Selected Papers From The 1989 And 1990 George Rogers Clark Trans-Appalachian Frontier History Conferences
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Indian Angst and "Heathenish Practices": The Indiana Frontier, 1804-1811
Robert G. Gunderson
Indiana University (emeritus)

A spirit of "manifest destiny" prevailed in America and throughout the Old Northwest Territory long before it formally was proclaimed by John O'Sullivan in his Democratic Review in 1845. Governor William Henry Harrison forcefully articulated the concept in an address before the Indiana Territorial Legislature on November 12, 1810. "Is one of the fairest portions of the globe to remain in a state of nature... when it seems destined by the Creator to give support to a large population, and to be the seat of civilization, of science, and of true religion?" [1] The answer to the governor's rhetorical question already was fixed in the minds of his legislators. They knew their fertile western landscape was destined to be peopled by incoming waves of settlers. The population of the territory had increased by more than 435 per cent between 1800 and 1810 — from 5,506 to 24,000. By 1815 the population was more than 62,000. [2] King Canute as governor would have been powerless to stop this overwhelming tide.

Inevitably, white migration profoundly disturbed the Indian way, crowding Indian habitat, depleting game and despoiling hunting grounds. It introduced virulent diseases, deadly weapons of war and something even more deadly - firewater. Loss of land, the threat of change, famine and the onslaught of plague prompted unprecedented stress - angst. These anxieties prompted the Shawnee Prophet's "revitalization movement" which was designed to restore old ways. His revitalization featured sorcery, fanatical religion and ultimately terrorism and war.

Frontier statistics are difficult to document. Sociology had not been invented yet. Survey teams never appeared in frontier wigwams. One population expert frankly has titled his opening chapters, "Estimating the Unknown." A noted medical historian simply concluded that, "Far more Indians died of white men's diseases than ever died from their weapons." Only estimated casualties are available for the devastating smallpox epidemics of 1715, 1733 and 1752. James Mooney listed the total Miami population at 4,500 in 1660; 3,000 in 1671; and from 4,800 to 6,000 in 1680. Then, counting only warriors, he found as few as 200 in 1736 and 350 in 1812. [3] Little Turtle's biographer speculated that epidemics and warfare reduced the Miami population from perhaps as many as 10,000 in 1715 to as few as 1,500 in 1780. Handsome Lake's biographer reported a precipitous 50 percent drop in both Pennsylvania's and New York's Iroquois populations from 1775 to 1795. Later epidemics may have been less devastating, but they nevertheless caused an escalating terror. R. David Edmunds reported smallpox among the Wea on the Wabash River and among the Potawatomi on the Kankakee River in 1793-94. Smallpox struck the Vermilion Kickapoo in 1801. Moravians reported it "raging" at Fort Hamilton and Cincinnati in 1805 and they devoutly prayed that it would not strike their Delaware neighbors on the White River. [4]

Prayer may have warded off smallpox among the Delaware, but not the "bilious fever," rampant on the Indiana frontier among both whites and Indians. In September 1802, missionaries with unintended irony complained of seeing "nothing but pale faces." In June 1805, they again reported fever "sweeping away" six victims in one small Delaware village "in rapid succession" after two-day illnesses. This fever Was seen as a deadly virulence which, in turn, caused it to be identified in Indian medical practice as poison - a malady demanding ritualistic sacrifice. [5]

With plague and disease came hunger. As early as January 1802, White River missionaries recorded that "famine" is "again among the [Delaware] heathen." They righteously blamed "the curse" of whiskey and resulting laziness. A drought that following June brought about another "general famine" unrelated to whiskey, but one that, nevertheless, raised the price of corn to $1 a peck. Delaware women daily begged for milk from the missionaries. By July even Delaware chieftains came begging. Chief Tetepachsit reported "famine everywhere," and took his family to the mission for meals. July 1805, once again brought famine and in April 1806, begging became so persistent that the besieged Moravians "were compelled to eat in secret." The missionary brothers smugly insisted that the Delaware brought famine upon themselves "through their own wickedness," an unwarranted judgment, though one widely held among settlers. Their anecdotal evidence of hunger, however, is validated by correspondence of Indian agents at the Fort Wayne agency and by Harrison's reports to the secretary of war. [6] Famine may have been endemic in a society that relied largely both upon a winter hunt and upon an indifferent agriculture.

