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

By Owens, Robert M. | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

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


Owens, Robert M., Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier. By Adam Jortner. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. X1 310. Cloth, $27.95.)

Adam Jortner's new analysis of the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe seeks to revise the existing historiography, through the framework of a dual biography of Indiana's Governor William Henry Harrison and Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee Prophet, and the lens of religion. In theory this is an exciting idea. In practice, though, the strategy presents numerous problems.

Jortner begins with an attempted revision of the story of Tenskwatawa's claim to have commanded the sun to stand still on June 16, 1806. Historians have long asserted that by taking credit for the eclipse, he garnered considerable spiritual power and prestige among his growing number of religious converts. They have also concluded that the Prophet had gained knowledge of the event beforehand, probably from American astronomy buffs who had calculated the likely date. For Jortner this represents a patronizing dismissal of the Prophet's powers, and essentially rehashes the nineteenth-century American argument that Tenskwatawa was simply a charlatan. In scolding his colleagues, however, Jortner ignores a crucial point: the only alternative is that Tenskwatawa actually did command the Sun to pass behind the Moon (or he was the luckiest guesser in world history).

The main point seems to be that Tenskwatawa has been horribly mistreated in academic publications, which was a valid point prior to 1983. But since the publication of major works by R. David Edmunds, Richard White, Gregory Evans Dowd, John Sugden, Alfred Cave, and others, we are decades into the Prophet's well-deserved makeover. Yet Jortner persists in arguing for his greatness, at the expense of other native and non-native actors. He makes a plausible - though certainly not airtight - argument that the Delaware prophet Beata was a Tenskwatawa disciple, rather than a rival. That argument is undercut when Jortner apparently confuses Beata with Hannah, another baptized Delaware woman who prophesied.

Jortner ignores the past thirty years of scholarship in implying that any scholar today sees the Battle of Tippecanoe as a "rousing frontier battle" won by "fire -hardened U.S. troops." (p. 191). Following (perhaps exceeding) Alfred Cave, he asserts that the Prophet's forces did not intentionally attack Harrison's camp on November 7, 1811, but the battle began accidentally when Indian scouts bumbled into American sentries. …

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