The total solar eclipse of 1806: How a prediction from ‘The Prophet’ shaped U.S.-Native American relations

Before the April 8 solar eclipse happens, let’s take a look at the last time this area experienced a total solar eclipse 218 years ago.

Some historians say that the 1806 Eclipse contributed to the start of the War of 1812. And an interesting story that is.

The total eclipse on June 13, 1806 is also known as the Tecumseh Eclipse.

The year 1806 was a turbulent time in Ohio and the Northwest Territory immediately to its west and north. Although Ohio had become a state in 1803, the northwest corner of the state belonged to the Shawnee and other tribes. The Greenville Treaty had allowed for them to live there peacefully. A cautious peace existed.

But things were different next door in the Indiana Territory. General William Henry Harrison in Vincennes was having problems with a group of Native Americans led by Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa (The Prophet).

Tecumseh had refused to sign the Greenville Treaty in 1795 and wanted to fight to push all settlers back east. He was urging other tribes to join him in a mighty coalition. The Prophet had hundreds of devotees who followed his every word, and the crowd was growing.

In spring of 1806, Harrison was so fed up with Tenskwatawa’s theatrics that were disrupting the peace that he sent a letter to the two Shawnee brothers.

In his letter, Harrison wrote: “If he (the Prophet) 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.”

According to accounts in “The Frontiersman” and “Sorrow in the Heart” by Allan W Eckert, this is how it happened:

When the letter was received by the brothers, they met alone then later emerged with an answer.

The Prophet told his followers that in exactly 50 days he would make the moon cover the sun and it would be as dark as night. The word spread quickly to all the tribes in the region. The Prophet had promised to prove his power.

Just before noon on June 13, 1806, the Great Eclipse of 1806 began. No one on the frontier had ever seen anything like that before. Standing in front of his cabin, The Prophet had made the moon block the sun.

The entire dramatic event was awe-inspiring to his followers. Those who once doubted The Prophet now knew for sure that he spoke with authority and his predictions were real. Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh gained greatly in power.

And the situation between Harrison and the two Shawnee leaders dramatically worsened. Eventually this growing animosity led to the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, which led to the War of 1812.

Before writing his letter, Harrison had missed the repeated printed announcements of the upcoming eclipse in the newspapers of places like Lexington, Kentucky (on June 25, 1805). Newspapers at that time were shared with others and carried by flatboats and wagons. Even old news was valued.

Tecumseh, who was an avid reader, might have caught the printed announcement in any number of publications.

I read the accounts in the Virginia Argus in Richmond (Oct. 27 and Nov. 7 1804 and March 27 and April 10, 1805), the Annapolis Maryland Gazette (Feb. 7 1805), in addition to the Lexington newspaper.

Author Peter Cozzens wrote in his book, “Tecumseh and the Prophet,” that the Prophet had been told details about the upcoming eclipse by friends. It was common knowledge in Detroit, where his British allies camped.

No one today knows for sure how The Prophet and Tecumseh came to make the prediction, but the result was better than they hoped.

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