By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer
BATTLE GROUND, IND. — For Toledoans, it’s a familiar story. An army of the young United States clashes with Indians over who will control the Midwest.
And while the Battle of Tippecanoe ended the same way the Battle of Fallen Timbers had a few years earlier – with an American victory – the land’s subsequent history couldn’t be more different.
“This battle is seared in our American memory,” said Cindy Bedell, manager of the Tippecanoe battlefield museum. “From the moment the battle was over, people wanted to preserve this land.”
In 1811, Tecumseh, one of the great Indian leaders, was assembling the last great organized resistance to white expansion east of the Mississippi River.
Convinced that individual tribes would be defenseless against the encroaching Americans, Tecumseh forged a confederation of thousands of Indians from across the Midwest, to provide a united front. He created a capital for the confederacy and based it on a site about seven miles north of present-day Lafayette, Ind.
The site was called Prophet’s Town, named after Tecumseh’s brother, a religious leader who went by the name The Prophet. More than a thousand young warriors were trained there for the inevitable battle.
White settlers in the area were ill at ease with warriors training nearby, and asked Indiana territorial Gov. William Henry Harrison – a Battle of Fallen Timbers veteran – to intervene. He cobbled together 1,000 men and marched his army to just outside Prophet’s Town.
Tecumseh, an eager diplomat, was not at the camp; he was traveling the South recruiting more tribes into his confederation and had warned his brother not to get involved in a battle until their forces were stronger. The Prophet sent representatives to Harrison’s army. They agreed no hostilities would take place that night. It was Nov. 6, 1811.
Harrison’s men camped for the night and prepared for a meeting between the two sides scheduled for the next day. But The Prophet, full of fiery rhetoric, called his warriors together that night and ordered them to fight, promising them that he would use his spiritual powers to make the white man’s bullets useless.
Just before daybreak, the Indians crept to the Harrison camp and attacked. After two hours of battle, the Indian forces retreated. Perhaps a total of 100 men died.
The next day, Harrison led his men to Prophet’s Town and found it abandoned. He and his men burned it to the ground. Tecumseh returned three months later to find his dreams of confederation in ashes, and hopes of stopping American expansion all but gone.
A few years later, a soldier named John Tipton revisited the site and saw some of the graves had been disturbed. He decided the battleground was worth preserving, and bought it. He donated it to the state in 1836.
Since then, the land has never been developed or even farmed. The Indiana state constitution guarantees that the state will provide for its care. Many of the trees that stood silent witness to the battle still stand today.
A “sleepy little museum” and gift shop was on site for several decades, Ms. Bedell said. But after control of the museum passed to the county historical society, their officials started planning changes.
In 1995, a newly renovated museum opened. It does an admirable job of placing the battle in the context of American history of the period, and takes care to give equal prominence to Native American points of view. In its relatively small space, it does a better job of interpreting its subject than dozens of bigger and better known museums.
“We felt it was very important it wasn’t just to glorify the triumph of the white Americans,” Ms. Bedell said.
The battleground is more famous than most in the Midwest because Harrison went on to be president on a campaign that focused on the battle. Students nationwide learn about his campaign slogan: “Tippecanoe and Tyler too!” (John Tyler, Harrison’s running mate, became president when Harrison died only a month into his term.)
Such history draws people here. The museum, despite not being near a major metropolitan area, attracts well over 30,000 people a year, Ms. Bedell said, including thousands of school children.
On a recent weekday afternoon, the parking lot featured license plates from New York and Georgia, and the guest book’s last three days of entries included notes from visitors from New Zealand, Israel, California, Hawaii, and Maryland.
“They’ve done a great job here,” said visitor Jesse Gill, an Atlanta resident who grew up in southern Illinois. “I remembered the battle from history class growing up, and we just saw the sign [on nearby I-65] and decided to stop.”
More people may be joining him. About a mile from the battlefield museum soon will be a larger facility dedicated to history, the Museums at Prophetstown. Scheduled to open in 2000, the complex will be dedicated to three areas: Native American life, American family farms, and prairie life.
Officials there expect to attract half a million visitors a year; if any thing near that is realized, it would mean a surge in battleground visitors.
A few weeks ago, Ms. Bedell was alarmed to learn that the Fallen Timbers battleground – mentioned in a museum display – was up for development. “That’s a heartbreaker,” she said.
But her emotions ran in the other direction when told that the city of Toledo has decided to save the battlefield, perhaps by diverting millions intended for a city baseball stadium. Preservationists used Tippecanoe’s park as a model for Fallen Timbers.
“Oh, that’s just wonderful,” she said. “I knew it could be done.”