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Conflict at Burnett's Creek:
The Battle of Tippecanoe
By Walt Robbins, Jr., 1987 (Revised 1996)

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The Battle of Tippecanoe was a clash between whites in pursuit of additional land and the Indians in an attempt to protect their homes. It has not been determined just where the blame should be placed for the start of the battle. It is generally considered to be on the shoulders of the Prophet, for he generated the emotions to goad his warriors into action. Harrison's purpose in coming to Prophetstown, however, had been to solve the Indian problem in the area. His orders had been to use peaceful means to accomplish this goal, but he was quite willing to attack the Indians if this became necessary. The Indians knew of Harrison's approach and were prepared for his arrival. The attack was possibly an attempt at self-defense by the Indians. The answers to these questions are still being debated, but there are some facts. The battle did occur, and William Henry Harrison was the general of the army who was attacked on the morning of 7 November 1811 by the Indians of Prophetstown.

The expedition to the Tippecanoe area consisted of nine companies of U.S. regulars, twelve companies of Indiana Militia, and two companies of Kentucky Militia. Harrison's army marched in battle formation toward Prophetstown. Indians were seen all during the march but would not communicate with the troops. By noon on 6 November 1811, the army was nearing the Indian village so all backpacks were put into the freight wagons and the troops were arranged in battle order for the rest of the march. When the troops arrived at the town, it was seen that the Indians had completely surrounded their village with breastworks of logs for protection. A group of Indians came out from the town and asked for peace because of the women and children that were in the village. It was agreed between Harrison and the Indians that a meeting would be held the next morning and hostilities would be suspended until that time.1

Many of the officers were not happy about this situation, they were anxious to begin the battle at once. Harrison did not take the advice of his officers to attack the village immediately. He chose, instead, to wait on the conference with the Indians the next morning. Harrison's reasoning was that he had been given orders to try to settle the dispute by peaceful means, and he also felt he shouldn't endanger his troops if not necessary. He thought he could have won a daylight engagement with the Indians, but the loss to his army would have been higher compared with that of the Prophet. Harrison also undoubtedly knew a victory over the Indians, on their own turf, had never been won when the odds were equal.2

There has been some dispute concerning the selection of a campsite for the army. Some have made charges that it was the Indians who picked the spot, but evidence seems to support the statement of Major Waller Taylor that he and Colonel Clarke, along with several others, were sent, by Harrison, to look for a suitable campsite. John Tipton backs up this contention in his account of the battle.3

The campsite selected was on a piece of ground about 3/4 mile from the Indian village. It was raised about twelve feet above the surrounding prairie and backed by a small creek. The ground was raised about twenty-five feet above Burnett's Creek. The land broadened at the north end, and ended in a point at the south.4 Breastworks for protection of the camp were not erected because there were not enough axes available. Harrison felt that what wood was cut should be used for the comfort of his men. It was also felt, because of the agreement with the Indians, the protection wasn't necessary.5

The camp was laid out in a hollow square with Burnett's Creek to the rear, and prairie on the three sides. The wagons, tents, horses, and cattle were placed in the center of the camp area. There were huge fires in the camp because the only tents were for the officers and men in the regular army. Many of the militia did not even have blankets to keep them warm. Most accounts agree it was cold, windy, and rainy. George Peters, in his account of the battle, stated that "The Night was one of the darkest I ever saw--the wind blew it was cold and the Rain pour'd down in Torrents."6

The camp was put into battle formation for the night. The front line faced southeast toward a wet area of land and in the direction of the Indian village. The front line consisted of U.S. regulars commanded by Major Floyd and on his right and left were companies of Indiana Militia. The U.S. Infantry under the direction of Captain Baen occupied the north end of the rear line, and Lieutenant Colonel Decker was in charge of the Indiana Militia to the south. The rear line ran parallel to Burnett's Creek.7

