Part II: Battle of Tippecanoe

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Part II: Battle of Tippecanoe

"Battle of Tippecanoe," chromolithograph by Kurz & Allison (1889)
[The uniforms for the U.S. troops are *very* wrong…]
(Image courtesy of )
(Unless otherwise indicated, images are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: November 7, 1811

Path to Conflict

During the next year tensions began to rise quickly. Four settlers were murdered on the Missouri River; in another incident a boatload of supplies was seized by natives from a group of traders. Harrison summoned Tecumseh to Vincennes to explain the actions of his allies. In August 1811, Tecumseh met with Harrison at Vincennes, assuring him that the Shawnee brothers meant to remain at peace with the United States. Tecumseh then traveled to the south on a mission to recruit allies among the "Five Civilized Tribes," the Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole.[Most of the southern nations rejected his appeals, but a faction among the Creeks, who came to be known as the Red Sticks, answered his call to arms, leading to the Creek War, which also became a part of the War of 1812.] Tecumseh delivered many passionate speeches and convinced many to join his cause.

In early 1811, an unusual event occurred which some Indians took for omens in support of Tecumseh. The Great Comet of 1811 was visible for several months (Tecumseh's name, as pointed out earlier, means "shooting star"), which convinced many Indians that The Great Spirit favored the Shawnee leader's plans.

Prelude to the Battle

At some point, the two Indian brothers constructed a settlement – called "Prophetstown" to serve as the capital of their growing confederacy. It was located at the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers in west-central Indiana Territory. It became to focal point of Indian efforts to stop American pioneers settling land which Tecumseh said could not be sold. Soon, realizing that outside assistance would be needed, Tecumseh sought and received help from the British in Canada, including weapons, gunpowder, and the like. The Prophet made an exception in his anti-European preaching to allow the Indians to take these provisions if they would be used against the Americans.

Map of portion of Indiana Territory involved in Tecumseh's War, 1811
Map of portion of Indiana Territory involved in Tecumseh's War, 1811

Harrison left the territory for business in Kentucky shortly after the August meeting with Tecumseh, leaving territorial secretary John Gibson as acting governor. Gibson, who had lived among the Miami tribe for many years, was quick to learn of Tecumseh's plans for war and immediately called out the territory's militia and sent emergency letters calling for the return of Harrison. By mid-September, most of the militia regiments had formed. By then, Harrison had returned, accompanied by 250 U.S. Army regulars of the 4th U.S. Infantry Regiment, and had taken command of the gathering forces. The remainder of his army consisted of 100 Kentucky volunteers, and 600 men of the Indiana militia.

Consequently, on September 26, 1811 Harrison and his army left Vincennes and marched northward towards Prophetstown. Harrison had already been in communication with his superiors in Washington, DC. The governor had been authorized to march against the confederacy in a show of force, hoping that they would accept peace.

The army reached the site of modern-day Terre Haute, IN, on October 3 where they camped and built Fort Harrison while they waited for supplies to be delivered. A scouting party of mounted Indiana militia called the Yellow Jackets was ambushed by Native Americans on October 10, causing several casualties and preventing the men from continuing to forage. Supplies quickly began to run low. Harrison ordered the daily rations cut on October 19, and remained so until October 28 when fresh supplies arrived via the Wabash River from Vincennes. With the army resupplied, Harrison resumed his advance to Prophetstown on October 29

Harrison's army arrived near Prophetstown on November 6. Shortly afterward, Tenskwatawa – effectively in charge with Tecumseh absence – offered a cease-fire, saying that he would like to meet with the governor the next day to discuss their differences. Although agreeing to those terms, Harrison did not trust Tecumseh's brother. Therefore, he made dispositions for his army's encampment, expecting an attack on the morrow.

Battle of Tippecanoe

Harrison moved his army to a nearby hill near the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers. There he camped his men in battle formation, and kept sentinels on duty throughout the night. On the west side of the hill on which he encamped was a shallow creek – Burnett Creek – and on the east side a very steep embankment. Because of the nature of the position, Harrison did not order any temporary fortifications to be created around the position as was ordinarily done by encamped armies. The Yellow Jacket company, with Captain Spier Spencer in command, was posted on the southern end of the camp perimeter. The rest of the militia formed a rectangular formation along the edges of the bluff surrounding the camp. Colonel Davis Floyd commanded the militia units guarding the steep bluff on the eastern side of the formation. The U.S. Army regulars, commanded by Major Rodd, and the Indiana light dragoons, commanded by Maj. Joseph Daviess and former congressman Capt. Benjamin Parke, were kept behind the main line in reserve.

During the evening, Tenskwatawa consulted with the spirits and decided that sending a party to murder Harrison in his tent was the best way to avoid a battle. He assured the warriors that he would cast spells that would prevent them from being harmed and confuse Harrison's army so they would not resist. The warriors then moved out and began to surround Harrison's army looking for a way to sneak into the camp. Ben, an African-American wagon driver traveling with Harrison's army, had deserted to the Shawnee during the expedition. He agreed to lead a small group of warriors through the line to Harrison's tent. During the late night hours, he was captured by the camp sentries, taken back to the camp and bound. ]He was later convicted of treason but pardoned by Harrison.]

1800's trade card (early business card) for 'Warner's Tippecanoe' patent medicine; Date and author unknown (image courtesy of
1800's trade card (early business card) for "Warner's Tippecanoe" patent medicine
Date and author unknown (image courtesy of

Although existing accounts are unclear about exactly how the battle began, Harrison's sentinels encountered advancing warriors in the pre-dawn hours of November 7. Around 4:30 a.m., the soldiers awoke to scattered gunshots and discovered themselves almost encircled by Tenskwatawa's forces. Contact was first made on the northern end of the perimeter, but the movement was probably intended as a diversion. Shortly after the first shots, fierce fighting broke out on the opposite end of the perimeter as the warriors charged Harrison's line on the southern corner. The attack took the army by surprise as the warriors shouted war calls and rushed the defenders. Spencer was among the first to be killed, being shot in each thigh then through the head.

