Defeat at Tippecanoe:
November 7, 1811
The following comes from our textt, Lands of Hope and Promise: A History of North America. For ordering information on this and our other texts, please go here.
A comet scored the heavens at the moment of his birth, an event that presaged his future greatness. His father, a Shawnee chieftain, named him Tecumseh (“Panther Crossing the Sky”), in token of the omen. From his earliest days, Tecumseh watched as white settlers crossed through the Cumberland Gap, over the mountains, to take his people’s country, western Virginia and the rich lands of Kentucky beyond. He saw his people fight these settlers, only to be defeated in battle after battle; his father, Puckeshinwa, fallen in battle; his mentor, the chieftain Cornplanter, shot and killed; his elder brother, Chiksika, slain at his side — all these deaths, and many more, weighed on Tecumseh’s spirit. He waxed more bitter and angry against the people that flowed in, in ever increasing numbers, over the mountains. The 26 year-old Tecumseh was among the defeated at Fallen Timbers in 1794; but unlike his fellow chiefs, he had refused to sign the Treaty of Greenville, which handed millions of acres of land over to the United States government for yearly payments of $10,000.
Tecumseh knew that the Shawnee alone, or even an alliance of the northern tribes, were powerless against the whites, whose numbers seemed endless. He conceived of a broader alliance that would join the northern and southern tribes against the whites and prevent them from seizing more Indian land. By 1808 he had formed an alliance with tribes of the western Ohio River Valley. He established the capital for this alliance at Tippecanoe, a settlement on the Wabash River in the Indiana Territory. There warriors gathered and trained for war.
Together with his brother, Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh prepared his people for war. His people held Tenskwatawa in honor; he was called “the Prophet” because of a spiritual awakening that he said had put him in contact with the world of spirits. Tecumseh and the Prophet called on Indians to give up whiskey and no longer to trade with whites. The Indian, they said, must eschew ties with the white men and return to ancestral ways.
The territorial governor of Indiana at the time was William Henry Harrison. In 1809, by intimidation and bribery, Harrison had induced the chiefs of the Miami, Potawatomi, Delaware (Lenape), and Kikapoo to sign a treaty ceding 3 million acres in southern Indiana and Illinois to the United States. Tecumseh had protested this sale; no Indian, he said, could give up the land that belonged to all red men. Wishing to avoid war, the Shawnee chief met with Harrison to induce him to void the treaty and give assurance that the United States would not purchase any more Indian lands. Rebuffed by the governor, Tecumseh prepared for war. In 1811 he went south to draw the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Cherokee peoples into his alliance.
Rumors of Indian attacks on white settlements soon reached Governor Harrison. To overawe the Indians or beat them into submission before Tecumseh’s return, Harrison gathered 1,000 volunteers and regulars and stealthily moved against the Indian encampment at Tippecanoe. By November 6, 1811, Harrison had established a camp on a wooded hill, 12 miles from Tecumseh’s capital. The Prophet, whom Tecumseh had left in command, learned of Harrison’s advance. Though Tecumseh had commanded him to instigate no violence, Tenskwatawa made plans to fall on the white man’s camp.
Assuring his warriors that his magic protected them from injury and death, Tenskwatawa led an attack on Harrison’s camp just before dawn on November 7. Surprised by the onslaught, Harrison’s men suffered heavy casualties; but reforming their ranks, they charged on the Indians, forcing them into a swamp that lay between Tippecanoe and the United States camp. With heavy losses on both sides, the battle ended in a draw. The following morning, Harrison marched on the Indian camp — only to find it abandoned. Tenskwatawa had withdrawn by night.
The victory at Tippecanoe made Harrison a national hero. It also ended Tecumseh’s hopes for an alliance of Indian nations. With the same spirit by which he forbade the torture of his white enemies during war, Tecumseh spared his brother Tenskwatawa’s life. Faced with no other alternative, he led his people into an alliance with the British in Canada. War threatened the uneasy peace between Great Britain and the United States. Perhaps, with British aid, Tecumseh could lead his people to regain what they had lost to the ever encroaching Anglo-Americans.
From Across the Atlantic
In 1811, while Americans and Native Americans were fighting for the frontier, this is some of what was happening in Europe: the completion of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Trio N. 7 in B-flat major.