Monday, November 7, 2011

Straight Outta Tippecanoe

The November 7th 1811 loss at the Battle of Tippecanoe near Lafayette IN was a devastating blow to Tecumseh's Pan-Indian Confederation but it wasn't the amazing leadership of William Henry Harrison that won the battle. Not to disparage Harrison or anything. He showed great leadership at this battle rallying his troops when under fire. Most observers say that if it were not for Harrison's boldness and courage, many of his troops would have cut and run. He was an impressive military leader overall and had a great resume but fair is fair. The "win" by the American's can be attributed mostly to the rise of Shawnee religious fundamentalism by Tecumseh's brother, Tenskwatawa or "The Prophet" rather than any brilliant startegy by Harrison who was caught by surprise before his planned attack. From what I understand, much of Tenskwatawa's "prophecies" were based on natural phenomena that Tecumseh had read about in almanacs that he had access too. I suppose with any prophet there will also be a large degree of luck before and much interpretation after the fact. For a while this strategy worked but it would ultimately be their undoing.

Prophet's Rock where Tenskwatawa rallied his troops
Up until this point much of Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa's plan in building the confederation of Indians involved returning to the old ways to please the Moneto, their supreme being. The Prophet taught that Indians were suffering and losing ground to the "Shemanese" (AKA Americans) because they had lost their way and had succumbed to the influence of the whites and their lifestyle. He taught that they should refrain from the use of alcohol, trading for European foods and goods, marrying whites, practicing Christianity, etc. There were exceptions to this. In this case it was the use and trade of European weapons which they received from their British allies. They were very aware that the Shemanese had superior technology for war and they knew they could revert only to warclubs and bows and arrows against rifles and cannonballs.
While encouraging abstinence in alcohol was a noble cause as it had an especially devastating effect on Native American culture, the other items came with quite a heavy price. For example, in the autobiographical captivity story of Chippewa adoptee John Tanner he writes of encountering Shawnee parties who were quite literally starving to death because of this lack of trade goods that the Native Americans had come to rely on.

The Prophet also taught that the Moneto, the Shawnee Supreme Being, would protect them in battle. Literally. As in bullets would not harm them. Up until this time The Prophet had been on a pretty good run of prophecies that seemed to have come true. There was much faith in this man at this time. In fact Tenskwatawa, had so much faith in himself at this point he felt he could make his own decisions without his brother who had already been instructed him not to engage the enemy at Prohetstown and wait for his return. The Prophet had other ideas and decided to strike first as Harrison's army moved in to quell what Harrison rightfully perceived as an Indian uprising in the making.

In keeping with the assurance and words of The Prophet at about 4am on November 7th the Indians uncharacteristically attacked and fought openly and did not seek cover. When they saw that their warriors were easily being cut down by the soldiers this shook their faith and saw it as a bad sign and withdrew their attack. They had no way of knowing that they were actually winning the battle at that point. They likely would have overrun the advancing soldiers in this surprise preemptive attack if their ammunition held out. Harrison meanwhile, rode alongside his troops boosting their morale and encouraging them. In the number casualties at the battle the Indians were technically winning when they withdrew. Their number of fatalities was 50 to Harrison's 62 and an even lower number of wounded to the Harrison's men and after 2 hours of fighting that was the end of the Battle of Tippecanoe.

After this loss many Indians retreated back to their villages and Tecumseh, upon learning what had happened nearly killed his own brother but instead chose to strip him of all rank and prestige. Not much is known of Tenskwatawa's life after this event. He died 25 years later in 1836 near Kansas City, Kansas in relative obscurity, a very broken man

Tecumseh died two years after Tippecanoe in the War of 1812 at the Battle of Thames in Canada fighting with the British against General Harrison.

1840 Yard Sign
In 1841 after 30 years, William Henry Harrison who after his military career served as the Governor of Indiana, US Representative for Ohio and a US Senator for Ohio was elected as the 9th US President. His campaign was based heavily on his military career, most notably this battle, using the slogan Tippecanoe and Tyler Too. People seem to think that modern politics invented mean-spiritedness and out right lies to get elected but opponents of Harrison characterized him an out of touch drunkard old man, while Harrison's people touted him as a common man who grew up in a log cabin. He was anything but a common man and gave speeches that would rival Roman emperors. Harrison was certainly wealthy and privileged by the standards of his day. As usual the truth is in the middle somewhere.

the modest burial site of #9 in North Bend OH
What Harrison is mostly known for now will help you win at Trivial Pursuit. He caught pneumonia and died 30 days after his lengthy Romanesque inauguration speech and became the first President to die in office and having the shortest Presidency. He was also the first sitting president to have his photograph taken. His death was supposedly the beginning of "Tecumseh's Revenge" that killed 7 US President elected every 20 years from 1840 - 1960. In 1980 Reagan broke the supposed curse but just barely. As for the origins of the "curse", there is no record of one until someone noticed the pattern and published it in 1934s Ripley's Believe it Or Not.


  1. Interesting post! I had no idea about the "Tecumseh's Revenge" curse.