News From Terre Haute, Indiana

July 29, 2012

HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: A time of intrigue, uncertainty at Fort Harrison 200 years ago

Mike McCormick
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — When Indiana Territorial Gov. William Henry Harrison and his army returned to Fort Harrison Nov. 11, 1811, after their notable victory over Indians under the Shawnee Prophet at Tippecanoe, Capt. Josiah Snelling was placed in command of the new fort on the Wabash.

The son of a prominent Boston banker, Snelling served in the Massachusetts militia for 26 years before joining the U.S. Army on May 3, 1808. He was appointed first lieutenant of the 4th U.S. Infantry on Feb. 6, 1809.

Commissioned captain on June 1, 1910, he arrived at Camp Battalle des Illinois – the initial name for the encampment where a stockade was being constructed – in October 1811 to serve under Gen. Harrison during the Tippecanoe campaign.

Tradition held that a great battle involving the Illinois Indians occurred at that site nearly a century earlier.

Tippecanoe brought Snelling recognition. On Nov. 7, 1811, at about 4 a.m., when Kentucky Col. Joseph H. Daviess was mortally wounded during the Indians’ initial onslaught, Snelling’s company responded instantly to dislodge the enemy’s key position.

A balding redhead with a reputation for being tough but fair-minded, subordinates called him “The Prairie Chicken” behind his back. Without a head cover, rebellious crimson strands fluttered in the wind.

As commandant at Fort Harrison until May 1812, Snelling was responsible for monitoring the temperament of Native Americans residing in the Wabash Valley and coddling to their sensitivities.

It was a time of intrigue and uncertainty. Indian ties to the British were reinforced following the Battle of Tippecanoe. On Jan. 18, 1812, Snelling wrote from Fort Harrison:

“Peter the Indian who has for a long time been an inmate of this garrison returned yesterday from a hunting expedition he has been engaged in with a party of the [Eel River] Miamis. He was accompanied by an Indian called Jem, or sometimes “Five,” who reported it was the determination of all Indians to go to war with the United States . . .

“He also informed me that Stone Eater (who promised when he left this place that he would return and tell me how your Excellency’s message was received) told the Miamis if the Kickapoos and Winnebagos did not like it, he would neither return to Fort Harrison or Vincennes and concluded his address to them in these words: ‘My Brothers, if the Kickapoos and Winnebagos will not accept the terms offered them let us fight and die altogether.’

“Peter . . . said he believed their intentions were bad but suspecting him of partiality to the Whites they were guarded in their conversations with him.”

Peter reported that White Pigeon, a Potowatomie who was accompanying the Miamis, had a message from Fort Malden, where they expected to get rifles and ammunition so as to be able to commence hostilities in the Spring when “the corn was two feet high.”

A month later (Feb. 17), Snelling sent a dispatch disclosing that, on Jan. 18, Little Eyes (Chiquia) and Lapoussier, two Wea chiefs, stayed all night at Fort Harrison.

Lapoussier told resident fur trader Michel Brouillette that the Native Americans had been assured that President James Monroe disapproved of Harrison’s acts against them at Tippecanoe. Upon the selection of two envoys from each tribe, the Indians intended to seek redress in Washington. Until then, there would be a general peace.

On April 14, Snelling notified Harrison of the slaughter of the Isaac Hutson family, including four children and a hired hand, on the west side of the Wabash. Only three Indians participated in the raid. Brouillette, considered Snelling’s most reliable source, reported that Wea chiefs Lapoussier and Quequa “profess total ignorance” of the matter. Little Eyes, who had been absent for four days, was suspected.

Quequa spoke very little and appeared ill. Lapoussier interrupted the conversations with Brouillette and Snelling with bursts of laughter, particularly at the notion that the Americans might kill Indians merely for committing robberies.

“Although my speech was delivered with all the gravity the occasion required,” Snelling later reported, “it was treated with levity I never before witnessed.”

Meanwhile, hostilities deepened. On April 11, Atha Meeks was killed by Native Americans near Owensboro, Ky., and one of his sons badly wounded. The Bradstreet Harriman family, which included five small children, was massacred April 22 on the Embarrass River in Illinois, about five miles from Vincennes.

On May 3, chief Winamac (sometimes spelled Winnemac) and nine Winnebago tribesmen visited Capt. Snelling at the fort. While they were there, John McGowan was killed at his farm on the White River by a Winnebago raiding party.

Between May 6 and May 10, Snelling was relieved as Fort Harrison commandant and assigned to command Fort Detroit. His military leadership persisted throughout the War of 1812. He was a vital witness during Gen. William Hull’s court martial after the Americans surrendered to Tecumseh at Fort Mackinac.

Capt. Zachary Taylor replaced Snelling as the commandant at Fort Harrison..

Elevated to lieutenant colonel in 1819, Snelling succeeded Lewis Cass as commander of a small garrison at the confluence of the St. Peter’s and Mississippi rivers. On Sept. 20, 1820, he laid the cornerstone for Fort Snelling, named in his honor.

Upon his arrival at Fort Harrison, Capt. Taylor reported that he was notified by a party of Potawatomies that the Shawnee Prophet had assembled 300 Winnebagos and about 200 warriors from other tribes “in the neighborhood of his former residence.”

On May 15, Tecumseh and spokesmen from 12 Native American nations residing on or near the Wabash met at Mississinewa, a Miami village where the Mississinewa River drains into the Wabash. Some delegates delivered speeches declaring peaceable intentions and denouncing Potawatomie renegades who had massacred several families.

On Aug. 9, Capt. Taylor notified Gen. Harrison that three different Indians told him “Tecumseh was preparing a considerable force to strike an important blow . . . when the moon was full.”

Less than a month later, more than 500 Native Americans attacked Fort Harrison.