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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The War of 1812

by
Francis F. Beirne

published by
E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
New York, 1949

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 7

Chapter Six

p56 Tecumseh and Tippecanoe

Vol. I, Number 1, of The Weekly Register, published in Baltimore and edited by Hezekiah Niles, late editor of the Baltimore Evening Post, appeared on September 5, 1811. Subscribers to the first issue might have turned to the department headed "The Chronicle" and read:

"There has lately occurred no important event in Spain or Portugal; the French emperor is said to be reinforcing his army; and Wellington, with his strongholds, appears able to make a formidable resistance. The ultimate expulsion of the British is a probable event, but whether Bonaparte will shortly obtain quiet possession of these countries, is at least problematical — he has taught the people to fight, and supposed to have lost in the bloody contest not less than six hundred thousand men. 'Ye Gods! What havoc does ambition make.'

"Our accounts from England, to use the language of Consul O'Brien, are 'squally'! The affair of the President frigate and the Little Belt has excited much sensibility in England. A squadron of ships under the command of Rear Admiral Sir Joseph York, consisting of four vessels of 74 guns and 2 frigates, has been dispatched for our coast, and may be daily expected. Some of the London newspapers say the Admiral has orders to commence immediate hostilities unless our government shall disavow the conduct of Commodore Rodgers. It also appears that some important dispatches have been received from England — 'A king's messenger,' the first officially acknowledged as such in the United States, passed though this city on Wednesday last to the British Minister. Mr. Foster, at Washington, In the meantime the British ships of war are making captures on p57our coast. Important events may be expected, but at present all is rumor and uncertainty.

"From France our accounts are less gloomy than heretofore; several American vessels have been released; rather effected, it would seem, by a whim of the government than in consequence of any material change in its policy. But the present enormous dutiesº on American produce in France forbidsº all hope of a profitable and extensive trade until they are reduced, of which a prospect is held out."

Thus Editor Niles' customers obtained news of the doings in the world about them. In Portugal, behind the impregnable line of Torres Vedras, Wellington had held off the superior French army of Masséna. Masséna, his men unable to support themselves in a devastated country, had appealed to Napoleon for reinforcements and provisions; but the Emperor, recruiting an army for an attack upon Russia, would send him neither. And so Masséna had been forced to retreat, with Wellington at his heels.

The invasion of Spain had brought about a national uprising in that country, yet neither the world nor Napoleon realized that this was the beginning of the end. To the casual observer Napoleon was at the height of his power. His mighty empire extended from the Atlantic to the Adriatic Sea; the German principalities were its satellites. Prussia and Austria were crushed. Belgium and Holland were integral parts of France and the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, a French creation, was thrust into the side of Russia.

Except for Russia all the countries of the Continent, including Scandinavia, had unwillingly consented to his Continental System, designed to exclude all trade with Great Britain. And now the United States, also out of necessity, had fallen into line, refusing the admission of British goods.

If there was ever a time when Great Britain appeared to need an ally, it was at that moment. And if her statesmen had been able to display even a reasonably conciliatory spirit, she could have had the United States. Half the nation was with her in spite of orders and impressments, and the other half would have welcomed a break with Napoleon who, in spite of professing to have withdrawn his decrees, still held millions of dollars' worth of American property. Yet at that moment Britain lacked the leaders with the courage and p58the foresight to abandon an ancient custom upon the maintenance of which she imagined her salvation depended. Her men-of‑war hovered near our coasts, she continued to impress our seamen. As for the orders in council, Perceval, the Prime Minister, was one of their most ardent supporters, and protests against them were useless.

And why, after all, should Great Britain fear the United States? The best advices indicated lack of preparedness and division of public opinion in America. Even after the action of the President and the Little Belt His Majesty's Ministers were unconvinced that that American people would fight. The absence of American cotton and other raw commodities was bringing distress to Britain's manufactures and the loss of the American market was provoking protests from her merchants; her currency had depreciated and her harvest had failed, yet Perceval, Wellesley & Co. pursued their chosen course relentlessly and undeviatingly. The more the opposition criticized, the more adamant became the ministry.

Turning from the foreign to the domestic scene "The Chronicle" goes on to say: "At a meeting held at Vincennes, Indiana territory, at which were present a large number of very respectable gentlemen, it was agreed among other resolves, as the opinion of the assembly, 'that the persons and property of this frontier can never be secured, but by breaking up of the combination formed by the Shawnee prophet on the Wabash.' It is generally believed in the western country that the outrages committed by the Indians are brought about by 'British influence.' A war, however, is not expected; the Indians fearing the Americans too much to engage in it."

