Event Date: November 7, 1811
Battle between American forces and Native American warriors that occurred on the banks of the Wabash River near Prophets-town (near present-day Lafayette, Indiana) on November 7, 1811. The Battle of Tippecanoe served to blunt Shawnee leader Tecumseh's growing native confederation. Tecumseh opposed any concessions to the white settlers who were expanding westward into Indian lands but realized that in order to mount an effective resistance, he had to form an alliance extending beyond the Shawnees. He thus worked to create a Native American coalition of many tribes that would be dedicated to the goal of protecting their lands against white expansion.
Tecumseh and his half brother Tenskwatawa, known as the Prophet, had founded Prophetstown in May 1808 as the capital of their growing native confederacy. The town was not only the center for diplomatic activities among the tribes but was also a training ground for warriors. At its peak, more than 1,000 people resided there.
In November 1811 Tecumseh was absent from Prophetstown, recruiting other Native American groups in the southern states for his confederation, and Tenskwatawa was in charge in Tecumseh's absence. At the same time, governor of the Indiana Territory William Henry Harrison was determined to destroy Prophetstown. Harrison had aggressively pursued land cession treaties with the Native Americans. These treaties often included the payment of small sums of money for vast tracts of land. Oftentimes, officials played one tribe or individual against another to help secure the cessions or plied native leaders with alcohol to get them to sign away their lands. Tecumseh's growing Native American confederation was a threat to this process. To western whites, Prophetstown had become a symbol of British influence, although the native raids on American frontier settlements almost certainly did not originate with them. Governors Ninian Edwards of the Illinois Territory and Benjamin Howard of the newly formed Missouri Territory both approved Harrison's proposed plan for a march up the Wabash River to the limits of the purchase of 1809. Harrison so informed Secretary of War William Eustis, who responded that he favored approaching the Prophet, asking him to disperse his followers, and, should he refuse, attacking him. Eustis also authorized Harrison to establish a new frontier post, but in no circumstances was he to antagonize the British.
The most important element of Harrison's expeditionary force, Colonel John Boyd's 4th U.S. Infantry Regiment, arrived at Vincennes, Indiana, from Philadelphia on September 19, 1807, having covered the 1,300 miles on foot and in boats. Six days later on September 25, Harrison gave the order to move out. A total of 970 men responded: 350 members of the 4th Regiment, 400 Indiana Militia infantry, 84 mounted Indiana riflemen, 123 Kentucky dragoons, and 13 scouts and guides. The march order, adopted from Major General Anthony Wayne's practice in the Fallen Timbers Campaign of 1794, consisted of a company of riflemen leading, followed 100 yards behind by a mounted troop and 50 yards behind it the infantry in column. Another mounted troop took up the rear 100 yards behind the infantry. Detached troops protected the flanks of the column 100 yards to either side. Each night the men prepared a fortified camp to protect against possible native attack.
As a consequence of these precautions, it took Harrison more than two weeks to cover the 65 miles from Vincennes to the bend in the Wabash River at present-day Terre Haute. There the men completed Fort Harrison on October 27 before moving to the mouth of the Vermillion River. Harrison now ordered the construction of a blockhouse, later called Fort Boyd, at the site.
Harrison had warned that whether he advanced farther would depend on Native American conduct, so when some natives stole horses from the camp and someone fired into the camp, wounding a man on October 10, Harrison took these incidences as justification to cross the Vermillion into Native American territory. More shots were fired into Harrison's advancing forces but without casualties. Harrison was now determined to destroy Prophetstown, and his officers urged that he attack without delay. However, on November 6 a native delegation requested talks, and Harrison, against the advice of his subordinate commanders, accepted, with the parley scheduled for the next day.
The native delegation then suggested the campsite for Harrison's force. Harrison's enemies later claimed that the natives had selected an ideal ambush position, but in fact it was the best site in the area for defensive purposes. Located some two miles west of Prophetstown on an oak-covered knoll, it was a wedge-shaped area covering about 10 acres, bordered by wet prairie land and by Burnet's Creek on its west side. On its east the knoll rose about 10 feet above the prairie and on its west about 20 feet before the creek.
Harrison ordered the men to bed down for the night fully clothed, with their weapons loaded and bayonets fixed. It was a cold night, and Harrison did not restrict fires to help the men stay warm. In case of native attack, Harrison instructed that the men rise, advance a pace or two, and form a line of battle and return fire. Harrison was confident that he could hold during a night attack and then take the offensive when it was light. The horses were kept within the camp, and to warn of any attack, Harrison ordered the posting of a sizable night guard of 108 men. He did not, however, order the construction of breastworks, nor was he concerned about the possibility of fires illuminating the American positions.
