Moment of Indiana History

The Battle of Tippecanoe: A Lieutenant’s-Eye View

“This expidition,” wrote Lieutenant Charles Larrabee, "is against the tribes of Indians who are under the prophet and tecumcy."

battle-of-tippecanoe, detail

Photo: archive photo

Alonzo Chappell (1828-1887), The Battle of Tippecanoe (detail)

The letters of Lt. Charles Larrabee offer one military officer’s personal experience of the battle of Tippecanoe. Larrabee was part of a force of several hundred regular military men and a large militia from Vincennes convened by territorial governor William Henry Harrison to confront the Native American community at Prophetstown.

“This expidition is against the tribes of Indians who are under the prophet and tecumcy,” Larrabee wrote.

The Shawnee brothers known as Tecumseh and the Prophet had settled in the west-central region of Indiana Territory, where their settlement had became a magnet for Native Americans from several midwestern tribes who followed the nativist teachings of the Prophet.

Governor Harrison was committed to acquiring as much Native land as possible through treaties to accommodate the land needs of the growing number of settlers flooding onto the western frontier. He viewed Tecumseh as a dangerous opponent and became convinced that the Native leader was planning a military attack on the territorial capitol of Vincennes.

The Prophet had never been regarded by his people as a military leader, and would ultimately prove no match for Harrison’s forces. Many of the white soldiers and militia, however, believed the tales they had been told of a terrible fate that awaited prisoners. Larrabee expressed the troops’ collective fear of the unknown:

The army were informed…that the prophet was determined to burn alive all prisoners.  Nothing else is expected but a painful and tormenting death.

In September 1811 Tecumseh left Prophetstown on a trip to seek alliances with southern tribes; in September Harrison’s troops marched north and built a temporary fort. On November 7, Harrison’s army attacked and defeated the inhabitants of Prophetstown.  According to Larrabbee’s recollections–

The manner the Indians faught was desperate. They would rush with horid yells in bodies upon the lines. Being driven back, they would remain in perfect silance for a few seconds, then would whistle (on an instrument made for that purpose), and then commence the rush again, while others would creep up close to the lines on their hands and knees and get behind trees for their support.

The battle was unpopular with many residents of Vincennes, who questioned whether the loss of lives among Harrison’s forces had accomplished any real purpose. Harrison, however, won the war of public opinion as well as the initial military battle. He was soon depicted, in print and in portraits, as the hero of the Battle of Tippecanoe, and he used the victory as a slogan for his 1840 presidential campaign: “Tippecanoe and Tyler too.”

A Moment of Indiana History is a production of WFIU Public Radio in partnership with the Indiana Public Broadcasting Stations. Research support comes from Indiana Magazine of History, published by the Indiana University Department of History.

Source Article: “Lieutenant Charles Larrabee’s Account of the Battle of Tippecanoe, 1811,” Indiana Magazine of History, vol. 57, September 1961, pp. 225-247.

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