Tecumseh's War: Battle of Tippecanoe

William H. Harrison
General William Henry Harrison. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of Tippecanoe: Conflict & Date:

The Battle of Tippecanoe was fought November 7, 1811, during Tecumseh's War.

Armies & Commanders:

Americans

Native Americans

  • Tenskwatawa
  • 500-700 men

Battle of Tippecanoe Background:

In the wake of the 1809 Treaty of Fort Wayne which saw 3,000,000 acres of land transferred from the Native Americans to the United States, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh began a rise to prominence. Angry over the treaty's terms, he revived the idea that Native American land was owned in common by all the tribes and could not be sold without each giving their consent. This idea had previously been used by Blue Jacket prior to his defeat by Major General Anthony Wayne at Fallen Timbers in 1794. Lacking the resources to directly confront the United States, Tecumseh began a campaign of intimidation among the tribes to ensure that the treaty was not put into effect and worked to recruit men to his cause.

While Tecumseh was endeavoring to build support, his brother Tenskwatawa, known as "The Prophet," had begun a religious movement which stressed a return to the old ways. Based at Prophetstown, near the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers, he began garnering support from across the Old Northwest. In 1810, Tecumseh met with the governor of the Indiana Territory, William Henry Harrison, to demand that the treaty be declared illegitimate. Refusing these demands, Harrison stated that each tribe had the right to treat separately with the United States.

Making good on this threat, Tecumseh began secretly accepting aid from the British in Canada and promised an alliance if hostilities broke out between Britain and the United States. In August 1811, Tecumseh again met with Harrison at Vincennes. Though promising that he and his brother sought only peace, Tecumseh departed unhappy and Tenskwatawa began gathering forces at Prophetstown. Traveling south, he began seeking assistance from the "Five Civilized Tribes" (Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, and Seminole) of the Southeast and encouraged them to join his confederacy against the United States. While most rejected his requests, his agitation ultimately led to a faction of the Creeks, known as the Red Sticks, commencing hostilities in 1813.

Battle of Tippecanoe - Harrison Advances:

In the wake of his meeting with Tecumseh, Harrison traveled to Kentucky on business leaving his secretary, John Gibson, at Vincennes as acting-governor. Utilizing his connections among the Native Americans, Gibson soon learned that forces were gathering at Prophetstown. Calling out the militia, Gibson sent letters to Harrison urging his immediate return. By mid-September, Harrison had returned along with elements of the 4th US Infantry and support from the Madison Administration for conducting a show of force in the region. Forming his army at Maria Creek near Vincennes, Harrison's total force numbered around 1,000 men.

Moving north, Harrison encamped at present-day Terre Haute on October 3 to await supplies. While there, his men constructed Fort Harrison but were prevented from foraging by Native American raids which began on 10. Finally re-supplied via the Wabash River on October 28, Harrison resumed his advance the next day. Nearing Prophetstown on November 6, Harrison's army encountered a messenger from Tenskwatawa who requested a ceasefire and a meeting the next day. Wary of Tenskwatawa's intentions, Harrison accepted, but moved his men onto a hill near an old Catholic mission.

A strong position, the hill was bordered by Burnett Creek on the west and a steep bluff to the east. Though he ordered his men to camp in a rectangular battle formation, Harrison did not instruct them to build fortifications and instead trusted to the strength of the terrain. While the militia formed the main lines, Harrison retained the regulars as well as Major Joseph Hamilton Daveiss' and Captain Benjamin Parke's dragoons as his reserve. At Prophetstown, Tenskwatawa's followers began fortifying the village while their leader determined a course of action. While the Winnebago agitated for an attack, Tenskwatawa consulted the spirits and decided launch a raid designed to kill Harrison.

Battle of Tippecanoe - Tenskwatawa Attacks:

Casting spells to protect his warriors, Tenskwatawa sent his men to the American camp with the goal of reaching Harrison's tent. The attempt on Harrison's life was guided by an African-American wagon-driver named Ben who had defected to the Shawnees. Approaching the American lines, he was captured by American sentries. Despite this failure, Tenskwatawa's warriors did not withdraw and around 4:30 AM on November 7, they launched an attack on Harrison's men. Benefiting from orders given by the officer of the day, Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Bartholomew, that they sleep with their weapons loaded, the Americans quickly responded to the approaching threat. After a minor diversion against the north end of the camp, the main assault struck the south end which was held by an Indiana militia unit known as the "Yellow Jackets."

Battle of Tippecanoe - Standing Strong:

Shortly after the fighting began, their commander, Captain Spier Spencer, was struck in the head and killed followed by two of his lieutenants. Leaderless and with their small caliber rifles having difficulty in stopping the onrushing Native Americans, the Yellow Jackets began falling back. Alerted to the danger, Harrison dispatched two companies of regulars, who, with Bartholomew in the lead, charged into the approaching enemy. Pushing them back, the regulars, along with the Yellow Jackets, sealed the breach. A second assault came a short time later and struck both the northern and southern parts of the camp. The reinforced line in the south held, while a charge from Daveiss' dragoons broke the back of the northern attack. In the course of this action, Daveiss fell mortally wounded (Map).

For over an hour Harrison's men held off the Native Americans. Running low on ammunition and with the rising sun revealing their inferior numbers, the warriors began retreating back to Prophetstown. A final charge from the dragoons drove off the last of the attackers. Fearing that Tecumseh would return with reinforcements, Harrison spent the remainder of the day fortifying the camp. At Prophetstown, Tenskwatawa was accosted by his warriors who stated that his magic had not protected them. Imploring them to make a second attack, all of Tenskwatawa's pleas were refused. On November 8, a detachment of Harrison's army arrived at Prophetstown and found it abandoned except for a sick old woman. While the woman was spared, Harrison directed that the town be burned and any cooking implements be destroyed. Additionally, everything of value, including 5,000 bushels of corn and beans, was confiscated.

Battle of Tippecanoe - Aftermath:

A victory for Harrison, Tippecanoe saw his army suffer 62 killed and 126 wounded. While casualties for Tenskwatawa's smaller attacking force are not known with precision, it is estimated that they suffered 36-50 killed and 70-80 wounded. The defeat was a serious blow to Tecumseh's efforts to build a confederacy against the United States and the loss damaged Tenskwatawa's reputation. Tecumseh remained an active threat until 1813 when he fell fighting against Harrison's army at the Battle of the Thames. On the larger stage, the Battle of Tippecanoe further fueled the tensions between Britain and the United States as many Americans blamed the British for inciting the tribes to violence. These tensions came to a head in June 1812 with the outbreak of the War of 1812.

Selected Sources