Although Tecumseh had warned his brother against fighting until the confederation was stronger and fully unified, the Prophet ignored the advice. On the night of November 6 the natives discussed their options. Later Shabonee, a Pottawatomi chief, testified that two Englishmen were present during the deliberations and had urged an attack. A captured African American wagon driver informed the Prophet that Harrison had no artillery with him and that he planned to attack Prophetstown after his discussions with the natives the next day.
That night some 550 to 700 natives, largely Kickapoos, Pottawatomies, and Winnebagos but also including Ojibwas, Wyan-dots, Mucos, Ottawas, Piankashaws, and Shawnees, worked themselves into a frenzy. Using fiery speeches, Tenskwatawa urged action. He claimed that the white man's bullets could not harm them, that the whites’ powder had already turned to sand and their bullets to soft mud.
The warriors left Prophetstown during the night, and by 4:00 a.m. on November 7 they had surrounded Harrison's camp. One of the American sentinels, Stephen Mars, heard movement in the darkness and fired a shot or two before fleeing for the safety of the camp. He was killed before he could reach it, but his shot alerted Harrison's men. The Indians then let out war whoops and opened fire. The battle opened first on the northwest side of the camp. Unfortunately for Harrison's men, when they rose many were silhouetted against their campfires, making them easy targets. Harrison himself mounted and rode to the sound of the firing. His own white horse had broken its tether during the night, and he rode a dark one. This probably saved his life, for the natives were looking for him on a white horse. (Harrison's aide Colonel Abraham Owen, who found and rode Harrison's white horse, was shot and killed.) Firing then broke out on the east side of the camp, and the battle became general. During the battle, the Prophet stationed himself on a high rock to the east and chanted war songs to encourage his followers. Informed early that some of his warriors had been slain, the Prophet insisted that his followers fight on, promising an easy victory.
After two hours of fighting and when it was sufficiently light, Harrison sent out mounted men to attack the natives on their flanks. Soon the natives were in retreat. In the battle, Harrison lost 68 men killed and 126 wounded, a significant casualty rate of up to a quarter of his force. The number of Native American dead is not known for certain. Thirty-seven bodies were found at the battle site, but this did not account for those who were carried off or died later from their wounds. Native American losses are estimated at no fewer than 50 killed and 70 or more wounded.
Worried by a false report that Tecumseh was nearby with a larger native force, Harrison ordered his men to fortify their position. A reconnaissance the next day revealed, however, that Prophetstown had been abandoned, and Harrison then advanced on it. Among supplies abandoned there by the natives in their hasty withdrawal was some new British equipment. Again wary about the possibility of Tecumseh being nearby, Harrison ordered the men to take what supplies they could and destroy the rest. Prophetstown, its supplies, and its food stocks were soon ablaze. In order to move swiftly and provide for his wounded in carts, Harrison also ordered much of the expedition's private property, including his own, destroyed. His force then set out for Vincennes, 150 miles distant. The return march was an agony for the wounded who, tossed about in the carts, died at the rate of two or three per day.
The native warriors came close to killing the Prophet for his false predictions. Certainly the Battle of Tippecanoe also badly damaged Tecumseh's vision of building a confederation to stave off white settlement. Tecumseh returned to Prophetstown several weeks later to find only ruins. He was never able to recover the momentum behind his confederation movement after the battle, although Prophetstown was rebuilt.
In the end, the battle only hardened positions on both sides. Frontiersmen were convinced that the British had been behind native aggression, while the battle drove many natives to side with the British during the War of 1812. The British were also convinced of the need to aid the natives. In effect, Tippecanoe served to cement the British–Native American alliance. For all these reasons, many have called it the opening battle of the War of 1812. For Harrison, the Battle of Tippecanoe had mixed results. Although he described the battle as “a complete and decisive victory,” his political enemies charged that he had been guilty of poor leadership and undue aggressiveness. Among his attackers was Colonel Boyd, angered at least in part by Harrison staying his harsh disciplinary measures during the march to Prophetstown. Boyd claimed that Harrison had given the militia too much credit for the victory. Harrison's friends, however, claimed that he had saved the Old Northwest from the natives. Certainly the battle helped establish his national reputation and clearly assisted him in securing the presidency in the election of 1840, during which the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” was used.
Fallen Timbers, Battle of; Harrison, William Henry; Prophetstown; Shawnees; Tecumseh; Tenskwatawa
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