Tecumseh's War of 1811

  • DATE: 1811
  • LOCATION: Northern United States and Upper Canada
  • COMMANDERS: Chief Tecumseh (Indian)

Tecumseh's War is the term sometimes used to describe a conflict in the Old Northwest between the United States and an American Indian confederacy led by the Shawnee chief Tecumseh. Although the war is often considered to have climaxed with American Gen. William H. Harrison's victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, Tecumseh's War essentially continued into the War of 1812, and is frequently considered a part of that larger struggle.

The two principal adversaries in the war, Tecumseh and William Henry Harrison, had both been junior participants in the Battle of Fallen Timbers at the close of the Northwest Indian War in 1794. Tecumseh had declined to sign the Treaty of Greenville that had ended the war and ceded much of present-day Ohio, long inhabited by the Shawnees and other Native Americans, to the United States. However, many Indian leaders in the region accepted the Greenville terms, and for the next ten years pan-tribal resistance to American hegemony seemed to fade.

After the Greenville treaty, most of the Ohio Shawnees settled at the Shawnee village of Wapakoneta on the Auglaize River, where they were led by Black Hoof, a senior chief who had signed the treaty. Little Turtle of the Miamis, who had also participated in the earlier war and signed the Greenville treaty, lived in his village on the Eel River. Both Black Hoof and Little Turtle urged cultural adaptation and accommodation with the United States.

However, a nativist religious revival led by Tecumseh's brother Tenskwatawa ("The Prophet") emerged in 1805, posing a threat to the influence of the accommodationist chiefs. Tenskwatawa urged Indians to reject the ways of the whites, and to refrain from ceding any more lands to the United States. A number of Indians — not coincidentally many who were inclined to cooperate with the United States — were accused of witchcraft, and some were executed by followers of Tenskwatawa. Black Hoof was accused in the witch-hunt, but was not harmed. From his village at Greenville, Ohio, Tenskwatawa also compromised Black Hoof's friendly relationship with the United States.

By 1808, tensions with whites and the Wapakoneta Shawnees compelled Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh to remove further northwest and establish the village of Prophetstown near the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers. Little Turtle told the Shawnee brothers that they were unwelcome, but the warnings were ignored.

enskwatawa's religious teachings became widely known, and he attracted Native American followers from many different nations, including Shawnee, Canadian Iroquois, Chickamauga, Fox, Miami, Mingo, Ojibway, Ottawa, Kickapoo, Delaware (Lenape), Mascouten, Potawatomi, Sauk, and Wyandot. Although Tecumseh would eventually emerge as the leader of this confederation, it was built upon a foundation established by the religious appeal of his younger brother.

Meanwhile, in 1800, William Henry Harrison had become the governor of the newly formed Indiana Territory, with the capital at Vincennes. Harrison sought to secure title to Indian lands in order to allow for American expansion; in particular he hoped that the Indiana Territory would attract enough white settlers so as to qualify for statehood. Harrison negotiated numerous land cession treaties with American Indians, culminating with the Treaty of Fort Wayne on September 30, 1809, in which Little Turtle and other tribal leaders sold about 2,500,000 acres of Indian land to the United States.

Tecumseh was outraged by the Treaty of Fort Wayne, and thereafter he emerged as a prominent political leader. Tecumseh revived an idea advocated in previous years by the Shawnee leader Blue Jacket and the Mohawk leader Joseph Brant, which stated that American Indian land was owned in common by all tribes, and thus no land could be sold without agreement by all. Not yet ready to confront the United States directly, Tecumseh's primary adversaries were initially the Native American leaders who had signed the treaty, and he threatened to kill them all. Tecumseh began to travel widely, urging warriors to abandon the accommodationist chiefs and to join the resistance at Prophetstown. Tecumseh insisted that the Fort Wayne treaty was illegitimate; he asked Harrison to nullify it, and warned that Americans should not attempt to settle the lands sold in the treaty.

In August 1811, Tecumseh met with Harrison at Vincennes, assuring him that the Shawnee brothers meant to remain at peace with the United States. Tecumseh then traveled to the south, on a mission to recruit allies among the so-called "Five Civilized Tribes." Most of the southern nations rejected his appeals, but a faction among the Creeks, who came to be known as the Red Sticks, answered his call to arms, leading to the "Creek War", which also became a part of the War of 1812.

Meanwhile, while Tecumseh was in the south, Governor Harrison marched up the Wabash River from Vincennes with more than 1,000 men, on an expedition to intimidate the Prophet and his followers, building Fort Harrison on the way. While at Fort Harrison, Harrison received orders from Secretary of War William Eustis authorizing Harrison to use force if necessary to disperse the Indians at Prophetstown. On November 6, 1811, Harrison's army arrived outside Prophetstown, and Tenskwatawa agreed to meet Harrison in a conference to be held the next day.

Tenskwatawa, perhaps suspecting that Harrison intended to attack the village, decided to risk a preemptive strike, sending out his warriors against the American encampment. In the Battle of Tippecanoe, fought before the dawn of the next day, Harrison's men held their ground, and the Indians withdrew from the village after the battle. The victorious Americans burned the town and returned to Vincennes.

Harrison claimed that the Battle of Tippecanoe was a deathblow to Tecumseh's confederacy. Harrison, thereafter nicknamed "Tippecanoe", would eventually become President of the United States largely on the memory of this victory.

The battle was indeed a severe blow for Tenskwatawa, who lost prestige and the confidence of his brother. However, although it was a significant setback, Tecumseh began to secretly rebuild the alliance upon his return from the south. Now that the Americans were at war with the British in the War of 1812, Tecumseh also found British allies in Canada. Canadians would subsequently remember Tecumseh as a defender of Canada, but his actions in the War of 1812—which would cost him his life—were a continuation of his efforts to secure Native American independence from outside dominance.

At Vincennes in 1810, Tecumseh loses his temper when American Gen. William H. Harrison refuses to rescind the Treaty of Fort Wayne.

Overview of Tecumseh's War territory in 1811.

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