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

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Adam Jortner examines the impacts of William Henry Harrison’s war against the Shawnee Prophet, Tenskwatawa and his brother, the Great Shawnee War Chief Tecumseh, for control of the Ohio River Valley. Many are familiar with Tecumseh and his legendary fight to unify the Native American resistance against the American government and attempt to halt the American settlement of the Northwestern frontier of Ohio and Indiana in early the 1800s. Far fewer are aware of the impacts and implications that his brother Tenskwatawa had to play by creating a religious resistance movement based on his visions. Henry William Harrison and his decidedly Deist American religious upbringing clashed heavily with the idea of resistance from the tribes, let alone that of a prophet performing miracles, a notion not in keeping with his Diest beliefs. What unfolded was a series of events that galvanized the Native American tribes to come together in a unified attempt to fight the American forces during a period when General William Henry Harrison was dead set on winning the territories and creating a career in politics. Jortner believes that Tenskwatawa spawned a new community of tribes, power, and tribal politics, particularly in the Old Northwest Frontier. Jortner examines the religious aspects of this confrontation from both sides of the fight for the Antebellum American frontier. This book makes the case for clashing religious and spiritual values. The conflict led to a religious war that would culminate in the Battle of Tippecanoe, the Battle of the Thames, Tecumseh’s death and on into the presidency of Harrison which this campaign emboldened. This book also delves into the uncovering of many historical inaccuracies of famous erroneous pieces of history regarding the Prophet and William Henry Harrison, as well as looking at what America could have looked like today if the Native American religious war had succeeded. This book is crucial for any historiography on the Native American religious resistance movements, with ample information on Tenskwatawa, Tecumseh, William Henry Harrison, the War of 1812, and how religious movements in Antebellum America shaped our country today.

Adam Jortner is a Ph.D. and Goodwin-Philpot Associate Professor of History at Auburn University, and he specializes in the transformation of religious and political life in the early United States. Recipient of numerous fellowships, Dr. Jortner, specializes in the Age of Jefferson, the War of 1812, Native American religion and politics, Alternative Antebellum religious movements, frontier wars (1763-1832), and the American territories (1783-1858).[1]  Jortner won the 2013 James Broussard Best First Book Prize from the Society of Historians of the Early American Republic for his work on “Gods.”[2] In, The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier, Dr. Jortner looks at the frontier of the 1800s and the nativist religious resistance movement that was spawned by the Shawnee Prophet Tenskwatawa and led by his brother, the great War Chief Tecumseh. The book examines the epic struggle between Native American tribes, the American government, William Henry Harrison, Tenskwatawa, and Tecumseh during the war for the Ohio River Valley and Indiana frontier. It covers a broad scope of history from pre and post-revolutionary struggles between Native American Indians and the American people, particularly examining the impacts of religious movements, resistance movements, and major events such as the formation of Prophetstown, the Battle of Tippecanoe, and the Battle of the Thames.

Dr. Jortner wants us to reexamine what we know about history with fresh eyes, and to do our homework. He seeks to show us that the Native Americans did indeed have a form of religion that was valid to them and that was part of the enigmatic pull of Tenskwatawa that General Harrison felt was completely unfounded. The visions of the Shawnee Prophet catapult the prophet to the ranks of great influence from a previous of one of laughter and disdain. The belief in his visions spurred a religious resistance movement, and nativist unity movement on that was at odds with early American religious dogma, particularly that of William Henry Harrison as a deist. The author also seeks to offer a reimagining of what would have happened had the Shawnee brothers has been successful, and Tecumseh survived the Battle of the Thames. The author feels that at numerous stages there was the real possibility of life-changing alternative endings that would have changed our borders drastically and our life in America today.

 “What if” brand historical narratives make for an entertaining and informative read, however, they are hardly relevant to the questions of the religious war on the frontier at hand. His career track motivated Harrison, as a deist and soldier, religion was not a heavy part of his make-up, unless it promoted the dogma of Manifest’s Destiny’s entitlement of white male America. He was not a man to quote God, he was a soldier and politician. That said, I feel he is spot on with his beliefs regarding the nativist’s movement being a religious war for Tenskwatawa, but for Tecumseh, the War Chief in him was always in charge. Jortner repeatedly and rightly gives Native American religious movements their importance in the realm of being just that, a religious movement, not what he calls a collection of superstitions to which past historians have heaped their Native American stereotypes.[3] However, his continued assertions on “what could have been” only detract from his brilliantly thought out and researched hypotheses, but this is a minor complaint in the face of work that is truly groundbreaking. His chronology can be a bit broad, or hard to follow at times, certain events retold from different individuals at various points make it slightly harder to follow chronologically at times. That said, he is willing to examine Native American oral tradition sources for their validity, their sense of identity, culture, and history are communicated orally. Therefore huge emphasis is placed on speaking correctly in the Native American belief system and there was great disdain at the summarization of wording due to its importance in Native American society.[4] He takes the most currently relevant historical and cultural understandings and practices available to date and applies it to old sources that he physically tracked down and examined himself. One cannot help but applaud such a thorough effort by a historian and professor when he can correct the historical record.

