Friday, September 27, 2013

Battle of the Thames Bicentennial:Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh and Harrison Struggle over the Old Northwest

October 5th, 2013 marks the bicentennial of the Battle of the Thames. In a series of posts on this blog you may have already read how the Shawnee Indian Lalawethika became a prophet and how he rose to prominence among the more anti-American Indians in the Old Northwest, first by officiating in a witch purge and later by predicting a solar eclipse. White people at the time and historians until recently have thought of the Native resistance movement as being a primarily political one led by the prophet’s brother, Tecumseh. However, in recent years, historians like Alfred Cave and Adam Jortner are putting Tecumseh’s brother front and center. Their research indicates that the Native resistance movement or city-state if-you-will was primarily religious or spiritual in nature – at least up until 1809 when William Henry Harrison’s aggressive conduct forced the Indians to defend their territory. But until then the movement was led by Tecumseh’s brother, Tenskwatawa, alias Lalawethika.

Let’s pick up the story after Lalawethika successfully predicted the solar eclipse of June 16, 1806. His followers had already established a town near the remains of Fort Greenville in Ohio, but the prophet asserted that the Master of Life – his name for the Great Spirit - told him to construct a new settlement in present-day Indiana. The move was made in 1808. At roughly the same time as his base of operations moved from Greenville to Prophetstown, Lalawethika changed his name to Tenskwatawa. Historian Adam Jortner doesn’t doubt that the Shawnee prophet was motivated by religion. At the same time, Jortner (114) observes that Prophetstown, at the confluence of the Wabash and another river that whites mispronounced as “Tippecanoe,” was ideally located from a secular viewpoint. By moving from Ohio, to Indiana Territory, Tenskwatawa was moving onto William Henry Harrison’s turf; Harrison was the governor of Indiana Territory. Harrison had denounced the prophet after he put four Delaware Indians to death in the witch purge of 1806, but the two men got together soon after Prophetstown was established and Harrison actually took a liking to Tenskwatawa.

However, Harrison was more concerned about his career than with making friends with Indians. He used a number of shady tactics to effect the 1809 treaty of Fort Wayne, in which three million acres was ceded to the United States by Miami, Delaware, Shawnee, Kickapoo and Potawatomie chiefs (Jortner, 160-164). Harrison had recognized the local chiefs as owners of the land and that was precisely what Tenskwatawa and his followers objected to. As they saw it, Harrison was taking advantage of Indians by bargaining with local chiefs. The all-Indian confederacy they were building was intended to force the United States to deal with all the tribes collectively, rather than allowing them to play tribes against each other. So Harrison’s Fort Wayne treaty of 1809 was the thing that turned Prophetstown from a primarily religious or spiritual movement or city-state into a primarily political and military one. Tenskwatawa threatened to not allow the United States to survey the 1809 treaty lands and in 1810, his brother Tecumseh personally threatened Harrison that the movement would ally with the British if the treaty wasn’t nullified (Langguth, 167). In November, 1811 Harrison brought a thousand soldiers to Prophetstown and the result was the Battle of Tippecanoe. With about sixty men dying on each side, it wasn’t the rout that Harrison’s supporters later claimed.

At this point Harrison’s political opponents in Washington launched an investigation. In an earlier post, I explained historian Adam Jortner’s research about how William Henry Harrison got away with his belligerent conduct towards the Indians of the Old Northwest. To make a long story short, there were already tensions with Britain and a common, but erroneous, belief that the British were a bad influence on the Indians. So Harrison got away with his aggressive tactics by making them just one part of the push for war.

Tecumseh and his warriors teamed up with the British forces. In taking Fort Detroit, they declared all of Michigan Territory theirs. However, within a few months, the British supply chain was cut off due to Admiral Oliver Hazard Perry’s naval victory on Lake Erie. This prompted the British General Henry Proctor to plan a retreat. When Tecumseh got word of Proctor’s plans he was outraged and made a valiant speech. After a few days the two leaders came to a compromise: they would only retreat to the nearest defensible location. That was the Thames River. That retreat meant giving up Michigan and many of Tecumseh’s warriors – who were fighting specifically for Michigan - left at that point.

When the Battle of the Thames started, Tecumseh’s forces were on high ground overlooking a swamp and the British were somewhat protected by the river. In what Canada’s Battle of the Thames Bicentennial website calls a “bold and unconventional move,” Harrison unleashed his cavalry on the British, who - being outnumbered and unmotivated - spared their own lives by surrendering or fleeing. Tecumseh and many of his most militant warriors, fought to the death, however, in a decisive victory for the United States.

Although Tenskwatawa fled into Canada, the Battle of the Thames did not put an end to his movement as many have believed. As of 1816, he still had a large following of warriors. But when many of them decided to rebuild Prophetstown, he was afraid to go back with them (Cave, 138). He later worked out a deal with the United States and died in a Shawnee community in present-day Kansas in 1836.


Cave, Alfred A. Prophets of the Great Spirit: Native American Revitalization Movements in Eastern North America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006.

Jortner, Adam Joseph. The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Jortner, Adam Joseph. The Gods of Prophetstown, online interview: accessed on 8/23/2012.

Langguth, A. J. Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Is Short Hair More "Civilized"? (The U.S. Government Thought So)

What does it mean to be "civilized"? It is a question we no longer ask today because we've become sensitive to what happens when one group of people - a group that assumes their ways are better - interferes with another group and tells them what to do. But the word "civilized" was still being used in United States government documents at the beginning of the last century.
This comes from Slate's historical blog, The Vault In case you cannot read the small text, here is a transcript:
This Office desires to call your attention to a few customs among the Indians, which, it is believed, should be modified or discontinued. The wearing of long hair by the male population of your agency is not in keeping with the advancement they are making or will soon be expected to make, in civilization. The returned male student far too frequently goes back to his reservation and falls into the the old custom of letting his hair grow long....
The letter continues for another page and a half, if you find it outrageous or outrageously quaint, you may want to read the post that goes with it.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Video: "Christianity and the Native American Religious Experience," a lecture by Linford Fisher

In only fourteen minutes, Linford Fisher gives a broad overview of a topic that goes far beyond Algonkian Church History.