Surprise Attack at Tippecanoe: Beginning of the End of Tecumseh's Confederacy

January 25, 2021 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: William Henry HarrisonTecumsehNative AmericansTippecanoe

Surprise Attack at Tippecanoe: Beginning of the End of Tecumseh's Confederacy

William Henry Harrison led soldiers and frontiersmen to destroy the Indian confederacy organized by Shawnee leaders on Tippecanoe River.

Here's What You Need to Know: Tecumseh's prestige, as well as all hopes for a grand Indian confederacy, had been shattered at Tippecanoe.

For William Henry Harrison, the letter he received on October 12, 1811, constituted not only official orders, but something of a personal vindication as well. As the governor of Indian Territory, Harrison had been warning the War Department for more than five years of the dangerous threat posed by the Shawnee tribal leader Tecumseh and his brother, Tenskwatawa, called the Prophet. Although President James Madison had repeatedly urged Harrison to continue showing forbearance in dealing with the increasing number of border killings, Secretary of War William Eustis, on his own initiative, had issued a new set of instructions that granted the governor wide latitude in dealing with the Prophet and his followers encamped on the Tippecanoe River. “You will approach and order him to disperse,” wrote Eustis. “If he neglects or refuses to disperse he will be attacked and compelled to it by the force under your command.” Harrison had been anxiously preparing for such a move against the Prophet and quickly reported to Eustis that “nothing now remains but to chastise him and he shall certainly get it.”

Harrison’s repugnance for agitators came naturally. A scion of Virginia gentry, he was born on February 9, 1773, at the magnificent manor house of Berkeley Plantation on the James River. Commissioned an ensign in the United States Army in 1791, Harrison eventually served as an aide de camp to Maj. Gen. “Mad Anthony” Wayne. In that capacity Harrison saw action at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 and was present for treaty negotiations at Fort Greenville the following summer. The Treaty of Greenville, which secured to the United States the southern two-thirds of Ohio, pacified the belligerent tribes of the Northwest Territory after decades of continuous warfare, but likewise served as the genesis for future conflict.

Opposition to the Treaty of Greenville

From the outset, the peace settlement was not without its detractors. Opposition to the treaty was headed by Tecumseh, who had boycotted the negotiations. Although not a chief in any official capacity, Tecumseh, just 27 years old in 1795, quickly gathered a following of disaffected tribesmen who were determined to resist further American expansion, and the group established its own independent village outside the aegis of tribal authorities.

Ironically, the treaty itself served to buttress the salient point of Tecumseh’s resistance doctrine. Although it was customary to form agreements with a handful of tribes on the basis of territorial ownership, at Greenville the United States had succeeded in treating with more than 10 separate Indian nations at once, and virtually the entire native population of the Old Northwest had been represented. Although the provisions of the treaty could therefore be considered wholly legitimate, a dangerous precedent had been established by such tacit recognition of collective tribal ownership. Tecumseh insisted that the land was held in common by all the tribes and any further American attempts at territorial acquisition should be handled accordingly.

This concept was at loggerheads with official American policy. During the administration of President Thomas Jefferson, government officials increasingly implemented an aggressive system of territorial expansion aimed at extinguishing tribal claims. Jefferson consequently encouraged federal trading posts to extend unrestrained credit to the tribesmen and thereby foster a cycle of indebtedness among the natives. “When these debts get beyond what individuals can pay,” observed Jefferson, “they become willing to lop them off by a cession of lands.”

The point man in implementing Jefferson’s policies was Harrison, who had been appointed governor of the newly created Indiana Territory on May 13, 1800. In addition to his duties as governor, Harrison assumed the roles of superintendent of Indian affairs and treaty commissioner; at the latter task he quickly set to work and proved immensely successful. Between 1803 and 1805, Harrison concluded some half-dozen treaties with individual tribes and secured nearly 30 million acres for the United States.

The Rise of Native Nationalism

The incessant prosecution of land acquisition treaties did not go unnoticed by Tecumseh and his recalcitrant band, which had been inflamed by the steady depletion of Indian territory. In the summer of 1805, Tecumseh established a village beneath the very walls of old Fort Greenville in a defiant gesture to American authorities. Tecumseh’s Greenville village grew steadily over the succeeding three years as he continued to attract natives disaffected by the appeasement policies of elder tribal leaders.