The Potawatomi also suffered from periodic hunger and deprivation. Those who appeared at the Indian agency in Fort Wayne in the spring of 1809 were in a "starved condition." At the treaty there in September, they militantly insisted upon selling land in order to get enhanced federal annuities. Their "poverty and wretchedness," Harrison reported, "make them extremely desirous of a treaty" since "they wanted their most pressing wants relieved." Winamac, a Potawatomi chief, claimed his people were in rags. [7]

From 1806 to 1809 those Indians captivated by the Shawnee Prophet Tenskwatawa, also known as simply the Prophet, found themselves dependent upon others for supplementary rations. While at Greenville in Ohio, help came from neighboring Shakers. After the Prophet moved to Tippecanoe, assistance came from British agents and traders at Malden and from American agents at Vincennes and Fort Wayne. When the Prophet visited Vincennes in July 1809, Governor Harrison described the Shawnee escort as "the most miserable set of starved wretches" whom he had "ever beheld." Agent William Wells advised the governor to let them starve, but Harrison refused to believe that such a policy represented "the Philosophy of the President." So he "fed them and gave them a Small supply of food and ammunition." Ultimately, the Prophet and his followers had to rely upon the British at Malden. When Buffaloe, a Shawnee, appeared at Maiden in June 1808, he "spoke on 4 strings of wampum," testifying that "we are very much distressed at home for bread, our W & C [women & children] are starving & you told us the King would never allow his Children to starve....the Americans always promise us but they never give...." [8]

Along with the loss of hunting grounds came a loss of European markets for furs. The Napoleonic War, far away over what some Indians called "the Stinking Sea," disrupted "the most profitable single industry" in North America. It left Indians without their most lucrative market - an incomprehensible catastrophe that made them dependent upon rival British and American agents vying for their support. Canadian agents Matthew Elliott at Malden and Robert Dickson at Prairie du Chien enticed many Indians from the northern lakes to become pawns in battles for hunting grounds far afield from their own - and in the end, they also became pawns in losing battles that contributed further to anxiety and frustration. [9]

Confronted with forces beyond their control - if not with all Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse - the Indians were similar to other frustrated people who resorted to "heathenish practices." Such practices are traditional strategies of the disinherited. To their credit, they made some positive efforts to cope with change and with vicissitudes caused by white migration. They had moved to new turf, often risking war with rival nations to get it. Some tried to accept white culture, even taking up agriculture. They had negotiated treaties, losing land to obtain subsidies, federal protection and white acceptance. But apocalyptic trouble ultimately unhinged warrior self-assurance and threatened tribal control. White firewater proved to be more deadly than fire power from white muskets. Although Harrison persuaded his territorial legislature to prohibit the sale of alcohol to Indians, economic reality and avarice combined to promote bootlegging. [10] Turning corn into whiskey was the most expedient way to market a lucrative cash crop and as settlers increased, the whiskey trade increased; the inevitable result was a frontier awash in alcohol.

One Victorian historian has pontificated about that which all deans of students know: alcohol saps "tribal honor" and strikes down the "valor of men and the virtue of women." One witness concluded that the Shawnee, sodden from "prolonged drunkenness," appeared to be intent "on self destruction." Visitors at Wapakoneta, a Shawnee village in Ohio, were appalled by its "squalor." The diarists at the White River mission described "swarms" of drunken, naked Delaware "with . . .instruments of murder" roaring about their village. Delaware warriors repudiated their old chiefs. When missionaries complained to Delaware Chief Tetepachsit, he promised to "speak to" offenders, but confessed an inability to protect them, admitting that "bad Indians" had "dismissed their oldest and greatest Chief and threatened him with death." When Thomas White Eyes returned from the winter hunt in 1806, he brought a harvest of 20 gallons of whiskey to distribute among his fellow warriors. In the inevitable spree that followed, the mission was terrorized, one warrior was shot to death and another suffered a "hatchet buried in his head." [11]

