William Henry Harrison

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William Henry Harrison

Born February 9, 1773
Berkeley, Virginia

Died April 4, 1841
Washington, D.C.

General, president of the United States

In the years leading up to the War of 1812, William Henry Harrison, while serving as governor of Indiana Territory, negotiated a number of treaties through which Native Americans sold their traditional lands to the United States government. When Native Americans realized how much they had lost, they began attacking white settlers. In November 1811 U.S. troops under Harrison's command fought native warriors at the Battle of Tippecanoe. When the War of 1812 began, Harrison succeeded William Hull (1753-1825) as commander of all troops in the Northwest. Harrison's fame as a war hero propelled him to the presidency of the United States, but he died after only one month in office.

Choosing a military career

William Henry Harrison was born into a wealthy Virginia family who lived on the Berkeley plantation on the James River. His father, Benjamin Harrison (c. 1725-1791), was a signer of the Declaration of Independence (the document drawn up by the founders of the American republic in which they stated their reasons for seeking independence from Great Britain), and his mother, Elizabeth Bassett Harrison, was from a distinguished Virginia family.

Tutored at home through his teenage years, Harrison entered Hampton-Sydney College in the late 1780s. His father wanted him to become a doctor so he studied medicine in Richmond, Virginia, in 1790 and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1791. When his father died, Harrison turned to his own career choice, which was the military. He enlisted as an ensign (the lowest rank) in the First Regiment of Infantry in August 1791.

Harrison served in the northwestern army for the next seven years. He was an aide to General "Mad" Anthony Wayne (1745-1796; so called due to both his bravery and his hot temper) during the American Revolution (1775-83) and in August 1794 fought at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, a clash between U.S. forces and Native Americans that took place near what is now Toledo, Ohio. The resulting Treaty of Greenville, which Harrison witnessed and signed, opened much of Ohio for settlement by white people.

Governor of Indiana Territory

In November 1795 Harrison married Anna Symmes, the daughter of a wealthy judge and land speculator (someone who buys and sells land). The couple had ten children, and one of Harrison's grandsons, Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901), would become the twenty-third president of the United States. Three years after his marriage, Harrison retired from the army, having reached the rank of captain. He bought 160 acres of land at North Bend, situated about 14 miles down the Ohio River from Fort Washington.

About a month after his retirement, President John Adams (1735-1726; president 1797-1801) made Harrison the secretary of the Northwest Territory. The following year, he was elected as the territory's delegate to the U.S. Congress. As a delegate, he worked hard to protect the rights of those living in the northwest. He helped sponsor the Land Act of 1800, which allowed people to buy smaller pieces of land than had previously been available, and gave them five years to repay their debt. Harrison supported the 1800 division of the northwest into two parts, the Northwest Territory (what is now the state of Ohio) and the Indiana Territory (the states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and part of Minnesota).

Adams made Harrison governor of the new Indiana Territory, an office he would hold for twelve years. He moved his family to the territory's capital, Vincennes, and built a mansion on the Wabash River that he named Grouseland. His main task as governor was to continue, through treaties, to remove the Native Americans from their lands so that white U.S. citizens could settle on them. He also was supposed to encourage a friendly relationship with the Native Americans, a task that would prove impossible.

Harrison meets Tecumseh

In 1809 Harrison negotiated the Treaty of Fort Wayne with the Delaware, Potawatomi, and Eel tribes. This agreement called for the Native Americans to trade about three million acres of land for payments to each tribe that ranged from two to five hundred dollars. Resentment over this and other unfair arrangements grew among Native Americans, leading to violent attacks on white settlers. It also resulted in the rise of Tecumseh (c. 1768-1813; see biographical entry), a dynamic Shawnee war chief who began to rally Native Americans of many tribes to come together to fight off white encroachment (the gradual taking over of land). Tecumseh and his followers maintained that lands belonged to all Native Americans in common and could not be signed away by individual chiefs. Tecumseh was joined in this effort by his brother Tenskwatawa (1775-1836; see box in Tecumseh entry), known as the Prophet, who was believed to have magic powers.

Aware of Tecumseh's plans and of his influence over his followers, Harrison invited the Shawnee leader to Grouseland for a discussion on August 10, 1810. Tecumseh arrived with four hundred armed warriors, and the meeting was tense and unproductive. Attacks on whites continued, so Harrison arranged another meeting with Tecumseh in July 1811. He warned Harrison that he and his people would not honor the Treaty of Fort Wayne, which referred to land along the Wabash River. After this meeting Tecumseh traveled south to rally more Native Americans to his cause.

Harrison believed that Tecumseh's absence made this a good time for a military expedition against Prophet's Town, the village Tecumseh's followers had established on the Wabash River (near the present-day town of Lafayette, Indiana). At a site about a mile from Prophet's Town, Harrison and a force of about one thousand made their camp and sent a message to the Native Americans—who were now under Tenskwatawa's leadership—on November 6 that they would meet with them the next day.

