Review of “Tecumseh and the Prophet” by Peter Cozzens

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Tecumseh and the Prophet:
The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation
by Peter Cozzens
533 pages
Alfred A. Knopf
Published: October 2020

Peter Cozzens’s recent book “Tecumseh and the Prophet: The Shawnee Brothers Who Defied a Nation” was published in the fall of 2020. Cozzens is a retired U.S. Foreign Service Officer and the author or editor of nearly two-dozen books covering the Civil War and US-Indian relations during America’s westward expansion. He is probably best-known for “The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West.”

For more than twenty years the classic biography of Tecumseh (~1768-1813) has been John Sugden’s “Tecumseh: A Life.” But biographies of the Shawnee chief have traditionally minimized or ignored the role his younger brother Tenskwatawa (1775-1836) played in creating and maintaining a substantial pan-Indian confederacy. This is an oversight Cozzens successfully cures in this compelling dual biography.

Readers will find most of the book’s 435-page narrative engaging, informative and colorful. It is also the product of meticulous research, conveying a remarkably deep understanding of Indian affairs: their history, culture, politics, daily life, inter-tribal conflicts, the impact of alcohol and disease on their communities, and their relationships with the US, Britain and France.

No one will walk away from this book without a keen understanding of Tecumseh, his younger brother (a debaucherous rascal turned spiritual prophet) and their decade-long efforts to restrain America’s westward march. Their partnership ended with Tecumseh’s untimely death at the Battle of the Thames; the Prophet then lingered for more than two decades as an impoverished anachronism.

Some of the most notable features of Cozzens’s book include a nice introduction to William Henry Harrison, a vivid description of Tecumseh’s siege of Fort Meigs which will remind some readers of the best accounts of Ulysses Grant’s Civil War campaigns, and an especially useful Appendix summarizing the dozens of tribes (and subgroups) encountered in the text.

But as captivating as the narrative proves to be, this is a biography that most readers will need to sip and savor, not gulp. The story line involves countless names – of individuals, tribes, towns and settlements – which will be unfamiliar to many and which can prove extraordinarily difficult to keep straight.

In addition, while Cozzens periodically injects a helpful “30,000 foot” perspective to provide his audience with clarifying context, much of the book is tightly focused on Tecumseh’s (or his brother’s) immediate sphere. As a result it is easy to become so fixated on their fields-of-view that one still manages to lose some of the “big picture.”

Overall, however, “Tecumseh and the Prophet” proves itself an unusually insightful and wonderfully entertaining dual biography of Tecumseh and his brother. Readers lacking a fluent facility for 18th-century North American Indian affairs may find the narrative complex or confusing at times. But patience and perseverance are well-rewarded and this biography provides both luminous storytelling and penetrating history.

Overall rating: 4¼ stars