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What the last solar eclipse meant for two brothers and Ohio history

A portrait of Shawnee leader Tecumseh wearing a hat with a yellow feather, a blue collared coat with yellow epaulets on the shoulders and a large round image on a chain that is around his neck.
Anthony Wayne Parkway Commission
Ohio History Connection
A portrait of the Shawnee military and political leader Tecumseh (1768-1813), ca. 1800-1813.

The last time Ohio experienced a total solar eclipse was June 16, 1806. The so-called Tecumseh Eclipse played a significant role in the legendary Shawnee leader’s fight against western settlement of native lands.

But a deeper look at the early years of Ohio history suggests the eclipse may be misnamed.

Tecumseh's famous. His life and death have inspired paintings, lithographs, sculptures, books, films, a 2009 PBS documentary, “Tecumseh’s Vision,” and the long-running outdoor play in Chillicothe titled simply “Tecumseh!

He was born around 1768 and sought to unify far-flung tribes into a confederacy to stop the ever-westward march of white American settlers into their lands.

His little-known younger brother, Tenskwatawa, played a critical role in that leadership.

As a child, Tenskwatawa was known as Lalawéthika, “Noisemaker.” Historical records say he grew up in Tecumseh’s shadow. He lost his eye as a child and was not much of a hunter or warrior.

As an adult, he “lolled away his days drinking and dabbling in medicine,” according to historian Peter Cozzens in his 2020 book, “Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation.”

A portrait of an elaborately adorned Shawnee man with red stripes on his face, a red headband with plumes down his back, a teal-colored coat with white fur trim, long silver earrings, a silver collar and a silver band around his upper arm.
Ohio History Connection
Ohio History Connection
Tenskwatawa, the brother of Shawnee leader Tecumseh.

In 1805, Lalawéthika toppled over, cataleptic, into a fire. He was pulled to safety by relatives. Cozzens writes that he was unresponsive and presumed dead. As attendants prepared his grave, Lalawéthika awoke and recounted a dream of a path that forked, with the right path leading to heaven and the left path leading to hell. He said he saw sinners being tormented, including drunkards being forced to drink molten lead.

The dream had a transformational effect on Lalawéthika. He stopped drinking and began urging his fellow Shawnee, neighboring Delawares and other members of tribes to avoid alcohol, reject American authority, resist American cultural assimilation and return to their traditional sacred practices.

“He led a resistance effort in a different way than what Tecumseh did,” said Glenna Wallace, Chief of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma, one of the three federally-recognized tribes of the Shawnee people.

She said his was a spiritual and emotional path.

"Tecumseh did what we think of today as military or actual physical combat. And that was not Tenkswatawa's [way]," Wallace said. "His was a spiritual, an emotional — it would be like a rally."

Scholars say Tenkswatawa message hit a nerve. He developed a following. He became known as “the Prophet.”

And William Henry Harrison, the governor of Indiana Territory, noticed.

An oval, engraved portrait of a white man from the 1700s with short, black hair combed forward, a stern look, a high white collar, and a jacket with wide lapels.
Ohio History Connection
William Henry Harrison Presidential Collection
William Henry Harrison, Governor of Indiana Territory, ca. 1800.

In the spring of 1806, he sent a letter to leaders of the Delaware warning them against Tenskwatawa.

William Henry Harrison issues a challenge that essentially says, ‘Don't listen to this guy. We've been doing so well. Don't let him lead you astray,’” said Talon Silverhorn, a citizen of the Eastern Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma. "'He says that he's a messenger of God. And if that's true, then ask of him some proof, some divine intervention. Ask him to cause the sun to stand still, to make the moon alter its course, the dead to rise from their graves. And if he can do these things, then you can believe that he's truly sent by the creator.’”

Silverhorn, a cultural programs manager with the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, said there’s little historical documentation on what followed.

Allan W. Eckert memorialized one version of the events in his two historical novels, “The Frontiersman” and “Sorrow in the Heart." (Eckert wrote "Tecumseh!" play performed annually in Chillicothe, as well.) In his telling, Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh discussed how to respond, and the Prophet told his followers that in 50 days, he would make the moon cover the sun and it would be as dark as night.

Whether or not Tenskwatawa predicted it, scholars say that eclipse on June 16, 1806 boosted the Prophet’s popularity. He and his brother’s movement grew in strength and militancy, setting Tecumseh and his confederacy on a doomed collision course with Harrison.

So, this begs a question. Why is it called Tecumseh’s eclipse?

Chief Glenna Wallace said she had never heard the eclipse described that way until three months ago.

“I've always associated that [eclipse] with the brother, the Prophet,” she said.  

Wallace speculates that Tenskwatawa may have lost his claim to fame because, according to historical accounts and portraits, Tecumseh was more charismatic and handsome than his little brother.

“Today, we would say more photogenic,” she said.

Stephen Warren has another theory. Warren is a professor of history at the University of Iowa who’s written extensively about the Shawnee. He said it's because Americans are fascinated with "the warrior who resists."

“I think frontier history and settler violence with Native Americans is a core part of American mythology,” he said. “The violent conquest of Native Americans and the conversion of the so-called wilderness into productive land - those are essential traits of American exceptionalism. And Native Americans such as Tecumseh form a very powerful representation of that myth."

Tecumseh died at the height of his popularity in the War of 1812.

By 1850, the U.S. had forcibly expelled all Native American nations from Ohio. Tenskwatawa relocated to Kansas City. He died there in poverty and obscurity two decades after his brother.