The Prophet and the Future President

How the solar eclipse of 1806 united indigenous peoples in Ohio and embarrassed a future U.S. president

In 1806, the year of the last total solar eclipse that was visible in Ohio, Ohio had been a state for just three years. It was a time of transformation, as settlers moved into the area and the area’s indigenous people were being pushed out. Thomas Jefferson was the third president of the United States.

At that time in what is now Kent (then Franklin Township), the only people who would have been witness to the eclipse were the indigenous people living there and the Haymaker family. They were John Haymaker; his wife, Sally; their three children, Jacob, Eve and Catherine; John’s father, Jacob; and his brother, George. Jacob Haymaker purchased the land in Franklin Township with the plan of building a gristmill there, on the banks of the river. The first Haymakers moved there in 1803 and lived in a rough surveyors' hut. In the spring of 1806, the Haymakers built a log cabin just north of what is now Stow Street, near Fred Fuller Park.

Elsewhere in Ohio, however, the eclipse of June 16, 1806, became an event of historical significance.

The Eclipse of 1806


A Time of Tenuous Peace in Ohio

Following the American Revolution, the boundary of the United States jumped from what had been the Appalachian and Allegheny mountains to the Mississippi River. Suddenly, settlers began illegally moving to these newly opened lands, which was devastating to the indigenous people who were living there. 

James Seelye, Ph.D.
James Seelye, Ph.D.

James Seelye, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of History at Kent State University at Stark, specializes in 19th-century American and Native American history. He set the scene for the 1806 event by providing historical context. 

“Originally, in the Ohio Territory, things didn’t go super well for the U.S. government. There was fierce resistance that took place,” he said.

The conflict came to a head at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, near Maumee, Ohio, and in its aftermath, the Treaty of Greenville between the U.S. government and a group of tribal leaders called the “peace chiefs” was negotiated in 1794. This treaty opened much of what is now Ohio all the way to the Indiana border to settlement.

However, as, Seelye said, the U.S. government’s misconceptions about the structure of tribal leadership led to ongoing problems. “Even though the U.S. government knew that there were different native nations out there, a lot of times, they thought, ‘Oh, you know, we negotiated a treaty with one of them, so we negotiated with all of them,’” Seelye said.

According to Seelye, this comes from a distinctly European assumption that native nations had some sort of chief executive or king. That there was one person at the top who could speak for everyone. “That really was not the case,” he said.

Famously, the Ohio Shawnee chief Tecumseh said about the Treaty of Greenville that these “peace chiefs” had “given away land they did not own.”

Shawnee chief, Tecumseh.


Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa

Tecumseh was a much-admired and respected leader and a warrior who had enjoyed several victories in earlier battles with government forces. He was a brilliant student who spoke multiple languages. 

Tenskwatawa, "The Prophet."

His younger brother, Lalawethika (“He Makes a Great Noise/The Noise Maker”), did not initially enjoy the same respect as Tecumseh. In his youth, Lalawethika was not a skilled hunter or warrior. Known as a failure “at almost everything he attempted,” he had even accidentally blinded himself in one eye with an arrow. Discouraged by the popularity and talent of his older brother, Lalawethika became increasingly isolated and depressed. He began drinking alcohol in excess. His depression and alcoholism increased until one day he drank so much, he passed out and could not be awakened.

People in his village thought Lalawethika was dead and began to prepare him for burial when he suddenly woke up and claimed to have been visited by the Great Spirit. Seelye said Lalawethika told his community that the Great Spirit had revealed to him that his people should “Get rid of everything the settlers have taught us. We have to get rid of alcohol. We need to stop marrying settlers and stop trading with them and being so dependent on their trade goods.”

“He told his people that the Great Spirit is upset and offended and the only way that we will get back to the balance we used to have is if we follow this new way,” Seelye said.

The Birth of ‘The Prophet’

After this epiphany, Lalawethika changed his name to Tenskwatawa “The Open Door/One With Open Mouth” and became a prophet to his people. As “The Prophet,” the transformed younger brother of Tecumseh became an effective speaker and charismatic leader of a religious movement. He and his followers formed a new community along the White River, near the present site of Greenville, Ohio.

The rise of this new, influential tribal leader, who was also the brother of a well-established and much-respected leader, made people in the U.S. government nervous. They were looking for ways to divide and weaken the tribes, which they would sometimes do by sending representatives to speak with different leaders separately, trying to drive a wedge between them.

William Henry Harrison
William Henry Harrison in 1835. He challenged the Shawnee prophet to produce a miracle as proof of his powers. 


William Henry Harrison and the Eclipse

Future ninth president of the United States, Gen. William Henry Harrison, had led some of the government conflicts with native tribes. In 1806, he was the governor of the Indiana Territory. He had a reputation as a person who could be counted upon to get a job done. In this case, the job was the expansion of the western territories. 

He thought, correctly, that a rising prophet at the side of the already powerful Tecumseh could unite the tribal people he was looking to divide as he sought to expand the territories westward.

Seelye shares what happened next:

How Did Tenskwatawa Know?

When the eclipse occurred, according to Tenskwatawa's prophecy and then when his brother Tecumseh ordered the Great Spirit to release the sun, this impressed upon many of those who observed this that Tenskwatawa was indeed a great prophet and Tecumseh was a powerful leader and helped to unite the different tribes.

The Shawnee were not known to track the movement of the planets and the stars with great accuracy, so how did The Prophet know about the coming eclipse? He predicted, in response to Harrison’s letter, “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.”



James Seelye at Yorktown, Virginia.

Seelye wanted to provide insight into a long-standing misunderstanding about “the Great Spirit.” He said, “It’s very likely a western construct and not something that is tradition. Native American religious scholars and other scholars who study that seem to think that’s a kind of misunderstanding. We don’t know for sure if Native Americans were talking about a great spirit in terms of how Christians might consider the great spirit to be akin to God.”

So, as a prophet, it is possible Tenskwatawa received divine information about the eclipse from his god or gods. A more likely explanation, offered by Seelye, is that although The Prophet rarely left his village, his older brother was well traveled, and in those travels, Tecumseh may have encountered people who knew the eclipse was coming.

There were “eclipse chasers” in 1806, and the event was forecast in almanacs of the time. Unfortunately, for the future U.S. president, however, Harrison was completely unaware of the coming celestial event.

To find out about all the eclipse-related events happening at Kent State, visit the university’s eclipse website.


POSTED: Monday, April 1, 2024 12:22 PM
Updated: Wednesday, April 3, 2024 12:19 PM
Phil B. Soencksen
Photos provided by Andrew Seelye, Wikipedia and Kent State Today