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Were prophecies by Indian leaders fact or fiction? Were four natural occurrences and one man made event signs from the Great Spirit?

Tecumseh, left, and his brother, The Prophet, right, encouraged
Indian tribes to resist settlement

Did drive for Indian unity bring on War of 1812?

Were prophecies by Indian leaders fact or fiction? Were four natural occurrences and one man made event signs from the Great Spirit?                                   

(This is a bicentennial year, according to legislation passed in Ohio and by other governments. The 200th anniversary won’t receive much attention. It is a victim of the economy and stingy budgets. An Ohio act encourages the study and activities that "honor Americans who served in Ohio in the War of 1812," and "educating and raising awareness of residents of Ohio and of the nation about Ohio’s role in the War of 1812." This is the second article in a series exploring some aspects of the War of 1812.)

Compiled by Jim Blount

An adversary described him as "one of those uncommon geniuses which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things." That was William Henry Harrison’s depiction of Tecumseh, a Shawnee leader, before their battlefield encounters during the War of 1812. Both won fame during the war, Tecumseh dying a martyr in battle and Harrison’s military successes contributing to his election as president in 1840.

"Sometime during the last 15 years of his life Tekamthi" -- one of several variations of Tecumseh’s name -- "conceived a plan for uniting the red people lying between the north Great Lakes and Gulf Coast into a single federation," wrote biographer Bil Gilbert. "In retrospect," wrote Gilbert, there was "virtually no chance of establishing and defending an independent Indian state." Gilbert’s assessment is based on population difference -- "fewer than 100,000 red people" fighting a million settlers west of the Appalachians.

Despite those adverse numbers, Tecumseh traveled extensively between 1805 and 1811, trying to build an Indian alliance. Also active in the campaign was his brother, Tenskwatawa, better known to his white opponents as The Prophet.

Amid the tangle of fact and folklore is which brother was more persuasive and powerful, and the possibility that their roles may have changed at some point before the War of 1812.

R. David Edmunds, another Tecumseh biographer, asserted that "the real Tecumseh has been overshadowed by a folk hero whose exploits combine the best of fact and fiction." Tecumseh’s fame "grew larger after his death," wrote historian Reginald Horsman. "Legends were inserted into the story of his life, and fictional accounts were often allowed to impinge on the real Tecumseh."

Some of the actions and statements once attributed to Tecumseh and The Prophet are not mentioned -- or dismissed -- in recent scholarly studies of the era. One of those murky images is the role, if any, of either Tecumseh and/or The Prophet in four natural occurrences and one man-made event extending from 1811 into 1812.

Did tribes interpret some or all of the happenings as the work of the Great Spirit? Were the spectacular events interpreted as created by the Great Spirit to support the Shawnee leaders’ appeals for Indian unity? Was the Great Spirit angry because tribes were conforming to the habits and ways of the white man, and meekly yielding Indian land in treaties? Was the War of 1812, at least partially, a byproduct of the prophecies?

The five signs from the Great Spirit -- reputedly transmitted to the tribes by one or both Shawnee leaders -- could be summarized this way:

* 1. The sun will be blotted out.

* 2. A great star will flash across the heavens.

* 3. The earth will shake.      

* 4. The rivers will run backward.

* 5. There will be fire on the water.

1. The Sun Will Be Blotted Out

There was a total eclipse of the sun Sept. 17, 1811. Could Tecumseh have known about the eclipse? He is believed to have had enough contact with white settlers who could have informed him of the event. It is a better story, according to some storytellers, if it is assumed he hadn’t been told or read about it. 


Because of his frequent contact with whites,
Tecumseh could have known about 1811 eclipse.


2. A Great Star Will Flash Across the Heavens

Was this prophecy related to the Great Comet of 1811? It was discovered March 25, 1811 -- months before hostilities began. It was said to have been visible to the naked eye for about 260 days (a record until 1997), and conspicuous by September 1811. Its brightness started to fade in January 1812.

Tecumseh and the Great Spirit didn’t have a monopoly on the sky show. In France, some people regarded the comet as a sign that Napoleon should invade Russia. It was called "Napoleon’s Comet."         

Later, the comet was said to have been responsible for the high quality of wine produced in 1811.


In France, 1811 comet was regarded as sign that
Napoleon, above, should begin invasion of Russia.

3. The Earth Will Shake

The New Madrid earthquake -- called the greatest known earthquake in U. S. History, covering more than a million square miles -- struck the Night of Dec. 15-16, 1811. It was the first of three major shocks. The others were Jan. 23, and Feb. 7, 1812. Some accounts report a series of more than 2,000 milder quakes and strong after shocks through March 1812.

The quake center, New Madrid, Missouri, on the Mississippi River, is about 400 miles from Hamilton. The first shock in December reportedly reached Cincinnati one minute and 18 seconds after the quake at New Madrid. It was felt 1,000 miles away on the east coast, including New York, Boston and Washington.

An estimated 30,000 square miles of earth sank from five to 15 feet. Lakes were created, rivers changed course, some rivers widened and islands vanished. After the shocks, large clouds of dust and dirt turned daylight into darkness. Estimates of magnitude vary, including 8.1 on Richter scale Dec. 16.

