Tippecanoe Battlefield

During a recent trip following VA Militia Colonel George Rogers Clark and his Illinois Campaign, my brother and I stopped off at the Tippecanoe Battlefield Interpretive Center in the appropriately-named Battlefield, Indiana, not far from Lafayette.  The battlefield park encompasses the site of a clash between American soldiers and a multinational coalition of Native Americans led by Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, more widely known as “The Prophet.”  It is a gem of a battlefield from America’s founding era.  The Treaty of Paris ceded British “authority” over the Northwest Territory to the new United States.  Of course, it did so without consulting the Native Americans who actually lived there.  That imposition of a European concept naturally led to resistance and involved the United States in some of its earliest wars as a country, notably the War for the Northwest Territory during the Washington Administration and then Tecumseh’s resistance movement and the War of 1812, in which Native Americans in the area primarily sided with the British.  Like St. Clair’s Defeat (1791), the Battle of Fallen Timbers (1794), and the Battle on the Thames (1813), Tippecanoe (1811) became a milestone among those conflicts.  

Harrison Monument at Tippecanoe in Battlefield, IN. The hilltop stretches into the distance. Some of the trees visible were present during the battle, but are dying from the afflictions that affect aging trees.

Concerned by growing nativist sentiment and alliances among the Indians from several different tribes, Indiana Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison led nearly 1,000 infantry, militia, and cavalry north from Vincennes to a growing Indian Settlement known as Prophetstown established by the Shawnee leaders Tecumseh and the Prophet.  Expecting a parlay with Tenskwatawa on November 7, Harrison made camp on a hill near Tippecanoe creek the night of November 6, 1811.  Tecumseh, an experienced war captain and diplomat, was away from Prophetstown at the time, leaving his brother nominally in charge, although various war captains and chiefs from tribes interested in The Prophet’s message were at Prophetstown as well.  

Reconstructed Sample Buildings at Prophetstown State Park, Indiana

The collective leaders decided to attack Harrison’s army in camp while Tenskwatawa promised them his magic would prevent American bullets from felling Native American warriors.  The Indians attacked along several axes during the night in what became a pitched two-hour battle in the darkness.   Harrison had prepared for such an eventuality and his men slept on their arms in a defensive formation, but the Americans were fortunate to avoid an outright defeat in the face of several Indian attacks.  All told, the two-hour battle was a close-fought thing.  Realizing their surprise had not quickly produced a victory, the Indians withdrew, returned to Prophetstown, gathered as many supplies as possible, and evacuated.   The next morning, Harrison and his army burned the town before returning to Vincennes.  The cry “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too!” became Harrison’s campaign slogan when he ran for President in 1840, only to die a few weeks after his inauguration. Tenskwatawa’s star faded when physics defeated his magic.  Tecumseh rose to even greater prominence until he was killed at the Battle of the Thames during the War of 1812.

Sloped sides of the Tippecanoe Battlefield

Today, the Tippecanoe battlefield is well maintained by the Tippecanoe County Historical Association https://tippecanoehistory.org/our-places/tippecanoe-battlefield-museum/.  An excellent battlefield museum interprets events through a video and exhibits while interpretive markers and monuments throughout the park help relate the experiences of participants to the battlefield and flow of events.  The hilltop is maintained as a park with tall trees cleared of underbrush and ample space for community events, while the slopes remain wooded.   Together, they help visitors appreciate the sense and understand the shock of Harrison’s camp being attacked from out of the darkness.  We were fortunate to talk to Dr. Trey Gorden, who manages the battlefield interpretive center and was happy to discuss the battle and frontier history. 

The nearby site of Prophetstown is part of the Indiana State Park system.  In addition to a few reconstructed buildings, which only capture a small portion of the Indian village there in 1811, the park has several nature trails, interpretive signage, and recreational opportunities.  

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