Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Prophetstown for Their Own Purposes: The French, Miamis, and Cultural Identities in the Wabash-Maumee Valley

Academic journal article Journal of the Early Republic

Prophetstown for Their Own Purposes: The French, Miamis, and Cultural Identities in the Wabash-Maumee Valley

Article excerpt

In early 1808, two Shawnee leaders, Tenskwatawa and his brother Tecumseh, trudged west into Indiana Territory. A host of followers accompanied them on their journey through the woods bordering the Miami and Maumee rivers. They were on their way to Main Poc's Potawatomi settlement near the confluence of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers. Here they would build the community of Prophetstown.

Three years earlier in the spring of 1805, Tenskwatawa slipped into a deep trance in which the Great Spirit revealed a plan that would allow Indians to renew their culture. Tenskwatawa believed that all of his followers were "determined to practice what [he had] communicated to them, that [had] come immediately from the Great Spirit through [him]." These visions became the basis for Tenskwatawa's community at Prophetstown. Tenskwatawa also declared that Indians needed to unite politically and militarily in order to resist the destructive forces of Euro American culture. The pan-Indian alliance the Prophet and his brother hoped to create would require Indians to segregate themselves from Euro Americans in almost all facets of life; the brothers hoped this alliance would lead to what one historian has called "the revitalization of Native American communal life everywhere through the elimination of practices offensive to the Great Spirit." The Prophet and his brother Tecumseh believed that Indians throughout North America needed to consider themselves as one; otherwise, solitary native communities would find themselves at the mercy of a white onslaught.1

The Prophet's and Tecumseh's historical fame belies the reality of the situation they faced. The brothers failed to prevent American encroachment into the Ohio River Valley because factions of the French, Miamis, and Americans exaggerated, manipulated, and misunderstood the Prophet's nativist message. They did so to empower their own agendas, which ultimately led to the weakening of the pan-Indian experiment at Prophetstown and subsequent frontier violence. As Indians and whites used Prophetstown to attack one another, ethnic factionalism created an atmosphere of fear and violence along the frontier that culminated at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811.

Patrick Griffin and Peter Silver contend that frontier violence produced strict racial boundaries. In contrast, my work demonstrates that French and Miamis agendas eclipsed racial unions. Self-interest and multiethnic alliances, rather than race, were at the root of frontier violence and trumped increasingly rigid racial boundaries. In many cases, the factionalism increased in the region as different ethnic groups spread lies about each other. The frequency of French-Indian alliances (and the influence of mixed-heritage people) is instructive in this regard. Focusing on historical actors and small communities, rather than tropes of "race" or "nation," helps us better understand the divisiveness and violence among and between both non-Natives and Indians in the Ohio River Valley.2

Tenskwatawa's mission was fraught with challenges given the diverse and multiethnic nature of Ohio Valley Indian communities. Most of the Miamis, Kickapoos, Potawatomis, and Delawares already in the area favored local interests over identifying with a singular tribal entity. Instead of heeding the Prophet's call for unity, Indian people remained divided. The influence of the Miamis in the region complicated the situation even further. Though they had never functioned as a unified "tribe," the Miamis offered staunch resistance to any Indian group that tried to challenge their hegemony in the region - thus the Prophet's daunting task. Now Tenskwatawa would have to communicate with each Indian group at the village level in order to incorporate them into his community and confront the Miamis/French network of trade and political influence that had developed over the previous century.

The Americans complicated the situation further. In July of 1800, they had commandeered the French town of Vincennes (160 miles south of Prophetstown) by making it the capital of Indiana Territory, the lands out of which the United States government would carve new western states. …

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