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This Week in Military History: November 3rd - 9th

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November 7th: The Battle of Tippecanoe

An 1899 Painting of the Battle of Tippecanoe.An 1899 painting of the Battle of Tippecanoe.

For most Americans, the word “Tippecanoe” probably rings a bell. Maybe from a vaguley-remembered heading in a high school history textbook, maybe from an article you read about America’s least effective presidents. Maybe you even remember it from that oddly catchy 19th century song featured in season 7, episode 3 of the NBC comedy Parks and Recreation. But the details of how this particular word (derived from the phrase for buffalo fish, kiteepihkwana siipiiwi, in the language of the Miami-Illinois Native American tribe) became a historical footnote are not exactly common knowledge. And the story of its relevance begins in the preamble to the War of 1812.


A little extra context, courtesy of Leslie Knope.

In 1809, the United States purchased 3 million acres of land in the current states of Indiana and Illinois collectively from several of the region's tribes. The deal finalizing the sale, the Treaty of Fort Wayne, was the work of the Governor of the Indiana Territory, a Virginia-born Army officer and former Congressman named William Henry Harrison, son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Having been Governor of the territory since its formation in 1800, Harrison spent years negotiating for territory from Native Americans with the long-term goal of enticing enough settlers to the new land to make a bid for full statehood. This treaty was the culmination of his wheelings and dealings, some of which were a little on the underhanded side. His biggest mistake, however, was not something he did, but something he didn’t do.

An 1814 portrait of Harrison in his Army uniform.An 1814 portrait of Harrison in his Army uniform.

Despite attempts to include a great number of the local tribes in negotiations (often playing them off each other to get them to sign the treaty), Harrison neglected to include the Shawnee. Needless to say, they were not too happy about the situation. Particularly a young warrior chief named Tecumseh (his name’s Shawnee definitions in ascending coolness: “shooting star,” “blazing comet,” and “panther across the sky”) and his younger brother, Tenskwatawa (often referred to as The Prophet), a religious leader who believed Native Americans should return to their ancestral ways. Starting a few years before the treaty signing, the brothers had begun amassing followers from throughout the tribes in the region with Tenskwatawa as their spiritual leader. But history would dub the group Tecumseh’s Confederacy.

Painting of Tecumseh based on an 1808 engraving of him.Painting of Tecumseh based on an 1808 engraving of him.

Tecumseh spoke out against what he called the illegitimate treaty immediately and harshly, threatening to kill anyone, White American or Native America, who tried to carry out its terms. He insisted the treaty was legal only if all tribes in the area agreed to it, a stance he reiterated to Governor Harrison at an in-person meeting in 1810. Harrison, however, was of the belief that each tribe had the right to negotiate with the US individually and refused Tecumseh’s demands to nullify the treaty. In response, Tecumseh threatened to fight the treaty via outright war. And he already had an ally in mind: Britain.

Sketch of the 1810 meeting between Tecumseh and Harrison.Sketch of the 1810 meeting between Tecumseh and Harrison. Probably dramtacized a bit, although Tecumseh and his men did show up armed and wearing war paint to confront the governor.

At the time, tensions between the States and their former-mother country were high and getting higher by the day. The US was increasingly outraged by British interference with American trading ships engaging in commerce with France. Expecting that issue to eventually blossom into full-fledged war, the British began reaching out to Native American tribes as potential allies in a land war on the North American continent. Which, of course, only made the US madder at the British. So Tecumseh’s plan of working with the British to fight the Americans was no pipe dream or idle threat.

British naval officers impressing American sailors.Among the many abuses committed against American shipping, one of the worst was the forced enlistement, or "impressment," of merchant sailors by the British Navy.

In August, 1811 Tecumseh met with Harrison again to promise the governor he had no intention of actually going to war with the United States. But Tenskwatawa, who had become increasingly radical in his beliefs and openly called for Harrison’s death, felt otherwise. When Tecumseh left for a lengthy recruiting trip through the southeast, his brother decided to act. He arranged a large purchase of weapons from the British in Canada, believing that a battle against US troops would bring more followers to their cause. So when Harrison learned of the weapons purchase and decided to strike against Tecumseh’s Confederacy first, it was exactly what Tenskwatawa wanted.

