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Battle of Tippecanoe

maker of a hero and end of a prophet

Brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa had different ideas for how the Shawnee should deal with the encroachment of white settlers onto Native American land. Tenskwatawa, known as "the Prophet," said that the Master of Life told him that the Native Americans must give up all white customs and products. If they rejected these items and returned to traditional ways, the Master of Life would reward them by driving the white settlers from the Native American's land. Tecumseh believed that if the natives put aside their traditional differences and worked together they would be able to stop white encroachment. Both brothers had followers, and their respective "movements" gradually merged into one.

In 1808, followers of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa established a village near the Tippecanoe River in the Indiana Territory. Located on the site of Keth-tip-pe-can-nunk, a Native American trading post that was razed by white settlers in 1791, the village came to be known as Prophetstown. The village became the focal point of Tecumseh’s effort to rally the tribes east of the Mississippi River in the hope of halting the spread of white settlements, as well as a training center for warriors. By 1811, such a large number of natives lived at Prophetstown that white settlers in Ohio and the Indiana Territory demanded that Governor William Henry Harrison do something to protect them.

In the late summer of 1811, Harrison organized a small army of approximately 1,000 men, hoping to destroy the town while Tecumseh was on a southern recruitment drive. Nearing Prophetstown on November 6, Harrison's army encountered a messenger from Tenskwatawa, who requested a ceasefire and a meeting the next day. Wary of Tenskwatawa's intentions, Harrison accepted, but moved his men onto a hill near an old Catholic mission about a mile west of Prophetstown.

A strong position, the hill was bordered by Burnett Creek on the west and a steep bluff to the east. Though he ordered his men to camp in a rectangular battle formation, Harrison did not instruct them to build fortifications and instead trusted to the strength of the terrain. While the militia formed the main lines, Harrison retained the regulars as his reserve. Meanwhile, at Prophetstown, Tenskwatawa's followers began fortifying the village while their leader determined a course of action. Although Tecumseh had warned his brother not to attack the white men until the confederation was strong and completely unified, Tenskwatawa whipped his 500-700 men into a frenzy with fiery oratory. Claiming that the white man's bullets could not harm them, he led his men to a position near the army campsite. From a high rock ledge west of the camp, he gave an order to attack just before daybreak on the following day.

map of Harrison's camp and the battlefield
map of battlefield

After a minor diversion against the north end of the camp, the main assault struck the south end, which was held by an Indiana militia unit known as the "Yellow Jackets." Shortly after the fighting began, their commander, Captain Spier Spencer, was killed, followed by two of his lieutenants. Leaderless, the Yellow Jackets began falling back. Alerted to the danger, Harrison dispatched two companies of regulars, who, along with the Yellow Jackets, sealed the breach. A second assault came a short time later and struck both the northern and southern parts of the camp. The reinforced line in the south held, while a charge from Harrison's dragoons broke the back of the northern attack.

For over an hour Harrison's men held off the Native Americans. Running low on ammunition and with the rising sun revealing their inferior numbers, the warriors began retreating back to Prophetstown. A final charge from the dragoons drove off the last of the attackers. Fearing that Tecumseh would return with reinforcements, Harrison spent the remainder of the day fortifying the camp. At Prophetstown, Tenskwatawa was accosted by his warriors who stated that his magic had not protected them. Imploring them to make a second attack, all of Tenskwatawa's pleas were refused.

The Battle of Tippecanoe left 37 soldiers dead and another 141 wounded (25 of the wounded subsequently died). The Indian casualties were unknown, but their spirit was crushed. Taking care of their dead and wounded, the demoralized Indians left Prophet's Town, abandoning most of their food and belongings. When Harrison's men arrived at the village on November 8, they found only an eldery Indian woman, whom they left with a wounded chief found not far from the battlefield. After burning the town, the army began their painful return to Vincennes.

Tecumseh tried to resurrect his confederation after the battle, but many people refused to join him again. Scorned by the Indians and renounced by Tecumseh, Tenskwatawa took refuge along nearby Wildcat Creek. Although remaining in disgrace, he retained a small band of followers, who roamed with him through the Northwest and Canada during the War of 1812.

While Tecumseh's confederation was weakened after the Battle of Tippecanoe, Harrison's fortunes increased as he became known as "Old Tippecanoe." Many years later, he used his reputation to successfully run for President of the United States.

depiction of the Battle of Tippencanoe used as advertising
depiction of the battle

SOURCES
Ohio History Central www.ohiohistorycentral.org
Tiipecanoe County Historical Association www.tcha.mus.in.us

SEE ALSO
Tecumseh
William Henry Harrison

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The Robinson Library >> American History >> Indians of North America >> Wars, Battles, Etc.

This page was last updated on 05/26/2017.