Growing up in Indiana, the word Tippecanoe was very familiar. So were Native arrowheads and other remnants of the life of the Native people who lived there generations before my family.
Little did I know that Indians had been engaged in an important historical battle not far from where I lived.
On November 7th, 1811, the Shawnee engaged the whites in what would come to be called the Battle of Tippecanoe.
Following the signing of the Treaty of Greenville in summer 1795, relative peace prevailed between the white settlers and the natives of the Old Northwest Territory which included Indiana. The Washington and Adams administrations at least paid lip service to the terms of the treaty, but Thomas Jefferson sought additional lands for American farmers through a series of purchases from the tribes. Not all the frontiersmen bothered with the niceties of treaties and many simply occupied Indian lands illegally.
Resentment among the tribes ran high. In 1808, Tecumseh, a Shawnee chieftain, and his brother Tenskwatawa (known to the Americans as The Prophet) launched a reform movement among their people. They attempted to end the sale of additional lands to the whites and to resist alcohol and other troublesome temptations of the competing culture.
A new native settlement was built at the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers (north of present-day Lafayette, Indiana) and became known as Prophet’s Town. The village became the focal point of Tecumseh’s effort to rally the tribes east of the Mississippi River in the hope of halting the spread of white settlements.
William Henry Harrison was governor of the Indiana Territory and superintendent of the Northwest Indians. Fearing the growing strength of Tecumseh’s confederacy, Harrison decided to strike quickly. He marched an army of 1,100 men along the Wabash toward Prophet’s Town.
Earlier in 1811, Tecumseh had gone to visit the Chickasaw, Choctaw, and Creek tribes, to enlist their support against American expansion. Tecumseh left his brother, the Shawnee Prophet, in charge and told him not to attack nearby American forces.
With Harrison’s forces advancing, the Prophet prepared the Native men for battle with fiery oratory — including promises that they could not be harmed by the white men’s bullets. Ignoring Tecumseh’s instructions, the Prophet attacked the Americans shortly before dawn, giving the Shawnee a tactical advantage, near Tippecanoe Creek. Had he not taken this pre-emptive stroke, certainly Harrison would have attacked the Shawnee.
After a two-hour battle, the natives were forced to flee and their village and the gathering spot of the confederacy, Prophet’s Town, was burned by Harrison’s troops.
Military historians regard the Battle of Tippecanoe as a draw, but the battle made a hero out of William Henry Harrison who subsequently took the nickname “Tippecanoe” which he used to his political advantage when running for president. He was elected in 1840 but caught pneumonia during his lengthy inaugural speech in a snowstorm and died a month later.
Following the 1811 battle, even the women celebrated this victory by creating quilt blocks to honor Harrison, who, it was perceived, saved the day and ensured the safety of the whites. Blocks had names such as Tippecanoe, Old Tippecanoe and Tippecanoe and Tyler Too. A slightly modified Tippecanoe block is shown below.