Disintegration of tribal authority escalated during the spring of 1805 with the death of Buckongahelas, a once powerful Delaware chieftain who had helped Little Turtle ambush General Arthur St. Clair in 1791. Although the chief had died during the bilious fever epidemic, his devoted followers refused to believe he had died a natural death. A Delaware woman in Woapicamikunk claimed to have had visions that revealed those who were responsible for having dealt in poison. At the next sacrificial festival beginning March 15, 1806, the Woapicamikunk sorcerer would identify the "evil doers" responsible for mysterious plagues, for disappearing hunting grounds and for failure of the old sacrifices. Young warriors assembled the Indians of the White River Valley, among them an elderly chief who testified that old people "no longer have anything to say. The Young people now rule." Heralding the new regime - and presiding at the grisly rites - was the Shawnee Prophet, who had arrived the opening day. Sustained by ceremonies promoting hysteria, the Prophet pointed an accusing finger at two old Delaware chieftains who allegedly had signed treaties at Greenville, Fort Wayne and Vincennes. Those accused were Tetepachsit and Hackinkpomska. [12]

Caritas and Joshua, Indians baptized by the Moravians, were interrogated and tormented to pry out secret sorceries and to identify other suspects. With this accomplished, they were hatcheted and roasted intermittently. On March 17, two days later, the hapless Tetepachsit was charged with killing "a large number of Indians." To terrorize the tiny band of missionaries, young braves dragged the elderly chief 15 miles to the Moravian mission. There in the nearby woods, 10 Indians, with faces blackened to symbolize death, built a roaring fire. Then, Tetepachsit's son hatcheted his father twice, stripped him of his keepsakes and tossed him "half-alive" on a fire so large that it set the forest ablaze, engulfing the community in "smoke and fumes." Dramatically exhibiting his father's keepsakes, the blackened Indian Oedipus threatened, "This comes from him who cast off my mother and his oldest children and took unto himself a young wife." [13]

Frenzy ran its course. Others went to the flames. "Terrible murders and burnings" were reported on March 27. A "peaceable Indian" was hacked to pieces and burned. Another victim, Chief Billy Patterson, a half-blood Delaware, had witnessed, but had not signed, the Treaty of Fort Wayne in 1803. In early April it was Chief Hackinkpomska's turn to die, but when he was led to the fire, his partisans staged a counterrevolution, spiriting him away without apparent opposition. Six others, including Tetepachsit's second wife, still remained in custody, but they then were released. Had there been a surfeit of searing fire? Or, as some said, had the bloodstained Shawnee found appeasement in secret gifts of cows, silver and several hundred strings of wampum? [14]

News of the Prophet's purge traveled on the wind. A prevailing bilious fever at Sandusky prompted the Wyandot to send for the Shawnee sorcerer. Would he please work his wonders there, identifying witches? The Prophet obliged, arriving in May. All chiefs from upper Sandusky town listened to the Shawnee, who "pointed out four witches to be killed that night or tomorrow." Unlike the White River Delaware, however, Wyandot chieftains "stopped the prophet in his murderous design." They insisted that the Shawnee had identified "four of the best women" in the Wyandot nation. For the moment, at least, the witchcraft hysteria quieted. But bilious fever persisted, energizing the Prophet's campaign against the old chiefs. Even Tarhe, the longtime chief, became "weak and feeble." [15]

The Prophet returned to Greenville where he and his disciples successfully exploited the frustrations, anxieties and poverty of the dispossessed. Many Delaware and Shawnee, however, resented the leadership of an upstart "of no fame and of no good character." His following among nations of the upper lakes rested heavily upon vigorous support of British fur traders. Little Turtle and most Miami chiefs opposed the Prophet's movement from its beginning, but the Kickapoo joined when their young warriors ousted their chief, Joseph Renard's son. [16]

