Battle of Tippecanoe Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Battle of Tippecanoe has been credited with breaking an incipient Native American confederation, triggering the War of 1812, and giving William Harrison the reputation that would later make him president. However, the battle itself was actually little more than a skirmish that signaled the last gasp of Native American resistance to white encroachment east of the Mississippi River.

Summary of Event

When William Henry Harrison was governor of the Indiana Territory, he was determined to provoke a fight with the Native American tribes living within the territory recently ceded to the United States. The main tribal leaders, Tecumseh and his brother, Tenskwatawa—who was known as the Shawnee Prophet—hoped to avoid such a fight. They had established their capital, Prophetstown Prophetstown , at the village of Tippecanoe, 80 miles (128 kilometers) south of Lake Michigan near the confluence of the Tippecanoe and Wabash Rivers in present-day northwestern Indiana. There, members of a growing Native American movement had flocked to join their community. Despite a message of peace from the Prophet, Harrison moved up the Wabash River with one thousand troops on September 26 and headed toward Prophetstown. On November 6, the U.S. troops encamped twelve miles (nineteen kilometers) from Tippecanoe. Tippecanoe, Battle of (1811) Harrison, William Henry [p]Harrison, William Henry;Battle of Tippecanoe Tecumseh [p]Tecumseh;Battle of Tippecanoe War of 1812 (1812-1814);and Battle of Tippecanoe[Battle of Tippecanoe] Indiana;Battle of Tippecanoe Shawnees;Battle of Tippecanoe Native Americans;and War of 1812[War of 1812] Native American wars;Shawnees [kw]Battle of Tippecanoe (Nov. 7, 1811) [kw]Tippecanoe, Battle of (Nov. 7, 1811) Tippecanoe, Battle of (1811) Harrison, William Henry [p]Harrison, William Henry;Battle of Tippecanoe Tecumseh [p]Tecumseh;Battle of Tippecanoe War of 1812 (1812-1814);and Battle of Tippecanoe[Battle of Tippecanoe] Indiana;Battle of Tippecanoe Shawnees;Battle of Tippecanoe Native Americans;and War of 1812[War of 1812] Native American wars;Shawnees [g]United States;Nov. 7, 1811: Battle of Tippecanoe[0540] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Nov. 7, 1811: Battle of Tippecanoe[0540] [c]Indigenous people’s rights;Nov. 7, 1811: Battle of Tippecanoe[0540] Tenskwatawa

Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa Tenskwatawa had hoped to avoid bloodshed, but reckless members of their movement forced the issue by attacking the U.S. camp in the predawn hours of November 7. Roused from his sleep, Harrison immediately rallied his men and reinforced his overrun flank. The forest and nearby river bottoms echoed with the sounds of screams, musket and rifle fire, shouted curses and commands, and the cries of frightened, wounded, and dying men and animals. Two of Harrison’s close friends, Major Jo Daviess and Thomas Randolph, were among the dead. Harrison promised Randolph he would look after the dying man’s young child, a promise that he kept.

Harrison managed to hold his troops together in time to drive the attackers back. Two hours later, all was again relatively calm. Harrison’s force surveyed its position and discovered nearly two hundred casualties, accounting for one-fifth of his force. More than sixty of his men were dead or dying. The Native Americans, who had been driven back into the swamps and river bottoms, had left behind thirty-eight of their own dead. Two days later, Harrison’s men entered a deserted Tippecanoe, found food and British rifles, and burned the village. Such were the immediate results of the widely heralded Battle of Tippecanoe, which many historians consider to have been of fundamental importance in breaking Tecumseh’s plan for a western Indian confederation, speeding the outbreak of the War of 1812, and contributing to Harrison’s election as president in 1840.

In broad terms, the clash at Tippecanoe was the almost inevitable result of two vastly different cultures struggling for domination of the North American continent. In a more immediate sense, the conflict stemmed from the differing drives, personalities, and objectives of two significant western leaders: the great Shawnee chieftain Tecumseh and the aspiring politician and military man William Henry Harrison. The clash at Tippecanoe was a single episode in a long series of confrontations between Native Americans and Europeans that stretched back to the early days of European colonization in North America. Conflict rather than cooperation between the races was the rule, and the Battle of Tippecanoe represents one of the last stands east of the Mississippi River for the Native Americans as they were pushed farther and farther west by the encroachments of European civilization and institutions.