Vincennes was the capital of Indiana Territory which had been established in 1800 and which included the present states of Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. General William Henry Harrison, a young Virginian less than thirty years of age, had been appointed its first governor. Within ten years the white population of the territory had increased from 2,500 to 25,000 persons, the principal settlements being at Louisville and Vincennes. In 1805 a territorial legislature had been established and, through treaties with the Indians, the Americans had acquired title to 46,000 acres of land.

The method through which land was obtained lay in debauching the Indians with liquor. Governor Harrison in one of his reports p59stated: "I do not believe that there are more than 600 warriors on the Wabash, and yet the quantity of whisky brought here annually for their consumption is said to amount to 6000 gallons."a Encouraged to drink and run into debt, the chiefs were told that they could absolve themselves by giving title to the land. But this they had no actual right to do since, under Indian custom, title to land resided not in the chiefs but in the tribe.

At this point there appeared on the scene two Indians of remarkable personality. They were Tecumseh and Elkswatawa, better known in history as the Prophet. Tecumseh and the Prophet were brothers, being two of a set of triplets born of a Creek mother and a Shawnee warrior. Tecumseh was a man of distinguished appearance, great personal courage, and considerable dignity and oratorical ability. The Prophet, on the other hand, was a drunkard whose generally depraved features were made even more forbidding through the lack of an eye. Tecumseh furnished the brains, the Prophet the mysticism. The latter claimed to hold converse with the Great Spirit and attributed to himself the power of performing miracles. His claims were accepted by many Indians, save those of his own tribe, thus bearing out the old Biblical saying.

Jefferson in his day had advised the Indians to settle down to farming. Tecumseh took him at his word, with somewhat embarrassing results for the white settlers. At Tippecanoe, on the Wabash, he and the Prophet established a town, prohibited the use of liquor and set to work to till the soil. Furthermore, Tecumseh put himself relentlessly to the task of preventing continued sequestration of the land. As a last desperate effort to stem the rising tide of white settlers he contemplated a federation of all the Indian tribes, both north and south, throughout the entire Valley of the Mississippi. As complimentary as this was to Tecumseh's foresight and statesmanship, and as admirable as it was from the standpoint of the Indians, it was highly annoying and detrimental to continued extension of the white frontiers.

Besides this major conflict of interests there were other factors which widened the breach between the Indians and the frontiersmen. When the Indians were drunk they not infrequently murdered each other, and now and then they murdered white settlers. White settlers, on the other hand, now and then murdered Indians. When p60a white man was accused of murdering an Indian he was brought to trial by the whites. When an Indian was accused of murdering a white man he was brought to trial not by his fellow Indians, but by the whites. Such a system necessarily led to suspicion that the punishment of the accused Indian was more certain than that of the accused white. The Indians had lived peaceably with the French settlers, but an occasional Frenchman in Indian territory was far different from the thousands of Americans with many more thousands behind them.

A climax was reached when, on September 30, 1809, at Vincennes, Governor Harrison concluded a treaty with the Delawares, Pottawattomies, Miamis, Kickapoos, Wea and Eel River Indians by which he obtained no less than 3,000,000 acres of the finest hunting grounds on the Wabash. The price agreed upon was $8,200 in cash and $2,350 in annuities. Realizing the hopelessness of the Indians' position if this deal were permitted to go through, Tecumseh, abetted by the Prophet, vehemently protested it. It made little difference to him that the land in question was not that of his own tribe.

Through an interpreter Governor Harrison invited Tecumseh to visit him at Vincennes to discuss the matter. Tecumseh accepted the invitation. He was told to come alone, but on August 12, 1810, he appeared at the capital with 300 armed warriors at his back. The settlers were greatly alarmed at the display of force and a massacre might have taken place had not Governor Harrison faced the situation calmly and cowed the Indians by parading two companies of militia. He ordered Tecumseh to withdraw, after the latter had spoken with great bitterness of the behavior of the whites. On the following day Tecumseh, who admired courage, reappeared in a more friendly frame of mind, and it was agreed that Governor Harrison would refer the complaint to the President. On this visit Tecumseh promised that if the lands were returned he would ally himself with the Americans.

War seemed imminent and, as a precautionary measure, Governor Harrison ordered up to Vincennes a detachment of regulars which had been stationed in Kentucky, and combined them with three companies of militia infantry and a company of dragoons. The rest of the summer, however, was passed in relative quiet. But the spring p61of 1811 saw parties of marauding Indians on the Wabash who plundered the houses of the settlers and the wigwams of friendly Indians, stole horses and committed other depredations. Stirred to action by reports of the conduct of the Indians, Harrison sent a warning to them that he was ready to attack. This brought Tecumseh once more to Vincennes. He protested his friendship but still demanded return of the lands. Shortly after his departure it was learned that he had gone on a trip to the South in the hope of encouraging the Creeks, Choctaws and Chickasaws to join his confederation.

