The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier

The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier

by Adam Jortner
     
 

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It began with an eclipse. 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

Overview

It began with an eclipse. 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 Gods of Prophetstown, Adam Jortner provides a gripping account of the conflict between Tenskwatawa and Harrison, who finally collided in 1811 at a place called Tippecanoe. Though largely forgotten today, their rivalry determined the future of westward expansion and shaped the War of 1812. Jortner weaves together dual biographies of the opposing leaders. 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. Rejecting received wisdom, Jortner sees nothing as preordained-Native Americans were not inexorably falling toward dispossession and destruction. Deeply rooting his account in a generation of scholarship that has revolutionized Indian history, 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 in time for the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Tippecanoe.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Auburn University historian Jortner offers a stimulating perspective on the frontier war that culminated in 1811 against the Shawnee at Tippecanoe. His central Native American protagonist is Tecumseh's brother Tenskwatawa—"the Prophet." He rose to prominence among the Shawnee preaching "penance and sanctification" by returning to traditional ways. He purportedly "made the sun go dark at midday" in response to a taunting challenge issued by William Henry Harrison, territorial governor of Indiana (and future American president). How the prophet gained foreknowledge of a solar eclipse is less important to Jortner than the event's consequences. To the peoples of the Ohio frontier, the eclipse was a spiritual sign placing their resistance to white encroachment in a context of moral and social reform. That in turn presented a threat to Harrison, who had his own sense of a providential mission to fulfill America's destiny by expanding its power. Jortner makes a solid case that the outcome was not inevitable. The battle of Tippecanoe was indecisive; but Harrison's spin machine transformed it into a triumph of civilization over superstition. And Jortner's hypothesis that a different outcome could have led to an Indian state, underwritten by British Canada and shaped by the Prophet's doctrines, is a provocative might-have-been. Maps. (Dec.)
From the Publisher
"[H]ighly recommended." —Library Journal

"Jortner's engaging style and exceptional prose make this provocative volume a pleasure to read." Journal of American History

Library Journal
Through a joint biography of Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee Prophet, and William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory, Jortner (history, Auburn Univ.) contextualizes the Battle of Tippecanoe within both the Indian wars of the Old Northwest and the War of 1812. The work's strength is that the author painstakingly demonstrates that Tenskwatawa was a true religious prophet and not a charlatan who used scientific knowledge gleaned from Euro-Americans to dupe his followers, as many historians have alleged. Because of the fervor of Tenskwatawa's religious adherents and the military acumen of Tenskwatawa's brother, Tecumseh, Jortner persuasively argues that the history of the United States would have been very different if Harrison had not taken advantage of Tecumseh's absence from Prophetstown and goaded Tenskwatawa into battle. The Battle of Tippecanoe marked the effective end of Tecumseh's multitribal confederacy and eventually justified Harrison's election to the presidency of the United States. VERDICT This highly recommended monograph is appropriate for academic audiences and should be read alongside Robert M. Owens's Mr. Jefferson's Hammer: William Henry Harrison and the Origins of American Indian Policy.—John Burch, Campbellsville Univ. Lib., KY
Kirkus Reviews
A dual biography that also serves as a myth-busting history of Indian-Caucasian relationships within what became the continental United States. Jortner (History/Auburn Univ.) deeply into the lives of Tenskwatawa, a Shawnee Indian leader, and William Henry Harrison, a Virginia-bred aristocrat accumulating power as the governor of the Indiana Territory, leading all the way to the White House in 1840. Tenskwatawa had been seen as a relative non-entity among Indian tribal councils until 1806, when he seemed to conjure up a miracle by predicting a total eclipse of the sun. With a new following, Tenskwatawa and his eventually more famous brother Tecumseh persuaded Indians from numerous tribes to resist the encroaching Caucasians throughout the Midwest--which was considered the Western frontier in those days. Harrison expressed determination to expand the Caucasian dominion. The warriors fought with words for years; Jortner explains how those warring words were grounded in widely divergent beliefs about the nature and grand plan of the earth's creator. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the cold war eventually went hot with the battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, and indirectly caused the warrior wing of American government to fight British troops in what would become known as the War of 1812. When Harrison sought entry to the White House decades later, he cited Tippecanoe as confirmation of his role as a great battlefield general and patriot. Jortner convincingly demonstrates that nobody won the battle of Tippecanoe--both sides would have been stronger if they had avoided battle. A well-researched, skillfully written history.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780199912704
Publisher:
Oxford University Press
Publication date:
11/14/2011
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
Format:
NOOK Book
Sales rank:
369,320
File size:
3 MB

Meet the Author

Adam Jortner teaches history at Auburn University. His essays have appeared in The Journal of the Early Republic and Early American Studies.

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