Battle of Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison Defeats Indian Confederacy

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Battle of Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison Defeats Indian Confederacy

"Battle of Tippecanoe" painting by Alonzo Chappel (1828-1887)
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: November 7, 1811

Having (barely!) survived both Hurricane Sandy and the quadrennial presidential election, I decided today's military history lesson would center upon a battle which launched a man into the White House (but not for long).


Northwest Territory, with modern U.S. state boundaries
Northwest Territory, with modern U.S. state boundaries

With the end of the American War of Independence, the United States acquired the "Territory Northwest of the Ohio River," or more simply the Northwest Territory. It was it was 260,000 acres of land originally set aside by the British for Native American tribes to live, undisturbed by settlers. However, during the 1770's and later, Americans began pushing into this area, caring little for the niceties of treaties. They wanted land and would take it in any way possible.

In 1787, the Congress of the Confederation (remember, the Constitution was not yet ratified) approved the Northwest Ordinance. This document provided for the administration of the new territories and set rules for their admission as states.

The territory was administered as one huge entity until 1800, when it was divided into two parts:

  • The Ohio Territory, which consisted of the current state of Ohio, the eastern half of Michigan, and the easternmost portion of the Michigan's Upper Peninsula (Ohio in 1803 would become the first state admitted under the Northwest Ordinance); and
  • The Indiana Territory, which consisted of the rest of the old Northwest Territory, namely the current states of Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, the remainder of Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and the northeastern portion of Minnesota.

On May 13, 1800 President John Adams appointed as the first governor of the new Indiana Territory a little-known former U.S. Army officer, horse breeder, and territorial congressional delegate named William Henry Harrison.

William Henry Harrison

Mr. Harrison was born in Charles City County, near Richmond, Virginia in 1773. His father was a prominent planter and politician, serving in the Continental Congress. He was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, served as governor of Virginia from 1781-1784, and later served as a U.S. Representative in Congress.

William Henry Harrison, ca. 1814; Painting by Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860); Currently in the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC
William Henry Harrison, ca. 1814
Painting by Rembrandt Peale (1778-1860)
Currently in the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, DC

William was sent to several prep schools, finally ending up at the University of Pennsylvania studying medicine. However, when his father died in 1791, he was left penniless and ended his education. His guardian, Founding Father and Declaration of Independence signer Robert Morris, obtained a military commission for young Harrison in the "Legion of the United States." After serving 6 years – and participating in the battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 – he resigned his commission and took up residence in the Northwest Territory.

Harrison became a horse breeder, and began his political career as the Secretary of the Northwest Territory, second only to the governor. In fact, he served as acting governor during his superior's frequent absences. In 1799, at the age of 26, he was elected as the first delegate representing the Northwest Territory in the 6th Congress. Harrison served about 14 months in Washington, until he was appointed to become the new governor of the newly-created Indiana Territory.

Harrison's tenure as governor was punctuated with a number of events. He urged new settlement of the territory, which he felt would reflect well on him politically and push the new territory toward statehood. President Thomas Jefferson gave him the authority to make treaties with the various Indian tribes in the territory, which he used extensively. One major defeat for Harrison was when he tried to have Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance repealed to allow the extension of slavery into the territory. This attempt was defeated, partly with the secret support of President Jefferson.

Harrison supervised the development of 13 treaties, through which the territory bought more than 93,000 square miles of land from Native American leaders, including much of present-day southern Indiana. On September 30, 1809 Harrison negotiated the Treaty of Fort Wayne with the tribal leaders of the Pottawatomi, Miami, Lenape, Kickapoo, and Wee tribes. The Indian leaders agreed to sell 3 million acres (about 4700 square miles) to the United States. Some of the tribes were reluctant at first, but Harrison gave subsidies to the Miamis to pressure the waverers into agreeing to the terms of the treaty. Though he did not live in the lands involved, Shawnee leader Tecumseh was angered by the agreement, saying the treaty was illegitimate.

Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa

Shawnee chief Tecumseh, ca. 1868, based on earlier drawing; Painting by Benson John Lossing (1813-1891)
Shawnee chief Tecumseh, ca. 1868, based on earlier drawing
Painting by Benson John Lossing (1813-1891)

Tecumseh ("Shooting Star" in Shawnee) was a Shawnee Indian leader. When he was a boy, his father Puckshinwa was "brutally murdered" by white frontiersmen who had crossed onto Indian land in violation of a recent treaty, at the Battle of Point Pleasant during Lord Dunmore's War in 1774. [For more information on that battle, please read my post of October 13, 2011 at] Tecumseh resolved to become a warrior like his father and to be "a fire spreading over the hill and valley, consuming the race of dark souls."  By 1809 Tecumseh had traveled most of the area east of the Mississippi River and west of the Appalachian Mountains seeking to form an all-encompassing Indian confederacy to oppose the further intrusion of American settlers into the Northwest Territory. He and his younger brother Tenskwatawa ("The Open Door"), called the "Shawnee Prophet", became the leaders of a movement that threatened every white settler in the Northwest.

Tenskwatawa, the 'Shawnee Prophet,' brother of Tecumseh; Painting by Charles Bird King (1785-1862)
Tenskwatawa, the "Shawnee Prophet," brother of Tecumseh
Painting by Charles Bird King (1785-1862)

Tenskwatawa became a religious leader, advocating a return of the Shawnee and other American Indians to their ancestral lifestyle and rejection of the colonists and Americans. He attracted a large following among Indians who had already suffered major epidemics and dispossession of their lands. In 1805, Tenskwatawa led a religious revival following a series of witch-hunts after an outbreak of smallpox among the Shawnee. His beliefs were based on the earlier teachings of certain Lenape prophets, who predicted a coming apocalypse that would destroy the European-American settlers. Tenskwatawa urged natives to reject the ways of the Europeans: to give up firearms, liquor, European style clothing, to pay traders only half the value of their debts, and to refrain from ceding any more lands to the United States. The teachings led to rising tensions between the settlers and his followers.

In August of 1810, Tecumseh and 400 warriors – all in warpaint – journeyed to the territorial capital at Vincennes to speak to Gov. Harrison about the recent Fort Wayne treaty. The leaders of the group were escorted to Harrison's estate "Grouseland" to meet with the governor Tecumseh insisted that the Fort Wayne treaty was illegitimate; he asked Harrison to nullify it and warned that Americans should not attempt to settle the lands sold in the treaty. Tecumseh acknowledged to Harrison that he had threatened to kill the chiefs who signed the treaty if they carried out its terms, and that his confederation was rapidly growing.

Harrison responded to Tecumseh that the Miami were the owners of the land and could sell it if they so choose. He also rejected Tecumseh's claim that all the Indians formed one nation, and said each nation could have separate relations with the United States. As proof Harrison told Tecumseh that the Great Spirit would have made all the tribes to speak one language if they were to be one nation.

Confrontation between Tecumseh and Gov. Harrison, August of 1810; Drawing by John R. Chapin; engraving by William Ridgway, date unknown; In the collection of the New York Public Library
Confrontation between Tecumseh and Gov. Harrison, August of 1810
Drawing by John R. Chapin; engraving by William Ridgway, date unknown
In the collection of the New York Public Library

Tecumseh launched an "impassioned rebuttal," but Harrison was unable to understand his language. Finally an army lieutenant who could speak Tecumseh's language warned Harrison that he was encouraging the warriors with him to kill Harrison. Many of the warriors began to pull their weapons and Harrison pulled his sword. The entire town's population was only 1,000 and Tecumseh's men could have easily massacred the town, but once the few officers pulled their guns to defend Harrison the warriors backed down. Chief Winnemac, who was friendly to Harrison, countered Tecumseh's arguments to the warriors and instructed them that because they had come in peace, they should leave in peace and fight another day. Before departing, Tecumseh informed Harrison that unless the treaty was nullified, he would seek an alliance with the British.

Tomorrow: Part II – Battle of Tippecanoe

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the battle of Tippecanoe SUCKS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! what way? Please explain, I'm interested.

BTW, did you read the second part of the post??

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