Sorry it’s been longer than usual since my last post! It’s been a busy month. Whew!
When last we checked in with William Henry Harrison, the witty, dramatic young officer was poised to go far in the early Army. But just as suddenly, Harrison’s fate changed. His mentor, General Mad Anthony Wayne, died suddenly under what some believe to be suspicious circumstances. In any case, without Wayne, Harrison found himself stuck in in an unfulfilling command in Cincinnati, with his main challenges trying to feed and equip his men in a rapidly downsizing peacetime army. With little possibility of promotion, Harrison decided it was time to seek greener pastures and resign his commission.
He also needed to make some money, for he was now a married man. While still serving in the Army, Harrison had met Nancy Symmes, by all accounts a delightful and sweet young woman who was noted as a fearless rider who liked to gallop through the still-virgin forests around her home near Cincinnati. Nancy was the daughter of Judge John Cleves Symmes, one of the most successful land speculators in the Ohio country.
Harrison, the scion of Berkeley and the son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, must have been flabbergasted when Judge Symmes turned him down flat as a suitor for Nancy’s hand in marriage. But from Symmes’ point of view, Harrison was nothing but a penniless junior officer. After all, as a younger son, William Henry wasn’t inheriting any of that fancy real estate back in Virginia. When Harrison pledged his “sword and his strong right arm” to the marriage, Symmes showed him the door with the words: “You cannot plead, bleed, or preach!”
But while Daddy may have been holding out for a lawyer, doctor, or minister, Nancy wasn’t. The couple simply waited for Judge Symmes to leave town and then eloped with the help of a sympathetic local justice of the peace.
Though still young by any measure, Harrison had already laid the groundwork for what would be a spectacular rise to power. From Anthony Wayne, he had learned how to to organize a military campaign, and how to use threats, bribes, spies, and presents to negotiate Indian treaties. And he had met many of the men, both white and Indian, who would play crucial roles in his future career.
For the rest of his life, Harrison would shift gears between the military and politics, but one goal remained constant. Quite simply, Harrison took care of Harrison. But his ambition extended far beyond mere financial wealth. He aspired to the property and social standing he had left behind in Virginia, but his personal code would not allow him to sully his hands by grubbing in a trade. He embraced the fiction that he was a cultivated gentleman farmer, but in reality he would spend his entire life as a public servant.
He had no doubt whatsoever his own ability and right to lead — nor of his right to blend his personal interests with his taxpayer-supported jobs. In this attitude, Harrison’s thinking was in accordance with our buddies Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who also used, or attempted to use, their public offices to do themselves a little good. Indeed, none other than George Washington, the ultimate Virginia gentleman, was notorious for doing well at the public expense. As early as his 20s, Harrison had already begun to live beyond his means, and the rest of his life would be a scramble to keep up with his own expensive tastes.
Harrison was not out of a job for long. He was appointed secretary of the Northwest Territory by President Adams, a post similar to that of lieutenant governor, and in 1799, he was elected the first congressman from the territory. The following year, Adams appointed Harrison governor of the newly-created Indiana Territory, with sweeping civil and military power over a country that included the future states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. He was still only 27 years old. By that time, he and Nancy had three children; eventually they would have ten.
Harrison’s role as governor of the territory has been reassessed recently in a new biography by Robert A. Owens, Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer. As the intriguing title suggests, Harrison quickly shifted gears after Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801. With Jefferson’s wholehearted endorsement, Harrison embarked on an aggressive and ruthlessly pragmatic Indian policy that would put the Indiana Territory in the vanguard for the century to come. In short, Harrison would break the cycle of tribal warfare, push the Indians into dependence on American handouts, and continually pare away their lands.
Even Harrison’s detractors couldn’t argue with the results he achieved when he brought the Indians to the bargaining table. The 1809 Fort Wayne Treaty with the Potawatomis, Delawares, and Miamis provides a case in point. Harrison coerced tribal chiefs into attending the meeting by threatening to withhold their annual annuities, upon which the tribes had become dependent. Once the conference began, Harrison masterfully used “divide and conquer” tactics of both bribery and exploitation of jealousies and resentments among the Indians to strip the Indians of almost 2.9 million acres of land in this single treaty.
As Harrison himself put it, some men may have performed greater service to their country, but none could match his “zeal and fidelity.” By any measure, Harrison was extraordinarily successful in fulfilling the objectives of the presidents he served, acquiring an astonishing 50 million acres of western land at a cost of under two cents per acre. For comparison’s sake, tthe Louisiana Purchase explored by Lewis and Clark was ten times larger, but came at a cost of four cents an acre. It could also be argued that Harrison’s territory proved the more valuable of the two to the eventual rise of the United States as a world power.
But Harrison’s success came so rapidly, and at such a cost to the Indians, that it served to drive them back into the arms of the British and led to the rise of the brilliant Tecumseh and his brother, the Shawnee Prophet, events brilliantly chronicled by James Alexander Thom in his historical novel, Panther in the Sky. Harrison could not help but admire the ability of Tecumseh and his potential to unite his people, calling him an “uncommon genius.” For that reason, when Harrison got word that Tecumseh had traveled south in an attempt to recruit more tribes into his Indian confederacy, he decided to round up the militia and a flock of volunteers to smash Tecumseh’s home base at Prophet’s Town (near present-day Lafayette, Indiana).
On October 28, 1811, Harrison, dressed for frontier command in a fringed calico shirt and a beaver hat complete with flamboyant ostrich feather, moved out at the head of 1000 men from a fort near present-day Terre Haute. About a week’s march brough the troops deep into the heart of Indian Territory, to a hill near Prophetstown. It was situated at the confluence of the Wabash River and a smaller tributary, the Tippecanoe.
It was the Indians who struck first. Sometime in the early morning hours of November 7, Harrison’s sentries began to fire at something moving in the gloom. Within a couple of minutes, the entire camp was aroused and involved in a hand-to-hand melee. The Indians were remarkably disciplined for once, and almost total darkness, the combat was fierce and terrifying. Finally at daybreak, Harrison was able to rally his mounted troops into a savage charge that broke the Indian line. Anxious to avoid needless loss of life, the Indians fled into the marshes, and the Americans turned to counting their dead.
Quite simply, the battle of Tippecanoe was a fiasco. American losses totaled 62 dead and 125 wounded. 36 Indian corpses were counted (and scalped). After burning Prophet’s Town, Harrison and his men retreated to the territorial capital in Vincennes, Indiana, where Harrison immediately found himself under outraged questioning from the families of the dead. Worse yet, Indian raiding on the frontier skyrocketed to its worst level in two decades; several families of pioneers were massacred, and farms and cabins burned in revenge for the sack of Prophet’s Town. Tecumseh and his brother were stronger than ever.
However, Tippecanoe served its purpose, for Harrison and for other western politicians who believed war was inevitable. Now it really was. Of such unlikely victories are presidents made.
Next time: A long road to the White House