Researching Thunder Beneath My Feet, I discovered that Tecumseh, the renowned Shawnee war chief, had predicted the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811-1812. Some laughed at him, but others listened because he and his brother Tenskwatawa, known as the Prophet, had predicted the eclipse of June 16, 1806.
Here’s a short, simple version of a long, complicated true story.
Fighting American Expansion
The original 13 colonies quickly expanded westward into Native American lands, destroying villages and crops as they went. President Thomas Jefferson appointed William Henry Harrison governor of the Indiana Territory, home of the Shawnees and other Native American groups. Harrison had established his reputation as a fighter during the Northwest Territory Indian Wars and had political ambitions.
Tecumseh, a brilliant linguist and military strategist, had friends among the early intruders and learned from them. He recognized the danger the land-hungry Americans posed and set about organizing the tribes to fight back. His younger brother, a reformed drunkard, called the “Long Knives” the children of the Evil Spirit. He earned the title the Prophet by forecasting the troubles ahead and urging Native Americans to ban drinking whiskey, wearing white men’s clothing, eating their food, and even using their rifles.
Harrison wanted to discredit the Prophet’s claims to having special powers. He wrote an open letter to Shawnees gathered at Tippecanoe: “If he 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.”
The letter reached the brothers at the home of a friend. According to reports, they deliberated in private for an hour. Then the Prophet spoke to the village, telling them he’d consulted with the Great Spirit. She would give a sign to demonstrate how close she was to the Prophet.
He said, “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 eclipse of June 16, 1806, fulfilled his prophecy.
How did the brothers predict the eclipse? They stuck to the Great Spirit story. Nobody really knows. Some historians believe that Tecumseh had read about the coming eclipse in an almanac and remembered the date.
Tecumseh’s Quake Prediction
As for Tecumseh’s prediction of the earthquakes five years later, no scientist had predicted the quakes in an almanac or anywhere else. A group of Shawnee lived some fifty or sixty miles north of New Madrid, and Tecumseh’s sister (or perhaps cousin) lived in New Madrid. She and others may have told him of odd rumblings.
A few months before the quakes began, he traveled near New Madrid to recruit armed opposition to the Americans and may have felt some disturbance himself. He told an unreceptive group of Osage, “The Great Spirit is angry with our enemies. He speaks in thunder, and the earth swallows up their villages, and drinks up the Mississippi. The great waters will cover their lowlands, and their corn cannot grow.”
However he did it, Tecumseh went two for two.