The Battle of Tippecanoe

Early the next morning, the Americans were surprised by an attack led by Tenskwatawa; the Prophet had convinced his people that they would be immune from the bullets of the white soldiers. After several hours of hard fighting and many casualties (soldiers killed or wounded), the Native Americans scattered; the next day, Harrison's troops destroyed Prophet's Town.

Although this had not been a great victory for the United States, Harrison's reputation soared. He continued to warn the government about the Native American threat, and he put much of the blame for the violence on British agents, who he believed were helping to arm the Native Americans and encouraging them to attack white Americans. This suspicion was shared by others and was a contributing factor in the decision to declare war against Great Britain (other reasons included trade restrictions Americans felt were unfair, and the impressment or forcing of U.S. sailors into the British navy). Even before the June 1812 declaration of war, however, the government sent more soldiers to the Northwest. William Hull (1753-1825), the governor of Michigan Territory, was appointed to command them.

Command of the northwestern army

Only a few months after the war had begun, Hull surrendered Detroit in a defeat that made the United States look foolish to British general Isaac Brock (1769-1812; see biographical entry). Secretary of War William Eustis (1753-1825) had to replace Hull, and his first choice was Brigadier General James Winchester (1752-1826), who was unpopular with the militia in the area. (Militias were small armies made up of troops residing in a particular state.) Harrison, however, was popular, especially in the state of Kentucky. In order that he would have a higher rank than Winchester, the Kentucky militia made him a major general. As a result, the U.S. government finally bowed to this pressure, and on September 17, 1812, Harrison was given command of all forces in the Northwest.

Meanwhile, Harrison was already on the march with the Kentucky militia, raiding the villages of Native Americans who had attacked white settlers. Eager to start a campaign against Great Britain immediately, he divided his troops into two forces and sent them up to northern Ohio and southeastern Michigan, with the goal of eventually retaking Detroit. The division under Winchester (now Harrison's second-in-command) arrived first and proceeded to Frenchtown, located on the Raisin River near present-day Monroe, Michigan, where they chased away a small British force. On January 20 Winchester's troops were defeated by British troops under Henry Procter (1763-1822), commander of British troops in this region.

Battles at Fort Meigs and Lake Erie

Newly promoted to major general, Harrison was told that his role would be a purely defensive one for the time being, as the government had decided to concentrate its resources on the war's northern theatre (along the Niagara River, which divides New York state from Canada and connects Lake Erie and Lake Ontario). Harrison began building Fort Meigs on the Maumee River near the present-day town of Perrysburg, Ohio.

In May Procter's forces attacked the fort, but with help from General Green Clay (1757-1826) of the Kentucky militia, who arrived with timely reinforcements, Harrison's troops fought off the British. Later in the summer, Procter made another unsuccessful attempt to take Fort Meigs.

During the summer of 1813, Harrison spent a lot of time in Cleveland, Ohio, preparing to provide support for naval commander Oliver Hazard Perry (1785-1819; see biographical entry), who was building up U.S. naval strength with the goal of getting control of Lake Erie. Aware that dominance on Lake Erie would put his own troops in a better position for land victories (the Great Lakes were important routes for transporting men and supplies), Harrison loaned Perry—who was desperate for sailors—soldiers from his own army, especially those with some naval experience.

In pursuit of Procter

In September 1813 Perry's fleet defeated the British in an important battle on Lake Erie. With his supply lines now cut off, Procter had to make a quick retreat into Canada. Harrison, with reinforcements mainly coming from Kentucky led by Governor Isaac Shelby (1750-1826), began to pursue Procter's forces on October 2. Procter was accompanied by Tecumseh and his warriors, who had joined the British side after the Battle of Tippecanoe. Tecumseh insisted that Procter must turn and face the enemy, and on October 5 the two armies met near the small town of Moraviantown (located in southern Ontario, on the Thames River). During this clash—called the Battle of the Thames by Americans and the Battle of Moraviantown by Canadians—Tecumseh was killed, effectively crushing the Native American confederacy he had tried to build.

Returning to civilian life

Despite the fame and respect this victory earned him, Harrison was dissatisfied, primarily because he did not get along with John Armstrong (1758-1843), who had replaced William Eustis as secretary of war in early 1813. A Revolutionary War veteran with, perhaps, a very high opinion of his own military skill and judgment, Armstrong often overruled the orders of his field commanders or bypassed them by issuing his own orders to their subordinate (lower-ranking) officers. Frustrated by Armstrong's behavior and with very little military action promised in the Northwest for the immediate future, Harrison resigned from the army in the spring of 1814.

Returning to North Bend, Harrison continued to assist with negotiations between the U.S. government and Native Americans, working on treaties that completed the federal takeover of Native American lands in the northwest. From 1816 to 1819, Harrison represented his district in the U.S. Congress, serving as chair of the committee on militia. He served in the Ohio state senate (Ohio had become a state in 1803) from 1819 to 1821. Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1825, Harrison served for three years, chairing the committee on military affairs and the militia.