For the Native Americans, the Battle of Tippecanoe was simply one round in a long struggle in which they were poorly matched against the land-hungry and grasping white settlers. The Indians were dependent on the whites for arms and ammunition; many had been weakened by addiction to alcohol Native Americans;and alcohol[Alcohol] obtained from frontier bootleggers; and they lacked strong organization and unity of purpose. Tecumseh, the political and military leader of the tribes of the Northwest, and his brother Tenskwatawa Tenskwatawa , the Prophet, sought to overcome these weaknesses by calling on their people to reject the white man’s culture, reassert their independence, and unite to drive the whites back across the Ohio River. Since 1808, they had attempted to form a confederacy in response to movement of Europeans into the Ohio Valley. By 1811, however, only four thousand Native Americans remained in the region, which now had one hundred thousand white settlers.

Harrison’s attack at Tippecanoe had been intended to shatter the confederacy and the influence of the Prophet. In this, it was partially successful. The Prophet had promised his followers immunity from the white man’s bullets. Instead, the enemies’ bullets had brought death and suffering, and the Prophet’s spell was broken. Tecumseh failed to rally the Sauk Sauk and Osage Osages tribes to the south into his cause. Instead of terrifying Tecumseh, however, Harrison had stirred him to fury.

General Harrison’s charge at the Battle of Tippecanoe.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Despite the Indian defeat at Tippecanoe, the idea of confederation continued until Tecumseh, allied with the British in the War of 1812, was killed on Canadian soil at the Battle of the Thames River, across Lake Erie in October, 1813. The Indians had resisted white aggrandizement for a quarter of a century, but it was Tippecanoe that brought the Prophet’s career into eclipse. He was never again trusted by his brother, and he drifted into obscurity.

Harrison’s later career was largely built around the conflict at Tippecanoe. He was an ambitious man who extracted every ounce of glory that could be gained from his success in the battle. His version of the episode depicted the policies of the U.S. government toward Indians as enlightened and compassionate. U.S. settlers were admittedly encroaching on tribal lands, but those lands were legitimately acquired through treaties with the old village chiefs. Furthermore, Harrison argued, the settlers were making efforts to uplift and civilize Indians. If the Indians, particularly Tecumseh and the Prophet, resisted these policies and the almost inevitable U.S. expansion, then it was because of their savage nature or, still worse, the result of British influence.

Harrison’s views were not universally accepted by his own people, who heatedly debated everything about the Battle of Tippecanoe, but Harrison was so widely accepted as the Hero of Tippecanoe that he was given the opportunity of winning more military honors during the War of 1812, and he parlayed his military reputation into political offices, culminating in his election to the presidency.

Significance

The impact of the Battle of Tippecanoe on public sentiment was perhaps most important as a precursor to the War of 1812. Feelings between the United States and Great Britain were running high in 1811, and tempers were close to the breaking point. Many people in the United States believed, with some justification, that the British were stirring up trouble among the tribes. The discovery of British arms at the Battle of Tippecanoe was widely accepted as proof of a British-Native American conspiracy that threatened U.S. security and violated the rights of the United States as a sovereign nation. The fact that the British had actually attempted to restrain Tecumseh and the Prophet was either unknown or ignored. The important fact is that many people in the United States were highly incensed by the Battle of Tippecanoe; that bad feeling became part of the package of western grievances and ambitions that helped to trigger the War of 1812.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Berton, Pierre. The Invasion of Canada, 1812-1813. Boston: Little, Brown, 1980. First volume of a two-volume account of the War of 1812 from a Canadian perspective. An excellent description of the Battle of Tippecanoe and its long-term significance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cleaves, Freeman. Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Times. 1939. Reprint. Newtown, Conn.: American Biography Press, 1990. One of the few major biographies of Harrison. Includes an excellent account of the Battle of Tippecanoe.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dangerfield, George. The Era of Good Feeling. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1952. Pulitzer-Prize-winning account of the early nineteenth century. Places the war and the Battle of Tippecanoe within the larger perspective.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elting, John. Amateurs to Arms! A Military History of the War of 1812. New York: Da Capo Press, 1995. A detailed military view of an unpopular, badly fought, and arguably unnecessary war. Highlights the military campaigns.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hickey, Donald. The War of 1812. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990. An overview of the causes of the war. Concludes that the war was important in promoting nationalism and maintaining a sense of manifest destiny.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Klinck, Carl F. Tecumseh: Fact and Fiction in Early Records. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1961. A biographical sketch of Tecumseh based on relevant documentation.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sugden, John. Tecumseh: A Life. New York: Henry Holt, 1998. A full and nearly definitive biography of Tecumseh that considers his life within the broader context of early nineteenth century Native American history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Tecumseh’s Last Stand. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985. A straightforward account of Tecumseh’s role in the War of 1812, emphasizing the period leading up to his death in battle.

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