Tecumseh's Dream Shattered: 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Tippecanoe
When reading accounts of the tragic conflict between whites and Native Americans, such as Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, one cannot help but wonder why the Indians did not see the whites as a common enemy and band together for their common safety and survival. Unfortunately for them, ancient tribal enmities seemed to erect insurmountable barriers. So it was that in one of the earliest “Indian wars,” the Mohegan and Pequot tribes helped the English colonists defeat the Narragansett and Wampanoag tribes in 1675-76. Arikara and Crow scouts helped Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer find Sitting Bull’s Arapaho, Cheyenne and Lakota village at the Little Bighorn in 1876. Chiricahua scouts helped General George Crook wage war against the Apache in 1882.
However, in this sorrowful history of the decimation of one tribe after another by the advance of white civilization, a heroic figure stands apart. One Native American leader tried to do the seemingly impossible: Tecumseh, the charismatic and influential Shawnee chief who organized a tribal confederacy to oppose the white encroachment on Indian lands. A fierce warrior, powerful orator and cunning diplomat, Tecumseh spent the first decade of the nineteenth century skillfully building his dream confederacy. Then it all fell apart in two hours. In the cold drizzle, overcast skies and pitch darkness of a pre-dawn battle, Tecumseh’s dream was shattered and his confederacy decimated at the Battle of Tippecanoe in Indiana Territory on Nov. 7, 1811—a clash Tecumseh had warned his people to avoid, and a battle that happened without him.
The Battle of Tippecanoe was one of the most significant battles in the 400-year history of the “Indian Wars” in America, and one of the most important in U.S. history. That single fight destroyed the Native American confederation, was one of the chief sparks of the War of 1812, and helped propel the soldiers’ leader into the White House. This story centers around three individuals: Tecumseh, the great Shawnee chief; his brother Tenskwatawa, a crazed medicine man who called himself “The Prophet”; and William Henry Harrison, then-governor of Indiana Territory—an aspiring politician who eventually became the ninth president of the United States.
While Tecumseh was travelling throughout the “Northwest Territory”—primarily the modern-day states of Indiana and Illinois—organizing his confederation, Harrison was scheming to expand Indiana Territory’s population to qualify for statehood. To do that, he needed more land—Indian land. He followed the usual procedure—flattery and gifts—to convince some chiefs to put their marks on a piece of paper, the so-called Treaty of Fort Wayne, on Sept. 30, 1809—thereby gaining nearly 3,000,000 acres of land right in the heart of the Indian’s prime hunting grounds. Tecumseh was furious, and angrily denounced Harrison and his sham treaty in a face-to-face encounter in 1810. The two antagonists met again in August 1811 in Vincennes, the capital of Indiana Territory. Tecumseh was calmer this time, but just as adamant that Harrison’s treaty had no validity and would be ignored by his confederation. This time it was Harrison’s turn to be angry; at the end of the meeting he warned Tecumseh that he had purchased the land legally and would defend the whites’ right to it. The following newspaper article reports on Tecumseh’s message to Harrison. At the same time it accuses Tecumseh of duplicity, this article points a stern finger of blame squarely at the British for instigating the Indians’ opposition. This article was printed by the Reporter (Lexington, Kentucky) on Nov. 23, 1811:
The wheels were now set in motion for the Battle of Tippecanoe. Before leaving for the conference with Harrison, Tecumseh announced to his people that he was embarking on a five-month tour of the South to encourage other tribes to join the confederation, including the powerful Cherokees, Chickasaws, Choctaws, Creeks and Seminoles. He sternly admonished his brother, The Prophet, to keep peace and order in their large village and avoid—at all costs—any confrontation with the whites, even if it meant temporarily abandoning their village. Tecumseh told his brother the confederation was not yet powerful enough to wage war against the whites, and must bide its time until after he returned with Southern allies. He also told Harrison about his Southern mission, to let the aggressive governor know the powerful Indian confederation was getting even stronger. Harrison realized that with Tecumseh away, the time was ripe to take a firm stand against the confederation that stood between him and his dreams of statehood. He assembled a force of over 1,000 men, consisting of U.S. Army regulars, mounted riflemen and militia. Their destination: the large confederation village at the confluence of the Tippecanoe and Wabash Rivers, called “the Prophet’s Town” by the whites but really Tecumseh’s village. While his brother awed the villagers with his mysterious ways, incantations and seemingly magical powers, Tecumseh was the war leader the people trusted to guide them. The following series of historical newspaper articles tells the story. Harrison’s expedition was in the “wilderness,” away from white civilization, and it took a while for the news to reach the newspapers, usually in the form of letters from participating officers and Harrison himself. However, it is surprising to read the accurate and detailed accounts the newspapers were able to supply the public—and how common the knowledge was that the guns, ammunition and supplies for Tecumseh’s confederation came from the British. In September 1811 Harrison’s army began their advance. On Sept. 27, one of the officers wrote the following letter, printed by the Columbian Phenix, aka Providence Patriot (Providence, Rhode Island) on Nov. 2, 1811:
Indian AffairsWe have been favored, by a gentleman of this town, with the following extracts of letters from an officer in the Western army. In the present uncertainty of the public mind, respecting the ultimate views of the red borderers on our territory (or rather of the British government) and its solicitude with regard to the situation of the small but gallant American force, apparently about to engage in “the unprofitable contest of trying which can do the other the most harm”—these extracts will be perused with interest. Camp, 30 miles above Vincennes, Indiana Territory, Sept, 27, 1811. Since my last, the troops have descended the Ohio River 1026 miles; ascended the Wabash 150; and are now on our march to the Prophet’s town, for the purpose of erecting a fort on lands purchased of the Indians; but which they now decline giving up. Without doubt, they have been instigated to do this by English emissaries, as well as to massacre some of the whites in their vicinity—and to seize a boat with articles belonging to the government. We have been informed, that they are collected together to the amount of 7 or 800, with intent to resist any settlement, or the erection of a fort. It is expected that Governor Harrison, who is our commander in chief, will, if the Indians resist, force his way to the point he wishes, and erect the fort…We are all in good spirits, and I trust shall do our duty.
