Transcript of Tenskwatawa: The Rise and Fall of a Nation
Beckley: I just wanted to drop in here at the top of the episode to give a little bit of a disclaimer. We are currently working from home due to COVID-19, so the sound quality of this episode might be a little bit different from what you’re used to hearing from Talking Hoosier History, since I’m using different equipment than usual. And now, on to the show.
Written by Lindsey Beckley, produced by Jill Weiss Simins, sound engineering by Justin Clark.
Beckley: This is the second of a two-part series covering the life of Indigenous leader Tenskwatawa. If you haven’t listened to the first part, I highly recommend you go do so now and come back after listening. Otherwise, you might be a bit lost coming in at this point in the story.
In “Tenskwatawa: The Making of a Prophet,” we explored the years leading up to and immediately following the birth of Tenskwatawa into the Shawnee tribe. During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, there was a cycle which played out all across North America. Colonial, and later American, settlers invaded Native Land, Native People fought to keep their land, but were forced to settle elsewhere only for white settlers to once again violently invade, restarting the cycle.
We also followed Tenskwatawa’s transformation from a relatively obscure figure into a political and spiritual leader for thousands of Native Peoples. We left off just after Tenskwatawa received his directives in a vision from the Great Spirit – he was to eschew all European customs, not only to return to the old ways, but also to start a new chapter in the Native story, one in which all Native People are united under the teachings of The Prophet.
Tenskwatawa’s village near modern-day Greenville, Ohio, was structured to reflect this idea of a pan-Indian identity, at least ideally. When people came to Greenville, they were to leave behind their tribal affiliations and become part of the greater whole.
And we left off with Tenskwatawa summoning Native People to gather at Greenville to witness a demonstration of his power. He was going to “put out the sun.” When the appointed day came and the sun did indeed disappear from the sky in a total eclipse, the Prophet sat in his tent while his followers observed the fulfillment of his prophesy. When he finally emerged from his tent, he spoke:
Voice actor: “Behold! Did I not prophesy correctly? See, darkness is coming.”
Beckley: With those words, the sun returned, illuminating his wisdom and power.
I’m Lindsey Beckley and this is Talking Hoosier History.
From our vantage point, it may be easy to think about the Prophet’s attempt to create an autonomous pan-Indian nation as being doomed to fail. But putting yourself in the shoes of those living through these events might change how you see them. To Tenskwatawa and his followers, and to the white settlers of the area, the Prophet’s movement looked formidable, because it was. And it was this threat, as well as the unpredictability of settler-Native interactions that intimidated U.S. leaders.
In the early 1800s, Tenskwatawa led the largest population center in the region, and his following was only growing larger. And Native People had governed themselves and the land they lived on for millennia before European contact – why would it seem implausible to think a version of that could be restored?
Today, we look at a moment many historians view as the tipping point of Tenskwatawa’s power –the Battle of Tippecanoe. Before the battle, anything was possible. After it, all was lost. This narrative has been repeated in books and classrooms for decades. But is that really the case? Could it really be that cut and dry? No, of course not. And let’s explore why.
After Tenskwatawa’s prophesy was fulfilled, cementing his followers’ faith in him and lending further credence to his movement, many indigenous people traveled to Greenville. In the months after the eclipse, white settlers from as far away as present-day Wisconsin reported that:
Voice actor: “The Indians are crowding down upon us from the Green Bay on their way as they say to see the Shawonese at Greenville.”
Beckley: With so many Native People on the move, the white authorities of the Northwest began to grow uneasy. They questioned whether the mass of people gathering around Greenville were there just to hear the teachings of the Prophet and, indeed, if those teachings were purely religious in nature.
Playing on rising tensions between England and the United States, conspiracies of an impending British-backed Native assault on nearby American settlers swirled among the white communities, but it never came to fruition. In fact, Tenskwatawa had already received another message from the Great Spirit commanding him to move his followers away from Greenville. So, in the spring of 1808, Tenskwatawa and his people arrived just north of present-day Lafayette, Indiana. This new settlement would be called Prophetstown.
This move, ordained by the Great Spirit, was also quite advantageous to the prophet and to his followers. Prophetstown was situated at the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe Rivers – meaning that it could only be approached from two sides. It was also a very fertile area, an important feature, as the Prophet’s followers had nearly starved at Greenville in 1807.
Prophetstown featured European-style houses, wigwams, a large storehouse, a central structure where any visiting Native person could stay called the House of the Stranger, and possibly even a blacksmith shop. All trees around the town were cleared, a strategic move, which stripped the land of any concealment for an oncoming army.
