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The Battle of Tippecanoe

Tecumseh was soon on his southern journey, with twenty warriors to aid in the work which was now apparently nearing completion. Inspired by patriotic zeal, he passed from tribe to tribe, incessantly active. Through dismal swamps and across wide plains he made his way, and in his light canoe shot many a dangerous rapid. He labored diligently among the Indians to make them sensible of their wrongs and induce them to sink their petty tribal jealousies in a grand and noble patriotism. He braved the dangers and difficulties of winter travel over the crusted snow and through the white forests. From sunrise to sunset he journeyed, passing from camp-fire to camp-fire, binding together the scattered tribes by the fire and force of his eloquence.

In Tecumseh's absence the Prophet reigned at Tippecanoe, performing his mysterious rites, seeing visions, and dreaming dreams. Indians from the most remote tribes were drawn by tales of his miraculous deeds to this chosen seat of the Great Spirit, the centre from which radiated the Prophet's influence. The ever-increasing number of red men there assembling was evidence also of the success of Tecumseh's mission. The Americans had heard with uneasiness his bold avowal before starting on his southern journey, and their alarm was increased by the reports from Harrison's spies, posted near the Prophet's town.

On August 7, 1811, the United States government demanded the surrender of all Indians who were in any way connected with the murder of American citizens, and threatened to exterminate those tribes which raised the hatchet. In response the Prophet promised to comply with the president's demands, and reiterated his earnest desire to avert war. But, in spite of such pacific protesting, the Indians continued their acts of hostility. Some horses were stolen, and the thieves were tracked to Tippecanoe. The owners hastened thither to reclaim their property, and on nearing the town were fired upon by Indians. Similar incidents were common.

Harrison was well aware of the important and extensive nature of the work in which Tecumseh was engaged, and viewing with alarm the rapid growth of the confederation on the western frontier, he resolved on action. The destruction of Tippecanoe would be of the utmost strategic importance, but, if such a drastic measure were determined upon, it would have to be accomplished before Tecumseh's return. On the other hand, the president's commands had been to maintain peace. The governor reconciled the two opposing courses of action by the thought that a large army advancing upon the Indians might intimidate them into submission. Failing that, the alternative war became inevitable.

On October 5 Harrison set out from Vincennes with over one thousand men. This army encamped for a brief period on the Wabash, where the city of Terre Haute now stands, and erected a fort which, in honor of the leader, was named Fort Harrison. Leaving about one hundred men as a guard, Harrison, with the remaining nine hundred, set out for Tippecanoe on October 29. Two well-worn trails made by the Prophet's disciples led along the Wabash, one on either side of the river. Harrison chose that along the eastern side, then forded the river and struck the other trail. He safely crossed the dangerous pass at Pine Creek, where fatal havoc had been wrought upon the troops of General Harmar. Worn out by their tedious and difficult march, the soldiers encamped on the evening of November 5 within ten miles of the Prophet's headquarters. Next morning they were early on the march; and, after having gone about five miles, they sighted a party of reconnoitering Indians, with whom they endeavored to communicate, but the red men ignored their advances and assumed an unfriendly attitude. Within a mile and a half of the town several of the officers impatiently urged an immediate attack; but as the president's commands were to keep peace as long as possible, Harrison decided to send an officer with a small guard to arrange for a conference. This overture, however, did not succeed; the Indians were hostile, and even made an attempt to capture the officer and his men. And Harrison then ordered his army to advance upon the town.

Suddenly three Indians appeared, making their way directly towards the army. The Prophet's chief counselor, with two interpreters, had come to demand the reason of this warlike advance. Peace, they declared, was their one desire. With much gesticulation they explained that messages to that effect had been sent by certain chiefs, who must have taken the other trail and so missed the general of the Seventeen Fires. The governor agreed to suspend hostilities in order that terms of peace might be arranged in council on the following day, and then set his men in motion towards Tippecanoe. This unlooked-for action startled the Indians, who immediately assumed the defensive. The governor, however, assured them that he had no hostile intentions, and asked whether there was a near-by stream by the side of which his troops might encamp. He was directed to a creek about a mile distant which ran through the prairie to the north of the town. Thither the Americans at once proceeded, and finding it a most desirable camping-ground, the soldiers were soon busily engaged in pitching their tents and gathering brushwood to make fires, for the November air was chill. Although no attack was anticipated, Harrison arranged his camp as if expecting battle, and posted around it a thin line of sentries.

Darkness fell upon the two encampments. The weary soldiers were sleeping on their arms; the Prophet and his counselors sat about their council fire, eager and alert, earnestly discussing the situation. Tecumseh's parting injunction had been to maintain peace at all hazards until his return. But the Prophet saw himself surrounded by intrepid warriors who would dare anything at his command, and his ambition was sorely tempted. In point of numbers his force was equal to that of the Americans, and the latter, moreover, were without the protection of fortifications. Visions of certain victory passed before his mind. He was still smarting from Harrison's stinging message to the tribes five years before, and not too well pleased with Tecumseh's rising fame, which threatened to eclipse his own. Moved by these thoughts, the Prophet yielded to the counsel of his boldest warriors and decided upon battle.

Hurried preparations were then made to take the enemy by surprise. There was no moon and the sky was clouded. Nature herself apparently was aiding the Prophet's plans. All being ready, he concocted some charmed fluid, over which he muttered curious incantations. He assured his credulous followers that half the enemy were mad and the remainder dead; and he solemnly promised them that bullets would glance harmlessly from their own bodies. The superstitious Indians, thus excited to an intense pitch of religious fanaticism, were prepared to dare anything.