No sooner had the people of Vincennes heard of Tecumseh's absence than they urged Governor Harrison to strike. The Governor had received from the Secretary of War a rather broad order instructing him to attack the Indians at Tippecanoe, if he should deem it advisable. With that authority from his government and encouraged by the settlers Harrison determined upon invasion of the Indian country. He assembled at Vincennes a force of about 900 men, including 250 regulars of the 4th U. S. Infantry under Colonel John P. Boyd, 60 Kentucky volunteers, 600 Indiana militia and 270 mounted dragoons and riflemen.

On September 26 the expedition set out from Vincennes and marched through the Wabash Valley. For a week they proceeded without molestation, pausing at the present site of Terre Haute to erect a fort which they named Fort Harrison in honor of their commander. On October 10 the first blood was shed when a sentinel was wounded by a Shawnee warrior. Harrison at once dispatched a message by some friendly Miamis to Tippecanoe ordering the Prophet to restore the horses and other property stolen during the spring and to surrender certain Indians who had been accused of murder. The Miamis never returned.

On November 5 the expedition arrived within eleven miles of Tippecanoe, and now Indians were constantly appearing, but without offering resistance. Governor Harrison took precautions against surprise by conducting his infantry in two separate columns with mounted men in advance, on the flanks and in the rear. The following day the little army came within sight of the Prophet's town. They were met by Indians who asked for a parley, as the result of which the Indians promised to refrain from hostilities and suggested a p62camp site for the Americans on a bluff about a mile from the town. Two of Harrison's officers inspected the site, reported it to be satisfactory, and there the troops pitched their tents and prepared to spend the night. The General disposed them in a rough parallelogram, with the baggage and supplies in the center, and posted guards and sentinels.

All was quiet until shortly before dawn on November 7 when the camp was awakened by the firing of a rifle by one of the sentinels who had made out a savage approaching him through the darkness. In a few minutes the Indians were attacking at two separate points and making as good use as they could of the confusion in the American camp. General Harrison mounted a charger and moved from place to place encouraging the defenders. The encounter was sharp and bloody, but at last the Indians were repulsed. As the sun rose the Americans proceeded to count their losses. Out of the 900 men no fewer than 61 had been killed or mortally wounded and 127 wounded. Among the casualties were an aide-de‑camp, a major, three captains and two subalterns.

It was believed at the time that the early morning attack by the Indians was accidental. The story had it that the Prophet intended to hold the council in the town as he had promised the previous day, proffer friendship and then fall upon the Americans and massacre them. But in the course of the night he conducted a ceremonial, assuring his hearers that he had charmed the white men's bullets so that they would not injure the Indians. The story of the charm won their confidence so effectually that he could not keep the young warriors in check and they proceeded at once to the attack. The Prophet himself observed the battle from a safe distance and, as a result of its outcome, lost considerable prestige.

On November 8 Harrison entered the town to find it deserted. He devoted the day to burning all the supplies and the houses, leaving it in the afternoon a mass of charred wood and ashes. But, what is more to the point, in the town were found firearms of British manufacture. This was sufficient to confirm the suspicion that the British Government was behind all the Indian unrest and to add one more indictment to the long list of wrongs charged against His Majesty's Government. So far as the West was concerned all other contributing p63causes were forgotten. And this was important, for as the Indians and Americans were meeting in battle on the banks of the Wabash, the Twelfth Congress was convening at Washington. What happened at Tippecanoe had much to do with what was about to take place at the nation's capital.


Thayer's Note:

a This sounds tremendous; but if the figures are accurate, it amounts to 10 gallons per warrior per year, or slightly less than a gill (half a cup) a day. In modern terms, they were taking a week to empty a fifth; more to the point, in the United States Navy at the time, according to the Navy's own Naval Historical Center page, the ration of distilled spirits was more than double that, at half a pint a day — and the Navy performed remarkably well during that period, nor was that performance ever blamed on booze, or credited to it. It would be reduced in 1847 to a gill a day, still 10% more than the above figure.

Yet there is ample contemporary testimony as to the ravages of alcohol on native Americans as well as its use to induce the signing away of land. The discrepancy may be accounted for by several factors: bad statistics, differing genetic susceptibility of native Americans to alcohol, and binge drinking once a month rather than the daily civilized evening nightcap.

Page updated: 11 Nov 13