Tenskwatawa (The Prophet) c. 1775–1837

Painted portrait of Tenskwatawa, one eye shut, nose ring, mustache, and head scarf
Henry Inman, after Charles Bird King / Oil on canvas, c. 1830–33
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution

As a youth, Tenskwatawa lacked the physical abilities of his older siblings, including his brother Tecumseh, the great warrior. Tenskwatawa was so unskilled with weapons that he blinded himself in the right eye with a wayward arrow. Dependent on alcohol as a young man, he sank into a coma in 1805 and almost died. He awoke claiming to have had visions of heaven, populated with Indians living in the old ways, and hell, populated with “civilized” Indians consuming large quantities of alcohol. He gave up alcohol and assumed the status of a Shawnee prophet and holy man.

Tenskwatawa was endowed with great oratorical skills, and his religious movement quickly spread. In 1808, he established Prophet’s Town in the Indiana Territory. Relations between Tenskwatawa and the governor of the territory, William Henry Harrison, were initially peaceful. The turning point was Harrison’s Treaty of Fort Wayne (1809), a dubious agreement in which a number of Indian chiefs ceded three million acres to the United States. Tenskwatawa opposed the treaty because the Indian signers did not have a legitimate claim to the land. He threatened the chiefs who signed the agreement and warned Harrison not to allow white settlements on the lands.

As tension mouted, Tenskwatawa’s brother Tecumseh assumed leadership of the Shawnee. When Tecumseh left Prophet’s Town to recruit more tribes in the south, Harrison led his troops to break up the settlement, demanding that the Indians disperse. Tenskwatawa attacked on November 7, 1811, promising that his special powers would protect his warriors. Each side suffered heavy casualties in what became known as the Battle of Tippecanoe. The Indians left the field, and Harrison burned out Prophet’s Town, claiming victory. Tenskwatawa was discredited. During the War of 1812, he and his brother allied themselves with the British. Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames in 1813, and Tenskwatawa fled to Canada afterward, where he was supported by a British pension.

Charles Bird King painted the original version of this portrait for the War Department’s collection of Indian portraits. Henry Inman created this copy as part of the process for making lithographs for a publication by Thomas McKenney, the commissioner of Indian affairs. McKenney sought to record the culture and prominent figures of the Native American tribes. More than one hundred of these commissioned portraits were reproduced in McKenney and co-editor James Hall’s three-volume History of the Indian Tribes of North America, with Biographical Sketches and Anecdotes of the Principal Chiefs (Philadelphia, 1838–44). The original collection of King’s paintings was destroyed in a fire in 1865.

Learning to Look

  • Describe the expression on Tenskwatawa’s face. What might he be thinking?

  • Describe the setting of this portrait. Why might the artist have chosen this setting?

  • If you could add one symbol to this portrait to reflect Tenskwatawa’s biography, what would you add?

  • Describe what Tenskwatawa is wearing. How does his clothing reflect his biography?

  • In your opinion, how does the artist want us to remember Tenskwatawa? Is he portrayed here as a warrior? A respected leader? A discredited failure?

Suggested activity

Have students use journaling to gain a deeper understanding of the Native American experience in the War of 1812 era. Students should imagine that they are followers of Tenskwatawa, encamped at Prophet’s Town. Have them create a journal entry or series of entries documenting their experiences leading up to the battle with Harrison’s troops. In their journals, they should include at least one drawing or other visual element and should discuss their reasons for supporting Tenskwatawa. Then have them create another journal entry after the Battle of Tippecanoe, in which they discuss their feelings towards Tenskwatawa and his movement in the wake of defeat.