By PJ Creek
Tecumseh’s Curse (a.k.a The Curse of Tippecanoe) is a legend associated with the fact that every president who was elected in a year ending in zero – from William Henry Harrison to John F. Kennedy – died in office. Proponents of Tecumseh’s Curse refer to the adversarial relationship between Tecumseh (a visionary Native American leader) and William Henry Harrison as the origin of seven presidential deaths.
Tecumseh’s Curse Presidents?
Let’s take a closer look at the election years and what happened to each president.
1840: William Henry Harrison – Died in office of pneumonia
1860: Abraham Lincoln – Assassinated by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theatre
1880: James A. Garfield – Assassinated by Charles Guiteau in a Washington, D.C. train station
1900: William McKinley – Assassinated by Leon Czolgosz in Buffalo, New York
1920: Warren G. Harding – Died in office, possibly of ptomaine poisoning that progressed to pneumonia
1940: Franklin D. Roosevelt – Died in office of a massive cerebral hemorrhage
1960: John F. Kennedy – Assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald in Dallas, Texas
1980: Ronald Reagan – Lived (Shot in the chest by John Warnock Hinckley Jr., but survived – Curse over?)
2000: George W. Bush – Lived
The Birth of a Legend
Those who attempt to make sense of these eerie twists of fate have come to blame a Native American curse for historical coincidence. Nevertheless, let’s examine Tecumseh’s Curse a little closer by looking at the birth of the legend.
Who was Tecumseh?
Tecumseh was a remarkable Native American leader. Born circa 1768, he was a Shawnee Chief from the Ohio River Valley who envisioned a vast Indian Confederacy to keep the Ohio River as a border between Native Americans and American settlers.
What did Tecumseh do?
Throughout the early 1800s, Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa (The Prophet) traveled extensively among tribes – all the way from Wisconsin to Florida. Tecumseh was an excellent speaker, and he convinced many tribes to join his cause for Native American unity. By 1808, a significant number of Native American warriors gathered under Tecumseh’s leadership. Around this time, Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa founded Prophet’s Town at the junction of the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers, near present-day Lafayette, Indiana. Subsequently, Prophet’s Town became the site of a large confederacy of midwestern and southern tribes – assembled to stop American settlers from spreading into Native American lands.
William Henry Harrison confronts Tecumseh’s Confederation
William Henry Harrison, Governor of the Indian Territory, was given the task of confronting Tecumseh and his confederacy of warriors. In early November 1811 Harrison organized a group of 1,000 men and arrived outside of Prophet’s Town. While Tecumseh was gone to recruit more allies, Tenskwatawa ordered an attack on Harrison and his men. However, the Native American forces under Tenskwatawa were eventually overtaken. After the defeat, the confederacy at Prophet’s Town dissolved. This was the beginning of the end of Tecumseh’s Confederacy. The Battle of Tippecanoe would be popularized in Harrison’s successful campaign for the presidency with the song-turned-slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!”
William Henry Harrison was well aware of Tecumseh’s power. In a letter to the War Department, Harrison wrote:
“The implicit obedience and respect which the followers of Tecumseh pay to him, is really astonishing, and more than any other circumstance bespeaks him one of those uncommon geniuses which spring up occasionally to produce revolutions and overturn the established order of things.”
The Death of Tecumseh
To gain more power for his cause, Tecumseh and his allies sided with the British in the War of 1812. Fighting alongside the British in the Battle of the Thames in Ontario, Canada, Tecumseh was shot and killed in October 1813. His body was mutilated, and he was buried in a mass grave near the battlefield.
After the death of Tecumseh, the Indian Confederacy disintegrated. In addition, the end of the War of 1812 did nothing to stop the flood of American settlers moving into the Ohio River Valley. Ultimately, Tecumseh’s dream of an Indian Confederacy was short-lived, but his leadership and words affected many generations.
“Will we let ourselves be destroyed in our turn without a struggle, to give up our homes, our country bequeathed to us by the Great Spirit, the graves of our dead and everything dear and sacred to us? I know you will cry with me, ‘Never! Never!’”
Years after his encounters with Tecumseh, William Henry Harrison was elected president on the Whig ticket. During his 105-minute Inaugural Address on a cold, blustery March day in 1841, “Old Tippecanoe” refused to wear a coat or gloves. He fell ill shortly after the speech and died on April 4, 1841 – most likely from pneumonia. Was Harrison’s death the first casualty of Tecumseh’s Curse?
Including Harrison, every president elected in a year ending in zero died in office after 1840: Harrison (1840), Lincoln (1860), Garfield (1880), McKinley (1900), Harding (1920), Franklin Roosevelt (1940), Kennedy (1960). Ronald Reagan escaped the Curse in 1981 when he was shot by John Hinckley Jr. The assassin’s bullet lodged in Reagan’s chest, missing his heart by inches.
The only presidential death that discredits the twenty-year cycle of the Curse was Zachary Taylor who died in 1850 after consuming bad water, milk, or cherries (His exact cause of death is unclear).
So is there really a curse? There will never be evidence to confirm or deny a supposition such as Tecumseh’s Curse. Nonetheless, the legend lives on. Although it is a long string of unfortunate events for seven unlucky presidents, Tecumseh’s Curse remains a captivating story full of historical intrigue.
- “History of the Battle of Tippecanoe.” Tippecanoe County Historical Association. 12 June 2013. <http://www.tcha.mus.in.us/battlehistory.htm>
- Johansen, Bruce E., and Barry M. Pritzker. Encyclopedia of American Indian History. Santa Barbara: ABC – Clio, 2007.
- Lipmann Jr., Theo. “Do Candidates Recall Zero-Year Curse?” Baltimore Sun 18 April 1999 <http://articles.baltimoresun.com/1999-08-18/features/9908180238_1_died-in-office-shot-whig>
- O’Brien, Cormac. The Secret Lives of the U.S. Presidents. Philadelphia: Quirk, 2004.
- Smith, Carter. Presidents: All You Need to Know. Irvington, NY: Hylas, 2005.
Purchase a copy of the Periodic Table of the Presidents poster here.
-Created by PJ Creek, an 8th grade Social Studies teacher