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This Day in History: William Henry Harrison & the Battle of Tippecanoe

On this day in 1811, the Battle of Tippecanoe is fought between Shawnee warriors and Americans led by future President William Henry Harrison.

At the time, Harrison was serving as Governor of the Indiana Territory. His job was to negotiate treaties with Indian tribes in the area and to obtain as much land as possible for the United States. Some historians have praised his negotiating tactics, stating that he “understood the niceties of the Indian style of bargaining—the long hours of smoking and talking before any discussion of the issues at hand . . . .” Other historians claim that he obtained signed treaties from Indian chiefs because he “softened them up with alcohol.”

Either way, Harrison’s efforts were not appreciated by Tecumseh, the Shawnee leader, who was working to defend Indians’ stake in the land. Tecumseh promoted the idea that treaties were invalid unless they’d been signed by ALL Indian tribes. He was also working to build a confederacy of tribes to stand together against these treaty-making efforts of Americans such as Harrison.

One such treaty, the Treaty of Fort Wayne (1809), really pushed Tecumseh over the edge! By the terms of the treaty, the United States purchased 3 million acres of land from several Indian tribes. Tecumseh and Harrison met in 1810. Neither side would give. Harrison believed the treaties he’d brokered were legitimate. Tecumseh felt they were invalid without the consent of all other Indian tribes.

Let’s just say that neither that meeting nor a follow up meeting in 1811 went well.

Tecumseh left for the south, intending to bring more tribes into his confederation. He left behind his brother, known as the Prophet, with strict instructions not to attack American settlers. (At least not yet.) Harrison, too, had been instructed to avoid conflict if possible; however, he decided to try and resolve matters while Tecumseh was gone. He led a force of about 1,000 men toward Prophetstown, where the Prophet was staying. Harrison arrived on November 6. The Prophet sent several men to speak with Harrison. They indicated that the Prophet would meet with Harrison the next day, and they recommended a campsite nearby.

Harrison has been criticized for what he did next. On the one hand, he seemed suspicious and he ordered his men to sleep fully clothed, with their guns ready nearby. On the other hand, he didn’t bother to fortify his position, so his men were left vulnerable. It proved to be a mistake.

That night, the Prophet planned an attack. Reportedly, he convinced his men that the white men’s bullets could not harm them that day. Victory was theirs for the taking! The Indian attack came a little after 4:00 a.m. on the 7th. Harrison later said that his men “behaved in a manner that can never be too much applauded.” Harrison himself mounted a horse and, as one historian has described, rode “from line to line encouraging his men, although he knew that he was at all times a conspicuous mark for Indian bullets.” Indeed, one missile came close. It tore through the brim of his hat.

The two sides fought for a few hours. In the end, the Indian warriors retreated, evacuating Prophetstown, too. Americans burned the empty town the next day and began marching back home.

In the aftermath of the battle, Tecumseh hardened his resolve to fight back against Americans. He and many other Indians would support the British as allies during the War of 1812.

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