The right flank, to the south, was located approximately 150 yards north of where the land came to a point. This flank was protected by a unit of Indiana Militia referred to as the "Yellow Jackets." They consisted of about eighty men and were commanded by Captain Spier Spencer of Corydon, Indiana. Their nickname had been earned because they fought so fiercly. The left flank, on the north side of the camp, was manned by 120 men of the Kentucky Mounted Militia under Major Wells and a company of Indiana Militia under Captain Robb. This entire flank was under the command of Major Wells. To the south of Robb's position, a unit of Indiana Cavalry, commanded by Captain Parks and the Dragoons of Kentucky under the direction of Joe Daviess. The right flank was eighty yards wide and the left was about 150 yards in width.8

The orders for the night were that each corps was to hold its position at all costs until such time as it was relieved. The dragoons were ordered, if attacked, to dismount, and with their swords and pistols on, await orders.9

Harrison, in a letter to Governor Scott, described the situation as it stood on the night of 6 November 1811.
The order of encampment was the order of battle for a night attack and as every man slept opposite to his post in the line there was nothing for them to do but to rise and take their post a few steps in the rear of their fires and the line was formed in an instant.10

According to John Tipton in his account of the night of 6 November 1811,
A double line of sentinels was placed out and all the precaution that experience and prudence could dictate, with a due regard to the exhausted condition of the soldiers, owing to forced marches on a reduced ration was taken by: the commander in chief.11

While the army camp rested as best it could, the Prophet was preparing for the attack. He had gotten his warriors in a high emotional state and convinced them the white man's bullets could not hurt them. According to Shabonee, an Ottowa Indian,
the battle of tippecanoe was the work of white men who came from Canada and urged us to make war. Two of them who wore red coats were at the prophet's Town the day that your army came. It was they who urged Elskatawwa [Prophet] to fight.12

The Indian attackers consisted of warriors from several different tribes. They were commanded by White Loon, Stone Eater, and Wennemac. The attack plan of the Indians had been to creep up on all sides, except the rear flank, and surround the camp. A selected group of braves were to sneak into the camp and kill Harrison. Following his death they could easily kill the rest of the soldiers while they slept. Shabonee describes what precipitated the first shot of the battle.
The men that were to crawl upon their bellies into camp were seen in the grass by a white man who had eyes like an owl, and he fired and hit his mark. The Indian was not brave. He cried out. He should have lain still and died.13

The alarm had been sounded early and the rest of the warriors were not yet in positon. The sentinel who fired the first shot was a corporal Mars. After delivering his shot, he ran toward the camp but was shot before he reached safety. It was now 4 A.M., 7 November 1811.14

The battle started in the northwest section of the encampment and the Indians attacked the units of Barton's company of the 4th U.S. Regulars, and Captain Geiger's Company of mounted riflemen. When Harrison reached the first area of battle he found the troops had been somewhat scattered and therefore sought to reinforce the area. Cook's and Peters' companies were brought from the rear line and formed across the northwest angle to give support to Barton's and Geiger's troops.

 

Harrison, in a letter to the Secretary of War, described his feelings about the performance of the soldiers in the beginning moments of the battle.

The great facility with which the troops were formed shows they had been well instructed and well understood what they were to do an excepting the two companies of Barton and Guiger, the rest of the troops could not have been in better order than they were in when they were fired on if they had stood at their posts the whole night.15

During this early portion of the battle Colonel Owen, Harrison's aide, was killed. It was charged later that Harrison had intentionally put Owen on his white horse to confuse the Indians. According to Harrison, in a letter to Governor Scott, he had two horses, a gray mare which had been saddled and tied near the tent. During the night, it had gotten loose and been retied to a wagon wheel. When the battle began, Harrison's aide could not find his mare; so the general mounted Major Taylor's dark horse. Owen accompanied Harrison on a white horse. Before the two reached the northwest corner of the battlefield, Owen had been killed. It was most probable that the Indians had Mistaken Owen for Harrison. The Indians had indeed killed the man on the white horse, but to their dismay they discovered they had not killed Harrison.16

The heaviest action of the battle next moved to the northeast corner of the field. This area was being defended partly by the Dragoons of Colonel Joseph Daviess of Kentucky. Daviess died in an action intended to dislodge the Indians from this area of the field. It has been debated whether he was ordered into this action by Harrison, or went ahead on his own. The popular explanation of the event by Pirtle, and backed up by Judge Issac Naylor, is that Daviess made a request to Harrison that he be allowed to make a charge on the Indians on the front line on foot.17 "He made this request three times before General Harrison would permit it." Daviess then took a portion of the Dragoons on foot, and was soon mortally wounded. Harrison felt his death occured because he had taken too few men with him.18

