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  • Writer's pictureTedd Long

Unseen Since the Time of Tecumseh

Illustration of the June 16, 1806 total solar eclipse by sixteen-year-old Samuel Mosely, dated May 28, 1817. From the Middlebury College Observatory archives.

As we move closer to the once-in-a-lifetime 2024 total solar eclipse on April 8th, Northwest Ohio residents (and many thousands who will travel here from out-of-state) are making party plans to celebrate a unique natural marvel unseen in Ohio for over 200 years. But how many of us know the backstory to the last eclipse? You know, the one that happened in 1806 and some call the Tecumseh Eclipse. Well, you are in luck. I took a deep dive into this one and was richly rewarded.


The eclipse of 1806 is a mythical event in American history, interwoven with the lives of two significant figures: Tecumseh, a Shawnee leader, and his brother Tenskwatawa, widely known as The Prophet. This celestial occurrence marked a pivotal moment in the early 19th century, catalyzing these brothers' growing power and influence.


Before we get too deep into this story, it's essential to understand the socio-political landscape of the early 1800s in the United States. This period was characterized by raw tension between Native American tribes and American settlers. The latter's expansion westward encroached upon indigenous lands, leading to conflicts and the displacement of native peoples. Amidst this turmoil, Tecumseh and The Prophet emerged as leaders who sought to resist the encroachment and unify Native American tribes against white settlement.


Tecumseh

Tecumseh was a warrior and chief of the Shawnee tribe, renowned for his leadership skills, eloquence, and vision of a united Native American front against settlers. His brother, first known as Lalawethica ("He Makes a Loud Noise" or "The Noise Maker"), gained prominence after falling into a fire during a drunken stupor in 1805. After his family and friends rescued him from the fire, he awoke to realize his life mission was spiritual leadership. From that time forward, Lalawethica was known as Tenskwatawa, The Open Door, or The Prophet; he immediately stopped drinking and began urging his fellow Shawnee and other members of tribes to avoid alcohol, reject American authority, resist American cultural assimilation, and return to their traditional sacred practices. Together, the brothers envisioned a confederation of tribes capable of resisting the settlers and preserving their lands and way of life.


Harrison

The threat of tribal unity worried William Henry Harrison, the Territorial Governor of Indiana and future 9th President of the United States. In the spring of 1806, Harrison tried to discredit the Shawnee leader and his brother by challenging Tenskwatawa to prove his powers. In an open letter to Shawnees, he wrote: "If he (Tenskwatawa) is really a prophet, ask him to cause the Sun to stand still or the Moon to alter its course, the rivers to cease to flow or the dead to rise from their graves."


According to Allan W. Eckert's novel, "A Sorrow in Our Heart: A Life of Tecumseh," after Harrison's letter was delivered to the brothers, they spent an hour in private discussion. Following this, The Prophet addressed a crowd of followers, announcing that he had communicated with the Great Spirit, and she would soon provide a sign to show her alignment with The Prophet. His words were carefully chosen and spoken:


“Fifty days from this day, there will be no cloud in the sky. Yet, when the Sun has reached its highest point, at that moment will the Great Spirit take it into her hand and hide it from us. The darkness of night will thereupon cover us and the stars will shine round about us. The birds will roost and the night creatures will awaken and stir.”

The Prophet

The eclipse of June 16, 1806, fulfilled The Prophet's prophecy and extinguished Harrison’s attempt to divide the Shawnee people.


Members of the Indian Confederacy saw the accurate prediction of the eclipse as a divine sign. It proved that their cause was just and that the Great Spirit was on their side. This event significantly enhanced the brothers' efforts to build a pan-tribal confederation to resist the settlers. Tribes that had previously hesitated began to see the potential for a united front, leading to increased support for Tecumseh and The Prophet's vision. Tecumseh and The Prophet built their confederacy's headquarters at Prophetstown, near the confluence of the Tippecanoe River and the Wabash River, northeast of modern-day Lafayette, Indiana, in 1808.


Despite the initial successes and the mobilization of tribes, the pan-tribal movement faced significant challenges. The Battle of Tippecanoe (at Prophetstown) in November 1811 resulted in a decisive defeat for Tecumseh's confederation, mainly due to the absence of Tecumseh and the hasty engagement led by The Prophet. Furthermore, the alliance struggled with internal divisions and the overwhelming military and technological advantages of the United States. However, the legacy of Tecumseh, The Prophet, and the 1806 eclipse transcends these immediate political and military outcomes. Their story is a testament to the power of spiritual belief, the impact of natural phenomena on human affairs, and the unyielding spirit of resistance against oppression.


Looking back on this story more than two centuries later, modern science asks how the brothers predicted the eclipse. Nobody knows. They never deviated from the Great Spirit story. Some historians believe that Tecumseh may have read about the coming eclipse in a Farmer's Almanac and remembered the date. We will never know.


Interestingly, as legend has it, it would not be the last time Tecumseh was involved in forecasting a natural phenomenon. Five years later, while recruiting fellow American Indians to join his confederation, he reportedly told an unreceptive group of Creek Indians in Tuckabatchee, Alabama, that he had a sign of the Great Spirit's anger: the spectacular 1811 comet. This celestial light show became increasingly bright in October, then faded in November as Tecumseh departed northward. Moreover, he allegedly foretold an even more striking event. To a large gathering, he described how the skepticism about his divine mission would be dispelled once he reached Detroit:


“Your blood is white. You have taken my talk, and the sticks, and the wampum, and the hatchet, but you do not mean to light. I know the reason. You do not believe the Great Spirit has sent me. You shall know. I leave Tuckhabatchee directly, and shall go straight to Detroit. When I arrive there, I will stamp on the ground with my foot and shake down every house in Tuckhabatchee.”

True to his word, on December 16, 1811, the day of his return to Detroit, the first of a series of three devastating New Madrid earthquakes occurred, destroying Tuckabatchee homes. Thousands of aftershocks followed.


If Tecumseh were alive today, he would likely reacquaint us with his prophetic powers by declaring that after this coming eclipse in April of 2024, the next one will not occur again in Ohio skies until September 14, 2099. As the anticipation for the 2024 total solar eclipse grows, we find ourselves not just preparing to witness a spectacular celestial event but also connecting with a rich tapestry of history and prophecy that stretches back over two centuries. The story of Tecumseh, The Prophet, and the eclipse of 1806 is a powerful reminder of the deep roots and complex narratives that shape our land and its peoples. It highlights the profound impact of natural phenomena on human history and the enduring spirit of resilience and unity in the face of challenges.


As we gather to watch the dark shadow of the moon sweep across our skies, let us remember the lessons of the past and the stories of those who came before us. Let this eclipse be not just a moment of awe and wonder but also a bridge that connects us to the rich history of our region and its people. Let it inspire us to appreciate the beauty of our natural world and the remarkable events that have the power to unite us across time and cultures.


So, as we prepare our parties and our viewing glasses for the eclipse of 2024, let us also prepare our hearts and minds to be part of a continuum—a celebration not just of the sun and moon but of the human spirit, resilient and bright, echoing the prophetic vision of Tecumseh and the enduring legacy of a moment that once united the sky and the earth.


Here's to looking up together in wonder and remembrance.

 

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