groups were the Seneca Indians, the Wyandot Indians, and the Ottawa Indians. His fame grew even more in 1806 when he predicted an eclipse of the sun. William Henry Harrison, the governor of the Indiana Territory, feared the Prophet's growing number of followers. He dared the Prophet to prove his power by carrying out some miracle. The Prophet had his chance with the eclipse. Many scholars believe that his brother, Tecumseh, had learned of the eclipse from American scientists who had been coming to Ohio to view it. Tecumseh urged his brother to predict the eclipse. Tecumseh was trying to form a united front of Indian tribes west of the Appalachian Mountains. He believed that, if the natives worked together, they would be able to stop white encroachment onto the Indians' land. Tecumseh's Confederation became inextricably linked with his brother's religious movement. As one's position strengthened or weakened, so did that of the other.
Tecumseh and the Prophet moved their respective followers to Prophetstown near the Tippecanoe River in the Indiana Territory in 1808. The two men continued to espouse their message, and their followers continued to grow in number. By 1811, such a large number of natives lived at Prophetstown that white settlers in Ohio and the Indiana Territory demanded that the government do something to protect them. William Henry Harrison led an army against Prophetstown in the fall of 1811. He stopped his force a short distance from the Indian village. Tecumseh was away, recruiting other Indians to join his confederation. The Prophet, lacking the military skills of his brother, decided to attack the Americans. He claimed that the Master of Life had come to him and told him that the Indians would succeed in defeating the Americans. He also stated that the whites' bullets would not harm the natives. The Indians attacked Harrison's men before daybreak on the morning of November 7, 1811. Harrison's army had about one thousand troops, including infantry and cavalry. The American army suffered heavy losses: sixty-two men killed and 126 wounded. The Indians' losses are impossible to know because they carried off most of their dead and wounded. Harrison guessed that at least forty Indians were killed. This battle became known as the Battle of Tippecanoe.
The American army drove off the Indians and burned Prophetstown to the ground. Many Indians lost faith in the Prophet and returned to their own villages after the defeat. Tecumseh tried to resurrect his confederation, but many natives refused to join him again. Unfortunately for Tecumseh, to gain followers he had allied himself with his brother. The Prophet, by making such bold statements before the battle, led Tecumseh's followers to reject the alliance. Divided, it was now only a matter of time before the Indians fell to the Americans.
Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa continued their struggle. During the War of 1812, they allied themselves with the British against the United States. During this conflict, Tecumseh lost his life at the Battle of the Thames in 1813. The Prophet then sought to assume control of his brother's followers. Unfortunately for the Prophet, most Indians remembered his claims before the Battle of Tippecanoe and rejected his leadership. For the remainder of his life, Tenskwatawa continued to seek power among the Shawnee Indians. He first lived in Canada but eventually returned to Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, moving from village to village, seeking a following among the Shawnee. In 1826, the Prophet moved with most Ohio and Indiana Shawnee to a reservation in modern-day Kansas. Here, the Prophet's quest for power continued. By the end of his life, Tenskwatawa lived in his own village with only his family. The other Shawnee people chose to live in the villages of younger and more prominent leaders. The Prophet died in November 1836. While the Prophet once was the catalyst for one of the greatest Indian alliances in history, he died a virtually forgotten figure.
- Hurt, R. Douglas. The Ohio Frontier: Crucible of the Old Northwest, 1720-1830. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996.