William Henry Harrison – The Hero of Tippecanoe

William Henry Harrison

General William Henry Harrison, by Rembrandt Peal, 1813

By Inez Nellie Canfield McFee in 1913

When “Mad Anthony” Wayne was engaged in defending the settlers in the Ohio Valley, there came to his quarters one day, a gallant young officer bearing a note of introduction from President George Washington. This officer was William Henry Harrison [born February 9, 1773]. His father, Benjamin Harrison, was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, and a close friend of Washington. The young man had given up the study of medicine to fight the Indians, and Washington urged Wayne to make him useful. This the General promptly did by placing him on his staff.

No better opening could have been secured for a young man who desired to learn the principles of military tactics, and most carefully did he study the methods of “the chief who never sleeps.” There were many opportunities that came to prove his determination, and General Wayne soon found that he could depend upon his young aide, even in the face of overwhelming difficulties. Obstacles seemed to melt before him, and he had the power of firing his men with his own courage and enthusiasm.

In 1801, when the new territory of Indiana was formed, embracing the country now comprised by the States of Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin, Harrison was made Governor because of his wide knowledge of Indians and frontier life generally, for it was felt that, sooner or later, trouble would again arise with the tribes.

The position was a difficult one, and for that reason, Harrison, who was anxious to rise to the head of his profession, accepted it all the more eagerly. Almost immediately he found himself pitted against a young Shawnee warrior called Tecumseh. This young warrior had fought against Wayne in 1794. He was much opposed to the red men selling their lands and maintained that no tribe had a right to sell without the consent of the other tribes. He was not a born chief, but he went here and there, airing his views until he had quite a band of followers. Tecumseh was aided in his efforts to stir up the Indians by his brother, an Indian prophet known as “The Open Door,” who threatened the tribes with all sorts of evil if they did not join in the cause.

Shawnee Chief Tecumseh

Shawnee Chief Tecumseh

In 1810 Governor Harrison made a treaty at Fort Wayne by which the Indians ceded to the United States a tract of about 3,000,000 acres of land along the upper Wabash River. Some of this land included territory on which Tecumseh’s followers had settled, although they had no right to do so. The Shawnee chief was greatly enraged and threatened to kill the Indians who had made the treaty. He immediately took to the warpath and gathered about him enough warriors to endanger the whole Northwest. Still, Governor Harrison hoped to settle the difficulty without war. To this end, he invited Tecumseh and his leading chiefs to council with him at Vincennes. They accepted. But, when the white chief asked them to be seated upon the veranda of his home, Tecumseh refused. He said he preferred to have the council held in the grove, near at hand. In the discussion that followed Tecumseh grew very angry, and some of his warriors sprang to their feet, tomahawks in hand. Governor Harrison promptly drew his sword, and others of his party quickly presented arms of various kinds. They had feared treachery, and in a twinkling, the soldiers bore down upon the Indians, but Harrison stopped them. He then told Tecumseh there was no use in trying to discuss things with an angry man, and bade him leave.

The next day Tecumseh sent a messenger to the Governor, saying that he was ready to talk with him at length and to come to a friendly settlement if possible. This was what Harrison wanted. With only one companion, he went to the chief’s tent. They were courteously received, and Harrison did his best to put the matter favorably before Tecumseh, but he could get no satisfaction and was finally convinced that he was wasting his time.

The red chief immediately started southward to complete his plans for a general raid on the whites. Friendly Indians brought word of this to Governor Harrison, who thought if there must be war, that he would rather choose the time and place.

A large number of Indians had collected at the Indian village of Tippecanoe, which was Tecumseh’s home. “The Open Door” was in command, as the great red chief had not yet returned from his mission to the south, and here Harrison determined to attack without loss of time. Knowing that the Indians would try to ambush him if they suspected his intentions, he veiled his plans most carefully. Undercover of a hunting expedition, he advanced his forces up the opposite side of the Wabash River almost to Tippecanoe. Here a messenger from the prophet came to them on November 6, 1811, saying that the Indians were ready to make peace.

Harrison doubted this greatly. He told his men to hold themselves in readiness for the attack at any moment. All that night the soldiers lay on their arms. About four o’clock a sentinel fired at a skulking Indian, and the war-whoop resounded on every hand. Harrison immediately ordered the campfires to be put out, and red men and white fought fiercely hand-to-hand in the darkness. Daylight saw many a painted Indian stretched upon the ground beside his fallen foe. Moreover, Harrison’s men had succeeded in scattering the Indians in every direction, and in burning the village of Tippecanoe. For the time being all hope of carrying out Tecumseh’s plan of driving the white people back over the Alleghanies was at an end. But neither Tecumseh nor his brother despaired. They were unhurt and had, in no wise, lost their hold upon their red brothers.

At this time England and France were engaged in a deadly struggle, and our American ships had been doing a fine business in carrying supplies to the two nations, but soon England tried to prevent the Americans from going to France, and France was just as eager to keep them out of England. American ships were captured and plundered, and all sorts of trouble arose. To make matters worse, England began to overhaul our vessels on the high seas and to carry away men to man her warships. Thus our foreign trade was well nigh ruined and our liberty threatened. The elections of 1810 brought into Congress many men who were in favor of going to war with England to protect our commerce, and so on June 18, 1812, war was formally declared by Congress.