Three other accounts from men at the battle, show that Harrison had ordered Daviess to proceed. In the account of Charles Larrabee he states "the commanding in cheif [sic] arrived here, and seeing the situation of the companies, he ordered major Daviss to charge those indians in front...." Captain Josiah Snelling stated that "I had an opportunity of hearing the order given Major Daviess to charge the enemy and saw the unfortunate effect of it...." Finally, according to the letter from Harrison to the Secretary of War, 18 November 1811, "I directed the Major to dislodge them with part of the Dragoons."19

The battle next raged on the right flank where Spencer's "Yellow Jackets" were in command. The attack on the right and rear flanks was terrible. Spencer was killed, along with several other officers and men. Harrison described the wounding and death of Spencer.
Spencer was wounded in the head, he exhorted his men to fight valiantly, he was shot through both thighs and fell still continuing to encourage them he was raised up and received a ball through his body which put an immediate end to his existence.20

Near daybreak, after almost two hours of fighting, the Indians made their last attempt to get through the lines. Three cheers were given by the troops, the Indians were overwhelmed, and chased from the battle scene.21

The casualities of the battle were listed at 179 in Harrison's report of 8 November 1811. By 19 November, the situation had changed and the official report listed thirty-seven killed in action, twenty-nine died since the battle, and 130 were wounded.22

The true number of Indians involved in the battle will never be known for sure, but the estimates are from 350 to 1,000. It was reported there were thirty-eight bodies on the battlefield, not counting any carried off by the Indians. George Peters puts the figures at fifty dead and one-hundred wounded.23

Concerning the leaders of the opposing military forces, Harrison came through with only a scratch on his head, and that from a bullet that passed through his hat during the battle. The Prophet is said to have not been involved in the battle but rather stood on a high point of ground to the west of the battlesite and sang war songs and prayed to the Great Spirit to spur on his warriors to defeat the white man. It is also said that the Prophet directed his warriors from this location. The rock is located approximately one-half mile west of the battle site and it is highly unlikely that his commands could have been heard, especially above the noise of the battle. There is some local speculation that the actual spot is closer, and more to the northwest from the battlefield. Following the battle, the Prophet joined the rest of the Indians at the village, but he was now in disgrace. His medicine had not worked, and many braves had been killed. The rest of the Indians deserted him and he spent his remaining days living with a tribe of Wyandotts.24

Following the battle the troops were busily engaged in caring for the wounded, burying the dead and building breastworks against further Indian attacks. It is easily understood how the job that was virtually impossible the day before due to lack of axes, is now accomplished. Fear is a great motivator. The cattle had been run off by the battle, and the rations of other food were extremely low. The troops spent the night in a drizzling rain without fire or food. They were spooked several times by the howling of the Indian dogs who had come to camp area to hunt for carrion. On 8 November 1811 the mounted soldiers rode to Prophetstown and found it deserted. The wagons were brought in, filled with what food and other supplies they could haul, and the remainder of the houses and supplies were burned.25

The battle was over, the dead buried, the Indians chased off, and their town destroyed. The army prepared to head back to Vincennes. Had this contest proved anything? Was this confrontation really necessary? Why was Harrison not on his white horse? Why did Daviess charge the Indians the way he did? The answers to these and other questions depend, in large part, on who the observer was, and his relationship to the item in question. These questions will undoubtedly never be answered to the satisfaction of everyone. There will always be an historian that will wonder why, how, or what if?

The two undisputed facts are that The Battle of Tippecanoe did occur on 7 November 1811, and it was won by William Henry Harrison and his army.