Despite his lack of experience as a diplomat (an official who represents a government in a foreign country), Harrison was appointed in 1828 by President John Quincy Adams (1767-1848; president 1825-29) to serve as minister to Colombia in South America. He arrived there in February 1829 but stayed only until September, when the new president, Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), appointed someone else because of his and Harrison's political differences. During his months in Colombia, Harrison offended that country's president,Simon Bolivar (1783-1830), who claimed that Harrison had openly sided with a group planning to rebel against the Colombian government (diplomats are not supposed to interfere in the internal affairs of foreign countries).

"Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too"

After he returned to the United States, Harrison found himself financially strapped. With a large family of children and grandchildren to support, he had to accept a position as clerk of the court of common pleas in Hamilton County, Ohio, a job that did not fit his background or prestige as a former military leader. The next year, however, he was nominated as one of the newly created Whig Party's presidential candidates in the 1836 U.S. elections. Harrison lost to Democratic Martin Van Buren (1782-1862) but was the most popular of the three Whig candidates. He and his supporters, however, soon began to plan for the 1840 election.

During the 1940 elections Van Buren was running for reelection, but hard economic times had hurt his reputation. His supporters tried to ridicule the sixty-seven-year-old Harrison as an elderly backwoods character who was most comfortable sitting on the porch of a log cabin (actually Harrison, of course, came from a wealthy, East Coast background). But Harrison's campaign embraced this image, casting him as the "log-cabin candidate" who was a man of the people, a westerner who had fought the Native Americans and helped to settle the frontier.

This campaign would be a historic one in American history, because it was the first truly modern presidential campaign in which the focus was on personal images rather than issues. The Whigs offered no platform (statement of their positions on issues) and Harrison was advised to say as little as possible, especially about the controversial issue of slavery. As a friendly gesture to the southern states, former Virginia senator John Tyler (1790-1862) was chosen to run as Harrison's vice presidential candidate. Harrison's speeches attracted so many attendees at his rallies that it was said they could be measured by the acre. His campaign slogan—"Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too"—reminded voters of his role in the War of 1812, with a nod to his running mate.

Voter turn-out was the highest of any election ever held in the United States, an increase of fifty percent over the previous election. Although Harrison won a popular majority of less than 150,000, he swept the Electoral College (the method used to elect U.S. presidents, in which each state has a certain number of Electoral College delegates, and whoever wins more votes in that state earns all of the delegates) by 234 to Van Buren's 60.

On March 4, 1841, Harrison delivered an inaugural speech that was noteworthy mostly for its length (one of the longest in U.S. history, taking more than one hour and forty minutes to deliver) and for its wealth of allusions to classical history and literature. He caught a cold at the ceremonies and by late March was diagnosed as pleurisy (pneumonia). On April 14 Harrison died. It was the first death of a U.S. president in office, which stunned the nation.

For More Information


Cleves, Freeman. Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1939.

Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.

Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds. Encyclopedia of the War of 1812. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1997.

Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.

Peterson, Norman L. The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989.

Web sites

The American Presidency: William Henry Harrison. [Online] http://www.grolier.com/presidents/ea/bios/09pharr.html (accessed on November 26, 2001).

War of 1812. [Online] http://www.galafilm.com/1812/e/index.html (accessed on November 26, 2001).

"William Henry Harrison." Ohio History Central.http://www.ohiokids.org/ohc/history/h_indian/people/whharris.html (accessed on November 26, 2001).

"William Henry Harrison." White House Biography. [Online] http://www.whitehouse.gov/history/presidents/wh9.html (accessed on November 26, 2001).

The Bold Canadian

The song below was probably sung by Canadian soldiers in the first few years of the war. It refers to the failed attempt by troops under General William Hull to invade Canada, and Hull's subsequent surrender of Detroit to British general Isaac Brock (who commanded a much smaller force than Hull's). The song suggests that Canadians took considerable pride in preventing the U.S. troops from invading their country.

Come all ye bold Canadians, I'd have you lend an ear Unto a short ditty [song] Which will your spirits cheer, Concerning an engagement We had at Detroit town, The pride of those Yankee [American] boys So bravely we took down.

The Yankees did invade us, To kill and to destroy, And to distress our country, Our peace for to annoy, Our countrymen were filled With sorrow, grief, and woe, To think that they should fall By such an unnatural foe.

Come all ye bold Canadians, Enlisted in the cause, To defend your country, And to maintain your laws; Being all united, This is the song we'll sing: Success onto Great Britain And God save the King.

Source: Graves, Donald R. "Songs of the War of 1812." The War of 1812 Website. [Online] http://www.militaryheritage.com/home.htm (accessed on November 26 , 2001).

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