By Adam Jortner
Early in November was the 200th anniversary of a disaster.
The weather in Tippecanoe County, Indiana, played along and delivered a dreary, wet morning—just as it had on November 7, 1811, when a hodgepodge collection of frontier whites exchanged fire with Native American forces. The Americans “won” the Battle of Tippecanoe when the Indian soldiers retreated, but U.S. forces under William Henry Harrison had to evacuate their position the next day. What’s worse, they were only in the area to enforce the Treaty of Fort Wayne—a land seizure of questionable legality that Harrison himself had crafted by haranguing reluctant Native American leaders and, when necessary, plying them with alcohol. In addition, Tippecanoe touched off a long campaign of guerilla warfare between Native Americans and whites on the frontier that literally bled into the War of 1812.
An unnecessary war based on questionable treaties with an ambiguous result: not the finest hour for America.
The organizers of the 200th were well aware of Tippecanoe’s dubious history, and were adamant that this year’s gathering was a commemoration, not a celebration. The service included prayers from both a Christian clergyman and a Wea chief. The featured speaker was Governor George Blanchard of the Absentee Shawnee, the same tribe who provided the Indian leadership (Tecumseh and his brother, the Shawnee Prophet) that frustrated Harrison two hundred years ago. Reenactors portrayed both white militiamen and Indian soldiers.
Not everyone wanted such a dour memorial, however. One reenactor whipped up an enthusiastic crowd by praising the patriotism of white forces who had fought at Tippecanoe for “liberty.” A sharp-eyed gentleman told me (politely) that people who didn’t like Harrison’s little war of 1811 might as well leave Indiana of 2011. One invited speaker solemnly requested listeners to remember the blood of “two nations” that had watered the battlefield—and then proceeded to give a triumphal account of his own (white) ancestors who patriotically settled the land after the Indians had been forcibly removed.
It’s an understandable urge to want all American military exploits to be the story of a successful quest for liberty. And there is a lot to admire about the American past. But to assume that Americans always fought for good causes—to assume every war is just and every commander selfless—is bad history. It’s true that the American forces fought hard at Tippecanoe, and that there was bravery on both sides. It’s also true that the battle was probably a huge mistake. Harrison’s bungling at the battle, the subsequent success of Native American forces, and the near-destruction of the United States in the War of 1812 should make any patriot pause before celebrating the events at Tippecanoe—leaving aside the question of whether Americans should take pride in the duplicitous nineteenth-century land treaties with Native Americans. And whatever else the battle was, it was not about liberty: no American freedoms (such as they were in 1811) were at stake at Tippecanoe—only the refusal of a collection of Indians to recognize a treaty brokered under bad faith. In fact, the Indians who fought under the Shawnee Prophet had a better claim to be fighting for liberty—many of the warriors who battled Harrison’s men had left their own families to join the Prophet’s struggle to prevent white expansion at Indian expense.
Telling the story of Tippecanoe as a battle of American liberty against Native American tyranny is an imagined past. This imagined past yields an imaginary present—one where “patriotism” solves everything. Our ancestors, we are told, loved liberty, and had patriotism, and they won. Presumably, if we had patriotism and loved liberty, we too would easily defeat our enemies and solve our problems.
There was much to admire and learn from at the commemoration on the Tippecanoe recently—as there is much to admire and learn from the many communities that made up frontier Indiana. Perhaps I am making too much of what was probably a minor note in the overall chorus. Yet we owe it to ourselves and to the people who fought there to avoid turning the anniversary into mere flag-waving triumphalism. The American past is a treasure trove of lessons for the present—but that lesson cannot only be, “Americans always fought for liberty and never made mistakes.” Acknowledging mistakes is the first step towards a true history of our republic; acknowledging that liberty and patriotism alone do not guarantee victory or good sense is a step towards a better future for that republic.
Adam Jortner is the author of The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier. He teaches history at Auburn University and his essays have appeared in The Journal of the Early Republic and Early American Studies.