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Tecumseh's War: Battle of Tippecanoe

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Tecumseh's War: Battle of Tippecanoe

Gen. William Henry Harrison

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Tippecanoe: Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Tippecanoe was fought November 7, 1811, during Tecumseh's War.

Armies & Commanders:

Americans

Native Americans

  • Tenskwatawa
  • 500-700 men

Battle of Tippecanoe Background:

In the wake of the 1809 Treaty of Fort Wayne which saw 3,000,000 acres of land transferred from the Native Americans to the United States, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh began a rise to prominence. Angry over the treaty's terms, he revived the idea that Native American land was owned in common by all the tribes and could not be sold without each giving their consent. Lacking the resources to directly confront the United States, he began a campaign of intimidation among the tribes to ensure that the treaty was not put into effect.

While Tecumseh was working to build support, his brother Tenskwatawa, known as "The Prophet," had begun a religious movement which stressed a return to the old ways. Based at Prophetstown, near the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers, he began garnering support from across the Old Northwest. In 1810, Tecumseh met with the governor of the Indiana Territory, William Henry Harrison, to demand that the treaty be declared illegitimate. Refusing, Harrison stated that each tribe had the right to treat separately with the United States.

Departing, Tecumseh began secretly accepting aid from the British in Canada and promised an alliance if hostilities broke out between Britain and the United States. In August 1811, Tecumseh again met with Harrison at Vincennes. Though promising that he and his brother sought only peace, Tecumseh departed unhappy and Tenskwatawa began gathering forces at Prophetstown. Traveling south, he began seeking assistance from the "Five Civilized Tribes" of the Southeast and encouraged them to join his confederacy against the United States.

The Battle of Tippecanoe:

In the wake of his meeting with Tecumseh, Harrison traveled to Kentucky on business leaving his secretary, John Gibson, at Vincennes as acting-governor. Utilizing his connections among the Native Americans, Gibson soon learned that forces were gathering at Prophetstown. Calling out the militia, Gibson sent letters to Harrison urging his immediate return. By mid-September, Harrison had returned along with elements of the 4th US Infantry. Forming his army at Maria Creek near Vincennes, Harrison's total force numbered around 1,000 men.

Moving north, Harrison encamped at present-day Terre Haute on October 3 to await supplies. While there, his men constructed Fort Harrison but were prevented from foraging by Native American raids. Finally re-supplied on October 28, Harrison resumed his advance the next day. 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.

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. At Prophetstown, Tenskwatawa's followers began fortifying the village while their leader determined a course of action. While the Winnebago agitated for an attack, Tenskwatawa consulted the spirits and decided launch a raid designed to kill Harrison.

Casting spells to protect his warriors, Tenskwatawa sent his men to the American camp. The attempt on Harrison's life was guided by an African-American wagon-driver who had defected to the Shawnees. Approaching the American lines, he was captured by American sentries. Despite this failure, Tenskwatawa's warriors did not withdraw and around 4:30 AM on November 7, they launched an attack on Harrison's men. 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. On November 8, a detachment of Harrison's army arrived at Prophetstown and found it abandoned except for a sick old woman.

Aftermath of Tippecanoe

A victory for Harrison, Tippecanoe saw his army suffer 62 killed and 126 wounded. While casualties for Tenskwatawa's smaller attacking force are not known with precision, it is estimated that they suffered 36-50 killed and 70-80 wounded. The defeat was a serious blow to Tecumseh's efforts to build a confederacy against the United States and the loss damaged Tenskwatawa's reputation. Tecumseh remained an active threat until his death in 1813 at the Battle of the Thames. On the larger stage, the Battle of Tippecanoe further fueled the tensions between Britain and the United States as many Americans blamed the British for inciting the tribes to violence. These tensions came to a head in June 1812 with the outbreak of the War of 1812.

Selected Sources

  • Ohio History Central: Battle of Tippecanoe
  • Tippecanoe County Historical Association: Tippecanoe Battlefield History
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