Disturbed by the excitement at Woapicamikunk, Governor Harrison urged the Delaware to challenge the Prophet as an "imposter," suggesting that he provide a miracle - a demand that was well-timed to accommodate the Prophet's propaganda. With the help of subversive white astronomy, the Shawnee proclaimed that he would make the sun stand still June 16, 1806. The Great Spirit obliged with an eclipse, greatly enhancing the Prophet's credibility. [17]

Four years later, the governors of Ohio and of three frontier territories faced a formidable charismatic movement. Governor William Hull of neighboring Michigan Territory conducted a council at Brownstown on the Detroit River to warn approximately 2,000 Great Lakes Indians of the Prophet's objective "to destroy the authority of the Old Chiefs and to assume power over all nations," relying upon "the Young Warriors" for support. The Prophet's immediate response to the governor's warnings: two Wyandot witches were killed - and Leatherlips, a Wyandot chief, was forced to dig his own grave in a mafia-style execution. [18]

Who was this fearsome Prophet with charismatic appeal to arouse the disenchanted and to waste the old chieftains? In an earlier incarnation he was Lalawethika, "the rattler," a noisy drunken wastrel who had had an other-worldly experience, a cataleptic episode that simulated death. Reviving before burial, he revealed visions, mysteries of past and future. He proclaimed himself Tenskwatawa, "the open door." He had seen the horrors of the damned and the ecstasies of those who obeyed the Master of Life. His people must return to the old Indian ways. Ways of white men must be abandoned — their dress, their tools, their domesticated animals, their customs, their whiskey. Those addicted to the accursed firewater would be tortured in flame after death. Chiefs who put pen to treaty paper would be killed. Intermarriage of Indian women with whites was forbidden. The purity of Indian life would end white-induced misery. [19]

En route south to enlist the Creek, Choctaw and Chickasaw in the summer of 1810, the Prophet's elder brother, Tecumseh, stopped at Vincennes to confront Governor Harrison in the latter's front yard. When Tecumseh reached the Creek town of Tuckhabatchee in Alabama, he presented his sticks, wampum and war hatchet to Chief Big Warrior, but Tecumseh sensed that the chief "did not mean to fight." In legend, Tecumseh threatened, "You do not believe the Great Spirit has sent me. You shall know. I leave Tuckhabatchee directly, and shall go straight to Detroit. When I arrive there, I will stamp on the ground with my foot and shake down every house in Tuckhabatchee." The day the Creek "fixed upon as the day" of Tecumseh's arrival, "every house in Tuckhabatchee was shaken down." [20] Of course, that was the day of the great New Madrid earthquake.

The reality of Tecumseh's return was less earthshaking. During Tecumseh's absence Tenskwatawa had ordered his warriors to strike Harrison's army at Burnett's Creek, near Tippecanoe. Tenskwatawa invoked incantations designed to keep white bullets from piercing Native American skin. But when the Indians attacked before dawn, the bullets penetrated, Prophetstown was sacked, Tenskwatawa was discredited and his disciples were disillusioned. Tecumseh is said to have upbraided his once charismatic brother for folly, though it cannot be authenticated that he seized the Prophet by the hair.

In a pioneering article in American Anthropologist, Anthony F. C. Wallace outlined the characteristics of "revitalization movements" and observed that they "are recurrent features in human history." In The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, he recorded numerous experiences in the life of the Seneca Prophet, Handsome Lake, that were similar to those of Tenskwatawa. [21] Both had been addicted to alcohol, both had recovered from death-like trances, had seen visions, had communicated with the Master of Life, had warred upon witches and evangelistically had promoted a revitalizing "moral dogma." Both the Seneca and the Shawnee suffered from angst, hunger, epidemics and loss of land. If the history of revitalization movements teaches anything, it is that to escape "heathenish practices," more time must be devoted to eliminating the apocalyptic causes of trouble.


