Tippecanoe, Battle of

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From the start, antagonism existed between Prophetstown, the pan-Indian nativist community established in 1808 by the Shawnee prophet Tenskwatawa and his brother,

the war chief Tecumseh, at Tippecanoe Creek in Indiana, and the territorial government at Vincennes led by Governor William Henry Harrison. But the following year the antipathy was exacerbated by the Treaty of Fort Wayne, a land deal wherein a number of tribal leaders agreed to an extensive new land cession. Tecumseh and the Prophet refused to accept the treaty and predicted war if it were not revoked. Harrison, concerned that opposition from Prophetstown would make it difficult if not impossible to survey and settle the newly acquired lands, demanded that its substantial non-Shawnee majority be expelled from the community. When the Prophet refused, Harrison took advantage of Tecumseh's absence on a recruitment mission in the South to stage a preemptive strike in the fall of 1811.

The Battle of Tippecanoe on 7 November later established Harrison's reputation as a heroic Indian fighter. But despite the mythology that surrounds Tippecanoe, the actual battle was indecisive. Although the Prophet's forces were scattered by Harrison's assault and his village burned, warriors from a number of tribes soon rebuilt Prophetstown on a site nearby. In correspondence with his superiors, Harrison continued to warn of the menace to American expansion posed by the Prophet and his followers. Although legend maintains that the Prophet, ignoring Tecumseh's advice to stall for time, launched an ill-considered, poorly planned pre-dawn attack on Harrison's forces, the most reliable sources indicate that the fight began when several high-spirited Winnebago warriors, in violation of the Prophet's orders, skirmished with some of Harrison's sentinels. Equally dubious is the claim that Tecumseh, enraged by the Prophet's bungling, threatened to kill his brother and in fact removed him from the leadership of the movement. The evidence indicates unequivocally that Tenskwatawa remained its spiritual leader, continued to serve as the civil head of Prophetstown during Tecumseh's absences on diplomatic missions, and succeeded him as war chief after his death at the Battle of the Thames in 1813. Late-twentieth-century research also indicates that Tecumseh and the Prophet both desired a peaceful accommodation with the United States that would permit them to organize a pan-Indian nativist state on lands not yet settled by Americans.

The Battle at Tippecanoe was thus not, as myth would have it, fought to protect the frontier from an Indian aggressor supported by Britain, but was rather the outgrowth of Harrison's efforts to eliminate a community and a movement that threatened to obstruct plans for further Indian dispossession. Tecumseh and the Prophet were never tools of the British, whom they in fact distrusted. The true significance of the Battle of Tippecanoe is not that it secured the frontier from a fierce adversary, but rather that it provided a rich mythology that not only promoted the political career of William Henry Harrison, a future president, but expressed in epic terms the belief that American history is the story of the triumph of civilization over savagery.

See alsoAmerican Indians: American Indian Relations, 1763–1815; American Indian Resistance to White Expansion; American Indians as Symbols/Icons .


Cave, Alfred A. "The Shawnee Prophet, Tecumseh, and Tippecanoe: A Case Study of Historical Myth-Making." Journal of the Early Republic 22 (2002): 637–673.

Edmunds, R. David. The Shawnee Prophet. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Esarey, Logan, ed. Messages and Letters of William Henry Harrison. 2 vols. Indianapolis: Indiana State Historical Society, 1922.

Sugden, John. Tecumseh: A Life. New York: Holt, 1988.

Alfred A. Cave

Tippecanoe, Battle of

views updated May 23 2018


TIPPECANOE, BATTLE OF (7 November 1811). In response to pressure from white settlers, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh organized a confederacy of Native American tribes in the Indiana and Michigan territories. The crisis came in the summer of 1811, when Tecumseh, after renewing his demands on Gen. William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory, at Vincennes, departed to rally the tribes of the Southwest to the confederacy. Urged on by the frantic settlers, Harrison decided to strike first.

On 26 September Harrison advanced with 1,000 soldiers on the Indian settlement of Prophetstown, along Tippecanoe Creek, 150 miles north of Vincennes. He spent most of October constructing Fort Harrison at Terre Haute, resuming his march on 28 October. With the town in sight, Harrison yielded to belated appeals for a conference. Turning aside, he encamped on an elevated site a mile from the village. Meanwhile the Native American warriors, a mile away, were stirred to a frenzy by the appeals of Tecumseh's brother Tenskwatawa ("the Prophet"). Shortly before dawn (7 November), they drove in Harrison's pickets and furiously stormed the still-sleeping camp. Harrison's soldiers deflected the attack with a series of charges, attacked and razed the Indian town on 8 November, and began the retreat to distant Fort Harrison.

Although Tippecanoe was popularly regarded as a great victory and helped Harrison's political fortunes, the army had struck an indecisive blow. With almost one-fourth of his followers dead or wounded he retreated to Vincennes, where the army was disbanded or scattered. During the War of 1812, federal troops would again do battle with Tecumseh, who had formed an alliance with the British.


Bird, Harrison. War for the West, 1790–1813. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971.

Edmunds, R. David. The Shawnee Prophet. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

———. Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984.

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

M. M.Quaife/a. r.

See alsoIndian Policy, U.S., 1775–1830 ; Indiana ; Shawnee ; Tecumseh, Crusade of ; Thames, Battle of the ; "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!" ; War Hawks ; War of 1812 .

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