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

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


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.


He cured disease, saw the future, sundered curses, instilled visions, and passed into other realms. He felt the presence of witches and other agents of evil spirits hiding among the people. His powers were earthly signs of his profound connection to the divine. His followers stretched from the Appalachian foothills to the source of the Mississippi, and they thought he could change the world.

Three years earlier, he had been an undistinguished drunk, the fallen scion of a prominent family of warriors, a man who had learned the arts of war only so far as to blind himself in one eye. But on June 16, 1806, he solidified his place as a divine agent among the patchwork of Native American tribes of the Ohio Valley. That was the day he put out the sun. His supernatural power made him a man to be reckoned with, and the devotion of his followers to his cause made him the greatest political threat to American power in the calamitous and lawless world of the early American frontier. But his followers and his enemies would not have discussed him in such antiseptic terms. To them, the Prophet was the man who made the sun go dark at midday.

He had previously warned those who did not accept his divine mission that he would demonstrate his power. Disbelievers, he vowed, “would see darkness come over the sun,” a sign from the Master of Life presaging destruction, calamity, and “war, bloody war.” He told his followers—and skeptics— at the town of Greenville, Ohio, that “he was every night in his dreams with the Spirit above” and had foreseen a coming darkness.

As the sun vanished on that June Monday, he remained in his tent while panic bubbled through the community. The eclipse was “a matter of great surprise to the Indians,” wrote one white commentator. Some ran in fear, some fell to their knees in prayer, and some wrapped themselves in blankets and waited to die. A few wondered if the darkness might last all day, many days, “a dark year.” At last he emerged and addressed followers and doubters alike: “Behold! Did I not prophesy correctly—see darkness is coming.” His prophecy fulfilled, his divine mission confirmed, he restored the sun.

Instantly he became a force to be reckoned with, and the devotion of his followers—an agglomeration of individuals and factions drawn from the Native American tribes of the Ohio Valley—transformed him into the greatest threat to the American authorities creeping across the western frontier.

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