This article warns that the approaching confrontation would not be easy, and blames the British for stirring up the Indians. It was printed by The Reporter (Washington, Pennsylvania) on Nov. 4, 1811:
This theme of blaming the British underlay much of the reporting about Harrison’s expedition. Here is another example, printed by the Palladium of Liberty (Morristown, New Jersey) on Nov. 5, 1811:
Harrison’s men stopped on October 3 to build a fort, which was named Fort Harrison, and awaited supplies which finally arrived late in the month. With the fort completed and his men restocked, Harrison moved out on October 28 to meet the Indian confederation at its village stronghold—to enforce compliance with the treaty, or do battle. Just before the supplies arrived, Harrison sat down and wrote Governor Scott of Kentucky the following letter, which the governor passed on to the newspapers. This article was printed by the Reporter (Lexington, Kentucky) on Nov. 9, 1811:
As the Americans drew near the confederation village on November 6, Tenskwatawa sent three messengers to request a peace conference the next day. Harrison warily agreed, but had his men camp that night in a defensive position about a half-mile from the village, prepared for the battle he suspected was coming—and he had reason to be suspicious. Despite Tecumseh’s explicit warning to avoid a battle in his absence, The Prophet told the warriors he saw in a vision a complete victory for the outnumbered and outgunned Indians (many of the confederation Indians had left Tippecanoe to visit their home villages during Tecumseh’s absence, and only around 500 warriors remained in the confederation village). The Prophet also claimed his magic would make the whites’ bullets harmless. The Indians attacked shortly after 4:00 the morning of Nov. 7, 1811. The sleeping Americans were at first overwhelmed, but quickly rallied and fought back. The combat was fierce, most of it hand-to-hand, and the Indians quickly realized The Prophet’s vision and magic were both false. When dawn broke two hours later the battle ended, the warriors fleeing back into the woods. The Americans suffered 188 casualties, including 62 dead, but they had held their ground. Although only 38 Indians were killed and perhaps 70 wounded, they had clearly lost the battle and their spirit was broken. The confederation village was hastily abandoned except for one elderly, sick woman who could not run away. The next day Harrison’s men burned it to the ground, destroying the Indians’ shelter, clothing and equipment and capturing their winter food supply of 5,000 bushels of corn and beans. This is how Harrison reported the fight to Secretary of War William Eustis the day after the Battle of Tippecanoe. His letter was printed by the Alexandria Daily Gazette, Commercial & Political (Alexandria, Virginia) on Dec. 2, 1811:
The same day as Harrison’s letter, one of his officers—Captain Hunter—wrote the following letter. It was printed by the Ohio Gazette and Virginia Herald (Marietta, Ohio) on Nov. 25, 1811:
Further details are supplied by this letter, printed by the Alexandria Daily Gazette, Commercial & Political (Alexandria, Virginia) on Nov. 27, 1811:
The confederation was greatly demoralized by its defeat and the loss of its stronghold, and angrily blamed The Prophet for falsely promising the warriors that his magic would protect them. They tied him up and held him captive, awaiting his brother’s sure-to-be-angry return. This article was printed by the Farmer’s Repository (Charlestown, West Virginia) on Dec. 27, 1811:
Governor Harrison had achieved his signal triumph. With evident satisfaction, he wrote the following letter to Secretary Eustis on December 4. It was printed by the Federal Gazette & Baltimore Daily Advertiser (Baltimore, Maryland) on Dec. 23, 1811:
Tecumseh returned two months after the Battle of Tippecanoe to find his village in ashes and his confederation torn apart, the Indians scattered. It had taken Tecumseh ten years to build his dream. His foolish brother destroyed it in two hours. With great restraint he did not kill his brother, but instead publicly denounced him and doomed him to a life of scorn—the disgraced Tenskwatawa lived another abject 23 years, dying at the age of 61. Despite his efforts, Tecumseh could not rebuild the former strength and unity of his confederation; the Indians’ will and faith had been broken. When the War of 1812 broke out seven months after the Battle of Tippecanoe—in part caused by American anger over British complicity in the Indian hostilities—Tecumseh and what warriors still followed him joined the British and played a major role in the capture of Detroit on Aug. 16, 1812. However, he was betrayed at the Battle of the Thames on Oct. 5, 1813, when the cowardly British commander fled the field and Tecumseh was killed rallying his warriors. He was 45. Harrison was the victorious American commander at the Battle of the Thames. When he successfully ran for president in the election of 1840 with running mate John Tyler, the popular campaign slogan and song “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” was used to rekindle voters’ enthusiasm for Harrison’s landmark victory over Tecumseh’s Indian confederation. He became the nation’s ninth president on March 4, 1841, at the age of 68. He died exactly one month later.