The Prophet had plenty of reason to prepare for that eventuality. Prophetstown was a mere 150 miles from Vincennes, the seat of government in the Northwest Territory. William Henry Harrison, the territorial governor and future U.S. president, was wary of his new neighbors, who numbered somewhere between three and six thousand people. By comparison, Vincennes, the capitol of the territory, had an approximate population of 1,500 around the same time. Harrison was convinced that Prophetstown was more than a holy city – he thought it was a rising political and military threat. And he wasn’t completely mistaken.
While Tenskwatawa was a religious leader, many of his teachings, such as his assertion that all land occupied by Native Peoples was owned collectively and without tribal distinction, as well as his advocacy of a pan-Indian nation, were inherently political. Success in these endeavors would have undercut European power in the area, making it impossible for government officials to exploit tribal differences when conducting negotiations or going to war. Eventually, this could stop the encroachment of white settlers on Indigenous peoples’ lands. Tenskwatawa and his warriors would defend their border, but it’s important to note, he was not intending to launch an offensive attack. In fact, he was offering peace. In a message delivered to Harrison in June 1808, Tenskwatawa said:
Voice actor: “It never was my intention to lift up my hand against the Americans . . . We had determined to follow the advice of the Great Spirit, who has told us that our former conduct is not right: that we ought to live in peace upon the land he has given us.
. . . I am now very much engaged in making my new settlement but as soon as it is completed, I will pay you a visit and hope to remove every bad impression you have received against me.”
Beckley: Harrison accepted the Prophet’s offer of a summit and in August of 1808, Tenskwatawa and William Henry Harrison came face to face for the first time in Vincennes. Against seemingly insurmountable odds, the two kind of hit it off. The Prophet stayed in Vincennes for several weeks and the men spoke of religion and politics. By the end of the visit, Harrison’s fears of an attack from Prophetstown seemed to have been quelled. He wrote to Secretary of War Henry Dearborn:
Voice actor: “I am inclined to think that the influence which the Prophet has acquired will prove rather advantageous than otherwise to the United States.”
Beckley: Harrison also agreed to send funds for provisions to Prophetstown – a much needed break for the settlement as drought had destroyed the majority of their crops. Resulting food shortages caused many followers to lose faith and return to their home villages.
The goodwill that resulted from this meeting didn’t last long, however. And it wasn’t enough to dissuade Harrison from his mission of expanding the United States’ land holdings in the Northwest. Just over a year later, Harrison gathered representatives of the Miami, Delaware, Potawatomi, Wea, and Kickapoo at Fort Wayne. Conspicuously absent was the leader of the largest population center of the Old Northwest – the Prophet hadn’t even been informed of the proceedings.
Harrison had strategically chosen who to invite to the negotiations – all leaders he thought he could coerce to sign a treaty. And he was right. After days of cajoling, bribing, threatening, and supplying a few hundred gallons of rum, coupled with the ever-present threat of military and economic pressure, the leaders at the summit were compelled to sign the Treaty of Fort Wayne in September of 1809, ceding 300,000 acres of land to the U.S. government.
Tenskwatawa was furious at this perceived betrayal. Although the land didn’t include Prophetstown, he believed that all Nations were one and so no land belonging to any Indigenous group could be sold without the consent of the leader of the pan-Indian nation – him. The Prophet wasn’t the only one upset, either. People flocked to Prophetstown after the news of the treaty spread. They came from many nations – Miami, Wyandot, Sac, Iowa, Winnebego, Potawatomi, Kickapoo, Shawnee, Ojibwe, and Ottawa. But once they arrived in Prophetstown, Tenskwatawa declared them one people.
In the aftermath of the Treaty of Fort Wayne, Tenskwatawa’s older brother emerged as the military leader of Prophetstown, while The Prophet continued his role as political and religious leader. Tecumseh, who up to this point had widely been known simply as “The Prophet’s brother,” began to travel to tribes affected by recent white expansion and recruit them to his brother’s cause, with considerable success. In 1810, his diplomatic role expanded when he attended what was supposedly a peace summit with William Henry Harrison. Harrison, however, had already made up his mind – he wanted to eliminate Prophetstown for its resistance to the Treaty of Fort Wayne. Unsurprisingly, the peace summit, which began with threats of a shoot-out, didn’t go well. Relations were, if anything, more strained by the end of the “peace talks.”
