Tecumseh (1768?-1813), Shawnee leader, who fought against United States expansion into the Midwest in the early 19th century. Born in what is now Ohio, he was the son of a Shawnee chief who was killed fighting white settlers in the Battle of Point Pleasant (1774). In 1794 Tecumseh took part in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, in which a coalition of tribes was defeated by the U.S. general Anthony Wayne. Tecumseh became known for his opposition to any surrender of Native American land to whites, holding that a cession of land by any one tribe was illegal without the consent of all the others. He and his brother Tenskwatawa, a religious visionary known as The Prophet, preached against Native American adoption of white customs—especially the use of liquor. In 1808 they were forced out of Ohio and moved to Indiana, where they tried to form a broad alliance of Native American tribes with help from the British in Canada. Their plans were thwarted when Tenskwatawa was defeated by U.S. forces under William Henry Harrison at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811. Tecumseh fought on the British side in the War of 1812 and was killed in the Battle of the Thames, near Thamesville, Ontario, on October 5, 1813.

These were difficult years for the fledgling government of the United States. Dominated by easterners, who were far removed from the brutality and anxieties of the trans-Appalachian frontier, the Congress of the United States was interested in pursuing a just and humane policy toward Native Americans. This was the rationale behind the passage of the Trade and Intercourse Acts, a series of programs at the turn of the century aimed at reducing fraud and other abuses in commerce with Native Americans. In practice, Congress sought to extinguish Native American titles to lands through peaceful negotiation before white settlement.

However, Washington policymakers and eastern humanitarians could not control the frontier. To many frontier dwellers in Kentucky or Ohio, the indigenous peoples needed to be exterminated. Providence, they believed, had ordained that Anglo-Saxon stock should push west until it could go no farther. It was "progress" to dispossess the Native Americans of their land, which in the eyes of these new settlers had lain idle for millennia. The settlers would break the soil and use it.

Native Americans were thus regarded as an anachronism—irreclaimable "children of the forest" by some, particularly those west of the Appalachians, and redeemable "savages" by many eastern philanthropists and humanitarians. It was the latter group, which included President Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), that sought to incorporate the indigenous peoples into the mainstream of U.S. society by means of an ambitious, largely church-operated educational program. The goal was to convey the virtues of the independent yeoman farmer to the tribespeople, in the hope that they would emulate them. By the 1820s, however, even the staunchest defenders of this program were admitting defeat.