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Fifty years after I saw the outdoor drama Tecumseh! the first time
When it comes your time to die,
be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death
so that when their time comes, they weep and pray for a little more time
to live their lives over again in a different way.
Sing your death song and die like a hero going home.
~Attributed to Chief Tecumseh, 1768-1813, this poem is commonly known as the Chief Tecumseh Death Song
Last month I spent a week exploring the Ohio River between Chillicothe, Ohio and Louisville, Kentucky. Yes, I know Chillicothe isn’t a river city. I visited because I wanted to refresh my memory of the long-running outdoor drama about Shawnee Chief Tecumseh that I first saw in the 1970s.
Tecumseh’s story (and legend) is an essential part of Southern Ohio’s history, and that of the whole Northwest Territory. Before I tell you his gallant and tragic story, watch this video about conflicts between Native Americans and colonists.
Tecumseh’s History in Three Minutes
The Shawnee homelands (covering most of the current states of Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, and western Pennsylvania) were the first epic battleground in the United States’ acquisition of new territory. Tecumseh’s father lost his life during a retreat across the Ohio River in 1774. As he lay dying, he supposedly told his eldest son, Cheeseekau, to never make peace with the Virginians (who were then still British), and to supervise the warrior training of his other male children, including Tecumseh.
Cheeseekau was fatally wounded in 1792, while attacking a stockade near present-day Nashville, Tennessee. Two years after Cheeseekau died, another brother, Sauwauseekau, was shot and killed at the Battle of Fallen Timbers.
Tecumseh had seen almost constant fighting since the age of twelve, and took part in numerous conflicts with settlers and militia by the time he reached fifteen. Yes, Tecumseh was a proven warrior, but his true gifts were diplomacy and leadership.
You can’t understand Tecumseh’s story without also knowing about his younger brother, an alcoholic who took the name of Tenskwatawa. He became the leader of a purification movement after reporting that the Great Spirit revealed to him a paradise of honey and game for those who followed the traditional way of life, including abstinence. Tenskwatawa, known as The Prophet, may have been a charlatan, but the brothers’ combined talents served their people both spiritually and in battle. Together, they founded Prophetstown (in what’s now Indiana) as the center of their community.
Tecumseh left his brother in Prophetstown to shepherd the community while he forged an alliance of Native Americans to resist American expansion. At its height, the Great Lakes tribes’ movement included thousands of warriors.
Tecumseh had two meetings with the Indiana Territory Governor William Henry Harrison (who later became the ninth president). Harrison said of him that he was “one of those uncommon geniuses who spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things.” Harrison destroyed Prophetstown in the Battle of Tippicanoe, which is now accepted as the first engagement of the War of 1812.
Tecumseh ended up working against his father’s wishes when he joined forces with the British in that war. He had no other hope of prevailing against the Americans. British General Henry Procter abandoned Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames, and Tecumseh died, ending any hopes of stopping white settlement in native lands.
The Legend Lives On
Despite Tecumseh's views, William Tecumseh Sherman’s parents named their boy after him. Maybe the name was a good luck charm for the Civil War general, whose March to the Sea is regarded as the first example of the use of total war in the modern era.
A recent book on the Shawnee brothers has gained critical praise, Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation. Its author says of their era, “It was their misfortune that the Shawnee people inhabited the ‘fault line between French and British interests, and as such was fated to become an imperial battleground.’”
About the Tecumseh! Outdoor Drama
The Tecumseh! drama’s first season was 1973 and I remember it looking much like the picture of its construction that I’ve pasted here. Today it seats nearly 1700 in the comfort of stadium seats and offers a full-service concession area.
If I hadn’t refreshed my memory of Tecumseh’s story, I would have been content to watch the acting and stagecraft (live horses!). The amphitheater is gorgeous and the sound system superb. If you go, refer to the printed program for help following the scenes and timeline from 1784-1813. It also tells the backstory of the production itself.
The part of the drama that I found most compelling was the brothers’ power-sharing arrangement. Tecumseh is portrayed as the true prophet who lets his brother claim to foresee natural occurrences—including an eclipse, a comet, and a mighty earthquake—to hold the pan-Indian alliance together while Tecumseh was away conducting diplomacy and planning maneuvers. Things go badly when Tenskwatawa gets power hungry.
The Scioto Society’s production script is adapted from Allan W. Eckert’s book The Frontiersmen (1967). I have no idea how the producers might legally modify the script, since Eckert passed away in 2011. If they could update it for modern audiences, they should do so. There were times I felt the story relied too much Indians-as-exotics (the video I’ve included will give you a sense for that), and an apocryphal romance between Tecumseh and a white woman who taught him to read English and refused his marriage proposal because he wouldn’t leave his culture and people behind for her. In the script he tells her he is unmarried, but the historical record shows otherwise.
Please. We expect more from historical dramas in the twenty-first century, and Tecumseh’s story is plenty interesting without embellishment.
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If you’re interested in the show, it runs June 16, 2023 – September 3, 2023. The producers warn parents of young children that the gunfire is loud. Boy Howdy, is it ever.
Weeknight Tickets: from $26
Weekend Tickets: from $36
VIP Package: from $51
Showtime: 8 PM