In the early 1800s, before the Shawnee Indians were relocated to Kansas and then Oklahoma, there was a powerful Shawnee spiritual leader at the center of American Indian resistance against white settlers. The Shawnee Prophet — Tenskwatawa — condemned inter-tribal violence and preached for all the tribes to come together as tribal land was threatened by settler expansion and the United States government.
The Prophet Tenskwatawa and his brother the War Chief Tecumseh, organized this resistance in the Old Northwest Territory, in what's now Ohio, Illinois and Indiana. But the Prophet, who is buried in the Argentine District in Kansas City, Kan., didn't always have a following.
The Prophet's rough start
“He was pretty much a failure,” says historian Adam Jortner, about Tenskwatawa. Jortner is the author of The Gods Of Prophetstown. “He had managed to blind himself in one eye so he couldn’t fight, he couldn’t be a soldier. He was a drunk.” And then, one day he goes through a transformation.
Jortner says he’s sitting by a fire, he may have been drunk, there’s a disease in the village, and he collapses. Some versions of the story say that he dies. It’s then that he experiences something profound.
“He has a vision from the master of life, God,” says Jortner. “Telling him that he is the one who has been picked to reform Native American life."
When he awakes, he starts preaching that tribal people shouldn't drink alcohol, he condemns inter-tribal violence, saying all the tribes should unite together to fight against the United States. He is against Christian missionaries. He gets involved in witch hunts and even condemns some people to death. As he gains followers he becomes a pain for Indiana Gov. William Henry Harrison, who later became president.
“William Henry Harrison is trying to turn Indiana from Native American to white territory, and the Shawnee Prophet says no you can’t do it,” says Jortner. “And there is that religious conflict there, two visions of what it is that god wants in Indiana. William Henry Harrison sends a note, a furious note, that says this man is an imposter. If he is really authorized by god he will be able to perform miracles. So ask him to perform a miracle.”
Harrison says even more specifically, “Ask him to cause the sun to stand still, the moon to alter its course, rivers to cease to flow, or the dead to rise from their graves."
And then on June 16, 1806, in the middle of the day, there’s an eclipse.
The effects of the eclipse
There is debate in the history world about whether Tenskwatawa was tipped off about the eclipse from scientists and almanacs. But regardless, Jortner says, the effect is huge. The Prophet attracts more followers, and establishes Prophetstown, where his brother Tecumseh continues to organize an inter-tribal Indian Confederacy.
Gov. Harrison's troops and Tenskwatawa end up facing off in the bloody battle of Tippecanoe. Tecumseh is away, leaving the Prophet in charge. U.S. history regards this battle as a victory, though losses were comparable on both sides, and it's said that after the battle the Prophet flees, losing power. But historian Adam Jortner thinks that though Tenskwatawa was upset by the battle's result, the Prophet remained influential.
This all leads up to the war of 1812 in which Tecumseh’s Confederacy sides with the British in Canada against the United States. To sum up that whole war: Tecumseh dies in battle, the U.S. wins, and the Prophet becomes refugee living in Canada.
The Prophet's final years
Historian Stephen Warren, Author of The Shawnees and Their Neighbors, 1795-1870, says the U.S. government made the Prophet a deal he couldn’t refuse. “You no longer have to live as a refugee if you come back to Ohio and lead a movement of Shawnee people from the homeland.” Warren says he becomes a de-facto removal agent, a deal with the U.S., a tragic end to his movement.
Warren says the Prophet convinces about 250 Shawnee to leave Ohio. When they arrive in Kansas, he establishes a small Prophetstown, but according to Warren, he’s mostly ostracized. Eventually he moves to the area at White Feather Spring, which is in the Argentine neighborhood in Kansas City, Kan., He spends the last years of his life there.
Today the site is on the national register of historic places, privately owned by the Shawnee Tribe, and the Eastern Shawnee Tribe. This plaque memorializes the prophet today, saying he died a "broken and forgotten man, his dream of an Indian Confederacy smashed at Tippecanoe in 1812."