Tecumseh actively sought to blur tribal distinctions and promote a pan-Indian nationalism, and his efforts to attract a wider following were greatly aided by the activities of his eccentric, one-eyed brother, Tenskwatawa. Regarded as little more than a drunken miscreant in his youth, Tenskwatawa had supposedly fallen into a trance in 1805 and underwent a radical transformation. Assuming the mantle of a Shawnee tribal prophet, he began preaching an ascetic brand of native witchcraft, condemning liquor, intermarriage, and the adoption of American-style agriculture.

The Prophet quickly secured a broad-based cult following and tested the bounds of his power in the spring of 1806 by launching a virtual reign of terror with the aim of awing the natives into submission. Several Indians, including a Christian convert and an aged Delaware chief, were accused of witchcraft and burnt at the stake on the Prophet’s orders. The fanatic dedication of the Prophet’s followers alarmed both Harrison and older tribal leaders. Harrison dispatched an angry reprimand to the Delaware for the part they played in the executions and contemptuously pointed out the fact that no miracles had been performed by “this pretended prophet who dares to speak in the name of the Great Creator.” An exasperated Harrison reported to the secretary of war in July of 1807 that war belts had been circulating through the tribes, and he hinted at the broader implications posed by potential hostilities. “I really fear,” wrote Harrison, “that this said Prophet is an engine set to work by the British for some bad purpose.”

Ever since the close of the Revolution, anger over British intrigue had enraged the frontier  population. These suspicions were inflamed anew subsequent to the Chesapeake affair in June of 1807 and resulted in a heightened sense of impending conflict with Great Britain. Harrison warned the territorial assembly that they should be prepared for “the contest which is likely to ensue, for who does not know that the tomahawk and scalping knife of the savage are always employed as the instruments of British vengeance.” Although the British had as yet offered no overt assistance to Tecumseh and the Prophet, British subjects circulated south of the Great Lakes with impunity and Sir James Craig, the governor of Upper Canada, encouraged his agents to establish contact with the Prophet and privately impress upon the natives “with delicacy and caution that England expects their aid in the event of war.”

“It is Our Intention to Live in Peace”

By the spring of 1808 the suspicions of American authorities had been so aroused by his  activities that Tecumseh sought a more isolated locale for his village and settled at the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers in Indiana Territory. From his secluded base on the Wabash, Tecumseh began laying the groundwork of an Indian confederacy that would stretch from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico and would constitute the most ambitious effort of native resistance ever attempted on the continent.

Harrison had encouraged the disbandment of the village at Greenville and was pleased to receive a letter from the Prophet in July 1808 assuring him of the Tippecanoe settlement’s pacific intent. The Prophet then met personally with Harrison, assuring the governor that “it is our intention to live in peace with our father and his people forever.” In surprising testament to Tenskwatawa’s hypnotic appeal, the governor was completely taken in by the deception. Harrison reported to the secretary of war that “the influence which the Prophet has acquired will prove rather advantageous than otherwise.”

The rapprochement would prove to be short-lived. By the spring of 1809, Indians as far away as Missouri admitted that they had been courted to war against the frontiersmen, and Indian agent William Wells, convinced that the Prophet was in communication with British operatives, reported that Tenskwatawa had requested neighboring tribes to “receive the tomahawk from him and destroy all the white people at Vincennes.” At last convinced of the Prophet’s true motives, Harrison confessed that “my suspicions of his guilt have been rather strengthened than diminished.”

The final breach came in the autumn of 1809. On orders from Washington, Harrison  concluded yet another treaty at Fort Wayne on September 30. Meeting with delegates from the  Miami, Delaware, Kickapoo, and Potawatomi tribes, Harrison acquired some three million acres lying north of Vincennes. The loss of this tract, referred to as the New Purchase, infuriated the Indians at Tippecanoe and contributed to a rapid destabilization of the frontier.

“Do Not Think That the Red Coats can Protect You”

Hostilities escalated with the destruction of settlers’ property as well as a handful of mysterious murders. Harrison opened an angry correspondence with the Prophet and offered forgiveness if the natives would be willing to repent. Harrison added an ominous threat that portended future trouble. “Do not think that the red coats can protect you,” he warned, “they are not able to protect themselves.” In response to Harrison’s concerns, the Indians made arrangements for another conference, albeit not with the Prophet but with Tecumseh.