The Eclipse Predicted

The Prophet first came to the attention of the United States administration when he was involved in the burning of some proclaimed witches. The Delaware Indians, originally from the region now known as New Jersey and the state bearing their name, had become refugees through the grabbing of their lands. In consequence they had been driven westwards, into Ohio. They were not happy. Hearing about how the Prophet had condemned both the Americans and also other religious leaders, they invited him to come and help them purify themselves. Sure enough the Prophet identified several of their number as witches responsible for the ills that had befallen them and ordered their torture. One unfortunate woman was roasted for four days over a slow fire. The Indians accused of witchcraft tended to have one thing in common: they had taken up with at least some of the ways of the whites (for example wearing hats or drinking liquor). Christian converts among the tribes were a particular target. Tenskwatawa was weeding out those who would oppose his brother's campaign for a return of the Indians to their olden ways. He moved on to other villages, and other tribes, stirring up revolt as he did so.

This unrest in the Midwest was viewed askance from Washington. Thomas Jefferson opined that the Prophet was "more rogue than fool, if to be a rogue is not the greatest of all follies." Although Tenskwatawa was trying to persuade or force his fellow Indians to give up the ways of the white man, Jefferson did not view him as being a major threat: "I thought there was little danger of his making many proselytes from the habits and comfort they had learned from the whites, to the hardships and privations of savagism, and no great harm if he did. We let him go on, therefore, unmolested."

The governor of the Indiana Territory was William Henry Harrison, who in 1841 became the ninth President of the United States. He had a high opinion of Tecumseh, once writing to the Secretary of War that the Indian leader was a "bold, active, sensible man, daring in the extreme and capable of any undertaking." Now, though, Harrison was faced with Indian roguery that was reaching a fever pitch, under the guise of divine influence. It became obvious that something would need to be done.

Early in 1806 Harrison wrote an explicit, challenging letter to the Delawares, inviting that they demand the Prophet prove his exalted status. Using phrases from the Bible, Harrison suggested to them that they should "ask of him to cause the Sun to stand still, the Moon to alter its course, the rivers to cease to flow or the dead to rise from their graves. If he does these things, you may then believe he was sent from God." This turned out to be a most unfortunate challenge, from Harrison's perspective. News of it soon spread. When a copy reached Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, they retired to a tent to consider their response. Emerging shortly thereafter, the Prophet proudly stated that he was pleased to cause the Sun to stand still, and he would do so 50 days hence: on June 16, 1806. Further, he said that the Sun would be darkened in a cloudless sky, and the stars would come out in daytime. So dark would it be that the birds would return to their nests, while nocturnal animals would emerge from their lairs.

It seems obvious what had happened. Perhaps Tecumseh had seen one of the almanacs of the Shakers. Maybe a British agent, eager to take any chance to provoke foment and disrupt the progress of the fledgling United States, had armed the Indian leader with this piece of astronomical intelligence. Another possibility is that a party of astronomers, looking for a prime place from which to observe the eclipse, had informed Tecumseh what was to happen. The previous year, on June 26, a partial eclipse had been visible from North America, with half of the Sun being covered; maybe Tecumseh had noticed that and realized the possibilities. Whatever the background involved, to the average Indian a darkening of the Sun was to occur at the behest of the Prophet, who would thus be proven to be the agent of the Great Spirit.

At the time of this prognostication, Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa appear to have been in the region of the Sandusky River, close to the southern bank of Lake Erie. That is significant, as we will see, because by June 16 they had moved south again, to the village the Shawnee had established on the site of the defunct Fort Greenville.

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