Indiana at 200 (15): The Battle of Tippecanoe
by Andrea Neal
In the drizzling pre-dawn rain of Nov. 7, 1811, on high ground near modern-day Lafayette, Gen. William Henry Harrison squashed Tecumseh’s dream of an Indian confederacy that could resist the white man’s westward advances.
The Battle of Tippecanoe was a defining moment in U.S.-Native American relations. “It was on this spot the Native Americans lost their grip on the fertile Midwestern lands they had roamed for thousands of years,” according to interpreters at the Tippecanoe Battlefield national historic landmark.
Tecumseh and his brother, Tenskwatawa, are familiar figures in Indiana history – Shawnee brothers who tried to unite 50 tribes into a coalition to oppose the U.S. government. Their base of operation was Prophet’s Town along the Wabash River, so named in honor of the younger brother’s role as a prophet or spiritual leader of his people.
Tecumseh wasn’t present for the showdown. He was in the South recruiting other tribal nations to join his confederacy. Harrison was aware of Tecumseh’s absence when he marched 1,000 troops north from the territorial capital of Vincennes. His army set up camp where the Wabash River meets Tippecanoe Creek, about a mile west of the Indian settlement.
Most histories say Tenskwatawa was directed in a vision to conduct a sneak attack on Harrison’s camp, ignoring his brother’s warnings to avoid hostilities until his return. A more recent account suggests U.S. sentinels accidentally engaged warriors on night patrol. Regardless of who fired first, full-scale fighting broke out around the encampment.
By sunup, Americans claimed victory. The Indians “quit the battle and melted away into nothingness,” said historian Richard J. Reid. Harrison lost 37 men; Native American casualties were not recorded but deemed comparable.
Although the battle lasted a mere two hours, it had been brewing for two decades.
In 1795, after a decisive U.S. victory over Native Americans at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, Tecumseh refused to sign a treaty he considered outright theft of Indian lands in the Ohio region. The treaty opened up the Midwest to a flood of settlers and relegated Native Americans to a shrinking corridor of land north of the Ohio River.
In 1808, Tecumseh and his brother moved their headquarters from Ohio to Tippecanoe County (Keth-Tip-Pe-Can-Nunk) at the invitation of the Delaware and Potawatomi tribes living there.
In 1809, Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory, negotiated the Treaty of Fort Wayne that purchased 3 million acres from Delaware, Shawnee, Potawatomi and other tribes. This infuriated Tecumseh, who took a delegation of warriors to Vincennes in 1810 to meet with Harrison and demand the treaty be rescinded. He argued that the self-appointed chiefs who signed the treaty did not have the right to act on behalf of all, and he urged Native Americans not to give up any more land. That meeting, and another in 1811, convinced Harrison of the threat posed by Tecumseh.
Tippecanoe became known as the opening salvo in the War of 1812, which pitted Great Britain against the infant United States. Tecumseh and most Native American groups fought with the British.
Harrison and Tecumseh met again in that war. On Oct. 5, 1813, Harrison led U.S. troops against British and Native American fighters along the Thames River in Ontario, Canada. Tecumseh was killed on the battlefield, his vision of an effective Indian resistance movement dying with him.
Directions to Tippecanoe Battlefield: Take I-65 to exit 178 (State Road 43) and follow the signs. GPS address is 200 Battle Ground Ave., Battle Ground, IN.
Directions to Prophetstown State Park: Take I-65 to exit 178 (State Road 43) and follow the signs. GPS address is 5545 Swisher Road, West Lafayette, IN.