by Harry Tunnell
Two decades after St. Clair’s Defeat, General William Henry Harrison, the Governor of the Indiana Territory, led an expedition against a Shawnee-led Indian Confederacy. Tecumseh was the political and military leader of the confederacy and his brother Tenskwatawa, known as the Shawnee Prophet, the spiritual leader. Prophet’s Town was the headquarters of the Indian Confederacy. It was located near the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers. The town sat on a bluff overlooking the Wabash River about 130 miles, as the crow flies, NE of the territorial capital at Vincennes, IN. One of the main factors that precipitated the battle was the 1809 Treaty of Fort Wayne that Harrison negotiated with the Delaware, Potawatomie, Miami, and Eel River Miami. In the treaty, the Indians ceded 3,000,000 acres to the United States. Tecumseh disputed the legitimacy of the treaty, setting the stage for conflict between the confederacy and United States. Without any resolution in sight, Harrison decided to organize a military expedition of regulars and militia. Harrison’s expedition would ultimately engage the Indian Confederacy in battle 1 ½ miles NW of the Wabash River (near present-day Battle Ground, IN) and Prophet’s Town. Harrison and the expedition departed Fort Knox (present-day Vincennes, IN) on September 26, 1811 enroute to a battlefield legacy of hardship, endurance, and close combat.
Harrison and the army arrived at the outskirts of Prophet’s Town on November 6, 1811. Surprised by the army’s advance on their headquarters, the Indians asked for a conference the next day in an attempt to buy time. Harrison agreed and the expedition established camp and posted a strong guard force on a small bit of high ground not far from Prophet’s Town. Having learned the lessons of Indian warfare well enough, and fearing a surprise attack, soldiers and militiamen, slept “on their arms,” meaning fully dressed, weapons loaded, and bayonets fixed—ready to fight at a moment’s notice. The Indians did not disappoint. During the early morning hours of November 7, 1811, with the crack of rifle fire and “an awful Indian yell” emanating from every corner of the encampment, the fight was on. In a hard-fought battle, the Americans persevered, repulsing the attack after several hours of close combat, sometimes hand-to-hand. The Americans advanced on the abandoned Indian headquarters the next day and destroyed Prophet’s Town. The army returned to Vincennes on November 18, 1811 and disbanded, having reduced the threat of Tecumseh’s Indian Confederacy in the Indiana Territory. The battle, known as the Battle of Tippecanoe, takes its name from the lesser river near Prophet’s Town.
Tecumseh was not at the battle or Prophet’s Town. His brother—far less skilled as a military leader—was the one to commit Indian forces to combat with the American force. Tecumseh had gone south (to present-day Alabama) to recruit more allies for his confederacy. Harrison, through his spy network, learned that Tecumseh was planning something more sinister than political networking even though he could not determine precisely what was planned. In an act of pure military brilliance, Harrison decided to seize the initiative and take an expedition north while the confederacy’s most celebrated and effective military leader was absent. Tecumseh returned to Prophet’s Town in February or March 1812 to find the confederacy in shambles. He was subsequently forced to seek an alliance with the British during the War of 1812. Forces commanded by Harrison and Tecumseh would meet on several battlefields during the war. Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames (present-day Chatham-Kent, Ontario), by members of Harrison’s command. Harrison survived the war and by its end was a national hero. However, he remained most famous for his combat leadership near Prophet’s Town. After his military career ended, he used the sobriquet “Old Tippecanoe,” to great effect on the political battlefield—eventually becoming the ninth President of the United States, dying in office on April 4, 1841.