Little damage was reported in Ohio. One-story log buildings survived, but some brick and stone chimneys were damaged.

Was all the fright caused by Tecumseh stamping his foot to signal Indian tribes to resist whites taking their land?

Historian Glenn Tucker, in a 1956 book, cites this 1812 source: "A New Madrid dispatch in the New York Herald on Feb. 26, 1812, reported" ‘The Indians say the Shawnee Prophet has caused the earthquake to destroy the whites.’ " 

Another rumor claimed the quake was related to the Great Comet falling into the Ohio River -- despite it remaining visible several weeks into 1812.


4. Rivers will run backward

It was the series of New Madrid shocks that caused the Ohio and Mississippi, and some tributaries, to run backwards. After a Feb. 7 shock, boatmen said the Mississippi ran backwards for several hours. The reversal destroyed some villages and killed some inhabitants.

5. There Will Be Fire on the water

The fire on water started in 1811 in Pittsburgh, initiating a revolution in river commerce. The New Orleans became the first steamboat to navigate the Ohio and Mississippi rivers. The 371-ton, $40,000 side-wheeler was fueled by fire in its boilers.

The voyage was directed by Nicholas Roosevelt, a relative of two future presidents. At an average of 10 mph downstream, speed wasn’t the objective. Roosevelt’s purpose was to demonstrate the steamboat’s potential to haul large numbers of people and hundreds of tons of freight.

The steamboat left Pittsburgh Oct. 20, 1811, reached Cincinnati Oct. 27, Louisville Oct. 28, and Natchez Dec. 30, before completing its voyage of about 1,900 miles Jan. 12, 1812, in New Orleans.                                     

The impact of steamboats on trade and river travel wasn’t immediate. Its development was slowed by the War of 1812 and the presence of river obstacles.

Could Tecumseh have known of the steamboat’s "fire on the water" in 1811? It is possible he had knowledge of the introduction of the steamboat on the Hudson River in 1807.

The New Orleans had stopped Dec. 16 to load coal near Tell City, Ind., when the New Madrid quake started. Before entering the Mississippi River Dec. 18, several Indians in canoes pursued the noise, fire and smoke they apparently believed related to the earthquake. The Indians, who couldn’t keep up with the steamboat, may have been seeking revenge for the death and damage caused by "the fire on the water."


There are no photos of the New Orleans and artists who later depicted 
the steamboat didn't agree on what it looked like.  This is one version.

6. Great Squirrel Migration of 1811

A sixth phenomena observed in late 1811 was the Great Squirrel Migration -- an event not usually included in accounts of Tecumseh’s possible warning prophecies.

Charles J. Latrobe -- an English travel writer and a cousin of Lydia Roosevelt -- was aboard the New Orleans during its maiden voyage in 1811-1812.  He noted the squirrel movement in a book, The Rambler in North America.

Latrobe wrote, in part: "A spirit of change and a restlessness seemed to pervade the very inhabitants of the forest. A countless multitude of squirrels, obeying some great and universal impulse, which none can know but the Spirit that gave them being . . . were seen pressing forward by tens of thousands in a deep and sober phalanx to the South. No obstacles seemed to check this extraordinary and concerted movement: the word had been given them to go forth, and they obeyed it, though multitudes perished in the broad Ohio [River], which lay in their path."

There had been previous unexplained squirrel migrations -- and several since 1811. Explanations vary. Theories and questions include: (1) it was possibly related to clearing forests in and around new settlements; (2) migrations are usually in fall, most often after mid September; and (3) they're not necessarily caused by scarcity of food because food is usually plentiful in September. Countering the latter is a possible psychological factor -- that during late summer and early fall, gray squirrels bury or store nuts and acorns. If they sense a shortage of acorns or nuts, that may cause them to move elsewhere. In 1811 that was south of the Ohio River.

Some claimed the 1811 event may have been related to a flea infestation. An unusual number of flea bites were observed on dead squirrels.

Crossing formidable rivers -- such as the Ohio River -- also is part of the mystery because it was suicidal. Squirrels are believed to have an instinctive dread of water. Many became exhausted and drowned in attempting to swim a river. Bodies were swept away by the current and thousands of carcasses were observed floating on the water. Some squirrels, fatigued after crossing, were easily hunted and killed for food.


Squirrels by John James Audubon

Were local residents aware of prophecies?

Another unknown: Did residents of Butler County in 1811 and 1812 have any knowledge of the alleged prophecies that may have encouraged Indian aggression and, as some contend, caused them to ally with the British and Canadians against the U. S. in the War of 1812?

Mystery and myth -- mixed with history -- have become part of the story of the war that officially started 200 years ago. Scholars are still challenged in their search for documentation and creditable verification of the seemingly odd relationship involving people, natural phenomena and events associated with the War of 1812.

Tecumseh's leadership and predictive powers were revived in a popular 1967 book, The Frontiersmen, by Allan Eckert.  The author insisted "this book is fact, not fiction."