Harrison wanted to attack Prophetstown but leaders in Washington declined to give their permission, saying he could only act defensively. So, Harrison did the one thing he knew would provoke Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh into action. He sent surveyors into land which had been ceded to the U.S. government in opposition to Tenskwatawa’s wishes. One day into the mission, the surveyors were kidnapped by members of the Wea tribe, allies of the Prophet. Although the men were released the next day, the damage had been done. Harrison, with this “proof” of aggression from Prophetstown, wrote to the Secretary of War asking for approval of his war plans multiple times in the following months. Finally, he got the answer he wanted – he could attack Prophetstown.
And there was no better time than the present. Tecumseh, the war leader of the settlement, was away on a diplomatic mission, a vulnerability known to Harrison. So, on September 26, 1811, American troops set out from Vincennes in the direction of Prophetstown. In early November, Harrison and his troops arrived just outside of Prophetstown and set up camp.
Tenskwatawa, hoping to avoid battle, asked for peace negotiations. Harrison, although resolute in his decision to attack, accepted. The meeting was set for the following day, November 7, 1811. The meeting would never happen though, and while we know the broad strokes of the events that followed, it’s impossible to know the exact sequence of events leading up to the battle.
Traditionally, historians have relied on a mixture of Harrison’s account of the events and that of Shabonee, a man from the Ottawa tribe who was a follower of Tenskwatawa’s teachings but later allied himself with the Americans.
In this version of events, the request for negotiation was nothing but a ruse by the Prophet, who ordered a sneak attack on Harrison’s camp to be carried out two hours before sunrise, when Harrison’s men would be blinded by their camp fires. In this account, the Prophet’s forces snuck soundlessly out of the dark to fire upon Harrison’s men.
This narrative is often recited as fact, but historian Adam Jortner raises questions about the veracity of the sources. Harrison had political motivations for casting Tenskwatawa as carrying out a sneak attack after requesting peace under false pretenses. And Shabonee, while he was a follower of Tenskwatawa during the battle, didn’t give his account until decades later, after adopting an accommodationist ideology and while employed by the United States government.
Jortner, along with historian Alfred Cave, propose a different sequence of events, this one based on reports given to American Indian agent Matthew Elliott by an unnamed Kickapoo chief just weeks after the battle. So, not a perfect source as it’s still secondhand and relayed by a white agent, but its proximity in time to the events makes it a little more trustworthy.
In this second version, American sentinels panicked and accidentally shot two Native warriors patrolling in the night. The news spread through Prophetstown and their forces attacked the next morning, either with the reluctant consent of Tenskwatawa or against his wishes entirely.
It’s quite possible that neither version is wholly accurate. And considering that neither of these accounts came directly from Tenskwatawa, and neither are free of a white lens, it’s almost guaranteed they are not completely accurate. Even if we did have access to an account of events directly from the Prophet, the events probably would have looked different depending on which side you were on, and the search for an “objective truth” is often futile.
What we do know is that fighting broke out and what followed was what we know today as the Battle of Tippecanoe. Harrison labeled the battle a great victory and used it very successfully to bolster his political reputation, eventually becoming a top U.S. military leader and then president.
As is so often the case, the victor, even if he was but a self-proclaimed one, wrote the story. Shabonee’s and Harrison’s version of the story would be recounted by historians for much of the next 200 years. But were the outcomes of this battle as clear as Harrison led the country to believe? Absolutely not.
Looking at casualty counts alone would suggest Tenskwatawa was the victor. He lost approximately fifty soldiers to Harrison’s 180. However, Tenskwatawa retreated, abandoned Prophetstown to Harrison, and watched as Harrison burned it along with all the crops surrounding it.
This was certainly a blow, but even so, Prophetstown was reconstructed in less than a month. Additionally, an unprovoked American attack earned the Prophetstown movement more followers in the immediate aftermath of the clash, further discounting the assertion that the Battle of Tippecanoe itself was a devastating and ultimately fatal blow to Tenskwatawa’s movement.
Perhaps the most impactful outcome of the battle was actually Harrison’s portrayal of the battle and its effect in Washington. Members of Congress concluded that the Native Peoples wouldn’t have fought against the Americans, risking annuities provided by the government, simply to preserve their land. No, there had to be more to it. They decided that the only plausible explanation was that Tenskwatawa and his warriors were in league with the British, who were surely promising annuities of their own. There was no evidence to support this besides Governor Harrison’s long-standing accusations that Prophetstown was working for the British.