Lieutenants Nuge and Klaus, the other two Yellow Jacket commanding officers, were also soon wounded and killed. Without leadership, the Yellow Jackets began to fall back from the main line, retreating with the sentinels. The warriors followed the retreating unit and entered the camp. The soldiers regrouped under the command of ensign John Tipton, and with the help of two reserve companies under the command of Captain Rodd, repulsed the warriors and sealed the breach in the line.

Battle of Tippecanoe, November 7, 1811
Battle of Tippecanoe, November 7, 1811

The second charge by the Native Americans targeted both the north and south ends of the camp, with the far southern end again being the hardest hit. Over half of Harrison's casualties were suffered among the companies on the southern end, including Captain Spencer and five other men in his company, and seven other men in the adjoining company. With the regulars reinforcing that critical section of the line, and the surprise over, the men were able to hold their position as the attacks continued. On the northern end of the camp, Major Daviess led the dragoons on a counter charge that punched through the Native Americans' line before being repulsed. Most of Daviess's company retreated back to Harrison's main line, but Daviess himself was killed.

During the battle, the Prophet stationed himself upon a small point of elevated ground nearby and chanted war songs to encourage his followers. He had predicted the crushing defeat of Harrison's army, and said that the bullets would leave the Indians unhurt. When, during the course of the battle, he was informed that some of his braves had been killed, he commanded the Indians to fight on, promising them an easy victory.

Throughout the next hour Harrison's troops fought off several more charges. When the warriors began to run low on ammunition and the sun rose, revealing the small size of Tenskwatawa's army (estimated at between 700 to 800 warriors), the Indian forces finally began to slowly withdraw. A second charge by the dragoons forced the remaining Native Americans to flee. After a fight of about 2-3 hours – nearly all of it in the pre-dawn hours – the battle of Tippecanoe ended.


Harrison lost 62 men (37 killed in action and 25 mortally wounded); about 126 were less seriously hurt. The Yellow Jackets suffered the highest casualties of the battle, with 30 percent of their numbers killed or wounded. The number of Native American casualties is still the subject of debate, but it was certainly lower than that of the United States forces. Historians estimate that as many as 50 were killed and about 70–80 were wounded. It is likely that many more Indian casualties were carried from the field to conceal their true losses.

The warriors retreated to Prophetstown where, according to one chief's account, the warriors confronted Tenskwatawa and accused him of deceit because of the many deaths, which his spells were supposed to have prevented. He blamed his wife for desecrating his magic medicine and offered to cast a new spell and insisted that warriors launch a second attack, but they refused. Shortly afterwards, the Indians abandoned Prophetstown.

Footnote #1: Fearing Tecumseh would return with reinforcements, Harrison ordered his men to fortify the camp with breastworks for the rest of the day. As the sentries moved back out, they discovered and scalped the bodies of 36 warriors. The following day, November 8, he sent a small group of men to inspect the town and found it was deserted except for one elderly woman too sick to flee. The remainder of the defeated Natives had evacuated the village during the night. Harrison ordered his troops to spare the woman, but to burn down Prophetstown and destroy the Native Americans' cooking implements, without which the confederacy would be hard pressed to survive the winter. Everything of value was confiscated, including 5,000 bushels of corn and beans. Some of Harrison's soldiers dug up bodies from the graveyard in Prophetstown to scalp. Harrison's troops buried their own dead on the site of their camp. They built large fires over the mass grave in an attempt to conceal it from the Native Americans. However, after Harrison's troops departed the area, the Indians returned to the grave site, digging up many of the corpses and scattering the bodies in retaliation.

Footnote #2: The Indians, in this battle, were under the command of three chiefs, vis.: White Loon, Stone Eater and Winnemac. The warriors had been gathered from many tribes, including the Shawnee, Wyandottes or Hurons, Kickapoos, Pottawatomies, Winnebagoes, Ottawas, Chippewas, Sacs and a few Miamis.

Footnote #3: On December 16, 1811, the first of the New Madrid earthquakes shook the South and the Midwest. Many Natives of the northwest took the earthquake as a sign that Tenskwatawa's predictions of doom were coming true, leading many to support Tecumseh, including many of his former detractors. Attacks against settlers by Native Americans quickly increased in the aftermath. Numerous settlers and isolated outposts in the Indiana and Illinois territories were targeted, leading to the deaths of many civilians.

Footnote #4: Tecumseh continued to play a major role in military operations on the frontier, and by the time the U.S. declared war on Great Britain in the War of 1812, Tecumseh's confederacy was ready to launch its own war against the United States, this time with British allies. Tecumseh's warriors made up nearly half of the British army that captured Detroit from the United States in the War of 1812. It was not until Tecumseh's death at the 1813 Battle of the Thames in Ontario that his confederation ceased to threaten the interests of the United States.

'Ten-squat-away' painting by George Catlin (1830)
"Ten-squat-away" painting by George Catlin (1830)

Footnote #5: Tenskwatawa the Shawnee Prophet fled to Canada, but returned the U.S. in 1825. He founded an Indian village on the site of modern-day Kansas City, Kansas, dying there in 1836.

Footnote #6: Harrison would attain more renown for his generalship during the War of 1812. In 1840, he was elected President of the U.S., using as his campaign slogan, "Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too." Unfortunately for Harrison, he died after only 31 days in office, and was succeeded by his vice president, John Tyler. Harrison became the first U.S. president to die while in office.

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