1820 painting of Tenskwatawa.
1820 painting of Tenskwatawa.

On September 26th, Harrison led a force of over 1,000 men out of Vincennes, the capital city of the Indiana Territory, towards the Confederacy’s headquarters, a village called Prophetstown. The troops were mostly local militia, although they included several hundred members of the US Army’s 4th Infantry Regiment. Along the way they suffered several casualties in an ambush, nearly ran out of supplies twice, and stopped briefly to build a small fort in what is now the city of Terre Haute, Indiana. But on November 6th, Harrison and his men reached Prophetstown.

Prophetstown State Park, site of the original Prophetstown.Prophetstown State Park, site of the original Prophetstown.

They were met by a messenger bearing a white flag of truce. Tenskwatawa proposed a ceasefire and a peaceful meeting the following day rather than a battle. Harrison agreed, encamping with his small army atop a small hill along Burnett Creek, just west of Prophetstown, near the confluence of the Tippecanoe and Wabash Rivers. Whether Tenskwatawa meant to deceive the Americans from the start, believed the Americans would betray him first, or realized his warriors would attack with or without his orders is still a matter of historical debate. But, whatever, the specific reasons, 600-700 of them attacked Harrison’s camp several hours before dawn on the 7th. Some accounts claim Tenskwatawa assigned a detachment of them with the specific intentions of murdering Harrison as he slept.

Prophet's RockProphet's Rock, where Tenskwatawa purportedly stood and urged his men on during their attack.

The attack was sudden and effective at first, killing or wounding dozens of Harrison’s men. In the darkness they had no idea how many warriors they faced or which direction the majority of them were attacking from. But the militia and infantrymen rallied and held their ground against repeated charges for two hours. As dawn approached, they could see clearly where their enemies were and realized they outnumbered Tenskwatawa’s men by nearly two-to-one. Having lost the advantages of darkness and surprise, the Native America forces withdrew from the battlefield and abandoned Prophetstown (which Harrison ordered burned down anyway) as they fled. Harrison lost 62 men with 126 wounded. The Native American losses were never fully tallied, as they removed most of their dead (aside from several dozen bodies, which the white troops discovered and mutilated in the aftermath) and wounded from the field of battle as they retreated.

Drawing of one of the charges by Native American warriors during the battle.Drawing of one of the charges by Native American warriors during the battle.

The larger effects of the battle were not clear in the immediate aftermath. Initial fears that it was simply the opening skirmish in a larger war waged by Tecumseh’s Confederacy faded as no major counterattacks occurred. And the tensions on the frontier were soon overshadowed with the onset of the War of 1812 a little over seven months later. With Tenskwatawa’s reputation tarnished by the loss, Tecumseh exercised greater authority over their Confederacy and allied it with the British. He was killed by American troops under the command of none other than Major General William Henry Harrison (who had resigned his governorship to return full-time to the Army) during the Battle of the Thames in Upper Canada on October 5th, 1813. Tenskwatata survived the war and faded into obscurity, overshadowed by Tecumseh, and died in Kansas in 1836.

Painting of Tecumseh's death at the Battle of the Thames.Tecumseh's death at the Battle of the Thames.

Harrison would, after his lauded service in the War of 1812, return to politics. After a term each in the Ohio state senate and as a US senator for Ohio, followed by a single year as minister to the short-lived South American nation of Gran Colombia, he set his sights on the presidency. Running as a Whig, he lost the 1836 election to Democrat Martin van Buren. But he returned to the campaign trail in 1840 with a new slogan (and a catchy song to go with it) harkening back to his early military victory. He won and made history on his inauguration day by becoming the first head of state to ever be photographed. Then he made history again 31 days later by dying. The shortest serving American president, Harrison became an interesting historical footnote much like the battle that made him famous.

The death of President William Henry Harrison.The death of President William Henry Harrison.

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