“These Lands Are Ours …”
Only Tecumseh came close to uniting the warring tribes, but his British allies and his less visionary people failed him
August 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 5
Where the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pokanoket and many other once powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, as snow before a summer sun. … Will we let ourselves be destroyed in our turn without making an effort worthy of our race? Shall we, without a struggle, give up our homes, our country bequeathed to us by the Great Spirit, the graves of our dead and everything that is dear and sacred to us? I know you will cry with me, Never! Never!
Again and again, young warriors shouted their approval, and small groups promised to strike the Americans when Tecumseh gave them the signal. But the older leaders were wary and afraid. Some of them were receiving annuities and gifts from the Americans; some saw only ruin in Tecumseh’s plans; and some thought that their people could do well enough by themselves. Only the Creeks and Seminoles, already smouldering with hatred for the Americans, provided the Shawnee with hope.
Disappointed by his failures in the South, Tecumseh returned to the Tippecanoe River early in 1812, only to be met by news of a more stunning setback at home. During the Shawnee leader’s absence, Harrison had finally struck at the Prophet’s Town. At the head of an army of almost 1,000 men, the Governor had marched up the Wabash River, and on the night of November 6, 1811, had camped near the Indian settlement at the mouth of the Tippecanoe. The ominous arrival of the hostile force alarmed the Indians, and at first, without Tecumseh to direct them, they were undecided about what to do. A band of Winnebagos, bolder than the others, argued for an immediate attack on the invading whites, and finally won Tenskwatawa’s approval.
In the early hours of morning, some 450 natives crawled through the darkness toward the Americans. Harrison had placed his men in an unbroken line around the three sides of his triangular-shaped camp, and shortly before four o’clock, a sentry on the northern perimeter saw an Indian moving in the gloom and shot him. In an instant, the whooping natives were on their feet, charging toward the whites. The Americans met them with blazing musketry, and only a few of the Indians were able to crash into the camp, where Harrison’s men battled them in hand-to-hand struggles. The rest were chased back, and though they launched a series of rushes at other sides of the camp, they failed to break through.
As the sky lightened, the Indians finally withdrew among the trees, and kept up a desultory fire from cover during the day. By the second day, they had all vanished, and Harrison burned the Prophet’s Town.
The number of Indian dead in the battle was never known, though it was estimated to be between 25 and 40. Harrison lost 61 killed and 127 wounded, but on his return to the settlements, he announced that he had won a great victory and wrote to the Secretary of War that “the Indians have never sustained so severe a defeat since their acquaintance with the white people.” The importance of the battle was soon exaggerated beyond reality; in 1840 the magic of its memory still worked well enough to help elect Harrison to the Presidency.
Tecumseh reached the Tippecanoe in late February or early March, 1812, and seethed with rage as he viewed what had happened behind his back. His anger was directed against his brother, who had failed to prevent the battle. The southern trip had shown Tecumseh that his confederation was far from ready for the united movement he had planned to lead, and the clash on the Tippecanoe would now set off exactly the kind of border war he had tried to avoid. The tribes would rise individually seeking vengeance, and once more the Americans would deal with them piece-meal. Tecumseh banished the Prophet, but meanwhile the isolated uprisings Tecumseh feared had already begun. Irate bands, crying for revenge, fell on settlers in Indiana and Illinois. They raided independently of one another and without plan, but the panic they aroused united the Americans against all the natives, and strengthened the settlers’ conviction that the British and Tecumseh were directing the new attacks. Frontier feelings flamed against both the English and the Indians, and as frightened settlers abandoned their homes and fled south to safety, angry militia units built new forts and blockhouses north of the Ohio River. In Ohio, a large American army under Brigadier General William Hull began to march north to Detroit, while in Vincennes, Harrison prepared for the decisive war for which Tecumseh was not yet ready.
During the spring, the tension on the frontier spread to Washington, where it helped to precipitate the War of 1812. On June 18, the United States, under the pressure of Henry Clay and other “War Hawk” legislators from Kentucky and the West, began the war against Great Britain. Almost immediately, both the British and the Americans sent agents among the tribes, appealing for their help in the struggle. Several of the older chiefs, who had opposed Tecumseh and maintained their loyalty to the United States, argued the American case before their tribesmen. But in a large council called by the Americans at Fort Wayne, Tecumseh defied them. “Here is a chance …” he cried scornfully, “yes, a chance such as will never occur again—for us Indians of North America to form ourselves into one great combination …”