Shortly before daylight on November 7 the whole Indian force crept stealthily through the grass towards the fires of Harrison's camp. The hush that precedes the dawn was broken only by the soft patter of rain. A watchful sentinel discerned in the dawning light the spectre-like form of the foremost savage. He fired at once, and the shot roused the sleeping camp. It told the Indians that they were discovered, and with wild war-whoops they rushed against the American position. The line of sentries was quickly broken through; but the soldiers sprang to arms; camp-fires were trodden out; and Indians and whites fought furiously in the darkness. Perched on a safe eminence, the Prophet looked down upon the fight, chanting his war-song further to excite the savages, and rattling deers' hoofs as signals for advance or retreat. Under the influence of their fierce fanaticism the Indians abandoned their usual practice of fighting from behind cover, and braved the enemy in open conflict. In spite of Tenskwatawa's prophecies, the American bullets wrought deadly havoc among the warriors, who, seeing that they had been deceived, began to waver. Finally, the Indians gave way before a terrific charge and fled to the woods, while the soldiers applied the torch to their village.

On the head of the Prophet fell the blame for this disastrous reverse. 'You are a liar,' said a Winnebago chief to his former spiritual adviser, 'for you told us that the white people were all dead or crazy, when they were in their right mind and fought like the devil.' The Prophet vainly endeavored to give reasons for the failure of his prophecy; it was, he declared, all due to some error in compounding his concoction; but the wizard's rod was broken, his mysterious influence shattered. His radiant visions of power had vanished in the smoke of battle, and he slipped back into the oblivion from which he had so suddenly sprung.

Meanwhile Tecumseh was pursuing his mission with determination and vigor. After travelling many weary miles, he turned again homeward, pleased with his success, his thoughts soaring hopefully as he neared the little town which owed its existence to him. But he arrived there to find his headquarters demolished, his followers disbanded, his brother humiliated. Hardest of all to bear was the knowledge that his own brother, on whose co-operation he had so firmly relied, had caused this great disaster to his people. The Prophet's miserable excuses so enraged him that he seized him by the hair and shook him violently. Tecumseh mused upon his years of patient and careful organization, and thought sorrowfully of his town, so laboriously fortified, and peopled at the cost of so many dangers risked and privations endured. It was a blow almost too great to be borne. Should he accept it as a total defeat and abandon his purpose? No! The courageous chief, as he stood amid the charred remains of Tippecanoe, resolved to persevere in his struggle for the freedom of his race.

Tecumseh now informed the governor of his return and expressed his willingness to visit the president of the United States. Permission was granted him to go to Washington, but it was stipulated that he must do so unattended. This offended Tecumseh's pride and dignity. He was the most powerful American Indian living, with five thousand warriors at his command; holding in one hand an alliance with Great Britain, and in the other an alliance with the Indians of the south-west. Such was the position he had reached, and he intended to maintain it. Was so great a chief, ruler over a confederacy similar to that of the white man, to visit the chief of the Seventeen Fires without a retinue! No! He haughtily refused to go to Washington under such conditions.

In the early spring of 1812 two settlers were put to death near Fort Dearborn, several others near Fort Madison, and a whole family was murdered near Vincennes. These acts of violence threw the settlers into a panic. A general Indian rising was feared; but at this critical moment Tecumseh attended a grand council at Mississinewa, on the Wabash, between Tippecanoe and Fort Wayne, and succeeded in calming the excited fears of the Americans. He was not yet prepared for open war. On this occasion, in the course of his address, he said:

Governor Harrison made war on my people in my absence; it was the will of the Great Spirit that he should do so. We hope it will please the Great Spirit that the white people may let us live in peace; we will not disturb them, neither have we done it, except when they came to our village with the intention of destroying us. We are happy to state to your brothers present, that the unfortunate transaction that took place between the white people and a few of our men at our village has been settled between us and Governor Harrison; and I will further state, had I been at home, there would have been no blood shed at the time.

In speaking of the recent murders, Tecumseh said he greatly regretted that the ill-will of the Americans should be exercised upon his followers, when the Potawatomis, over whom he had no power, alone were guilty.

To a message from the British agent Tecumseh replied:

You tell us to retreat or turn to one side should the Long Knives come against us. Had I been at home in the late unfortunate affair (the attack on Tippecanoe) I should have done so, but those I left at home were (I cannot call them men) a poor set of people, and their scuffle with the Long Knives I compare to a struggle between little children, who only scratch each other's faces. The Kickapoos and Winnebagoes have since been at Post Vincennes and settled the matter amicably.

If Tecumseh regarded the Tippecanoe battle lightly, the Americans considered it a serious event. It was magnified into an important victory, and cited to rouse feelings of enmity against Great Britain, whose agents were held to be responsible for the conduct of the Indians. Occurring at a crisis of affairs, it was made a strong argument for a declaration of war against England.

When June came Tecumseh demanded ammunition from the Indian agent at Fort Wayne. The agent presented many reasons why the chief should now become friendly to the Seventeen Fires. Tecumseh listened with indifference. He then bitterly expressed his resentment at Governor Harrison's advance in his absence, and maintained his right to the lands the Americans had invaded, but he still declared that he had no intention of taking up arms against the United States. The agent refused the ammunition. 'My British father will not deny me; to him will I go,' retorted Tecumseh.

This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Chronicles of Canada, Tecumseh, A Chronicle of the Last Great Leader of his People, By Ethel T. Raymond, Toronto, 1915


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