Nevertheless, the U.S. government held it as a fact. This belief – that the British were conspiring with Native forces to launch attacks on American forts and other holdings – was one in a string of complaints against Britain. The American belief that the British were inciting Native attacks, along with ongoing naval issues regarding freedom of the seas, economic sanctions, and American sovereignty led Congress to declare war on June 18, 1812 against Great Britain. Today, we call this the War of 1812.
During the War of 1812, Tenskwatawa took a back seat to his brother, who was a better warrior with more experience. Just as the war was starting, Tecumseh established an alliance with British forces – an unsurprising move given the prolonged tensions between Prophetstown and the American government. After battling to preserve the land the Prophet had claimed for his people in present-day northern Indiana during the early war, a devastating blow for the movement came when Tecumseh died in battle in October 1813. After that battle, Tenskwatawa fled the pursuing American forces to Upper Canada, where he and a small group of followers stayed for over a decade, well past the 1815 end of the war.
Following these years of exile in Canada, the Prophet returned to the U.S. in 1825 to lead a contingent of Shawnee to Kansas, where he set up the last, much smaller iteration of Prophetstown. He lived there until his death in 1836.
Beckley: While his movement ultimately failed, Tenskwatawa and his followers at Prophetstown represent a piece of history often overlooked – organized resistance to white settlement. Many look back at history and see the eventual removal of Native Peoples to the west as an inevitability. However, in the aspirations of Tenskwatawa, we see another possible outcome – one in which an autonomous pan-Indian nation could succeed and coexist adjacent to the United States, something which the Prophet advocated for, saying:
Voice actor: “I hope what I now say will be engraven on your heart. It is my determination to obey the Great Spirit and live in peace with you and your people. . . . This is what the Great Spirit has told us repeatedly. We are all made by him, although we differ a little in colour. We are all his children and should live in peace and friendship with each other.”
Beckley: I want to reiterate the importance of remembering that this outcome – the dwindling of the Prophet’s power – was by no means inevitable. The failure to establish an autonomous pan-Indian nation was also not inevitable. In fact, part of the terms of the wartime alliance between Prophetstown and the British forces was the establishment of a “buffer state” between Canada and the United States. This agreement put the Prophet and his followers in the best position for success and autonomy after the war, as the “buffer state” was to be an independent Indigenous nation, a possibility that remained as feasible, if not likely, right up to the end of the war.
Considering the outcomes of historical events to be pre-ordained – especially when discussing something as complicated as this – erases the agency of the people involved. It erases the fact that these were real people fighting for a real cause with real reason to hope for success. And who are we to take that away?
The story of Prophetstown is not by any means the entire story of Native resistance to white encroachment, and removal and resistance is not the entire story of Native People in the Hoosier state. There are Indigenous people living in and making history in Indiana today. And we at IHB have committed ourselves to preserving this history. If you are an Indigenous person living in Indiana, we want to hear from you. We are looking for the stories that have been left out of the textbooks and have not been commemorated by historical markers. What stories did you grow up hearing? Who did you look up to? We’d love to listen to your recollections and do what we can to help you preserve your history. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions, suggestions, or stories you’d like to share.
Once again, I’m Lindsey Beckley and this has been Talking Hoosier History. Talking Hoosier History is a product of the Indiana Historical Bureau, a division of the Indiana State Library. The music in this episode was written and performed by multi Native American Music Award winner and Indian Summer Music Award winner Golaná from the Echota Cherokee tribe. All tracks used were from the albums “Meditations for Two” and “Path to the Heart.” You can learn more about Golaná’s music and purchase his albums at oginali.com. You can find a link in the show notes. I used the book The Gods of Prophetstown by Adam Jortner as my main secondary source for this episode. If you would like to see all of my sources, visit blog.history.in.gov and click “Talking Hoosier History” at the top to see a full transcript and show notes. Talking Hoosier History is written by me, Lindsey Beckley. Sound engineering on this episode was by Justin Clark with help from Jill Weiss Simins. Join us in two weeks for the next installment of Giving Voice, where we’ll be talking to Shawnee Chief Ben Barnes. Until then, catch us on social media as Indiana Historical Bureau and remember to subscribe, rate, and review wherever you get your podcasts.
Thanks for listening!
Show Notes for Tenskwatawa: The Rise and Fall of a Nation
All music in this episode was produced by award-winning Native artist Golaná from the Echota Cherokee tribe. Listen to and purchase Golaná’s music here: oginali.com.
The tracks heard in this episode are from the albums “Meditations for Two” and “Path to the Heart.”
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