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Hallowed Ground | Tippecanoe Battlefield Park, Indiana

By Paul X. Rutz
May 2018 • Military History Magazine

Just northeast of Purdue University lies Tippecanoe Battlefield Park, offering a window to a time when disparate peoples struggled to dominate Indiana’s forests and prairies. The park relates this clash of cultures at the site where American Indian warriors attacked encamped American troops in the predawn hours of Nov. 7, 1811, hoping to realize the ambitions of two Shawnee brothers.

Around 1807 Tecumseh emerged as the political leader of a spiritual movement started by his brother, Tenskwatawa, aka “the Prophet.” Together they hoped to build a pan-Indian tribal federation that spanned the Great Lakes region, an independent nation opposed to the United States and allied with the British in Canada. The brothers’ appeals drew some 1,000 warriors from more than a dozen tribes to Prophets-town, which they founded in the middle of Indiana Territory.

Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison wanted statehood. In 1810 he finalized the Treaty of Fort Wayne, negating earlier treaties and expertly playing area tribes off against each other to buy land for new settlements. Weeks later an infuriated Tecumseh led 400 armed warriors down the Wabash River to meet with Harrison at his Vincennes home. For three days each lectured the other, ultimately finding no common ground. A year later Tecumseh again met with Harrison at Vincennes, this time to discuss the murders of frontier settlers. The stubborn statesmen remained at loggerheads. Then Tecumseh gave Harrison two critical pieces of information. First, he said large numbers of Indians would soon settle the disputed lands, and second, he would head south to recruit more tribes to his cause. The dual threat gave Harrison reason and opportunity to strike.

The governor assembled an army of 1,000 men, including militiamen and mounted volunteers from Indiana and Kentucky, as well as 250 uniformed regulars. They marched north, arriving at Prophetstown, near the junction of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers, late on November 6. An Indian emissary under a white flag met them and requested a cease-fire until the next day’s meeting with the Prophet. Agreeing in principle, a wary Harrison encamped his men atop a narrow, wooded triangular knoll a mile west of town. The front and rear lines, each 300 yards long, faced east and west respectively, while the camp’s northern, left flank stretched 150 yards. The Americans placed command tents, supplies, horses and cattle in the middle and ringed them with bonfires. The troops slept in their clothes, weapons at the ready.

Outnumbered nearly 2-to-1 and with little ammunition, the Indians relied on surprise. Silently working their way around the camp that drizzly night, they had begun to infiltrate the camp’s northwest corner in the predawn hours when spotted and fired on by a sentry. Over the next two hours, as the Prophet prayed, his warriors tormented Harrison’s men, inflicting 188 casualties. At sunrise the tables turned, the Indians withdrawing as the Americans gave chase, killing some 50 warriors and wounding another 70. A day later Harrison’s men advanced on Prophetstown, only to find it deserted but for an old woman too sick to flee. Sparing the woman, they looted and destroyed the town and marched home.

Harrison claimed to have defeated the Shawnee brothers, and newspapers echoed his version of events. But while he had succeeded in damaging the Prophet’s reputation, the next several months proved how wrong he was to claim victory. No Indian murderers surrendered, and Harrison had failed to disperse Tecumseh’s followers, who returned the next summer to rebuild Prophetstown. Killings of white settlers by Tecumseh’s men rose from fewer than 10 in 1810–11 to 46 in the first half of 1812. That summer President James Madison condemned Britain’s alleged support of Tecumseh in his list of arguments for war, and Congress obliged. In the subsequent War of 1812 Tecumseh fought with the British until killed at the Battle of the Thames in 1813. The Prophet later founded a village on reservation land in Kansas and died there, destitute, in 1836.

Harrison held a rally at Tippecanoe during his 1840 presidential run, but for much of the next century and a half the site was a Methodist picnic area and youth camp. In 1873 history-minded locals fenced in the battlefield, and in 1908 state and federal officials added an 85-foot memorial obelisk bearing a statue of Harrison. The site was designated a national historic landmark in 1960. Archeological artifacts and items related to Harrison’s short presidency anchor the present-day museum, managed by the Tippecanoe County Historical Association [tippecanoehistory.org]

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