1. William Henry Harrison's message reported in the Vincennes Western Sun, December 8, 1810.

2. Clarence Carter, ed., Territorial Papers of the United States, Washington, D. C., 1939, VII, pp. 24-25; John D. Barnhart and Dorothy L. Riker, Indiana to 1816: The Colonial Period, Indianapolis, 1971, p. 427.

3. William M. Denevan, The Native Population of the Americas in 1492, Madison, Wis., 1976, Title, Part I; John Duffy, Epidemics in Colonial America, Baton Rouge, 1953, p. 244; James Mooney cited in Denevan, Native Population, p. 267.

4. Harvey Lewis Carter, The Life and Times of Little Turtle, Urbana, 1987, p. 27; R. David Edmunds, "Wea Participation in the Northwest Indian Wars, 1790-1795," Filson Club History Quarterly, 46 (1972), p. 251; R. David Edmunds, The Potawatomis: Keepers of the Fire, Norman, Okla., 1978, p. 132; Helen Hornbeck Tanner, ed., Atlas of Great Lakes Indian History, Norman, Okla., 1987, p. 173; Anthony F. C. Wallace, with the assistance of Sheila C. Steen, The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca, New York, 1972, p. 194; Lawrence H. Gipson, ed., The Moravian Mission on White River: Diaries and Letters May 5, 1799 to November 12, 1806, in Indiana Historical Collections, XXIII, pp. 133, 340, 529. Russell Thornton estimates the Indian population of Illinois at "10,500+" in 1670-80, and at 500 in 1800. See his American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History since 1490, Norman, Okla., 1987, p. 88. Thornton's estimates warrant consideration, but one reviewer (JAH, v. 74, p. 1,289) charges that the work is "polemical" as the title suggests.

5. Gipson, ed., Diaries, pp. 359, 360-62, 486.

6. Ibid., pp. 211, 238, 240-42, 244, 366-67, 422-23.

7. William Wells to William Henry Harrison, April 8, 1809, and Harrison to the secretary of war, November 3, 1809, in Logan Esarey, ed., Messages and Letters of William Henry Harrison, in Indiana Historical Collections, 2 vols., Indianapolis, 1922, I, pp. 338, 388; Edmunds, The Potawatomis, p. 169.

8. R. David Edmunds, The Shawnee Prophet, Lincoln, Neb., 1985, pp. 55, 60, 68; Harrison to the secretary of war, February 14, 1809, in Carter, ed., Territorial Papers, VII, pp. 640-41; Harrison to the secretary of war, November 9, 1808, in Esarey, ed., Messages and Letters, I, pp. 321-22; William Claus, deputy superintendent of Indian Affairs in the British Indian Department, "Diary," in Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections, entry for June 18, 1808, XXIII, p. 54.

9. Bert Anson, "The Fur Traders in Northern Indiana," Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, Bloomington, 1953, p. 33; John Johnston to William Davy, July 18, 1806, in American State Papers: Indian Affairs, 2 vols., Washington, D. C., 1832-1834, I, pp. 370-71. Samuel Flag Bemis, Jay's Treaty: A Study in Commerce and Diplomacy, New York, 1933, p. 5; George Chalou, "The Red Pawns Go To War: British-American Indian Relations, 1810-1815," Indiana University Ph.D. diss., 1971, pp. 16-19; Louis Arthur Tohill, "Robert Dickson: British Fur-Trader on the Upper Mississippi," North Dakota Historical Quarterly, III, (October 1928), p. 41.

10. Esarey, ed., Messages and Letters, 1, pp. 382-83; William W. Woollen, Daniel W. Howe and Jacob Piatt Dunn, eds., Executive Journal of Indiana Territory, 1800-1816, Indiana Historical Society Publications, Indianapolis. 1900, III, No. 3, pp. 101-102.

