Indian Prophets, Pan-Indianism, and The Battle of Tippecanoe

Genl. Harrison & TecumsehGenl. Harrison & Tecumseh. (Photo: NYPL Digital Collections)

On November 7, 1811, the Indiana frontier exploded. The quiet of the pre-dawn drizzle proved a deceptively tranquil backdrop for what turned out to be a transformative and bloody moment in American frontier history. Adjacent to Burnett’s Creek, Indiana, American forces advanced towards Prophetstown, a Shawnee-led settlement that stood in the path of the rapidly advancing settler frontier. After two explosive hours, the Battle of Tippecanoe was over. Indian warriors retreated from the battlefield and the Americans claimed victory, though it was not one without a heavy price. Of the 188 American casualties, 62 lay dead on the battlefield. The Americans did not bother to count the number of Native American dead, but their loses approximated those of the Americans.

For Native Americans, American victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe marked a turning point, as it became clear that Native peoples were fast losing the fight to hold on to lands they had called home for thousands of years. The battle marked a turning point for white Americans as well. In its aftermath, they increasingly viewed the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh and his allies as “savages” and “insolent” and demanded that Native Americans be removed from the frontier lands settlers coveted in the Midwest. Indeed, for much of the nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries, white Americans understood the Battle of Tippecanoe to be as the official sesquicentennial celebration of the event described it in 1961: “an important event in the great struggle between the Indians and the white race east of the Mississippi river.”

The causes of the Battle of Tippecanoe lay in the early years of the nascent American republic. In 1794, the United States military defeated Native warriors at the Battle of Fallen Timbers near what is now the city of Toledo. Tecumseh, who was at that point a leader of his own warrior band, refused to sign the subsequent Treaty of Greenville, viewing it as an example of the American theft of Indian land in Ohio. Despite Tecumseh’s unbending opposition, Fallen Timbers opened the floodgates to American expansion. Ohio and Illinois began filling with settlers. Native people felt squeezed by these migrations, and Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa were determined to resist the onslaught. They led their Shawnee followers from Ohio to what became Tippecanoe County in Indiana and established a new base at Prophetstown.

Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa had attracted a substantial following by the opening years of the nineteenth century, although just a few years earlier Tenskwatawa would have seemed an unlikely candidate to provide an ideological foundation for the pan-Indian movement that he and his brother strove to piece together. Born in 1775 with the name Lalawethika, by the early nineteenth century Tenskwatawa had failed at most things he tried, became despondent about the changes he witnessed around him, and numbed his emotional pain with alcohol. By the turn of the century, he was beating his wife and engaging in drunken rants, and he appeared destined for a premature alcohol-induced death.

All this changed one evening in April 1805. On that night, he fell into a fire and was injured so severely that he was not expected to live. But when he awoke he claimed to have had a series of visions that he insisted came from The Great Spirit, the “Master of Life.” Adopting the name Tenskwatawa, which means “the open door,” he soon began preaching. In a region with its fair share of Native American prophets, Tenskwatawa managed to stand out. He quickly attracted a growing band of followers.

Tenskwatawa’s message echoed that of an earlier seer, the Lenape prophet Neolin, who also encouraged Native people to reconnect with their traditions and resist colonial expansion. Together, Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh used this ideological and political platform to build a pan-Indian movement that would do in the nineteenth century what Neolin had aspired to do in the eighteenth.

The territorial governor of Indiana, William Henry Harrison, was determined not to let Indians band together to defend their lands and prevent the spread of American settlers. The politically ambitious Harrison attempted to use his frontier posting to push back the frontier. In 1809, for example, he oversaw the signing of the Treaty of Fort Wayne. That treaty brought together numerous tribes, including the Delaware, Shawnee, and Potawatomi, and saw the cession of 3 million acres of land to the Americans. Tecumseh, incensed by the Treaty of Fort Wayne, gathered a delegation of warriors and proceeded to Vincennes, the territorial capital, where he hoped to convince Harrison to rescind the treaty. In this, Tecumseh failed.

Tensions between Harrison and Tecumseh continued to mount over the following months. In November 1811, Tecumseh traveled to the South in a bid to recruit Creek warriors to his pan-Indian cause. In Tecumseh’s absence, Harrison advanced from the territorial capital at Vincennes with approximately 1,000 men from the United States regular troops, the Indiana Militia, and the Kentucky Militia. Harrison and his men headed toward Prophetstown. Tecumseh had given his brother strict instructions not to engage the Americans in battle while he was gone. But a vision convinced Tenskwatawa that the time for battle had arrived. It proved a fateful decision that destroyed the Indians’ ability to hold their lands.

Historians have long considered the Battle of Tippecanoe to be the opening salvo in the War of 1812. To a certain degree it was that; it also proved to be much more. With white American settlers fanning out across the frontiers of eastern North America, the pressure for Indian removal gained increasing momentum during the 1810s. The outcome of the Battle of Tippecanoe contributed to that growing chorus of calls for Indian dispossession, a call that in the following two decades saw some 80,000 Native Americans relocated to reservations in current-day Oklahoma.

Tecumseh would not live long enough to witness the tragedy that was Indian removal in the 1820s and 1830s. He died in 1814 on the banks of the Thames River in Ontario, Canada, fighting alongside the British in the hope that he could halt white encroachment onto his people’s lands. Tenskwatawa, however, did witness the trauma of removal. After spending a number of years in Canada, in 1825 he returned to Shawnee lands in Indiana. From there he and his followers were subsequently relocated west of the Mississippi River where he created a new Prophetstown near modern-day Kansas City. He died in 1836, still committed to traditional Shawnee culture and the preaching of his visions.

William Henry Harrison, meanwhile, ran for president of the United States in 1840 and was billed “the hero of Tippecanoe.” Running on the Whig ticket with John Tyler, “Tip and Ty” ran a “log cabin” campaign that showcased the campaign song “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.” Harrison won that election, highlighting how military service for the United States and pushing Indian “savages” out of the way of American territorial expansion could serve as a useful campaign strategy to propel a man into the White House.

About the Author

Gregory Smithers

Gregory Smithers is associate professor of history at Virginia Commonwealth University. He specializes in Native American and African American histories since the late eighteenth century. His most recent book is The Cherokee Diaspora: An Indigenous History of Migration, Resettlement, and Identity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015).

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