William Henry Harrison – The Hero of Tippecanoe

By Inez Nellie Canfield McFee in 1913


William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison

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. Under cover 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 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.

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