Old Tippecanoe

Conflict: American Indian Wars, War of 1812

President William Henry Harrison was the first president to be photographed while in office

President William Henry Harrison was the first president to be photographed while in office

William Henry Harrison is probably best known for being the first president to die while in office, but there was much more to his life than that.

Harrison was well educated in medicine until the age of eighteen when his father passed away and left him with no funds. Under the guardianship of Robert Morris, Harrison then joined the military. He was quickly commissioned as an ensign and received a lot of experience working with the Native Americans of the Northwest Territory where he spent most of his life.

In 1801, he became the governor of the newly established Indiana Territory and was in charge of buying land from the Native Americans in order to make room for settlers moving west. Harrison purchased over 60,000,000 acres of land, which began to cause tension among tribes that did not believe it was another tribe’s land to sell.

The famous Tecumseh approached Harrison in his office one day and stated that the land treaties were not valid because the land was not sold with the consent of all Native Americans. Tecumseh argued that the tribes were united as a nation under the Great Spirit, but Harrison disagreed and declared that tribes could form their own separate relations with the United States. Upset with Harrison’s stand, Tecumseh threatened all who dared to settle on the land.

About a year later at the end of 1811, Harrison was ordered to attack the rising forces of Native Americans. “While Tecumseh was away seeking more allies, Harrison led about a thousand men toward the Prophet’s town” near the Tippecanoe river. The Prophet (Tenskwatawa) was Tecumseh’s brother and was just as passionate regarding the protection of his people. He surprised Harrison and his men the day before Harrison planned to approach Tenskwatawa, but the warriors were outnumbered and Harrison won the Battle of Tippecanoe. His successful retaliation was the start of national fame and people began affectionately calling him “Old Tippecanoe.”

When the War of 1812 began, Harrison was appointed commander of the army. He triumphed in numerous battles, but his biggest victory was during the Battle of the Thames. Harrison ordered James Johnson and his men to the front line to try and penetrate the Native American and British troops, which they did. The British were too exhausted from lack of food and rest to put up much of a fight, so Johnson focused on the Native Americans. The two sides went head to head in the swamp nearby, and Tecumseh was numbered among the casualties. Without the strength of their leader, the Native American force dwindled along with the war.

Harrison retired from the military in 1814 and went on to serve the public in a political venue, running in the 1863 election and losing to Martin Van Buren. In 1840 he ran again with the slogan of “Tippecanoe and Tyler too” and swept the polls. Unfortunately, he gave the longest inaugural address in history in bad weather without a coat or hat and caught a cold, which turned into pneumonia. Harrison died on 4 April 1841 after being in office for only 30 days.