The Americans planned to invade Canada and conquer it before troops could arrive from England. To this end, William Hull, the Governor of Michigan Territory, was placed in command of the troops who were to invade Canada. But he proved entirely unfit for the trust. He marched bravely over the Canadian line, but made no effort to seize a British military post nearby; and when news came that England had fortified Fort Mackinac, he withdrew to Detroit. Later, when the British general, Brock, crossed into Michigan, Hull surrendered not only Detroit but his army and the whole Territory of Michigan, without a fight.

Hull’s shameful conduct drove the people of the West into a frenzy of anger. They quickly volunteered to form an army for the recapture of Detroit. The command was given to General Winchester, a Revolutionary officer. But the soldiers wanted General Harrison, and finally went so far as to refuse to follow any other leader. Under these circumstances, the President was forced to give the command to Harrison, while General Winchester was placed second.

Scarcely had they begun to drill the troops when word came that Tecumseh and his followers had formed an alliance with the English. The combined forces had fallen upon the defenseless village of Frenchtown, Michigan, on the River Raisin. General Winchester at once hurried forward to their relief. He was met by a large body of English and Indians, under the brutal General Proctor in January 1813. Winchester’s men were so far outnumbered that he was forced to surrender under the promise of protection. No sooner had he done so, however, than the Indians fell upon the prisoners with their tomahawks. As soon as Tecumseh learned what was going on he rushed to the rescue and stopped the murderous work.

General Harrison promptly hurried his forces into Fort Meigs. Here, Proctor and Tecumseh, with a superior force, attacked him in May. But the garrison, sheltered behind the great earthworks, beat them off. Tecumseh was furiously angry.

“Harrison is a miserable ground-hog,” he declared. “He will not come out into the open and fight like a man!” Harrison, however, knew he could not hope for victory under such heavy odds, so he patiently bided his time. In July, the Indians fell upon him again in increased numbers, and again he repelled them. Stung with fury, a part of Proctor’s command fell desperately upon the stockade at Fort Stephenson. This was commanded by the brave young Kentuckian, Major Croghan, who made a most brilliant defense and succeeded in holding the fort.

The cry “On to Canada!” now became strong indeed. But General Harrison was not yet ready. He knew that an invasion would not succeed until our country controlled the Great Lakes. So he waited to hear from Commodore Perry. That gallant young officer, with a gang of ship carpenters, had been hard at work since early the previous winter cutting down trees and using the green timber to construct a fleet with which he hoped to defeat the British squadron. On the first day of September word came that Perry had set sail with nine vessels. Fourteen days later General Harrison was overjoyed to receive Perry’s famous dispatch: “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”

The way into Canada was now open. Harrison set out at once and soon had his army drawn up on the shore of Lake Erie. Here Perry met him and quickly helped to transport the troops to the Canadian side near Maiden. This was the headquarters of Proctor and Tecumseh. Harrison marched upon them immediately, but when he reached the fort he found only smoldering ruins. Proctor had set fire to it and fled in deadly terror of the vengeance of the men whose only watchword was “Remember the River Raisin.”

Battle of Tippecanoe

Battle of Tippecanoe, Kurz and Allison, 1889

From one point to another Harrison chased the fleeing forces until, at last, he forced them to make a stand on the banks of the River Thames. Here, under cover of a wood, they prepared to fight in Indian fashion. Colonel Richard Johnson and his famous band of Kentuckians opened the assault. These men were used to riding pell-mell through the forest, with rifles in hand. It was impossible for the British to withstand their impetuous onslaught. The line broke, and their cowardly commander fled in haste for his life. The brave Tecumseh fell at his post and the howling Indians became panic-stricken. The British straightway threw down their arms, and the whole force surrendered on October 5, 1813.

Shortly after this battle, Harrison left the army, and Generals Winfield Scott and Andrew Jackson finished the work which Harrison had begun.

For a time various important civil offices occupied Harrison’s time, but he finally retired to his farm at North Bend, Ohio. Here, in 1840, he received the nomination for President of the United States on the Whig ticket. Party feeling in those days ran very high, and the Harrison campaign was one of the most exciting in the history of the country. The Democrats ridiculed their opponents’ candidate for his poverty and Western surroundings, and a certain newspaper declared that Harrison would be more at home “in a log cabin, drinking hard cider and skinning coons, than living in the White House as President.”

Harrison Cabin

Harrison Cabin

This furnished the cue for the Whigs. They instantly made the log cabin the emblem of their party. All over the country log cabins (erected at some cross-road, village common, or vacant city lot) became the Whig headquarters. On the door was a coonskin, a leather latchstring hung out as a sign of hospitality, and beside the door stood a barrel of hard cider. Every Whig shouted for “Tippecanoe and Tyler too,” and knew by heart all the songs in the famous Log Cabin Songster. Immense mass meetings were held. Weeks were spent in getting ready for them. In the West, where railroads were few, the people came in covered wagons with provisions and camped on the ground days before the meeting. At a monster meeting held at Dayton, Ohio, 100,000 people were present, covering ten acres of ground.

Of course, Harrison was triumphantly elected. He was the people’s favorite, as had been plainly shown. They had not forgotten the great service he had rendered the country. He took the oath of office March 4, 1841; but his career as President was short, for to the consternation and sorrow of the country, he died one month from the day of his inauguration. He was succeeded by Vice-President Tyler, whose administration greatly disappointed the admirers of General Harrison.

President William Henry Harrison

President William Henry Harrison

By I.N. McFee 1913. Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, December 2019.

About the Author: This article was written in 1913 by Inez Nellie Canfield McFee,  and included in her book American Heroes From History. McFee also authored several other books on American History, poetry, birds, and more.  The articles as it appears here; however, is not verbatim as it has been edited and includes some additional information.

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