In the early 1800s tensions increased between Native Americans and American frontier settlers in the Northwest territories. These tensions culminated in the important Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 that saw US forces defeat a coalition of Native American warriors.
The old Northwest territories included land in the modern-day Midwest including Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Following the American Revolution, settlers increasingly intruded upon Native American lands, sparking tensions on the frontier.
While the British tried to avoid this scenario with the Proclamation of 1763, the United States encouraged frontier settlement and land speculation, as well as encouraging the Native Americans to assimilate into American culture.
Governor of the Indiana territory William Henry Harrison played a prominent role in negotiating with the Natives in the early 1800s. Harrison negotiated several land cession treaties, including the notable Treaty of Fort Wayne in 1809 that ceded nearly 30,000 acres of native land.
Shawnee leaders and brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, also known as “The Prophet,” opposed ceding Native lands. The two sparked a movement and formed a confederacy aiming to fight back against the settlers’ incursions.
As Tecumseh’s Confederacy grew, the white settlers grew increasingly wary. Eventually, Governor Harrison received permission to eliminate the threat posed by Tecumseh.
The eventual Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 was an important victory for the United States and held great significance in the psyche of frontier settlers in the following years.
Events Leading up to the Battle of Tippecanoe
The origins of “Tecumseh’s War” and the Battle of Tippecanoe can be easily traced back to the mid-1790s. At this time a different Native American confederacy on the frontier threatened US ambitions of westward expansion.
The United States’ victory at the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers over the Native confederacy led to the monumental Treaty of Greenville that ceded Native American lands in most of present-day Ohio and extended into southern Indiana.
At a similar time the United States signed the significant 1794 Jay’s Treaty with Great Britain which gave the US sole control over large sections of the Northwest territory.
Both William Henry Harrison and Tecumseh fought in the Battle of Fallen Timbers and gained notoriety for their accomplishments. As early as the late 1790s, Tecumseh was urging the formation of another Native confederacy.1
Meanwhile Harrison was eventually appointed as the territorial Governor of Indiana in 1801. President Jefferson tasked Harrison to aid in the removal of Native Americans from the Northwest territory.
Jefferson preferred removal by land cessions via treaty but did not opposed force when necessary.
Although his publicly-stated goal was Native American assimilation into American culture, privately he instructed Harrison to try and make the natives dependent on American goods and force them into debt so that the US could use that as leverage in future land cession. Jeffersonian ideals simply did not extend out to Native Americans.1
Eventual statehood was at stake for Indiana and Illinois, and Harrison proved up for the challenge.3
While Harrison negotiated several further treaties in the 1800s, “The Prophet” grew in prominence. The Prophet was a spiritual leader who urged natives to abandon attempts at assimilation into Anglo-American culture and return to their traditional ways.
His words were popular amongst younger natives who felt betrayed by their older leaders who sought appeasement with the US.
As The Prophet’s movement grew, Tecumseh also emerged as a leader given his vocal opposition to treaties involving land cessions and hostility towards Native leaders siding with the United States.
The Treaty of Fort Wayne in 1809 that ceded nearly 3 million acres of Native land in southern Indiana particularly incensed the Shawnee brothers.1
As Tecumseh’s Confederacy grew in size, conflict was inevitable.
Why Was the Battle of Tippecanoe Fought?
The 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe was ultimately fought as William Henry Harrison recognized the threat posed to frontier settlers by Tecumseh’s Confederacy. The United States could not allow the coalition to remain a viable military force.
Harrison attempted to negotiate directly with Tecumseh and The Prophet, holding conferences in 1810 and 1811, but all failed. Tecumseh refused to cede any land and demanded that white settlers encroach no further.
Following the summer of 1811 conference, Tecumseh departed south to attempt to persuade the southern Five Civilized Tribes to join the confederacy. He hoped that a Native alliance across the entire frontier would overwhelm the United States and force them to stop encroaching on their lands.1
The native alliance would also provide strength, enough so that there could have been a different outcome at the important 1814 Battle of Horseshoe Bend.
With Tecumseh away, Harrison spotted a golden opportunity to destroy the coalition. The Prophet and Tecumseh’s followers were located at a village called Prophetstown in modern-day central Indiana near the Tippecanoe River.
The US Secretary of War granted Harrison permission for an expedition to the region with the goal of subduing the natives. He raised nearly 1,000 men for the task and departed in October 1811, stopping to build Fort Harrison along the way.3
Tecumseh expressly told The Prophet to avoid fighting the United States while he was away. The confederacy was simply not ready and had he been there, the battle likely would not have occurred.4
The Prophet could not control the young warriors who desired battle as easily as Tecumseh could. When Harrison arrived just outside Prophetstown on November 6th, 1811, The Prophet asked for a peace conference to be held the next day.