Revised 1 February 1996  

 

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End Notes
 

Source Citation

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1 Pirtle, 33; Esarey, 1:620; Robertson, 1:77; Carlson,40; Phillips.  
2 Robertson, 2:828; Furlong, 39; Esarey, 1:669, 83; Pirtle, 41, 42.  
3 Phillips; Esarey, 1:614; Robertson, 2:829.  
4 Watts, 242.  
5 Robertson, 2:829; Esarey, 1:672.  
6 Robertson, 2:829; Phillips; Pirtle, 44, 50; Klinck, 99; Carlson, 41.  
7 Harris; Beard, 60; Esarey, 1:621; Winger.  
8 Winger; Beard, 59; Esarey, 1:613, 621; Pirtle, 47, 48; Robertson, 2:829.  
9 Esarey, 1:613; Robertson, 2:830.  
10 Esarey, 1:670  
11 Robertson, 2:830.  
12 Klinck, 100; Beard, 67; Whickar, 356.  
13 Beard, 67; Whickar, 357, 356.  
14 Winger.  
15 Esarey, 1:623, 684.  
16 Ibid, 1:691, 692; Whickar, 359.  
17 Esarey, 1:667; Pirtle, 57-60.  
18 McCollough, 11; Esarey, 1:621.  
19 Watts, 243; Esarey, 2:10, 1:624.  
20 Winger; Esarey, 1:628.  
21 Mitten; Esarey, 1:702.  
22 Ibid, 1:615, 637.  
23 Beard, 66; Carlson, 42.  
24 Pirtle, 62, 63; Harris.  
25

Winger; Robertson, 1:79; Pirtle, 71.

 

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Sources Consulted

Beard, Reed. The Battle of Tippecanoe. Lafayette, Indiana: Tippecanoe Publishing Company, 1889; reprint ed., Evansville, Indiana: Unigraphic, Inc., 1978.

Carlson, Richard G. "George P. Peters' Version of the Battle of Tippecanoe (November 7, 1811)." Vermont History. XXXXV (Winter 1977): 38-43.

Creason, Joe C. "The Battle of Tippecanoe: November 7, 1811." The Filson Club History Quarterly. XXXXVI (October1962: 309-18.

Edmunds, R. David. Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership. Edited by Oscar Handlin. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1984.

Esarey, Logan, ed. Governors Messages and Letters: Messages and Letters of William Henry Harrison. 2 vols. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Commission, 1922.

Furlong, Patrick J. Indiana: An Illustrated History. n.p.: Windsor Publications, Inc., 1985.

"General's Side of the Battle." The Journal and Courier (Lafayette, Indiana), 5 February 1966, p. 6.

Goebel, Dorothy Burne, William Henry Harrison: A Political Biography. Indianapolis: Indiana Library and Historical Department, 1926.

Harris, John M., Director Tippecanoe County Historical Association, Lafayette, Indiana. Interview, 29 March 1987.

Klinck, Carl F., ed., Tecumseh: Fact and Fiction in Early Records. Ottawa: The Tecumseh Press, 1978.

McCollough, Alameda, ed., The Battle of Tippecanoe: Conflict of Cultures. Lafayette, Indiana: Tippecanoe County Historical Association, 1985.

Mitten, Arthur G., The Private Collection of. Goodland, Indiana. Jno. P. Boyd Letter to Richard Cutts, 16 December 1811.

Naylor, I. Letter to the Old Soldiers of 1812. 1 July 1858. Lafayette Weekly Courier, Lafayette, Indiana, 13 July 1858.

"Old Lafayette." The Journal and Courier (Lafayette, Indiana), 27 July; 3, 10, 17, 24, 31 August; 14, 28, 26 October; 2 November 1986.

Phillips, Robert. "The Battle of Tippecanoe," Battle Ground, Indiana. Speech, 29 August 1923.

Pirtle, Captain Alfred. The Battle of Tippecanoe. Louisville: John P. Morton and Company, 1900.

Robertson, Nellie, and Riker, Dorothy, eds. The John Tipton Papers. 2 vols. Indianapolis: Indiana Historical Bureau, 1942.

Watts, Florence G. "Lieutenant Charles Larrabee's Account of the Battle of Tippecanoe, 1811." Indiana Magazine of History. LVII (September 1961) 225-47.

Whickar, J. Wesley. "Shabonee's Account of Tippecanoe." Indiana Magazine of History. XVII (December 1921) 353-63.

Winger, Otho. "Battle of Tippecanoe," Lafayette, Indiana. Speech, 15 November 1940.

 

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