11. Elmore Barce quoted in A. M. Gibson, The Kickapoos: Lords of the Middle Border, Norman, Okla., 1963, p. 53; Ronald Miriani, "Against the Wind: The Shawnee at Wapakoneta," Queen City Heritage, 48 (Spring 1990), p. 35; Gipson, ed., Diaries, pp. 364-65, 359, 361-62, 428-29.

12. Gipson, ed., Diaries, pp. 411-12, 414; Arthur W. Brady, "The Moravian Mission in Indiana," Mississippi Valley Historical Association, Proceedings, 1919-1920, pp. 293-94.

13. Benjamin Drake, Life of Tecumseh, and of his Brother the Prophet...Cincinnati, 1841, p. 88; Gipson, ed., Diaries, pp. 412-13, 414, 417, 618, 622; Brady, "Moravian Mission," pp. 290, 295.

14. Drake, Tecumseh, p. 89; Gipson, ed., Diaries, pp. 419-21; John B. Dillon, History of Indiana...Indianapolis, 1859, p. 425.

15. Joseph Badger, A Memoir...Hudson, Ohio, 1851, pp. 145-148. Badger kept a diary while a missionary living with the Wyandot.

16. Moses Dawson, A Historical Narrative of the Civil and Military Services of Major-General William H. Harrison... Cincinnati, 1824, pp. 81, 83-84, 85; Tohill, "Robert Dickson," III, (Part I), pp. 38-49, and (Part II), pp. 83-127. Tohill documents the intense rivalry between British and American traders for the lucrative trade in furs. Dickson vigorously supported anti-American military operations, enlisting Great Lakes Indians and supplying them. Also see Louise Phelps Kellogg, The British Regime in Wisconsin and the Northwest, 2 vols., Madison, 1935, II, pp. 271-77, 329.

17. Drake, Tecumseh, p. 91; James Mooney, "The Ghost Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890" in the U. S. Bureau of American Ethnology, 14th Annual Report, Two Parts, Washington, D. C., 1896, Part 2, p. 674.

18. Governor William Hull to John Johnston, September 27, 1810, in Gayle Thornbrough, ed., Letter Book of the Indian Agency at Fort Wayne 1809-1815, Indianapolis, 1961, p. 85. The death of Leatherlips is described by William L. Curry, "The Wyandot Chief, Leatherlips: His Trial and Execution," Ohio Archaeological and Historical Society Publications, XII, (January 1903), pp. 30-36. Lyman Draper MSS, v. 13, "Indian Biography," pp. 447-49. Harrison insisted that the Prophet's "intention" was "to put to death all the chiefs who were parties" to his 1809 treaty at Fort Wayne. Esarey, ed., Messages and Letters, I, p. 460.

19. James H. Howard, Shawnee! The Ceremonialism of a Native Indian Tribe and its Cultural Background, Athens, Ohio, 1981, pp. 197-213; Mooney, "Ghost Dance Religion," Part 2, 672; Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, April 20, 1812, in Lester J. Cappon, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters..., 2 vols., Chapel Hill, N.C., 1959, II, p.299.

20. Howard, Shawnee!, p. 210.

21. Anthony F. C. Wallace also discussed similarities among the movements of Handsome Lake and those of Joseph Smith and frontier evangelists in Anthony F. C. Wallace, "Handsome Lake and the Great Revival in the West," in American Quarterly, IV, (Summer 1952), pp. 149-165. See also his "Acculturation: Revitalization Movements: Some Theoretical Considerations for Their Comparative Study," in American Anthropologist, LVIII, (May 1956), pp. 254-281; and his essay on "James Mooney" in the reprinted edition of James Mooney: The Ghost Dance Religion...Chicago 1965, p. ix. Wallace says Mooney regarded as similar the roles of Joan of Arc, Mohammed, and Wovoka. An early article, "Nativistic Movements," by Ralph Linton, appeared in American Anthropologist, VL, (April 1943), pp. 230-40.

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Last Updated: 23-Mar-2011