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Tippecanoe Battlefield

Updated on March 8, 2015
The monument at the Tippecanoe Battlefield features William Henry Harrison, commander of the U.S. forces
The monument at the Tippecanoe Battlefield features William Henry Harrison, commander of the U.S. forces | Source

Prelude

When Ohio entered the Union, the balance of the Northwest Territory became the Indiana Territory, and William Henry Harrison was appointed governor. The territorial capital was located at Vincennes, in Southern Indiana along the Wabash River. Treaties were made with individual tribes to open up Indiana to white settlers. Tecumseh, a Shawnee Indian, contended that these treaties were illegal, claiming that no single tribe could sell land, unless all other tribes ratified it. Harrison met with Tecumseh in 1810 at Vincennes, and informed him that President Jefferson would never agree to his demands. Tecumseh, who understood the English language and American politics, told Harrison that he expected the president to sit in Washington and drink wine while they settled the matter militarily. Tecumseh had learned much from Indian chiefs such as Little Turtle, Pontiac, and Blackfish. He realized the power of the white man's ability to organize, and recognized that unless the Indians could do the same, there would be no way to halt the spread of the Americans or "Long Knives," as the Indians called them. Over a ten-year period, Tecumseh built up a confederation of Indian tribes. Its capital was at the junction of the Tippecanoe and Wabash Rivers and known to the settlers as Prophetstown. The Prophet was Tecumseh's half-brother and a spiritual leader, but according to Harrison, "I do not think him much of a warrior."

The Battle of Tippecanoe

When Tecumseh went south to recruit more Indian tribes to his cause, he told Harrison he would be gone for a year. Harrison's spies told him he would be gone only three months. Recognizing his opportunity, Harrison wrote to the Secretary of War, asking permission to move against the Indians while Tecumseh was absent. Regular army troops were sent from Pittsburgh to Harrison along with the instructions "Do not attack the Prophet without having a force that will ensure success." Harrison departed Vincennes on September 26, 1811, and marched along the Wabash River. On November 6, he came within a couple miles of Prophetstown. Messengers from the Prophet met with some of Harrison's men, and scheduled a conference between the Prophet and Harrison the next day. As Harrison and his men camped, the Indian chiefs held council. Some wanted an immediate attack, while others wanted a truce. Tecumseh had told the Prophet to avoid conflict until he returned. Eventually, the chief of the Potawamis, Winnemac, threatened to leave with his warriors unless the Indians attacked. This forced the Prophet's hand, and it was agreed that they would attack early in the morning. One hundred braves were selected to crawl into camp and kill Harrison, after which all warriors would attack the leaderless army. Shortly after 4:00 A.M., a sentry shot and killed one of the infiltrating Indians and the battle commenced. The Prophet had told his followers they could not be defeated, and the white men "Would run and hide in the grass like young quails." Harrison's men quickly put out their campfires and fought off the Indians, with both sides suffering significant casualties. Although the battle ended around 6:30 A.M., Harrison and his troops maintained their defensive position, since they expected another attack after the Indians regrouped.

The Prophet was the half brother of Tecumseh & a spiritual leader
The Prophet was the half brother of Tecumseh & a spiritual leader | Source

Aftermath

After nothing more happened on November 7, Harrison moved into and burned a deserted Prophetstown the next morning. Harrison suffered 188 casualties, 62 of which were killed. It is believed that the Indians suffered slightly fewer casualties. While the battle was a military draw, it was a political defeat for Tecumseh. His delicate union of Indian tribes, requiring a decade of effort and all of his diplomatic skills, was forever shattered. Tecumseh fought with the British against the Americans during the War of 1812. He was killed during the Battle of the River Thames in Canada.

Even his enemies respected Tecumseh. According to one story, his body was recognized by an officer after the Battle of the River Thames who had it buried in a secret location, so it would not be mutilated (Both whites and Indians engaged in this disgusting practice.). Major Marston Clark, who served under Harrison at Tippecanoe, was later part of a committee to name the new Indiana state capital. He wanted it named Tecumseh, but Indianapolis was finally selected as a compromise. Several of Harrison's officers were killed during the Battle of Tippecanoe. If you look at an Indiana map, there are counties in the southeast named for Colonel Abram Owen, Major Joseph Daveiss, and Captain Spier Spencer. Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois all have counties named for Daveiss, but only Illinois spelled it correctly. Many years later, William Tecumseh Sherman said being a soldier means getting killed in battle and having your name spelled wrong in the papers.

The south side of the Tippecanoe County Courthouse features Gorge Rogers Clark, George Washington & Tecumseh
The south side of the Tippecanoe County Courthouse features Gorge Rogers Clark, George Washington & Tecumseh | Source

The Battlefield

John Tipton, a veteran of the conflict, purchased the battle site in 1829 to preserve it. The Tippecanoe Battlefield became state property in 1836. In 1840, Harrison began his presidential campaign at the scene of his triumph. The crowd was estimated at 30,000 for this Whig Party rally. Using the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too," Harrison became the ninth president of the United States, but died after only a month in office. The battlefield, which is located near Lafayette and at the edge of the small town of Battle Ground. There is also a small museum at the site.

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