The Eclipse Observed

At Greenville, thousands of Indians from many tribes gathered, having heard of the prophecy. Accounts handed down to us have the Prophet pointing his finger toward the Sun at just the correct time, and as all cowered in fear he appealed to the Great Spirit to remove the obstruction and let the beneficial orb again shine down upon the land. This, of course, is said to have happened precisely as he ordered it.

But there is a puzzle here. The accounts talk of this eclipse occurring when the Sun was highest in the sky, close to midday, but in Greenville the middle of the eclipse was at about 9:45 in the morning, local time. It did occur rather closer to noon for a viewer in Boston, like Bowditch, suggesting that out on the East Coast, from where the history has propagated, there may have been some later embellishment of the story after the fact.

But that is a triviality compared with what was actually seen from Greenville. The story tells of the Sun being completely blanked out and stars being seen. We can calculate the track of totality, however, and it did not pass over Greenville at all. The southern limit of the track passed some tens of miles north of the Shawnee village. IfTenskwatawa had remained where he was, close to Lake Erie, then the eclipse would have caused just the effects he had pronounced. But at Greenville the eclipse was only partial. Admittedly only about one part in 500 of the solar disk was left uncovered, and that obscuration would have been impressive in itself, but that is not a total eclipse.

The conclusion is that the stories of the Prophet astonishing his people by causing the Sun to be blotted out cannot be entirely true. The descriptions of seeing Venus, Mars, and various stars in a black sky during the eclipse must have been transplanted from the awed accounts given by viewers who were further north at the time.

Nevertheless the eclipse did provide a mighty impetus to Tecumseh in his efforts to provoke a great rising of the Indians. In 1808 the brothers moved west into Indiana, establishing a larger settlement variously called Tippecanoe or Prophetstown. There, members of many different tribes gathered to plot the eventual overthrow of the Americans and the formation of a single Indian nation. To that end, Tecumseh spent much of his time traveling widely to garner support. One day in 1811, while Tecumseh was away, Harrison approached Tippecanoe with a thousand troops. Tenskwatawa had been warned by his brother to avoid any fighting while he was absent, but the Prophet perhaps believed too much in his own propaganda and launched an attack. The Indians were routed and Harrison burnt their village to the ground.

Having had it demonstrated to them rather painfully that the Prophet, despite his claims, could offer them no protection against the Americans' bullets, the Indians lost faith in their leadership and dispersed. The long-term effects of the Battle of Tippecanoe were therefore far more significant than might be imagined from the relatively small number of Indians killed. Tecumseh was forced to throw in his lot with the British, resulting in his death in battle two years later. Tenskwatawa was obliged to move to Canada, where he stayed for more than a decade before returning to Ohio and then Missouri when all Shawnee were ordered to move west of the Mississippi. He finally died in Kansas in 1837.

One final thing worth mentioning: Tecumseh's name means "shooting star." Apparently a very bright meteor was seen at the time he was born, and so he was perhaps destined from the start to be linked with astronomical phenomena.

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