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Questions about religion on the American frontier

Though largely forgotten today, their rivalry determined the future of westward expansion and shaped the War of 1812. In 1806, the Shawnee leader Tenskwatawa (“The Open Door”) declared himself to be in direct contact with the Master of Life, and therefore, the supreme religious authority for all Native Americans. Those who disbelieved him, he warned, “would see darkness come over the sun.” William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory and future American president, scoffed at Tenskwatawa. If he was truly a prophet, Harrison taunted, let him perform a miracle. And Tenskwatawa did just that, making the sun go dark at midday. In the five years between the eclipse and the battle, Tenskwatawa used his spiritual leadership to forge a political pseudo-state with his brother Tecumseh. Harrison, meanwhile, built a power base in Indiana, rigging elections and maneuvering for higher position. Adam Jortner places the religious dimension of the struggle at the fore, recreating the spiritual landscapes trod by each side. The climactic battle, he writes, was as much a clash of gods as of men. Written with profound insight and narrative verve, The Gods of Prophetstown recaptures a forgotten turning point in American history 200 years after of the Battle of Tippecanoe.

Did America really start a “holy war”?

Just like today, a lot of Americans in the early nineteenth century thought God had a plan for the United States; they saw how the U.S. won the Revolution against all odds, and they understood it as the will of God—as providence. And at that time, there were a number of politicians who said, we have a providential destiny to bring our citizens more liberty—to spread our civilization across the continent. That’s what led to a war against Canada and the Native Americans, the War of 1812, which almost destroyed the country

This was a war against one religion in particular, wasn’t it?

There was a holy man of the Shawnee nation, who took the name Tenskwatawa, which roughly means “The Open Door.” After 1804, he carries a message to the Native Americans across the frontier, but especially in the Ohio Valley. And his message is that the Master of Life, the great being who had created the world and made all the peoples of the Americas, had returned to guide his people on a new path towards independence and self-sufficiency.

Why did American leaders fear this religion?

American officials worry about this religion because Tenskwatawa provides an alternative leadership for Native Americans; he refuses to sell land and he refuses to accept the perfidy of the Americans. Tenskwatawa teaches that the Master of Life wanted all Indians to live and worship together; there would no longer be any more individual tribes or clans. This is a divine warrant for a new kind of political organization, and the Shawnee Prophet actually sets up two independent cities to prove his point, first in Ohio and then in Indiana.

In some ways, the Americans helped Tenskwatawa out.

Yes—William Henry Harrison, the governor of Indiana, dismissed Tenskwatawa’s religious power, and sent him a very demeaning letter asking him to perform a miracle. And a few days later, Tenskwatawa made the sun go dark in the afternoon.

Was that really a miracle, or was it just an eclipse?

Well, that’s sort of like asking whether Jesus Christ really rose from the dead—people who don’t believe in the religion are going to find ways to explain it away. But even when people explain it away, it doesn’t stop Christians from believing in it, or from acting on that belief. In the same way, many Native Americans believed Tenskwatawa had caused the sun to go dark, and they followed him because they believed.

What kind of a leader was Tenskwatawa? How successful was he?

He’s quite successful—and he does what almost no other Native American leader at the time does, which is to negotiate with the Americans without signing away land. But it’s also true that Tenskwatawa had plenty of enemies, in part because he actually presided over witchcraft trials.

How was this war also a war about witchcraft?

In 1806, some Delaware Indians came to believe there were sorcerers in their midst, who poisoned people and caused bad luck. They contacted the Shawnee Prophet, a holy man, to tell them where this evil magic had come from. And Tenskwatawa identifies several Delawares as witches, and they are executed.

So Salem in 1692 was not the last witch trial in America?

No. Witch trials are rare, but, a lot of Americans at that time still believe in witchcraft; there are cases in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Maine where mobs lynched women they thought were witches.

Most of us only know William Henry Harrison as the guy who died after only being president for thirty days. Tell us more about him.

This all takes place thirty years before Harrison becomes president; in 1800, he was the governor of Indiana Territory, which he turned into his personal fiefdom. It’s probably the least democratic place in the U.S. He appointed his own Senate; he exploited loopholes to make sure that his friends got elected, and he basically disenfranchised voters he thought were not going to vote for his handpicked candidates. And on top of that, he expands slavery in Indiana. And he’s constantly reminding people that his way of doing things is the providential way; it’s what freedom is and it’s what God wants.

Did Harrison start this war?

I think so. Harrison sees Tenskwatawa as his opposite number; Tenskwatawa is a “savage” and he’s not Christian, so at the time of the witch trials, Harrison starts a drum beat for war. And it takes about five years, because people in Washington do not want a war because they’re not sure they can win. And finally in 1811, Harrison gets permission to strike at Tenskwatawa’s holy city in Indiana. Harrison marches his troops there, and it’s a disaster.

What happened at the Battle of Tippecanoe?

A lot of pain for not much gain. Harrison’s forces get trapped in an early morning skirmish outside the Prophet’s city. There was a prolonged firefight, and Harrison’s troops took the heavier losses, but eventually the Prophet’s soldiers withdrew and abandoned their city. Harrison burns the city to the ground—but he immediately retreats, because he didn’t bring enough troops or materiel to secure the victory. And Tenskwatawa reoccupies the position and rebuilds the town.

Did the Battle of Tippecanoe cause the War of 1812?

In part: Harrison was immediately censured by political enemies in Indiana and in Washington, DC, for starting an unnecessary war. He’s even investigated by Congress—but he saves himself by joining this push for a broader war against all the Northwest Indians and Canada.

How did the war go for Tenskwatawa?

For the first year, incredibly well. He reoccupies his city, and Tecumseh and the Canadian British actually capture all of Michigan. Tenskwatawa and his allies are striking American forts inside U.S. territory. In 1813, Oliver Hazard Perry wins a very close battle on Lake Erie, which means the British navy can’t resupply the Indian and Canadian forces in Michigan, and that ultimately forces a retreat into Canada and then end of the Prophet’s movement. But if Perry had lost, Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh would have kept control of Michigan and central Indiana, and given how badly America handled the rest of war—the British burned Washington, remember—they could possibly have won a formal independence from the U.S.

Most Americans know almost nothing about the War of 1812? Why is that? What should we remember about it?

I think we don’t remember it because we lost. But in some ways, it’s more important to remember because this was a war that politicians claimed was divine and would be easy to win. That’s a cautionary tale. And I think it’s important to remember as an example of the ways in which religious zealotry and political power can interact, on both sides of this conflict, and that’s another cautionary tale.

Adam Jortner teaches history at Auburn University and is the author of The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier. His essays have appeared in The Journal of the Early Republic and Early American Studies.

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