Harrison agreed and camped for the night. Meanwhile, the Prophet made plans for a surprise night attack hoping to rout the men in the confusion of the darkness.
What Were the Results of the Battle of Tippecanoe?
The result of the Battle of Tippecanoe was a narrow victory for the United States but hardly a decisive one.
The Native Americans attacked in the early morning darkness after listening to the Prophet speak of assurances from the “Great Spirit.” He even went so far as to claim that the white man’s bullets could not harm them and the warriors could not be defeated.1
Above all, The Prophet stated that the warriors numbering some 500-700 men must do whatever it took to kill William Henry Harrison. Without him, the resistance would crumble.
While the natives had the element of surprise, Harrison had his troops prepared in case of such a scenario. He formed a trapezoidal defensive perimeter and ordered his troops to sleep at their positions with weapons loaded, prepared for an attack at a moment’s notice.
After the native attack was discovered, pandemonium broke loose and the natives nearly succeeded in their objective of killing Harrison and routing the troops. The native warriors killed an aide who rode Harrison’s large horse, believing him to be the Governor.1
As Harrison rallied his troops, the native warriors became disheartened by the events. The battle lasted nearly two hours into the early morning light. Eventually, the outnumbered natives retreated back to Prophetstown where they collected food and supplies and abandoned the town before Harrison burnt it to the ground.
Losses were heavy on both sides. Harrison reported the United States lost 126 wounded and 62 killed. He exaggerated native losses, claiming they were in the hundreds.1
However, first-hand accounts state that only 36 natives were found dead at the battle site. As the natives carried off their wounded and some dead, the actual numbers are believed to be around 50 dead and 70-80 wounded.5
As the figures suggest, the result of the Battle of Tippecanoe was not decisive in the slightest.
Why Was the Battle of Tippecanoe Important?
The 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe was an important milestone on the frontier as the US victory negatively impacted Tecumseh’s rising confederacy and halted any plans for a large-scale Native American war.
The Prophet’s stature as a religious leader took a significant blow and his teachings became much less influential after his failed prophecies. Tecumseh’s Confederacy rebuilt Prophetstown and continued their fight against the encroaching white settlers.1
Despite the victory the United States blamed the British for providing military supplies and encouraging natives to attack on the frontier.
In fact, the 1812 War Declaration specifically cited the Battle of Tippecanoe as an example of British interference on the frontier and was a major cause of the War of 1812.
Tecumseh’s Confederacy ultimately sided with the British and played a key role in early battles such as the Siege of Detroit. The confederacy dissolved shortly after Tecumseh’s death at the Battle of the Thames in 1813, though many natives continued to fight under their own leaders.1
Although the Battle of Tippecanoe was not a decisive victory and did not end native resistance or hostilities in the region, it became a symbol of national pride in the west.
The battle has since been enshrined in American history and is synonymous with patriotism and the US dominance over Native Americans. Dozens of towns and counties across Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky are named after participants in the battle.3
Despite initial negative press from the east coast press for his actions and planning at the Battle of Tippecanoe, William Henry Harrison gained national fame and prominence for his role in the battle.
Harrison would eventually use his national profile to run for President under the new Whig party in 1836 and 1840 in the middle of the Jacksonian Era.
Using the slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” Harrison would go on to win the Presidency in 1840 following the Jacksonian Democrats disastrous handling of the Panic of 1837.
To learn more about US history, check out this timeline of the history of the United States.
1) Abercrombie, Brent S. “IUPUI.” How America Remembers: Analysis of the Academic Interpretation and Public Memory of the Battle of Tippecanoe, 1 Jan. 1970, https://scholarworks.iupui.edu/handle/1805/2755
2) Watts, Florence G. “Lieutenant Charles Larrabee’s Account of the Battle of Tippecanoe, 1811.” Indiana Magazine of History, vol. 57, no. 3, 1961, pp. 225–47, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27788911
3) Wentworth, W. A. “TIPPECANOE AND KENTUCKY TOO.” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society, vol. 60, no. 1, 1962, pp. 36–44, http://www.jstor.org/stable/23374744
4) Whickar, J. Wesley. “Shabonee’s Account of Tippecanoe.” Indiana Magazine of History, vol. 17, no. 4, 1921, pp. 353–63, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27786003
5) “THE BATTLE OF TIPPECANOE. AS DESCRIBED BY JUDGE ISAAC NAYLOR, A PARTICIPANT—A RECENTLY DISCOVERED ACCOUNT.” The Indiana Quarterly Magazine of History, vol. 2, no. 4, 1906, pp. 163–69, http://www.jstor.org/stable/27785458