A refreshing note to the work of Dr. Jortner is that he does not take popular sources at face value. In the early portion of the book, he sets the tone for his research style and brings it directly to bear on the question of Tenskwatawa and the prediction of the solar eclipse. A hot-button historical issue heated debated by historians through the ages, though most will condemn the man. Had the Shawnee Prophet known the sun would eclipse prior to his prediction that the sun would go dark at midday? That is the question that most historians will answer with a resounding, yes, and declare the Prophet a charlatan. Many popular and well-founded experts, such as the renowned historian R. David Edmunds, have suggested the Prophet faked his prediction, yet, Jortner specifically traced the citations to the original Devens citation in question. Nowhere was there ever a suggestion that scientists were in the area and that the Prophet knew of this, the scientists in question were in the field in 1869.[5] That mistake has been passed on by subsequent historians. Also, the likelihood that Tenskwatawa, a man who did not speak English and was preaching a shunning of all things White American, would understand abbreviations employed in farmers almanacs of the day is highly unlikely. Jortner believes Tenskwatawa was a much more formidable figure than history had given him credit, he created a movement and that led to a religious frontier war. Jortner’s thesis explains the prophet’s charismatic pull among his people as being a measurable turning point in Native American society. In the chapter, Master of Life, Jortner explains the realities ignored by previous historians regarding the varied concept of spirituality and religion to Native American people.[6] Without his meticulous delving into sources, we might not fully understand the true magnitude of the Shawnee Prophet’s vision.

Yet that can be a double-edged sword, where William Henry Harrison and the idea of a frontier religious war do not fully match up with the figure portrayed. In the chapter, Primogeniture, he paints the picture of soldier, warrior, gentlemen farmer, raised during the deist intellectual and religious movement with its moderate view of God.[7] Careful examination of old sources have also concluded Harrison died of pneumonia, yes, but the rumors of it being due to an unusually long speech are wrong, correcting a long held belief it was from his lengthy speech.[8] Jortner asserts that we must always question our sources and what we think to be true.

The final project historiography will center on the Native American Religious Resistance Movements of the early Antebellum American Old Northwest Frontier. This book is crucial for to clarify the place of religion in the context of the American borderland frontier wars with the Native American Indians. Dr. Jortner is an expert in his field and one of the leading contemporary historians studying early American Antebellum alternative religious movements and their impact on Native American and American culture, religious views, society, and politics through our shared historical record. He tirelessly examined sources that have been misrepresented or misquoted, that will help to support historiography on the nativist’s movements with religious significance on the frontier. One thing that makes this work crucial for this historiography is the repeated areas of calling note to where Tenskwatawa was very much in charge of the Native resistance movement and that it was very much a religiously inspired fight.[9]

This book was excellently researched and emphasizes the conflicts in a religious context. With the sociocultural clash occurring on the frontier between Nativists and Americans, time and again we see the concepts of religion getting in the way of peaceful coexistence. Continued war and encroachment along with entitlement ideals spread by Evangelical movements in Antebellum America would lead men like Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh to go to war against American political and military men like William Henry Harrison. Dr. Jortner’s work adds new depth, thorough new reexaminations of sources, and a refreshing balance to the often-one-sided historiography of the frontier that includes a thorough narrative of the impacts of Native Americans like Tenskwatawa and Tecumseh on American frontier history.

Notes


  • [1] “Adam Jortner, Goodwin-Philpot Associate Professor of History.” n.d. Climate, Energy, and Society – College of Liberal Arts – Auburn University. Accessed January 26, 2019. https://cla.auburn.edu/history/people/faculty/adam-jortner/.
  • [2] “Adam Jortner, Goodwin-Philpot Associate Professor of History.” n.d. Climate, Energy, and Society – College of Liberal Arts – Auburn University. Accessed January 26, 2019. https://cla.auburn.edu/history/people/faculty/adam-jortner/.
  • [3] Adam Jortner. The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Accessed January 21, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central.
  • [4] Adam Jortner. The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Accessed January 21, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central. 23.
  • [5] Adam Jortner. The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Accessed January 21, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central. 14-15.
  • [6] Adam Jortner. The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Accessed January 21, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central. 29-
  • [7] Adam Jortner. The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Accessed January 21, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central. 38.
  • [8] Adam Jortner. The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Accessed January 21, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central. 179.
  • [9] Adam Jortner. The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Accessed January 21, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central. 159.

Bibliography

Jortner, Adam. The Gods of Prophetstown: The Battle of Tippecanoe and the Holy War for the American Frontier. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Accessed January 21, 2019. ProQuest Ebook Central.

“Adam Jortner, Goodwin-Philpot Associate Professor of History.” n.d. Climate, Energy, and Society – College of Liberal Arts – Auburn University. Accessed January 26, 2019. https://cla.auburn.edu/history/people/faculty/adam-jortner/.